Competition Finalist 2: Meeting Learner’s Needs

This entry was submitted by Bob Little. Bob blogs regularly and can be found on LinkedIn.

Since the 1990s, learning has been moving from “institutionalised” to ˜lifelong”; from “judgemental” to “developmental”; from “privileged” to “open access”; from “knowledge-based” to “competence-based”; from “passive” to “interactive”; from “didactic” to “facilitated and self-managed”; from “exclusive” to “inclusive”, and from “synchronous and physical” to “asynchronous and virtual”.

Learning materials can be fitted onto two continuums: tutor-directed to learner-directed and closed/ didactic to open/ heuristic. Traditional elearning fits into the “tutor-directed and closed/ didactic” parts of these continuums but more recent “web 2.0” online learning materials are moving further way from these points, allowing learners freedom to learn by experience and from exploring other resources.

From a strict “learning” perspective, this presents some challenges such as: ˜how do you know when the student has finished exploring?” It also raises questions of levels of support. Moreover, a piece of traditional online learning is structured by a learning designer/ developer and usually concludes with an assessment to ensure that the learner has learned what s/he is supposed to learn.

However, when delivering materials via mobile devices, this format becomes less easy to accommodate. For one thing, the screen size is smaller and the device’s ability to cope with certain software, such as Flash, makes some learning materials inappropriate for use. More importantly, people using a mobile device are less likely to be able to devote their time and concentration skills to working through a carefully sequenced learning programme. They are more likely to want instant, sound-bite like reminders or tips to help them then and there.

This means that, when learning on the move, learners can’t, or don’t want to, cope with developer-structured learning materials. They want to explore the learning materials in the way they feel will get them the answer to their query in the quickest possible time. They don’t want to spend time taking an assessment to see if they’ve learned what they were supposed to. They have a more immediate and real-world way of validating their learning: by applying it there and then in the real world.

So, increasingly, online learning is no longer learning but, rather, performance support. This puts more pressure on the designers/ developers of these materials to make them available to the learner in a way that is relevant to the learner’s needs thus raising issues of the personalization and contextualization of the material.

We shouldn’t care about whether something is learning or performance support. This is not the time for an esoteric argument. The key issue is whether the learning materials are “fit for purpose“ in other words, whether or not they meet the needs of the learner at the point of need.

  • The importance of Web 2.0 chimes with the “Room 101” debate at the eLearning Network’s 25th birthday party. As learning designers we should be doing more to help learners genuinely embrace Web 2.0 in 2013. Feels like we’ve been talking about this for too long already – make it a new year’s resolution to DO!

    • Thanks for your comment. I couldn’t agree more! It is good to hear these sentiments coming from those associated with the eLN, the UK’s foremost professional association for all those concerned with corporate online learning.

  • A thoughtful piece that puts the virtual finger on the pulse, it’s the learner’s needs that are most important.

    • Thanks, Alistair. Having lived through the ‘content is king’ era of e-learning – during the web 1.0 period – it’s a positive sign that learners are beginning to take charge of what, why, when and how they learn. Of course, this is changing the role of the ‘trainer’ from consultant/ instructor who knows all the answers to coach and facilitator helping learners to explore and determine their own truths – and that can only be a positive sign.

  • Stan Daneman

    Bob little caputres the essence of the changes that is taking place in the Learning sphere in a crisp and consise manner. it is not only his grasp of the changes that he brings forwad but the simplistic style of writing that communicates with the reader. I write on the topic of Learning and business goals and Bob little adds value to my own understanding of this topics. Yours Sincerely, Stan Daneman

    • Thank you for your kind words. I’m delighted not only that you find my writing style crisp and concise but also that the result is helpful to you. I’ve always been very surprised – throughout a professional writing career that now comes close to spanning 30 years – that people actually read what I write and even find it helpful.

  • Fiona

    “increasingly, online learning is no longer learning but, rather, performance support” so true – especially with mobile technology making it permanently available.

