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Fredrickson Communications

J Hruby

J. Hruby is Fredrickson’s Vice President of Sales & Marketing and he also works with Fredrickson’s clients to develop learning strategies and related eLearning, training, and performance support products.

J. enjoys writing articles and presenting to professional organizations about issues related to eLearning, user-centered design, and the role of technology in improving performance. He has presented seminars to the local chapter of the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD), the Minnesota Government IT Symposium, and the Society for Technical Communication (STC).

Before joining Fredrickson, J. was a training and quality systems documentation manager for AlliedSignal and Honeywell.

Learning Trends - Where will they lead in 2011?

by J Hruby, Vice President, Sales & Marketing

With contributions by:
John Wooden, Director of Usability Services
Tony Tao, Instructional Designer and eLearning Developer

It’s 2011. Has my jetpack arrived yet?

Introduction by J. Hruby, Director of Marketing

Learning and development, like any other business, has its trends, innovations, success stories, bubbles, and busts. As we begin a new year, it’s fun and interesting to look at the landscape and take stock of the trends and technology.

And who can resist thinking about and trying to predict where these trends and technologies might take us in 2011?

Making predictions is fun, but predictions can also be informative. In trying to determine where a trend might take us, one has to look at the reasons why it might take us there. A lot can be learned from listening to the give-and-take conversation that weighs both the promised benefits and the foreseeable hurdles.

As anyone who has ever looked at futurist articles like the ones that were a mainstay of Popular Science in the last century knows, it’s notoriously difficult to correctly predict the future. In fact, it’s tough to even get close. Anyone commute to work today using a jetpack? Unfortunately, I think not. Setting aside the fact that it would have been a pretty chilly commute (presumably, the future was supposed to be warm), there just aren’t many jetpacks out there compared to what was predicted. Most of us aren’t using personal helicopters or hovercraft either. Now that we’re in the future, we just don’t fly as much as we were supposed to.

It’s good for us to remember that the future is slippery because today’s logic and limitations don’t apply to tomorrow. We also tend to forget that adopting and adapting to new things takes time even today. This fact alone seems to provide a stark (and perhaps ironic?) contrast to our 21st century expectation that most things should happen instantly. Or sooner.

Here are a few trends that some of my fellow Fredcommers and I are watching in 2011.

The iPad as a learning delivery platform

Prediction by J. Hruby, Director of Marketing

Prediction: Despite a lot of talk about the potential, adoption of the iPad as a learning delivery platform will be slow in 2011. It’s not all gloomy for learning professionals who want to harness the advantages of the tablet computer, however. Tablet competitors to the iPad will rush into the market in 2011, bringing more choices and lower cost.

Of course there’s been lots (and lots, and lots) of talk about the iPad’s potential as a slick portable delivery platform for learning. Beyond talking about it, though, I think actual enterprise learning adaptation will be very slow in 2011. No doubt, the iPad is a cool tablet computer, but as an enterprise learning platform it has many hurdles to overcome.

First, there’s the iPad’s current inability to fully utilize Flash. Apple must have reasons for this anti-Flash direction, but introducing the iPad with what I’ll charitably call a glaring omission makes it especially unattractive as a business learning platform. At the very least, existing content that uses Flash components would need to be carefully tested and parts that don’t work would need to be re-developed specifically for the iPad. Developing new learning content destined for the iPad will also have an added layer of complexity due to Apple’s Flash-unfriendly stance. All of this adds up to a hassle factor that most learning content owners and developers don’t need.

Second, there’s the cost. As of this writing, the iPad starts at $499 and rises rapidly to a stratospheric $829 for the 64 gig version with 3G WiFi. Ouch! The iPad’s pricing obviously hasn’t presented a barrier for individual consumers, but that’s not a great benchmark. In a more conservative corporate environment, a proposal to buy numerous mid-range iPads at a cost of $600 each to deliver mobile learning to, say, field salespeople will likely receive close scrutiny to say the least.

The broader trend in 2011 seems to be the emergence of tablet computing alternatives to the iPad. If a learning initiative is hung up by the cost of the iPad, how about a very capable $300 Archos 70, running the Android OS instead? This emergence of the Android tablet PC is one of the biggest trends of 2011 and CNET’s portable electronics correspondent, Donald Bell, correctly predicted a blizzard of new Android-powered tablet launches at the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show in January. The New York Times also has covered this Android tablet invasion.

