Stepping off the content treadmill

Treadmill by Farhad SH (CC by 2.0)
Treadmill by Farhad SH (CC by 2.0)

Are we missing something in L&D?

When I began in this field in the mid-1980s the job was very much about the production and delivery of training courses. It carried on that way until I left full-time employment for a classroom training provider on the last working day of 1999.

Things have, of course, changed since then, probably more dramatically than any of us fully appreciates. The ability to access pretty much the entire sum of human knowledge with a swipe of our thumb is something that would have seemed like science fiction or magic a few decades ago.

And yet despite all the technology, and despite the shift in our relationship to information – from “knowledge is power” to “information wants to be free” – the model for L&D has remained largely unchanged: we create and deliver content.

Sometimes content is the right answer to a performance issue, but because it is sometimes the right answer does not mean that delivering content should be our default position. And – crucially – even when learning materials, or a course, is the right answer to a performance problem, that does not mean that L&D should have to produce that material.

I spend a lot of time talking to people in L&D world-wide, and I’m constantly struck by two things. First, almost everyone seems to be over-worked. Second, almost everyone seems to be producing a lot of learning content. These two facts are not unrelated. Making good content takes time and energy. Time and energy that could often be better spent doing other things – in particular, engaging with the business.

So here’s an idea. On the occasions when we can tackle a performance issue with learning content, how about we don’t produce those materials ourselves?

Take one instance: MOOCs. Massive Open Online Courses have been accelerating in popularity, with the numbers of courses, and the numbers of people registering for them doubling in 2015, and that trend continuing. Yet most L&D professionals show no interest in MOOCs. (In my annual L&D Global Sentiment Survey, MOOCs dropped from 4th position of 12 options in 2014 to 14th of 16 two years later.) Anecdotal evidence backs this up – it’s very rare to find an L&D department using MOOCs as part of their corporate offering.

There may be many reasons why MOOCs cannot be used for everything we do. They are often long, running over weeks or months, rather than being completed in days. It may not be possible to cover the precise material we want: MOOCs tend to be offered in general academic subjects rather than in specific business-related topics. But just because you can’t find a MOOC for everything you need, doesn’t mean you can’t find one for something. And here’s the kicker: they are created by someone else, they are available now, and they are free.

I’m not saying that MOOCs are the panacea for all of L&D’s issues, but they are indicative of one major problem we have – that we are bound to the treadmill of content production. We can unshackle ourselves more easily than we might believe, if just give up the need to produce perfect content, and instead use good enough content produced by someone else. In return, we get the one thing every L&D professional needs today: time.

This was first published as the preface to Inside Learning Technologies Magazine #59.

Click to participate in the 1-question 2017 L&D Global Sentiment Survey.

2 thoughts on “Stepping off the content treadmill

  1. Surely a MOOC is a massive repository of content, Donald? I may be unlucky but in the MOOCs I’ve explored the content was plentiful but the level of quality interaction was low (emphasis there on ‘quality’). It’s nice to have learning content produced elsewhere but might it not be better to allow learners to flag up content they’ve found useful, whatever the source, so that others in a similar position might also learn from it? Or is this ‘curation’?

  2. This and the accompanying other MOOC thought piece both ask a similar question: Why aren’t we using MOOCs?
    Working for a large higher education instittution makes me incredibly aware of a number of related issues:
    1. Access, accessibility, security and data retention. Most MOOCs use separate systems to those of the institution. How do we ensure students sign up? What happens if they forget their account details? How do we support those with low technical skills to navigate a number of systems? How do we ensure they have signed up for the right course, and actually completed it? How do we ensure we get adequate results from this, or test their knowledge? How do we ensure those who have limited access to technology or are coming from backgrounds other than English or with differing physical or other abilities, aren’t disadvantaged? Do we need to provide transcripts for all the extra videos? How do we get IT to agree to support it? How do we ensure accurate records of student data in our systems in case things get deleted from the provider? Not to say these things can’t be mitigated, but they are things that crop up. In which case, perhaps investigating OERs to see if they get any more traction, as they could be plugged in to institutional systems and bypass these concerns. However, I’m guessing they also aren’t getting much play.

    2. Integrity of content
    In a world where links die, and there have been reports of some great and some pretty average MOOCs, there needs to be a lot of vetting. It’s easier to vet, evaluate, maintain and update content that you control.

    3. Other potential risks
    Institutional LMSes are typically a closed system, as opposed to MOOCs which are an open system to the world. If a course was using other provider MOOC content and had made this a requirement of the course, then I imagine the institutional disciplinary policies would still apply, but it’s way harder to police or take disciplinary action if a student is involved in inappropriate behaviour. It’s also tough to know where data sits and how to get it taken down, and some institutions have legal requirements about keeping data safe within their walls and on local (or at least in the same country) servers.

    All in all, most of these are about risks to a university/provider, which, at least in Australia, can mean a difference in your provider status/registration if things go wrong. I would doubt many would take the risk, or would do so making disclaimers that those who choose to use MOOCs do so independently of their own volition, rather than as part of a course or compliance requirement.

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