Learning Design for the New Normal

Learning DesignWhen writing a blog, I’ll often start with an anecdote. It’s usually something personal, with a connection to the topic that is best described as tenuous.

But I’m not going to do that. Right now, each of us are living through a million of our own anecdotes; unique, unprecedented, and absolutely ours.

This blog is a celebration of human ingenuity; how we learn and innovate and what we can take forward from these times and apply to learning design. I want to talk about how learning is part of being human and how we’re naturally drawn to new experiences and knowledge.

Drivers of Successful Learning

Two of the primary drivers of successful learning are metacognition and an openness to learn. This means an understanding of yourself as a learner and your mental schema. Only when you reach this level of understanding can you challenge your existing ideas to incorporate new information.

This willingness doesn’t come easy; especially not for attorneys for whom being correct can be tied to compensation and career success. The coronavirus pandemic has changed all that. It has challenged us to question fundamental aspects of our lives, from how we interact with others and complete daily tasks, to assumptions about what constitutes “essential” work.

Lockdown requirements have forced us to embrace new ways of completing tasks that are important to our professional and personal lives. Three months ago, would you have contemplated organizing an online conference, using virtual voting to gauge a room, or arranging a neighborhood quiz night on video conference? Probably not, yet it took less than one month to normalize behavior that was out of our range just a little while ago. We are currently, for want of a better phrase, peak learners.

So, what can we take from this experience? We are part of a social upheaval in which traditional ideas of community, connection, and communication are ripe for redesign. Let’s explore some of those ideas and how they inform our understanding of the ways people learn.

Collaborative Learning

The instantly iconic videos of communities singing together while social distancing highlight how shared experiences can motivate people to break their comfort zones and explore new ideas collaboratively.

How does this apply to learning design?

Online group discussions are usually simple activities. A question or issue is posed, and the group is tasked with sharing their thoughts. Usually, there are a couple of dominant voices, with others chiming in.

If the goal of a discussion, like the video, is to create a discussion experience, what would that look like? One possible solution would be to create a “boardroom.” Creating roles – a chairperson, negotiators, summarizers – could offer multiple and opposing perspectives on a topic. For each group discussion, the roles transition to a new participant.

By shifting the focus to this roleplay, each person must think outside their normal framework, a key element of learning.

Connecting to Existing Experiences

As much as John Krasinski is self-deprecating in Some Good News, it’s quietly brilliant. He doesn’t try to invent a new genre and persuade people to adjust. He uses familiar elements (e.g., a news show format, short segment stories, recognizable guests) and combines them with audience content, taking time to respect and acknowledge what they bring to the experience. Most importantly, it is genuine in purpose and honest about what it can and can’t achieve.

How does this apply to learning design?

“Cognitive load” is the idea that it takes work to absorb, process, and learn new information. In the ideal learning experience, the only “load” is the new idea. Everything else – the framing of the idea, the environment, examples, language, etc. – shouldn’t add work for the learner because they’re similar to existing concepts, just like Krasinski’s format.

When introducing a new idea, frame it in an issue, challenge, or example that the audience can connect to their daily lives. This doesn’t mean starting with the statement, “As I’m sure you know…” Rather, framing the situation with something like, “Picture yourself at your desk and you get a call…” then weaving the issue into the audience’s common experience. Maybe even role-playing the call with a volunteer.

Drawing on Audience Talent

Time for some math. There are 30 people in the audience with an average career experience of 10 years. That is 300 years of experience, anecdotes, and testing of methods on the topic. There isn’t a presenter on the planet that has been at it that long. Moreover, audience members have a habit of surprising with their talent and insight.

How does this apply to learning design?

People respond when invited to contribute. Research has consistently shown greater learning outcomes with active learning experiences compared to lecture. It may seem like a stretch to do this online, but in some ways it’s easier.

Challenge the audience to record and share examples of how they would approach a problem discussed. Then invite them to share their screen. You’ll need to set ground rules beforehand, but you may be pleasantly surprised with what you see.

Meeting the Audience Where They Are

This image may not seem to hold a lesson beyond the ingenuity and kindness of Chicagoans, but it’s a great example of shifting priorities, meeting needs within context, and simple design that’s working. It uses an existing resource for a new purpose, observes the current restrictions, and can be accessed by virtually everyone.

Free little library with food

How does this apply to learning design?

I’ve been involved in learning for a considerable period of time, and I still get caught up in the bells and whistles. We are as likely to create a new food distribution system using an app as to repurpose an existing one that is accessible to many more.

Don’t be afraid to ask the audience to sketch out ideas, brainstorm a problem on paper and hold it up (use a dark, thick pen), or use the chat function on a video conference. Whiteboarding functions in webinars are great, but they take some getting used to. Everyone has ways they share – think about how you can repurpose them.

Read the room and understand shifting priorities. You may be passionate about your topic, but others may not be. Consider how your passion intersects with audience priorities. The minutiae of your topic are your primary concerns, but your audience may be there to stay in business. Your job is to make the connection between your content and their priorities.

Moving Forward

As we move through this experience, we will continue to see acts of kindness, inventiveness, and strength from those across the world. I hope you have the opportunity to expand your personal and professional skills as you adapt to this new normal.

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