This introduction of lower-cost iPad competitors can only be a good thing for cost-constrained learning groups eyeing the possibilities that these portable devices offer. I can see the iPad featuring in high-profile or high-ROI learning initiatives where the iPad does double duty as a reward or incentive. This approach seems to leverage the best feature of the iPad: the cool toy factor.

I also recently had a conversation with a forward-thinking learning professional who successfully justified the purchase of iPads for a learning initiative based on a combination of cost savings and environmental benefits. I took this anecdote as a sign that even in the current business climate, there will be some room for learning use of the iPad and increasingly for other tablet computers, but I think the real shift will occur as people acquire tablet computers for other business uses and learning can then just focus on developing learning products .

Social Learning

Prediction by John Wooden, Director of Usability Services

Prediction: 2011 will see the continuation of a multi-year trend toward more widespread adoption of online social learning in corporate enterprises. Organizations that have not yet implemented tools to allow for online social learning will do so, and those that have will begin to confront some of the technical, cultural, and behavioral challenges these tools pose.

Social learning is usually understood to mean social media applied to organizational learning, either independent of formal learning content (a company-wide wiki or employee knowledge-networking site, for example), or integrated into formal eLearning and instructor-led training (a course blog, wiki, or discussion forum, for example).

One reason why more enterprises will enable online social learning is the enormous popularity of social media and the expectation of many younger employees that they will be able to use social networking tools in the enterprise to ask questions, share their perspectives, and post profiles. But a more important reason for the rise of enterprise social learning is that organizations will want to increase the speed of knowledge transfer – among employees, between employees and suppliers, and between customers and employees.

The competitive advantage of rapid knowledge transfer is only going to become more important in the coming years, and enterprise social media will play a critical role in this, amplifying and extending learning beyond the classroom or eLearning course, allowing employees, suppliers, and customers to learn by connecting with each other in a wider circle than would otherwise be easily possible.

Because of this perceived business value, more organizations will begin to implement or further develop their social learning infrastructures in 2011. More organizations will also begin to confront the technical, cultural, and behavioral challenges posed by social learning. We will see a shift from the excitement – and perhaps inflated expectations – that come with initial adoption, to a problem-solving attitude.

If Step 1 in implementing a social learning infrastructure is to get the tools out there, Step 2 involves helping employees become effective social learners – and this step has been overlooked by a good number of organizations. While many people understand the basic mechanics of how to use social networking tools – because many are already using Facebook, YouTube, and LinkedIn – a lot of employees understand much less about using enterprise social networking tools to support business and learning objectives.

The next few years will see more Learning and Development departments realize that they need to take charge of “engagement training” to help employees – and help their organizations – better understand what social learning is and how it can work. It’s perhaps ironic that L&D departments will employ some old-fashioned training techniques to get people to understand how to effectively use the new-fashioned stuff, but this will happen. For example, employees need to learn what makes for an effective online community, a compelling blog post, a useful profile, and so on. They will need to learn when information is better shared on an internal forum or a community site than through e-mail, or posted on a wiki rather than saved to a folder on a shared drive.

Another issue that organizations will begin to confront is how to reconcile various social tools with each other, with their respective enterprise learning management systems, and with their enterprise search capability. For two interesting perspectives on this issue, see Dave Wilkins’ lengthy but interesting blog post “A Defence of the LMS (and a Case for the Future of Social Learning)“ and Dan Pontefract’s reponse, “Standalone LMS is Still Dead (rebutting & agreeing with Dave Wilkins).”

All I will venture to predict here is that this issue will heat up over the next year – fueled by LMS vendors and social software vendors – but it will be far from resolved in 2011.

Online Learner-generated Course Reviews

Prediction by J. Hruby, Director of Marketing

Prediction: 2011 will be looked back on as the year where the concept of learner-generated reviews takes hold in enterprise learning.

Almost every website where you can buy something also offers the chance to both create and read customer-generated reviews. Why can’t we have the same function for enterprise learning products as well? The ability to choose courses by reading what others think of them and then leave our own review comments would certainly provide a wealth of useful information.

Good question! I’ve heard of several forward-thinking learning professionals who are trying to do just that — offer their learners the ability to leave reviews about the courses they take that can be seen by other learners.

