In the 26 years I have been in the technology education and skills industry, one thing has remained constant. There is a pervasive need for learning and growth. Regardless of what industries and economies do, the need for constant learning and skills development remains. In times of high economic prosperity, this is driven by corporations seeking to expand the skills of their workforces in the race to get ahead. In times of economic uncertainty, the trend shifts to governments supporting individuals seeking new skills to become more marketable in the workforce or evolve to a new career. Each shift has brought with it radical transformations in the way we design and deliver learning.

COVID-19 has brought a nearly instant transformation to how we approach learning, working and even day-to-day life. Individuals are working from home. Classes are remote and virtual. Video meetings are everywhere. There is an old saying, “necessity is the mother of invention.” COVID-19 proves this to be true every day.

The post-COVID-19 learner will be very different than the one that came before. They will be far more likely to work from home. They will be far less likely to travel to an open training center, especially in the near future. Internationally, travel will be difficult and somewhat restricted. The days of a quick trip to a fun city to sit in a multi-day class with 20 strangers will take some time to return, if they do at all. Time continues to become a precious commodity and will be treated as such by learners.

These learners will have less dedicated time to focus on learning. They will require more effective solutions that give them exactly what they need, in a variety of ways, and that can adapt to the ever-changing technology landscape around them.

We already see transformation in the industry. Smaller training centers with a focus on in-person experiences are shifting to virtual deliveries. Large technical on-premise conferences are cancelling or shifting to a pure virtual experience. The roadshows and tours promoted by big tech companies as marketing/learning events are relaunching as online events and programs.

Successful learning organizations will embrace the following trends:

Instructional design will assume limited student/learner interaction and embrace coaches, facilitators and mentors over traditional instructors
There is now a profound migration to personal isolation and the premise of social distancing will not soon be left behind. If you ask any student who attends an in-person class where they learned the most, they will often tell you it was from the side conversations with fellow students or instructors as human interaction is by far the fastest and most effective way of knowledge transfer.

Designers must turn the focus away from the traditional assumptions that come with having an instructor oversee the learning experience. They also must assume the peer learning that comes from classroom environments will not happen organically. Instructional design needs to include intentional human interactions in the form of mentoring and coaching to support blended learning solutions consisting of lecture, lab and research. These interactions need to function to validate the progress of the learner, remove any barriers to further progress and accelerate the learning where appropriate. Interactions can come in the form of discussions, 1:1 coaching sessions or small group meetings.

Example: A learner is taking an asynchronous Python programming course which includes a capstone project the learner works on during the course. After completing a series of videos and lab exercises, the student attends a virtual meet-up with the facilitator and other learners to share progress and ask questions. Following this, the learner has a 1:1 meeting with a coach to review the progress so far, receive tutoring and get suggestions for additional resources, modules or labs to help clear up confusion.

Training will become more intelligent, aware and dynamic
We will no longer have an exclusive lock on the time of the learner. Learning will happen in smaller, shorter, just-in-time bursts. All learning will have to be immediately relevant and effective. This will result in more upfront evaluation and investment, designed to identify the specific gaps and provide a highly personalized experience.

Example: Prior to enrolling in a DevOps class, a learner completes a series of challenge labs. These challenge labs provide a series of common DevOps tasks, which the learner completes along with knowledge checking questions during the tasks (i.e: Why are you doing this?). Three tasks are completed very quickly, although one, while functional, is poorly done. Another is completed but takes the learner more time than others. Two more tasks remain incomplete. Based on these results, the learner is provided a set of recommendations that include heavy focus on the areas they were unable to complete, some accelerated material in struggle areas and two items are included as optional modules. The relationship between the results of the challenges and the time to complete them are key to evaluating the current state of the learner and providing a highly relevant and personal learning path.

Scored experiences will play a more crucial role
With the transformation away from in-person instruction and the reliance on asynchronous learning, the role of hands-on labs, challenges and other experiences will become even more important. Furthermore, without the real-time supervision and guidance of an instructor, the learner needs other ways to know if they “got it right” when they complete labs and challenges. Integrated feedback and scoring systems can evaluate key progress points and provide both affirmation of learning and guidance to help with difficult topics. IN addition to this, the technical certification industry is rapidly adopting Performance Based Testing (PBT). These exams incorporate scored lab experiences as a key part of certification testing. Already dozens of certifications include PBT, with many more in the works. Learning using scored experiences is quickly becoming a requirement to adequately prepare for certification testing.

