The Question of the month at Learning Circuits is “How do we need to change in what we do in order to address learning/performance needs that are on-demand?”
Learning has always been on-demand. Except that the turnaround time for developing a learning solution is shrinking by the second. In the on-demand scenario, in the time it takes for us as learning practitioners to plan and design our learning solutions, learners have already charted their own learning paths by explorations through company intranets, tapping communities of practice, online searches, going through the company’s Wiki or engaging with SMEs. So how do we meet learner’s needs for on-demand learning more swiftly and provide opportunities for immediate access and self-directed learning?
Without getting into the surrounding debate around the tradeoffs between time, cost, and quality for developing “on-demand” solutions, here are a few questions that I think are pertinent for us to arrive at the ‘Magic mix’ of effective on-demand learning olutions.
- Do we throw conventional and formal learning out of the training and development department’s window?
- What alternatives to classroom and conventional eLearning can we offer to our hassled learners? Does it have to be an ‘Either-Or’ situation?
- How do we tap informal learning most effectively? Can we integrateformal and informal learning?
- With social media and informal learning solutions abounding, how do we develop a framework formeaningful context and evaluation?
- How do we tie together the various threads of delivery options? Do we just provide various links to them and leave it to the learners to make the connections or can we provide some kind of support within a structured environment that still enables learners toexplore areas of learning based on their immediate need?
- What is the optimal on-demand learning solution that meets the schedules of learners (‘as needed’, immediately accessible, enabling self-directed participation) and doesn’t kill course designers in the bargain? What is the Holy Grail of our learning quest anyway?
One of our case studies in developing an on-demand learning program
We recently designed a learning program that made us think through what it takes to address on-demand learning/performance needs. Here’s how we did it for one of our customers, who had a requirement for a training program to be made available – and available ASAP(As if there was ever a ‘take-your-time’assignment!) for a global team of engineers who needed to transition to the role of consulting with customers on end-to-end solutions. The training required not just imparting knowledge, but also exposure to the skill of asking questions, helping in decision making etc. A lot of domain-specific knowledge was also required for them to help customers move in the right direction.
Content, content everywhere
Now the company already had a wealth of resources out there in various delivery formats. Was it enough just to let learners know about them? Knowledge management was not the only solution, though it was essential to put together a list of all resources and organize them for some degree of coherence. And how were we to tap the rich resources of social media and online collaboration? The trick that worked for us was to use a formal LMS-hosted course as a launch pad to enable learners to make ‘trips’ to other materials “out there” in the form of Wikis, blogs, discussions, access to ‘expert speak’, podcasts, job–aids, social media etc, based on the degree of their need in a certain area.
“Anchoring” informal learning through a formal learning solution
We used a rapid authoring tool to create the bare bones structure of the course that addressed the desired learning outcomes. This skeletal outline provide various exit points for learners to get out of the course (while still having it open), by building in suitable links at various strategic points in the course. Learners could visit these external resources and come back to the course once they finished exploring the related reading or related podcasts, or the relevant discussions both within their company and outside of it. Quick job aids were also developed to help them through. At every point where there was some decision making involved, they were directed to links which already had discussions on those topics with other learners sharing their experiences. But wasn’t all this rather bewildering for the learners? They might have been left gasping for breath had we not used a simple technique to keep them on track.
To “anchor” their learning experience, we built in context around each of their explorations (in addition to meaningful learning objectives of course). The context provided at the beginning of each module, made learners’ “web-trips” more meaningful and relevant. Once they had the context in place, their explorations became highly focused. Rather than just drowning in a sea of information out there, they knew where to target their effort given the specific scenarios and context that were built into course. What made this solution work was that we didn’t spend time developing highly interactive content, but rather used the course to provide some kind of road map for learning by using engaging text to set the context and providing ‘diving boards’ into specific areas of interest. The bare-bones course structure outlined the scope of the subject at hand, while giving learners control over areas they wanted to skip if they felt suitably confident there. To ensure some degree of evaluation, once the learners went out there and explored various options and even posted and got replies on the company’s internal discussion forums, they could come back to the course and take assessments based on real-life situations.
By using the bare bones course structure as a platform to exploring links to other delivery on-line help systems, performance support systems, subject-specific locations on the company’s intranet, links to wikis, internal corporate social media, and podcasts, we managed to lower the barriers between formal and informal learning and provide an on-demand solution.
And what about the captain of the ship?
One thing that emerged was that it was no longer enough for a training manager who typically held the reigns over formal learning programs. There was a need for a training and community of practice manager who would tie together the various threads of different resources such as discussion groups, wikis and blogsand working alongside the training manager, would tie them all together into an anchor for the explorations into a responsive, living, evolving learning environment, Takers for this role anyone?
In conclusion, I think that we don’t have to throw out the baby with the bathwater – we can still make use of an LMS hosted course to develop an effective on-demand solution, that incorporates within it alternative means of learning and which provides learners not only with the basic framework for explorations, but also proves suitable context to make the explorations meaningful. Without this basic framework, learners run the risk of floundering in the stormy waters of on-demand learning.
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