Sorting the wheat from the chaff in L&D

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Written by Tanya Boyd on 18 March 2022 in Opinion

Tanya Boyd examines the rapid change in workplace learning delivery during the pandemic and separates the good from the bad

While L&D has certainly been changing and evolving since its inception, the pressure for quick change in response to the pandemic accelerated innovation in L&D. Two years into the post-pandemic world it’s becoming clear that success in L&D innovation occurred where expanded technology functionality was leveraged to increase the speed or reach of learning that was built using well-established learning principles. Innovation failed where technology was put above learning.
During the early days of the pandemic, courses that were designed for in room instructor-led training had to be flipped to virtual delivery, sometimes overnight; and in the short-term, those who made the switch fastest were rewarded. Trainers who thrived on training and facilitating in-room learning experiences had to suddenly achieve the same outcomes on a virtual platform, when neither they nor their learners were knowledgeable about or practiced in doing so. The increasing choices in technology and the pressure for fast results made it tempting to see technology as a panacea for all L&D’s woes. The outcome has been mixed, with some positive leaps forward in creating scalable and accessible learning that rivals or outstrips the former ‘gold standard’ of instructor-led training; but also with some ‘solutions’ that aren’t really solutions at all since they don’t drive real behaviour change and increased performance.
Using the analogy of separating the wheat from the chaff, here are some examples of chaff, those responses to the need which are understandable short-term responses, but ultimately not effective.
The underlying problem with all these trends is that the focus is on the content or on the technology itself, and not on the learner and the learner's experience
1. Content thrown on a digital platform is still just content.   In a recent survey by Jo Cook and Jane Daly, 37% of people reported that the design of their learning content has not been updated for virtual delivery. Far too often content that was designed for in room use was simply put online using a ‘lift and shift’ approach rather than adapting the design of the content or learning experience for the virtual or digital environment. That approach may have allowed for fast response to the pandemic need, but it does not create an effective learning experience. 
2. Gamified content is still just content. Gamification has been around for a while, but it is now being called out as a top trend for training. Many companies emerged over the past two years claiming to ‘gamify’ learning content. Some even explicitly say that they leverage the same psychology that gambling uses to make learners ‘addicted’ to your content. However, if the learning experience is not designed to effect behaviour change, gamification will not change that. People may complete the training, but will they actually have learned anything? Gamification is not inherently bad; it just is not a magic ingredient that will make any content or learning experience effective.
The underlying problem with all these trends is that the focus is on the content or on the technology itself, and not on the learner and the learner's experience.
By contrast, there are some very positive and hopeful examples where the learner and core learning principles have been kept at the centre of the experience, and the explosive advances in technology have been used supportively. In our analogy of wheat and chaff, these are the wheat, what we should embrace and look to expand.
Digital learning platforms
Amidst the hundreds of new digital learning platform companies, there is a subset that has embraced putting the learner and the learning experience first, to help learning and development professionals succeed in driving behaviour change. These learning experience platforms support learning principles1 such as spaced learning, interleaving, social learning, practice, and feedback, and use technology to make these available to all learners in efficient and effective ways. 
Learning experience platforms usually include the opportunity for live and asynchronous direct instruction and social learning as well. In this case, the focus is on the learner and the learning experience, and the technology is an enabler that allows the creation of a stronger learning journey than even an in-room experience would offer.
Increasing accessibility
The pandemic pushed workers out of offices and into their homes, a move that in some cases highlighted accessibility challenges that could get in the way of learning. Accessibility was a concern for L&D even before the pandemic but having all learners sitting in a virtual space accentuated the need. Advances in technology, which are themselves more accessible than ever before, now offer more options for addressing a variety of learner accessibility needs than were previously available. For example:
When learning is digital and self-led, learners can progress at their own pace, repeating topics or experiences they need more time with
Translation sites offer easier, faster, less expensive access to language translation than having a live interpreter
Learning content and experiences can be offered in a variety of formats, and choice can be put into the hands of the learner.
Bringing teams together
We increasingly work in global teams or dispersed teams, where bringing teams together for training is challenging. Technology, when used to support a well-designed learning experience, has made it possible for dispersed teams to learn together more frequently and effectively. While localisation of learning content and approach still has a place, especially when different cultures are involved; it is also important to be able to support consistent learning experiences globally where appropriate.
Technology will continue to advance, and the learning needs of individuals and organisations are ever increasing and changing as well. The call for us today is to both look back, seeking to cleanse the chaff that may have been left behind from our quick pivots in the early days of the pandemic; while also looking ahead for additional ways that technology’s increasing functionalities can support our established learning principles without letting technology get ahead of the learner or the learning experience.
1. Neelen, M., & Kirschner, P. (2020). Evidence-informed learning design: creating training to improve performance. London: KoganPage.
Dr Tanya Boyd, Learning Development Architect at Insights


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