In the News: Skype May Have Just Redefined Global Learning

I’ve often said that if you want to see how technology is going to chnage the way people learn, you don’t look in a classroom. To see how technology will change learning, we should look at the way technology is changing the way we live our daily lives, because that will naturally change the ways we learn.

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, so today I want to talk about an exciting technological breakthrough that uses a classroom environment to demonstrate it’s incredible potential.

Skype Translator

Microsoft just announced an update to Skype that includes Translator Preview, which enables real-time translation and speech-to-text of spoken English ans Spanish, with more languages on the way. This has the potential to remove language as a barrier to communication. The vast implications of removing such a barrier are tremendous, but let’s narrow our scope and look at it in the context of learning and performance support.

Let’s see it in action first.

It’s just… “Wow”, right?

Granted, it’s in testing, and right now it’s only English and Spanish that work via live speaking, but others are coming. The possibilities are incredible, especially in our world of learning and performance.

New Doors for Learning

This is an example of a technology that can fundamentally change the way we communicate, and as such, it will also radically change the ways we can learn. As global as we are, language is still a barrier that limits the connections we can make with people in other parts of the world.

BN-GA349_skype__G_20141215140836I’m privileged to have a robust personal learning network that includes people all over the globe, powered by social media’s ability to remove the barrier of distance. At the same time, my network is still constrained and limited by my language. The vast majority of people in my network come from English-speaking countries. Connections that come from countries where English is not the primary language are usually coming from bilingual individuals that are connecting with me in English.

I do have a few non-English speaking individuals that I connect with and learn from, but the language barrier limits the interactions to asynchronous emails or messages that each of us can run through online translators and respond to. That in itself is incredible, but it’s not the same as having a conversation with someone.

Now that language barrier is being removed, and I find that incredibly exciting. I can’t wait to see what new doors will be opened for my learning, and for learning in general, when the barrier of language is removed.

Technology that Represents Better Questions

Let’s step away from the technology itself for a moment and look at what the technology is enabling: Communication between individuals who do not speak each other’s language.

This is not a new problem. It’s an issue that has existed for centuries, and a barrier that more and more individuals and organizations encounter as the world continues to shrink.

Organizations recognize the need and opportunity presented by being able to speak the language of a foreign audience. That need can be satisfied by hiring bilingual workers, but sometimes organizations need their existing skilled staff to be able to work internationally, and quite often that means needing to learn how to communicate in a new language. Learning how to speak a new language requires a tremendous amount of instruction, be it from training, an academic course, Rosetta Stone, or some other resource. And it takes practice – a lot of time and practice – to be able to develop the skill needed to carry on a conversation.

That’s what we do in Training; we provide some sort of instruction to help individuals develop skills needed to be more effective.

But that’s not what this update to Skype does; it does something much more powerful. It reexamines the core need, and in doing so it actually eliminates the need for training while at the same time removing the barrier that was inhibiting performance.

The barrier to communication in situations like this is usually described as something like “They don’t speak the same language”. With that sort of positioning – in which the differing languages is positioned as the problem – the seemingly obvious solution is to find a common language. One or both parties need to learn the language of the other to remove the barrier.

But the problem here isn’t that two people are speaking different languages. The real barrier to communication is in the hearing and translation of what is being said. It doesn’t matter what language each party is speaking if the other person can understand what is being said. And once you look at the problem that way, you realize that neither party really needs to learn the others language; what they need is support in understanding what the other person is saying.

And it’s in that last sentence that I see a powerful lesson for our community. Microsoft’s Skype update isn’t teaching people a new language (though they are informally helping people learn a new language). Skype translator is removing the barrier of differing languages from the equation of conversation by providing performance support in the form of real-time translation.

With this in place, individuals don’t need to attend training workshops to learn how to speak with someone in a different language. They don’t need to development a complex new skill. They receive the support they need to perform the task at the time they need to do so.

And it won’t be long before the desktop example you’re seeing in the video is miniaturized into something like Google Glass, a Bluetooth earpiece tethered to a smart phone app, or some other wearable technology that enables this sort of communication in daily face-to-face interactions.

Again… Wow.

Focus on Solving the Problem

Training is often treated as the one-and-only option to address performance problems in organizations. We need to change that. Technology is opening up new possibilities for performance support, enabling learning and performance professionals to provide performance support options that can be much less disruptive, and much more effective, than traditional training approaches.

But it starts with asking better questions.


Related link: Skype Can Now Do Spanish/English Translation in (Almost) Real Time by Nathan Olivarez-Giles

Learn More: Interested in exploring the new performance support opportunities being created by technology? Explore the performance support sessions at the Learning Solutions Conference and Expo in Orlando this March and at the mLearnCon Conference and Expo in Austin in June, or consider fully immersing yourself in the performance support conversation at the Performance Support Symposium, which is co-located with mLearnCon in Austin in June.

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