We have an embarrassing wealth of choices for promoting learning: blended learning, synchronous learning, asynchronous learning, collaborative learning, classroom events, and virtual conference rooms. Even with this, planning a curriculum that makes sense and that will deliver value, without breaking the bank, can be a real challenge. Not to mention the challenge and expense of trying to develop everything on Internet time, knowing that most of what you build today will be useless in less than a year. Is there a sensible way to get costs under control, meet development schedules, and still deliver support for enterprise learning?

One striking idea that might help organize curriculum development is knowledge half-life. This is a simple notion with large potential impact on learning delivery.

Knowledge is the most critical competitive resource that companies have. There is more of it all the time. The urgency of dealing with it means that e-Learning organizations are under more pressure to produce. Fortunately, there seem to be two easily distinguished types of knowledge: short half-life knowledge and long half-life knowledge. The term “half-life” refers to the speed with which knowledge is acquired and the speed with which it depreciates in value. For each type there is an appropriate method of delivery.

Long Half-Life Knowledge

Long half-life knowledge can take months or years to acquire, but it has a long useful life. It may require three years for a student to become fluent in French. It can take eight months to learn to program competently in C. But that is knowledge sufficient to sustain the successful learner for a lifetime. In addition, long half-life knowledge gained by an individual tends to bring important collateral economic and social benefits with it to the organization and even the society. Conversely, however, long half-life knowledge does not tend to bring an economic return quickly. It also tends to be expensive. Examples of long half-life knowledge include professional skills (programming, management, sales, etc.), interpersonal skills, and knowledge about the physical world (e.g., the principles behind electricity, and mathematics).

Short Half-Life Knowledge

Short half-life knowledge can be picked up in days or weeks, has a short useful life, and provides a faster return. It is usually substantially cheaper to acquire. A learner might gain basic competence in a software application in an afternoon, but much of the knowledge could be useless in a year when a new version of the software is released. Collateral benefits are small, but the return on the investment is fast. Short half-life knowledge includes software applications, knowledge of specific computer hardware, many manufacturing and other processes, and product knowledge.

Appropriate Delivery Solutions

The key is to factor in the results of a needs assessment according to their short and long half-life knowledge components. Then appropriate learning methods to consider including in the curriculum should become apparent.

For short half-life knowledge, some of the best options are not instruction per se, but information of one sort or another. Books, help files, and job aids are generally the most economical and rapid delivery methods.

Knowledge management systems are more expensive. If the organization already has invested in one, it should be considered. Peer-to-peer training or coaching is useful. It is a particularly good choice when experts exist within the work group, and when instruction and feedback are important to shaping performance properly. Finally, consider online tutorials, followed by coaching.

As a group, solutions for long half-life knowledge are more familiar. However, the first choice is not traditional instructor-led or even “blended” learning. The first choice is collaborative learning, in which the learners themselves are primarily responsible for the results. In many cases, collaborative learning can be mediated by peer-to-peer software such as instant messaging or Groove. Even web logs (blogs) can serve a useful purpose in building long half-life knowledge without requiring instructional intervention. (Not familiar with blogs? Visit http://www.blogger.com/ .

The purpose for going to collaboration first is two-fold. First, peer-to-peer learning is very effective when properly supported and encouraged. Second, collaboration is generally a lower-cost strategy and one that does not make huge resource demands.

As wireless networks and ubiquitous computing continue to develop, new options for both short and long half-life knowledge will present themselves. “Stolen moments” of learning may become a familiar model for building and maintaining both types of knowledge.