A Digital Learning Journey for the Modern Learner

Technology has modified the way we digest information; gone are the days of stuffy hour-long informative training videos and hefty, physical manuals or how-to guides. Gone even are the early days of eLearning courses, like Judy Lowder points out, when “clicking the ‘next’ button [is] synonymous with turning the page. You open the course, start in the beginning with a table of contents, work your way through the material, and by the end you understand American history, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, or the importance of corporate compliance.”

Digital learning is the evolution of learning with new technologies and strategies used to enhance both in-person and learning at a distance. So, what should it look like? In a world full of learners with basically all knowledge known to humankind perpetually at their fingertips, what is the best way to learn? And what do learners even want?

What Is a Modern Learner?

The modern learner, contrary to the beliefs of some, is really not that much of an enigma. Learners are busy. They have constant, prolific access to technology. They want to be available for learning, but it’s difficult to do. And any new quest for knowledge a modern learner might embark on must inherently have a sense of relevance baked right into the experience.

Research has described modern learners as “overwhelmed, distracted, and impatient,” which more or less matches the stereotype of the youngest generations in our workforce, but these issues are not restricted to specific age groups. Everyone is overwhelmed, distracted, and impatient.

So how does this translate into learning? Well, modern learners need flexibility; they need information that’s ready to go whenever they are, and it needs to be transportable. The learning experience should be brief and provide explanations of big, juicy concepts in snippets or small doses over time, and, above all else, it needs to be relevant. If the value of learning a certain thing is not immediately apparent, it’s a no-go for the modern learner.

What Is a Modern Learning Journey?

Traditional instructional design takes a systematic approach to creating an instructional output. This approach focuses on providing the information you need in the order you need it, maybe with a little interactivity throughout the experience. That’s not necessarily a bad thing if your end goal is just to relay large chunks of information—but education, as Plato once put it, “isn’t what some people declare it to be, namely, putting knowledge into souls that lack it, like putting sight into blind eyes.” The transfer of information does not necessitate learning.

What you miss with that more traditional approach is the systemic experience of learning.

In a modern learning journey, we consider how you build a system of learning or a learning experience, and we’re concerned with what wraps around or envelops the actual learner throughout the process: all of the simple interactions, tools, and reinforcing moments that occur. We need to design an experience that creates space for the learner to pull themselves into it and be fully immersed. This immersion allows them to take ownership of their personal learning journey.

However, one of the first rules of a modern learning experience is that the modern learner has to take accountability in order to find true value in their learning, and a learner will not take accountability if they do not see the relevance. You also can’t actually ensure relevance, but you can create the conditions for relevance. Prioritizing accountability is a major culture shift for a lot of organizations because they simply are not used to helping learners take accountability.

Here are a few elements of wraparound, digital learning experiences that facilitate relevance and personal accountability:

  • Chatbots and digital assistants
  • Curated skill plans
  • Testimonial videos and podcasts from influencers
  • Virtual community and support
  • A manger’s toolkit with activities to use with their team
  • Interactive quizzes and scenarios that offer insight and opportunities to practice a particular skill
  • Timely communications to reach employees wherever they are in their learning journey

To make something ruthlessly relevant, learners must be able to step in and autonomously make the connection of why it is important to them or how it is going to help their career or growth, all by themselves. This is why thinking about the modern learning journey as a wraparound, non-linear experience is so important. And our goal is to build an experience around learners that allow them to step in and own that journey. It is their journey, after all.

An Illustration: Sarah’s Digital Learning Journey

Let’s explore what an effective digital learning journey might look like in action. We’ll pretend we know a woman named Sarah. She is a single parent and a rising professional in her field with aspirations, and her primary professional goal is to ensure she’s a viable option for future promotions. She heard recently that emotional intelligence (E.I.) is a critical skill for future positions she’s interested in, so the concept of developing her E.I. is already on her mind.

