Learning ecosystem: A universe of Learning – why you need it, how you build it
Discovering new worlds of corporate learning
The L&D sector has largely reached a consensus: Customisation must play a bigger role in corporate learning. We must strive to democratise knowledge. The panacea needed to achieve these ambitious goals? A learning ecosystem. The focus is almost exclusively on soft factors related to the corporate and learning culture when establishing such a system, neglecting technological aspects.
Yet, suitable software such as a learning management system or learning experience portal is vital. Let’s take a step back to grasp what a system needs to achieve to map a meaningful learning ecosystem.
Inflexible systems and uniform learning paths for all employees are a thing of the past. Nowadays, companies face the challenge of creating a learning ecosystem that promotes self-directed corporate learning in the long term.
Such a system links various platforms and creates a clear structure for the different formats within a learning portal. The search function leverages all integrated systems, taking account of both internal and external sources.
So much to the theory. The question now is: What technical structure enables a learning ecosystem to meet all requirements and offer real benefits to the employees?
What role does a learning management system (LMS) or learning experience portal (LXP) play within such learning universe?
imc expert Andreas Pohl, Director Research & Development, leads the development of such systems. Thanks to his many years of experience, he is very aware of the hidden potential learning ecosystems offer.
Hello Andreas! What would a learning ecosystem look like in practice? Can you give us a specific example?
Let’s say we have an industrial client who manufactures special parts for large-scale equipment. All new employees and trainees must know how to use the equipment employed to make these parts.
They train on a training machine to learn the workflow. Now, it is possible to link this training machine to a learning management system (LMS). In that case, a new employee could log into the training machine with their personal identifier. Once they have mastered the workflow, the machine automatically transmits the training success to the LMS where the training is marked as complete.
This is then booked in the employee’s learning path or as learning progress – for instance, as part of their on-the-job training. Thus, the communication between the different systems makes learning easier. This example might be a little staged, but I think it illustrated the practical application of a learning ecosystem very well.
What does a learning ecosystem need to do to make learners use them?
Before you start thinking about a learning ecosystem, a suitable cultural framework must be in place.
As an employer, I need to motivate employees to use a system and allocate time for that purpose. At the same time, the user experience of the learning ecosystem (LE) must be structured in such a way that the employees enjoy using it, and make it easy for them to find relevant content.
A user will be far more likely to use the system when they can see an immediate and direct benefit. If that benefit is not obvious, you have lost.
How do you realise that from a technical perspective?
There are two approaches: First of all, I can make the LMS or LXP the central hub for my learning ecosystem. In this case, the LMS also needs to be able to present contents from external sources.
The learner can find materials from the entirety of the ecosystem through the frontend of the LMS. It makes no difference to them where learning content is stored – in the company LMS or, for instance, an integrated content library. For the learners, it is important that the system is easy to navigate and that they can quickly find relevant contents without jumping through hoops. Whether or not this takes them into a different system is irrelevant.
The second approach is to subordinate the LMS to the overarching portal. Rather than being at the centre itself, it delivers its results to the top level. This is useful when a central portal already exists and the LMS is integrated at a later stage.
How does an LMS become part of a learning ecosystem? What are the prerequisites?
In the second case – when the LMS is a cog in the wheel – the contents must be supplied to the overarching system. Indexing then becomes a major factor. That means that content must be provided in a format that triggers useful search hits presented and shown in a meaningful manner. The same applies to recommendations the system gives the user based on learning habits or interests.
Good APIs (application programming interfaces) are the key success factor for these types of functions. They facilitate the communication between the different applications. Effective and standardised interfaces are always important in IT, but whenever several systems come together, they become absolutely crucial.
How does an increase in content affect the individual interfaces and components?
This is a very interesting question. Let’s break it up into two parts. To illustrate: Your universe might grow because the number of planets is increasing, or because the existing planets are becoming more populated. These are two very different scenarios.
Similarly, you can expand your learning ecosystem by integrating or linking new components, or by adding more content to the existing elements.
