Gaze Into The Future Of Learning With Clark Quinn

Summary: In this exclusive interview with Learnnovators, Clark Quinn shares his insights on the significance of innovation for businesses to succeed. He explains the importance of contextual and experiential learning, and offers his recommendations for integrating mobile strategies into organizational L&D. His advice to learning designers for scaling up to meet the challenges of designing informal and social learning is invaluable. Read on…

Crystal Balling With Learnnovators: The Future of Learning with Clark Quinn

Clark Quinn, Ph.D., helps organizations align technology with how we think, work, and learn. He integrates creativity, cognitive science, and technology to lead development of strategic solutions including award-winning online content, educational computer games, and websites, as well as adaptive, mobile, and performance support systems. After an academic career, Dr. Quinn served as an executive in online and elearning initiatives and has an international reputation as a speaker and scholar, with four books and numerous articles and chapters to his credit. He blogs at and works through Quinnovation.

  1. Learnnovators: You say that ‘survival requires continual innovation, and at the core is learning faster than everyone else’. How significant is innovation for businesses to succeed? How do we ensure learning faster than everyone else? Could you elaborate for our readers please?Clark: My claim is that optimal performance will be only the cost of entry, and the only sustainable differentiator will be continual innovation. With things changing faster, competitors able to be more nimble, and customers getting more ‘clued in’, companies will have to be more flexible and able to adapt faster, which requires agility. And innovation comes from ‘creative friction’, interactions between folks. So optimizing the organization to facilitate innovation is critical, and requires a culture where it’s safe to share, diversity is valued, new ideas are welcome, and there is time for reflection.
  2. Learnnovators: What are the latest trends in organizational learning & development, and performance support? What do some of the interesting research findings and survey results point to? How exciting is the scenario?Clark: The research isn’t heartening. We’re still seeing an avoidance of social learning, the continual use of courses as the only solution, and consequently organizations that can’t adapt fast enough. The opportunities are huge and exciting; to create a performance ecosystem where the network is vibrant, performance support is ‘to hand’, and when courses are needed they’re deeply engaging, but we’re not seeing this except in isolated pockets. This needs to change!
  3. Learnnovators: You have always carried a clear vision about how corporate L&D needs to change, or potentially face extinction. You say ‘most L&D really seems stuck in the Industrial Age, but we’re working in the Information Age’. We, like others, believe the reason for this to be the present education system design that was perfected for the needs of ‘industrialization’. What kind of a shift in thinking do you visualize for building a learning system that aligns with the dynamically changing demands of this knowledge age? How do you think L&D practitioners should change themselves, and more importantly, be the ambassadors of this change movement?Clark: I’m a strong believer in social constructivist pedagogies, e.g. problem-based and service learning, whereby a curriculum is activity, not content. Environments where learners are using digital tools to create or annotate outputs of their collective work are needed. We also need to be layering on learning-to-learn or meta-learning across this, as arguably the most important skills we can develop. We need to practice this in organizations, and model this for others. There’s a difference however, in that we’re more about performance than learning, and so our use of performance support and the network in lieu of learning is more acceptable than what we might expect in schools (though they too should start looking at the role of networks and cognitive tools).
  4. Learnnovators: You’ve been Quinnovating in e-learning for over 30 years, helping your clients make the best business decisions. What are your experiences? How do you educate your clients about the most effective approaches to learning? What are some of the challenges you face in convincing them with respect to the shifts happening in today’s learning space? What would be your advice to budding learning professionals who aspire to consider consulting as a career option?Clark: I have been very fortunate to get in at the ground floor of the personal computer revolution, to keep up with the subsequent fundamental changes, and couple that with a deep background in cognitive science. That has allowed me to stay at the cutting edge throughout my career (often too far ahead of the curve!). My approach is to try understand where folks are coming from, and add the particular expertise that meets their needs. My innate curiosity (aka ADD :) has led me to explore many related fields both human (e.g. creativity and design processes) and technical (e.g. content models and information architecture) that I can bring to bear on not only meeting client needs but doing so in ways that leverage what we know about how to do it right. My advice to new professionals would be to continue to explore the periphery, experiment, and work out loud (or seek-sense-share).
  5. Learnnovators: You were one of the first proponents of ‘mobile learning’, and have been helping organizations introduce mobile into their learning and performance support initiatives. Could you please share your mobile learning journey for our readers? How has mobile learning started transforming workplaces around the world today? How are organizations seeing this phenomenon? What are the trends? What are some of the successful examples? What will future workplace learning look like?Clark: My mobile learning journey started when I was asked to write a piece about mLearning for an online magazine. I wrote a thought piece, but it was early enough that it led to some notoriety. I have continued to push my productivity through mobile devices as a way to boost my own understanding, and have had the opportunity to engage in mobile initiatives as well. I think that as we recognize how we use the devices in our daily lives, we’ll see that mobile is more than a one-off solution; instead it is a platform for augmenting our cognition. This is not unique to mobile, but the ability to leverage that capability whenever and wherever we are is increasingly important, and with new opportunities to take advantage of our context to add uniquely valuable extensions. So, for example, I think future workplace learning will look like always-on coaching and mentoring.
