Strange New Worlds of Learning

Introduction: “To explore strange new worlds…”

The past decades, and particularly the past decade, have seen a rapid development of science, technology, the economy, and society. This has dramatically changed the way we live our lives and interact with technology, and with each other, and with how pieces of technology interact with each other. These developments have generated a lot of instability, but also provide a lot of potential opportunities for those of us with expertise in structuring content for learning. Whereas personal computers were a rare luxury 40 years ago, and only really started to become a normal household item perhaps 25 years ago, most people today have several computers, and spend almost every waking minute within the orbit of some interactive computer. Every waking moment is potentially an opportunity for learning. It is a golden age of opportunity for learning professionals. The challenge is to recognize and seize it.

The learning community has embraced this to some extent in recognizing the need to build materials for mLearning on phones and tablets. Unfortunately, this is too often done superficially. Rather than designing from the start to take advantage of the unique affordances of mobile devices, it becomes a matter of “export to HTML 5” and “put it on the iPad.” But, looking on the bright side, at least there is that early recognition. Authoring tool developers have embraced the philosophy of responsive web design that adapts layout and presentation to different screen sizes and resolutions. That’s good, but only scratches the surface. We know from mobile games and virtual assistant technology like Siri/Google Now/Cortana that mobile devices go beyond simply having touch input and different screen sizes. There is speech recognition, there are accelerometer and gyroscope inputs, GPS and location awareness APIs. I haven’t seen learning applications begin to tap these capabilities. We really need to look at mobile and console gaming for lessons about the cutting edge of exciting interactivity.

Part of the problem has been the previous restrictiveness of LMSes and SCORM to be able to track learning activity. You had to log into an LMS account and take some rigidly structured eLearning piece through an LMS player in a browser if you wanted to keep track of the learning. The next generation of technology, Tin Can API / eXperience API is supposed to open this up substantially, at least according to the hype, allowing us to track pieces of learning of different types taken through different platforms in different places.  This ties in well, potentially, to ideas of informal and just-in-time learning.

Looking forward, five years down the road, ten years down the road, our challenge becomes even more daunting. We need, as learning professionals, to expand our perspectives beyond this to look at a broader set of environments. We need to recognize the full spectrum of how we interact with computers today, and how we will in the years to come. We need to fully embrace our philosophies of learning and training through continuous professional development, learning while doing, informal learning, mobile learning, and continuous learning.

This should be motivated both by our inherent desire to find new ways to teach and train people, but also by motives of professional self-preservation. A move toward more informal modes of learning, ready, ubiquitous access to quality cameras and editing software, and the availability of relatively affordable rapid authoring tools and screen capture tools make it more plausible for subject matter experts to “cut out the middle man” and build “good enough” training materials on their own. In such an environment, in many cases only minimal coaching on eLearning design principles from Instructional Designers would be needed. If we want to maintain a market for our skills, we need to be adaptive to changing realities by casting a broader net. We may also need to recall the lessons of our university studies in Human Performance Technology, and broaden our focus from training and learning to a more general approach of performance improvement and support. Giving people knowledge, skills, and support to live happier, fitter, more productive lives.

A few different areas are potential spaces to target. Some of these areas I’ve talked about before, while others I plan to break out later in separate articles. Note that these technologies are still in early stages, and may not yet be feasible as platforms for learning. But the world of technology moves increasingly quickly, and we need to look ahead and be ready if we are to seize opportunities and stay relevant.

I will speak here about three different directions:

  1. Augmented Reality and Wearables
  2. Smart TVs, gaming consoles, and the connected home
  3. In-Car Information and Entertainment Systems

Augmented Reality and Wearables

One area that looks ready to grow over the next few years is the area of augmented reality and wearable computing.

Augmented reality is a technology in which displays are aware of location, orientation in space, surroundings, and other contextual information, and use this information to display relavant details on top of the field of view. Google Glass is an example of an early effort in this area. The term is derived from the term virtual reality, with the “augmented” part getting at the idea that instead of replacing your view of reality, it adds (hopefully) relevant information on top so that you can navigate the real world but with computer aided supplementation. I talk more about the possibilities of augmented reality elsewhere.

Wearable computers are devices with sensors and input/output devices that people can wear. Two directions manufacturers are going in are watches and wristbands. Some examples are:

The beauty of wearable computers is that they go with the person everywhere, are always accessible at a glance, and are in contact with the person’s body. The devices have screens to display information, run apps, measure heartrate, in some cases take voice inputs. They can also connect to smartphones and other computers to transmit collected data and receive communication like email and other messages and receive notifications.

These could be and are being linked into fitness and health-related training, collecting information on distance travelled, heart rate over time, elevation over time, and other data, and sending that information to a data analysis program on another computer to summarize and organize the data. Notifications would also be useful for health related applications, helping give reminders on therapeutic activities or on when to take medications. Devices with a touchscreen display could also conceivably engage seniors periodically in little mental exercises to test and promote cognitive sharpness.

Conceivably, such devices could also be used for language learning and support. Something on the wrist that could respond to voice queries, perhaps through twinning to smartphone virtual assistant software, could be helpful in “live” real world situations where someone is practicing a second language.

