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Push Versus Pull Learning

Bob Little 

December 4, 2015

Anyone who’s been to school – or even watched television – has experienced having learning “pushed” to them. The “push” model of learning has been, and continues to be, the world’s major learning delivery model.

Yet, while nearly everyone loves to learn, few enjoy being taught. You – not your teachers – control your motives and reasons for learning. You want to decide when and what to learn.

So, when you’re interested in learning, you learn faster, retain the information longer, and are more likely to create stronger cognitive connection points for future learning. When information is pushed, you tend to resist the experience and try to minimize your time and engagement with the process.

With that in mind, the advent of today’s technology – notably the Internet and mobile devices – is making the “pull” model of learning more accessible and, indeed, attractive to learners. Yet, while that’s the theory, there seems to be little actual formal pull learning currently on offer, even in the most enlightened of “learning organizations.”

LinkedIn’s high-profile acquisition of, for $1.5bn in April 2015, though an example of reshaping the traditional model for sourcing learning materials, still fits the standard “push” model – where vendors produce learning materials and make them available to users, usually for a price. The development and application of technology over the last 20 years or so has merely enabled more of these materials to reach more people than ever before.

On the other hand, the L&D world is about to experience the development of the first viable model of “pull” learning for an established worldwide audience. This model is being developed by a Singapore-based company called EDTRIN. EDTRIN is putting in place an integrated physical/digital education ecosystem by which millions of learners around the world – notably, at the moment, in the populous Asia-Pacific region – can “pull” learning materials to help them get a job, keep their job, and then get the next job.

Unlike push learning, which tends to be focused on an organization’s learning needs and preferences, pull learning is focused on learners’ decisions and preferences about learning. Consequently, at present, pull learning is the preserve of the individual who chooses informal and social-based learning, often delivered via a mobile device.

Some commentators, such as Jeffrey J Selingo, writing in The Washington Post at the time of LinkedIn’s acquisition of, have seen the growing availability of informal learning materials as viable alternatives for those who, traditionally, would have enrolled at universities. They argue that today’s world of work demands learning throughout a career rather than just at its outset, so learning providers offer access to small chunks of content as and when students need it.

Corporate learning market analysts, such as David Patterson, director of the UK-based market analyst Learning Light and a member of international e-learning think tank The Company of Thought, recognize that much of today’s corporate learning activities are undertaken so those organizations and their workers can comply with regulations. Nonetheless, he says, “shouldn’t we pay equal attention to our learners’ interests, desires and goals? What would happen if, instead of trying to push learning to children, our educational systems started with a simple question:  what’s going to interest, motivate and inspire our students? What if we gave as much attention to the hearts of our learners as we do to the standards on our tests?”

Pull learning’s champions believe that learning should be self-directed. L&D departments should provide resources for people to access, and then allow those people to access what they need, whenever they need it.

This suggests that the L&D department of the future won’t include trainers and instructional designers pushing training through classroom and online learning activities. Instead, L&D professionals will become curators of learning resources, responding to organizational and individuals’ learning needs, and providing on-demand performance support.

Of course, this ignores the insistent and persistent demands of compliance and regulatory training – which, according to contemporary conservative estimates, amounts to some 70 percent of all corporate L&D activity.

Then there are the training courses on topics that learners don’t know they need to know about. These could include such subjects as inclusion and diversity, which, without some form of compulsion, people wouldn’t necessarily volunteer to undertake.

Tim Drewitt, a digital learning consultant with recent experience of running corporate learning in large companies, says, “Most L&D departments support a number of learning interventions, but these are company-led and can’t hope to meet each individual’s diverse learning needs. Moreover, staff are quick to comment in employee engagement surveys that they aren’t getting the training they need.

“If more organizations encouraged and enabled pull learning, they’d see greater utilization of the wealth of content that’s probably gathering ‘virtual dust’ in their learning management system and reducing the return on investment.”

Tim believes that L&D professionals should signpost the programs needed to meet compliance requirements and provide learners with the tools to help them pinpoint their learning needs.  For the latter to happen, he argues the business must commit to investing in these self-development resources and making them as easily accessible as possible – given that learners will search for content based on their own search terms rather than those in an LMS catalog.

“If this content isn’t on offer, then learners will continue, as they already do, to search externally,” says Tim. “Some ‘pull learning’ can be tracked on your LMS – when you allow open access to the full range of courses it contains. This is also the time to turn on any in-built content evaluation features in the system.

“If the business also buys into acknowledging the informal ‘pull learning’ that employees find for themselves, then activating ways for individuals to record this is another chance to capture this data.

“L&D professionals also need to embrace the role of content curator. They should spend less time developing formal learning programs and more time getting out into the business, uncovering workers’ personal needs, then helping them source this content, and leveraging the benefits from what the learners have found for themselves.

“This allows L&D to maintain a regime of content evaluation and impact measurement.”

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