Recreating the Traditional Learning Ecosystem Online

March 19, 2020

What do cavemen and cavewomen, blacksmiths and babies have in common? For one thing, they learn “on the job” (so to speak … we don’t actually want to put babies to work) in the traditional learning ecosystem involving learners, teachers, content and jobs/trades (babies do have important jobs to learn like attracting attention, eating, crawling, etc). Here is how we illustrate it in one of our presentations.

This traditional ecosystem matters because learning content is engaging for users when it is consequential, and this is rarely more the case than when it is relevant to a job (or other activity of interest). There is consistent evidence that user engagement and satisfaction with corporate learning and development (L&D) content is abysmal, and we think that the move away from the traditional learning ecosystem is a big part of the problem.

This move started centuries ago with the advent of formal schooling, which has steadily moved jobs and trades outside the core learning ecosystem. Of course, we aren’t against school, but many current education structures and curricula are poorly suited to the lifelong learning that is essential to our changing world and lifestyles, as many are beginning to recognize (this point is made well, for example, in The 100-Year Life by Lynda Gratton of London Business School).

Online learning offers great promise to address this situation, but in important ways it has made it worse by abandoning the traditional learning ecosystem in favor of a nearly exclusive focus on content. Excellent learning content has never been more available than it is today, but user engagement is mixed at best. For example, massively open online courses (MOOCs) continue to expand, but they have not realized their full promise, with consistent evidence that the vast majority of MOOC students do not complete courses that they begin (completion rates range from about 4% to 15% depending upon the study).

At LearnerShape, we are convinced that it is possible to do better. And it is crucial for our society. The ongoing global crisis resulting from COVID-19 has underlined that the move to online learning is only going to accelerate. We need to make online learning work well for everyone.

We believe that a core priority of the online learning ecosystem should be to resurrect elements of the traditional learning ecosystem. This cannot be done simply by pushing better content at learners. As a starting point, it requires the right content for each individual, at the right time, in the right context. And, perhaps more important, we need to enable connections among learners, teachers and opportunities to learn on the job. It is not possible or effective for these connections to take place on a single platform or under fully controlled conditions — they need to happen organically like interactions in the traditional learning ecosystem — but online services can facilitate such connections. We are working hard to develop ways to make that happen.

Maury Shenk
Co-Founder & CEO, LearnerShape