Learning technology is on the cusp of a renaissance. It’s poised to explode, proving to be essential to the smooth functioning of society and the daily life of billions of people worldwide. So it just made sense to choose it as the focus of our next seven-part series.
In this first episode exploring the frontiers of learntech, we discuss what the topic means to us, key reasons that learning technology has seen such tremendous growth, and important related concepts including artificial intelligence, data, extended reality, personalization, and more. We also preview the thought leaders and practitioners that will be featured in the series and how we hope each of their perspectives will add to our understanding and prepare us for what lies ahead.
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[00:17] – Welcome to the first episode in a seven-part series on the frontiers of learntech. In this series we dig into learning technology and what lies ahead in the unmapped future.
At Leading Learning, we’re interested in theories and big-picture ideas, but we always try to bring in the actionable and the practical. So, while we are looking to the future, the near future is our focus, a future that’s near enough that we might call it “the accelerating present,” to borrow a phrase from Rohit Bhargava. (Rohit is a four-time guest on the podcast.) He has spent a lot of time tracking what he calls non-obvious trends, which he defines as “unique, curated observation[s] about the accelerating present.”
And we want our look at the frontiers of learntech to be practical and valuable in the here and now. So we aren’t looking years and years out. We’re targeting the accelerating present. And we’re hoping we might be able to offer some non-obvious views on the frontiers of learntech.
What Comes to Mind When You Think of the Phrase “Frontiers of Learning Technology”?
[01:31] – To help us get to those non-obvious views, we’ve been talking to and interviewing other thought leaders and practitioners, and we’ve asked them all this question: “When you think about the phrase ‘frontiers of learning technology,’ what comes to mind?” So we think it’s only fair that we answer that question.
What first comes to mind for us is Star Trek—specifically the 1960s TV show version with the voiceover during the opening credits declaring, “Space: the final frontier.” Technology was a big part of the draw for that show: the phasers, the transporter, and then, in later versions, the Holodeck (which is virtual reality). Arguably, the Enterprise‘s mission to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations is a learning mission. What is discovery if not learning?
If we push aside Star Trek, there are some other words that the phrase “frontiers of learning technology” brings to mind—words like AI and XR. Artificial intelligence and extended reality (which includes augmented and virtual reality) are likely to come to mind for many people—maybe not quite as Pavlovian a response as frontier/Star Trek but pretty common, we suspect.
Data also comes to mind when we hear the phrase “frontiers of learning technology.” Data is essential for learntech. Without data, artificial intelligence can only be so smart. AI needs generic data sets to function, and it also needs specific data about a particular user. That’s how AI can help with personalization and task-specific, situation-specific problems.
When considering the frontiers of learntech, ecosystems also come to mind. The learntech stack needs to be sorted out—what technology does a learning business need to survive and thrive? How does that technology talk and work together? Virtual reality on its own isn’t likely to be enough. It’s how a VR platform fits with other systems, which makes data sharing and data standards extremely important.
[04:29] – If you’re trying to figure out the right learntech stack for your learning business, check out BenchPrep, our sponsor for this series.
BenchPrep is a pioneer in the modern learning space, digitally transforming professional learning for corporations, credentialing bodies, associations, and training companies for over a decade. With an award-winning, learner-centric, cloud-based platform, BenchPrep enables learning organizations to deliver the best digital experience to drive learning outcomes and increase revenue.
The platform’s omni channel delivery incorporates personalized learning pathways, robust instructional design principles, gamification, and near real-time analytics that allow organizations across all industries to achieve their goals. More than 6 million learners have used BenchPrep’s platform to attain academic and professional success. BenchPrep publishes regular content sharing the latest in e-learning trends.
To download BenchPrep’s latest e-books, case studies, white papers, and more go to www.benchprep.com/resources.
Three Reasons to Focus on Learntech Now
Learning technology is on the cusp of a renaissance. It’s poised to explode. Learntech is proving to be essential to the smooth functioning of society and the daily life of billions of people worldwide.Celisa Steele
There are three main reasons for this explosion of learntech.
- The world is coming off a year when the COVID-19 pandemic forced individuals and organizations to rely on learntech significantly. So the adoption of learntech has skyrocketed in a relatively short time period. Almost everyone now has firsthand experience with using learntech.
- Supporting technologies (including things like 5G, mobile devices, and data storage) have improved, gotten cheaper, and are more broadly available.
