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Create a Digital Learning Strategy the MIT Way

Paul McDonagh-Smith sets out the principles and possibilities for digital learning in organizations—based on the creation of MIT Sloan’s own digital learning strategy

 

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Where would we have been through the lockdown without digital technology? The way so many organizations have successfully embraced remote working and interacting digitally could be a small silver lining to the dark clouds of COVID-19—and something that augers well for the future of digital learning in executive education.

MIT Sloan have been here before. In 2012, forced to lock down by Hurricane Sandy, the Executive Education team conducted an innovative experiment in digital learning—setting up a ‘virtual world’ experience for participants in one of their executive programs. The success of this experience provided a firm foundation from which the School has since developed a pioneering approach to creating digital learning strategies.

In a recent webinar, Paul McDonagh-Smith, who leads MIT Sloan Executive Education’s digital teaching and learning programs, discussed the evolving role of technology in our lives and workplaces—and specifically how this evolution can improve our lives, our organizations and communities.

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Join Paul McDonagh-Smith and colleagues on MIT Sloan’s Digital Learning Strategy program to build an effective strategy for your organization

Dates: July 8-10, 2020; and Oct 8-9, 2020 │ Format: virtual (live online)

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McDonagh-Smith gives a dramatic example to the power of digital learning in practise: the use of the Tostan.org mobile phone app to provide literacy, numeracy and health education to thousands of people in West Africa, and in Ghana in particular, where 30% of the population is illiterate with many never having been to formal school. This practical use of digital technology is empowering thinly spread out, village-based, communities in a way other forms of education have been unable to.


Where we are today, and how we got here

To help us draw a roadmap for the future of digital learning, it is worth considering how we arrived at a point where advances in technology can provide solutions such as Tostan.org. McDonagh-Smith references Moore’s Law and the Technology Chessboard—two prophetic insights that explain how, by constantly doubling the number of transistors on a chip every twenty-four months, computer scientists have created exponential growth in computer power over the past decades. Advancement from early desktop computing to today’s mobile applications has been rapid. Now, as we enter the ‘second half of the chessboard’, AI, machine learning, quantum computing, augmented reality, and robotics, together suggest enormous possibilities for how the next 10-20 years of technological innovation might play out.


What does it mean for learning and teaching in the digital age?

Networks are fundamental to human life and the way our societies are structured. Moving from an agrarian economy, through the industrial age, now into a digital economy, our networks have expanded from local, to geographically dispersed, and now to digital networks that are both global and local—and where the relationship between distance and time has radically changed.

For McDonagh-Smith it is time now for us to align the way we learn and teach with this new environment—no longer constrained by physical constructs and enhanced by rapidly advancing technologies and global networks. An environment where so many new possibilities can be overwhelming, but where a knowledge of these possibilities is key to creating effective digital learning initiatives. To order and clarify these possibilities McDonagh-Smith proposes a ‘periodic table’ of digital technology elements—elements including AI, robotics, security, mobility, analytics, and several more. As with the chemical elements, each of these ‘technology elements’ is capable of combining with other elements to create the potential for innovative digital learning solutions.

Critically, supporting McDonagh-Smith’s comment that “the key is not a technology problem it’s a human one,” the technology elements are underpinned by human elements—such as empathy, digital culture and language, and digital business thinking. It is the combining of these human elements with the technology elements that will provide the foundation for tomorrow’s organizations.

Building digital learning strategies

McDonagh-Smith says he is primarily a ‘presentist’ and not a ‘futurist’. In building digital learning strategies, he recommends focusing on what can be achieved and delivered now rather than on building some idealistic strategy for some time in the future. On the other hand, we need to have an idea of what the future may hold and for this he recommends the concept of ‘reverse engineering’. Rather than envisioning the future through the perspective of—and carrying the baggage of—the present, we should imagine a future where technologies and human capabilities have overcome some of today’s barriers.

With an imagined idea about the future, but an anchoring focus on what can be done now, leaders of digital learning will be well set to develop a vision for the outcome they want, and a strategy and action plan to get there.

To help achieve that action plan, McDonagh-Smith suggests adopting a ‘4Cs model’: Communication, Collaboration, Cooperation, and Compromise—which speaks to the need for digital learning to have ‘heart’ in order to connect learning content to participants in an intrinsically motivational way.

The 4Cs is also relevant in connecting digital learning to the physical. Digital and physical learning should be seen as complementary mechanisms that combine and join forces to deliver value to individuals, teams, organizations and society.

An effective digital learning strategy also requires a broad range of individuals, with diverse skills and perspectives, to join forces in its creation. McDonagh-Smith recommends assembling a ‘team of teams’ both from across the organization and from outside; an assembly that should be led not by command and control but by collaboration.

Finally, McDonagh-Smith mentions the need to experiment. MIT Sloan have conducted hundreds of experiments in creating their own digital learning strategy. Experimentation should follow seven key principles:

  • Frame the problem: spend time getting the question right
  • Set a short time frame: 6 to 12 weeks
  • Build a diverse ‘team of teams’
  • Be data driven: support insights with data
  • Share results openly: creating a learning organization
  • Be human: care for your team and your customers
  • Be a ‘presentist’: rather than a technology ‘futurist’—taking small incremental steps that can be implemented today.

Moving from an era of industrial technology and associated mindset, to a digital era—one that has come on very quickly and is still rapidly developing—is hard. The overriding purpose of building effective digital learning strategies is to ease this move and to find ways to get the best from all that digital has to offer, for our teams, our organizations, our customers, and for society.

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Learn more about the MIT Sloan Digital Learning Strategy program


MIT Sloan is uniquely positioned at the intersection of technology and business practice, and participants in our programs gain access to MIT’s distinctive blend of intellectual capital and practical, hands-on learning.



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