Learning Futures — How seven trends will shape learning and development.

February 16, 2021
7 min read
“Things get much easier if one jumps on the bandwagon of existing trends.”
— Lei Jun¹

The pandemic has not been a change agent so much as an accelerant. Fuel on an already burning fire. So argues Scott Galloway in his new book, Post Corona: From Crisis to Opportunity

If that’s true — and we believe it is — what underlying trends are shaping the world of learning and development? In the latter half of 2020, fassforward conducted qualitative interviews with nearly 100 business leaders, HR professionals, learning practitioners, and academics to find out how remote learning would change.

If you would like to receive a copy of this research click HERE.

Here are seven trends that surfaced in those conversations.

Remote work.

The move to remote work seems inevitable. Despite the drawbacks of Zoom Gloom, there will be a permanent shift to remote work. To be effective, businesses will have to rethink how they work and collaborate on a daily basis. Organizations that choose a flexible work option will be particularly challenged.  At any one time, half the team could be remote, and the other half, face-to-face. New habits and mindsets around this half remote, half live work will emerge.

Interest over time in remote work, Google Trends.

A theme from our research: the intertwining of remote work and learning.

There is nothing like a crisis to demonstrate what you can do when you have to do it. COVID has demonstrated this to us in a big way. Now we need to shift our focus to the human experience by demonstrating empathy and flexibility, and meeting people where they are so everyone can do their best work.

— Maryanne Spatola, CEO, C3 Talent Strategies

Flexible and remote work has knock-on effects on learning. Learning will still happen in the flow of work, but work will change. Leaders worry about the loss of social cohesion on teams and its impact on their culture. This will mean training and learning will take on some of that burden.

Google autosuggest for remote work

Ikigai and conscious capitalism.

The founder of Whole Foods, John Mackey, coined the term “conscious capitalism.” It’s the idea that while money talks in business, there is a higher purpose beyond profit. Purpose serves the needs of shareholders, employees, customers, and society. Thus the movement to purpose-driven organizations and teams. There is a commercial benefit to this movement. Consumers are more likely to buy from, protect and champion purpose-driven companies.³

Interest over time in conscious capitalism, Google Trends.

A theme from our research: learning connects to purpose.

If conscious capitalism works for the corporation, Ikigai works for the individual. It’s the fulfilling space where what you do serves a greater good, is something you are good at, like to do, and get paid for.

Our own coaching practice has reflected this trend. According to fassforward Executive Coach Sheri Reynard, “People are actively seeking to understand where they sit in the world now, and align it with their work-life.”

Millennials and Gen Z have a more profound commitment to purpose than previous generations.  They believe the primary purpose of businesses should be “improving society.”⁴  SHRM tells us that 94% of millennials want to use their skills to benefit a cause.⁵ 91% of millennials prefer to buy from purpose-driven brands.⁶

This flows into learning. Curiosity, intrinsic motivation, and learning connect to the learners’ own sense of purpose. This has to connect to the purpose of the organization.

Google autosuggest for conscious capitalism


The topic of the moment at the World Economic Forum is upskilling. Its “Reskilling Revolution” is an ambitious initiative to provide a billion people with better skills by 2030.”⁷

Upskilling is top of mind for CEOs. 87% of companies have skills gaps or expect them in a few years.⁸ Upskilling is the top of everyone’s agenda, according to the 2021 L&D sentiment poll by Donald H Taylor.⁹

The pandemic has made the skills gap worse. COVID-19 accelerated digital transformation. Across industries, machine learning, AI, and automation are replacing jobs.

Interest over time in upskilling, Google Trends.

A theme from our research: upskilling will demand a learning culture.

“A learning culture would mean that the norm and the behavior would be about continuously acquiring new knowledge, building new skills. But at the core of that is curiosity. If you don't have a curious culture, you can't have a learning culture.”

— Janice Robinson Burns, Chief Career Experience Officer, Degreed

As upskilling rises to the top of a CEO’s agenda, the need for a learning culture will rise with it. CLOs will work hand-in-hand with their peers to build new collective habits and shape that culture.

