Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ From Knowledge Management to Learning on Demand

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

May 01, 2003

This Magazine Column published as From Knowledge Management to Learning on Demand in LearnScope online May 01, 2003. Australian Flexible Learning Network [Link] [Info] [List all Publications]

Let me begin with the main point first, since it will be the conditions and qualifications that tell the real story: if you take knowledge management and apply it to learning, you get learning on demand.

Learning on demand is best understood in contrast to the most familiar sort of learning, scheduled or classroom based learning. While the latter leads learners through a curriculum designed to prepare them for a wide variety of possible needs, learning on demand is ?the application and deployment of just the right amount of training at just the right time to those who need to possess the knowledge or learn the skill.? (Cummings, 2001)

Distance learning has long been touted as promising (eventually) learning in any place, at any time. Learning on demand appears as the fulfillment of that promise, and indeed, taking it a step further: any thing, any place, any time. We use knowledge management to find the thing, and then we use online learning technologies to deliver it to the place if and when demanded.

Learning on demand is a natural fit with information and communications technology. ?Multimedia technologies and IT infrastructures that can deliver material directly to employees? desktops provide the foundation for LOD.? (Trondsen, 1998) When any piece of information can be delivered anywhere the learner has access to a computer, the idea of delivering specific information when desired becomes possible.

Advocates of learning on demand are quick to point to its potential benefits. One of the major benefits, according to Trondsen (1998) is that learning on demand can increase the speed of learning. ?Some analysts estimate that mastery and retention improve 40% to 70% over that possible with traditional, lecture-based learning models,? he observes. Part of this is based on the use of multiple media, such as video. But the more significant part of this because the learning occurs in a context of use. ?Employees who learn by doing typically are better able to use memory cues to link information and skills to on-the-job experiences and develop greater confidence in applying their knowledge and skills
and are less dependent on text to learn.?

Trondsen also points to the flexibility of learning on demand. ?Updates to multimedia modules are easy to make and easy to deliver quickly so that employees can implement new policies and procedures with little disruption to clients.? This, of course, is a return to the idea of knowledge management. Updates produced at the input end of a knowledge management system can immediately become new learning opportunities at the output end.

The advocates of learning on demand are predicting sweeping changes in learning. Trondsen (1998) again: ?The hierarchical model of knowledge transfer ? the instructor-led classroom setting in which teacher and learner must be present at the same time ? is inconsistent with the information age objectives of employee empowerment, individual accountability and self-directed learning. Often in larger venues, training must assume the lowest common denominator so that instructors can build on a baseline of knowledge.?

Trondsen?s article was written five years ago? So where is the learning on demand we were all promised? Why do we not all have instant, customized learning on our desktops today? Where is learning on demand, anyway?

The answer is that there is a great deal of learning on demand already available, if you know where to look. If you are looking for a shared directory of learning opportunities, a learning portal, or even a relatively open learning management system, then you are looking in the wrong place. For the best in learning on demand today, close your business and productivity software and open the games area of your computers.

In the early days of video games, designers were faced with a problem. People would not sit down and read a training manual, much less take a course, before they popped their money into a machine and began to play. But video games had to be difficult to be enjoyable. As Seymour Papert notes, ?What is best about the best games is that they draw kids into some very hard learning. Did you ever hear a game advertised as being easy??

?Each level dances around the outer limits of the player's abilities, seeking at every point to be hard enough to be just doable. In cognitive science, this is referred to as the regime of competence principle, which results in a feeling of simultaneous pleasure and frustration - a sensation as familiar to gamers as sore thumbs. Cognitive scientist Andy diSessa has argued that the best instruction hovers at the boundary of a student's competence.? (Gee, 2003)

To see how learning on demand ought to work, then, look at a video game. What you will see ? crucially ? is that the instruction is embedded right into the game play. True, many of today?s more sophisticated games come with a manual. But who reads the manual? Game players today expect a right-click to reveal some information. They expect a mouse-over balloon to provide access to help. At any point in the game they can stop and get background and information that shows them how to do whatever it is they wish to accomplish.

Online gaming takes this to a new level of sophistication. Sword and Sorcery games played in Multi-User Dungeons, for example, foster the development of guilds and clans, message boards and backchannels, quest groups and secret societies. The purpose of these is not merely to facilitate social interaction (though that is certainly a part of it). It is also to enable players to seek information from a wide variety of human, in addition to computer-based, sources.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, the advent of knowledge management leads us directly to learning on demand. That?s the easy part. But taking these bits of learning and making them useful ? that?s the hard part. In future columns I will discuss in more detail how knowledge is transformed into learning through the development of learning objects. Most treatments of the topic try to show how learning objects can be transformed into online courses. But as this brief excursion into learning on demand shows, that is exactly the wrong approach. We should not be thinking about how to blend learning objects with each other. We should be thinking about how to blend them with applications, just as learning is embedded in games.

Cummins, Elaine. 2001. Relearning E-Learning. Darwin Magazine.

Gee, James Paul. 2003 High Score Education. Wired. Issue 11.05.

Papert, Seymour. 1998. Does Easy Do It? Children, Games, and Learning. Game Developer.

Trondsen, Eilif. 1998. Learning on Demand. Journal of Knowledge Management Volume 1 Number 3.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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