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Overcoming a Sad Case of “Learning Interruptus”

Bob Little 

December 19, 2014

The phrase “learning interruptus” was coined, a few months ago, by Elliott Masie, the head of The MASIE Center, a Saratoga Springs, New York, think-tank focused on how organizations can support learning and knowledge within the workforce.

According to Elliott – for the last five years named as the world’s most influential “mover and shaker” in L&D – this phenomenon is a growing threat to corporate learning as learners have to cope with more options, choices and personal control.

Compared with the days when people enrolled for a course or class, attended all the sessions, and then finished, Elliott argues that, nowadays, as learning segments are more compressed and learning media more controllable, as webinars and distributed content are on learners’ desktops, as video clips can be paused at will, and as the Massive Open Online Course is introduced, many learners start but don’t finish learning. This is compounded by their increasingly busy schedules and the requirement to continually multitask.

Elliott identifies three strains of “learning interruptus”:

  • Distraction and work conflicts.
  • Multitasking becomes shifting: The learner starts a webinar, intent on focusing on the topic but, soon, he or she is doing other things while the webinar continues. It’s possible to revisit the recording of the webinar – but he doesn’t.
  • Come back next week, please: Learners sign up for lengthy online courses, maybe in a MOOC format. After its early weeks, they plan to return for the next segment but their schedules, attention levels and priorities shift.

Stating that, in terms of corporate learning, organizations must have an effective remedy for “learning interruptus.” Elliott suggests:

  • Mark where the learner left: When learners return to a learning video, the system could offer them the choice of “Where I Left,” “Next Segment” or “Start Over.”
  • Coded departure clicks: When a learner presses the “stop” or “pause” button, she is offered three choices: “Leaving for Good,” “Remind Me Soon,” or “Remind Me Later.” The last two options would trigger a note, a pop-up, or even an automated reminder in her calendar.
  • Content mapping: Let learners rate their need to learn key content elements and provide a personalized, shorter viewing sequence – organized around a “need to learn” assessment.
  • Coming attractions: Provide a 30-second “coming attraction” clip showing learners something of the content, style and context – including the duration and learning loads – so they can make a clearer time commitment.
  • Reminder learning list: Enable a short “Today’s Learning List” to pop up onscreen when learners log on in the morning.

Tim Drewitt, online and mobile learning manager, group learning & capability development, at Vodafone Group Services, says: “‘Learning interruptus’ probably matters more to those who still believe that training is about a course or those who believe in traditional instructional design models.

“Yet, in my experience, learners now prefer shorter bursts of learning. As L&D professionals, we must recognize that these often need a lighter instructional design touch. ‘Learning’ isn’t about ‘training’ anymore. Learners are indicating that they now consume just-in-time content on their mobiles, via social media, or via that free virtual university known as Google. We must make it easy for them to quickly find and digest exactly the information they need. With the explosion in user-generated content – where little or no instructional design is applied – L&D professionals must rethink how we develop training. Is it more about curating the best stuff or even just ‘finessing’ content to make it work better?

“With soft skills and general improvement learning, it’s less of an issue, but mandatory learning needs to be completed thoroughly and over as short a time frame as possible – so, here, we should minimize the likelihood of learning interruptus. We need to look at how we deliver this learning, before passing the responsibility to the learner to complete what he may see as less personally relevant.

“Decide what the ‘need to knows’ are and focus on those. Divide that content into short modules. Shift the emphasis from the ‘why’ to the ‘how’ and set the learning in the context of the role. This blends the best of performance support with the best of learning. Above all, make sure your learner can find what he wants fast. If people can find what they need – when and where they need it – the learning will promote itself and ‘learning interruptus’ will be less of an issue.”

“What Elliott is saying is nothing new,” says Vaughan Waller, senior learning architect for Deloitte Learning Technologies.” Learners are likely to see as less important anything that doesn’t fit the instructor-led classroom course model. Long ago, it was well known that management and learners alike regarded any training that was computer- or online-based as ‘not proper training.’ It’s simply because you can pause and come back later that you do pause and come back later – after all, is it more important to get your work completed and earn your company money, or to finish a bit of badly-designed compliance learning that’s only a tick-in-the-box should the regulator ask for it?

“The culprit is the ubiquitous compliance course, which has turned many learners off online learning. These courses are almost always badly designed, mandatory and change nothing – and we wonder why take-up of online learning is low!

“Knowing that people are busy but still need to be trained, the learning should be designed to fit them and not the other way around.”

Vaughan argues that:

  • People are busy, so the learning should be in modular form so they can do it in chunks – and not lose anything in the process.
  • Make learning more fun so it engages people rather than insults their intelligence.
  • Firms should spend decent amounts of money on learning materials instead of doing things on the cheap because you know it’s only a tick-in-the-box and that people won’t finish it.

“This latter point is the main cause of what Elliott’s claiming,” says Vaughan. “It’s not – and never has been – that people don’t want to learn or that they can’t find the time, with work pressures taking precedence. Basically, management spend far too little on creating the learning and expect that acceptance and understanding of its need will somehow carry the day.

“Allow learning managers to innovate, make learning fun and engaging, and so-called ‘learning interruptus’ will evaporate overnight.”

In what ways do you deal with “learning interruptus” in your company?

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One comment on “Overcoming a Sad Case of “Learning Interruptus””:

  1. Steve Robinson wrote:

    Great article! In my experience as both a unit manager and as an L&D manager, genuine support and interest from the learner’s immediate supervisor goes a long way in combating the “learning interruptus” phenomenon. As an extrinsic motivator, a supportive question or two from the learner’s manager such as “how is that course coming along?”, coupled with “what’s the most useful thing you have learned the course so far, and how have you been able to apply it on the job?” might make all the difference between an employee abandoning a course, or sticking it out to completion. If the expectation of completion (and application of learning) is there, the learner is much more likely to persevere and finish the course. Managers who model and convey the importance of learning and development can make a huge difference – no matter what the training medium.