Punctuated Equilibrium: Shifting from the Familiar to a New Normal

Conferences, Mobile Development, Pedagogy and Learning Comments (0)

Designing for Emergent Learning Technologies

When you’re in the middle of a period of rapid technological change, such as the one we are in now with no anchor points to hang onto an insight, it can seem never-ending.

In reality, change often occurs slowly, sometimes even gradually, and is only apparent after a long period. At other times, though, change can be rapid, and disorienting. But eventually, things settle down into new patterns. The late renown biologist Stephen Jay Gould described change as “punctuated equilibrium.” We experience it as a period where things seem “normal,” followed by a period of rapid change, in turn, followed by a “new normal” where things settle down again into a new taken-for-granted reality.

Things are Changing

The concept of punctuated equilibrium is useful as a framework for thinking about the changes that have taken place in learning technologies and the talent development industry over the last 75 years. Classrooms are a familiar way of delivering instruction, as the modern version of classroom teaching has been around for about 250 years.  It is no surprise, then, that the period from the founding of the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD – now ATD) in 1943 to the end of the 20th century was based on the classroom and course-based technologies and that it culminated in the founding of several “corporate universities.”

E-learning technologies, introduced as early as 1960, were designed to follow the same course-based model. Basically, including the presentation of materials developed by periodic assessments of learner achievement, reflected in a final grade or score at the end of the course. The technology that would eventually disrupt the seemingly entrenched classroom delivery of information pattern began with the invention of the transistor in December 1947 (exactly 70 years ago).  The transistor led to the miniaturization of electronics, shrinking devices from large boxes to handheld mobile phones and even smaller sensors that could be deployed everywhere. It is the growth of this technology, and the accompanying rapid rise in the power of computers, as well as the increasing sophistication of machine learning algorithms that is now (finally!) disrupting the talent development/learning and development industry.

How Will This Play Out?

As I write today, we are deep into a transition period of disruption in the talent development/learning and development industry, a fact that is obvious in all quarters. This is similar to what happened when the Blackberry 900 and the iPhone were first released in 1996 and 2007 respectively and stimulated the startling growth in the use of mobile communications devices. Today things have settled down to a new normal where billions of people are constantly checking their phones.

In the same way, several standard practices in talent development and learning are currently being disrupted by several new learning technologies. In a few years, these new ways of learning will become commonplace- taken-for-granted as the usual way things are done in the talent development industry. Classroom and course-based training will give way to learning that takes place anywhere, at any time, as needed. Because of the capacity of mobile devices to receive input from almost any location and source, on-demand “microlearning,” based on the modularization of information into small chunks, will be the norm.


The Familiar in Talent Development Technology Disruptors in Talent Development The Coming “New Normal” in Talent Development
Classroom and course-based training Mobile Devices and modularization of content Learning everywhere, any time. Microlearning
Assessments by superiors Performance tracking and support, gamification Notifications, microlearning as needed, rewards and badges
Annual Performance Reviews Sensors tied to workflows (IoT) Continuous evaluation with personalized dashboards
Humans as experts Artificial Intelligence and chatbots Humans as managers of AI
Scarcity of learning content Information explosion with smart search Customized delivery of appropriate material as needed
Storage of learning content on drives Cloud computing No need to own or keep any content
Annual upgrades of LMS and learning software Move from closed applications to connected platforms Continuous development and content change

What’s the Future?

Annual performance reviews will give way to continuous assessment as sensors are tied to workflows and feed information to personalized dashboards. According to a new book by Tim O’Reilly, WTF – What’s the Future, artificial intelligence and chatbots will soon outperform humans as experts and instructors, and the role of humans will be to manage the artificial intelligence that is behind the software that will develop content for employees available where, when, and however they need it.

The old requirement that human instructors present information as experts in their subjects to students seated in classrooms was based on the assumption that specific content (knowledge) in a curriculum is both essential and scarce. Experts were repositories of this knowledge which they imparted to others by giving presentations in the classroom and at conferences. The early, classroom-based style of e-Learning gave the experts another platform to present their material. But, as we now know, the information explosion means that there is way more content (information) than any one individual can deal with. Instead, new corporate training jobs will be given to those who can find and curate the best content; and fantastic search and recommendation engines will augment their work. Cloud computing means that storage of all information is virtually limitless. This will get rid of the scenario where essential information is stored on local drives jealously controlled within silos in companies.

Assessments, currently achieved through testing or by observation, will soon be replaced by performance tracking and support, along with automatic evaluation of employees through gamification. In the soon-to-arrive new standard, assessment algorithms feed personalized dashboards. Finally, learning management systems, which are often closed, cathedral-like applications, are giving way to open platforms that create a learning ecosystem that can be connected to many sources, and that function through links and application programming interfaces (APIs).

Time to Get Ready

So, ask yourself this: Am I preparing for the new normal instead of being distracted by all the talk of “disruption”? In the words of the father of hockey star Wayne Gretzky, “Skate to where the puck is going, not where it has been.”

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Gary Woodill is a senior analyst with Float, as well as CEO of i5 Research. Gary conducts research and market analyses, as well as assessments and forecasting for emerging technologies. Gary is the co-editor of "Mastering Mobile Learning," author of “The Mobile Learning Edge,” and the co-author of “Training and Collaboration with Virtual Worlds.” He also presents at conferences and is the author of numerous articles and research reports on emerging learning technologies. Gary holds a doctor of education degree from the University of Toronto.

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On January 16, 2018
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