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Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Learning Systems

I normally am not a person who spends time on the definition of things. I generally consider these discussions arbitrary, mundane, stuck in the minutiae, boring, etc. However, we certainly suffer from the lack of terminology around certain kinds of learning systems.

I've received a couple of good comments on my recent post, EPSS and ePerformance. One comes from Jay Cross who challenges the use of the "e" in front of various terms...
Tony, you might drop all the e's to simplify the terminology, ending up with performance support, performance, development, and learning. The "e" obscures the importance of these things.
I use the "e" when I want to indicate "delivered with technology" ... If I tell you something is a learning system (or learning) vs. something is eLearning, it conjures very distinct ideas of what I'm talking about. Of course, Jay, I should need to tell you that. :)

Valerie comments -
Why the interest in separating out support for learning from support for doing?

Seems to me that the most critical learning is that which is in support of performance. And the most effective teaching platforms are those which keep the learning close to the task which is to be performed.
I agree with Valerie that the best learning systems are those where the performance is close to or part of the learning. But my challenge is this:

What do you envision when I talk about "Learning" or "Learning System" or "eLearning" as compared to "Support" or "Support System" or "eSupport"?

For most people learning implies training ahead of and away from performance. If I call it eLearning, you have some very particular kinds of solutions in mind. And they likely are not Support or Performance Support solutions.

"Support" suggests slightly after a problem has surfaced during performance. eSupport implies some very particular kinds of solutions.

"Performance Support" suggests along with performance. EPSS or ePerformance implies particular kinds of solutions.

Likely all three imply learning, but if you want someone to have the right vision of what you are talking about, using terms that conjure the right vision is important.

Or do you disagree? Do you honestly believe that while the definition of these terms may say something, most people have very particular ideas in mind of what you mean when you say them?


Anonymous said...

I'm just wonderig if you have heard about the nasty security hole in Flash that just came out the other day. (see: and ) Effected eLearning courses hosted on an LMS would create the ability for hackers to gain full access to the site and break into HR data and God only know what else. I can't seem to find anybody in the Learning community who is talking about this. Do you have any insights?

Anonymous said...

Hmm, Tony, what a wriggly set of worms we have here!

Recently I put forward a design to a client for a comprehensive learning solution, the core of which was a JIT , embedded performance support tool. But they didn't want that - they were adamant that that "wasn't learning". That there needed to be a predefined path for the user to follow, and that the material needed to be topped and tailed in order for it to constitute learning. In other words, what they wanted was a course. This surprised me, because they are purportedly a fairly sophisticated learning organisation.

Jay has often argued that, since we don't talk about eworking, we shouldn't have to talk about elearning. I agree with him, but the problem is that the market place is a long way from being in a position to cope with that approach. In order to be understood by our clients, we may have to use terms that make it possible for them to access the conversation. It furstrates me no-end, but it is what it is.

Stephen Downes said...

I think we still need to leave the 'e' in place.

I realize that we don't use 'e-work'. But maybe we should - even though I am technologically oriented, I cannot convince my employers that work done at a distance is the same as work done in my office.

In a similar manner, advocates of dropping the 'e' are allowing traditional definitions of 'support' and the rest to sneak in the back door. As though, say, there is no difference between 'e-learning' and 'blended learning'.

When you allow the non-e components into the definition, the nature and purpose of what you are working with changes considerably. This may make some traditionalists feel at ease, but in my view it compromises what it is we're trying to do with the 'e'.

Anonymous said...

I see your point about the e-, Tony, but "delivered with technology" is coming to have about as much distinction as "written with nouns."

Still, I think people bring their own definitions, which is why in some cases you can talk about learning till you're hoarse, but the listener is picturing rows of students at desks dutifully listening to lecture. (That sounds a bit like Karyn's situation, in which the client -- or some key stakeholder at the client organization -- holds firmly to the Corporate Schoolhouse model.)

"If I call it eLearning, you have some very particular kinds of solutions in mind." Well, you have some in mind, too. Depending on the client or partner (and I realize you know this) it's likely much better to explore the form of those solutions than to fret too much about Label A versus Label B.

Clark said...

Back to the definitions war. There are really 2 situations here: when we talk internally, and when we talk externally. Externally, I'll suggest, we need the 'e' when we talk about what we do (vs the training group), and performance support will have vastly different connotations than when we use it internally. I don't believe the average biz person has a clue about our notion of Performance Support Systems. They think of portals, help systems, etc, as something totally separate.

