LearningJar: Tracking What You (Need to) Learn

I've already asked this week, "who will benefit from badges?" I don't want to rehash that. But I do think we need to think about the promises of "unbundling education,” and notice what we're repackaging elsewhere -- courses, content, access, power.

A Closer Look At LearningJar

That’s a pretty critical opening salvo, I realize, to introduce a startup I’ve been following for a year now, a startup that wants to help address this gap between the learning we do and the credit we get for it:  LearningJar, which opened its public beta this week.

I met LearningJar co-founder Ritu Jain at a Startup Weekend EDU in June of 2011 when she was just beginning to think about ways to better recognize informal and lifelong learning. We’ve kept in touch over the last 12 months, a fascinating process from my end of things to watch a non-technical female founder hone her idea and then her product, find a technical female co-founder, design and build and – hooray! – launch. It’s interesting too to look through my notes from all our conversations and see how her vision from the summer of 2011 matches the execution in the summer of 2012. (Good job, Ritu!)

LearningJar (then and now) hopes to serve several purposes: track what learners learn and know; guide them down certain learning paths; help them showcase this. That is, create a portfolio (of sorts) that can track what you can do and also get recommendations to help you do more.

The LearningJar site currently highlights Web development and Web design skills – hardly a surprise since the current Silicon Valley boom has created a huge demand for these. These fields are low-hanging fruit too because many people don’t necessarily have (or need) a degree to enter them. But what they need, I’d argue, is a portfolio – or at least their own website where they can showcase what they do. What they need, some argue, are certificates.

The beta version of LearningJar doesn’t emphasize the portfolio piece (although there is a portfolio tab where you can track your own “skills in progress”). Instead, it aggregates a lot of different tutorials and lessons and tries to point to resources where people can learn the skills they need and forge or follow a path in order to answer the question asked on its homepage: “What do you want to be?”

(Ugh. I don’t wanna be a white guy.)

LearningJar has made the (interesting) decision here to focus identifying on the skills you need and not (necessarily) the courses you need. That could be a good differentiator between it and the current flood of certification options, perhaps, as it’s a recognition that many people don’t want to necessarily sit through classes (ah, “seat time”) but instead need “just-in-time” options that are skills- versus semester-oriented, that help them immediately in the jobs they have and not just the careers they aspire to.

Currently when you're pointed at places to learn skills on LearningJar, you're pointed to the likes of Lynda.com, CodeSchool, Treehouse, and O’Reilly, and these resources do in many cases offer certification (and certification by taking classes). And as it currently stands LearningJar's learning paths are largely circumscribed by these content partners.  (That could change now with more user-generated submissions.) 

Learning, Tracking, Quantifying, Credentialing...

I'll be tracking LearningJar closely now that it's open to the public because I think the startup faces many of the problems that lifelong, informal learners face (big challenges, big opportunity): How do you take all these various online learning resources and reconcile the different ways in which they teach, the different levels of complexity, the different theories and practices? How can you find what works for you -- in terms of skill, course opportunities, teaching styles, and so on?  How do you know something is a good “learning path”?  How do you know the path you take (courses, degrees, and so on) will be accepted?  How do you help people build portfolios to showcase what they can do, but have it occur in a places that they control?  Can startups, with limited data sets, really build solid recommendation engines?

These are all things that LearningJar needs to unravel: tracking what can you do versus tracking what do you need to learn to do.  One's a portfolio; one's an "education." It’s one thing if you already know something and just need to demonstrate it – with a portfolio or with a certificate. It’s a much bigger challenge to be able to shine a light for folks who don’t know where they're headed and need help even if they do. (For what it's worth, colleges address this to varying levels of success (okay, minus the whole debt thing) – with lots of options for which classes that you can sign up for, some mentorship and guidance (ideally), but all with the constraints of earning the credits necessary to graduate after 4 or so years.)

How can LearningJar demonstrate to users that it offers “real value” (whatever that means) and not just another hike in a "certification bubble"?

I think one way to do so would be to offer connections to other ways that we learn online outside classes, online videos, textbooks, and manuals – what we read, read, and watch, in our feeds, on Twitter, on our blogs, and so on. Perhaps we need to shift conversation away from just courses and skills to our networks -- in other words, not just "what should I know" but "who can help me uncover it." I’m not sure how much of this will be valuable to employers, of course, but it should be valuable to learners. Then, of course, you face the danger of focusing on the “quantifiable self," something that doesn't necessarily lead to the “employable self.”

And aye, there’s the rub. Does a startup address the needs of learners, or the needs of employers to find "learned" workers? I think this is part of the problems I see in the alternative certification space right now – there are so many great innovative ideas, but yet they’re all beholden to this old and mistaken notion that a diploma/certificate/degree/badge matters because it matters to an employer. I fear that learning is just being reduced to the latter.

(LearningJar was part of the latest batch of ImagineK12 startups. And I hope Ritu forgives me for this write-up which doesn’t really do justice to her vision or her startup.)

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