The rebirth of digital: Reflection, perspective and e-learning's new life

Have the rumours of digital learning's demise been exaggerated? Or is the form heading for a reckoning where its place within the learning blend needs to be radically rethought? Inspired by Laura Overton's recent blog entitled R.I.P Online Learning…?, Brightwave's new MD Jonathan Archibald asks: Is digital learning dead?

Since becoming MD at Brightwave, as you might expect, my day-to-day life has changed somewhat. The new perspective it's granted has been one of the most productive and fulfilling learning experiences of my adult life – the kind where every new situation you find yourself in forces you to learn, in real-time, to do things you've never done before.

Reading the comments on Laura's thoughtful and provocative (and just a little bit mischievous) LinkedIn blog was one of these experiences. It was surprising, or maybe even a little disheartening to me, to see that people had so many points of contention to bring up, so many criticisms and comments of the form.

These are people who I know and respect and who have, like me, put in the hours in the trenches designing and delivering digital learning solutions. They know whereof they speak, and they sound bitter and disappointed (though with their sense of humour still intact – you can always trust L&D people for that!). If I'm honest, the long litany of failures was tiring and a little bit difficult to read after a while.

Because honestly, that's not how I feel at all. OK, I know where some of it comes from: I get the jokes, I get the frustrations, I get the familiar stereotypes of projects that started out with such high hopes, but ended up compromised and unfulfilling. But just like anything else there is a spectrum of quality, and it can be frustrating to see the long tail being the focus rather than the numerous amazing examples of where digital learning has made a genuine difference.

Despite the provocative title, with new brands joining the industry and overall spend higher than ever, it's obvious that digital isn't dead. Laura's intent was to open up a space to think on what we would say about online learning if it were suddenly no longer around (and if the obituaries and tributes from its friends left alive would be honest and constructively critical, rather than use the positive and affirming tones people usually reserve for the really-dead!).

Laura's brave and timely exercise – part provocation, part wake-up call – is an indicator that all is not well. This combined with the testimonies and figures gathered in Towards Maturity's new report suggest a sectorial malaise. On average, only 17% of TM's respondents felt that L&D was a significant factor in influencing company culture; and 60% lack the skills to implement and manage e-learning – even though a whopping 90% of orgs are now using digital learning in some form.

Something here doesn't add up.

Maybe it's not the tech or the digital aspects which hold us back. After all, we have access to fantastic tools already. I don't think it is the dreaded LMS or SCORM's fault either – good things are possible. Perhaps then it is that the wide skills, knowledge and expertise needed to create something meaningful within the constraints are not growing fast enough. There are pockets of expertise but the reality is the skills (and the organisational narratives supporting their use) are not mature enough yet.

Maybe this discrepancy is what's making us feel like digital is wasting its potential? After all devising, designing and delivering digital learning solutions if not backed with the right environment, purpose and skills will feel unrewarding and thankless.

What can we do to help this? Bodies like the CIPD are working hard to develop systematic L&D qualifications (and winning awards along the way), but they can't carry that responsibility for the whole sector. Conscious, deliberate development of the skills and strategies will guarantee the sector's future and lock in the benefits it can offer to smart, value-focused and productive organisations.

In the spirit of Laura's post I would welcome suggestions from the whole community, anyone reading this post, for how best to develop the depth and breadth of perspectives required to bring the no-longer-deceased up to full health!

As a learning technologist I've always been optimistic about digital's incremental path. Learning is one of the most complex and difficult things that a human can do, and I'm proud of the way Brightwave has patiently put in the hard work to develop and deliver the tech and design techniques that speak to the way people learn today, tomorrow, and hopefully far farther ahead.

And I know – because I have seen the results – that digital learning does deliver when done right. If that wasn't true, then I wouldn't be here. Why would anyone be here, working in learning and development, working towards something they think is a dead-end?

Digital learning isn't dead. It's not even close. But that is not to say there isn't work to do. When things go wrong and the results are not up to what we should demand of ourselves, let's step back and try not to blame the medium, instead let's learn our own lessons and focus our energies where they can make the biggest difference.

And having been involved since not-too-long after its conception, I can guarantee that I will be around to ensure it meets its full potential. And I have a feeling that despite the many obituaries we have written, many of you will be there with me to see that too.