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If You Love Your Learners, Let Them Choose: The Case for Pull Learning

For too long, training has been synonymous with tedious WBT sessions that learners click through and forget. They won’t retain much about how to file an expense report or sell that new widget—and they’re certainly not going to take the course again when they need the information.

Let’s admit it—For years, L&D professionals been spared the selective pressures that apply to other products. We push mandatory training when our client orders it, and learners comply or suffer the consequences. We haven’t had to think about user experience (UX), because we’ve had a captive audience: our own employees, or our client’s.

How can we make the transition to the pull model of learning by designing for customers instead of captives? To start, we can show respect for our learners’ time and professionalism. Competent employees are not slackers who want to get away with poor performance; they want to perform well. When they need support, they look for solutions they can access from the sales floor, the phones, or the conference room. And they’re getting them—they’re just not getting them from us.

The sources learners are pulling vary by industry and job role, but most share four key features:

Accessibility—We know from Gotfredson and Mosher that learners expect to find what they need within two clicks or 10 seconds. The resources they’re using aren’t gated behind an LMS, or even a login. They’re out there for anyone and everyone to find, use, add to, and comment upon.

Indexability—If it’s hard to find, it might as well not exist. Learners want to see information organized in clear hierarchies, with branches showing related topics. Think about how easy it is to jump from one result to the next on Wikipedia or find a panoply of related items to buy on Amazon.

Palatability—Just like our favorite snacks, the resources that learners access are easy—even fun—to consume. Job hacks, vlogs, and TL;DR summaries are created with a time-challenged audience in mind. Learners aren’t forced to sit—or scroll—through content that doesn’t appeal or apply to them.

Informality—Learners don’t care whether sources have been vetted by Marketing or Legal; they want answers in plain language—or images. The message doesn’t need to be on brand or the presenter camera ready.

If learners like these free resources so much, why should we create on-the-job learning solutions at all? Should we just give up and let them Google?

Not at all—these four features can be pitfalls as well as assets. Just because content is accessible, fun, and easy to find doesn’t mean that it’s a reliable source of information. If your client uses a branded set of procedures or shares proprietary information to prepare salespeople for product launches, their employees won’t find the information they need by Googling.

What we can do is give learners more of what they want. They’ve already demonstrated their appetite for resources they can pull at their moments of need. L&D would be missing a huge opportunity if we didn’t learn to play in the pull learning space—and part of that opportunity means helping our clients learn to do the same.

Let’s commit to push back on push learning. Save it for high-stakes topics, such as legal, financial, and ethical compliance. Help clients move performance supports out of the LMS and into a content aggregator learners can use on their phones or laptops. Create bite-sized job supports, and label them clearly, so learners don’t have to hunt for what they need. And offer resources in multiple formats—podcast, PDF, video—so that learners can choose the most palatable and practical option. Above all, poach liberally: Innovations in the content and the services learners consume in their spare time are ripe for adoption by L&D.

About the Authors

Tiffany Vojnovski
The idea that school could be different first came to me—as did most risky ideas—through fiction, specifically Notes on the Hauter Experiment, a futuristic novel set in an automated boarding school. Screens replaced teachers, and flashing lights cued students to move to their next class. Those who disobeyed were punished with grating alarms and foul odors. Whether the author, Bernice Grohskopf, had a background in instructional design or simply excelled at reimagining the boarding-school bildungsroman, one thing was clear: school was ripe for an LX intervention. I didn’t revisit the idea until I joined the New York City Teaching Fellows program; but this time, I was the teacher instead of the reader. Via a fast track to certification, I was charged with teaching in one of the highest-needs schools in the country. My challenge was to boost students’ achievement by several grade levels while adding rigor and interest to the high-school English curriculum. After a lot of trial, error, and reflection, I learned how to help my students succeed. However, I never felt comfortable enforcing the poorly thought-out procedures and meaningless paperwork our school leadership imposed upon students. I believed in the value of knowledge, and to organizations devoted to learning and exploration. What I wasn’t sure I believed in were the virtues of going through the system in a single “right” way. If anything positive came out of my complicity with the school’s—and district’s—lamentable LX, it was the empathy I developed for my students. If their job was to learn and follow the rules, my job was to make it as easy as possible for them to do so. Any procedure that caused confusion about what to do when they entered class, where to find learning resources, or how to turn in completed work needed to be redesigned. When students arrived in a classroom designed for professional learning, they acted—surprise!—like professional learners. My commitment to LX has been the link between my teaching and instructional design practices. Rather than despair that learners aren’t who we want them to be—more literate, more professional, more successful in whatever way we value—we should design learning tools that make these ends accessible. Learners themselves can teach us how: thanks to the design thinking model, we have a series of steps for engaging learners in empathy interviews and quickly prototyping solutions that might help them. It’s easy to view the learner as a faceless cipher sitting at the other end of an eLearning module. However, once you meet someone face to face, you can’t help but care about their experience. Not every learner is skilled in metacognition or speaks the language of academia, but all learners can tell us, in their own idiom, about the obstacles and fears that trouble them—and the interventions that would improve their lives. Learning is more than a system of rewards, punishments, and behavioral cues meted out by machines. My commitment is to maintain an open mind and to treat every learner as a sympathetic character.

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