Google autosuggest for automation


There’s a boom in EdTech. In 2020, investment capital lavished $2.2 Billion funding U.S. EdTech businesses.¹⁰ An increase of 30% over the previous year, with a record 130 deals inked. This level of investment represents an industry ripe for disruption with a swath of innovation to come.

These technologies will “put the humanity back,” according to Dream-See-Do CEO Jeremy Berman. This technology convergence —  in learning analytics, gamification, AI,and  blockchain — will make remote learning easier.

Interest over time in Edtech, Google Trends.

A theme from our research: experiment with technology and pedagogy.

“In the context of learning, humans have learned how to communicate and learn in person for over 10,000 years, but have only been learning online for 10-15 at most. Before the pandemic hit, many people weren't thinking critically about remote learning. Now we have a whole new awareness of what it’s like.”

— Ryan Laverty, President, Arist.

Learning professionals will have to master the tech stack. This is more than unpacking the acronyms HCM, LMS, and LXP.¹¹ Experimenting with new, emerging technologies will drive engagement, accessibility, and ease of production. One caution — don't let technology disrupt the flow of work. If learning occurs in the flow of work, technologies should suit that, not that disrupt that.

Google autosuggest for Edtech


Virtual worlds have been around for a while. Every decade, their promise threatens to break out of the gaming universe. Myst in 1993. Second Life in 2003. Oculus Rift in 2013.

The pandemic has accelerated this trend. Where in-person training programs couldn’t adapt to Zoom, virtual steps in. Pepsico, for example, used Minecraft as a basis of its Lean Six Sigma program.¹²

Virtual worlds are immersive 3D environments played out on 2D screens. Virtual Reality has those worlds rendered using VR headsets. Augmented Reality is the overlay of a virtual world on the real world (think Pokémon Go).¹³ These technologies bundle under the umbrella acronym of XR. And XR is coming. Virtual reality hasn’t reached Star Trek holodeck standards. But it’s getting closer.

Interest over time in VR and AR, Google Trends.

A theme from our research: XR will move beyond its niche.

“We are literally creators of worlds. We create these immersive environments or film real environments with a 360 camera. It gives our employees a chance to be teleported, to wherever we need to, whatever kind of environment we need them to be in.”

— Kevin Byrd,  Sr Mgr - Learning Technology AR/VR, Verizon

Virtual reality is ideal for practicing repetitive physical tasks. Or simulating situations that are either impossible or expensive to replicate in real life. Think “active shooter” training or combat scenarios. It also has more nuanced uses. It’s difficult to replicate the primal fear of public speaking or conflicted conversations, but VR can at least simulate the butterflies in your stomach.

Google autosuggest for VR


The “M” in M-learning stands for Mobile. It might as well stand for Micro. We all carry a smartphone shaped umbilical cord to the Internet. More or less, we are attached to a device that satiates our need for community, curiosity, entertainment, and connection. When 5G kicks in, the cord gets bigger and faster.

M-learning is seen as an antidote for low course completion rates. If employees can’t make time for learning, pushing content in small, consumable chunks makes sense.¹⁴

Interest over time in M-learning, Google Trends.

A theme from our research: mobile will support learning and practice.

“Social media has transformed the way people like to consume information today. We can use that for good. Learning via smartphones — not adapting to mobile, but born mobile — will make learning sticky. Short courses, where you don’t spend more than 10 or 15 minutes learning. ”

— Kate Udalova, Founder, 7taps.

M-learning applications will support learning and practice. It’s an ideal delivery medium for micro-learning. A smartphone can act as a memory aid or cliff notes in mobile form. It can support leaders, coaching to a new skill or behavior. And finally, for the learner, setting and tracking goals for those new skills.

Bring your own device policies will reshape how we use mobile for work. Mobile phones will move from a secondary learning role to a primary one.

Google autosuggest for mobile learning


At the center of all these trends is the learner. Their motivation to learn, extrinsic or intrinsic, matters more than the technology used or the business’s economic pressures.

