By Stefan Haenisch, head of Knowledge Transfer and Education at SAP.
Secret agent Frank Monahan’s new mission will take him under-cover as a mechanic on a car racing team. But how can he acquire the skills and years of experience of a race car mechanic with only hours to prepare? Easy: plug some wires to his head and upload the knowledge directly from a computer into his brain!
This learning SciFi idea originates from the 1979 spy movie “The Ultimate Impostor”, and was later copied in the famous “Matrix” movies where the hero is able to learn Kung Fu in seconds after the martial art is ‘uploaded’ straight to his brain. If such scenarios will ever become a reality is of course doubtful. However, it’s quite clear that by 2030 already learning will look quite different to how we know it today, and will play a different role in our professional lives and, for that matter, society overall.
Digital transformation and its revolutionary impact on changing job profiles and skill demands is a key driver for the changing role of learning, next to the habits and expectations of generations growing up with Google searches, ever-present smart phones, YouTube videos on any topic you can possibly imagine, social media platforms, WhatsApp and Snapchat communications (and whatever comes next) from the start.
Here are 7 predictions on how this will change the world of Learning Some of these transformational steps have started to become highly relevant already today, and will significantly accelerate over the years to come. Others are only at the very beginning but will play a strong role in shaping the future.
Prediction 1: Learning will emerge from ‘a phase in our life’ to a life-long theme
In the past, learning and education has been dominating a phase of our life preceding the working phase. First school, then college and/or a specific work-education education – say for instance: learn to be an accountant – then we had learned ‘enough’ and could start working all our professional lives in this one job. With the digital revolution, this is no longer the case. Jobs, working styles and respective skill needs will undergo constant change at increasing speed, and we will have to continuously learn, un-learn and re-learn to stay relevant. As machines learn to do more and more tasks, careers – and even jobs overall – will be exclusively centered around areas where human-only skills apply, and life-long learning becomes key to success. As Albert Einstein already said: ”once you stop learning you start dying”.
Prediction 2: More important than formal learning programs, on-demand and informal micro learning will become the main learning approach
There may still be some occasions in our life, where we will put dedicated time aside to learn new skills in a programmatic, academy-like fashion ahead of time, e.g. for initial on-boarding into a new job. However, the majority of learning activities will take place via small ‘nuggets’ of micro learning that we consume on demand. No matter if a child needs help with the latest math problem he didn’t understand at school, or if we want to know how a specific feature of our new camera drone works, or may need a sophisticated cooking skill to prepare a Michelin-star quality dish, we typically go to YouTube where sure enough we’ll find a short video that explains exactly what we need to know in just a few minutes, rather than going through documentation or formal learning programs. Or we may check blog posts in a social user community and benefit from the experiences of others. Already today, the majority of IT professionals admits to frequently use such learning for professional skill needs as well. And this is only going to increase.
Prediction 3: Learning itself becomes more and more digital
I know, this has been a long-standing discussion and some of you might be skeptical about which role digital learning will really play in the future. I keep on meeting people who are deeply convinced ‘if you want to learn something real, e-learning doesn’t cut it’, that there is no way around some sort of personal learning environment such as a classroom. Is that so? This belief is mostly driven out of an historic image of how e-learning looks like – that it might not be really engaging, not interactive, not modular enough, and that the promise of ‘you can learn anywhere, anytime’ often translates to ‘well, then I don’t need to do it today, maybe tomorrow, or whenever – or never’. But Digital Learning is much more than this image of e-learning, in fact ‘e-learning’ is probably the wrong term altogether. Successful digital learning requires blending together the same 4 components that we all naturally know are crucial for any traditional learning setting: A book, a teacher, the possibility to practice and a discipline-enforcing element such as a test or competition. What may sound a trivial no-brainer for a classroom setting, may not be so intuitively clear in the digital learning world: often the focus is purely on ‘the book’, i.e. providing the content in a digital format – namely the ‘e-learning’. This is exactly when ‘e-learning’ falls short, even if it’s done in an engaging fashion. To be effective the other 3 elements must blend in. You must be able to practice. In SAP we are proving hands-on practice to digital learners via live access to systems in the Cloud. You must have teaching elements that guide and motivate the learner as well. In the digital world this may translate into expert videos and live sessions. More often than not these are short nuggets explaining a small but tricky part of the content, rather than replicating a full ‘class’ and teaching the entire content from A to Z. Or guiding sessions to coach learners on their next step of self-study and to discuss their questions. Further crucially important elements include social learning forums. At SAP, we observed that complementing digital content by such digital teaching elements increases learner engagement up to a factor of 10! And last but not least, you need to ensure a high learner motivation and drive – in many cases even a certain extent of pressure – to keep them going. Next to traditional carrot-and-stick elements like assessments, certifications and hard milestones for certain task completions, gamification will continue to see fast growing adoption in digital learning.
If done right, digital learning can deliver at much higher speed and scale, and enable continuous learning in small nuggets to stay current with the ever-changing knowledge required. In SAP we apply these elements already successfully today for our digital learning offerings, and continuously evolve the approach. Whenever we need to educate our worldwide ecosystem on an innovation, we can reach tens of thousands of learners in record time with our openSAP massive open online course (MOOC) program. And more than 500,000 learners on SAP Learning Hub have immediate access to the latest learning, the second we put it out. So, yes: Digital learning will become the primary learning vehicle of the future, and will further expand not only to deliver spectacular learner experience, but also into areas like ‘crowd-sourcing’ knowledge from the broader eco-system.
