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Ask the Experts: Donald Clark

Donald Clark is a well-known name in the field with a vast amount of experience and publications to his credit.

Donald has his finger on the pulse of the industry and has been giving keen insight into the innovations shaping our landscape.

Thank you for speaking with me Donald!

1 – You have a huge presence in the learning field from books, podcasts, lectures and online posts. How did your learning journey begin and what still entices you about the field?

We are the learning species. It is an endlessly fascinating field, philosophically, psychologically and in terms of technology. Generative AI is here and it is blowing minds.

ChatGPT4 pushes learning as No 1 use., now integrated with Duolingo to give free-flowing, immersive conversations, a game changer in language learning. Also, a personal maths tutor, which is a big advance with integration into Khan Academy, along with other subjects. It is the most useful imaginable assistant, lists subjects that can be taught, even maths. Its performance on exams is scary. The whole idea of AI as a useful teacher is here. They have provided a Socratic approach to an algebra problem that is totally on point. Most people learn in the absence of a teacher or lecturer. They need constant scaffolding, someone to help them move forward, with feedback. This changes our whole relationship with what we need to know, and how we get to know it. Its reasoning ability is also off the scale. We now have human teachers, human learners but also AI teachers and AI that learns. It used to be a diad, it's now a tetrad - that is the basis of the new ‘pedAIgogy’.

2 – Your book on Learning Experience Design touches on a wide net of learning theories and approaches from interface design, social learning, and gamification. As it can be overwhelming for new designers, where would you recommend they begin?

Get to grips with contemporary learning theory. Read ‘Make It Stick’. Listen to these podcasts.

3 – Your book also spoke about learning transfer and the differences between ‘near’ and ‘far’ transfer. How should a designer adapt their approach to these differing complexities, and can we accommodate everything in just one domain (physical classroom teaching or fully online)?

Designers' big mistake is to forget that ‘learning is a process not an event’, so they create learning experiences that have not enough effortful learning (mostly MCQs), little deliberate practice and spaced practice and little learning by doing, generative learning and therefore transfer.

4 – You also cover an excellent chapter on VR, giving in-depth examples of the potential benefits supported by studies showcasing very positive results. How do you see VR and added to that, new technology like ChatGPT, being used in the L&D industry in the future?

We live and work in a 3D world with 3D people, yet training is flat from text, PowerPoint and screens. The move towards 3D has been happening for a long time, notably in computer games also on AR, VR and mixed reality. Hundreds of millions are active users on Roblox, Fortnite and Minecraft – building 3D worlds. We use Google Earth all the time. If we want to take learning by doing, context and transfer seriously, we have to move in this direction.

5 – Recently, there has been a discussion about the focus on engagement vs learning vs performance. What area should be our focus or is there a blend required between the three?

Engagement is an odd word in learning. It is clearly a good thing to be engaged with a learning experience but just because people are engaged, does not mean they are learning. I’ve been totally engaged for years watching stand-up comedy experiences but can barely remember a single joke from any of them. Engagement can be a positive sign in learners but is no guarantee of learning.

Learners can be engaged but not learning, engaged but simply going through things they already know, engaged but doing harm to learning, engaged and learning

In other words, engagement can be a dangerous proxy for learning. One can be engaged and give the appearance of learning, without learning taking place, even inhibiting learning. What’s more, there may be little or no long-term or far transfer into actual application in the real world.

Focus on learning and performance.

6 –We also see a lot of popular content with buzzwords and visualised learning approaches. Are there theories and practices you believe learning designers should be avoiding?

Bloom, Maslow, Kirkpatrick, MBTI, NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming) etc. I think the one great mistake designers are making is exaggerating the role of ‘empathy’ and ‘personas’. In my experience, personas average out and produce caricatures. Far better to look at more detailed analysis of target audience and type of learning and critical task analysis on what they do in their job. On empathy, I agree with Donald Norman (the real guru in the field) that empathy is largely a pose and is overrated in design.

7 – In a post-covid world, where a vast majority of companies have made a learning shift into the online space, how do you think our roles will function in the next 5 years?

I would hope that L&D gets away from endless order taking for abstract courses on Leadership, DEI, resilience, whatever. We need more focus on actual skills and competencies. Employees are starting to roll their eyes at yet another weird course telling them they have some moral deficit. The Leadership stuff is way out of hand, with yet more bromides and platitudes, often delivered by people who have led nothing other than workshops.

8 – Every learning leader I’ve spoken to has a wealth of resources for their continual professional development. Are there any particular people you follow or publications you believe new designers would benefit from looking into?

Online, bloggers and those that are active in social media and podcasting.

9 – Lastly, what other advice would you offer to new designers coming into the field?

Upskill to use of AI tools – now.

A lot of great advice and sight, thanks, Donald!

To be sure to keep up with the new wave of AI learning, take a look at Donald's latest book here.

(Note: I do not gain any financial benefit from these links, They are solely provided for your ease of access).

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