Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The 'learner' fallacy - delusions of influence in L&D

The training/development/HR profession is always intensely interested in its own use of language. Perhaps because it spends so much time alongside the diversity hounds of the HR department, or in the company of the mind-benders of NLP, the 'Training Department' has seen the change to 'Learning & Development' and is obsessed with its 'learners'.

While this is laudable, and shows a commendable attempt to place the focus on the recipient of their endeavours, it strikes me as a bit odd. Most business sections are named after what they do, rather than the influence they have on other people (after all, if the Sales team were called the Buying team, things would get really confusing, though of course the Buyers would now be called the Selling team).

If anything, grandly calling ourselves 'learning professionals' is rather presumptuous; we don't really have a great deal of control over whether the person sitting in front of the computer, or in the classroom (or holding the device or whatever) actually does learn anything - we can instead only hope to facilitate and influence them.

In classical media the people creating the material there are more realistic - they speak of viewers, readers and listeners, not 'enjoyees' or 'understanders'. Likewise, the teaching profession is a lot more upfront about what they do, as they at least admit to teaching (let's leave aside, for the moment, any discussion of whether anyone learns anything at school any more, or whether or not the person at the front of the class should be called a Tester).

What's the alternative?

Instead perhaps we should take a step back a think of our audience as 'users'.

More than enough type has been devoted recently to discussions on the (in)validity of learning styles, but let me add another thought to the mix. Should we consider models of 'user styles'? You might come up such designations as:
  • dedicated users removing themselves from distractions
  • multi-tasking users enlivening e-learning screentime with IM and email
  • technophobe users* struggling to read on-screen and hating having to use the infernal machine they'd rather not go near
  • impatient users* skipping as much as possible until they have a WIIFM moment.

The design of products better suited to the demands of people is called ergonomics; on the web this is 'usability'. Web browsers, the delivery vehicle of almost all e-learning, have settled on a common set of features that mean users can really switch from IE to 'Fox to Opera without a second thought, making the interface 'invisible' and living up to Steve Krug's demand 'Don't make me think.'

Yet many e-learning courses, even those for the same company, change their interface each time, making strange the experience and drawing the focus of the user away from content to dwell instead on form.

The use of knowledge

Knowledge=power, so the saying goes, and the benefit of recasting our audience as users goes on.

Our concern for our learners ends ends with the course - "have they learnt what we told them?" Thinking about our users prompts us to think again - "So they used our course, but how will they use what we have told them?"

I remember being told by one client how, as soon as we delivered the training course that she and I had been mandated to deliver, someone in another department would go through it and copy it up, more or less verbatim, to the KM system. It was there that most people would reach the information when they needed it (away from the walled garden, or should that be prison, of the LMS).

In that case the company processes that steered us to designing and delivering the course, focused as they were on returning course completion metrics, steadfastly refused to acknowledge how the staff used the information.

Aiding our users

Would a focus on how knowledge may be used influence our choice of the format? Advocates of the job aid supported approach to course development, like Cathy Moore, know full well that recognising the fallibility of cognitive processes is an important part in understanding how our users can make the most of the time you and they are spending in creating and using your outputs.
  1. Tell your users what's happening...
  2. ...let them know why it matters to them and where they can find out more...
  3. ...even give them an overview of the detail...
  4. ...but then give them something to use so they can get the precise detail when they need it - be that a job aid, a wiki, or whatever.

I'm not, I must point out, advocating forgetting about what we want our audience to do, ie learn, but I'm hoping that by rethinking the label we might be able to step back and make space at the learning table for other parties that have a part to play in helping people in an organisation get better at what they do - principally, in my experience, people involved in knowledge management and internal communications , but perhaps also taking advantage of your marketing team, all of whom have common goals - making your business better - but who rarely, if ever, ever think about learners.

So, are you confident that you are always designing for learners, or users?

* Okay, even I would baulk at these terms - perhaps we might go for reluctant users and outcome-focused users. You tell me...


Tom Haskins said...

As a reader of what you wrote here, Dan, I became an experiencer of where you took us through several vantage points to ponder further. That journey morphed me into an enjoyer and appreciator of how I was getting informed and instructed by you. I then became a reflector on what I had experienced. I then awaited what came to mind as an observer to be able to add this comment to your blog. Finally I became an author/contributor/publisher in my own right to get those reflections transformed so they could be read by others. Having done all that, I have been a user of all those other incarnations of me in this experience to feel connected, creative and energized.

By imagining learners as shapeshifters like I've just been, I suspect we'll be more responsive to their viewpoints, in tune with their experiences and valuable to their own endeavors. The learners may even become more sold on what they are being given to do and commit to long term -- without giving them an educational sales pitch.

Dan said...

Tom, thanks for your feedback. I would accept your point completely. In trying to overturn a simple one-dimensional characterisation of the 'learner' I have replaced it with another equally simplistic model. Your 'shapeshifter' analysis does a good job of encouraging us to get in to the minds of the learner/user/experiencer - could you approach it like six hats I wonder?

But what I wanted to do was to pull us back from the notion that the person at the other end of what you create will necessarily be a learner. All we can be sure of is that they are the user (if they aren't even that then they can't be anything else). Based on that approach, we can bring to all that we know about web users.

Tom Haskins said...

Your welcome Dan. We're sure on the same wavelength. I'm currently designing a Web 2.0 platform that requires participants to be users of learning, not learners. :-)