We love our tech

Most of us in the learning profession pride ourselves on being comfortable with technology. Whenever a new tool is available, we’re ready to give it a try, eager to adopt the latest way to help people learn. We spend huge amounts of money and time attending professional conferences and we read magazines dedicated to keeping us all up to date in between those conferences.

But we can’t always implement it

A funny thing happens on the way to our “real world.” A lot of those cool things we’re so excited about in theory get pushed aside. Maybe they are deemed “too expensive,” “too risky” or just “not a good fit for our culture.” Or maybe we just get too busy with the day-to-day of writing, designing, developing, delivering, measuring and revising our training programs to find the time and energy to implement all that shiny new technology.

Suddenly, we’re on the wrong side of the technology adoption curve again, with out-of-date tech and no budget to purchase the upgrades we just know would make a huge difference in business results.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could predict the “next big thing” now, so we could get ahead of the curve for a change?

The next big things are already here

Here’s a list to help you get ready for the “next big things” before they are “yesterday’s news” in magazines and conferences. But you don’t have much time to bone up on the way these learning technologies because in many workplaces they are already here. Sure, there are plenty of other cool things out there to distract you, but the three technological advances that will likely be the most disruptive to the learning space are Virtual Reality, Artificial Intelligence, and Augmented Intelligence.

I’ve added a “plus one,” because the application of the neurosciences, while not a single technology, will be the justification for a lot of technological advances coming our way in the same timeframe.

Virtual Reality is Already Changing the Way We Learn About the World

Virtual Reality (VR) is a combination of computer-generated graphics, real-world video and images, sounds and even smells that create the illusion of a three-dimensional space. Today the experience is usually delivered via a special, somewhat clunky, headset. Originally employed to make digital games more engaging, VR is starting to gain traction in the learning space. Imagine a surgeon practicing a procedure on a realistic human patient, learning from every mistake and hesitation until she can perform it perfectly. No one is put at risk as the young doctor works to become proficient; the patient, the operating room, the other doctors, even the blood are all virtual. But the learning experience is real. You don’t have to imagine this future; it’s here today. At least one VR company is already selling virtual operating room simulations to medical schools, reducing the time and cost of preparing a new surgeon for possible life vs. death performance. Google gives K-12 teachers the opportunity to take their class on a virtual “Expedition” to “visit” just about anywhere on Earth. Other companies provide virtual trips back in time, to experience educational sites like ancient Rome or Lincoln’s Gettysburg address. The technology is already in place and it is getting more affordable all the time. How much longer before your organization asks you to build an immersive learning experience for your organization? (Or have you started working with this technology already?)

Artificial Intelligence is Closer Than You Think

Once found only in science fiction, Artificial Intelligence (AI) is infiltrating our daily lives at an astonishing pace. You can live in a “smart” house, where you talk to your virtual assistant, go to work in a smart car and download apps to make your smartphone even smarter. AI has also begun to infiltrate education and learning. In 2016, a Georgia tech professor programmed a “teaching assistant” to answer student questions, remind them when assignments were due and grade their papers. College students at the University of Georgia communicated with “Jill Watson” via email and never suspected that she was “artificial.” Like many graduate students, she became a better teacher and coach as the semester went along, learning from each interaction with the students under her tutelage. Another program, built by a collaboration between Harvard and MIT, grades college essays for grammar and pertinence to the question. While there is still a lot of room for debate about the efficacy of these purported “intelligent” programs, there isn’t much debate about “if” AI will become part of the education experience, just “when.”

One of the easiest ways to dip your toe into the shallow end of the AI pool may be to play around with a chatbot. A chatbot is a specific use of AI to create a program that can communicate with humans in engaging, “natural” language. I recently presented on this topic at TLDC18 and ATD ICE and was excited to see that in every session there were one or two attendees who were already developing a chatbot to support the learning function. People are using chatbots as coaches, role play partners, even 24×7 mentors. What will you do with this technology?

Augmented Intelligence Has the Potential to Change What It Means to Be Human

Although the prospect of training new employees with a smart robot seems exciting (or possibly terrifying, depending on your perspective), there is an even more powerful emerging technology on the horizon. Augmented Intelligence, the “other” AI that very few are talking about, is the marriage of a computer to a human brain, using a direct interface. In augmented intelligence, you don’t have to use a mouse or touch a screen to access the memory and processing power of a computer; you simply think about what you need and the computer responds. Once perfected, the interface will be so seamless that you may not even recognize a dividing line between your experience of “me” and your experience of “my computer.” Today, brain-computer interfaces are being tested primarily to assist people with disabilities, giving them more control over their own body or making it easier for them to use the Internet and communicate with others. These same interfaces could greatly accelerate human processing power, expand our available memory and link us to other minds around the world.

Assimilation doesn’t have to be a bad thing, after all.

Neuroscience – Because We Will Always Be a “Brain Forward” Species

No matter how well these amazing technologies expand our horizons, human beings will still need to learn, compete and thrive in the brave new world that is on the horizon. That means that there will always be a learning profession, although it will continue to evolve, along with our learning audience and the technology we use to assist them. That’s where the neurosciences come into play. While not directly dependent on any one technology, this suite of sciences has paved the way for new insights into how we learn and new tools to enhance what our brain does naturally. One day soon, you may distribute headsets to monitor and possibly control learner brain waves, or dispense performance-enhancing drugs that affect the way the brain behaves.

If you look closely at what people are saying about the use of AI, VR, and Augmented Intelligence, it all comes down to the brain. Your brain generates every thought, every breath, every choice, every action. It’s in your skull, but it is physically connected to every single inch of your body. It may not be “you,” but it plays a huge part in the process of becoming and continuing to be you.

And humans, no matter how far science and technology take us, humanity will continue to be essentially the same for the vast, foreseeable future.

Where Do We Go from Here?

As a learning professional, what does all this mean to you? I hope it means that you’ll continue to take advantage of your own amazing, constantly rewiring the brain to try new things, play with challenging ideas and look for ways to bring the future into your present – where it belongs.

It is only by continuing to change that we can continue to be the best of ourselves.