While we see all of this becoming increasingly relevant already today, I expect it to become even much, much more powerful in the future. Technical advances like Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence are important enablers. Watch out for a lot of advancement in the years to come in the following areas:
Prediction 4: Super-intelligent mass-individualization of Learning will become standard
In managing consumers, ‘1:1 Marketing’ has already become the norm. Who still thinks that anonymous mass email campaigns promoting the same content to everyone will be successful? Instead every one of us gets super-individual suggestions considering factors like our latest web searches, social media activities etc. The smartness and relevance of these algorithms is quite stunning today already and will only become better and better. Even in manufacturing, managing in ‘lot sizes of one’ has become a mandatory requirement for many businesses, as every consumer wants their individual variant of the product. Only in learning we should believe that the same learning content on a topic fits to all learners alike? No way! Even when learning the same topic, every learner has different starting points and probably different learning goals and context. With the advance of Machine Learning, we will be able to create individual versions of the same ‘book’ for every learner, exactly tailored to their needs, in an automated fashion. And beyond help them manage their learning journey supported by pro-active, Amazon-like recommendations. All the sophistication we have come to know from Customer Relationship Management (CRM) approaches, will be applied to learning approaches as well. ‘1:1 Learner guidance’ or ‘Learner Relationship Management’ if you will.
Prediction 5: The user experience for Learning will become conversational – and will blend learning and doing together
If learning consumption becomes more and more on-demand, then why not put it right into the place where you do the task rather than into a separate learning world. In enterprise software for instance, it is already becoming a reality that from the app where you do a certain task it makes sense to directly jump into learning about this task if needed. We will see this coupling become increasingly smart in the future, and not the least, support a conversational user experience. Already today we can tell our car’s navigation system where to go to, and have more or less sophisticated ‘conversations’ in human language with Siri or Alexa. If such conversational capabilities will be connected in a smart way to the massive libraries of learning content, this will have tremendous potential for improving learning experience and efficiency. You simply ask the machine – a ‘Learning Bot’ – what you want to know – in human language – and the bot puts together a great explanation out of the myriads of content available, tailored exactly to your pre-knowledge and preferred learning style. Moreover, it won’t be only about you asking question, the bot might reach out to you and pro-actively inform you about new things you should learn. In SAP Learning Hub we are piloting a first prototype of such a learning bot today, and expect such scenarios to become extremely powerful in the future. Probably even to the point of such bots becoming ‘personal teachers’, who know their learner’s profile and habits precisely and can teach each one in the way most effective for the respective individual. At some point, Learning Management Solutions (LMS) as we know them today will go away as the primary user interface to the learner and will be replaced by human language chat and speech, potentially integrated directly in respective apps like WhatsApp (or whatever the post-post-post-successor of today’s WhatsApp will be popular in 2030…) rather than being a separate app.
Talking about human language: with the amazingly steep learning curve of machine translation we have seen lately, I also do predict that by 2030 all of the above will be available to the learner translated real-time into any language at perfect quality, so language barriers will have completely disappeared by then. We are running some prototypes of this in the openSAP program already today (Enterprise Machine Learning in a Nutshell), with results that raise high expectations for the future.
Prediction 6: Gaming features will enable the Learning technologies of tomorrow
A lot of learning technology advances are being spear-headed by the gaming industry. Be it in the areas of Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence, that are empowering large parts of the conversational and learning-individualization features previously discussed. Stunning graphical advancements that enable Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality possibilities are key as well. We have all seen flight simulators providing huge value to pilot training – probably one of the first and most widely known use cases for deploying Virtual Reality in a learning scenario. We will see such technology deployed across the board in learning wherever it makes sense. Not the least, computer games can often really get their player hooked, a capability that will become more and more interesting to increased stickiness of learning as well. Overall, if you are interested in what the most insane advancements may be to enable future learning technology, keep an eye on what’s happening in gaming.
Prediction 7: Some ethical questions will need to be resolved
A lot of this innovation is fueled by machines gathering more and more insight and intelligence on the learners. Naturally this will bring up questions around data privacy, legal regulations and overall ethics. Already today, depending on country and company, it might be problematic to track rather trivial information like an individual’s learning history. How problematic might it become if this extends to real intelligence about behaviors, preferences, skills and capability in a future where these will be the decisive factors for an individual’s success in life? On the other hand, the willingness of individuals has already to share information on social media has reached such tremendous levels, even more so in the younger generations, that I do believe at the end of the day people’s desire to benefit from machine and AI advancement is going to largely prevail over privacy concerns.
So will we be able to directly upload knowledge to the brain after all?
Last year, researchers from the California-based HRL Laboratories said they have found a way to amplify learning by feeding electric signals from the brain of an experienced airplane pilot into the brains of trainees. The trainees receiving the electric signal were able to learn piloting airplanes in a flight simulator 33 per cent better than a placebo group. We won’t see such technology playing serious a role in 2030, but sure enough the evolution / revolution of learning will become one of the most exciting topics over the next 15 years, and bring more innovation to learning than we have ever seen before.
As crazy and unrealistic as the Hollywood SciFi sounds, science in fact seems to be making progress here as well and by 2030 secret agent Frank Monahan’s digital enablement will be more powerful than ever imagined.