  6. Learnnovators: How are today’s mobile technologies helping to provide solutions to our workplace challenges? What approach would you recommend for successfully integrating mobile learning into organizational learning? What are some of the best practices that you would like to share with our readers?Clark: The critical perspective, I believe, is to recognize that digital technologies are a marvelous complement to our own capabilities; they do well what we don’t and vice-versa. When we recognize this, we can look to leverage those capabilities as an augment to our own, and create more fundamental solutions than if we follow our existing (and largely out-dated) solutions. I recommend that folks look to extending and augmenting formal learning, performance support, social, and context-sensitive as opportunities, not to courses on a mobile device.
  7. Learnnovators: You have always been fascinated about ‘context-sensitive learning’. What are some of the exciting possibilities that mobile technologies offer to build a performance ecosystem with support for contextual learning and predictive personalization? How will smart phone capabilities evolve further to power up learning in future?Clark: The opportunity with context-sensitivity is to start optimizing our solutions. Different roles from the same organization, when visiting a particular site, are likely to need different resources; so a field service engineer visiting a client site is likely to need different support than a sales person. We can know about who we’re helping, where they are, what they know, what their role is, and what’s available to customize the delivery. And we can provide just the minimal support that a person needs to move on, instead of everything we can shove at them. I call it the ‘least assistance’ principle (“what’s the least I can do for you” is not a rude response, it’s optimal both for pragmatic and principled reasons), and the point is to get people back to what they want to be doing as quickly as possible. Particularly with the limitations imposed by the smaller form factors, getting just the necessary information is a solid design principle. And, not coincidentally, it also is worth bringing back to the desktop.
  8. Learnnovators: Your book ‘Designing m-Learning’is a great help for people who have to create m-Learning. Its focus is on the design process (with the theme “if you get the design right, there’s lots of ways to implement it…”). As Jay Cross opined, we too feel that you had written a missing manual. What are the most significant design challenges while designing mobile learning?Clark: That’s very kind of you to say. The most significant design challenge is getting out of our existing mindsets; you have to think differently. The biggest barriers are those between our ears, the limitations we believe in that really don’t exist. People worry about tools, security, screen size, and more, yet there are solutions to all these problems. A related problem is doing what we’ve always done. The remedy is to look to how we use devices to make ourselves more effective. I will bet it is not a course on a phone!
  9. Learnnovators: What would be your advice to organizations who wish to integrate mobile learning with their e-learning strategy to improve productivity by starting their own internal app stores? What strategy would you propose for a successful implementation? What would be the major advantages and challenges?Clark: I wouldn’t start with apps. I believe strongly in prototyping, and believe that mobile web is the best start for trying ideas out. It has limitations, and if you need to get access to sensors like cameras and GPS you’ll have to go further, but I think ‘wrapping’ mobile web for device-delivery is best first before you go the hard-coded app, and it may well be all you need. The other strategic component is to recognize that mobile is a platform, and needs to be treated as such. You need a platform strategy, not a device or app strategy.
  10. Learnnovators: Your approach is learning experience design. You are of the opinion that we really do not yet possess a design model for addressing a more distributed learning experience. You have been passionate about designing systems for the way people really learn. How do you think existing learning models need to evolve further to support workplace and social learning?Clark: I think of it at two levels, where learning is a part of the bigger performance issue. I’ve talked about what I call backward design, where we work backwards from the desired performance, figuring out what can be (or already is) in the world, and what has to be in the head (up to and including nothing). Then, we design or point to the ‘in the world’ resource(s), and if necessary we then design the ‘in the head’ experience around those resources. So that’s the higher level. Within the learning experience, we then need a learning design model that understands building in the emotional component, as well as the requirement for spaced learning, and then we can design experiences across time and contexts to achieve the necessary level of performance.
  11. Learnnovators: You were involved in the design and development of an intelligently adaptive learning system as early as the year 2000. How do you look at the adaptive learning technologies of today? How excited are you looking at the possibilities thrown open by the power of big data and learning analytics (with the help of tools such as Tin Can API) for personalizing learning?Clark: I’m very excited about the potential that learning analytics and the Experience API provide. An adaptive system includes (implicitly or explicitly) rules about how to adapt. We were not only embedding the best research into our rules, but were adding machine learning to look for emergent patterns and tune our rules. The development of technology since our work 15 years ago makes this all much more robust; we can collect and process more data, and use a common syntax to register outcomes, simplifying the process. I think the biggest lacks are an encompassing vision of all the factors that could play a role, and combining expected outcomes with search for emergent ones. I think the Predictive Analytics Reporting Framework work being done is a really exciting model that nicely complements the work from companies that are commercializing adaptive learning.