Certainly, internally, we can skip the 'e', when we're talking to the enlightened, but I think it's too early to assume that the outsider really *gets* the role of technology, and the broader picture of what elearning's about (performance, etc). Look at Karyn's experience!

wslashjack said...

I do think that everyone brings their own understanding to all of these terms, Tony. And while I'm sure there are variations, in my mind, elearning is the only term that may be close to universally understood. And as I said before, we also choose to use eperformance.

But the point here, for me at least, isn't so much what terms we use, as WHEN we use them. From a marketing perspective, the more simple, direct and literal the better (elearning and eperformance). Once a real conversation begins, among ourselves or with a client, I think the terms matter less, and problems, synthesis and results become the matter what terms are used.

Is this horse dead now?

Valerie Bock said...

Downes wrote:

When you allow the non-e components into the definition, the nature and purpose of what you are working with changes considerably. This may make some traditionalists feel at ease, but in my view it compromises what it is we're trying to do with the 'e'.

And the point of such purity is?

I dunno about you, but what we are trying to do with the "e" in my company is introduce technology where it offers and advantage unmatched by other modalities. We think training for proficiency is best done with real, human coaches, and while we offer a range of communication modalities to assist learners and coaches to interact with one another effectively over time and distance, the process is rightfully termed coaching, not "e-coaching" The purpose of e-learning is, last I checked, the same as the purpose of learning - to acquire knowledge which will be useful. The purpose of training is to transmit knowledge believed to be useful to people who do not currently have it and may not know they need it.

The world of the "e" offers some pretty impressive technologies for facilitating this process. But "e" is about tools, not purpose.

Tony Karrer said...

Great comments - some thoughts -

Karyn - I completely sympathize with the "wasn't learning" issue.

Stephen - thanks and I agree.

Dave, Clark and Jack all say that people bring their own definitions - that's true I'm sure. But even among an audience of "the enlightened" I'd be surprised if the terms provide the enlightened meaning that you would hope. We rarely have time to go through the definitions with someone. So, it's safer to start with what people likely think. Of course, you can start with all of the components, but that's a tough way to go.

And Jack - unfortunately, the horse is not dead. We don't have general agreement on what is meant by the terms and we have people who say the definition is broad while we all know that most people think narrow when they hear the terms.

Paul said...

Hello all.

I would say I disagree with "e" terms. From my perspective, I do think the use of "e" is becoming a bit loose these days now that technology is touching greater and greater portions of society. Many more things seem to be introduced now with "e" as a means of communicating the form of communication; "e-reading" is one I've heard of late. But what I see is a limited shelf life for "e" terms, because so much of our lives finds integration at a computer screen now. The activity hasn't changed per se, only the form it takes. It may be temporarily relevant to use "e" prefixing, but pretty soon that is likely to be less relevant because the "e" method" will be the way most or all people perform the task, thus removing the relevancy of "e".

The question of difference in the terms Learning and eLearning, or Support and eSupport, is becoming blurred. Colleges, universities, grade schools, private education institutions, corporate training...they all use electronic means to distribute learning now. Also, from my perspective, clients ask about or expect technology-delivered training in this day and age. In my professional experience, clients are at the very least familiar with the concept of training through technology. In the corporate environment I currently work in, support is generally seen as just that, whether it's in person, over the phone, or via email/IM systems. There is no distinction for "e" because the environment is very cognizant of "e" simply due to factors such as the size of the employee base, the necessity for accomplishing tasks without F2F interaction, among other things. For my part I see the word "support" as being phone-based in nature. That's sort of the old view, but in a way, it's technically "e" support; it's still electronic. I will admit my professional experience has been almost exclusively with companies immersed in technology and the advancement of it, so it is certainly possible this colors my perspective. But I also think that the fact that the company I currently work for uses very few, if any, "e" words (outside of "email") points to how our technological vocabulary will reset back to the traditional terms at some point.

The other factor to consider is that it can sometimes be a bad thing to introduce new terms, especially to clients. New terms may complicate communicationss. This is surely not always the case, but it can be a concern in some scenarios.

Dave Wilkins said...

Throw into the mix Knowledge Management and Learning 2.0 solutions. If I reach out to someone in my social network via discussion or an Ask a Question solution, or even some sort of corporate Twitter thing -- what is that? It's EPSS in that it provides immediate support in completing my work; it's like training in that it results in long-term skill or knowledge acquisition, and it's knowledge management too by virtue of it being captured and possibly tagged. Of course, the real value is in the impact so at some level it doesn't matter what we call this stuff. That said, there is still an awful people still building courseware even though it's the wrong answer.