Theodore Levitt said, “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill, they want a quarter-inch hole.” To this point, a learner doesn’t want content; they want knowledge, competency and skill.

We know learning can occur anywhere and anytime. It is not relegated to a classroom or a meeting room. In fact, learning occurs primarily with reflection and practice against domain-specific contexts. Simply put, when we’re learning about a topic that relates to something we care about or need, engagement increases, and information retention will, too. So, when thinking about a digital learning solution, we should consider one that complements and aids learning opportunities when and where they happen. This approach suggests a form of agility, adaptiveness and awareness of key learning moments.

On the contrary, a learning platform or learning management system is defined as “a computer-based operating system used by training organizations to register, track and monitor activity in the training function.” As this definition infers, learning platforms are primarily file systems and repositories with passive forms of delivery. In a world immersed in these platforms, yet in dire need of a proactive, agile and adaptive solution, what are we to do?

It’s a radical thought, but what if we removed the “platform” from learning platforms? Enter the ecosystem.

An ecosystem is defined as “the complex of a community of organisms and its environment functioning as an ecological unit.” Imagine a global network of smart digital learning components or tools that support learning objectives. Learning tools are standing ready in the cloud when a learning moment is identified and then pounce on that moment, offering options to capture, support and enhance it. Learning tools are teaching ideas, methods and content from thought leaders around the world. To revisit the definition of an ecosystem, tool creators and consumers are the community, and the environment is the learning context. In fact, let’s refine the definition for a digital learning ecosystem: the connective network that aggregates bespoke learning contexts in the form of interactive digital tools.

In a learning ecosystem, tools are the content, whereas in traditional platforms, tools and content are distinct, separate entities. Learning object repositories (LORs) are proof of this approach; a learning object is primarily content, not a tool. Yet, we use tools to apply context to content and engage with that content in a new, digital form. The Levitt quote comes to life here: Learners don’t want content specifically but, rather, the knowledge, competencies and skills that are derived from that content.

The community in this ecosystem is the knowledge economy. The value of the ecosystem increases as the community grows by amassing knowledge contributions in the form of learning tools. Staying true to the ecosystem, we maintain interconnectivity among tools, which means they communicate with each other and other systems. Beyond accessibility on smartphones, tablets and diverse computing devices, these tools are accessible on existing platforms as well.

These concepts are already coming to life all around us. When we walk into a restaurant, our smartphone asks us to take a picture and tag the business. We see live camera feeds of our homes, schools and offices from our smartphones. We assimilate with Internet of Things (IoT), Bluetooth and AI systems. We have access to virtual and augmented reality applications. What’s missing are an ecosystem of modern learning content curation with context and a business model that supports it. Context means communication with other relevant tools; it means IoT connectivity, an integration with preferred messaging apps and the ability to plug into workplace technology. An ecosystem is not a monolithic platform; it’s a lightweight, organic entity of composable elements that assemble and adapt to learning moments whenever and wherever they occur.

A common question is, “Can existing learning platforms be updated to an ecosystem?” That’s like asking if a skyscraper can be updated to allow all the walls to be moved or removed and then connected to other skyscrapers with rooms that morph based on mood. The entire architecture would need to be rebuilt.

But there is a solution. The new ecosystem, with its composable form and bite-sized learning interactions, plugs into existing platforms and systems, embedding itself into its structure and bolting on new capabilities to evolve what exists and revolutionize what’s to come.