Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ A Unified Field for Online Learning

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Sept 25, 2002

Jonathon Levy giving his presentation. More photos from Anaheim.

Summary of A Unified Field for Online Learning, presented by Jonathon D. Levy (VP Harvard Business School Publishing (Online Learning Division)).

"They will read about what we did." The future of online learning is something that we're all building toward, working toward right now.

Kids already use the internet intuitively. How will meet their needs as students? How will we meet their needs as knowledge workers? Are we there yet? [Video of man destroying computer] Not quite.

The future is this: human resources versus human capital.

  • One is for use, the other for investment
  • The knowledge worker is emerging as the most important element for corporate success
  • The ability to develop human capital is limited by increased workload and decreased time
  • We need to learn how to train smarter
  • The traditional educational model may not get us there

ASTD: "New knowledge is created at a rate faster than people can learn it." The skills gap is ubiquitous; we will never catch up.

We are using a model that no longer works. It's a model that says learning occurs at some specified time, that some individual will put it all together in a package for us, and that we go out and obtain this package. But there is not enough time to capture all this knowledge. We have to think about a new way of making knowledge available to people.

Why are we thinking about courses at a university? What is a course? When you are a faculty member, your job is to fill up just that much time, no more no less. A course is a container. But in the corporate world, you're not concerned about containers. You're concerned about performance. Not grades.

Analogy: learning to fly. We tried to model what we saw around us - birds, for example. In online learning, we are emulating the university. But when learning to fly, the addition of technology amounted to "flap harder." But in flight, there were some natural laws that were not understood. Once we learned to stop flapping and try to follow the laws of nature, we learned to fly to the moon.

"We're flapping like mad, but we're not getting very far off the ground."

We need a gnomon, a fixed point of reference.

What are the essentials of learning? Traditionally, we have focused on content and process. The content is the teacher, the knowledge, the epistemology. The process is the teaching, the technology, the pedagogy. But there is a third component: the learner. Elements of the learner include the capacity to know, a synthesis, and a coherence.

Turning control of learning dows not mean turning teaching over to the learner, it means turning control of the flow of instruction over to the learner.

The integration of knowledge management and online learning: A single tool that is comprised of databases and networks and computers and learners and objects and taxonomies. Let me (Levy) introduce a new term: "learning productivity:" release the innovation within the invention. The industrial revolution increased productivity 5000 times over cottage industries - we are on the verge of the same thing in learning. We have all of the components, but we are not using them to their full potential.

"A truck is not a horse." If you use the same delivery routes for trucks as you did for horses, you do not realize the potential of trucks.

Supporting the knowledge warrior:

  • Contextual information
  • Personalized dynamic granular content aggregation packaged on the fly by the learner
  • Learning no longer seen as a separate activity
  • Prescription, anticipation, push, inference
  • Research from corporate partners: we are shifting from an era where the focus is on content (as pre-determined by someone else) to an era where we focus on context (an 85 percent focus within 2-5 years). Context defines "why you need it." It is, in a sense, learning on demand.

    Buiding corporate wisdom: the power to tansform:

  • Vision and strategy embedded in content and "metabolized" by knowledge workers
  • Prescriptive knowledge, adaptive push - dynamic flow of context appropriate content

How do we share vision and strategy? Today, it cascades down from above. But by the time it gets to employees, what was in the mind of the CEO isn't shared. But in the coherence model, it is as though the vision were acquired and metabolized from within. It's like shooting knowledge from a laser (rather than by diffusion).

The End of E-Learning (the fixed point of reference):

  • Different measures: in traditional academia, success is measured by test scores - its a learner definition of success. But in e-learning, the learner measures success and the supplier gets evaluated. Imagine grading the professor on the degree of helpfulness.

  • Control: moving away from provider centric and toward learner-centric.

Putting the Theory into Practice:

[large graph: dimension, traditional model, sustainable model)

  • Follows a transition path, from blended learning to online
  • Universal access - doesn't matter what device you use
Chief Learning Officers want:
  • Personalized JIT support
  • Integrated inside and outside content
  • Blended human and digital knowledge
  • Compelling learning
Issues in Integrating E-Learning and Knowledge Management:
  • Integrating the technology
  • Pedagogy and design
  • Research


    It seems to me that while Levy is correct in his assessment of a fixed point of reference for e-learning, he is ignoring those very same lessons when it comes to corporate structure and corporate policy.

    You don't empower people by imposing the CEO's message in such a way that it is "metabolized" by the learner. There is (I think) a significant moral issue here: it is one thing to sell one's performance to a company. But it is quite another to sell one's values and bveliefs to a company.

    All Levy has done here is to move the locus of control from the classroom to the boardroom.

    What does the learner get out of all this?

    Here was my 99 second presentation at the Bonk-Thiagi session a couple of hours later:

    How many of you (I asked) have certificates or degrees in e-learning? In response I saw maybe five hands from the two hundred or so listening. How many of you obtained degrees before you became proficient in the field? None.

    The vast bulk of learning is informal. The clear evidence of what can be done with informal learning is in this room. So why does everybody focus on courses and programs?

    Most people - I am not sure how many - do not work for large corporations. They cannot afford an LMS that costs $100,000. So why is everybody in this room (the trade room floor) focusing on selling large LMSs and the like to corporate purchasers? What will all of this look like when the e-learning is provided for the rest of us?

    Everybody is talking about learner centered learning. And yet (as Levy argues) e-learning is intended to promote corporate objectives. There is an inconsistency here.

    We have to think of e-learning as it extends beyond the corporate sphere.

    We don't need e-learning that looks like a software library or like Compuserv or Prodigy or any of those other defunct proprietary content services. We need e-learning that resembles the web.

    We need e-learning that is created by, and for, the people.

  • Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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