Two Ways to Focus on Meeting Learners Where They Are

In my first post, I outlined three principles you can use to guide your organization to make better decisions about its online learning initiatives. To quickly recap, here are the principles.

  1. Focus on outcomes, not inputs.
  2. Meet learners where they are, not where you want them to be. 
  3. Design learning experiences based on how people learn, not how you want them to learn.

Today I want to talk about the second principle – meeting learners where they are – particularly as it applies to online learning for health care workers. Luckily for us, there is a lot of research delving into how people use technology. That research can guide us in the design thinking process. 

I want to focus on solutions, rather than problems, but it’s essential to be clear about why we’re talking about these principles in the first place. The world is full of distractions – anyone with an internet connection can go swimming in an ocean of content and information whenever they would like. It only gets harder when we consider health professionals, who are just about the busiest people in the world. Whatever you offer has to make a compelling case for their attention and time. Until you have evidence of the outcomes you are looking for, you’d better not to assume too much.

The null hypothesis of online learning: My learners aren’t engaged, they aren’t interested, and they aren’t learning. 

This isn’t cynicism – it’s scientific skepticism. If it were cynicism, we’d throw up our hands and walk away – there would be nothing more to do. The null hypothesis anchors us on outcomes, and it gives us a clear baseline from which we can improve. Our goal becomes absolutely clear – create a great learning experience and collect enough evidence to reject the null hypothesis, at least for that learning experience. 

If you are lucky enough to be designing a learning experience from the ground up, you have a golden opportunity. You have the chance to build a logic model that explains exactly how you plan to hook learners, keep them engaged, prevent them from getting frustrated, and catalyze deep and lasting learning. The logic model is a bridge between strategy and execution. It can also help you identify and test your own assumptions.

Online Learning for Health Care Professionals

In many ways, health care professionals are an excellent audience for online learning. The consensus view seems to be that online learning is most suited to working adults with a high degree of self-efficacy, technology knowledge, and motivation. Relative to other members of their communities, they are more likely to be comfortable with technology, more likely to own devices, and more likely to have an internet connection. In addition, health care workers tend to be highly educated – they are experienced learners.

But let’s be real. Online learning isn’t a perfect fit for health professionals, at least not for all of their learning needs. Health professions require procedural skills and soft skills that may be challenging to learn in virtual environments – it isn’t practical to shift every type of health professional training online. Moreover, health care workers are busy. When we ask for their time (whether for online or in-person learning), we have to use that time well. On the plus side, self-paced online learning can provide a level of flexibility that is hard to achieve with in-person learning. Health professionals appreciate that flexibility.

I’ve done a lot of reading and work on how we can improve online learning experiences in formal academic settings (e.g. in primary, secondary, and tertiary education). Some of that work is summarized in the Hallmarks of Great Online Learning. Unfortunately, great learning design is not enough when we consider working professionals. The Hallmarks are mostly focused on the third principle (design for how people learn). When it comes to learning experiences outside of “The Academy,” the second principle (meet learners where they are) is just as important. We’ve got to use a design thinking process and what we know about human nature to build our logic model – starting with the learner rather than the learning experience.

Meeting Learners Where They Are

Today I want to focus on the beginning of the journey – we need to “hook” learners and maximize their chances of sticking around. Here are two approaches we can use to meet learners where they are.

Consider Incentives and Commitment

Human beings respond to incentives. If I expect to get concrete benefits out of learning, I’m more likely to persist – regardless of the quality of the learning experience. This might involve recognizing learners in their work or giving them a certificate when they finish. There is currently a lot of interest in badges and “microcredentials.” If these credentials are valued, they might foster engagement and learning. These examples illustrate that not all incentives have to be monetary, but there can also be a place for direct or indirect financial incentives. For example, when a learner believes that completing a learning experience can help her to get a pay raise, she’s more likely to persist.

There are also ways to ratchet up a learner’s commitment level. Real learning requires learners to invest effort. Learners who invest their time (filling out an application), effort (writing an essay for that application), or money (paying an enrollment fee), are just more committed. These steps may limit access by screening out learners who are not ready to put in the work. If you want to provide opportunity but you also want rigor, consider creating a free and openly accessible short course that learners complete to qualify for a seat in a more rigorous follow-up course. There are ways to strengthen commitment among your enrolled learners as well. For example, students who learn about effective strategies for goal-setting and then go through a goal-setting exercise are more likely to complete online courses.

Ensure Simplicity and Ease of Use

Tech companies spend a lot of money on user experience – with good reason. A great user experience doesn’t guarantee success, but a bad user experience pretty much ensures failure. When learners encounter disorganized online learning experiences, their self-efficacy drops and their sense of frustration spikes. If your learning experience makes users frustrated or reduces their self-efficacy, expect them to leave and never come back. 

Before you build anything, take a hard look at the needs of your learners. 

  • Describe their current situation. This includes what hardware they own, the types of internet connections they have, what tools they favor for communication, their technology fluency, and the languages they speak and read. 
  • Make a plan to meet them where they are. If they need new skills or technology to be successful, you have to bridge the gap, or find another way to reach them. Figure out how you can know when they get stuck and how you will provide support. Plan to communicate with them through their preferred channels (that is, the channels they already use).
  • Map out their journey to learning – and count every step in that journey. There should be as few steps as possible between learners and learning. Consider how they enroll, how many new accounts they have to set up, what new software they need to install, and what tools they have to master in order to just get to the learning. Remember that every step is a step where you can lose them.
  • Simplify wherever you can. Technology is just a tool – it isn’t a solution in and of itself. More moving parts make more opportunities for confusion, and users are insanely good at finding ways to break things. You may need to sacrifice bells and whistles for the sake of simplicity.
  • Test. Ask your colleagues, friends, and learners to try it out. Make your tests as close to the real deal as possible. As you test, listen to their feedback and make changes based on that feedback.

There’s this maxim in technology that a new product needs to be ten times better than its competitors to succeed. It’s a useful strawman, even if it may not be true. So many online learning experiences out there today were designed for dispensing information rather than for meeting learners’ needs. If we design for real learners, ten times better is well within reach.