Here’s how Sarah’s digital learning journey might unfold:

  1. Her attention is caught by a flyer in the elevator at work that says, “Stressed out? Improve your emotional intelligence using an AR app to begin your journey,” and it includes a QR code. This resonates with her. She is stressed, she is curious about E.I., and getting app notifications on her phone to remind her that she’s trying to build this skill would be really useful. She quickly scans the QR code to download the app on her way to grab lunch.
  1. She’s prompted to watch a few videos of animations and testimonials from industry leaders and peers discussing how developing their E.I. helped them personally and professionally. She easily watches them on her way to pick up her lunch. Through these short videos, Sarah now understands from a range of voices how others use E.I. and why they value it.
    1. This tactic provides an opportunity for Sarah unlike the traditional approach, which would probably consist of an authoritative voice from her organization to all staff declaring, “This is E.I., and here’s how to use it and why we want you to.”
  2. Sarah is intrigued, so back at her desk, she decides to move forward through the app’s prompts. She takes the EI self-assessment and opts into the EI chat bot.
    1. The self-assessment is a brief diagnostic to help make Sarah more aware of her own E.I. and how she envisions E.I. will help her in her personal and professional goals.
    2. The chat bot shares information with her over time by pulsing message notifications containing snippets of information and prompts for E.I. thought activities. Additionally, the chat bot can answer questions she might have.
  3. After a week or so of receiving easily digestible chunks of information about E.I., Sarah is ready for more action and downloads the 30-Day E.I. Calendar Challenge that the app mentioned in one of the notifications. This calendar loads itself right into her Outlook calendar and feeds her a small E.I. activity she can do every day.
    1. Providing the content in small doses  works like magic: she’s slowly learning and practicing a new skill at a pace that works for her routine.
  4. After completing the 30-Day E.I. Calendar Challenge, Sarah receives an email asking her to reflect on her experience, which makes her realize she has been experiencing less stress about her upcoming annual review than normal, and she realizes she was more patient with her daughter over the last few weeks.
  5. Emboldened by this, she joins the online community advertised in the email and begins collaborating with others there. She shares her own experience, provides advice on some posts, and learns about even more E.I. resources and training.
  6. A week or so later, Sarah downloads one of the “How-To” guides someone posted in the online community, and with that, she learns a specific E.I. strategy for discussing concerns with coworkers.
  7. When whispers of new management begin to circulate around her office shortly after, Sarah is able to pull on her E.I. development and handle conversations with coworkers tactfully, confidently, and empathetically.

Through this self-paced, semi-synchronous online environment, Sarah has begun to develop her E.I. from bits of useful information and through actionable, realistic initiatives. She began expanding an invaluable skill over a matter of weeks and is already seeing the positive effects of her efforts, personally and professionally.

This example highlights the two things we really want a modern learner on a modern learning journey to achieve: to grow through convenient learning and to transfer the new information into everyday life over time. From a traditional instructional design perspective, we are thinking about sequencing and the chunking of information. But here, we are cultivating intentionality, support, and autonomy through an ecosystem of supportive learning experiences.

About the Authors

Matt Donovan

Chief Learning & Innovation Officer
Early in life, I found that I had a natural curiosity that not only led to a passion for learning and sharing with others, but it also got me into trouble. Although not a bad kid, I often found overly structured classrooms a challenge. I could be a bit disruptive as I would explore the content and activities in a manner that made sense to me. I found that classes and teachers that nurtured a personalized approach really resonated with me, while those that did not were demotivating and affected my relationship with the content. Too often, the conversation would come to a head where the teacher would ask, “Why can’t you learn it this way?” I would push back with, “Why can’t you teach it in a variety of ways?” The only path for success was when I would deconstruct and reconstruct the lessons in a meaningful way for myself. I would say that this early experience has shaped my career. I have been blessed with a range of opportunities to work with innovative organizations that advocate for the learner, endeavor to deliver relevance, and look to bend technology to further these goals. For example, while working at Unext.com, I had the opportunity to experience over 3,000 hours of “learnability” testing on my blended learning designs. I could see for my own eyes how learners would react to my designs and how they made meaning of it. Learners asked two common questions: Is it relevant to me? Is it authentic? Through observations of and conversations with learners, I began to sharpen my skills and designed for inclusion and relevance rather than control. This lesson has served me well. In our industry, we have become overly focused on the volume and arrangement of content, instead of its value. Not surprising—content is static and easier to define. Value (relevance), on the other hand, is fluid and much harder to describe. The real insight is that you can’t really design relevance; you can only design the environment or systems that promote it. Relevance ultimately is in the eye of the learner—not the designer. So, this is why, when asked for an elevator pitch, I share my passion of being an advocate for the learner and a warrior for relevance.