- The learntech space is hot with investors. Thinkific, one of the emerging learning platforms, course platforms, got $22 million in investment (see our interview with Thinkific co-founder and CEO Greg Smith). LearnUpon got $50 million. Bizzabo, which is focused on the virtual events market, got $138 million. Udemy, which we often describe as the Amazon.com of online courses, got $50 million in investment (see our interview with Udemy VP of Learning, Shelley Osborne). BenchPrep, whose CEO we’ll talk with as part of this series, has gotten over $28 million in investment. There are also lots of acquisitions happening. Community Brands, a big player in the association world, bought Pathable, which is a big virtual events provider. Symphony Technology Group bought EthosCE and, more recently, CommPartners, both LMS providers, and CadmiumCD, which is focused on events. Open LMS bought eThink, one of the big Moodle companies. Learning Pool bought Remote Learner, which is another of those big Moodle companies. And those are just some highlights—there’s a lot more investment and M&A activity happening in learntech.
Those three reasons—the investment and M&A activity, the improvements in supporting technologies, and the COVID-induced widespread adoption—are why we thought now was the time to explore the frontiers of learntech on the podcast.
To help us explore the frontiers of learntech, we’re talking with other thought leaders and practitioners, people who can speak insightfully about one or more aspects of what that phrase “frontiers of learntech” means to us.
Artificial Intelligence (AI)
[08:19] – Around the topic of artificial intelligence in the context of learning, it’s hard not to think of Donald Clark. In fact, he’s written the book on the subject. His Artificial Intelligence for Learning was published in 2020.
Donald brings decades of hands-on experience with AI for learning, dating back to his work in the 1980s on intelligent tutoring. He’s now CEO of WildFire, an AI content creation company, and, more broadly, an investor in learntech.
Donald Clark is a leading thinker on AI for learning and also an iconoclast. He likes to take a contrarian, or non-obvious, stance. For example, he thinks it’s problematic to view AI in terms of technological revolutions. He says the Fourth Industrial Revolution that we hear so much about is neither the fourth nor an industrial revolution. He doesn’t putting the focus so much on the physical technology itself. He’d rather focus on the cognitive aspect, so he talks about cognitive revolutions.
Donald has a very broad definition of learning technology. He includes language as a learning technology, and he defines various revolutions in learntech to include language, writing, alphabets, printing, the Internet, and now AI. Donald points out that almost everything we do online is now mediated by AI—whether that’s shopping on Amazon or watching Netflix for entertainment or interacting on social media like Twitter or Facebook. Almost everything. Learning is the big exception, but that’s about to change.
[10:08] – We also speak with Sae Schatz, director of the Advanced Distributed Learning Initiative (ADL). When we think of the data in learntech, the ADL Initiative comes to mind. That initiative is behind the development of SCORM (shareable content object reference model), which was first released in 2000. More recently, the ADL Initiative has been behind the development of the experience application programming interface, better known as xAPI or Tin Can, which was first released in 2013.
Standards—like SCORM and xAPI—are so important to the future of learntech, as they help ensure interoperability. They help ensure systems play nicely together at the data level, so data can be shared and leveraged. And playing nicely is important now and even more important in the future of learntech as data becomes more and more essential. You have to have the data there for AI, for personalization, and more.Celisa Steele
[11:23] – And the data isn’t likely to all come from a single platform or system. This is where the concept of the learning ecosystem comes in. Sae is an editor and contributor to the ADL Initiative’s Modernizing Learning: Building the Future Learning Ecosystem e-book (which is available for free).
One of the four major sections in the e-book is on technology, and it includes chapters on interoperability, data security, learner privacy, analytics and visualization, and personalization—all important topics when thinking about the future of learntech.
The learning ecosystem and the learntech stack are also part of what we talk about with Ashish Rangnekar. Ashish is a self-described lifelong learner and co-founder and CEO of BenchPrep, which makes a learning platform targeted to credentialing bodies, associations, and training companies. He’s a big believer in the necessity of organizations undergoing a digital transformation.
Ashish and Donald Clark agree that we’re on track for transformation, for learning and technology to merge so cleanly that it’s almost nonsensical to talk about technology-mediated learning and learning that’s not technology-mediated.
All learning involves technology now. We’re more and more accustomed to some tech being involved in every learning experience we participated in, even face-to-face classes that integrate online polling or use a learning management system to make pre- and post-class assignments and resources available.
Ashish’s company makes a platform, and, of course, he’s proud of BenchPrep and believes his platform to be top-notch, but even he says it’s not sufficient on its own. It’s only a piece of the puzzle. A learning business needs a learntech stack, and it needs those platforms to exist in an ecosystem so they can exchange information and inform one another.
Extended Reality (XR)
Virtual and augmented reality are some of the other subjects that came to mind when we were thinking about the frontiers of learntech. To get perspective on XR, we talk with Sam Sannandeji, founder and CEO of Modest Tree, a simulation company that develops augmented reality and virtual reality training.
