Much has been written about learning content curation. Often, this concept stems from a desire to take advantage of the sea of free content available through smart devices, high-speed network connectivity and social media. It’s certainly hard to think of a task or skill that cannot be found demonstrated on YouTube. Corporately, it’s also hard to think of a topic area not addressed by bloated course catalogs. As a result, there has been a large focus on content curation.
Content curation is a practice borrowed from marketing. Using this practice, marketers target a set of buyer profiles to better understand how people relate to a product or brand, and “feed” them content that increases the likelihood of them making a purchase. Similarly, learning and development professionals might target employees in a specific job role to better understand their work, and suggest or require learning content intended to improve performance on the job. This is an efficient approach, connecting more employees to more content with less effort. However, more is not always better, and content alone is never sufficient. To increase the effectiveness of their curation efforts, learning professionals should broaden their focus beyond content to experience.
Curation also has a much older meaning. Originally, the role of curator was associated with museums and exhibitions. What can we learn from that role that can be applied to the curation of learning experiences?
Enter the White Room
Think of a museum or exhibit you’ve visited where, at some point during your walkthrough, your breath caught in your throat. If museums aren’t your thing, recall the best restaurant meal you’ve ever had or the greatest music performance you’ve ever attended. Recall that experience – how it felt, what it meant to you, what it means to you still. Think of what you learned during that experience. In an industry where research indicates that 30 to 70% of what employees learn is forgotten, learning professionals should take time to examine experiences that are instantly and permanently stored in our memory and available for recall.
Now consider that those experiences – the museum, event, meal and concert – all have something in common. They all began with an empty white room with white walls and empty floors. This was the curator’s starting point, and the curator’s goal was to then give visitors an experience that they would carry with them when they left the room.
What do curators add to the white room to create meaningful experiences? Certainly, there are works of art to be exhibited (the content), but the works themselves cannot be the only elements. Paintings lose meaning if they sit stacked in a corner. The following are some components of experience – beyond the content itself – that are useful for learning curators.
Components of Experience
Entry and exit
Exhibit curators are deliberate about how visitors enter a space. There are functional components, like obtaining a ticket or joining a tour group. But the entry to an exhibit also sets the stage for the entire experience. For example, Meow Wolf’s “House of Eternal Return” exhibit in Santa Fe, New Mexico uses a full-scale recreation of a Victorian home as its entry point. Participants step through an ordinary-looking refrigerator and into the “real” exhibit – an interactive light and sound installation.
Learning professionals should be equally attentive to how participants enter courses or learning events. Participants should have clear expectations of how learning will benefit them in their roles and personal development. Opening a course with messages from leaders that welcome and positively affirm participants’ value to the organization also promotes engagement and attention.
Exits are equally important, as they are the best opportunity for a call to action. As visitors of an amusement park exit through an experience-themed gift shop, learners should exit each learning event with a clear call to action. Otherwise, skills and knowledge learned may never be applied on the job.
Grouping, sequence and pace
Curators can add additional impact and meaning to art through careful grouping. Works that complement or contrast each other might be placed close together. Alternatively, curators can give a piece additional emphasis by surrounding it with white space.
The sequence in which an exhibit is experienced can also add meaning. Is there a set route established, or is the participant invited to explore at their leisure? Curators can segment exhibits into a series of rooms, with each room building on the previous. Sequence impacts the meaning and experience for each participant.
Pacing is often left to participants, but curators can manipulate a space to encourage patrons to move forward or linger in specific spot. Often, turns and corners build anticipation for what lies ahead.
For learning modules, content should be grouped to reinforce similar information or contrast dissimilar information. Learning should be sequenced so concepts build on one another. These practices will focus learners’ attention and help learners manage cognitive load.
If you expect learners to build skills, learning content should be paced to allow for spaced practice and reflection. Often, learners are simply fed content and expected to immediately apply new skills on the job. Skill building requires repeated practice and opportunities for self-evaluation and reflection.
Lighting in an exhibit serves a functional purpose: to illuminate pieces on display. However, it can also modify the experience. For example, consider how the experience of Michelangelo’s David would change if it was not lit by natural light through the glass dome of Galleria dell’Accademia.
Lighting and sound can be powerful components of instructional media. Important information can be visually “lit up” to focus learner attention. For live training events, opening a room to natural light can support learner engagement. In contrast, having learners sit in dim, windowless rooms following a projected presentation can decrease energy and attention.
Sound can also add meaning to a primarily visual exhibit. Ambient sound – including music and natural sound effects – can alter patrons’ experiences. Imagine a haunted house with no spooky soundtrack; the experience loses almost all emotional impact.
Music and ambient sound can add appropriate context to learning. Playing up-tempo music at the beginning of a live session can capture learner’s attention and help learners feel at ease talking with each other. Including a “tense” soundtrack in an eLearning course can underscore the importance of topics, such as compliance and security.
Curators take great care to encourage participants to interact with exhibits in specific ways. Do they observe passively, or are they prompted to view from different angles? Sometimes interactivity is constrained to a single choice. In contrast, sometimes the exhibit allows the participant to interact freely, even taking part in the creation of the exhibit.
Some exhibits include an active discovery component. That is, all participants may be expected to experience some parts of the exhibit, but other parts may be left for participants to discover by chance or through intentional chance. Disney properties are famous for including “hidden Mickeys” – the shape of the iconic mouse’s head – in exhibits, architecture, decor, artwork and landscaping. Attention is never called to these components. Indeed, their purpose and function lie purely in the delight of discovering something nonobvious.
Though many courses allow learners to interact, the component of discovery is often overlooked. Learners should have the opportunity to experience discovery, surprise and delight. Try embedding an “easter egg” in the materials for your next training initiative: i.e., the date your organization was founded or the founder’s name. Then, launch a “spot the easter egg” contest the week after initial launch. This provides the opportunity for learners to engage with learning content with fresh eyes. It’s fun to find the hidden content, but viewing the content again will also spark recall and increase retention.
Applications to Learner Experience
Curation is one discipline that seeks to affect a participant’s experience. Learning and development is another. For museum curators, an emotional response, a gift shop purchase or perhaps a generous donation are the desired outcomes. For learning and development, a change in on-the-job behavior and a corresponding improvement in business metrics are desired. Whatever the desired results, we can create an experience more likely to achieve them by caring for each component of the learner experience.