August 16, 2018

Designing online learning in a volatile world

Adamson, C. (2012) Learning in a VUCA world, Online Educa Berlin News Portal, November 13

VUCA is a new term to me, although what it describes – volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity – is not. This is certainly what online educators are increasingly familiar with.

This year’s ONLINE EDUCA BERLIN conference will hold a plenary session to discuss learning in a VUCA world and the ways that knowledge workers learn to innovate. As Clare Adamson writes:

The systems under which the world operates and the ways that individual businesses operate are vast and complex – interconnected to the point of confusion and uncertainty. The linear process of cause and effect becomes increasingly irrelevant, and it is necessary for knowledge workers to begin thinking in new ways and exploring new solutions.

While the VUCA world may seem like a scary and unpredictable thing, preparing a company for any eventuality is a massive opportunity for innovation, learning and change, and it should be treated as such. 

One of the most important ways that knowledge workers can interact with the VUCA world is through constant learning and access to new information and new processes. School-based learning is an essential part of personal development, but allowing employees to learn in action is one of the most important steps toward readiness in a VUCA world.

This looks like being an interesting session, although the focus will be more on learning in the workplace. Nevertheless, it’s worth thinking through the implications of  a ‘VUCA’ world for learning in post-secondary education .

There are two different kinds of questions for instructors in post-secondary education:

  • how do you prepare learners to cope with and  indeed even exploit volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity?
  • how do instructors and course designers also best work within such an environment, which certainly applies not just to technology developments, but also to external factors that bring pressure on universities and colleges to respond in ways different from tradition? MOOCs are a good example.

The first question is the most challenging. Certainly a traditional transmission model of education, with the subject expert telling students what they need to know, then testing them on how well they have learned what the master has taught, is not going to cut it. In a VUCA world, you will still need to know ‘stuff’, but when the ‘stuff’ itself is rapidly changing, less certain, and more distributed, you need other skills to cope.

Preparing students

My answer to the first question is to create learning environments that require students to deal with VUCA. Students need to develop the key knowledge management skills of knowing where to find relevant information, how to assess, evaluate and appropriately apply such information. This means exposing them to less than certain knowledge and providing them with the skills, practice and feedback to assess and evaluate such knowledge then apply that to solving real world problems. Indeed, part of the process should be learning to identify problems as well as solutions. This is going to be a dynamic, ongoing process, and will most likely involve social networks and other sources of input to the learning from outside the institution. But also within this process there will be ‘stuff’ that still needs to be learned.

Designing learning

I have written before about whether the traditional ADDIE instructional design model is flexible enough to cope with new learning environments. I think it is far too rigid to deal with VUCA. For instance, even setting prior learning outcomes is fraught in a VUCA environment, unless you set them at an abstract ‘skill’ level such as thinking flexibly, networking, and information retrieval and analysis. However, these abstract skills need to be grounded in real world contexts. Research has shown that there are limits to the transfer of knowledge and skills across different subject domains or different contexts.

This means designing learning environments that are rich and constantly changing, but enable students to develop and practice the skills and acquire the knowledge they will need in a VUCA world. I have seen several examples of this. For instance, in UBC’s ETEC 522, ‘Venture in Learning Technology’, students have to explore new technologies, see a possible application, then develop a an implementation strategy for a business built around that application. Each year there a are new technologies, and the course is refreshed and renewed each year, as much by the students’ interests as by the faculty’s.

Another example is the historiography course where students use the Internet to identify and evaluate historical sources, then use these sources to write a history of the last 50 years of a city in another country, including the development of a theme or narrative. Blogs, wikis and social media are used, to identify sources (people still alive for instance who lived through certain events) and to share information. Each year there are new sources coming online, different cities and different themes are chosen. Students are learning a range of other skills besides those of an historian. At the same time, some of the the core skills of a historian are being taught.

In particular, we need  a variety of design models that are highly flexible and adaptable so that the design can respond to different student interests, new knowledge as it becomes available, and an ever-changing external environment. Such course designs need though to meet certain criteria that we know are associated with student success in even VUCA-like environments:

  • a certain structure in which the learning takes place (for instance a virtual learning environment that has certain constants, such as student-managed blogs and wikis, a core knowledge base, clear deadlines for work),
  • clear and well-defined student learning expectations (e.g. regular demonstration of learning through portfolio work, clear assessment criteria), and
  • plenty of feedback and communication at three different levels: instructor – student; student – student; and student – external world.


I have only scratched the surface here, and I certainly don’t have all the answers. Nevertheless, to prepare students for a VUCA world, we need to move away from fixed curricula, information transmission, and passive learning. There are many different possible models that will be developed, but these too need to be grounded in practice, and in particular should take account of the research into how students best learn.


1. Can you share an example of a course design that enables students to cope with a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world?

2. Do you agree that we need more flexible design models for learning in a VUCA world – or will ADDIE still cut it? Do we have good design models for a VUCA world already?

3. Are there dangers in focusing on the uncertain and trying to help people cope with the unknown, rather than focusing on what we do know?

4. Is VUCA just the latest business fad that will fade into oblivion soon – or is it a significant development that needs to drive the way we teach?


