Allison Rossett, a Guild Master and professor emerita of educational technology at San Diego State University, consults on learning and technology for corporations and government agencies. She’s also a prolific author and she keynotes and speaks at conferences all over the world, most recently at DevLearn. I recently spoke with Allison about the future of eLearning and the importance of both training and performance support. The interview has been edited for length and clarity; this is the first of two parts.

Guild Master Allison Rossett

Pamela S. Hogle: You told a different interviewer, about a year and a half ago, that the future of eLearning is in on-demand, personalization, and mobile; and that big systems, heavy LMSs, and MOOCs are losing favor. What is your answer today to the question of what the future of eLearning looks like and what’s on the way out?

Allison Rossett: I don’t think that I would change what I said. I still think that size matters; less is more.

It depends on your vantage point. If you’re the CEO or you’re the university president, or if you’re the chief learning officer, and if you are mainly about business case, numbers, money—sure, MOOCs make sense to you. One expert; many, many more students. That makes sense, from that perspective. But from a student experience, from an individual educational perspective, it’s ridiculous.

I believe that size matters, and we need to move toward “Less is more.” Which means:

  • Smaller morsels of learning
  • Easily accessible learning and reference materials
  • Apps that are small and usable
  • Complexity rendered in smaller parts

Quality comes from smaller assets targeted to individual needs, with obvious, strong links to strategic organizational goals.

We in workplace learning, we in technology-based learning—we care about instructional design and we care about employee experience, but I don’t know that we talk enough about our influence on organizational culture. I think we have to take more responsibility for culture; we must be culture vultures. What that means is, we need to get our arms around line leadership and the relationship with supervisors and managers. What we do [eLearning] is moving away from our buildings and our rooms to their workplaces, which makes line leadership and managers and supervisors even more critical than they were before, and they’ve always been critical.

We need to do more information sharing, more example sharing, more communities, more curation.

We have to capture best practices and make them available so people can use them.

We need more partnerships with the line, more partnerships beyond the walls, with universities and nonprofits.

We need more digital, more mobile.

We need to rely more on our associates to take responsibility for growing, finding, and adding to the rich resources available to them.

We need more self-directed learning. We need to offer clear expectations and guidance for them on how to reach for what they need when they need it, and where they need it.

PH: When you talk about performance support making a difference in an organization, what, specifically do you mean? What types of eLearning content do you see as performance support vs. training? How do you parse that out?

AR: I’ve spent my life working on this problem.

Performance support is job aids on steroids. That’s what it is. It’s on steroids. It’s using technology to deliver job aids, information at the point of need.

A really good way to make the distinction is to think about the difference between Duolingo [Editor: and performance support]. Many people know what Duolingo is; Duolingo is an online language-learning program. It presents information, then it tests you. If you get it wrong, it tests you again. More presentation; more testing; drill and practice. Over time and place, every day, it reminds you to do it. The point of the program is to move the languages’ competence from out there to inside you, in your memory. Okay, that’s Duolingo.

On the other side, job aids on steroids, performance support, would be GPS. That’s the creation of an asset out there that you reach for at the moment of need to enable you to be smarter, to perform more smartly than you can without it. GPS will enable you to get where you need to go without knowing much.

Let’s talk about it in another way.

Albert Einstein said, “I don’t need to know my telephone number.”

When somebody said, “You’re the smartest man in the world. How come you don’t know your telephone number?”

He said, “I don’t need to know it; I’ve got it written down right here.”

Einstein was big on performance support.

On the other hand, another very smart guy named Sal Khan has all this instruction up online, and the point is to take it from the outside and move to the inside of people so that they learn it; they know it.

Learning enables people to say, “I get it! I know that.”

Performance support enables people to say, “I found it. That helps me do it.”

If you’re doing learning, you would be doing things like drill and practice, scenario-based eLearning, exercises, assessments, and diagnostics.

If you’re engaged with performance support, you might be looking at a checklist, a bar code reader, location-based guidance, lots of examples with attributes pulled out to make it clear; short and sweet.