  12. Learnnovators: You’ve always been a sort of a technology geek. How do you look at the radical shifts happening in learning paradigms (such as social learning, flipped classroom, Bring-Your-Own-Device [BYOD], etc.) fueled by the enormous possibilities thrown open by emerging technologies? How encouraging is the new learning landscape? Where do you see today’s organizations in the midst of these radical shifts? What would future (organizational) learning look like? What according to you is the future of learning?Clark: I like what Arthur C. Clarke once said: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” and I think we’re there. The limits are no longer the technology, as we can bring pretty much anything anywhere we want. The limits now are in our imaginations and dedication to apply technology to the magic of human learning. The US Department of Education study that found eLearning superior to face-to-face had a thoughtful caveat, where it proposed that the improvement was not owing to the medium, but to the chance to step back and rethink the opportunity. We need to get back to what really leads to learning.
  13. Learnnovators: As you would agree, most L&D professionals possess high levels of skills around the traditional training (formal learning) area. However, their skill levels fall short around the informal or social learning areas. What is your advice to L&D professionals for upskilling themselves?Clark: My answer is like the lottery advertisements: “you’ve got to be in it to win it”. You can’t sit on the sidelines and watch, you have to get out there and be pushing the envelope. Use Twitter, Facebook, Skype, Plus, and LinkedIn. Blog, microblog, collaborate virtually, chat, and more. How will you know the upsides, and the problems, if you aren’t exploring? Sure, wait until the first hype bubble has died down, but then if folks are still using it, you’ve got to take a shot yourself. Continual experimentation is core to innovation. You can’t apply learning principles to technology if you don’t understand the technology. Similarly, you can’t truly leverage technology if you don’t understand how people really learn!  I might disagree that L&D professionals possess high-level skills around formal learning, too.  That’s why the instigators of the Serious eLearning Manifesto banded together; too few people were applying good formal learning principles!  That said, there are rich skill statements out of places like ASTD and LPI.
  14. Learnnovators: What would be your advice on embedding workplace learning into organizational culture? How is informal and social learning going to evolve further to play a major role in organizational learning in workplaces around the world? What would be your predictions on the future of organizational learning based on the present trends and emerging technologies (such as Ubiquitous Learning, Social Learning, Gamification and Game-based Learning, Learning Analytics, Personalized and Adaptive Learning)? What would future (organizational) learning look like? How critical is social learning going to be for organizational survival?Clark: The core thing to do is to not go along with the latest trend. You have to have an analytical approach, and search to find the core learning affordances, the capabilities that these trends bring. Then you can apply them to address gaps between what you have been doing and what you’d like to be doing. I’m glad you separate out gamification from game-based learning (too few do), as the distinctions are critical. We run on too many myths – learning styles, generations, etc – instead of on science. Remember the hype about Virtual Worlds? Where did they go? They’re still around, but now more closely aligned with their real affordances. Don’t expect a panacea. Social learning has always been part of being human, but social media also isn’t a cure-all remedy. You have to understand the way people think, work, and learn, and align accordingly. New technologies bring new opportunities, but a bit of skepticism is a healthy adjunct.
  15. Learnnovators: Our hearty congratulations to you on being awarded the first-ever eLearning Guild 'Guild Master' in recognition of your outstanding contributions to the eLearning Guild community and the learning technologies industry (in November 2012). How do you look at this honorable achievement?Clark: I’m truly honored and grateful to the eLearning Guild for this recognition (I do what I do because that’s who I am, but it’s nice to be noticed). The larger hope is leveraging the Guild metaphor, so along with some of the more recent Masters we’re looking at how we can try to promote better learning and practice in our field.
  16. Learnnovators: How do you help organizations Quinnovate (work smarter)? What is your vision for Quinnovation? What are your dreams? How do you plan to align your vision for the learning community with this (vision for Quinnovation)?Clark: Quinnovation is the vehicle I use to try to help people use technology in wise ways, ways that are aligned with our nature and our best goals. I find that my greatest contributions and successes are when people have an ill-defined need where they need to rethink or raise their game, and I work with a small team to understand the problem and coach them through to an innovative solution while developing their own capabilities. My continuing exploration of problem-solving and collection of useful models means I’m regularly able to frame the situation in ways that provide new and unique opportunities. I’m always on the search for organizations looking for transformative improvements. My secret desire is for someone to handle all the front-end processes and leave me free to go in and work!Learnnovators: Thank you so much for sharing your valuable insights and experiences, Clark. It was wonderful interacting with you. We wish you the very best!

Crystal Balling with Learnnovators’ is a thought-provoking interview series that attempts to gaze into the future of e-learning. It comprises stimulating discussions with industry experts and product evangelists on emerging trends in the learning landscape.Join us on this exciting journey as we engage with thought leaders and learning innovators to see what the future of our industry looks like. For more interviews from this series, visit