They could also be an effective platform for performance support in a range of situations to give useful prompts. Something that is right there on your wrist is handier than a phone that needs to be taken out of the pocket. Particularly if you’re looking for support while your hands are busy.

Smart TVs, Gaming Consoles, and the Connected Home

The home also becomes a space where tech platforms will potentially be able to support seamless learning and/or performance support.

One place is on the TV, whether via smart TVs or latest generation gaming systems connected to the television. I have talked about this at some length already, particularly in respect to the Xbox One and Kinect. Again, Apple and Google are also trying to get into this space with Apple TV and Android TV.

Another type of platform that could be leveraged for learning and performance support applications is the connected home. This is related to the idea of the Internet of Things, and is about various intelligent appliances and sensors in the home linked together on a local home network, and possibly connected as well (with proper security safeguards) to the larger internet.

This is an area that is still pretty primitive, outside perhaps the sci-fi homes of tech millionaires and billionaires and certain early gimicks like internet connected thermostats. The security and interoperability challenges alone are daunting. But the vision is compelling, and it’s inevitable probably that some systems along these lines will be developed in the coming decade.

In a connected home, devices are spatially and contextually aware, always announcing their presence, always open to communications with people or other devices, and a person or multiple people is almost always relatively near. Smart software could theoretically interface between you and the embedded components, but could also manage the environment for you behind the scenes .

These could potentially be great platforms on which to deliver or facilitate learning and performance support in creative and fun ways.

The idea would be for software running on the system to keep track of you and your family and to find moments in the thick of life for you to learn and better yourself.

For example, to aid in such things as cooking and organizing an interesting meal plan for your home given your inventory, nutritional and diet goals, budget, and time/equipment available. To suggest new ingredients or new recipes using ingredients you already use a lot.

To monitor your patterns of sleeping, bring patterns of concern to your attention, and help to support you in establishing better patterns.

Or to teach people and support them in exercising and fitness. Tracking estimated calories burned, distance run/walked/biked/swum, times, and perhaps linking that into nutritional data collected. Also, providing virtual coaching assistance, suggesting new workouts and providing targetted encouragement based on psychological principles of motivation (both in terms of initiating behavior and promoting persistance).

Or to support learning and playing with the kids. For example, I can envision a future where school boards embrace technology, storing gradebook data online, with results tagged by key competencies. Home-based computer tutoring systems running on a home entertainment console in the living room connect into that via parent login credentials entered by the parent in some authentication process. The system picks up on downward trends in student performance, or troubles on some competency, if the school’s gradebook system does not. The system can then identify the children that are watching entertainment or playing games in the living room or on a computer connected into the same home wifi network and intersperse the entertainment with e-tutoring content targetting areas of current difficulty. Such software could do this for you while the parents are busy getting dinner ready. Simulataneously, the system is walking Dad through that new Thai recipe it suggested via a computer monitor / TV screen in the kitchen.

For supporting families in managing finances and suggesting ways to optimize to save money.

It will be interesting to see to what extent the work companies like Microsoft, Google, and Apple are doing with virtual assistant software (Cortana, Google Now, Siri) could be embedded in these connected home systems as a front-end interface.

Find ways to get your data and learning services connected into that experience. A mix of education and entertainment, but without mixing the two up. Make it fun and exciting, but keep to the realm of the true.


In-Car Information and Entertainment systems

Cars are being put out with increasingly sophisticated information and entertainment systems that serve purposes of safety, navigation, and entertainment. It’s not unusual for people to spend 10 hours or more in their car every week. This is a sizeable amount of time that could be leveraged for learning. People already traditionally engage in light learning activities; they listen to CBC/BBC/NPR/Sirius, they listen to audio books or TED talks, whether on a CD or from a connected smart phone. But more could be done by linking deeply into and running on top of in car systems.

Apple is trying to get into this space with CarPlay, which basically allows certain properly programmed iOS apps to have in car functionality through the in car entertainment system.  (Apple is coordinating with car manufacturers on this) Google is also doing work on extending Android to interface with in car systems.

Or, as a funny example, there was an episode of Big Bang Theory where Sheldon reprogrammed Leonard’s GPS to play Sheldon’s personal narrated sightseeing notes at key points along a route. This was a gag about Sheldon’s neuroses, but an imaginative designer could probably think of some legitimate applications along these lines. For example, a rented car in Europe could bring up historical information about landmarks and towns.

More immersive and interactive learning materials could be developed for in car learning for children, as a way to get homework out of the way on the way home from school, or to pass the time on long road trips.

How far you can take this for adults is limited currently by the fact that the driver should not be distracted from the key task of driving. But the possibilities of the car as a moving information and entertainment system will become more plausible as autonomous car technology continues to evolve.


A lot of this technology is either in the early stages or not quite ready for prime time. Nevertheless, looking at the trends, it seems clear that these are some of the major directions things are going in our ever-evolving and ever more intertwined relationship with computers. Further, the best results will come when the solutions in these different directions can interlink with each other, sharing information, so that the wearable systems talk to in-car systems talk to connected home systems.

But one step at a time. There is a lot of work to do.

To the strange and wonderful future that awaits us.

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