Saturday, May 06, 2023

Learning technologies 2023 - a tale of two events

Spent two solid days at Learning Technologies Conference in London, Europe’s largest organisational learning technology event. First up, a big thanks to Donald Taylor for inviting me to speak. He was everywhere, with his team, keeping the show on the road.We’re oft confused and that happened twice at this event. At the KoganPage bookstall someone asked me to sign my book but it was the other Donald! Mine had sold out, however, I gave her a spare copy. The other was a summarising video of the conference where my talk on ‘AI changing work and learning’ was captioned as a talk by Donald Taylor. He has solid, bona fide Scottish roots in the Glasgow shipyards, so it’s an honour to be connected by confusion!

Learning Technologies was great but I found it a Janus-faced event. One face was the inward looking exhibition, the other the outward facing Conference. 



A vast loud, noisy exhibition, with so many stand lights and hot air, it turned into a sweaty hell. I did the rounds. Same old, same old. It was like going back to Disneyland, all smiles and promises of fun times but reflecting an embalmed, vastly overpriced and vanishing world. It there any other industry that produces so much that is so disliked by so many? With a small number of exceptions, there was barely a mention of AI, except in that ‘we’re building it into our product’ sort of way, tinkering.


This giant ‘cheese’ factory was churning out courses, stored in LMSs, pouring out the same old scorn, sorry SCORM, data, that ends up as donuts on dashboards. Text - graphic – MCQ – all of the above - repeat. The whole junkyard has become a parody of itself, disengaged from real people and the real world, whose reaction to their latest Leadership, Diversity or Resilience course, is invariably an ‘eye-roll’. We evaluate nothing, which has resulted in the over-production of over-engineered and over-wrought, Disneyfied courses. It is a supply, not demand, industry, not listening to actual business needs, but imposing a therapeutic and moral nonsense. Next thing is they’ll be probing my unconsciousness – hold on…


There was much jaw jaw on skills, but so often that manifested itself in Leadership nonsense, DEI or faddish topics. This year’s thing is 'Resilience' yet another hopeless construct from L&D. An excuse for third rate courses, seeing employees as having yet another deficit or disease, of which they must be 'cured'. This therapeutic culture is relentlessly top-down and arrogant. Employees have this stuff force-fed to them, rather than using it autonomously, as they have been doing with Google, YouTube and social media for two decades.


This is a technology conference but the technology so often felt like something out of the early 2000s, that’s because it is something out of the Cambrian explosion of LMSs created in early 2000s, with content that has changed little in the last two decades. It lacks the smartness of contemporary tech – the AI, the data-driven approach, the dialogue of social media.

I'm being a little unfair, as this is the technology that was available, became embedded at the enterprise level, integrated with other software and was difficult to update. On content, however, there is less excuse.


Meanwhile, literally over the same two days, one edtech company had a half a billion wiped off its market cap, Pearson had a dead cat bounce, IBM has announced that ChatGPT would replace many of its HR staff and the world outside of Disneyland moved on, bypassing this supply pipe, reacting to real demand.



Over the corridor, by contrast, in the conference, AI was the BIG topic. It wasn’t that it was coming, it was already here, with hundreds of millions using it for work. Like some super popular performance support and productivity tool, it seems to have by-passed L&D and most of the vendors. The sisters and brothers are clearly doing it for themselves with AI.


There was passing reference to it in David Kelly’s talk, although the talk seemed quite basic, aimed at people new to old ideas like ‘personalisation’ and ‘performance support’. I was genuinely puzzled at the statement about not publishing their Devlearn US sessions online as it would not be equitable. At a Learning Technologies conference that seemed like a cop out.

The Red-something analyst, Dani, had her versions of the Fosway four-way grids, showing her pet companies, oddly absent were some of the European players than those on her slides. Her grasp of the AI phenomenon was thin as gruel. Not sure why we have US people who don’t really know the European market, telling us about our own turf. Fosway are miles better. I tried to suggest some names she had missed but she wasn't interested and fobbed me off. Real analysts, who work deep inside the investment community are way more knowledgeable than these ‘let’s send out some survey questions’ qualitative research houses.


I hugely enjoyed the ‘AI for Lifelong Learning’ talk, as Conrado Schlochauer was spot on in saying that adults don’t need all of these courses, as they want to be self-directed and that ChatGPT was the way to go. It was easily the best talk on Life Long Learning I've seen. Although it took a strange turn at the end with the claim that AI was making us illiterate fools, stuck in their echo-chambers. I find that argument unpalatable. The world is full of people in their own bubbles calling out others for being in bubbles. 


Talking of bubbles, I find major conference sessions such as ‘Women in Learning’ particularly inward looking. It is a technology conference, not a general L&D conference. I’m thinking about suggesting a ‘Poor People in Learning’ as a counter to the trend to spend all of the budget on Leadership and DEI training that deliberately excludes working class people. L&D seems to assume that everyone works at home or in an office, real practical skills have been underfunded or abandoned in the L&D world and we wonder why the world is falling apart.


What I found really heartening was the recognition among almost everyone I met that AI was a Big Bang thing, not just for L&D but for work and the entire species. The debates were intense and informed, Why? Everyone had used it and had their minds blown by it. They immediately saw its potency and potential. I gave a session that was packed to the guddles with people eager to hear what impact this is having on work and learning. That impact is already profound. I also presented to a large room full of students who were as smart as whips, asking all the right questions about AI. 


But what really mattered was the myriad of conversations I had in passing, in the pub and restaurants was exciting. A ton of conversations with old friends, and even more valuable lots of new friend made, too many to mention. I particularly loved the enthusiasm of youth, who really did seem a little tired of the old and genuinely wanted to ring in the new.

No comments: