Clark Quinn, Ph.D., helps organizations align technology with how we think, work, and learn

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ABOUT CLARK QUINN (Learning Technology Strategist):

Clark Quinn, Ph.D., helps organizations align technology with how we think, work, and learn. He integrates creativity, cognitive science, and technology to lead development of strategic solutions including award-winning online content, educational computer games, and websites, as well as adaptive, mobile, and performance support systems. After an academic career, Dr. Quinn served as an executive in online and elearning initiatives and has an international reputation as a speaker and scholar, with four books and numerous articles and chapters to his credit. He blogs at and works through Quinnovation.


Crystal Balling with Learnnovators’ is a thought-provoking interview series that attempts to gaze into the future of e-learning. It comprises stimulating discussions with industry experts and product evangelists on emerging trends in the learning landscape.

Join us on this exciting journey as we engage with thought leaders and learning innovators to see what the future of our industry looks like


1. Learnnovators: You say that ‘survival requires continual innovation, and at the core is learning faster than everyone else’. How significant is innovation for businesses to succeed? How do we ensure learning faster than everyone else? Could you elaborate for our readers please?

Clark: My claim is that optimal performance will be only the cost of entry, and the only sustainable differentiator will be continual innovation. With things changing faster, competitors able to be more nimble, and customers getting more ‘clued in’, companies will have to be more flexible and able to adapt faster, which requires agility. And innovation comes from ‘creative friction’, interactions between folks. So optimizing the organization to facilitate innovation is critical, and requires a culture where it’s safe to share, diversity is valued, new ideas are welcome, and there is time for reflection.

2. Learnnovators: What are the latest trends in organizational learning & development, and performance support? What do some of the interesting research findings and survey results point to? How exciting is the scenario?

Clark: The research isn’t heartening. We’re still seeing an avoidance of social learning, the continual use of courses as the only solution, and consequently organizations that can’t adapt fast enough. The opportunities are huge and exciting; to create a performance ecosystem where the network is vibrant, performance support is ‘to hand’, and when courses are needed they’re deeply engaging, but we’re not seeing this except in isolated pockets. This needs to change!

3. Learnnovators: You have always carried a clear vision about how corporate L&D needs to change, or potentially face extinction. You say ‘most L&D really seems stuck in the Industrial Age, but we’re working in the Information Age’. We, like others, believe the reason for this to be the present education system design that was perfected for the needs of ‘industrialization’. What kind of a shift in thinking do you visualize for building a learning system that aligns with the dynamically changing demands of this knowledge age? How do you think L&D practitioners should change themselves, and more importantly, be the ambassadors of this change movement?

Clark: I’m a strong believer in social constructivist pedagogies, e.g. problem-based and service learning, whereby a curriculum is activity, not content. Environments where learners are using digital tools to create or annotate outputs of their collective work are needed. We also need to be layering on learning-to-learn or meta-learning across this, as arguably the most important skills we can develop. We need to practice this in organizations, and model this for others. There’s a difference however, in that we’re more about performance than learning, and so our use of performance support and the network in lieu of learning is more acceptable than what we might expect in schools (though they too should start looking at the role of networks and cognitive tools).

4. Learnnovators: You’ve been Quinnovating in e-learning for over 30 years, helping your clients make the best business decisions. What are your experiences? How do you educate your clients about the most effective approaches to learning? What are some of the challenges you face in convincing them with respect to the shifts happening in today’s learning space? What would be your advice to budding learning professionals who aspire to consider consulting as a career option?

Clark: I have been very fortunate to get in at the ground floor of the personal computer revolution, to keep up with the subsequent fundamental changes, and couple that with a deep background in cognitive science. That has allowed me to stay at the cutting edge throughout my career (often too far ahead of the curve!). My approach is to try understand where folks are coming from, and add the particular expertise that meets their needs. My innate curiosity (aka ADD :) has led me to explore many related fields both human (e.g. creativity and design processes) and technical (e.g. content models and information architecture) that I can bring to bear on not only meeting client needs but doing so in ways that leverage what we know about how to do it right. My advice to new professionals would be to continue to explore the periphery, experiment, and work out loud (or seek-sense-share).

5. Learnnovators: You were one of the first proponents of ‘mobile learning’, and have been helping organizations introduce mobile into their learning and performance support initiatives. Could you please share your mobile learning journey for our readers? How has mobile learning started transforming workplaces around the world today? How are organizations seeing this phenomenon? What are the trends? What are some of the successful examples? What will future workplace learning look like?

Clark: My mobile learning journey started when I was asked to write a piece about mLearning for an online magazine. I wrote a thought piece, but it was early enough that it led to some notoriety. I have continued to push my productivity through mobile devices as a way to boost my own understanding, and have had the opportunity to engage in mobile initiatives as well. I think that as we recognize how we use the devices in our daily lives, we’ll see that mobile is more than a one-off solution; instead it is a platform for augmenting our cognition. This is not unique to mobile, but the ability to leverage that capability whenever and wherever we are is increasingly important, and with new opportunities to take advantage of our context to add uniquely valuable extensions. So, for example, I think future workplace learning will look like always-on coaching and mentoring.

6. Learnnovators: How are today’s mobile technologies helping to provide solutions to our workplace challenges? What approach would you recommend for successfully integrating mobile learning into organizational learning? What are some of the best practices that you would like to share with our readers?

Clark: The critical perspective, I believe, is to recognize that digital technologies are a marvelous complement to our own capabilities; they do well what we don’t and vice-versa. When we recognize this, we can look to leverage those capabilities as an augment to our own, and create more fundamental solutions than if we follow our existing (and largely out-dated) solutions. I recommend that folks look to extending and augmenting formal learning, performance support, social, and context-sensitive as opportunities, not to courses on a mobile device.

7. Learnnovators: You have always been fascinated about ‘context-sensitive learning’. What are some of the exciting possibilities that mobile technologies offer to build a performance ecosystem with support for contextual learning and predictive personalization? How will smart phone capabilities evolve further to power up learning in future?

Clark: The opportunity with context-sensitivity is to start optimizing our solutions. Different roles from the same organization, when visiting a particular site, are likely to need different resources; so a field service engineer visiting a client site is likely to need different support than a sales person. We can know about who we’re helping, where they are, what they know, what their role is, and what’s available to customize the delivery. And we can provide just the minimal support that a person needs to move on, instead of everything we can shove at them. I call it the ‘least assistance’ principle (“what’s the least I can do for you” is not a rude response, it’s optimal both for pragmatic and principled reasons), and the point is to get people back to what they want to be doing as quickly as possible. Particularly with the limitations imposed by the smaller form factors, getting just the necessary information is a solid design principle. And, not coincidentally, it also is worth bringing back to the desktop.

8. Learnnovators: Your book ‘Designing m-Learning’ is a great help for people who have to create m-Learning. Its focus is on the design process (with the theme “if you get the design right, there’s lots of ways to implement it…”). As Jay Cross opined, we too feel that you had written a missing manual. What are the most significant design challenges while designing mobile learning?

Clark: That’s very kind of you to say. The most significant design challenge is getting out of our existing mindsets; you have to think differently. The biggest barriers are those between our ears, the limitations we believe in that really don’t exist. People worry about tools, security, screen size, and more, yet there are solutions to all these problems. A related problem is doing what we’ve always done. The remedy is to look to how we use devices to make ourselves more effective. I will bet it is not a course on a phone!

9. Learnnovators: What would be your advice to organizations who wish to integrate mobile learning with their e-learning strategy to improve productivity by starting their own internal app stores? What strategy would you propose for a successful implementation? What would be the major advantages and challenges?

Clark: I wouldn’t start with apps. I believe strongly in prototyping, and believe that mobile web is the best start for trying ideas out. It has limitations, and if you need to get access to sensors like cameras and GPS you’ll have to go further, but I think ‘wrapping’ mobile web for device-delivery is best first before you go the hard-coded app, and it may well be all you need. The other strategic component is to recognize that mobile is a platform, and needs to be treated as such. You need a platform strategy, not a device or app strategy.

10. Learnnovators: Your approach is learning experience design. You are of the opinion that we really do not yet possess a design model for addressing a more distributed learning experience. You have been passionate about designing systems for the way people really learn. How do you think existing learning models need to evolve further to support workplace and social learning?

Clark: I think of it at two levels, where learning is a part of the bigger performance issue. I’ve talked about what I call backward design, where we work backwards from the desired performance, figuring out what can be (or already is) in the world, and what has to be in the head (up to and including nothing). Then, we design or point to the ‘in the world’ resource(s), and if necessary we then design the ‘in the head’ experience around those resources. So that’s the higher level. Within the learning experience, we then need a learning design model that understands building in the emotional component, as well as the requirement for spaced learning, and then we can design experiences across time and contexts to achieve the necessary level of performance.

11. Learnnovators: You were involved in the design and development of an intelligently adaptive learning system as early as the year 2000. How do you look at the adaptive learning technologies of today? How excited are you looking at the possibilities thrown open by the power of big data and learning analytics (with the help of tools such as Tin Can API) for personalising learning?

Clark: I’m very excited about the potential that learning analytics and the Experience API provide. An adaptive system includes (implicitly or explicitly) rules about how to adapt. We were not only embedding the best research into our rules, but were adding machine learning to look for emergent patterns and tune our rules. The development of technology since our work 15 years ago makes this all much more robust; we can collect and process more data, and use a common syntax to register outcomes, simplifying the process. I think the biggest lacks are an encompassing vision of all the factors that could play a role, and combining expected outcomes with search for emergent ones. I think the Predictive Analytics Reporting Framework work being done is a really exciting model that nicely complements the work from companies that are commercializing adaptive learning.

12. Learnnovators: You’ve always been a sort of a technology geek. How do you look at the radical shifts happening in learning paradigms (such as social learning, flipped classroom, Bring-Your-Own-Device , etc.) fuelled by the enormous possibilities thrown open by emerging technologies? How encouraging is the new learning landscape? Where do you see today’s organizations in the midst of these radical shifts? What would future (organizational) learning look like? What according to you is the future of learning?

Clark: I like what Arthur C. Clarke once said: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” and I think we’re there. The limits are no longer the technology, as we can bring pretty much anything anywhere we want. The limits now are in our imaginations and dedication to apply technology to the magic of human learning. The US Department of Education study that found eLearning superior to face-to-face had a thoughtful caveat, where it proposed that the improvement was not owing to the medium, but to the chance to step back and rethink the opportunity. We need to get back to what really leads to learning.

13. Learnnovators: As you would agree, most L&D professionals possess high levels of skills around the traditional training (formal learning) area. However, their skill levels fall short around the informal or social learning areas. What is your advice to L&D professionals for upskilling themselves?

Clark: My answer is like the lottery advertisements: “you’ve got to be in it to win it”. You can’t sit on the sidelines and watch, you have to get out there and be pushing the envelope. Use Twitter, Facebook, Skype, Plus, and LinkedIn. Blog, microblog, collaborate virtually, chat, and more. How will you know the upsides, and the problems, if you aren’t exploring? Sure, wait until the first hype bubble has died down, but then if folks are still using it, you’ve got to take a shot yourself. Continual experimentation is core to innovation. You can’t apply learning principles to technology if you don’t understand the technology. Similarly, you can’t truly leverage technology if you don’t understand how people really learn! I might disagree that L&D professionals possess high-level skills around formal learning, too. That’s why the instigators of the Serious eLearning Manifesto banded together; too few people were applying good formal learning principles! That said, there are rich skill statements out of places like ASTD and LPI.

14. Learnnovators: What would be your advice on embedding workplace learning into organizational culture? How is informal and social learning going to evolve further to play a major role in organizational learning in workplaces around the world? What would be your predictions on the future of organizational learning based on the present trends and emerging technologies (such as Ubiquitous Learning, Social Learning, Gamification and Game-based Learning, Learning Analytics, Personalized and Adaptive Learning)? What would future (organizational) learning look like? How critical is social learning going to be for organizational survival?

Clark: The core thing to do is to not go along with the latest trend. You have to have an analytical approach, and search to find the core learning affordances, the capabilities that these trends bring. Then you can apply them to address gaps between what you have been doing and what you’d like to be doing. I’m glad you separate out gamification from game-based learning (too few do), as the distinctions are critical. We run on too many myths – learning styles, generations, etc – instead of on science. Remember the hype about Virtual Worlds? Where did they go? They’re still around, but now more closely aligned with their real affordances. Don’t expect a panacea. Social learning has always been part of being human, but social media also isn’t a cure-all remedy. You have to understand the way people think, work, and learn, and align accordingly. New technologies bring new opportunities, but a bit of skepticism is a healthy adjunct.

15. Learnnovators: It is exciting to know that you also have been keenly following machine learning to see its implications. We are amazed at the possibilities of looking at ‘downloading information’ into the brain as the future of learning (Refer the new research about ‘Automated Learning’ by Brown University neuroscientist Takeo Watanabe). What are your thoughts on this? What are other interesting things happening in this area?

Clark: To start, machine learning is when machines infer outcomes from data, and having machines teach is something different. I think traditional machine learning has some real opportunities to take advantage of the ‘big data’ movement, particularly when coupled with human intelligence. As to the ‘downloading’, mental rehearsal has been a powerful adjunct to learning, so stimulated rehearsal makes sense as well. I’d be very leery, however, even separately from the ethical issues. Our understanding is complex. Visual patterns are pretty low-level neural patterns, and likely to be similar across individuals. Learning for situations where we’re making important decisions are much higher level, and likely to be encoded very idiosyncratically. I’d be hard pressed to believe that we could systematically train en masse in the same way. We might be able to read one person in a particular area of study, then train some small variation, but I’m much more interested in a different approach. I think the use of powerful contextual learning, e.g. serious alternate reality games, have much more potential to develop deep and meaningful learning in ways that are fun and effective. Even with the download, you’re still practicing, and who knows how it would interfere with restful sleep? Someday I believe we might be able to do useful things, but I’m more interested in what we could be doing now that we aren’t taking advantage of.

16. Learnnovators: One of the most significant challenges that learning professionals face today is the absence of a connected framework that unifies the numerous new learning models (areas or aspects) such as informal and social learning, mobile learning, micro learning, and gamified learning in a cohesive manner. In this context, the new book ‘The Really Useful eLearning Instruction Manual’ (that includes a chapter you’ve written on mobile learning) is an exciting development since it includes some wonderful insights from experts on all these different aspects (areas) of learning. What are some of the other similar resources that could be of help for the community in this context?

Clark: I really like the Manual, as they did two things well: in general they got the right authors for each topic (self excepted, of course), and they used a very structured approach to being useful (I confess to having a role in trying to achieve that consistency). However, that book doesn’t provide the connected framework that you refer to. That’s what I’ve tried to do with the Performance Ecosystem model, whereby I look to integrate formal, performance support, and social into a coherent whole, underpinned by a foundation of infrastructure, strategy, and culture. I think we need to start thinking systemically and holistically about our roles and responsibilities.

17. Learnnovators: You say that the biggest challenge eLearning faces now is complacency and resistance from the status quo. Could you please elaborate on this for our readers?

Clark: Our industry has stagnated. The models we use haven’t really changed in over 10 years: we still seem to think that information dump and test will lead to learning, that people can hold large amounts of information in their heads perfectly, that we work alone, that efficiency in delivery is all that matters, and that we still have time to prepare, plan, and execute. It’s not hard to understand why things are the way they are, but it’s really not acceptable. We can’t measure cost/time/seat if we’re not first measuring business impact. We have to learn that our brains are actually quite bad at remembering arbitrary information, and then design for that situation. We also need to recognize that the outcomes are better when we work together (if you manage the process right, but we know how to do that). And we can’t assume it’s easy: the tools we use, the measures we look at, the stories we listen to are powerful tools for change or inertia. We need to revisit what we’re about, and be mindful of how we’re doing that.

18. Learnnovators: “Learning & Development needs a makeover…It’s time for a change.” We too agree, and are greatly excited about your new book ‘Revolutionize Learning & Development: Performance & Innovation Strategy for the Information Age’ that focuses on how L&D needs to change, which is scheduled to be published in May this year. Could you give our readers a brief on your book?

Clark: Glad to hear that you agree! Briefly, the book has four major sections. First I point out the evidence documenting that L&D is failing, in the belief that you can’t change until you acknowledge that there’s a problem. Then I point out some things about how we think, work, and learn that don’t seem to be accounted for. I subsequently portray what it would look like if we were doing it right (with the assistance of five case studies from fellow practitioners and advice from two pioneers). Finally, I lay out some of the steps to move forward. You can get a taste at, and there’s now a ‘look inside’ at Amazon.

19. Learnnovators: Insufficient buy-in from senior executives is touted as the primary reason for Enterprise Social Networks to fail in today’s organizations. Gartner says, “Through 2015, 80% of social business efforts will not achieve the intended benefits due to inadequate leadership and over emphasis on technology”. What are your views? How do you think we could tackle this?

Clark: I think the barriers are many. Leadership is a problem, as folks are still in a ‘command and control’ mode. Culture is a barrier too, because if it’s not safe to contribute, a social network isn’t going to provide value. And a technological belief that if we provide a network our work is done is also a barrier. The chance to learn with the Change Agents Worldwide folks has really helped me see the multi-faceted elements that need to be addressed, but also the powerful benefits that are on tap. Organizations are finding real value (and some have been for years), but getting there is still a process, not a tactic.

20. Learnnovators: After speaking to experts like you, Mike Rustici, Tom Kuhlmann, Karl Kapp, Geoff Stead, Charles Jennings, and Connie Malamed (as part of the ‘Crystal Balling with Learnnovators’ interview series), we have been thinking aloud, and would like to ask you this question for ourselves and our readers. Each one of you is an expert in your own distinctive learning areas, and when collaboratively ‘connected’, could help bring out wonderful solutions. What platforms do you people already use to connect with each other (such as the Internet Time Alliance that you are part of along with your colleagues Jay Cross, Jane Hart, Harold Jarche, and Charles Jennings)? What are some of the other interesting collaborative activities that you do? Could you please share with our readers?

Clark: First, the larger community, people like those you mention and the rest of the community, connect at events such as conferences, as well as by reading each other’s blogs, tweets, articles, and books. So we’re continually learning together ‘out loud’. There are deeper connections as well. For instance, with my ITA colleagues we maintain a Skype chat that we keep open all the time and are regularly pointing to work, talking about issues, and of course learning together, and we also have a weekly call. Others might have a private group somewhere, or attend smaller events formore personal interaction, or of course participate in appropriate LinkedIn groups. It’s very important to have a community of practice that transcends your own organization and reaches out to the broader community. It would be great if we could find a way to have more coordinated activities addressing top issues.

21. Learnnovators: You are part of the Serious eLearning Manifesto, launched recently, along with Michael Allen, Julie Dirksen, and Will Thalheimer. It is an attempt to raise the quality of e-Learning and we do support this wonderful initiative and all the 22 principles that the manifesto contains. However, like many out there, we too are of the opinion that this initiative shouldn’t be limited to only e-learning and should encompass all forms and types of learning. What are your thoughts?

Clark: First, thanks for supporting the Manifesto! Synergistic with the emphasis on moving L&D forward, the point about not doing well what L&D is doing refers to formal learning. And, yes, it’s more than eLearning, but that’s a place we felt we had credibility and could talk with conviction. I believe 21 of the 22 principles indeed address meaningful training as well, but technology adds some unique capabilities, such as adapting performance to the individual (which we addressed) and creating records of individual actions for reflection (which we didn’t). We don’t claim that the set is complete or perfect, we just felt we need to start the conversation.

22. Learnnovators: Our hearty congratulations to you on being awarded the first-ever eLearning Guild ‘Guild Master’ in recognition of your outstanding contributions to the eLearning Guild community and the learning technologies industry (in November 2012). How do you look at this honorable achievement?

Clark: I’m truly honored and grateful to the eLearning Guild for this recognition (I do what I do because that’s who I am, but it’s nice to be noticed). The larger hope is leveraging the Guild metaphor, so along with some of the more recent Masters we’re looking at how we can try to promote better learning and practice in our field.

23. Learnnovators: How do you help organizations Quinnovate (work smarter)? What is your vision for Quinnovation? What are your dreams? How do you plan to align your vision for the learning community with this (vision for Quinnovation)?

Clark: Quinnovation is the vehicle I use to try to help people use technology in wise ways, ways that are aligned with our nature and our best goals. I find that my greatest contributions and successes are when people have an ill-defined need where they need to rethink or raise their game, and I work with a small team to understand the problem and coach them through to an innovative solution while developing their own capabilities. My continuing exploration of problem-solving and collection of useful models means I’m regularly able to frame the situation in ways that provide new and unique opportunities. I’m always on the search for organizations looking for transformative improvements. My secret desire is for someone to handle all the front-end processes and leave me free to go in and work!

.Learnnovators: Thank you so much for sharing your valuable insights and experiences, Clark. It was wonderful interacting with you. We wish you the very best!

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