Now 20 years old, Online Educa Berlin (OEB) brings together the corporate and academic worlds, along with representatives from the public sector, to explore the latest developments in online learning. This year – on 4th December – I made my debut as an OEB speaker – arguing, amid evidence of continuing change in the world of online learning, that learning isn’t changing.


Basically, people will always need to learn things – and they will always need other people to teach them, to ‘engage’ them and to motivate them to learn.


Once upon a time, people only had those who were around them to teach them these things. But, once writing was invented – followed, shortly afterwards, by reading – people could learn from others who were remote from them, in geography, culture and class. However, access to the source of that learning was limited, not least by the availability of money and opportunity.


The advent of the web – only some 20 years ago – has widened the access to learning materials still further but, in so doing, it’s raised some key issues for learning and development professionals. For example:

  • What’s the difference between ‘learning’ and ‘performance support’ – and what implications does this have for online learning materials?
  • How do you build learning materials that are engaging and motivating for learners whom you’ll never know?
  • How – or even why – should you seek to guide learners in their informal learning activities? and so on.


Nonetheless, the basics about learning and imparting learning haven’t ever changed. It’s just that, through the application of technology, we’re now able to use more ways to impart that learning.


It’s rather like living on a planet whose climatic conditions are changing. The basic laws of physics still apply but we need to adapt to new conditions. Like the basic laws of physics, we know the rules about learning; about how best to teach people, and about how – and why – people learn best. We’ve got the wisdom, and the examples, of the giants of the education profession over the last 2,500 years to delve into – from Socrates to contemporary educationalists.

It’s like living on a planet whose climatic conditions are changing.



To use a simile first employed by Bernard of Chartres in the 12th century and most famously used by the British scientist, Sir Isaac Newton, in a letter he wrote in 1676, we’re like dwarfs perched on the shoulders of giants. The idea is that we can see more and further than our predecessors could – not because we have keener vision or greater height, but because we’re borne aloft on their gigantic stature and can build on their pioneering work.


But perhaps we should consider an alternative view – from the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche. In ‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra’ (which Nietzsche published in 1882), Zarathustra climbs to great heights with a dwarf on his shoulders to show him his greatest thought but the dwarf – a metaphor for the academic scholar – fails to understand the profundity of the vision. In ‘Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks’ (written in 1873), Nietzsche takes up an idea he got from Schopenhauer’s ‘Der handschriftliche Nachlass’ that any progress can only come from those rare giants among men, ‘each giant calling to his brother through the desolate intervals of time’.


There may be something in Nietzsche’s view because we’re still not sure how to make the most effective use of the resources we have – the delivery technologies, the content management and learning management systems, as well as the learning content itself. And, while it’s marvellous that technology is advancing, this continued advancement seems to raise still more questions for us.


So, if we’re standing on the shoulders of giants, we appear to be doing so while looking at an extremely foggy landscape. And, since we don’t have ‘20/20 foresight’, our danger is – as they say of the military – that we spend all our time training to fight the last war rather than training to win the next war.


To help us – as we stand on the shoulders of the giants of education and training, straining to see some shapes of the future amid the swirling fog – maybe we can dimly discern some current trends and extrapolate them.


A report, called ‘A Review of the e-learning markets of the UK, EU and China 2014’ and published a few months ago by the UK-based market analyst, Learning Light, sets out the size and state of the online learning technologies markets in 20 European countries, including the UK. It also examines the Chinese market for online learning technologies.


The trends that the report identifies include that, becoming ‘mainstream’ within learning and development are:

  • Gamification – including serious games
  • Multi-device learning – that’s mobile learning, responsive web design and learning apps, as well as HTML5
  • ‘Bring your own device’ (BYOD)
  • Virtual classrooms
  • Cloud-based learning
  • Learning content management systems (LCMS), such as those offered by Xyleme and eXact learning solutions
  • Social learning and curation


The Learning Light Report suggests watching out for the growth of:

  • Adaptive learning platforms
  • Learning-as-a-Service (LaaS)
  • Increasingly smart assessment
  • Reconfigurable learning via reusable and interchangeable ‘gadgets’
  • ‘Build your own content’ (BYOC)
  • Massive open online courses (MOOCs) and vocational open online courses (VOOCs)
  • Analytics and learning record stores (LRS)
  • The increasing influence of ‘big data’ and
  • Tin Can Experience API (xAPI)


From this, we can say that what is changing in the learning world is not learning per se but delivery technologies – and also the relative importance in the overall learning delivery mix of this growing range of learning delivery technologies. Learning isn’t changing – but the need and the opportunities for that learning are expanding.


It would be nice to hope that this technology could make accepted subject matter experts more accessible to any learner, anywhere in the world. That way, learners could get access to top quality learning – in a reversal of the way that, today, only privileged learners can study with the world’s best, for example, at the world’s top universities. However, human beings being human, I suspect that, as technology makes these experts more accessible, other factors – such as money or time availability – will come into play to maintain some form of established intellectual elite.


These are some of the challenges for today’s learning and development professional. Thankfully, we can stand on the shoulders of giants – but our greatest test is to be able to see clearly into even the middle distance amid the swirling fog that surrounds us.