Addicted to real-time learning

illustration of online meeting

April 2020

Personally I'm always ready to learn, although I do not always like being taught

Winston Churchill

Every industry has a Herculean task set by the COVID-19 crisis. For learning and development (L&D) it is the pivot online, the seamless switch from face to face (F2F) to online learning. This has been achieved in just a few days, eliciting huge appreciation for trainers, instructors, facilitators and other educators. And just as well, because accreditation organisations and regulators are not prepared to just suspend L&D for employees who must comply with industry specific standards. But the mutual back-slapping will need to be brief because there is a problem, a big one.

We are already seeing burn-out for instructors and participants engaged in extensive learning on videoconferencing platforms such as Zoom. For all the high-tech gizmos, teaching on Zoom is exhausting, and to make it interactive requires extensive multi-tasking and coordination skills, not required when teaching F2F. Eventually, familiarity with the platforms will ease this problem. There are also the security problems but, again, these can be overcome. The biggest problem is that we haven't really changed how we teach, just the delivery platform. Web-conferencing by sharing a Power Point is an example of passive learning. This is based on the age-old model of learning and teaching based on knowledge transfer from instructor to student. There is a place for this, but educators and the companies who commission them should know the constraints. There are two serious limitations:

  • Attention spans average at slightly less than 20 minutes
  • Retention of knowledge is very low (typically cited at about 10%)

We can debate the research that underpins these figures but that would be to miss the underlying truth that passive learning (just listening to a talk, presentation or video) is not ideal for long periods of time. Anyone who has experienced 'death by Power Point' (that would be all of us) will agree. Needless to say that 'death by Zoom of death by Power Point' is considerably worse. If you are planning days or weeks of full days teaching on Zoom, ask yourself if you would enjoy that as a participant? How much do you think you would learn from that experience? We should also consider how employees around the world will access our learning. Video-conferencing requires a stable and fast internet connection, not all employees necessarily have it. Is videoconferencing accessible to all? Are all of your learners in the same time zone?

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To make L&D relevant for the sustainable future, and to create resilient learning that can continue despite global interruptions, we need to evolve beyond the initial pivot. We have created some breathing space to design the learning of the future, that is all. Learning designers need to think beyond real-time learning and passive methods of delivery. The way to do this is to create a learning environment where learners can access different types of material and learn for themselves, instead of being talked at. Here is how:

  • Consult with your organisation and industry regulators to find out what employees need to be able to do as a result of your learning programme
  • Consider the learning objectives of your learning instead of cramming content into a Power Point
  • Collect a library of varied resources: documents, presentations, podcasts, videos etc. which directly support your learning objectives. Ditch anything else
  • Curate your collection into a set of interesting, engaging and relevant chapters or lessons
  • Create a sequence or timetable of learning activities with learning objectives, outcomes and assessments
  • Challenge your learners to demonstrate their learning by presenting their solutions to practical problems via video-conference or project reports
  • Collaborate by interacting with learners via video-conference, chat, emails etc. And encourage collaboration with learning groups by setting group challenges
  • Care about learners by contacting them and being present through chat channels, emails or video conferencing. Encourage group discussion

We should be proud of the way many businesses have managed to survive and create some kind of temporary normality in the current circumstances. The learning industry has, like others, adapted admirably. But we cannot continue as we are. Teaching on Zoom exclusively will not work in the long run. It's time to start planning the next stage of learning evolution.

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