Donald Clark Interview: Why your LMS is a Zombie, Why you need Curation and AI in Learning


Donald Clark has been at the forefront of new thinking, new ideas, and getting things done in learning for over 25 years. We caught up with him to talk about the death (and rebirth) of the LMS, why curation matters, and how blended learning needs to come back.

We talk about learners taking responsibility for their own learning. Is that really happening?

Well, there’s always been a tension between the agency of the individual and the needs of the organisation, and L&D is often stuck in the middle. When technology comes into the mix it’s tended to side with the top down centralised control side of that axis. So HR becomes a defender of the organisation against its own employees. That’s what all compliance training is. They present it as if it’s good for you as an individual, it’s good for you to do this Anti-Money Laundering or Diversity course. But really the rationale is about about protecting the organisation against insurance claims.

For LMS there’s always been this edict that everything will be a course and tracked, because technology does this very well, just gathers data we just do it. But what’s often better for the organisation is to let people have more control over their lives. I think we’re on the verge of a pendulum swing away from the idea that all learning has to be fixed, linear and fossilised towards making things more personalised for the individual. So that the individual genuinely has agency in being helped in achieving their personal goals. And AI is all about that, the invisible hand via AI and APIs that bring you just what you need via Google or Facebook. And surely that can be done in learning.

dc-quote-1But on the content side, there’s way too much hand crafting of learning. It’s like an artisan cottage industry. All the board games, badges, animations on every screen. It’s like going to a horrible gift shop where everything is over-designed and garish. And learners have no control. We need to get beyond that.

What’s the role of the LMS in giving more power to the learner?

As I’ve said, the LMS is dead, long live the LMS. The LMS won’t die. People will keep going to them. You need an LMS in large organisations to manage data. That’s fair enough. You need a scalable solution. You have to worry about integration with HR systems. You have to deal with data and security issues. So I have sympathy with IT people who need to solve those problems and the LMS does that. But solving those are back end problems. But it doesn’t solve anything to do with giving people control over learning and personal development or achieving business goals.

But when you have a Zombie LMS, that has no life, and when you mention it people roll their eyes, even the L&D people, you know you’ve lost the game. The LMS for most organisations is like a dungeon. Things go into it and nobody likes going there. Why? the problem is that most of the LMSs are just lists of courses. That’s all that’s in them. And that’s a real shame as it cripples the use of more innovative approaches, like use of AI or VR – anything that doesn’t fit in the LMS doesn’t get done. The LMS is the enemy of innovation, they’re just big course-based cul de sacs. But at the same time we need them. So it’s a double edged sword. That’s why we need to bring more into them.


What role can curation play in learning?

Content curation is a force for good, but then it turned into more like the hand crafted cottage industry model we’ve talked about. When L&D got hold of content curation, they thought “we’ll hand curate content” – that doesn’t work without using technology. Do we want to go back to the days pre Google, where we had to walk up and down library shelves finding articles from journals, or do we want to type something in and get it in a millisecond.

So if you’re trying to do all your curation by hand, you’re making a mistake. You need technology to help you. Tools like Google and Anders Pink are using smart AI and algorithms to help you get increasingly good results. But then, of course you need a human filter too. That’s really important. Your personal and team filters really matter. We’re in the age of algorithms and they help you to find content you might want to curate.


How can we help teams stay smart – what can collective intelligence do for us?

Collective intelligence is a fascinating subject.  Wikipedia is a great example. You have social creation by contributors, social moderation by editors, and social users. It’s an astonishing act of collective intelligence. But beyond it we’re moving into a completely different realm. Collective intelligence is more than just a bunch of people getting together to do things, it can include other forms of intelligence. We have Artificial Intelligence, they’re part of the mix now. The agents for intelligence aren’t just people, it’s AI too.

Look at how robots share knowledge when they’re learning how to do a task. They instantly do it, there’s no explaining to each other. We can’t do that. I’m speaking you at the moment, you can’t automatically download anything from me except through the fairly inefficient form of speech. But robots can share intelligence instantly with no filter. Automatic transfer of knowledge into the system is a key part of collective intelligence. Compare it to the brain, which gets sick, tired, distracted and dies. AI doesn’t do any of that. So we need to allow AI into our networks and let them help us be collectively intelligent.  

What can vendors to do help drive change in learning?

Some LMS vendors have tried to bring in curation and AI, but most if it is fairly hokey, some light element of recommendation just tagged on. Most of them don’t really have what it takes to move properly into AI and collective intelligence. The new kids on the block are adaptive systems like CogBooks, Area 9 – these are built bottom up to have AI and help you as a learner decide your own learning journey. They’ll probably be bought by LMS vendors.

Vendors should do more with curation. What I’ve been doing with WildFire is letting AI create the content for you, including links out to other content. Having a course that’s porous around the edge, it links out to wikipedia and other sources if you’re curious and want to explore it. Then at the end of the course I’m using AI to curate content.

We need to recognise that the end of the course is just the beginning of the learning journey, the course is far from being a thing in itself. We know that people will forget nearly everything they learned in a course. You need to stimulate and support people to go on and keep exploring and learning. Most courses just shut down at end and say thanks a lot, you got 70%, good luck. That’s notions of a scored, closed course is bizarre, there’s nothing to say that’s adequate.

What about good old blended learning?

One practical solution is to reenergise the phrase blended learning. It’s been completely crippled by L&D people. Mainly what we have is blended teaching. We mix a few modes of instruction – here’s a classroom experience, now do the elearning course. That’s not blended learning. But now with AI, we have the potential to do post course curation. Help people to search and find relevant content, be stimulated, be curious on your own. That’s shifting the balance of power to the learner. That’s actual blended learning. This idea that we can force people through courses and batter them into submission is just wrong. Look at all the compliance training that was done, then in 2008 the world’s financial systems nearly collapse. And the compliance learning had no effect whatsoever. And what did we do after? We increased regulation and we have people more compliance training. Why do we think that would work? It’s just doubling down on the wrong way of doing things.


If you were a smart L&D person you should say there will be no such thing as blended learning in our business unless we include opportunities for people to apply, practice, reinforce and curate content after the course. That’s what will change things.

What can Virtual Reality do for corporate learning?

Virtual Reality is going to change how we learn. We need more adoption of devices, but with Google Daydream, Apple, Facebook with Oculus Rift, the main players are driving adoption on the consumer front. But the real question is what will it do for learning. We’re still mainly delivering via very basic technology. And in general we dropped learning by doing. It’s still mainly reading. Now we have a real chance to deliver experiential learning in a very real way. The world is 3D, so we should practice and train in a 3D environment. The initial hit will be in vocational, but there’s great potential for soft skills like leadership. Leadership is pretend training, just abstract words on a flipchart. We should be training people what’s it really like to run a meeting, deal with conflict – good practical management training. And VR can help with that.

For a long time we’ve used the flight simulator analogy. You would only get on a plane if the pilot had done hours of simulation. We couldn’t do that for corporate learning because of the budgets but now we’ll have VR gear that is very cheap. There’s already great examples in manufacturing, where you’re doing real tasks in VR. VR will let us bring back experience and doing, the things that really matter in learning and life.