In 2020, unprecedented change affected us all. That “change” came in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic, where businesses, governments and learning institutions shut down, and both our work and personal lives changed in dramatic ways.
Amid such change, learning organizations began to retool. It is tempting to think of this retooling as temporary — simply bridging the gap until we can get back to business as usual. But the effects of the pandemic will persist for years to come. More importantly, this view fails to see a critical opportunity – the chance to accelerate a continuous learning and development (L&D) culture and take risks. Success and overcoming challenges will become a springboard toward growth and innovation. So, how should we move forward?
The Value of Continuous Learning
A continuous learning and development culture includes dynamic, flexible, relevant, engaging and readily accessible learning. It empowers learners and strengthens their ability to apply their knowledge.
The appropriate delivery format is key to an engaging and effective learning experience. The right mix of learning interventions and interactions is essential because it encourages thought leadership and fosters innovation.
Impactful continuous learning and development transforms businesses. Opportunities to reinvent and deliver come with opportunities to learn. Organizations that place a high value on learning are better able to reinvent and innovate, and organizations that innovate have a competitive advantage.
An environment of continuous learning will maximize learning experiences, meaning learning is effective despite physical restrictions:
- Learning is available at the moment the learner needs it. This significantly reduces the gap between learning and its application.
- 2020 proved there is tremendous potential in hybrid learning. Both virtual and in-person classrooms allow flexibility for learners and facilitators to pace learning and save costs.
- Technology is a catalyst in creating dynamic classrooms, both virtually and in person. An investment in technology infrastructure creates an opportunity for high-quality learning.
Increasing the Impact of Virtual Learning
Learning that is continuously updated and optimized allows organizations to meet changing market conditions. To ensure that learning delivers the intended impact, monitor:
- Shelf life: Learning should be relevant. It must be continually updated and refreshed by subject matter experts. Retire outdated content that has no application. It is good to add more interactivity and learning interventions for content with a longer shelf life.
- Accessibility: Learning must be easy and intuitive to find. It should utilize multiple formats and platforms as required. If learning is difficult to access and systems are too complicated, learning assets lose their benefit. As the moment of need passes, the learner may not connect how to apply the knowledge and skills gained from training.
Leveraging Existing Infrastructure and Technology
Is your organization optimized for continuous L&D? For those organizations seeking to improve, the first rule of thumb is to let design, not technology, drive program and content development. In many cases, the technology currently available within an organization will suffice. Design first, technology second should be the approach.
The heart of an effective design is to start by following these simple steps:
- Examine the organization’s strategy.
- Set key performance indicators (KPIs).
- Align learning design to the KPIs.
As part of the design process, it’s important to understand learning styles among those accessing learning programs and content.
It’s also necessary to establish a design framework and assessment rubric. The design framework sets design standards across all programs while the assessment rubric evaluates learning. There are three primary elements to an effective design framework:
- Motivation: Strategies include gaining learner attention, connecting to the learner’s emotions and putting content into context.
- Engagement: Strategies include building on recent experience, varying learning approaches, fostering collaborative learning and providing frequent interactions.
- Retention: Strategies include breaking down complex concepts into smaller, digestible elements; using games, mnemonics, or small knowledge checks; and adding visual elements to help learners digest and process complex content.
The design framework and assessment rubric allow an organization to leverage existing resources and begin building a continuous L&D culture.
Supporting Your Continuous Learning Culture
Continuous learning cultures include multiple delivery modalities – in-person classrooms, virtual classrooms, self-paced virtual learning and blended learning. Self-paced virtual learning can be used anywhere and across various technology platforms. Using self-paced virtual learning is increasingly common, even within the in-person classroom environment.
What content works best for each learning modality? Well, it depends on your learning objectives, which should flow directly from your organization’s strategy.
The debate over whether self-paced learning will dominate over classroom-based courses is moot; the two paired form a highly effective learning partnership. And, while most in-person classroom learning transitioned to virtual classrooms, the balance between self-paced, pre- and post-course work, and classroom learning remains critical.
With an array of technologies and strategies, how can diverse content and delivery types be organized to build a robust, continuous learning environment? Strategies include:
- Asset management: An asset management system is essential for storing, utilizing, and maintaining learning content.
- Curriculum design: This is a way to assess existing learning content, determine new content needs and pre-plan entire programs.
- Playlists: Playlists are a tool for organizing learning content of all types into one coherent and organized lesson plan.
Ultimately, the goal of leveraging existing infrastructure and technology is to create a manageable, scalable, flexible structure that achieves the L&D goals of the organization and maximizes employee retention. A continuous L&D culture is one where learning is not a periodic event. Rather, it is ongoing, and knowledge is shared, information disseminated, new skills learned, existing skills honed and employees are actively engaged in the learning process.
Putting Continuous Learning Into Practice
An essential element of continuous learning is placing content into context, where learning transforms into application. Also, those leading learning sessions should evolve from instructors to facilitators. Facilitators create an active dialogue with participants and build engaging and collaborative experiences designed to maximize both retention and application.
Collaboration is key to making any learning modality effective. Ensure there are ample opportunities for learners to collaborate and network. Learning interventions – such as polling, breakouts and group exercises – are an excellent way to build participation and collaboration during a classroom session. These interventions not only break the monotony of one-way instruction but also keep the learners engaged. They make the sessions interactive and allow learners to network and ask questions.
Even self-paced learning can be collaborative when online learning communities are cultivated. These platforms give the learner opportunities to interact and share knowledge with their colleagues.
The effectiveness of the learning programs should be measured based on key performance indicators (KPIs). KPIs keep programs strictly focused on the learners’ and organization’s needs. Ways to measure learning effectiveness include:
- Participant knowledge (via assessments).
- Job performance (before vs. after training).
- Impact (efficiency in deriving results and achieving organizational goals).
The classroom will continue to be an essential element in learning. At the same time, blending classroom learning with technology can increase the overall impact of the program.
The path forward from our current challenges should focus on building a continuous L&D culture. The value of this focus creates an environment that is sustainable, equitable and disruption ready.
Transitioning learning programs toward a blended delivery approach will be a crucial element in a thriving environment of continuous learning. Learning does not have to be completely virtual, self-study or classroom – it should be a mix of all. An in-person classroom program can incorporate virtual self-paced tutorials, and creative reimagination is key to making learning programs more engaging.
As you create your hybrid learning program, remember to:
- Spread the program over a period to ensure learning is continuous.
- Leverage existing technology that is within reach and simple to use.
- Identify the portions to deliver virtually and through self-paced (depending on the geography, audience size and content material).
- Place the right interventions and the medium to engage the learner and encourage active learning over passive viewing.
- Provide opportunities to collaborate both inside and outside of the classroom.
The new reality does not mean a complete shift in delivery methodology or compromise in learning quality; it is an opportunity to redesign and recreate learning experiences that are both flexible and sustainable.