Learners are learning differently; are you changing the way you train and support them?

2017 UPDATE: Find out more in my book, Learning in the Modern Workplace 2017

Learning is in the hands of the individual

The Pew Research Internet Project reported on 8 December 2014

“A large majority (87%) of American adult internet users say the internet has improved their ability to learn new things. This figure includes just over half (53%) who say it has improved their ability to learn new things “a lot” and 34% who say it has improved this “somewhat.” Just 13% see the internet and cell phones having little or no impact in this area. “

My own analysis  of the Top 100 Tools for Learning surveys over the last 8 years has shown that people are using the Internet to learn in many ways that differ substantially from traditional training approaches. Here are some of the key features`:

It is continuous – People are benefiting from a constant drip-feed or flow of information or conversations with colleagues in the networks to which they belong, all of which over time builds up into a large amount of knowledge and shared experience. Whereas of course, training is event-based, and “packaged” up with definitive start and end points.

It is on demand – When faced with a learning or performance problem, people look for quick and easy solutions.

  • They don’t want to have to wait for an answer to their problem – they want it now in order to do their job
  • They don’t want to take a course to “study” the problem; they just want to solve it and get on with their work.
  • They don’t need to take a test to know whether they have understood the solution, they know if they have been successful because they have solved their own problem.
  • They don’t need to remember the content – just where to find the resource again should they need it.

It happens in short bursts – People tend to make use of short, bite-sized, “snackable” pieces of content – both instructional and informational – as well as have brief interactions with others. They tend to avoid long, drawn out courses that take time to work through, and yet that is how most training or e-learning is designed.

It is social – People are learning, not simply with (or alongside) others, but from the shared experiences and ideas of others – in the professional learning networks of trusted connections that each of them has individually built. People are also learning from resources that have been freely and willing shared by others on sites like YouTube, Slideshare, etc (often referred to as user-generated or “social content”). Training, on the other hand, is largely based on content, which has been authoritatively designed, developed and delivered by “experts”.

It happens in the flow of work or on-the-go – People no longer need to come out of the workflow to attend a training course or work on a piece of e-learning; they learn as they work, and outside of work. This of course, has been largely underpinned by the use of mobile devices (smartphones, tablets, etc).

It is often serendipitous – Although some of what is learned is planned (and intentional), people are also learning just by being immersed in their work or in social networks, gradually assimilating new ideas and experiences, in many instances unintentionally and without even realising it. Whereas with training, nothing is left to chance!

It is autonomous – This is probably the KEY feature of learning on the Web. People are in control of what they do, the relationships they build, and how much time they spend on any activity – based on what value it gives them and to what extent it meets a personal interest or professional need. They self-select both the content and people that they need. They are therefore often described as self-organised, self-directed or self-managed learners. This approach is very different from the traditional approach to face-to-face or online training which is instructor-led or instructionally designed and highly prescriptive, where individuals are largely spoon-fed the content with very little autonomy to diverge from the path, and the whole process is managed for them. Very many people are therefore doing their own thing –  and working around L&D to decide what, how and when they will learn – in the way that’s best for them – not in the way prescribed for them.

Others have observed this change in learning behaviour too. Jane Bozarth makes the point very clearly, in fact, that it is this new behaviour that is changing training – not any particular technology.

“In the last fifteen years I’ve often been asked which technology I think will be the “gamechanger”. It comes up in conversations about everything from delivery methods to authoring tools to social platforms to mobile apps to devices and other hardware. Here’s my answer, and when I say it out loud audiences don’t much like it: The thing that is going to change the game is – the learners …

They are changing the concept of training, and we are increasingly moving toward an age in which the adult worker will not sit still for training that just looks like more “school”. They’re becoming more sophisticated in their understanding of how learning looks and how it happens.”

So if you would like to find out more about how to change your own training initiatives to bring them in line with the way people learn, my onine workshop, MODERNISING TRAINING CONTENT focuses on how to create content more in line with the type of resources that people are now accessing for themselves, whilst other workshops look at how to enable continuous learning in teams and individuals.


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  2. Richard

    Really good to hear you articulate this line of thinking. I seem to spend some time developing elearning modules and courses based on client perceptions of what they need or what will ‘take up’ a certain amount of trainee time. At the same time I’m thinking I’d just Google a lot of this if I wanted to know the answer.

    There is something important in providing pathways through many learning experiences. The structure helps learners to develop the ‘hooks’ to hang their new understanding and skills. And, I’m only good at Googling stuff (as I suspect most are) when I have some idea of what I’m looking for. In other areas I wouldn’t know what I’ve missed. So courses really have a value but the counter to that argument is that a more social, drip, drip experience provides safety nets to catch many of those things.

    1. Hi Richard, I think there are things we can take from all this to help improve the “content” experience – as you will be finding out in the workshop. Looking forward to your thoughts again then.

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