“Eyes forward.  If you can’t pay attention, I’ll rap your knuckles with my ruler.”  This may be an echo of a strict Catholic education or it may be a hyperbole of how your child is being trained at school, but either way, it doesn’t have a place in how you educate the adult learners in your organization.

Malcolm Knolwes in his book, The Adult Learner: The Definitive Classic in Adult Education and Human Resource Development , discusses andragogy – or learning for adults – and why it’s different than pedagogy – learning for children.  The conclusion is that there are six key assumptions about adult learning:

  • Need to Know
  • Foundation
  • Self-Concept
  • Readiness
  • Orientation
  • Motivation

Trying to put these together into a single context; it’s clear that adult learners need to be trained at the moment in time that they need the learning (readiness), why they need to know a piece of information (need to know), that they have the foundational concepts necessary to integrate the new information (foundation) and that they have an understanding of the problem they are trying to solve (self-concept).  The training must be focused on solving problems (orientation) and the motivation for learning must map to the internal motivations of the student (motivation).

While instructor-led training courses are the mainstay of a business, they clearly violate some of the principles laid out for adult learning.  Instructor-led training must be scheduled and therefore cannot be at the moment in time that the learner needs the information (readiness). Let’s take a look at how the new searching tools are transforming how you can be effective at creating learning in your organization.

The Power of Search
It used to be that learners sought out courses or books to learn.  It was difficult, if not impossible, to locate information outside of the context of a package of the material in the form of a course or a book.  However, today content creators and publishers around the world struggle with the way that people consume information differently than they did in the past.  We’re much more likely today to type the term or concept we want to know more about into a search engine and see what comes back than we are to walk into a bookstore and see what books are available.  (Sidebar: I can’t remember the last time I actually walked into a bookstore, I’ve ordered my books from Amazon.com for years and years now.)

Even if learners are still in the habit of purchasing books, they’re transitioning to buying eBooks – 2011 is the year when eBook sales are believed to have transitioned to the lead compared against physical unit sales.  So the learner uses search to find the book they want, they download it as an eBook and then use search on that book (or the more primitive table of contents or index) to locate the information they want.

It’s far more likely that the search result didn’t lead the learner to a book and they instead grabbed the information they needed from a blog, a new site or a wiki somewhere.  This is the new model of information consumption and learning makes it possible to find information without the need for it to be packaged into a course or a book.  Search has absolutely clobbered the readiness problem of learning, or at least it can, if students can leverage search to find the information they need.

A Departure from Learning Pathways
Much of the content being created today is laid out into a course which is a part of a learning pathway. We assume we’re going to instruct a learner from a very basic level to an advanced level through several courses and a well-defined path.  The problem with this: when considering the impact of search, we’re not building content in a way that is easily searchable, or consumable, when found from a search.  Our focus on learning pathways may be leading us away from how learners consume information.

Rarely are we creating knowledge repositories or reference centers where learning becomes a natural extension of finding the information.   Most of the information we have to share with the learners is trapped in our LMS wrapped in SCORM and buried away from direct access by search.  However, the information is there begging to be let free and converted into a format that is searchable.

Findability and Relevance
In the information architecture and search worlds, the magic word is findability.  How findable is the information that you have?  There are numerous ways to make information more findable – many of which are beyond our scope here, however there are a few simple techniques for improving the findability of the information you have:

  • Make sure that your content can be indexed – The SCORM format, while composed of components that can be indexed, isn’t consumer friendly for a search engine, nor for a user who finds that the information they need is buried in the middle of a course.
  • Plan the building of reference libraries – You’re building content anyway, so plan to create reference libraries that accompany and support the courses.  By leveraging the material, you’re already building so you can minimize costs and test the effectiveness of reference tools as a way to educate learners.
  • Define your information architecture – The scope of overall information architecture is larger than learning, but you can define your own rules for metadata on reference content.  Start with the same sort of classification as you use in your LMS.  What’s the topic?  What’s the level?

Binding it Together
We cannot abandon our instructor-led and computer-based training options.  However, we have to realize that the way adults consume information and create knowledge is changing.  We have to adapt and provide options, while maintaining cost control, to learners in our organizations.

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