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Proving the Value of Learning With Instructional Design

Bob Little 

July 3, 2015

Organizational performance is supported and enhanced by efficient learning. In turn, efficient learning is implied by efficient instructional design (ID).

In a previous blog, the learning technologies guru Elliott Masie said that people at work tend to get interrupted often and that this is an issue for L&D. He argues that instructional designers must produce training materials that:

  • Offer immediate accessibility.
  • Are right first time to meet learners’ needs.
  • Come in chunks of seven minutes or less.
  • Are easily administered.
  • Exhibit the characteristics of “learner pull” rather than “trainer push.”
  • Are instructionally excellent.

In response, the “wisdom of the ancients” in the learning technology industry is to use ID principles because, if you don’t, you only have the “froth of technology.” So, programs must be:

  • Engaging.
  • Structured.
  • Flexible – enabling each user to adapt the program to his or her needs (though this could conflict with the need to be structured).
  • Realistic.
  • Repetitive – allowing the user some time for reflection and adaptation of approach.
  • Interactive – on the thinking level, not just at the “click to continue” level, so feedback is key.

To be engaging, the learning materials need to offer CREAM, or Control, Relevance, Emotion, Action, and a Multi-sensory environment. When learners have control of their experience, they can answer the relevance question “what’s in it for me?” at every level of the program. Using drama and stories, humor, surprise, and “controlled safe failure” enables them to engage emotionally with the learning. They also need to be prompted to take action – perhaps by solving problems. Merely clicking a button to get more information doesn’t count as action.

Frank Troha comments, “It’s important to make use of the affective or emotional domain of learning. Humans normally think, feel and act in that sequence. You can provide the right knowledge for the audience to think about but, if that audience doesn’t feel like taking the desired action, it won’t – at least not voluntarily. Ignoring the emotional aspect of training can greatly diminish return on investment because the learners may leave the training with no desire to apply it.”

Making online learning engaging involves the appropriate use of methods and media, but that’s only a small part of the answer. Learning strategies – high-level plans about how to change people and solve learners’ performance problems – also play a part. Methods and media are the tactics applied but the learning strategy involves beliefs about pedagogy. Following such a strategy is important because learners tend to be intolerant of badly designed learning materials that waste their time.

After tactics and strategy, the third factor in producing engaging online learning is design. It’s important to design “experiences” not content – people learn from experiences, not from content. Designers need to understand the learning problem, how learners need to change, what experience may bring about this change, and, only then, what content is needed to support this experience.

Frank Troha adds, “As Robert Gagné learned, training needs to be kicked off in an engaging manner. You need to hit the audience where they live to get their attention, address the ‘what’s in it for me?’ question, and convey credibility while doing so. This needs to be done right off the bat and periodically thereafter.

“Testimonials from peers who’ve been there and done that can be persuasive. Also, dramatic, informative videos can capture hearts and minds. As learning delivery technology improves, it’ll become easier to more realistically mimic the real world. To some degree, case studies with realistic role playing can be carried out online and provide much-needed interactivity, which both facilitates learning and helps keep the learner engaged. But not everything needs to be delivered online – nor should it be.”

Then there’s the issue of values and culture. Culture is even more important than strategy – and corporate cultures exist on several levels, including representations and symbols, norms and behaviors, and beliefs and assumptions. Learning materials designers therefore need to understand the organizational characteristics that encourage or prevent the development and use of engaging learning.

Frank agrees, “You can have great training that falls flat because the organizational culture fails to reward, check up on, or, unwittingly, thwarts the on-the-job application of what was learned. In such organizations, management tends to misunderstand and underestimate the potential value of the L&D function. On the other hand, you can have a great culture that’s highly motivational and collaborative. In this culture, even with lacklustre training, employees are likely to help one another out through informal, on-the-job learning.

“Yet, I would opt for organizational culture and values being more important than the learning materials’ content and application when it comes to learning success. However, the relationship between organizational culture and values, and learning materials’ content and presentation, should be hand in glove – as it is in full-functioning organizations.”

Meanwhile, the learners are themselves changing, as Preeti Jasnani, principal learning designer at Tata Interactive Systems, explains. “Today’s learners are influenced by social, mobile, analytic, and cloud (SMAC) technologies. Consequently, they have shorter attention spans and demand just-in-time information in short bites. Traditional training can’t keep pace with rapidly accelerating technology and the changing needs of these SMAC learners. We need to focus more on a learning experience that mimics everyday life for this new age learner.

“Micro or ‘bite-sized’ learning has a solid case. Drawing from the Cognitive Load theory (‘learners can absorb and retain information effectively only if it’s provided in a way that doesn’t overload their mental capacity’) and the Pervasive Learning theory (‘learning is in everything we do’), micro learning can be used effectively to engage learners, help retention, and facilitate application of skills.” Only then will the true value of learning be clear to the organization!

How does your organization’s culture affect its understanding and application of L&D? Share your tips for proving the value of learning, below.

This is the last of five posts by Bob Little that focus on Instructional Design. See the entire series here.

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