June 11, 2011

By jleffron

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Learning Design from an Unusual Source

If you need to help a person, or even 20 people, learn something, it’s easy do so in a highly personal way; recognizing what is relevant, what’s already known, discussing the merits and problems in alternative approaches to that which is being learned.  You can personally see if people are “getting it” and customize on the fly to make the learning more valuable and more memorable.  It’s great.

If you’re tasked with assuring that 20,000 employees (or, say, every 8th grader in the New York Public School System) all have the same level of learning or achievement in a topic, things look a bit different.  With a large and (effectively) anonymous group, you have to assume a certain “least common denominator”.  This means you layer on a lot of detail that might not be necessary for all learners, whether it be background knowledge specialized information that might only have value to certain user groups.

Scaling learning is tough.  It’s like the difference between fresh strawberries and cream at the local cafe versus a pre-fab strawberry shake at a fast food franchise.  They might both have the same core ingredients, but scale (and the need for uniformity and efficiency at large scales) has a huge impact on the delivery.

I don’t need to tell you how this translates to onboarding training, or new software training, or <insert tedious course title here> in the workplace.  You already know. In the same way, you know how it looks when a school curriculum is built to support state standardized tests.  It’s fast food milkshakes, served up one size fits all.

But that’s not an inevitable outcome, as I was reminded when got an email about, an online magazine dedicated to, of all things, knitting socks.

 

And it got me thinking…

When an organization is designing a course for a large group, they need:

  • People to be engaged, interested, somehow pulled into the necessary task so that they not only complete it but actually learn from it
  • Assurance that learners will gain the essential fundamentals
  • Affordability.

As I looked at Sockupied, I realized it hit those criteria smack in the bulls-eye.

Interest and Engagement

People who design magazines live or die on getting your attention, and then keeping it.  They are good at “Made you look!” covers and headlines, but they won’t sell a copy if that’s all there is.  They know how people visually and mentally track, not just through pages, through the entire magazine.  Some folks read cover to cover, some hop from topic to topic.  Both kinds of readers have to get enough value from the magazine to make it worth shelling out the money, so magazine folks design content that works for both kinds of readers.

Learning the Fundamentals (and beyond)

Knitting is like a lot of workplace (or classroom)n tasks.  There are certain fundamentals that you have to do right to get the result you want.   But beyond those fundamentals there’s a lot of latitude for individual approaches.  I love how Sockupied demonstrates the principles of personalization within the inherent constraints of the topic:  the pros, the cons…  and let’s show you few videos… oh, and here are some examples of how variations will affect your material needs or end product.

 

 

Cost is Always an Issue

Budgets are always a tough point in learning design, so I found myself doing some informal mental calculations.  How many people are actually going to buy an emagazine that is solely devoted to knitting socks.   I doubt we are talking sales in the millions, probably not even 10’s of thousands.  Combining that with the price tag of $15 and the need to turn a profit, tells me that this is kind of learning can be fairly economical for organizations and schools that have outgrown the “strawberries and cream” scale of instruction.

I think most folks would be happy to bypass click-through training for something is beautifully compiled and accessible, adaptable, flexible and with a variety of support mechanism (from good quality video to forums which allow questions and a chance to showcase personal innovations)…  And like any good magazine, you can put it on the virtual shelf so it’s there for reference, review, and just-in-time learning when you want to try a new approach sometime down the road.

I’ve never knit a sock, but this emagazine actually makes me want to try.  That’s a good metric for course design – it should make you want to dig in, learn some more, and build a new skill.

 

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