I recently joined 1600 education specialists from around the globe for the 2016 Learning Solutions Conference in Orlando, Florida. Here are some of my main takeaways from the conference and how we will apply them to our work in WDI’s Education Initiative.
(1) We’re in an age of bite-sized learning
The trend is to structure learning in shorter chunks, hence the moniker “bite-sized learning.” These chunks are typically in the range of 2-12 minutes. The total length of the course or training remains the same; it is simply being delivered in more units over a longer period of time.
Several forces are driving this: a) the popularity of short YouTube videos which serve as a model for how educators can grab attention; b) the perception that attention spans are shrinking (see point 2 below); c) the flexibility of short chunks allow users to squeeze in some learning during short spans of free time during the day; d) a growing appreciation of the fact that learners can only absorb so much information at a time (to continue the food analogy, “bite-sized” pieces are easier to digest); e) the recognition that shorter chunks make review of content more efficient, as learners can review exactly the concepts they want. Nick Floro, President of Sealworks Interactive Studios, advised conference participants to tag all bite-sized chunks with search-engine friendly titles so that learners can quickly find what they need.
Bite-sized learning can be implemented both in a fully online environment as well as in blended learning. In the latter case, learners can be primed with online content in advance (the “before” phase). This prepares them for the face-to-face training (the “during” phase). Following this in-person training, learners can continue to access content online to remind them to apply their new learning and to help them remember the content (the “after” phase). WDI is in the process of developing a portal to support this before-during-and after approach to learning.
(2) Don’t focus on attention spans – focus instead on leveraging learner’s motivation
Over the past few years, there has been a lot of talk of dwindling attention spans. The media widely cites a 2015 study by Microsoft stating that the average attention span in the age of smartphones has fallen to just 8 seconds, down from 12 seconds in 2000. Instructional strategist Julie Dirksen, author of Design for How People Learn cautioned conference participants to be skeptical of such research. She explains that the eight second finding is misleading, as there are many ways to define and measure attention span. “If you are intrinsically motivated, you have an unlimited attention span,” says Dirksen. She invokes hyperbolic discounting as one way to tap into learner motivation. This is the concept from behavior economics that links timing and rewards (would you rather have $10 today or $11 tomorrow?). The closer the learner is to the point of use, the more interesting the content is going to be. One effective way that instructors can use this insight is to let learners know that they are going to teach a concept and then give learners an immediate challenge in which they’ll need to use the new information.
WDI asks its instructors of its training programs to identify not only learning objectives but also application objectives – how can learners apply instruction back on the job? This keeps the learning practical and motivates our program participants by letting them know we are giving them new knowledge close to the point of use. We check in with our participants post-training and ask them to share ways in which they have applied the learning at work.
(3) Visuals are more valued than ever
The adage “a picture is worth a thousand words” dates back over 100 years, so a general appreciation of visuals is nothing new. But visuals are now being embraced by the education sector as never before. Visuals are processed much faster than text. “Visual imagery is the language of the mind,” said instructional design consultant Margie Meacham during her conference session on brain-aware design. PowerPoint loaded with bullet points and text are out. Presentations incorporating powerful photos and short videos to illustrate points and make them memorable are in.
When WDI works with its instructors to prepare them for training programs, we provide them with best practices to make their learning more effective. We will now include guidance on the effective use of visuals. Since many of our learners are not native English speakers and we are often training in English, visuals are particularly important. They can reduce the cognitive load required to process new information in a second language (so-called “extraneous cognitive load”).
(4) Social learning is increasingly prominent
In social learning, peers share with each other their own experiences with the material. This helps them relate the learning to their own context and deepens their interaction with the content, leading to better retention and a higher likelihood of application of the material. One way to engender effective social learning is to have the faculty frame the content (provide the “scaffolding”) and then have learners build on it. Faculty may also serve as curators of the content generated by the learners. During his session on social learning, Greg Bybee of NovoEd gave a good example of this: Faculty may de-brief an assignment by saying, “Here are the top 5 pieces of work I really liked and here’s why.” This engages learners in the process and helps them focus on some of the best ideas generated by their peers.
Many platforms can help enable social learning, including Facebook and Twitter. Some WDI programs have used Facebook groups to stay in touch post-program. WDI’s new learning portal for blended learning will integrate with Twitter and facilitate group interaction to leverage the power of social learning.
Amy Gillett is the Vice President of WDI’s Education Initiative and specializes in designing and delivering executive education programs in emerging markets. Prior to joining WDI, Gillett served in the foreign service in Prague, Czech Republic as a Masaryk Fellow responsible for political and economic research. She also worked as a marketing executive for Hewlett-Packard and The Clorox Company. She has a Master of Business Administration degree from Cornell University where she attended as a Park Leadership Fellow, a Master’s degree in Russian and Eastern European studies from Stanford University and a Bachelor’s degree in Slavic languages and literature from Stanford University. Additionally, Gillett holds certificates from the Pushkin Institute in Moscow and St. Petersburg State University in Russia. She is fluent in Russian and speaks some Czech, French and Spanish.