Although the term digital learning has been referenced in academia for at least a decade, it is attracting considerable attention among those in the learning and development industry. David Kelly, executive vice president of The eLearning Guild, chronicled the emergence of corporate digital learning in a recent blog post. He expands upon the subject in this interview.

Susan Jacobs (SJ): In a nutshell, how would you define digital learning?

David Kelly (DK): First, my intention is not to necessarily define it, but to start a conversation about it. That’s what we do at the Guild. We provide a platform for the community to engage in discussions to make sense of changes and trends in our industry. I’ve been sharing my perspective on the topic to provide context as a starting point for discussions.

Let’s begin with what it’s not. It’s not a new methodology or a new way of training or educating people. Digital learning reflects a fundamental change in the behavior of learners themselves, rather than a change in behavior related to the training department.

To me, digital learning is about this shift from people waiting for someone to give them the resources to solve a problem, to just finding the resources themselves. It’s a shift from “I don’t know how to do something, so I guess I need to go to training,” to “I don’t know how to do something, so I’m going to pull out my phone and Google it to find the answer.”

SJ: How is technology driving this move toward digital learning?

DK: Technology enables learners to find answers themselves. This metaphor can explain it. When my wife and I were planning our honeymoon to Europe in 1999, we couldn’t book our own flights or hotels because we didn’t have the ability to research all the options that were out there, let alone go to sites and make the reservations ourselves. We had to have someone plan our itinerary, so we turned to a travel agent. We needed that external person to not only provide the content, but to also facilitate the transactions.

Speed ahead 18 years. I’m going to Singapore in November. I’ve never been there before, but I have gone online and done all the research. I booked my own flight and hotel, and learned the cultural things I need to know. My personality is such that I would have done that in 1999, but the reality is that those resources didn’t exist then.

SJ: How does digital learning compare to eLearning?

DK: Digital learning is the promise of learning technology in full bloom. It reflects the shift in learning responsibility from the trainers to the learners themselves, powered by technologies that are enabling people to learn and solve problems on their own, in real time. As such, digital learning is less about the actions of a learning professional and more about the actions of the learners themselves. It represents a paradigm shift that will change the role of the learning professional forever.

SJ: If digital learning is an iteration of eLearning, isn’t it just a case of semantics?

DK: It could be viewed as semantics in the regard that we are relabeling something we all know. But the other piece of the equation is the shift of the conversation from what the training department is doing, to what the learner is doing. That is not just semantics. That is the core element of what the digital learning conversation is about.

Training is something you can do to another person. Learning is not. I can provide a resource that helps you learn, but you have to learn on your own. Digital learning is about the activities of the person who is learning. As L&D professionals, this represents a fundamental shift in how we approach the subject.

SJ: What does digital learning encompass?

DK: It encompasses the larger, formal training rocks, but also all of the little rocks that exist on a day-to-day basis. As an example, in our company we use a digital communication tool called Yammer. If I post a question on Yammer and nine people respond with answers to it, that’s digital learning in practice. There’s no official course there, it’s not in the LMS, and it’s not being tracked anywhere, but learning is taking place. I also use a host of other digital tools to engage in similar interactions with people around the world every day to learn and solve problems.

Companies are going to have to learn how to leverage digital learning because interactions that help workers solve problems, and develop their skills and competency, count. They keep our organizations moving forward. But we’ve never prioritized them or really incorporated them into our strategies.

SJ: Do you believe digital learning will complement, compete with, or replace eLearning?

DK: Definitively complement! I want to emphatically state that nothing’s dying, and eLearning is not going to go away. Digital learning simply gives us more options and enables us to have more tools in the belt. I see eLearning in its current form being part of the digital learning environment. Digital learning is just acknowledging that there is a larger pie of how people are learning, and understanding that we should be giving weight to things we previously didn’t give weight to.

SJ: What impact do you expect digital learning to have? Will it completely disrupt the L&D industry, the way iTunes altered the music industry or Uber disrupted the automotive industry?

DK: I don’t think it’s going to be as disruptive as either of those. Both of those examples disrupted their industries almost overnight. I don’t see that happening within our environment. If you look at corporate learning today, each organization is its own ecosystem. Many still train in a 1980s classroom environment, and that works for them. The fact that all these new tools have been introduced hasn’t changed their world. With digital music, everyone had to adapt because the CD industry went away. You didn’t have the option of not changing. In corporate environments, you still have the option of not changing, as long as it doesn’t hold back your business.

That said, the change in learner behaviors I’ve been talking about aren’t really “learner” behaviors. The change is how people are engaging in a digital world. Our smartphones alone have fundamentally changed what it means to live and interact in a digital world. If these technologies are changing how we live and learn in day-to-day life, it stands to reason that expectations for how we learn in our organizations will shift accordingly.

SJ: Do you think digital learning will reduce the need for trainers?

DK: No, but I see it becoming a potential threat to trainers who are not adapting. If you’re a trainer who is not looking at the way technology is changing the environment in which we work, you are putting yourself at risk to be circumvented by that technology. This is an opportunity to pivot in new directions.

SJ: How can people in our industry best prepare for the advent of digital learning?

DK: Everyone in the L&D industry should put on their learner caps for a minute. Think about how you use your technology in your day-to-day life, and acknowledge the gap that exists between how you use these technologies personally, and how you use them in your organizations. There is a huge difference between those two, and that difference represents the promise of digital learning.

SJ: Is there anything L&D should fear about digital learning?

DK: No. Fear is about change holding us back. This is all about opportunity.

Join the conversation

The eLearning Guild welcomes the community to join the discussion about digital learning in a series of sessions at DevLearn 2017 Conference & Expo in Las Vegas, October 25 – 27.

Senior-level L&D leaders are invited to an exclusive full-day workshop, where they can network with other executives focusing on the impact digital learning will have on their organizations. The Executive Forum on Digital Learning will take place October 24, before DevLearn begins.

Digital learning resources

Bersin, Josh. “The Disruption of Digital Learning: Ten Things We Have Learned.” 27 March 2017.

Bersin, Josh. “Watch Out, Corporate Learning: Here Comes Disruption.” Forbes. 28 March 2017.

Kelly, David. “What is Corporate Digital Learning?” The eLearning Guild TWIST Blog. 11 August 2017.