Occasionally I try to look at the broader swings we see (in a variety of things). In learning technology, there’s been a gross pendulum swing, and maybe smaller ones. I think we’ve swung between craft and commercial approaches to design, and I’m hoping we’re on a return swing.
When we first started playing with learning technology, every approach was pretty much hand-crafted. We didn’t have specific tools for learning outcomes, and we had to apply generic tools like computer systems and the like. Early approaches like Plato were custom crafted, and the individual applications on top of that. And a small industry was built upon this basis to build solutions at scale, but the market never emerged. The whole solution was too costly, despite the power.
The PC revolution initially meant individuals or small teams built solutions. There did emerge authoring systems (e.g. Pilot) and even a meta-language for developing human-computer learning interactions. However, the usage was small. People handbuilt things like games (e.g. Robot Odyssey and SnooperTroops), though a few companies arose to do this systematically.
As technology changed, so to did the platforms. Video discs and Computer- and then Web-Based Training emerged. Companies emerged to do them at scale, but things were changing rather fast. Flash came about as a web-based lingua franca, where programs could run in most browsers with a plug in. And, specifically for learning, Authorware became a powerful tool.
Still as things changed quickly, most solutions were driven by a real need, and hand-crafting was the norm. But, of course, this changed.
With the horrors of 9/11, travel went from an increasingly affordable luxury to undesirable. The demand came for ‘elearning’, reducing costs from travel and overhead. With it came tools that made it easy to take content, add a quiz, and pop it up on a screen. A shift came from quality to quantity.
And this has continued in many guises. The difference, I hope, is that the pendulum is swinging back. The signs I see are an increase in interest in learning science. Several contributions may come from the Guild’s DemoFest, Julie Dirksen’s Design for How People Learn, Will Thalheimer’s Debunker Club, and the Serious eLearning Manifesto. We’re learning more about good design, and more people are picking up on it. We’re talking learning experience design, integrating learning science with engagement.
If you look at other industries like automobiles, we went from craft to commercial (c.f. assembly line manufacturing). While we’re unlikely to go back to fully crafted, owing to safety regulations, we’re seeing more options for establishing individual representation. And in furniture and clothing we’re seeing more craft.
The quality is important, and if we swing back to craft now, maybe when we swing back we’ll be commercial reflecting learning quality, not expediency. In some sense it doesn’t matter between craft and commercial, as long as it’s good. And hopefully that becomes a defining characteristic of our industry. Fingers crossed!