Seven 2017 Learning Trends: Novel or Norm?

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At the start of a new year – or the end of an old one – we love to read about trends. Articles on trends can be fun reads, but do they really help us see the future? Do trends really matter?

I’ll let you decide. I went back and found a 1998 ATD (then ASTD) State of the Industry report. Note that the “trends” listed in this report were often reported by only 1% – 2% of the respondents, who numbered in the 300 range. This meant only three or four respondents were citing these trends as tools or tactics in their talent development toolkits:

  • Computer-based training (CD-ROMs)
  • Electronic Performance Support Systems (Interesting fact: Google was founded in September 1998.)
  • Interactive video laser disks
  • Intranets
  • Coaching and mentoring
  • Individual development plans
  • 360-degree feedback

From Trend to Reality

If we look at 2017, we can see that 1998 trends were all hallmarks or rudimentary renditions of things we take for granted today:

  • Computer-based training delivered via CD-ROM has been replaced by custom-created eLearning delivered via the web as well as on-demand content from MOOCs, Lynda.com, or Software as a Service (SaaS) content providers such as Grovo or Skillsoft.
  • Early Electronic Performance Support Systems and intranets were the predecessors of modern help systems such as Lynda.com, YouTube, Wikipedia, or Google as well as collaboration, information sharing, and communication tools such as SharePoint, Slack, Basecamp, and Skype plus networking tools such as LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, or Twitter.
  • Interactive video laser disks were quickly replaced first by VHS and Beta videotape and now by videos that can be shot and edited via a smartphone and streamed via the web.
  • Coaching and mentoring, along with 360-degree feedback, have created an entire new industry and a plethora of assessment instruments. DISC, Strengthsfinder, Myers-Briggs, Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument, EQ assessments, leadership inventories, etc. all exist to provide us with feedback and enable others to coach us.
  • Individual development plans are a foundational element/concept related to the learning management system and now talent management systems, which try to catalog skills and knowledge required for various positions and document the development plans that enable someone to be successful in a given role.

In short, those 1998 trends evolved into today’s reality over a span of years. But the evolution was not always fast. In fact, the 1999 “trends” probably looked similar to 1998’s version.

Fast Forward to 2017

There are really two groups of learning trends to watch in 2017. The exciting group that everyone wants to talk about is new on the scene. We are seeing the first signs of these trends, but it will take several years for their usage to become meaningful. The second group has already been talked about for several years, some of them as far back as 2008. But just like those trends from 1998, they are now becoming mainstream.

Three 2017 Emerging Trends

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1. Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning

This one is getting ready to boom. Artificial intelligence and machine learning take in lots of data inputs and provide pinpoint guidance back to us. AI is already in the classroom. It’s available to us as consumers. It’s logical to believe that corporate learners are going to expect an evolved learning experience that goes beyond static, unchanging content as we move to the future.

We are seeing lots of examples of machine learning (self-driving cars use machine learning, for example). Predictions are for virtual assistants to find their way into more and more classrooms; some already exist today. It’s realistic to think that at some point, virtual assistants will make their way into the HR and L&D realm as well.

2. Virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality

These new reality technologies have been sitting on the horizon for years. Technology has finally gotten to the point where the opportunity is catching up to the promise. In 2016, VR headsets and game systems emerged on the market that are relatively 1) affordable, and 2) comfortable to use at least for up to 30 minutes. Older systems tended to make people motion sick very quickly. Motion sickness can still be a problem, but most people can tolerate it for periods of up to 30 minutes’ time.

The eLearning Guild has announced its first VR and AR conference in 2017, a sure sign that this is a technology that’s moving past “interesting to watch” to “great examples of its use are out there.”

3. Storytelling

This one is a sleeper. It is not about technology. It’s about how we get people to pay attention. We are all going to have to get better at telling stories and using stories to help people learn. Videos, VR, and games all lend themselves to stories so the ability to craft compelling stories is going to be key to effective use of technologies.

Four 2017 Established Trends

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1. Microlearning

Simply put, microlearning is learning that is organized into small components or activities, typically about five minutes in length. Microlearning has been around as a term since the early 2000s; it has become immensely popular as a term in the past couple of years.

In the past three years, there has been a proliferation of SaaS solutions focused on microlearning, including Knowledge Guru, qStream, Axonify, Grovo, and Mindmarker.

Part of the push links to the uptick in interest is the arena of “learning science” and the science of learning. Increased awareness of the linkage between spaced repetition of content and long-term memory has sparked interest in microlearning.

2. Mobile

Mobile is no longer new, but it does appear to be “stuck” with adoption not proliferating as trend watchers predicted back in 2010, 2011, and 2012.  The constraints of the LMS – and lack of adoption of xAPI – keep it in limbo as a primary tool for learning. However, it’s an excellent tool for microlearning. The tools touted for microlearning rely heavily on smartphones to distribute their microlearning.

3. Gamification and learning games

This trend has moved mainstream. It is questionable whether it still warrants the term “trend” as the research is fairly compelling as to the efficacy of learning games as a tool.

Mobile games remain an intriguing learning solution, particularly when combined with the emerging interest in microlearning.

4. Interactive video, 360-degree video

Video keeps getting more and more useful as the tools available to produce it become more accessible. The newest iPhone, for example, has a very worthy video camera. It’s possible to shoot and edit a video all on a smartphone and then push it out to a video streaming site such as Vimeo or YouTube on that same phone.

Why Compare 1998 to 2017?

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As I pondered trends from 1998, I concluded these things:

1. Change can feel slow, but we never stand still.

Year-to-year change can be so slow that we may fail to recognize when big change is around the corner. It takes a decade or more for dramatic change to start to become visible. In that time, some “trends” will morph into completely different technologies. Clearly CBT has morphed into the eLearning we currently have. The eLearning we have now is likely to morph into AI, VR, or AR… or something we cannot yet envision.

2. The influence of technology has touched every aspect of L&D.

It affects design, development, implementation, and tracking. It has also dramatically affected talent development. No area is untouched. The skill sets of today’s L&D professionals include technical abilities those in the 1990s would have not even imagined.

3. Despite the evolution of technology, the “what” of training has remained very stable… with a few twists.

The 1990s marked the dawn of technology in the workplace as we now know it. This meant a ton of training on how to use a computer or how to use software. We don’t need that today. However, managerial training remains a constant as does compliance, product, and process training.

Finally, in answer to the question I posed at the start of this post: yes, trends DO matter. We need to pay attention to them. What starts as a trend – with only 1% or 2% of early adopters using a process, tool, or technology – does find its way into the mainstream. But it may take a while (virtual reality and augmented reality have actually been on the landscape for a decade). I started attending to games and gamification in 2008 and it is now close to mainstream in 2017. Eventually, however, these early trends become the way we do things. What is novel today becomes the norm tomorrow.

Access the 2017 Learning and Remembering Report to view the results and analysis of our Learning and Remembering Survey.