Selling courses is great, but leading learning is a much bigger opportunity.
On this blog and throughout most of Leading the Learning Revolution, I focus on practical strategies and tactics that will help anyone with expertise, or access to expertise, develop grow a successful learning business.
But I believe the opportunity is much larger than simply delivering educational experiences in the traditional sense.
As I note often, we live in a world where knowledge evolves at a faster pace than ever and where an ability to learn continually and rapidly is one of the most valuable skills individuals and organizations can possess. In this context, organizations or individuals that are able to point the way, to help others make sense and excel in their chosen fields and interests, play a unique and highly valuable role.
In short, those who are able to lead learning will lead their chosen field, industry, or area of knowledge.
From Catalog to Platform
One of the shifts in thinking at the core of the Learning Revolution is from focusing on single products or experiences confined to particular time span to thinking instead, about the way the needs of learners will evolve over a career or lifetime and how you may be able to support a range of needs across a long span of time. This kind of thinking leads naturally to an emphasis on context and community and it also encourages thinking of your education business holistically as a platform for connecting and engaging with learners over time.
While a platform may provide access to all of the standard classes, courses, and other types of content that have traditionally been the focus of education businesses, it is fundamentally different at its core. I like the way John Janstch, author of Duct Tape Marketing and founder of the very popular blog and podcast series with the same name, describes platform thinking. “The notion,” Janstch says,
is that your business can be so much more than a group of products and services. Truly great businesses are now viewed not only as a group of products and services, but also as a place where people can go to work to build things they are passionate about.
You can’t make people “go to work” in this way any more than you can make them learn. They have to be intrinsically motivated. What you provide is the context and the community where this motivation can blossom. (Here is some of Jantsch’s more recent thinking on platforms.)
And – critically, I think – you provide a sense of vision for what is possible and the path to achieving it.
While I write a lot about different learning technologies, I hope it is clear that in using the term “platform” I do not mean a technology platform. Technology is an enabler – a very powerful one – for individuals and organizations that want to create a platform. It provides a tool set for making platform thinking real. But as anyone with a low-traffic Web site, unused discussion forum, or paltry list of Twitter followers knows, technology does nothing other than open the doors. You have to fill the seats.
A better point of reference might be a political platform. Political platforms succeed or fail based on the strength of their vision and how well they tap into the intrinsic motivations of their adherents. They encompass a variety of different content and experiences, from banners and slogans, to position papers, to rallies. They offer a channel for a shared vision and goals, but the best ones (which, admittedly, are hard to find these days!) also take a “big tent” approach that allows for a significant amount of diversity and even disagreement among participants.
At the same time, political platforms cannot be without substance, any more than a learning community can be without substance, or they ultimately flounder. Leaders provide some of the substance, but more importantly, they elicit contributions from others.
Shifting Power to Learners
Just as political platforms are often about bringing more “power to the people,” learning platforms should support learners in being as successful with their learning as possible. This is not as simple, however, as giving people access to content and tools to collaborate and communicate among themselves. There is ample reason to believe that many of us – perhaps most of us – need some help in becoming the learners we are capable of being. This, in my opinion, is an opportunity for leadership.
Malcolm Knowles, widely regarded as the leading thinker in the world of adult education, touched on this problem in the later editions of his seminal work, The Adult Learner. Knowles first introduced his concept of andragogy in 1970, but it was not until 1995  – two years before he died – that he and his collaborators added the step of “preparing the learner” to his andragogical process. This was largely a response to issues he saw with “self-concept.” Here’s a relevant passage from the discussion of self-concept in The Adult Learner:
The minute adults walk into an activity labeled “education,” or “training,” or anything synonymous, they hark back to their conditioning in previous school experience, put on their dunce hats of dependency, fold their arms, sit back, and say “teach me.” This assumption of required dependency and the facilitator’s subsequent treatment of adult students as children creates a conflict within them between their intellectual model – learner equals dependent – and the deeper, perhaps subconscious, psychological need to be self-directing. And the typical method of dealing with psychological conflict is to try to flee from the situation causing it, which probably accounts in part for the high dropout rate in much voluntary adult education. 
The bottom line is that, while there are many exciting ways to create more interactive and participatory learning than is often encountered in, say, your average conference session or continuing education seminar, there is ample reason to believe that most of us are not particularly well prepared to engage in and benefit from such learning.
To a very large extent – as The Adult Learner suggests – this is a vestige of K-12 education systems based largely on passive learning experiences. In the United States, it can also, no doubt, be attributed to what Dr. Monisha Pasupathi, associate professor in developmental psychology at the University of Utah, referenced in my interview with her for Leading the Learning Revolution as the “anti-intellectual tradition” in American culture. I see a number of implications in this situation and a corresponding number of opportunities for learning leaders:
- Learning providers can’t assume “self-directedness” on the part of their learners. While there is a good chance the core group of highly motivated learners within any market will be self-directed, the broader audience may need some guidance in how to take advantage of self-directed learning. Moreover, even learners who are already highly self-directed most likely need instruction on effective learning strategies.
