Friday, November 06, 2009

Put your learners on a diet - consider a pull-based learning approach

Have you ever had a time when you got slammed in the face with a huge plate of food which you just couldn't say no to? I have. Picture the above meal -- for some it might just be the tastiest thing they could imagine. For me, while I find it difficult to say no sometimes and even if I only want a little, I have to labour through the entire meal. I just got off a five hour flight to Hong Kong, and I've had a bit of an epiphany. Let me tell you the story first. This flight left Bangalore at about 2:35 AM -- a time at which I'm usually fast asleep. So what I really wanted on this flight was some sleep. That said, airlines have a strange sense of hospitality so at about 3:30 AM they made me put my seat back upright, turned on the lights and gave me some food to eat. Well I can't say no to food, so I ate. They then kept the lights on at full-blast; don't know why, but they did. If that snack wasn't enough, at about 6:30 AM they shook me up and asked, "Vegetarian or Non-vegetarian". My instinctive response is "Non-vegetarian" and well I got what I asked for while being half asleep, but really I didn't need a big breakfast with beans, tomatoes, sausages, an omelette, potatoes, yoghurt, fruits, cheesy bread and juice. I really just wanted some sleep. A part of me wondered if it was ever going to be possible for me to tailor my flight experience for the next several years that I travel economy! And then, all of a sudden I thought about training (like I always do!).

Most training experiences push learning to the learner

Regardless of our good intentions, many of the courses we design tend to take a whole bunch of learning objectives which we then push onto the learner. We keep asking ourselves the question of whether something needs to go into a course and then we say, "But they really need to know this..." and we slam that topic right into the training. While some learners enjoy it and others endure it, we need to ask ourselves if this is really effective. Research proves that human brains work very sensibly in these situations -- we stay conscious only about the pieces of knowledge or the skills that we will need/use on our immediate work. The rest slips into the subconscious and we incubate those bits of information until we need it at a later time. John Medina's Brain Rules, explain these phenomena in great detail. So if people are only going to retain what they will use, why contaminate that message with the surrounding nice-to-have stuff?

Learners need to be self aware

People learn from experience and most learning sinks in, on the job. People learn from feedback and feedback comes not only from peers and coaches, it also comes from your environment. When you keep attempting something and get a result that you didn't expect, you're getting some feedback. The key is that as people progress on the job, they get feedback from various sources and become more and more self-aware about where they are and where they'd like to be. A safe environment to fail fast and learn from mistakes is critical to this self-awareness. So I often think that while training is important, its more important for organisations to provide a safe environment that's conducive to learning. Only then can you develop people that are truly in control of their development and have the awareness they need to succeed.

Self aware learners can pull the learning they need

Once you're self aware, you automatically know what resources you need to learn. The key is that different people learn differently. Some people learn by reading a book, others by attending a course, a lot of people can learn effectively online and there are others who learn by networking and socialising with people. The key to being a learning organisation is in providing these learning opportunities throughout someone's career. There are many ways to create these opportunities. Here are some I can think of:
  • Design your instructor led courses to be no more than 90 minutes each with a targeted set of objectives for each 90 minute chunk. This way, you increase your flexibility to run them on-demand
  • Design your elearning to be in the form of small coursels (like morsels in case of food). Think of bite-sized chunks no longer than 10 minutes. Adopt a how-to approach.
  • Invest in Enterprise Social Software for your firm, so that people can crowdsource learning. After all, most learning happens by talking to the guy that sits beside you, or over that cup of coffee. Most importantly this opens up opportunities for your learners to network with people they never knew
  • Facilitate informal events, like Hack Nights, Lunch and Learns (people bring in food and sit in a session over lunch), Pecha-Kucha nights and Ignite evenings.
  • Institute other forms of support such as a book budget where people have the opportunity to spend money on something they feel can help their learning.

I'm sure there are dozens of other, non-intrusive ways to create opportunities for continuous learning. What has your experience been with things such as this? Feel free to share your thoughts liberally in the comments section of the post and if you'd like to, please write to me.

(Photograph in this post taken from cocomo7's Flickr stream)


MaryLei said...

I don't think that having to shove the information we want students to learn at them is only considered for the classroom/corporate training. I think we do that in everyday conversation. People trying to get their point across or want to make sure an anecdote is shared long after the topic as ended.

Cheryl Doig said...

I agree that learning needs to be tailored to meet needs and that being self aware helps pull the learning you want. Developing self awareness skills is a continual development and external mentoring/support can help. Having someone who can ask you questions, inquire into your assumptions, enter into dialogue and listen adds depth to our own metacognitive processes. Thanks for the ideas re the things we can do when developing our programmes.

davehoward said...

I have about twenty short tutorials on our Customer Support site. I've divided them up into Zips, Tips and Clips. Zips are 1 - 5 minutes, Tips are no more than 10 minutes and Clips are 10 - 30 minute "coursels" to use your term.

Still haven't been able to create demand. Customers rarely turn to documentation or tutorials for software knowledge. They still prefer to ask verbally or e-mail Support.

lisa said...

I think that creating a graphic organizer, or a chart, after a lesson that includes several different modes of instruction, and asking students to select the way they felt they best learned the information would be a good way to begin the process of being self-aware.

Sumeet Moghe said...

@davehoward: I can see where you're coming from and I understand the user inertia to call customer support.

I recently created a similar portal to support our movement to a new collaboration platform. Here are a few things I think work:
* Framing your 'coursels' as "How-to's". That way it addresses the end goal of the user. In fact I like to start my design with Action Mapping. It helps me nail down exactly what the "How-to's" should be

* Second, I like to use a platform that is search enabled. The reason people prefer Google to a company learning portal, is because of the search aspect. From a technology perspective, search really makes it intuitive to find your online learning.

* Lastly, I like to evangelise. I have rarely found it to be enough to create good, usable content and put it out there for people to use. I like to have someone put out a word, start a community, grab people's attention. That way people know that resources exist and then its upto the efficiency of your platform to handle user requests.

dianne said...

Definitely agree that we should foster self-aware learners vs. imposing a content dump, though we as instructors can help students be more self aware. (The more important measure of intelligence is not how much a student knows but what he/or she does when she doesn't know...)

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