Digital Learning and the Future of Work
We’re in a time of rapid change, one that has the potential to radically alter the ways people work and the ways people learn. Knowledge work, once performed in an office, has evolved over the years, and due to the COVID-19 pandemic, companies have seen even more strongly how productive virtual workers can be. Virtual work seems assured to play a larger role in the future.
As work changes, I suggest that the uses of technology to improve performance must change as well. Societal and workplace changes, along with advances in technology, provide an opportunity for us to reimagine and reinvent workplace learning, moving permanently away from traditional read/watch-and-test methods and replacing them with the widespread use of progressive, creative approaches to learning, development, and performance.
These approaches build on research and on new technologies. Key concepts underlying these approaches include:
- Learning by doing: Dating back to John Dewey as a philosophy, people often learn best by doing—that is, by performing a task and practicing a skill, ideally with coaching guidance and feedback.
- Personalization: Personalized learning can take the form of a learning experience in which each learning activity is based on a person’s past performance—for example, a scenario-based customer service skills training system that chose situations for a particular learner to handle based on their strengths and weaknesses—or go further and suggest (and customize) experiences based on a learner’s interests.
- Just-in-time learning and performance support: Having more, and better, just-in-time learning and performance approaches can help improve performance while minimizing the need for training.
- User experience design: It’s critical to design learning experiences rather than to simply focus on the information that people need to know; particularly in workplace learning, an employee’s goal is typically to be able to perform better rather than simply to know something.
New technologies have the potential to provide us with ways to make use of the above concepts even better than in the past, and to make such learning experiences available on a large scale. Key technologies and their potential uses include:
- Virtual Reality (VR): Virtual reality headsets are becoming more readily available, and virtual reality has tremendous potential for learning. One ideal method is that of learn-by-doing simulations in virtual worlds; well-designed simulation-based learning can work tremendously well on a computer, phone, or tablet, but can be an even more realistic, immersive experience with the use of VR’s 3-dimensional views and gesture control, allowing the user to interact with simulated characters and the virtual environment in complex ways.
- Augmented Reality (AR) involves enhancing real-world objects with technology; for example, a phone-based map program might sense where the user is and pop up information about the buildings the user is walking by. AR has tremendous potential for just-in-time learning and performance support as an employee performs a task.
- Holograms, 3-dimensional projections of images, can feel even more realistic than characters in a virtual world, though they require space to project and are a bit further away than VR and AR from being useful in practice on a regular basis. Holograms, like VR, can be tremendously useful for realistic simulation-based learning.
- Artificial Intelligence (AI): AI can be very useful for analyzing learner performance and, for example, recommending learning experiences for a learner to consider. In my view, a potentially even more-valuable use of AI techniques is within the learning experiences themselves. For example, imagine a sales simulation that involved an artificially-intelligent coaching component that helped the employee through realistic sales situations.
The above concepts and techniques can allow us to reimagine and reinvent the world of learning and development, using new technologies to make use of progressive approaches to learning that are engaging, effective, and personalized. In my view, modern workers are ready for, and will need, a modern approach to learning and development. New technologies along with progressive, engaging approaches to learning and performance can be the perfect fit for the changing world of work.