Let’s start by defining our learners better. For the sake of this article, I’m going to group learners into two buckets: entry-level learners and experienced learners. Entry-level learners are just beginning, or are in the early stages of, their learning journey. The content is either very new to them, or they are just starting to work with it. Either way, this group is heavily focused on the acquisition of skills. The experienced learner has moved beyond skills acquisition and is more worried about the application and integration of those skills.
There was a time when the entry-level learner dominated the landscape. Training departments and learning organizations developed thousands of hours of classroom training to address this audience, and most did a wonderful job. But that audience is growing smaller by the day, not because there won’t always be entry-level learners, but simply due to the fact that the typical learner matures into an experienced one. The question before CLOs is whether their delivery focus and approach has shifted as well or they are still trying to reach a new audience with an old model.
While maturing through these two levels, most learners can be seen at one of five different stages. The entry-level learner is typically at the initial or continued stage. At the initial stage, they are completely new to the content. They are heavily dependent learners who typically need a lot of guidance. The continued learner is simply learning more content. The content is still very new, but it tends to be at a more advanced level. Both these stages have typically been addressed in the classroom with a subject-matter expert in the front of the room. They are easy stages to assess because the skills are measured based on whether they can be recalled or demonstrated, not always whether they can be applied.
The experienced learner typically falls into one of three more mature stages. The first is the remediation stage. The learners don’t need more content, and it’s not that they didn’t “get it” the first time. Rather, they are struggling back at the workplace to apply the skills they learned to the job they do. Simply putting them back in a classroom to hear the same skills will not address this problem. They need a more reference-and-example-based approach, which will allow them to make the skills transfer. The next stage is the upgrade stage. This stage occurs when a student is already applying what he learned, but the rules have changed within the domain. These learners need an environment where they can see and try these different approaches. The final stage is the transfer stage. In this unique stage, not only have the rules changed, but the domain as well. Conceptually nothing is new, but the steps and environment are. This learner is often wrongfully sent back to the entry level. This ignores all the conceptual background that this learner already possesses. This learner needs a robust experiential environment where the old world can be recognized and related to the new domain being introduced.
If we are to meet the needs of experienced learners, we need to take a long, hard look at the learning tools, strategies and processes we put before them. Although entry-level learners will always be with us, experienced learners are overtaking them, and in many organizations they may already be the dominant learning population. Does your training approach recognize and address this shift?
Bob Mosher is director, learning evangelism and strategy for Microsoft Learning. He has been an influential leader in the IT training space for more than 15 years. For more information, e-mail Bob at firstname.lastname@example.org.