Courses, or learning episodes?

Delgates take pics during Andrew Jacob's Hero StoryDuring a recent Learning Pool Live event in London, I posted the following message on Twitter:

Move away from courses, towards events, experiences, challenges.

It was the result of a conversation and some thoughts during one of the presentations. It was retweeted several times, and one or two people asked for clarification. It's difficult to say too much in 140 characters, so here is a brief blog post to explain the thinking behind that tweet.

We were discussing a range of digital provisions for learning and development in the corporate world. It's universally accepted right now in this current economic climate that stringency and cost cutting are hitting the training budgets of just about every organisation. Courses can be very expensive to deliver. They also take a lot of time to develop, and as Don Taylor recently wrote, organisational training suffers from bad reputation. The perception of training courses being delivered didactically within a classroom or via e-learning as a 'just in case' provision, is far from the ideal human development many companies wish to aim for. What can the learning professional do to ameliorate this situation without compromising the integrity of the learning development offered in their company? Someone at the conference showed a cartoon which depicted two managers discussing the training budget. One complains about the cost and asks: 'What if we train them and they leave?' The other counters 'What if we don't and they stay?' Clearly, eliminating training is not an option, but modifying the offer might provide some solutions. That idea was reflected in my tweet.

It was argued that 'full course' delivery was no longer a viable option for many organisations. This was not simply because of cost, but also because of lack of efficacy. Compliance training, for example, is routinely presented as a short course, made up of a sequence of information presented as electronic page turning. The prevalent format is for learners to read the content, occasionally answer multiple choice questions to check their understanding, and then conclude with a summary and final test of memory. The 'next page' button is a constant feature of this kind of e-learning course, and is hated with a passion by many employees. Not a great deal is remembered from these training packages, and they are completed in a prefunctory manner with little thought about the meaning of the content. This is not just because they are presented with rather uninteresting packaging, it is also because learning is fairly passive.

Just what are the options? Can we do better than the course? Some might argue that events, experiences and challenges (which I call 'episodes') are all components of courses. True, and there's the rub. What would stop organisations from extracting these from courses so that they become stand alone learning activities, or learning 'episodes'? Nothing at all, and some companies are starting to do just that. The bite size learning experience is sometimes all that is needed to raise productivity, raise awareness or improve safety within the workplace. Also, such disaggregation of learning content provides learners with a greater choice of learning and development possibilities, where smaller and more focused experiences take less time to complete away from the job, and 'just enough' learning is achieved. Such bite sized learning could also be pushed directly to employees' smart devices if the company wished.

Often, goes the argument, courses contain simply too much content (harking back to the 'just in case' curriculum Don Taylor talks about), much of which is not needed at that point in time. Presenting a menu of activities, including challenges, quizzes, problems, experiences, and other learning 'episodes' does not preclude learners eventually completing 'courses'. It simply means they can take their time, at their own pace to accrue a portfolio or gain an open badge containing their achievements, whilst their learning is delivered at the point of need. Learners direct their own decision making, choosing from the menu exactly what they require as they work, and over time, they gain accreditation if it is required. Building more challenges and problems into the events would also encourage more active, and deeper forms of learning.

I therefore suggest that learning episodes rather than courses could be the way forward for 'just in time' and 'just enough' learning that is personalised, and delivered at the point of need.  Ultimately, it's a matter of granularity, and an idea based on making all of the components of a course available separately, in any sequence, and deliverable on any platform. Such flexibility is now both achievable and desirable. But how many organisations have the vision to make it happen?

Photo by Paul Clarke

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Courses, or learning episodes? by Steve Wheeler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


Raphaël said…
I totally agree with you but to make it "just in time" it has to be really well personalized to the learner or else we are going to face a new problem we will have created ourselves ! I don't think there is, to this day, a well enough described and scientifically validated individualization framework available to do this in a good way...I might be wrong ^^
Steve Wheeler said…
You're probably right on this Raphael. I tend to promote two approaches - a hands on approach for those who struggle to direct their own learning, and a laissez faire approach for those who are self starters. The latter tend to personalise their own tools, environments and contexts anyway, so it does work more than often with these learners (in my experience).
djs8851 said…
Steve and Raphael, thank you so much for the food for thought! An essential question is how do we design learning experiences with the ultimate goal of progressively requiring less and less directed learning or structure from
course facilitators?

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