Online Educa Berlin 2012 conference approaching

The Kurfürstendamm, Berlin


This year is the 18th international conference on technology supported learning and training organized by Online Educa Berlin. The conference, one of the largest in Europe on online learning, bridges the academic, public service and corporate sectors. Every year, ONLINE EDUCA BERLIN attracts over 2000 participants from more than 100 countries world-wide. This year there will be over 400 sessions (in three days – you’ll have to run to get them all.)


The program can be downloaded from here.

Keynote speakers include:

  • Sir Michael Barber, Chief Educational Advisor, Pearson Publishing, UK
  • Jens Hilgers, Geewa Games, Germany
  • Keyvon Beykpour, General Manager of Blackboard Mobile, USA
  • Ayesha Khana, Founder and Director of the Hybrid Reality Institute, Singapore
  • Mark David Milliron, Chancellor, Western Governors University, Texas, USA
  • Michael Trucano, Senior ICT and Policy Analyst, the World Bank


November 28-30, 2012


Well, it’s hard to find on the conference web site. Although Berlin’s a fascinating city to wander around, an address will be useful, so as a public service, I’ll tell you:

Hotel Intercontinental, Budapester Straße 2  10787 Berlin, Germany. Tel.: +49 -030-26020.

More details

Registration and other details can be found at the conference web site:

Online Educa Berlin 2011 program now available

The ONLINE EDUCA BERLIN 2011 programme is now available online. Featuring over 80 parallel sessions and 350 speakers, this year’s programme centres on New Learning Cultures.  Focusing on cutting-edge technologies and the latest policy developments, key questions in education and business will be addressed, including how can the delivery of education keep up with the pace of change? Do we need a new culture of learning? Are the old methods dead?

One of the keynote speakers is Ruth Martinez, E-Learning consultant and researcher in 3D Virtual Worlds. She is interviewed here:

Martinez, R. (2011) Virtual learning environments: an interview with Ruth Martínez Online Educa News Service, October 14

Another interesting presentation is about learner-directed learning. Thomas Köhler of the Institute for Vocational Education at Dresden University of Technology and Jens Drummer of the Saxony Education Institute have worked on a longitudinal study that looks at learner output in self-directed e-learning exercises. For more information, see:

Köhler, T. and Drummer, J. (2011) A learner-centred approach to Web 2.0 e-learning, Online Educa News Service, October 14

Where: Hotel Intercontinental, Budapester Str. 2, 10787 Berlin Germany Tel.: +49 (0)30 26 02-0

When: November 30-December 2

Report on Online Educa Berlin 2010

The report summarizing the Online Educa Berlin 2010 conference earlier this month concluded:

‘A new paradigm of learning emerged during the sessions attended by a record number of 2197 participants from 108 countries: Leaders in business, education and research were urged to fundamentally change the learning culture of their organisations. It was felt that only an open climate that nurtures learning will enable companies, schools or institutions of higher education to adapt to the ever increasing dynamics of competitive global markets…..

A new learning culture that takes advantage of digital technologies is also urgently needed in education. This became very clear in the ONLINE EDUCA debate, chaired by the former British MP Dr Harold Elletson. An overwhelming majority of the audience voted in favour of the motion that “The public sector has failed to use ICTs effectively in education and training”.

As I wasn’t there, I’m struggling to understand exactly what this ‘new paradigm of learning’ means, but it sounds good. I’m all for changing the learning culture – but to what? I need more details, or is this a general phrase to capture a wide variety of interesting developments that are different from traditional teaching? Would anyone who was able to attend like to attempt a definition of this new learning culture? I’m hoping for something more precise than ‘better and more use of technology.’ Alternatively, if someone will offer me a plane ticket to Berlin for next year’s conference…..

There is also a full report on sessions on serious games and simulations, showing a number of applications within the corporate and vocational sector, including police training, wine management, law, economics and literacy history. These sessions certainly looked interesting.

For more on the outcomes of this conference, see also video recordings from the conference

Online Educa Berlin 2010 program

Savignyplatz Berlin


Online Educa Berlin is one of the largest annual conferences worldwide on e-learning.

It recently published some details about its plans for its 2010 conference, to be held in Berlin between 1-3 December, 2010. at the Hotel Intercontinental, Berlin.

From its website:

Under the banner of Learning for All, ONLINE EDUCA BERLIN 2010 will dig deep into 4 themes that form the pillars of innovation: Learning Content, Learning About Learning, Learning Ecosystems and Learning Environments, which will contribute to successful learning outcomes in the three learning domains: Institutional Learning, Workplace Learning and Lifelong Learning.

The aim of this year’s programme will be to move from discussion to learning, from theory to practical action that leads to systemic change, and from silo or sector mentality to a spirit of sharing and innovation for all. The programme will be structured to ensure that the experiences of those from the 3 learning domains are shared so that each will gain from the other’s experiences.

In addition, the conference will be focusing on practical outcomes – so all proposals will need to address four key questions: What did we do? Why? With what results? With what impact?

For those of you who have never been to Berlin, it’s one of my favourite cities, a great fun city to visit.

The conference is also usually excellent, if more focused on corporate e-learning than most.