Creating the ideal learning environment that engages learners, boosts their intrinsic motivation and demonstrates the value of the experience can be quite a challenge when working with diverse audiences and existing organizational resources. Although research has shown that learners should not be defined strictly by learning style or preference, many still tend to use these labels as a guide when faced with the challenge of designing activities for a variety of learners. Unfortunately, this method presents an incomplete picture, which can yield a sub-par learning experience.
All learners can benefit from a rich and stimulating environment. To truly address diversity in the learner audience, it is important to consider a larger set of characteristics that provides a contextual understanding of how the learning experience fits into the individual’s existing environment.
Let’s explore four types of characteristics that can be used to create a more complex understanding of learners and their needs.
Four Learner Characteristics
Generational characteristics. Companies have been struggling for years to find ways to better employ and retain millennial workers. This generation is known for being constantly connected, requiring immediate feedback and encouragement, and having high expectations and demands for the integration of technology. The type of learning environment that will be most welcoming for a millennial learner may be quite different from what a baby boomer would desire.
Access to technology. Regardless of their comfort level, if employees are required to complete an online course but do not have access to a computer or mobile device during the work day, their participation will be minimal. Evaluate the technology that is readily available to your participants, and design experiences that promote participation.
Culture and learning. While it would be inaccurate to say that an individual’s culture determines his or her learning style, there are commonalities that emerge among individuals as a result of how they process and act upon information. Sometimes these tendencies are a result of formal learning experiences. Other times, they have developed as a result of life events. Understand that each learner may interpret content differently.
Geographic location. Are learners working alongside their peers while participating in the course? How might the opportunity for casual conversations and face-to-face check-ins impact the types of activities you design? What if the learners are physically separated from their peers? What if there are different time zones to account for? It’s important to use tools that facilitate collaboration among colleagues, regardless of their location.
As you contemplate these characteristics, you may become concerned about your ability to meet so many needs within one learning environment. Although the one-size-fits-all approach to learning is quickly becoming obsolete, the truth is that many organizations simply do not have the resources to create fully customized environments that will address each learner’s needs.
The learning industry continues to evolve at a rapid pace, creating debate among designers on how to construct the best possible experience. While you may not ever reach that elusive 100-percent satisfaction rate, here are some guidelines that can help you create a learning environment that engages learners and maximizes your time and financial resources.
Tips for Developing the Learning Environment
Be authentic. Employees who must take time out of their day to attend courses, while still managing their normal responsibilities, may be turned off by a generic “off-the-shelf” course. Customized content featuring visible leaders in the organization can create a strong value proposition on the importance of the course.
Identify early on if the content will require additional incentives to generate commitment. It may be hard to admit, but not all learners will be motivated to take your course. Some companies use badging, competition or career pathing to motivate learners to complete required modules.
Use existing resources to foster an employee’s motivation to learn. Incorporate elements of social learning to develop stronger connections among peers. Maximize your human capital by providing employees with opportunities to showcase their knowledge and share it throughout the organization. The ideal learning environment can incorporate existing tools and systems. It does not have to rely on expensive technology to provide the customization and personalization desired by today’s workforce.
Reduce learner attrition by designing activities that take the holistic user experience into account. Employees often struggle to keep up with work while meeting the requirements of their coursework. The stress of these demands places a greater burden on an individual’s cognitive load (the total capacity of working memory available to the brain at any moment). Routine activities require less effort from the brain than activities that require the processing of new information. Cognitive load is important to keep in mind throughout the design process, as it can guide the rhythm and pacing of your material.
Expand the learning environment. Include supervisors when designing course outcomes to ensure that they align with expected productivity gains. Encourage learners to discuss course concepts with their peers, and identify opportunities for learners to immediately apply their knowledge. Raise awareness of course concepts so that the greater team understands the value of the learning experience. These actions can garner outside support, encouraging participants to make the course a priority.
Incorporate activities that develop higher order skills, such as critical thinking. Avoid death by consumption: Give your learners opportunities to apply their knowledge. Challenge them with thought-provoking assignments, and encourage a healthy debate on difficult topics among class participants. These strategies will encourage learners to internalize the content, which will increase their retention of important concepts.
Design your environment to fit into the learner’s daily routine. Chunk content into small sections that can be spread over the course of a few days. This design will give learners the flexibility needed to meet multiple demands. Specify how much time each activity will take so that learners can manage their schedule accordingly. If group meetings are part of the course, be sure to provide ample time to accommodate various work schedules.
Utilize multimedia tools to create a dynamic learning environment, if you have the budget. Live action videos, animations, and online simulations and interactives are a great way to spruce up your content. However, don’t fall prey to the idea that technology can save a poorly designed course. Always refer to your original learning plan to ensure that your activities are aligned with the desired course outcomes.
A Note on E-Learning Content
E-learning has been heralded as a method to cut costs while delivering a consistent user experience. Through the use of learning management systems, webinars, enterprise social networks and video conferencing, organizations have been able to maximize their intellectual property. Many institutions have established policies stating that all training materials previously controlled by learning and development departments must now be housed in a centralized content management system.
While creating a central repository can improve accessibility across the company, this approach does not necessarily guarantee that employees will use the content to which they now have access. More than ever before, the learning and development department has an important role to play in facilitating the learning process.
Becoming The Go-To Resource
Once you have created your ideal learning environment, consider how to establish it as a vital, go-to resource for your organization.
Develop a clear value proposition for each learning activity. Much time is spent on ensuring that the organization obtains a return on investment for learning initiatives. But what about the return on investment for the learners? Why should they give up valuable time to participate in a learning activity? Consider the importance of quality versus quantity when deciding which activities to include. Clearly communicate their value to the learners, and establish next steps that will help them accomplish their goals.
Discuss with managers the employee development needs they see in their department. Help them understand the available resources so they can recommend appropriate courses to their direct reports. Follow up to assess whether the learning activity generated the expected output and where it needs further refinement.
Create individualized learning plans with accountability measures that motivate employees to be proactive in developing their skill set. As organizations increase their emphasis on human capital, learning and development professionals will become central to the overall success of the company. Get ahead of the game by developing a deep understanding of the skills each employee brings to his or her work and how those skills can be enhanced to further the success of the organization.
This is an exciting time to be in the learning industry. Learning and development professionals have the capability to create an engaging environment that challenges learners, ignites their passions and propels them forward in their careers. It’s time to embrace the diversity of the learning audience and maximize resources to create the optimal learning environment.