- If most adults are constrained by their pedagogical baggage, then it is hardly likely that they will be able to tell you or your organization what a great learning experience looks like. In other words, asking if they will like “X” or “Y” type of experiences is not likely to be all that helpful – and it may, in fact, keep you from pursuing the best strategies. Learning providers must be prepared to take some risks, make some leaps, to lead their learners to new and better places. This sort of thinking, of course, is at the heart of the experimentation and learning approaches that I advocate throughout Leading the Learning Revolution.
- The two previous points not withstanding, learning providers must recognize that there are many individuals who are self-directed and intrinsically motivated and who essentially bring their own problem-solving and task-oriented processes to each learning experience. For these learners, content-centered learning experiences may often be preferable to collaborative or community-oriented learning experiences. Similarly, traditional lecture-type experiences and reading remain essential for sharing foundational knowledge with novice learners. The varying level of prior knowledge and learning skills among learners is yet another reason why providing options along your value ramp is so important.
Finally, it seems likely that the problematic side of “self-concept” is diminished if you remove the obvious, traditional labels like “seminar” or “Webinar.” It’s telling that many of the successful initiatives I highlight in Leading the Learning Revolution – The A-list Blogger Club or the massive multi-player games from the Institute for the Future, for example – do not label themselves as traditional educational activities.
A lack of such labels is also a key reason why social networks are often so powerful as learning environments – people tend not to consciously acknowledge them as such even though learning is typically the key social object in any professional community that survives and thrives over time. Educators must recognize this and learn to facilitate learning within networks if they want to truly lead learning in their fields and industries.
Return on Shift
Empowering learners is core to the idea of leading learning because of the tremendous value potential it represents. In “The Amazing Era of Self-Service Learning,” Patricia McLagan argues that there is a significant opportunity in supporting learners with their self-managed learning activities. “If we could help learners manage their learning,” McLagan writes,
I speculate that there would be as much as a 500 percent increase in benefits due to clearer intentions, selection of better resources, better information processing and concentration, more focused learning, greater learning transfer, and ultimately better results. Also, the more we know about that learner-led dynamic, the better we can support it both as learning professionals and informal helpers.
“500 percent” is bold speculation, but I’m on board with it – and I think this line of reasoning applies at least as much to the continuing education and professional development market as it does to corporate training. McLagan notes that:
There are important areas where self-managed learning breaks down. People have trouble, for example, clarifying what they want to learn. They don’t always use the best resources. Their information-processing skills can be improved. They don’t really know what the process is to develop a new skill or to rise above an outmoded attitude, belief, or value. People run into plateaus and obstacles and get discouraged or quit. They don’t always use third-party help in the best possible way. And learners don’t declare victory when they have achieved a learning goal; rather, they blur one learning project into another as one learning project fades and others begin.
These are areas where it is well within the reach of the average learning provider to give support, and clues to that support are contained in the passage quoted. It’s not too difficult, for example, to imagine your average trade or professional association (or even an individual edupreneur) kicking off each new year with a series of articles, Webinars, videos, or (preferably) some combination of these things dedicated to:
- How to clarify your personal learning goals for the year
- How to find and make use of key resources available from your association
- Effective processes for developing new skills and habits
- Effectively tapping the knowledge and skills of your peers
- Overcoming obstacles and celebrating your learning victories
- Implementing and sustaining new skills and knowledge
Similar issues could be included in an orientation package the first time a learner purchases a course or seminar, or upon registration for a learning community site. While I mainly have informal and self-managed learning in mind, I could also see addressing the topics above in the opening session at a conference or other learning event. Such an event might then wrap up with a well-facilitated session in which attendees review and reflect upon both their formal and informal learning at the conference.
The bottom line is that there is significant value to be generated through better equipping adult learners to learn. For learning providers, actively supporting this process can lead to higher value, longer-term relationships with customers and members.
Leading Learning, Leading Change
A great deal can happen when long-term, high value relationships are forged among a group of people.
At its core, learning is a process of change – change in knowledge, in skills, in behavior, in attitudes. A learning platform – in the sense that I’m using the word “platform” – can become a cauldron of change over time, a place where new knowledge, skills, behaviors, and attitudes extend beyond the individual to create change that impacts an entire group or community.
Learning providers who create platforms become change agents and put themselves in a position to lead change. In essence, this is social learning in its most powerful form. As an article in Ecology and Society puts it, social learning of this type:
- occurs through social interactions and processes between actors within a social network;
- facilitates change in the individuals involved;
- becomes situated within wide units or communities of practice.
While all social learning may not lead to the broader change suggested by the third bullet, the fact that it can has tremendous strategic implications for learning providers and the role they can potentially play in leading learning for their audiences.
A key implication, I believe, is that learning providers need to pull back and look at the full range of educational options they offer and consider the broader learning conversations to which they connect. Ask:
- Are the seminars, Webinars, and conferences, online courses and other learning experiences you offer isolated events, or do they tie tightly into a broader vision for how and where you might lead your members and customers?
- How do the less formal elements of your contact with audience – blog posts, posts on social networks, tweets – help to tie together the formal educational elements and contribute to an overall vision?
- Are you supporting our learners in taking full advantage of what the tools and opportunities of the new learning landscape offer?
- How, ultimately, are you having an impact?
In my experience, this is not how most of us in the business of lifelong learning think about our work. We need to, though. We’ve got a revolution to lead.
This post is adapted from Chapter 10 of Leading the Learning Revolution.