The downsides of framing learning as a marketplace

In my last post, I looked at the role of the teacher in the learning process. I described my sense that great teachers are great because they help learners find their own reasons for learning. I also lamented the fact that formal learning systems tend to be teacher-centric and teaching-centric, and that this seems acceptable to a large number of learners. This post considers how economic factors buttress a teacher-centric approach to corporate learning. To anyone who thinks of learning primarily as a business, much of this post fits into the ‘Well duh!?!’ category, but to those who see supporting the learning process as a calling, acknowledging the economic drivers of the learning market can be disillusioning.

Learning is driven by market mechanisms.

Learning is a product. Learning is produced, delivered and purchased through a market.  In the learning market, as in other markets, the sellers want to make sure transactions are profitable enough for the sellers to stay in business and valuable enough to keep the buyers buying.

Learning is managed a bit like an industrial process.  To be acceptable to corporate customers, learning products must meet certain expectations relating to quality, consistency and so on. As a result, learning products and services tend to be developed, delivered and consumed according to standardized, rationalized and systematized processes. These processes are supported by organizational systems based on hierarchy and division of labor. Various learning professionals are paid to execute and/or oversee specific functions on the delivery side of the market. Publishers and learning vendors earn a living by generating marketable learning products. Learning consultants and managers are paid to manage the purchase and delivery. Facilitators and trainers are paid to deliver learning products to learners as well as to manage the use and perception of those products.

The customer is whoever pays the bills. In most cases, the learners are not the primary customers. Those who either pay for or have been selected to make purchase decisions on the behalf of the learners and other stakeholders generally have an interest in seeing something specific learned.  This may or may not match the actual interests of the learners themselves, but for obvious reasons, the objectives set by the purchaser tend to receive higher priority.

Purchasers demand that sellers manage quality.  It is only natural that those who pay for learning products would expect that someone take responsibility for their quality.  As in other markets, this responsibility falls on the suppliers rather than the consumers. Since their livelihood depends on the success of the learning venture, it behooves suppliers to exert as much control as possible over anything that might impact on the perceived value of their products.

Learners tend to be fairly comfortable with this arrangement since it puts the onus for high quality learning on the seller rather than the learners themselves.  Pre-program questionnaires and post-program evaluations generally provide learners with an opportunity to clarify what they expect from trainers, programs and even learning managers, but they are much less likely to ask learners to evaluate the quality of their own contribution to the learning process.  This leads to an odd situation in which the deliverers are held responsible for the quality of a product that in many ways exists primarily in the minds of the learners.

Learning itself is a subjective process, and not always amenable to measurement; however, customers do need some standard by which to judge the productivity of their investment, so wise sellers develop strategies to generate evidence of learning and/or user satisfaction.  This can be achieved by framing learning objectives in easily measurable terms. Sellers and managers of learning often measure the ability of learners to re-produce pre-selected chunks of information or demonstrate observable ‘skills.’  This leads to the use of standardized assessments, learning materials, learning plans, etc. which enable the sellers and managers to control the quality – or at least the perception of quality – of learning.  In some cases, the customer may decide that such measures do not get at ‘the heart’ of the learning objectives.  Nonetheless, since the buyer needs some standard, they look for ways to assess the subjective satisfaction of the learners.

Trainers are often the most visible representatives of the supply side of the learning market.  The managers of successful learning ventures tend to go to great lengths to ensure that their trainers and facilitators are perceived as a high quality feature of the product.  Much of this is accomplished through the quality control (train-the-trainer) process.

Trainers learn how to captivate and lead learners toward clear targets.  The successful trainers learn how to lead their learners to the right place on the river of knowledge as well as how to get them to drink at exactly that place. If trainers manage the learning process carefully, they can induce a specific learning performance on the part of the learners. That performance might be getting a superior result on a test or demonstrating an appropriate behavior or simply cheerily sharing a positive evaluation of the trainer and learning product.  Since sometimes the subjective evaluation of the customer is the only standard used in judging the product, trainers learn to manage the perceptions of managers, buyers and learners.

There are merits to this system. There is, of course, more to the learning story than just markets, sellers and buyers.  Anyway, the market model of learning provides a context in which individual learners gain access to all sorts of information and knowledge that is only accessible because someone has an economic interest in making it available.  Moreover, to the degree that learning is managed to meet the objectives of a collective on which the individuals depend for survival, it is often in the interest of individuals to explore what this system has to offer as well as to have the enlightened self-interest to pay attention to what exactly the collective needs them to learn.

Still, when taken to its extremes, this model can be stultifying for learners,  trainers and everyone else in the learning market.   While there are certainly merits to the market-driven learning environment, there are also significant drawbacks. The trainer can start to feel more like a sales representative or customer service agent than a steward of real learning.  Moreover, learners who become too comfortable in the role of consumer can lose touch with the intrinsic motivations they had for learning. Some even use their prerogative to criticize the sellers and internal learning professionals as a means to avoid having to take any personal responsibility for their own learning (or lack thereof).

There may be some connection between teacher-centric learning and low transference rates. Research on training programs consistently reports very low transference rates from classroom to workplace.  This may be because the people who actually have to use the knowledge frequently do not have a large enough role or stake in the learning process.  At any rate, the people responsible for delivering content and managing learners are often busy enough controlling the factors they can control by creating quality control systems and implementing techniques to give the consumer a feeling of satisfaction.  Between driving the learners to produce results on assessments that don’t assess the right things and keeping the learners happy enough to ensure they give happy evaluations on the post-program questionnaires, who has time for thinking about learning anyway?

There has to be a better way.

© Dana Cogan 2009

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