In my last column, we started a discussion around the importance of understanding the impact of form factor on a learning engagement. Form factor to me is not the instructional design of the learning asset, but the literal form it takes when consumed. We often assume that if we simply make learning assets available, our learners will make intelligent decisions around using them.
Unfortunately, that is not always the case. Learners may choose based on proximity, familiarity and what appears to be the easiest to use, none of which may be the best approach for their learning needs at the time.
There are a number of factors we need to consider when designing and introducing these assets to our learner so we can do a better job of matching form factor to consumption. There are three categories I’d like to offer up for consideration: context, outcome and time of introduction.
Context is a highly misunderstood aspect of introducing a learning form factor. The most common one considered is that of job-role context — in other words, how we map the consumption of content to specific job roles and outcomes so the right information gets in front of the right person.
Two other areas related to context that also need to be considered are work environment and workflow. With regard to the first, I remember being asked to design an e-learning tool for a retail organization. It quickly became apparent that although some type of self-serve form factor was best, an e-learning tool wasn’t appropriate due to the customer-facing nature of the environment. Instead, a mobile or paper-based job aid was more effective. Proximity to technology, customers, peers and managers are just a few of the environmental aspects that need to be considered.
When considering workflow across the job role, keep the following questions in mind: When in the workflow will the asset be consumed? Is it something that needs an immediate answer or is there more time? Does the scenario tend to be urgent or even life-threatening, or is there room for error or experimentation? Is there a sequence that needs to be considered, or can the content be accessed at random?
Each of these workflow issues needs to be considered when choosing which form factor may work best. Paper-based content tends to be difficult to search and access immediately but can be fairly robust and detailed. Likewise, technology can be limiting in its accessibility in certain workflows but can be incredibly flexible and easily maintained.
Another major area to consider when selecting a form factor is the intended outcome. Is the content intended to teach or support? Formal learning assets tend to follow a linear path from simple to complex. These form factors often will be consumed over a lengthy period of time. They often are assessed and reintroduced based on the outcome of that assessment. Courseware, e-learning and classroom instruction are best-suited to meet these demands.
Informal learning tends to be quite the opposite. Its intent is to be accessed quickly, in short doses and in no particular order. These form factors need to be searchable, flexible and easy-to-maintain due to the ever-changing demands and nature of the informal domain. Job aids, coaching, mentors, electronic performance support systems (EPSS) and communities of practice (CoPs) tend to be the more favorable form factors in this arena.
A final key issue to consider is how these assets are introduced. Many of us learned from our experience with e-learning that simply making a form factor “available” is not enough. It needs to be taught and supported. This instruction needs to include not only how to use the tool but also the learning circumstances under which it is best used.
Each of these assets serves certain types of learning situations, as well as provides important content. The more the learner understands when to access each asset and the type of learning it supports, the greater the chance we’ll achieve the productivity gains hoped for in the first place.
We have more learning form factors with which to serve our learners than ever before! Not only do these assets need to be instructionally sound, but they need to be designed structurally to support every aspect of the learning journey.
With the many form factors available to us, we need to be more cognizant than ever about how, when and where we introduce these tools if we want our learners to optimize each and achieve the maximum value it can offer.
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