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Published: 16/10/2019

Learning content as a torrid affair, not a bad marriage (Kill the LMS Part 4 of 5)

David Becker elearning, learning, LMS, MLS, performance, Rethinking Learning, training

In the previous article, I argued the case for user and algorithmically generated content and suggested that combining the two in a value chain could create a stream of fresh content able to keep up with the recommendations generated from an eCoach engine. I finished by saying there is still a place for professionally produced content, albeit a greatly reduced one. So what form should professional content take?


Before I get into the content itself, I want to make the case for its structuring and storage. Hardware is changing dramatically, its not just screens getting closer to our faces and the rise and rise of mobile. We have lots of options now, from Oculus Rift and Samsung Gear VR, to gesture control hardware like Leap Motion, augmented reality like Google Glass and Spaceglasses, even brain hardware like muse and foc.us. Finally there are drones, beacons and the internet of things to consider.

The only hope we possibly have of folding these platforms into our learning ecologies is by using common content and data structuring standards to both capture and serve content. This goes well beyond a content repository, learning record store and xAPI, but its a good start. Our work with clients is exposing us to emerging industry specific XML data structuring standards, but I can’t help thinking this is just creating another silo.


In the previous article I argued that software and robotics will likely replace around 40-70% of jobs, not only manual labour jobs, but those involving procedures, processes and anything that is predictable and repeatable. But what computers will still struggle with for some time is  higher order thinking, metacognition, creativity and emotional intelligence.

To nurture these skills you need learning experiences that generate surprise, realisation, uncertainty, ambiguity, dissonance and expectation violation. These concepts, drawn from psychology have extensive evidence to support their efficacy in evoking some of these higher order skills and states. But the vast majority of digital learning content currently produced, falls well short of this benchmark. Some exceptions exist like the multivariate simulations created by tools like  DecisionSim and Skilitics or the algorithmic tool simulations created in ZebraZapps.


Another way in which most current content falls short is in embracing proven techniques from neuroscience. Amongst the neurobabble are somewhat proven techniques. Subliminal learning and sleep learning have been shown to work when associating conscious learning with sounds or smells and playing these while you’re sleeping. This works because neurons that wire together fire together, so when your sleeping mind detects the sound or smell and is listening to the content previously heard, you get activity in that part of the brain again, deepening memory encoding. This has direct relevance to the concept of mental schemas and theories of neuro-location.

Other techniques like spaced repetition and the role of novelty/valence/arousal  in amygdala activation (to signal a heightened importance of a memory to the brain) can also be co-opted for use in maximising retention, with only moderate effort on the part of developers. Other lean-in strategies like fonts and text sizes variation and lowering contrast levels to force concentration have also been shown to have a positive effect on retention.

More exciting is research into ludic loops as a dopamine based reward mechanism in the brain. These underpin addiction to games like Angry Birds or to slot machines via a mechanism where small and frequent, but random reinforcements create a comforting state that people seek. Of course games developers have been exploiting this and other techniques for years. One of the better pieces of research to come out of this is the Octalysis framework. This remarkable piece of work should be the bible for anyone looking beyond leaderboards and badges in adult learning.

Sports and entertainment industry

Another industry from which we learning professionals can take a leaf is sports and entertainment.  Storytelling and transmedia has been getting a lot of air time in learning circles recently, but with the usual thin veneer of validity. We need to look far more closely at how this industry manipulates our emotions (see neuroscience above), how they use archetypes and the monomyth to tap our primal urges, causing us to project ourselves into the story, to suspend disbelief, to transcend the minutiae of daily life and become the archetypal hero or heroine, warrior or princess, if only for a moment.

These mechanisms are well understood, but are not applied to learning and development. Just this alone represents a massive opportunity left on the table. To be fair, there are some interesting players pushing seriously into this space like Storify, Touchcast, Raptmedia and Conducttr. These tools use responsive design, video, transmedia, touch and storytelling to more deeply engage, but there is so much more we could be doing.

Most traditional eLearning toolsets are still trying to come to terms with responsive design, which is really just fiddling around the edges, though well done to Gomolearning. Meanwhile millennials at the very least and probably Gen Y and X, are giving us clear signs that they don’t want, what we have to sell.

Digital marketing

The last industry I want to explore is digital marketing. This industry is rapidly becoming a refined science of data driven incremental improvement through heat mapping, split testing and content analytics. Their language is peppered with metrics like Time on page, Click Through Rate, Cost per Conversion and Cart Abandonment Rate.

Why aren’t we applying these same tactics to internally market and continually improve learning content? Why are we barely scratching the surface of human analytics and completely ignoring content analytics? Most importantly, why don’t we see ourselves as marketers and act accordingly? The learners are after all, our customers.

It’s the same with other marketing concepts from the startup scene like growth hacking, viral content, minimum viable product, iterative design, network influencer strategies and ambassador marketing. These are fundamental tools used by many to create billion dollar businesses, yet they remain largely ignored by digital learning content producers, tools and systems vendors. It’s not like the platforms don’t exist. Not only are they mature, they are even pushing in amazing directions like Maxymizer and genetify that are starting to use genetic algorithms to automatically split test and optimise content. Imagine for a moment if these platforms correlated content data with learning activity to evolve content based on its proven ability to teach!


My headline was content as a torrid love affair, not a bad marriage. I want to finish by unpacking that. Content based on proven techniques from psychology, neuroscience, advertising, sports and entertainment, digital marketing and the startup scene will lead to deeper understanding and better retention. No doubt. But it will do that because it will viscerally engage us by evoking strong emotions, just like a torrid love affair.

In contrast most of todays digital learning content is a bad marriage between LMS providers who want consistent, predictable, easy to handle data packages and eLearning producers and tool vendors who sacrifice creativity at the altar of efficiency. The result of this bad marriage is best expressed as when the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem becomes a nail.

In my final article, i’ll bring the themes of the past four articles together at a learning ecology level and look at who should or could own the steps in the overall value chain. Then I’ll wrap it up by looking at the phenomena of the LMS in light of this ecology and value chain, to finally answer the question, is it time to kill the LMS?

You have just read part 4 of this 5 part article series. Read part 1, part 2 and part 3.

David runs the “Kill the LMS” workshop, designed to disrupt your thinking about how humans learn, reflect on the limitations your LMS imposes upon the performance of your people and look at ideas and architectures to remove those limits. Click here to learn more about this workshop.

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About the Author
David Becker

David Becker

Award winning performance architect and instructional designer with over 20 years' experience in corporate EdTech. Expert in microlearning, design thinking for learning and data modelling performance.