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Learning – its like space; the final frontier

Integrating technology and tools to enable personalisation and flexibility in learning

Fifty-one years ago, the crew of Apollo 11 were in the final stages of preparations for their mission to the moon. Before he could utter the now famous words, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” on 20 July 1969, Neil Armstrong and his fellow astronauts underwent an incredibly complex and rigorous training to prepare for their mission to the moon.

Whilst much of their instruction apparently took place in a classroom setting and at testing facilities, the team also needed to replicate activities they would undertake once on the moon. They prepared by collecting geological samples and practiced the process of entering and exiting the lunar module endlessly, and to make their training as realistic as possible, the crew trained at sites on Earth with similar topography to the moon.

Fast forward to 2020, as a little over a month ago the world watched with bated breath as NASA and Musk’s SpaceX collaborated to get American astronauts to the International Space Station, once again requiring years of preparation and training.

From my experience of working across the rail, engineering and defence sectors, I know that preparation and training for human space exploration will be detailed meticulous and involved, critically technology is increasingly playing its part in transforming learning and preparation for these complex scenarios.

Boeing is now using virtual reality (VR) for astronaut training; Starliner crew members use this immersive technology to experience the complex and safety-critical scenarios of spaceflight. They can now see and interact – albeit virtually – with the control panels inside their capsule. This helps them to recreate the real-time interactions with the vital data they’ll need for their missions.

From these examples and many more, what’s clear is that different styles intervention are required at different points along the learning journey. Whilst some elements are all about repetitive practice, there is no doubt that process manuals, handbooks and guidelines will also be needed to support learning delivery, particularly for these complicated environments. Armstrong, Aldrin et al will have spent hours in the classroom; they would also have been expected to review, revise and recall complex procedures.

To plan an appropriate programme of learning requires a clear understanding of the specific context, requirements and desired outcomes. Once these are understood, the right kind of learning can be created and delivered for the situation, supported by the right delivery method for learning materials.

So this all leads to an amalgam of different learning platforms, processes and tools for different parts of the jigsaw. All are valid, but they must work together in a seamless fashion if they are to deliver an engaging and effective learning program.

Therein lies the challenge. The market for training and learning technology is enormous and fragmented. There are literally hundreds, if not thousands of businesses developing and selling Learning platforms, tools, apps and technologies. Making sense of them all can be confusing for training providers and employers alike. I can (almost) understand why some opt for enterprise solutions such as ERP and HCM systems.

However, if you subscribe to Josh Bersin’s philosophy of a learning tech stack, you learn to embrace a range of different platforms and tools, organised together to support the learning experience. The elements in the tech stack must be compatible and complementary; combining to support different employee development needs at different stages of the learning journey.

Systems and technologies should to be able to “talk” to each other; to be effective, they need to interact and exchange data, content and/or instructions. Ensuring this interoperability means that the digital content, tools, and resources used by providers, employers and employees can work well together, benefiting from synchronised updates and information.

Learning media needs to integrate to ensure a seamless learner experience and to aid the learning process; we’ve moved beyond the point where disjointed and disparate learning media is acceptable. Completion and success rates, as well as employee satisfaction are enhanced by fully integrated and seamless learning experiences.

In a world where every employee’s learning needs are unique to them, technology can be used to deliver learning to them throughout their journey in a personalised and on-demand manner. For operational training, such as that undertaken by astronauts, adaptive learning can understand the inherent baseline for each individual and combine with carefully curated learning designed to deliver the required outcome in a more efficient and effective fashion. The employee’s interaction with the learning gives the system enough information to decide what should come next.

Learning technologies and techniques have changed, evolved and developed beyond recognition in the 50 years since man’s first, and giant, step on the moon. But some things don’t change; in such complex, complicated and critical environments it is still essential that the learning is both as effective and efficient as possible.

What’s different now is that we have the technology and tools at our disposal which enable personalisation, flexibility and learner-led delivery,. These, when constructed in an integrated manner, and combined with adaptive and immersive learning techniques, have the potential to change forever the way employees (and astronauts) learn.

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