“All organizations are perfectly designed to get the results they are now getting.” –Tom Northrup
Implementing a learning program is a serious challenge, and as often as not (more often than not?) the program fails to deliver the anticipated results even with sufficient budget and organizational support. There are, of course, many reasons why learning programs fail. In most cases, the first place evaluators look is at the content. If only the content were better, more relevant, or more useful, people would learn and apply it. In my experience, content is rarely the culprit. If there’s one thing good instructional designers and eLearning practitioners have down, it’s SME engagement and creating good learning objectives. Even if the content were not as robust as it could or should be, that’s rarely the barrier.
The second place that we turn to is the learning design. Was the instruction not designed with the learner in mind? Was it not well “chunked” or paced? Was it not interactive and with appropriate scenarios and learner challenges? These are all good questions, and can often lead to useful ameliorations. If the topic is not perceived to be relevant or immediately applicable to the learner, transferable learning is unlikely to happen. Again, good learning designers will have avoided these problems in the first place, or be very good at seeing those flaws at an early implementation stage.
The last place we focus the blame is on the learner. Or, perhaps better stated, the last place we publicly lay the blame is on the learner, though we are all well aware of some deep-seated variety of, “These folks will never get it, but we can say we’ve tried.” Leaving aside the misplaced emphasis on “getting it” rather than “doing it,” we are left that the learner is actually where the breakdown occurs.
If we think that’s the case, it remains the instructional designer’s problem to fix. The problem is NOT that people won’t or can’t learn, and transfer that learning. The problem is that we haven’t asked them to do so in a meaningful way.
Work with people, not the content.
Information (content) is there for all. Learning is individually motivated, but also takes place in a social framework. If you give a music lover a new music player whose features are not so obviously designed as to be transparent (now there’s an interesting topic!), she will learn how to use it in a matter of minutes and be expert in a handful of hours. There’s no need for an instructional course. Why? The conditions are right for learning:
- There is intrinsic motivation to figure it out.
- The usefulness of taking the time to learn it is obvious (if it’s not, forget it).
- The learner feels empowered to take the time to learn it; no people or forces are aligned that implicitly or explicitly say you’re wasting your time or that you don’t need to know it (or if there are, contrarian rebellion can be a useful force!).
- There is an immediately (if perhaps only implied) social aspect to learning it; she’ll be one of the “cool kids” or will want to share the player—and her knowledge of it—with others.
The answer is not in our courseware, but in our design of the learning space. Empower learners to learn, provide the supports and freedom that encourage personal and social learning, and leave the tools and topics you want them to explore on the table.
Learning happens, every day. We just need to understand how to direct that in ways that benefit our learners and organizations. If our efforts are not yielding the desired results, examine the organization that is delivering those results.