After all, the purpose of a learning ecosystem is to continuously and frequently change the volume of the learning content, and the integration of user-generated content (UGC). Going back to our analogy, user-generated content merely increases population density on a given planet. From a technical perspective, this is not a critical process, as the growth takes place within an existing system with no effect on the complexity of that system. It would therefore not qualify as a true expansion.
So, what is “true” expansion? What do we have to watch out for?
I would say a true expansion of the ecosystem involves the integration of additional systems or a new interface. This expansion process is somewhat slower, as each new system needs new interfaces or gateways.
Each “planet” needs to provide the information within the LMS to the other “planets” – and ultimately the user – through standardised interfaces, and various APIs as well as an event bus are utilised for this purpose. Meanwhile, the central system must be able to absorb content and integrate it in its search function to make it accessible to its users.
How does the system know which content should be shown?
The system can only show content it knows. That means either the index content must be transmitted to the system – for example, via a data or event bus – or the system must have direct access to the index. Naturally, this can only work if indices are properly maintained and clearly structured.
What role does the data or event bus play?
An event bus is basically a messaging system. One system throws a message onto the bus, the bus takes off, and the next system can retrieve the message.
The message does not disappear after it is retrieved by one system – it remains available for the other systems. For example, systems A, B and C “take” the message, but system D ignores it, because it’s not relevant to it. Meanwhile, system D might “take” a different message that A, B and C are not interested in. Messages are thus distributed in real time, making manual message transfer to each system redundant (publisher-subscriber approach).
The challenge with this approach is that each system involved must be able to understand the message contents. This often requires some adjustments, as some systems might not be able to translate it directly. This is a major current topic for our development team.
What trends would you say can make learning ecosystems even better?
There is certainly room for improvement in system alignment, which also encompasses IoT (internet of things) and ESB (enterprise service buses). In other words, systems need to know both, which message they need to retrieve from the bus and which immediate adjustments they need to make.
This reduces the need for system adjustment. Now, an ESB is not a trivial thing, and might be overkill for a straightforward set-up with a small number of systems. However, my learning ecosystem is fairly complex and serves more than 10,000 employees, it makes an enormous difference.
Another thing we are working on at the moment is switching over to external contents. Right now, we can integrate external content in the search through our LMS, for example, through the LinkedIn Learning Content Importer. We want to expand that capability to enable the user to switch directly into the external system. We are currently collaborating with a major client to achieve that.
Finally, what should we pay particular attention to? Where do you see the most potential? Are there also disadvantages?
It comes at a cost. None of this is free. Everything we talked about needs investment. The systems need to be maintained continuously, as do the connections to the interfaces, and some of these systems might be proprietary. It’s not an automated process.
Ideally, that will enable me to create a learning ecosystem which optimises how the different needs of all my learners are met. Everything then comes from a single source, which is a whole lot more user friendly and actually feels like one system. A good learning ecosystem goes a long way towards improving the learner experience and providing real support to employees in their daily work.
My advice: Good planning is half the battle! It is important to clarify from the outset what you want to achieve, how many systems should be maintained and how much maintenance can be provided.
How not to break bad with validated processes in an LMS
What requirements must an LMS map for validated processes? And how does Breaking Bad fit here? Questions about questions not only the Pharmaceutical industry should think about.
Learning Analytics: It comes down to the right questions
Learning must not be an end in itself, but fit in the company’s business outcome: More and more managers are demanding this. We therefore looked at how L&D managers can meet this requirement with the help of Learning Analytics.
More about our LMS
If you would like to learn more about imc's Learning Management System, check here for more information.
I have been working in the Marketing & Communication Team at imc since March 2019.
Communication, creative content and social media are my passion. "KISS - Keep it short and simple" is my credo.
To explain complex content in an understandable way and thus make the topic of e-Learning accessible to everyone is an exciting challenge every day.
Privately I love to read, play poker and travel a lot.
I am always happy to receive feedback or suggestions.