Modern Learning – it’s in the design

The below is essentially the outline of what I’m going to be talking about at Learning Technologies conference on Weds 31 Jan.

I’m one of a set of L&D bloggers who try to make sense of the L&D landscape as it shifts and evolves with insights and developments into learning itself, technology and L&D practice. The modern challenge of L&D is that there is a lot to consider in terms of resources, delivery mechanisms and content when crafting a solution. Also, it’s often the case these days that an insightful model or theory can only take you so far. Most L&D needs now require us to think far more in a multi-disciplinary approach than we’ve ever needed to before.

I’m also less and less interested in the ability, capability and knowledge that one person has or owns. In the modern world, that’s just not enough. It is unrealistic and unhelpful to think that one person can answer the many questions or provide a solution to every business need I have. The modern L&D vendor has to be able to demonstrate that they have an active network through which they are able to do what is required. Not just through an associate pool or network, but through the people they know, the thinking they do and the discussions they’re involved with.

And modern times demand that we pay attention to the awareness being raised about inequality, discrimination and attacks against women, people of colour, or other nationalities and the many different ways our privilege unduly influences our behaviour against other people. If we do not think that these societal impacts do not feed through to the way people think and behave at work, and what they bring with them when they are in workshops and courses, then we are being naive. At a fundamental level, we have to ensure that our learning solutions – however they may be designed and however they may be delivered – are providing safe spaces for people to invest their time, efforts and energies into their personal and professional development.

When we think about learning solutions, and learning design, and the many different ways that L&D bloggers and speakers evangelise about what should be done, we should be driving towards a set of solutions which provide people with the right set of resources and content to enable to them to perform better. Designing a modern learning solution is about being able to provide a learning experience which smartly makes use of:

  • technology
  • digital learning
  • social networks
  • dialogue
  • workshops
  • facilitation

When I put together the Modern Learning Leader programme, it was these fundamentals that I approached the learning design with.

I knew I wanted to bring people together and have them go through a learning experience the likes of which they’ve never done before. I wanted to do this to be able to demonstrate how it can be done, do a live experiment, and learn as I went along.

I’d also decided on the main topics I thought L&D Leaders would want to be able to explore. These were:

  • The Human Condition
  • User Experience
  • Adult Learning Theories
  • Instructional Design
  • Learning Technologies

I was also aware that these topics on their own could easily fill up a traditional course, and wanted to be more purposeful about how people were able to access that content, think about it usefully, and arrive at a workshop primed and ready to have full debate and reflection on their learning.

To that end, I decided that it would be useful to have these all delivered via webinars several weeks ahead of the workshop itself. I purposefully sought out speakers who could talk well about these topics. I was glad of the diversity of the group. Of the 5 speakers:

  • 4 were white people
  • 1 was a person of colour
  • 2 were women
  • There was a mix of ages
  • There were differing levels of education, experience and knowledge across all 5

I was also mindful that I didn’t want the webinars to be one directional. So I set up a Slack channel where people who had signed up to the programme could talk directly with the presenters. This allowed the presenters to ask questions about content that would be relevant to cover, provide links to resources and content ahead of their webinars, and in one case a full video used as a primer.

The use of Slack provided that initial experience of modern learning design because I had unpacked the mystery of the speakers and created an open forum. That doesn’t normally happen in learning solution design. Normally everything is funneled through a point person. I didn’t want to be the sole voice passing messages one way – and also highly aware that I would only colour things with my own bias if that were to happen.

The webinars themselves were no different to any other webinar you may have experienced. The main difference was that the presenters had already met their audience in the main because of the Slack channel. There was an established rapport, and the content had been developed directly for the group. I mean, short of a 1:1 approach, you really can’t get more targeted than that in your design.

In the lead up to the workshop itself, I used Slack to ask a different question each week which prompted practise around reflective thinking. The questions were never about actions or plans, instead asking questions focused more on insights, reflections and learnings. That allowed for some rich discussion to take place, for others to listen well and to build on thoughts and snippets.

The workshop itself, which lasted two days, was then an open session of exploration. By the time the group had arrived to this point, they had:

  • Explored 5 broad topics about learning
  • Discussed and asked questions
  • Reflected on their learning
  • Experienced content delivered through webinars exclusively
  • Engaged with each other and cultivated relationships due to Slack

That all happened before they arrived at the workshop. Just think about that for a moment. I had designed the programme in such a way that people were absolutely primed and ready for reflection and debate before they’d even arrived to an in-person session. We don’t tend to do that in L&D. We tend to focus our entire efforts on the design and delivery of the workshop with all those points I’ve just mentioned happening through the two days we were together. Imagine if you could do that ahead of time, what does that mean the two days can be then used for?

Which is where the two days came into their own. The group spent nearly 2 hours contracting with one another about their learning experience and learning journey they wanted to continue on. I didn’t direct it. I didn’t flipchart it. I didn’t capture individual expectations. There was already a level of trust with each other that they could just delve deep into their thinking without (much) reluctance.

One person reflected and said “I was able to reflect and commit mentally and emotionally to personal change in a face to face setting”. How often does that happen in an L&D workshop? What luxury of time can we afford to people in that setting where they can articulate their experience in such a way?

The two days was self-driven completely by the group. They decided where they needed to focus their efforts and discussions. I provided some guidance and a loose structure for how those thoughts and discussions could take place. The rest was up to each individual. We even had time to go for an hour’s walk in the surrounding area and pay attention to our experience of the physical environment.

The above, as I’ve described it, is not how we normally think about or design learning solutions to happen or to take place. What I wanted to demonstrate, and I think I have, is that you can upend typical structures we’re used to, and bring them into modern practice. I think the above demonstrates what that modern practice looks like, feels like, and how it happened.

In the above, I have taken inspiration from models and theories such as:

  • Minimum viable product
  • Time To Think
  • 70:20:10
  • User Experience
  • Design Thinking
  • Social learning theory
  • Facilitation shindiggery
  • Working out loud

This is just one possibility of how we can think about modern learning. There are many, many other ways it could happen. It most definitely matters about context. No one way of thinking can accommodate each and every need that arises. Through this approach for this programme I’ve been proud to be able to prove and demonstrate how we can provide high quality learning experiences by taking a multi-disciplinary approach to learning design and delivery.

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Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

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