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What we need to (un) learn about learning

Blog posts | 24.03.2021

Emily Berry

Learning Consultant at Kineo UK

What are the ‘must haves’ that everyone thinks they need when it comes to learning design that turn out to be non-essential? Emily Berry gets her ‘client hat’ on and slays some learning design myths.

I’ve probably been this side of the fence for too long – the learning designer side, that is. But I do make a conscious effort to put my ‘client hat’ on regularly so I can see things from their perspective. Lately I’ve been pondering what our clients think they must do or include when designing learning and trying to bust a few misconceptions.

1) Digital learning is not the only answer  

It may sound odd for an elearning provider to say that digital learning isn’t the only answer. But the truth is, it isn’t. Sometimes it isn’t even training that’s required at all. There can simply be an endemic issue within your organisation that needs fixing. 

There are many things that digital learning is good for - and during the Covid-19 pandemic it was of course one of the only ways to learn. This remains to be the case for the majority, and it is unlikely that things will go back to the way they were. However, as the recent Fosway Group report about digital learning notes, the switch to digital was not the revolution we might have hoped for: in fact, it was “relatively unsophisticated”. We are still not leveraging the best of what’s available –performance supportcurationvideomicrolearningsocial learning and AI – or integrating with workplace tools like Microsoft Teams and Slack.

The impact of doing everything online is taking its toll on learners. According to the Fosway Group, nearly half of organisations are reporting that digital fatigue is growing. They state that it is critical that L&D address this through blended learning and human centred design for years to come. In fact, the ability of digital learning to make use of a range of methods and modalities is cited as a key factor in its potential effectiveness in the report ‘Does elearning work?’. 

Digital learning is scalable, relatively cheap to produce and accessible at the point of need. Crucially, it can be personalised for different audiences, whereas the classroom model tends to be more of a ‘one size fits all’ approach. But without a doubt a purely digital learning strategy misses out on the opportunity to foster connection and collaboration between learners unless it is embedded within workflows and the social platforms used by your employees. Even then, a chat online can feel a poor cousin compared to engaging in a conversation with someone in a (real) room.  

Whilst we may not be meeting up in large groups to learn any time soon, there are still times when instructor led training is the way to go, even if that means virtually. Why not check out our guidance on how to run virtual classrooms for maximum engagement?  

Now more than ever, we need to be thinking creatively about how we can deliver blended learning experiences that are built on a deep empathy with the people that we’re designing for. 

2) Cheap as chips

As much as it pains me to say it (especially in writing), my partner is right: “Buy cheap, buy twice.” Whilst there may not be a lot of money sloshing around at the moment, a good deal doesn’t always mean spending less.  

It is worth investing enough to get the appropriate standard of quality and media mix to attract and maintain the attention of your audience. After all, to quote another font of all knowledge – my mother – “if something is worth doing, it is worth doing well”.  

Obviously, worth is relative. Don’t spend 100k shooting video about highly volatile content that is likely to change within the year or creating simulations about software you expect to be fully operational a week after you roll them out.  

It helps to look at your budget differently. The benefit of digital learning is its longevity and the fact it can usually be easily maintained and used for years. There is no need to book venues, pay for lunches and lose all the time spent travelling to and from a training event year on year.   

Some digital learning suppliers may seem more expensive than others and it can be hard to justify going with them when on paper a cheaper solution seems similar. Working with an organisation that has the know-how to get things right first time and make the most of your insight might make them cheaper in the long run. Your time is money and revisiting deliveries over and over again because they’re not quite right will soon add up.  

It goes without saying that there are cost effective options at your disposal, for example in the form of user generated content like selfie videos (in fact this was the foundation of our recent solution for local charity Together Co). As noted by the Fosway Group, video was the most successful content approach during the pandemic and we don’t see that trend declining anytime soon. Consider this: of the 2.3 billion regular YouTube visitors, 50% say they are there to learn a new skill.