What’s interesting is, for most topics, you would want people to know some of it by heart, and some of it via reference. Let’s take an example of a doctor, an MD. Tons and tons of learning; they need to know many things by heart. They need to reach inside, into mind, heart, and belly—and do things and do things with sensitivity. They must do/decide things all the time; do who knows what things, many surprising things, highly critical things.

However there’s also performance support—now online, the PDR, Physicians’ Desk Reference—for things that they use only occasionally or things where they do not dare to make a mistake.

But there are other things. Let’s take an example of somebody who works in the fast food industry. Leadership does not want to invest in a whole lot of building things into mind, heart, and belly because there’s so much turnover. So instead, they provide a little bit of development, mostly in customer service skills and safety. Much more in the product and product assembly is done through performance support.

PH: You recently presented a talk at DevLearn on critical thinking. How should people be harnessing mobile tools to nurture critical thinking?

AR: I really like this topic. I was doing some work at the Defense Acquisition University, DAU, they’re real interested in this topic because the people who buy things and manage contracts in the Department of Defense, they can’t just be on autopilot. They have to be critical thinkers.

The U.S. Department of Labor says this: Critical thinking is the raw material of workplace success.

And I think it’s true.

So what is critical thinking? Before we say how to, it’s important to say what it is.

Critical thinking is self-guided, self-disciplined thinking which attempts to reason at high levels of quality in fair-minded ways. Critical thinkers strive to diminish the power of their biases. It’s basically discerning judgment based on standards. And these are usually standards that you can point to.

The first thing that is interesting to me about critical thinking, after you get beyond the definitions, is that it can be taught. There’s a body of literature that has actually looked at this. The military has worked hard, for example, to help pilots become better thinkers. So we can and must boost this. We in workplace learning can advance this goal.

So, how to do it. If you believe it, and you think about that definition, you’re going to be pretty good at figuring out how to do it. But there are two parts to it.

One is, you push problems out to associates to solve. You push out examples of problems that were well-thought-out and solved; you do think-alouds; you share thought processes and point out what made it a good process. You provide people with criteria and standards. I think this goes back to the culture vulture thing: You provide an environment where conversation and discussion about criteria for excellent performance is rampant; people talk about this—including talking about where they made mistakes. One other thing: You probably don’t do lectures on critical thinking.

The other thing that you can do to make it happen more is point to opportunities to be a critical thinker. It’s not just that you need to show them what the standards are and examples of it and press opportunities to do it through learning, but also ask, “Where in the natural course of work as a nurse or a retirement specialist do you see opportunities to think critically?” And that will increase the likelihood that they actually might do it.

In an eLearning context: If you’re going to do compliance training, for example, on diversity and race relations, you would do all the things I just described—as well as showing opportunities to step in, perhaps, when you see someone is hanging up a poster that might offend someone.

One of the things that I saw that was interesting on this particular topic: There’s the person who’s acting and the person who’s being acted upon, then there’s the observer. So, helping people in an environment see opportunities to do the right thing.

As an instructional designer, I am going to show them what it looks like in a variety of ways. I’m going to ask them to act as if, and I am going to also show them, in the normal course of a morning, when you might get a chance to be that way. Why can’t that be done in eLearning? That can be done beautifully in eLearning.

PH: Some researchers are looking at using virtual reality for some of these types of training.

AR: The one example I saw of that was at a university where they were trying to give people a sense of what schizophrenia was like, and I thought it was immensely powerful. So I think virtual reality would allow you to walk in the shoes of a __________. That’s pretty darn cool.

I think that is very promising. But you know, most promising of all—back to culture vulture—managers and supervisors who give a hoot about all of this.

I like virtual reality; I’m all for it. But if after they do the virtual reality … the, I think it was the Navy, had this horrible sexual harassment thing in Vegas [Tailhook, in 1991]. The problem with virtual reality is, it ain’t shipboard. They need to bring it home. If you send everyone to sexual harassment class or VR training, and you go back and the next weekend you all go to Vegas for Tailhook, what’s going to happen? Which is more powerful? Let’s get real here. It’s culture.