His sense of the future of XR is that, in the near future, we’ll remain in R&D mode. There are good, real-world uses of AR and VR for learning (which he knows very well because he’s been part of creating some), but until prices for devices (Oculus headsets, for example) come down and until there are more standards—note again the importance of standards—so that the user experience and interface is more consistent and familiar across devices, regardless of the maker (similar to how smartphones work about the same whether you have an Apple iPhone or a Samsung Galaxy), until that point, he thinks XR will remain more of a limited application. But that point will come quickly—not in the next three years but maybe the next five or six.
You’ll get to hear from all four of the folks we just mentioned—Donald Clark, Sae Schatz, Ashish Rangnekar, and Sam Sannandeji—in upcoming episodes in this series.
Personalization and Speed
[15:28] – There are two more concepts that come to mind when considering the frontiers of learntech. The first is personalization, which we’ve touched on but want to focus more directly.
Personalization has long been the Holy Grail of learning. Or at least one one of the Holy Grails—anytime, anywhere, just-in-time learning is another. And those two go hand in hand. If you can add personalization to anytime, anywhere, just-in-time learning, you’ve really hit it out of the park.
Donald Clark points us back to Benjamin Bloom for some of the earliest proof of the power of personalization. In a 1984 paper, Bloom compared mastery in learners taught through straight lecture only, through a lecture with formative feedback, and through one-to-one tuition. He found a whopping 98 percent increase in mastery for one-to-one tuition.
Of course, finding that many tutors or teachers—one for every learner—is hard and cost-prohibitive. But with adaptive AI, we can get to true personalization, a made-for-one experience that could yield the same astounding learning benefits as Bloom’s one-to-one tuition.
Personalization came up in our conversation Joe Miller. Joe is vice president of learning design and strategy at BenchPrep, so he’s on the technology side now, but he’s also worked on the publisher side with companies like Britannica and Cengage Learning.
Joe explains that the role of data analytics is being able adapt to different learner use cases. So the data is not only about understanding how your program is performing but knowing that it’s also flexible and adaptable and can be personalized for the learner.
He also talks about the role of personalization in moderating the level of content for a learner—using technology to find that Goldilocks-just-right level, not too hard, not too easy.
Social learning with personalization can increase engagement as well as stickiness. Joe likens personalization to a private island but it’s better to have some company on the island than to be stranded alone.
Personalization—and getting personalization right, with adaptive AI and with social learning aspects so you’re not stranded alone, but you’re in community—is on the frontiers of learntech.
The second concept we want to mention is speed. We talk a lot about learning effectiveness, and it’s undeniably important, but learning efficiency is also relevant. If we can get learners the skills and the knowledge they need more quickly, that has benefits.
Celeste Martinell is vice president of customer success at BenchPrep, and we asked her what trends in the learntech space she sees having the most potential for significant positive impact in the near future. Celeste said that maybe the biggest trend in the market right now is speed.
The pandemic has eliminated the luxury of time. So learning organizations have to produce engaging and effective learning programs quickly to keep up with the pace of changing skills and knowledge needs in the market. Learntech needs to enable that speed. The best learntech solutions will make it easier and faster for learning organizations to produce, deliver, and monetize engaging and effective education programs.Celeste Martinell
Speed and efficiency underlie so much of learntech. A big part of the appeal of AI is that it’s faster than relying solely on human intelligence. This brings to mind the chatbot that Dr. Ashok Goel used in his Georgia Tech class, and the students loved this AI-powered teaching assistant, Jill Watson, because she always responded and responded immediately. The students didn’t know she was a bot and not human until after the semester ended—until after they’d tried to nominate her for a teaching award.
Speed is a big benefit of XR too—a pilot in training can get more experience logged more quickly in a flight simulator than if all those flights have to happen in a real plane alongside a human instructor.
We wanted to call out these two concepts—personalization and speed—as they describe the frontiers of learntech as much as the more technology-focused areas of AI, XR, data, and learning ecosystems.
[22:20] – Wrap-up
No matter what the future of learntech brings, it won’t change the important role of reflection in learning, so we want to invite you to reflect on two questions.
- When you think of the “frontiers of learntech” what comes to mind?
- Out of what comes to mind when you think of the “frontiers of learntech,” what holds the most promise for significant positive impact on your learners and your learning business in the near future?
These are questions we’ve touched on in this episode, and they’ll recur throughout the series as we invite interviewees to reflect and share. Take time now to think about these questions—and then revisit and refine your answers as you hear what others say.
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[24:24] – Sign-off
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