Observing brain activity has added measurement to theory in the field of neuroscience. Theories of attentiveness and learning play out in behavioral economics and cognitive psychology.

All this has brought science-based, practical methods to stimulate learning.

Nudges are one such example. We see them everywhere, in email applications, product placement, and default options. They are small positive reinforcement and suggestions to influence behavior.

Interest over time in Nudges, Google Trends.

A theme from our research: apply principles of cognitive psychology to learning.

“Learning is either raising awareness or building a new skill or, most importantly, building new habits. And that's the important part of any learning — changing behavior or behavior improvement.”

— Michael Fraccaro. Chief People Officer, Mastercard.

COVID-19 has reset how we engage people in learning. This is an opportunity to apply the principles of cognitive psychology and behavioral economics to motivation and mastery. To help learners build their skills and adopt new habits.

Google autosuggest for habits

Seven trends to guide you.

In dozens of conversations with experts about the future of remote learning, seven trends surfaced across three categories: macro-economic, technological, and psychological.

The first themes are macro-economic: That remote work and learning are intertwined. That learning must connect to purpose. And upskilling will require a learning culture to succeed.

This brings us to a set of technological themes. The move to remote learning requires experimentation with technology and pedagogy. New technologies alone, without understanding how best to use them, won’t cut it. Virtual reality in learning has been promised for decades. Its time has come. XR will move beyond its niche. Rather than develop for mobile as a second option, it should be a primary option, as mobile supports learning and practice.

Finally, the psychology of human motivation underpins all these themes. This points to the opportunity for learning professionals to apply the principles of cognitive psychology into learning.

Click HERE to receive a full copy of The How To Guide on Remote Learning.

Gavin McMahon is a founder and Chief Content Officer for fassforward consulting group. He leads Learning Design and Product development across fassforward’s range of services. This crosses diverse topics, including Leadership, Culture, Decision-making, Information design, Storytelling, and Customer Experience. He is also a contributor to Forbes Business Council.

Eugene Yoon is a graphic designer and illustrator at fassforward. She is a crafter of Visual Logic. Eugene is multifaceted and works on various types of projects, including but not limited to product design, UX and web design, data visualization, print design, advertising, and presentation design.

¹ Founder, Xiaomi
² Galloway, Scott. Post Corona. Portfolio, 2020.
³ Aziz, Afdhel. “Global Study Reveals Consumers Are Four To Six Times More Likely To Purchase, Protect And Champion Purpose-Driven Companies.” Forbes, 17 June 2020.
⁴ Goleman, Daniel. “Millennials: The Purpose Generation.” Korn Ferry.
⁵ Gurchiek, Kathy. “Millennial’s Desire to Do Good Defines Workplace Culture.” SHRM, 7 July 2014.
⁶ Ciochetto, Meredith. “New Cone Communications Research Confirms Millennials as America’s Most Ardent CSR Supporters.” Cone Communications, 23 Sept. 2015.
⁷ “The Reskilling Revolution: Better Skills, Better Jobs, Better Education for a Billion People by 2030.” World Economic Forum.
⁸ “Five Fifty: The Skillful Corporation.” McKinsey & Company.
⁹ Taylor, Donald H. “The L&D Global Sentiment Survey 2021: The Covid Effect.” 2 Feb. 2021.
¹⁰ “A Record Year Amid a Pandemic: US Edtech Raises $2.2 Billion in 2020” EdSurge, 13 Jan. 2021.
¹¹ HCM system (Human Capital Management); an LMS (Learning Management System) and an LXP (Learning Experience Platform).
¹² Golden, Ryan. “PepsiCo Turns to Minecraft, Moving Virtual Training Away from ‘Zoom Fatigue.’” HR Dive, 26 Jan. 2021.
¹³ If you missed the Pokemon Go craze, you probably don’t have a teenager. Read more about it here. “Pokémon Go Is Catching Us All — In Unexpected Ways.” NPR, 11 July 2016.
¹⁴ “LinkedIn’s 2018 Workplace Learning Report.” Workplace Learning & Development Report 2018 | LinkedIn Learning.

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