Learning Technologies 2024: where humans and AI collide

“There’s a sense of foreboding about what AI means for us,” says David Perring, chief insights officer at industry analyst Fosway Group. That sense of foreboding was pushed into the background at the Learning Technologies Conference & Exhibition 2024 as conference speakers, delegates and suppliers pushed positive AI messages.

The event wasn’t all about AI but it dominated the airwaves. The exhibition hall was full of suppliers pushing their AI capabilities and the seminars and conference sessions were full of it too.

“There were some great suppliers and solutions being shared, but also a lot of talk around AI with a lack of understanding or clarity as to what problem it solves or the opportunity it presents,” says Jon Fletcher, Chief AI Strategist at the LPI.

The current opportunity, based on what suppliers are pushing and what the industry is built on (content), is AI’s ability to cut the cost of content production and scale it up, as well as improve distribution. “The realisation of cost and time savings are going to start to be seen over the course of this year,” says Myles Runham, senior analyst at Fosway Group.

For much of the industry learning has become synonymous with content, and traditionally that has taken the format of courses or resources, often housed in content libraries. So many learning jobs support this content production – within the L&D team and in third party suppliers. And this is why there is – and should be – a sense of foreboding, as Perring suggests.

If content production and distribution can be done more quickly, cheaply and potentially more effectively, then where does that leave the part of the industry responsible for content production? Is generative AI a suicide note for a large part of the industry? The industry – in house and supply side, customers and employees – have high hopes for what AI can achieve and L&D teams will want to deliver on this, but at what cost to themselves?

Clearly the technology also supports other parts of the learning process, such as practice, reflection and critical thinking, but these are currently the focus of specialist technology players, such as adaptive and scenario-based learning companies, that are currently very much niche players.

There will be job losses and there will be new job opportunities but what these will look like is only starting to emerge. Hopefully we will see more discussion of new operating models for L&D over the coming months and what these mean for humans, technology and the overall learning process, not just content.

The flip side to AI at this event was the human experience of learning, and in particular what learning teams need to be thinking about to help develop colleagues effectively. One such session, facilitated by Dr Nigel Paine and Dr Celine Mullins, looked at organisational learning and the importance of harnessing the collective knowledge and wisdom of the workforce. This, Paine says, enables organisations to be agile and resilient.

This approach appears to fly in the face of the current industry fashion for personalised learning, which encourages individual learning. Paine argues that knowledge hoarded by individuals is of little use to the organisation, which is why a focus on collaboration and sharing is so important.  Organisations are facing so many challenges and to overcome them they need to be able to make good decisions and fast. Freely flowing knowledge helps do this says Paine. He advocates for L&D to focus on creating the right conditions for learning and to “build a workforce of people who believe they are learners”.

Mental health and resilience were themes in Thimon de Jong’s keynote speech. He described the effect the current polycrisis (multiple crises at once) is having on the workforce. Workers are tired, less open to change and have a mix of positive and negative emotions at the same time. This is not a good environment for learning, he says.

The least stressed workers are 40–55-year-olds, because as a group they have experienced crises that have been resolved – the hole in the ozone layer and conflicts such as the Cold War and Northern Ireland, for example. This experience gives them a more positive outlook. However, younger generations have grown up with ongoing crises, so they are living in fear and as a result tend to live for now because the future looks scary. And these crises are now amplified – through rolling news and social media – in a way that didn’t exist for 40–55-year-olds.

This generational difference can cause problems at work because leaders tend to be in the less stressed category so expect younger generations to get on with work in the way that they did. But younger generations have a different outlook, and leaders need to understand that, says de Jong. One way to facilitate this inter-generational understanding is to use reverse mentoring so that senior leaders can learn from younger colleagues about their outlook and experience of work.

Learning is a future focused endeavour which means L&D teams must focus on mental health as a part of the learning process, says de Jong. Simply asking people to discuss the question, ‘How do you look after your mental health?’ is a good starting point. De Jong asked delegates to do just this, and the room erupted in conversation.

He says that we are moving from the experience economy to the mental health economy. And this is where organisations – and learning teams – need to focus their attention.

In recent years the conference organisers have added lunchtime sessions to the agenda. Two of these were Women in Learning and sustainability. Both were practical sessions in which delegates shared experiences and committed to action. That these were smaller lunchtime sessions reflects the current priorities of the industry (and event organisers). Clearly these priorities must and will change, so let’s hope to see them main stage in 2025.

With so much change impacting on the industry it can be hard to know the next best steps to take to evolve your approach to learning. That’s why doing your research and developing your understanding of what’s possible is so important. This was well summed up by David Kelly, CEO, The Learning Guild. “With so many trends impacting on learning, the key is to understand the ones that are having the biggest impact on the organisation and react to them.”

There is a danger that L&D is too inward looking when it comes to innovation and evolution. One sign of this is the immediate focus on content efficiencies. At the same time, the learning function needs to look outwards and to understand the bigger organisational picture, the trends affecting organisational success and how L&D can support that.