3) (More) Content is king

This is a phrase that’s been doing the rounds for some time (I believe Bill Gates used it in 1996 in reference to the fact he felt that content was where he expected money to be made on the internet, just as it was in broadcasting). I have always felt ambivalent about it. It implies to me that the more content, the better. It sounds pedantic, but for me what is ‘king’ is the impact of the content. And when it comes to impact, less is often more. If you’re familiar with the power packed within a 17-syllable haiku (‘In a Station of the Metro’ anyone?) you will know what I mean.  

Whilst it may be tempting to convert every page of your PowerPoint into your digital learning resource, or to cram it full of background information, such as the historical context of a piece of legislation, you would be doing it at the detriment of your end product. Here I go again, but to quote Pareto, 80% of results come from 20% of the effort. Find the 20% of the content that is most important and focus on that.  

Almost all training is too long. Fact. To prevent cognitive overload, we need to be very careful about the amount of content we present and the order and the way in which we structure it.

4) Build it and they will come

If you’re in the learning business, you’re just as much in the persuasion business. You hope to persuade people to pay attention – you hope to persuade them to change their behaviour – but sometimes your learning initiatives don’t even make a ripple. Nobody shows up. Is your learning just a billboard in a forest? Unseen and unheard?  

You have to advertise the fact it is there. Make some noise! Campaign for the change you want to see. Move away from the one-off learning event. Bring the learning into workflows and social places, not just the LMS. Get engagement before, during and afterwards; create a sustained journey that embeds the learning and behaviours you want to see over time.

5) Wish upon a star

We’ve all believed our learning can be the panacea for all that’s wrong with a situation we are attempting to solve. We release it, cross our fingers, and hope for the best.  

But whilst one hit can give you something to dine out on in the music industry for years, it is not so with learning. One of the most significant things we know about learning is that we learn through regular practice – little and often.  Ebbinghaus proved it with his forgetting curve. If we don’t consciously review knowledge time and again, we quickly forget it. Yet why do we not give this information the credence we should?  

We’re ignoring the science. When you learn, you are making new connections between your brain cells called neurons. It is a form of rewiring. But when it comes to work involving higher mental functions, such as analysis and synthesis, “it needs to be spaced out to allow new neural connections to solidify” (I quote again, this time from PJ Howard’s ‘The Owner’s Manual of the Brain’).  

It’s not about reading or watching the same thing over and over again, like you may have done for an exam. We need to elaborate on our learning by connecting it with previous information, rephasing it in our own words, explaining it to someone else and applying it in a real-world setting. It’s about learning using multiple modes – visual, auditory and kinaesthetic – and over a spaced time frame. Oddly, forgetting for a while, and then relearning something, is one of the best ways to strengthen retrieval of information. It’s like exercising a muscle. You’ve got to work at it over time to get stronger.  

Be brave. Keep learning super short. Keep it coming in varied formats over a prolonged time period. Blow up the forgetting curve.

6) Design for different learning styles

The theory behind Honey and Mumford’s adult learning styles is very well intentioned. Are you an Activist, Reflector, Theorist or Pragmatist? By identifying this you will recognise your preferred learning style and the weaknesses you need to build on. The theory recognised that you shouldn’t learn in one style alone and should develop your ability to learn in other styles but helped trainers to consider a range of learning opportunities and make the process more enjoyable and effective for their audiences.   

As learning guru Donald Clark summarises in this post, the issue is that there is little scientific evidence to back the theory up. For me, it is far better to consider the individual needs of your audience – the precise knowledge and skills they need for their job role and their cultural, physical and technical environment – and tailor accordingly.  

A discussion about optimising learning for differing audience needs is one for another blog post, but it is something we’ve been doing at Kineo for over fifteen years. If we can support you with any of your learning and development needs, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.  

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Emily Berry

Learning Consultant at Kineo UK

Having worked in the learning technology industry for over 20 years, Emily is an experienced and talented Learning Consultant. Providing learning consultancy to clients and internal teams, Emily conducts learner and needs based analysis, as well as advising and designing creative solutions for digital, blended and campaign-based projects. She also delivers capability training on learning design and its effective implementation.