professional development

I am often asked: “So, how are you different?” For a long time, I didn’t find that question easy to answer. There are, of course, many online learning platforms out there, each offering different courses. But from the outside it is difficult to tell them apart. So my answer would usually evolve into a short briefing on the education technology market, which, to be honest, few people care to hear. Today, my response to that question is simple: “We focus on what we call greyscale learning.”

This means that our effective instructional design places a strong emphasis on topics where there is no simple right or wrong answer. Learning on iversity is not about reproducing the “correct” response. It’s not about 0 or 1, yes or no. It’s about the many shades of grey in between. It’s about the “I would do it like this, because…” and “I would do it like that, because…”. Our courses are designed to create an open and explorative social learning environment. A safe space for people to come together in order to negotiate truth, stating not just their position, but also the facts and arguments that let them arrive at a particular conclusion.

Greyscale learning: The spectrum of learning features many shades of grey

What does this mean in practice? Our courses go beyond teaching you the basics. We want you to learn more than what you need to learn in order to be able to answer multiple-choice questions (although you may well encounter them as part of a course). Greyscale learning makes you look at an issue from multiple perspectives. It makes you realise that there is not just one correct solution. There may be an almost infinite number of solutions. And whether or not something is “correct” very often depends on the context. It’s about collectively contemplating the true meaning of “doing the right things, right.”

What Professional Learning Can Learn From the Humanities

To people who studied humanities or certain social sciences, all of this will not only seem familiar, but in fact appears to be the essence of teaching and learning in higher education. Now, I would like to argue (and have done so before in a publication on the university in the 21st century) that this approach to learning applies not only to theoretical learning in the humanities. I am convinced that it also lies at the core of eminently practical professional learning. Take programming education as an example. To many people, this seems about as far removed as can be imagined from the discursive uncertainty of a seminar in the humanities. But, beyond the basics, the two have more in common than one may think.

Greyscale Learning: Reality Comes in Many Shades of Grey

Of course, it is important to learn basic syntax. And as far as this is concerned, there clearly are answers that are either right or wrong. But as you move into architecture or usability, the picture becomes a lot more blurry. Do you want to optimise for security, ease of use, or speed? Different priorities lead to different setups, which will yield different results. As soon as you face trade-offs between different priorities, an optimal solution will often not exist. People will argue about the ideal solution. They will argue one way or another, citing certain specifics of the case or problem to solve. Suddenly, context matters, and it becomes clear that there will not be one correct answer, but many alternative solutions – each with its own merits and shortcomings.

What this example illustrates is that even for a discipline that is quintessentially all about 1s and 0s, unambiguous clarity soon yields to messy complexity as we move from theoretical basics to practical application. This is not just one odd case. It is true of all domains of knowledge.

Ultimately succeeding in business is not about solving theoretical exercises, but about finding workable solutions to complex practical problems. Therefore, I believe that greyscale learning – which does not stop at the former, but focuses on the latter –  is the future of professional education.

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Today I want to take a closer look at the mode of instruction in traditional professional development and compare it to effective online learning and blended formats. Elearning was all too often seen as a cheap alternative to classroom instruction. The in-person seminar is supposedly the gold standard of teaching and learning. However, there is little evidence to justify this view. Given all the innovation we are seeing in information and communication technology as well as the many advantages flexible online learning has to offer, I would like to argue that it is simply implausible to assume that this age old format cannot be eclipsed. We are only beginning to glimpse the power of flexible online learning that makes use of new opportunities, blending them with established formats where appropriate.

Flexible Online Learning defined: Traditional Professional Development vs. Effective Professional Development

The most common mode of instruction in traditional professional development was the block seminar. Ten to twenty people in a room with one or two instructors for a day or two. While there may be some preparatory reading, almost all of the learning had to take place in this short period of time. Learners had little time to digest the input, reflect on it, or discuss it with each other. Learning was synchronous. Everyone had to come at the same time to the same place: the classroom.

The Case for Flexible Online Learning

Flexible online learning, on the other hand, allows for a much more effective professional development experience. Learners work through online material at their own pace. Whenever there is room in their calendar and no matter where they are. Courses consist of a great variety of different learning formats in the form of assignments and multimedia content  (video, text, etc). This form of learning follows that recommendations of neuroscientific research on learning. Because it gives learners plenty of time to digest, engage with each other, practice, or do their own research. This is not to say that coming together in a group cannot serve as a powerful tool for learning. But we should see it as just that: a tool in the toolbox rather than the be all and end all of teaching and learning.

Given all the advantages of flexible online learning and the logical implausibility of the assumption that there is no room for improvement, I strongly believe that the burden of proof lies with those who seek to maintain the status quo. For everyone else, experimenting with new formats is the order of the day. Life punishes those who delay. Make sure you and your organisation do not find yourselves on the wrong side of history.

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