Why do we call what we do “training”? Webster’s dictionary offers this definition: “to form by instruction, discipline or drill; to make prepared for a test of skill.” I have two issues with this: It’s too directive, and it only speaks to one part of the learning process. Most training initiatives I’ve been involved with emphasize “ramping up” or helping learners “get there.” But once you’ve “gotten there,” then what? Learning is not finite. It is continual and has stages. When I graduated with my teaching degree (I won’t say when that was, but slide rules were still common), I was called an “educator.” Webster’s defines education as “the action or process of educating or of being educated; also: a stage of such a process” and as “the knowledge and development resulting from an educational process.” Notice the theme: process and stages. Learning needs to be addressed as a continuum, and we need to help our learners approach it that way.
Many of you might say I’m splitting hairs, but I find that many learning solutions are too focused on training. They emphasize the acquisition of knowledge, not solving the problems learners face when applying that knowledge. Have you ever tried to search a tutorial for a solution to a particular problem? If the product gives you the option to search at all, it’s often hard to navigate directly to the answer. Many learning solutions are designed with “getting started” in mind. The instructional flow assumes no knowledge and therefore starts from the beginning. The problem is that many learners don’t want to take even 15 minutes to find a specific answer in a tutorial.
We need to start recognizing the gaps that many learning products and approaches ignore, and arm our learners with tools and strategies to fill those gaps. We need to look at the methods we use to support our learners and ask ourselves one question: Do these methods support just the initial stages of learning, or all of them?
In many organizations, learners meet in a classroom. An instructor stands at the front of the room, and students follow a set curriculum. Many learners prefer to go to class if given the option, but these same students come to class at different stages along the learning continuum. Why can’t we design classes that take advantage of the many benefits of bringing students together, and cater to these different stages as well? We can still have traditional instructor-led classes, but what about classes that are workshop-based for experienced learners, overview-based for learners who are just trying to see the big picture, or feature-based for learners who just need to work with new updates or approaches?
E-learning can be approached in the same way. Much of the e-learning we see today takes the form of a tutorial, which is often a “startup” class held online. They are made up of hours of content, divided into 15- to 40-minute learning units. These are clearly more modular, and learners can skip sections and proceed at their own pace, but many are still designed with the “getting started” learner in mind. This clearly serves a valuable purpose in helping learners come up to speed, but what then? How many of the e-learning tools found in organizations today address learners at other points on the continuum? E-reference, e-communities and e-mentoring are among the options that support learners during other stages of instruction and knowledge application.
This brings us to what may be the most important aspect of offering learning options as a continuum: helping learners understand what’s available and what’s best to use in a given situation. Many learners are familiar with the traditional classroom and are becoming more comfortable with tutorials, but other modalities are very new to learners. They need to be taught how and when to use these options. What type of learning scenarios do they best serve? I remember picking up my first hammer and basically swinging it wildly at anything. Having the tool clearly didn’t make me a carpenter. A CLO is in the education business, not the training business. That involves addressing the many aspects of learning, not just the purchase and distribution of learning tools and options. It also involves guidance and instruction on when and how to use those tools to achieve maximum impact in the workplace.
I often hear people say, “Learning is not an event, but a process.” To be candid, I often see old tools and methods applied to this statement. If we’re going to look at learning as a continuum, we also need to look at approaches and tools that best fit different learning needs.
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.