Supporting the entire learning journey is more confusing than it’s ever been. I have been involved in the learning profession for more than 25 years, and I have never seen a time when we’ve had as many “tools” available. On the one hand, options are wonderful, but on the other, it can get rather overwhelming.

I recently had an experience in which I learned a valuable lesson about the importance of form factor. To me, form factor is not the instructional intent of the learning asset, but the literal form it takes when consumed. I had architected what I thought was a fairly robust learning solution that, once released, was getting little to no uptake. When I consulted with a colleague of mine, he shared that although I had built an “instructionally sound” solution that did speak to the learning objectives identified, I had missed the mark on assembling it in a form factor that met my audience’s needs and environment.

I had never looked at learners as consumers in the marketing sense of the word, meaning a group of people that needed to be marketed to and actually had buying patterns. I had always taken a more traditional approach, assuming that if I did a great job of analyzing and designing learning content, they would consume it. I wasn’t overly driven by form factor as long as they had access to it.

Now don’t get me wrong: Form factor has always been important, but understanding the difference has never been as important as it is today. If you look back on our history with learning assets, we have learned some valuable lessons in this area. The two that stand out to me are courseware and e-learning. Both are wonderful learning assets when consumed appropriately, but they also are two form factors many hoped to get more from than we often did.

I would challenge any organization to start a five-day training session without handing out courseware. This form factor is a critical part of the overall instructor-led training experience. It helps the instructor and learner stay on task. It often contains exercises, examples and practices. It guides learners through extra material that helps further explain topics covered in class. We often design it with a table of contents and index, making it easier to reference. Learners mark it up with their own notes and ideas. All of these things are essential to supporting a powerful classroom experience. The breakdown often comes after that event. I have heard thousands of instructors say things like, “Now that the class is over, your courseware will become a powerful reference guide when you’re back on the job.”

I support the message, but have often seen a very different result. Many a well-written manual sit on a shelf once they get back to the workplace. It’s not the fault of the content. Much of what’s contained in those pages is exactly what the learner needs when trying to apply what they’ve learned. It’s the form factor that breaks down. I have an entire bookshelf of three-ring binders full of amazing resources that I’ve rarely referenced once I left class.

E-learning also has followed suit based on its design and intent. Many e-learning assets have two things in common: They are designed for initial learning and are typically housed behind an LMS. When consumed for learning, this form factor can work well. The assumption many of us made was that, like courseware, learners also would use these assets for other parts of the learning journey, specifically during “just in time” (JIT) moments.

E-learning put JIT learning on the map, but many were disappointed with the outcome. JIT implied immediacy and relevancy, meaning that not only was the asset going to be available when I needed it, but it also was going to easily and quickly solve my immediate problem. For many, simply logging into an LMS was enough to break this promise. Also, the size of the libraries available and the linear design of that content made JIT difficult if not impossible. The form factor didn’t match the learning need under which it was being consumed.

Before we make the same mistake with other form factors such as simulations, communities of practice and mobile devices, to name a few, let’s take a step back and be sure we understand the relationship between design and delivery.

In my next column, I’ll be discussing design and delivery factors we need to consider when introducing learning assets to employees.


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