I think 2011 will be the point where this trend starts to go mainstream. This is a very useful and relevant technical direction for both learners and learning development professionals and I think 2011 will be looked back on as the year it really took hold for a number of reasons.

First, let’s look at this from the “consumer perspective,” i.e. from the learner’s viewpoint. Reading online reviews has become a major step in the consumer buying process. We value the opinions of people whom we perceive to be our peers and this certainly applies to the process of trying to decide which learning products are worth consuming and why. Even in the case of mandatory courses, learners want to know what to expect.

Now, looking at the other side, there’s a certain fear factor on the part of the learning professionals that learners will abuse their newfound ability to leave reviews by trashing every course they take. In reality, this fear never seems become a reality for a simple reason: in a corporate learning setting, people understand that their comments aren’t anonymous. Reviewers will keep it in-bounds because they know they’re still at work and work rules still apply. So if we get beyond the fear in 2011, we can move on to the benefits.

And there are benefits. The benefits to L&D professionals should be clear: honest feedback is useful, or at least it should be useful. In reading online reviews of all sorts, I’m inclined to think that when people think of their review as helping people who are essentially just like themselves, they tend to leave more in-depth and meaningful feedback. This, of course, is more useful to anyone who wants to use feedback to make improvements.

There is also the case of user/learner expectation to consider. As my fellow Fredcommer John Wooden often points out, people develop their expectations of technology not just from what they experience at work, but from their much broader experiences outside of work. Over time, disconnects between these experiences become especially obvious. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that you can leave user feedback and read user reviews for practically every product on the web…so why not for learning products at work?


Prediction by Tony Tao, Instructional Designer and eLearning Developer

Prediction: mLearning will continue to move ahead in 2011. User expectations and mobile device capabilities will start to narrow the gap between mLearning and eLearning, but the gap won’t go away entirely.

We first started hearing about mLearning about eight years ago. Given the name, it was easy to assume that this trend would eventually lead to the ability to offer eLearning-style courses delivered over our phones.

The reality, so far, seems to be quite a way from that vision. It appears that the technology and other factors have so far steered the main use of mLearning toward performance support. I want to add that there’s nothing wrong with performance support materials, and offering them on a mobile device is often a very good way to increase overall job performance. It’s just that so far the content and experience continue to make mLearning and eLearning very different media that, so far, serve different purposes.

Mobile phone technology has played a big role in determining exactly how, and how quickly, mLearning grows. The problem is that mobile phones have many different operating systems and capabilities. Some phones offer touch-screen navigation, some rely on keypad navigation. Some devices support Flash, some don’t. Some devices handle web content in ways that make it display and work better on a small screen and some don’t. Beyond the actual device, the capabilities of the mobile phone networks also vary widely.

This lack of common capabilities that the learning developer can rely on makes it very difficult to develop mLearning content that goes beyond text content because it’s almost impossible to know how it will work on the vast number of devices that are in use. This problem is even more apparent to me when I visit my family and friends in China. In China, people change mobile phones very often and the technology infrastructure in China makes it easy to do so.

Of course, one of the things that make people want to change phones is that they see other phones with more features than those on their current phone. In recent years, more and more people in China have switched to smartphones, with the capability of a wireless internet connection. This is mainly because these devices are quickly becoming very affordable. This rapid change makes the feature gap between new and old phones widen very quickly, which keeps the mobile phone application designers busy because the capabilities are always changing.

But in enterprise learning this lack of common device capabilities, I think, has been a big barrier to bringing mLearning closer to eLearning. But will the gap narrow at all in 2011? I think it will.

As anyone can see, there are more and more smartphones in people’s hands these days. Here in the US, it looks to me like we are moving to a point where it will soon be difficult to buy anything but a smartphone. The web browsing experience on these smartphones is getting better and that leads me to think that it will become easier to offer richer learning content that will not be heavily impacted by the individual device. At the same time, faster 3G and even 4G networks allow the developer to building more media-rich mLearning rather than just using basic text.

As J. Hruby touches on in one of his predictions, there’s a new angle to consider in 2011: “m” isn’t just about mobile phones anymore. Options for mLearning now include tablet computers, and another thing to keep an eye on is the arrival of new eBooks that feature wireless internet browsing capabilities and color screens.

Your Turn

Comments on our predictions? Want to make your own predictions on the trends you see in learning and development? We’d love to hear your feedback.

Head over the the Fredcomm Blog where we’ve started a discussion.