Clark Quinn's Learnings about Learning
(The Official Quinnovation blog)

22 August 2008

Distributed Learning

Clark @ 5:42 AM

Distributed learning is an idea that I think offers an untapped potential, what with the new technologies we have.  I’m not talking here about distance learning, but instead a combination of slow learning with ubiquitous learning.  The idea is to combine learning on the go and on-demand with a long term relationship, personalized awareness, and mixed media.  Think of it as cloud computing for your learning goals.

There are strong reasons for spreading learning over time (Will Thalheimer‘s got a whole white paper on it) –  think drip irrigation.  We can use technology to do this in a contextually relevant way; not just random elements, but wrapped around the events in our life.  With some knowledge of our schedule, and our learning goals, a system could pop out little relevant bits of learning to develop us over time.

Imagine that you’ve learning goals about communication, and about coaching.  Assume, for the moment, an imaginary curriculum that places ‘authenticity’ after ‘understanding the other’s point’, and that you’ve completed the latter.  Then, before a business meeting with a potential new contact, you might get a message to “‘say what you mean, mean what you say, without being mean‘, after you ensure you’ve heard them”  that comes in right before the meeting.  After the meeting you might be connected to a coach/mentor, to see how it went.

Later that same day, you’ve got a review meeting with one of your reports, and as your coaching curriculum’s next topic is “focus on behavior, not person”, you get not only a relevant message beforehand, but a customized job aid to take with you (filled out with the individual’s last details and your particular area to work on), and a self-evaluation form afterward.

Which is not to say you don’t also have the opportunity to request particular information beforehand, so there might be a custom ‘pull’ portal available to you with things you’re likely to need (in addition to the general search tools you already have).  A smart system might recognize that it’s been too long since some knowledge has been applied, and choose to send you some challenge to keep the knowledge active, at least until it’s part of your internalized repertoire.

Why is this of interest?  It’s about developing people over time, in the ways they want (an individual should could choose their goals, though there could be ones also negotiated with an employer).  It’s about taking advantage of your life’s occurences, not removing oneself from it to learn.  It’s being contextualized sensitive to not only where you are, but ‘when’ you are.  It’s about being opportunistic, effective, and efficient, rather than intrusive, effortful, and minimally effective.  Which is not to say that there might not be more concerted chunks, particularly at the beginning, or at major inflection points, but it’s the optimal blend – an information model, not an industrial model.

We’ve got the capability (Clarke’s “any truly advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”), but we need the will and the resources.  Anyone game?


  1. Clark, thanks for the citation. If people want to read my research-to-practice report on the spacing effect, it’s available at http://www.work-learning.com/catalog/. So they can find it, the title is “Spacing Learning Over Time….

    I agree with your “learning in the flow” ideas, and think e-technologies are perfect for such utilization. I see a large under-utilization of the spacing effect (probably because most of us still don’t really know learning that well) even though it is one of the most thoroughly documented findings in the learning research, so I doubt most developers are ready to develop such supports, but there may be some movement in the performance support area.

    One thing that I want to emphasize is that we may not need a technology-enable solution. If we only got our learners’ managers to understand (1) how to support formal learning initiatives, and (2) how to enable workplace learning, we could make a major improvement in learning-to-performance outcomes.

    Comment by Will Thalheimer — 22 August 2008 @ 7:15 AM

  2. very interesting concept, so storing classes in the cloud and granting individuals access for either career or personal development

    Comment by Howard Wu — 22 August 2008 @ 10:13 AM

  3. Will, thanks for the pointer. Agree that even without the cloud computing, we could do better at leveraging the spacing effect. Thought the learning follow-on systems you touted were hopefully the first sign. I talk about it, but get little traction. Sigh.

    Howard, it’s more than just storing the classes in the cloud, but smaller course chunks and using semantics and intelligence (see mass customization) to be more flexible & opportunistic about delivering them. Which may have been what you meant… The notion is more light layers on top of your experience instead of heavy chunks away from your experience.

    Comment by Clark — 22 August 2008 @ 10:33 AM

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