Example: A learner has viewed a set of videos and attended a webinar on deploying a cloud application. They are now, between meetings, attempting to complete the lab. As they advance through the lab, they are provided feedback in the form of icons and indicators telling them two things: 1) if they have completed the lab correctly and 2) if the deployed application is functioning as expected. As they reach the end, they receive a warning that the application is not reachable from the Internet and are provided a tip to, “Check your security rules before proceeding.” After a quick review, the learner spots the mistake and makes the correction. They can now proceed in the lab.

Flexible, blended solutions that balance quality and cost will lead
The size of an instructor-led class, virtual or physical, is governed by how many learners an instructor can effectively manage in real time. The more interactive the session, the fewer learners there should be. With the trend away from in-person sequential learning, toward virtual asynchronous learning, the number of potential learners can increase and include a variety of activities, from fully self-paced, hands-on and challenge labs to videos to coaching and mentoring to 1:many presentations, seminars and focused group sessions. Finding the right balance enables the accommodation of more students.

Example: A training provider designs a learning program for cloud development. The program consists of a webinar to orient learners to the role, followed by a series of challenges to evaluate skill and recommend personalized learning paths, consisting of instructor-led and video-based content. Learners attend scheduled focus group sessions and 1:1 coaching sessions in specific content areas. At the end, all learners take challenges and are awarded badges based on achievements.

Innovative subscription-based consumption models will dominate all training, not just video
The dominant purchase model for training is “per class.” Students purchase access to point-in-time activities such as workshops, classes, conference and so on. These models will give way to newer and more innovative models such as results-based subscriptions. Consider a model in which you subscribe to a training program with access to combinations of instructor-led, on-demand and mentored learning for a set period of time (ie: one year) or until you achieve goal (ie: a certification or a badge).

Example: A learner is seeking training for a new job role in Data Science. They purchase a “Data Science Skills” subscription that provides access to instructor-led classes, videos tutorials, labs, assessments and job support. During the next three months, the learner attends one in-person class, one virtual class, completes a set of challenge labs and works with a career support professional on personal marketing. After three months, the learner accepts a position as a data analyst and access to the subscription ends. The subscription is based on outcome, not time. The learner is motivated by the outcome to use resources effectively.

Learn on Demand Systems believes so strongly these trends will come to pass, that we are already investing in tools and capabilities to enable our customers to continually transform and evolve:

1. Challenge Labs V2 – Built on our existing Challenge Labs framework, this next generation will be more game like, feature dynamic and adaptive difficulty levels, experience modifiers and real-time feedback. Learners can level up or level down in real time based on how they perform in the challenge.

2. Integrated discussions and forums – Expanding on our existing moderated discussion forms, these tools will be expanded and become accessible from the lab client, as well as feature real-time presence information. These forms can be integrated with popular meeting software for persistent conversations.

3. Coaching and mentoring – These tools will enable learners to request real-time assistance from designated mentors or coaches while inside the challenge and hands-on lab experience.

4. Expanded scoring, including code scoring and data scoring – Scoring and grading tools for code, logic and data analysis scenarios will be common. Assessments in labs are being extended to evaluate more than just the completion of the task, but for example, also store data points such as how long it takes a learner to complete the task vs the average.

5. Expanded integration capabilities – Richer APIs are in the works, which expose additional telemetry on the learner’s experience and provide finer control over the experience, from language localization to a different set of instructions.

6. Richer scoring and achievements system plus badging integration – Expanded criteria in achievements, including information on how the user interacts with challenges (i.e. time spent on individual sections) to allowing far more granular rules to be created for badges and achievements. This also provides a method of evaluating not just “if” a learner completes a task, but “how” they complete a task.

While we are in a chaotic time, we cannot lose focus on the long-term picture. Skills still matter. COVID-19 has disrupted not just learning, but life. With disruption comes innovation. With innovation comes opportunity. We are looking forward to the next evolution of technology learning and supporting our pioneering customers who are driving full steam into the future.

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Corey J Hynes is the CEO and chief product architect for Learn on Demand Systems.

Corey has worked in the education and certification space for over 20 years, working as a technical trainer, consultant, training center manager, content author, product manager, software architect and more.

Corey currently leads Learn on Demand Systems helping to ensure we are building and delivering new and innovative products that drive the learning industry forward. Corey can frequently be found presenting on behalf of Microsoft on technical topics ranging from storage to virtualization to cloud.

Corey has held many industry certifications, both technical and skill- based, and is currently a Microsoft MVP. Corey lives in Florida with his wife and two children and spends his limited free time coaching soccer, boating and competing in Triathlon races.