    • Absolutely! It’s interesting, though, that ‘mobile learning’ is already showing signs of fragmenting into ‘learning via devices such as mobile phones’ and ‘learning via tablets’. With the screen sizes being different, there is scope for the same information to be conveyed differently, depending on what sort of mobile device the learner is using. I know that Kineo, for example, is experimenting with online learning materials that determine the device that’s accessing them and tailor their presentation accordingly. This is probably the shape of things to come in corporate learning technologies. Watch out for this trend in 2013!

  • great article, Bob. It raises some interesting questions about the difference between just-in-case and just-in-time learning.

    • Thanks for your kind words, Elizabeth. It’s always encouraging to receive praise for one’s (writing) efforts from a real professional. You’re right about the debate about ‘just-in-case’ and ‘just-in-time’ learning. The latter has more appeal to me, since it suggests not only performance support but performance enhancement and enablement, leading to improved productivity. ‘Just-in-case’ learning is more to do with the compliance and regulatory training which has become the bedrock of the corporate online learning world but is not approached or undertaken with any sense of anticipation of knowledge gain or engagement with the learning process. An industry which is based on mediocrity can’t – and doesn’t deserve to – prosper. My hope for 2013 is for more online performance support materials.

  • Phil Green

    A wonderfully thought-provoking article, Bob. I need to ponder over whether it does or does not matter to distnguish between learning and performance support. The latter is transient and takes away the need for the former – now look what you’ve done – you made me go esoteric!

  • Karim

    Excellent article from start to finish.

    • Thanks for your comment, Karim – and thanks, too, for taking the time and trouble to not only read the whole article but to respond. As a writer, I value readers highly because they are a vital yet often undervalued part of the communication process – and I’m always amazed, excited and deeply grateful when they read what I write.

  • Thanks for your insightful response, Phil. Isn’t this trend merely part of the move away from the trainer as trainer/instructor (from the pure classroom delivered training days) to the trainer as coach/ mentor and even facilitator of more modern times? I well recall – in the early ’90s – a trainer for a globally-known high street bank confessing that his colleagues in the training department happily conspired to sabotage the bank’s early attempts at introducing computer based training (the precursor to e-learning) because they feared for the safety of their jobs. However, as time passed, they realised that their jobs were safe – but their job was now one of helping people to learn and supporting them in these tasks rather than merely dispensing wisdom (sometimes in an oracular way). To continue your esoteric turn of mind, if we accept this further shift in trainers’ job specifications/ descriptions, this has some profound implications for the art (or is it craft?) of instructional design. Many extremely skilled instructional designers could feel their skills and job survival threatened in the way that the trainers at Barclays – whoops, the well-known high street bank – did in the late 1980s. Yet trainers and the skills of training (imparting and making materials available to enable people to learn) are still in demand – albeit in slightly different but still rewarding ways. Shakespeaere said: ‘So long as men shall live and eyes shall see, so long lives this – and this gives life to thee.’ With relatively little editing, trainers could say something very similar about instructional design. It will not die – but it may well change (and, indeed, probably is changing).

  • Debbie Carter

    Very good article Bob and as always hits the mark by emphasising the importance of putting the learner first.

  • An excellent article Bob! Specially when you mentioned

    “The key issue is whether the learning materials are “fit for purpose“ in other words, whether or not they meet the needs of the learner at the point of need.”

    I strongly believe in this as well! Learning should always be “Needs Based”

    • Thanks for your comment. One of the encouraging things about online learning in the past year or so is the development of technology that allows greater scope for the individualisation of learning. One of the key findings of an IBIS Capital report into the e-learning industry (published in January 2013) is that: learning will become increasingly personalised with e-learning harnessing big data analytics to provide interactive learning that is tailored to the meet the individual’s learning patterns and aptitude.

      This has been something that the e-learning world has been searching for since its inception. Now, some 25 years or so later, there’s the glimpse that it may be coming about – much to the on-going benefit of the learners.