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Engagement and learning architectures

LEO Consultant, Steve Barden, tackles the subject of engaging learners in technology-supported programmes, and gives valuable advice for increasing learner engagement within blended programmes. 

Since the use of technology-supported learning became widespread within organisations from the late 1990s onwards, there have been instances cited in the literature of high dropout rates for self-paced e-learning. Furthermore, in one study where evaluation was carried out to Kirkpatrick Level Three, it was reported that e-learners were less likely to follow through on what they have learned than those in instructor-led programmes.

Such reports provoke a worry that technology-delivered learning will not fully engage learners – or at least, not all learners in a given population.

Blended learning has been recognised as powerful way to deal with the problem of learner engagement. So how does the learning architect work to ensure engagement when designing a programme that combines both online and offline resources?

LEO Learning has been identifying critical elements of the implementation process that together provide the ‘mortar’ holding the bricks together in a learning architecture. These include:

  • Marketing
  • Learner journeys
  • Engagement

This post covers engagement, giving tips and techniques and some case study examples.

The engagement problem

Some evaluation studies of training and development delivered via e-learning have revealed disappointing numbers for participation and persistence. Jack Phillips and Holly Burkett (2007) reported that: “Participants in eLearning programs are less likely to follow through than in an instructor-led program. The MASIE Center’s 2003 study found an e-learning dropout rate of about 26%, and the MASIE number is optimistic compared to what others have found. Frankola (2001) and Diaz (2002) estimated dropouts at 20–50%,with Flood (2002) of the Open University citing reports that claim an attrition rate of 80%.

In 2008, an ASTD survey asked the question, ‘What concerns does your organization have about using e-learning?’ Topping the list of responses was ‘employee buy-in.’

To put this in perspective, classroom drop-out rates are often much higher than many of the figures quoted for e-learning (the dropout rates among US college students is a matter of national concern). However, attrition rates point up the double-edged nature of self-paced e-learning when it comes learner engagement.

It offers great benefits for those who are independently motivated, who might prefer some of their learning as a solitary activity, and also, conversely, the more nervous learners who relish the confidential nature of self-paced learning; and the chance to fail safely, rather than in front of the group, that it gives. On the flip side of the coin is the lack of extrinsic inducements to continue that are part of the classroom situation; the presence of a trainer or tutor compelling the learners’ attention, reinforced by the social norms that prevent them from just wandering out of the room if their thoughts should start to drift ….

This lack is an important one for people who need a bit of motivating to learn, or those who need the sense of collaboration and communication – and often the competitive edge – that comes from learning as part of a cohort.

Luckily, self-paced e-learning is not the whole story. Technology supports many different modes and modalities of learning – virtual classroom, social learning platforms, etc. – many of which take account of the learner’s need to be supported and encouraged. Add to this the human element added within blended solutions and it is clear that the learning architect has all the materials at hand to produce thoroughly engaging, motivating programmes that get learners engaged and keep them on board. In fact, we would argue that the resulting mix can produce far more successful programmes in terms of engagement, because learning can be more personalised (see our blog in this series on learning journeys and thus avoid the pitfalls of a one-size-fits-all system that places the needs of the group over those of the individual.

Looking seriously at the engagement issue, however, raises two important issues for the learning architect:

  • How can we ensure that the design of the interactive online materials that are part of our programme promote rather than deter learner engagement?
  • How can we ensure that the over all programme will get learners engaged and keep them onboard throughout their learner journey?

Designing for engagement

Here are some good principles to focus on when designing learning materials:

  • Don’t make me think – learning imposes enough of a cognitive load without giving your learners an extra task to perform in figuring out a poorly structured user interface: prioritise excellence in user experience design (UXD)
  • Don’t make me search – likewise, your online search tools should be of consumer-grade standard: search is a prime learning activity nowadays and, where it is proprietary to your system, has to be fast and efficient. You can also help learners by mitigating their information overload: only push information to them if and when they actually need it
  • Do set me goals and challenges – which help define the steps towards the overall objective and satisfy my sense of achievement when they are completed
  • Don’t make me sweat – nothing is more demotivating than having to sit through screens of learning about something the learner already knows by heart: your learning systems should help them get to the bits of knowledge they need to have and avoid what they already know
  • Don’t make me late – respect the learner’s time constraints and attention span: make it bite-sized and Keep it Simple (KISS)
  • Don’t tell me what I might need in the future – better to let learners know where they can find further learning they might need, and make sure they have tools to bookmark it: ‘know-where’ is just as important as ‘know-how’
  • More carrot, less stick – link their learning to accreditation or CPD that provides tangible measures of attainment will certainly help with motivation

Designing architectures that engage and retain learners

Engagement is only part of the issue, retention is also a key consideration in designing meaningful learner journeys.

Remember that engagement is like a shop window: having the most colourful or loud display will not make me buy when I am in the store if I cannot see where the product is, where the route to getting to it is (or if I don’t like the price when I see it!). The real challenge is sustaining the learner’s initial enthusiasm throughout, especially with a long programme, where they move through different levels of increasing difficulty to achieve mastery. To express this difficulty, we might use a formula:

Engagement = Motivation ÷ length of course

Relating this logic to deployment of different content types within an architecture, LEO Learning often uses its ‘Transaction to Transformation’ matrix to identify how different styles and approaches can be used in different learner situations regarding the motivation of the audience and the specific learning challenge.

Selecting the right content type for a given situation helps to regulate the pace of a programme; avoiding demotivating learners by getting too difficult too quickly, or conversely by boring them with ‘noddy’ stuff that offers no ‘resistance to bite’. Finding the levers that will keep them engaged over the span of a longer programme, however, calls for other types of thinking.

Short term motivators are not hard to find: ‘log on to this course and get a free frisbee’. Much harder is finding long-term motivators, that necessarily have to be more meaningful.

Learner contracts

We have already discovered in previous posts in this series how good marketing and learner centred journeys positively affect the motivation and engagement of learners. But one thing not specifically highlighted so far is that there is often a contract – real or implied – that governs many learning interventions. This ‘contract’ may be between the learner and their employer, between the learner and their line manager – or even between them and their career. Taking note of these contracts, and embedding an awareness of these contractual dynamics into the design of an architecture, will give longevity to the learner’s sense of motivation, helping them through patches of boredom, challenge or sheer difficulty (‘I can’t walk away from this because doing so would let down my manager / my team / my company / myself’). Identifying and leveraging the learning contract can be a powerful counter to diminishing attrition rates.

One of the great advantages of blended solutions in making this happen is that it allows for the deployment of the human element in forging these contracts. Learners – and people in general – find it much easier to feel loyalty and accountability towards another person than towards an abstract ideal. Instructors, facilitators and coaches all help to facilitate engagement if they can trigger these responses – above and beyond their function as subject matter experts. This is also why, for optimal learner engagement in a blended solutions it is also ESSENTIAL to ensure line manager engagement.

So here are some further tips for building learning architectures that optimise learner engagement.

More tips and techniques

The learner experience must be positive and sustainable. The challenge is to ensure that the learner experience:

  • Presents a life/brand/existence of its own – feels new and fresh
  • Is able to be fully integrated into the learner’s working life in short, meaningful chunks
  • Is enjoyable, fun, positive
  • Shows clear benefits quickly and continuously at stages throughout the programme
  • Is sticky – ensures that a direct action to return is taken up
  • Results in positive conversation with peers
  • Feels real – if it’s authentic and meaningful for the learner it will ensure better commitment to complete

It is also important to realise that engagement must not just be limited to the content. Many of the tips and techniques mentioned above also apply equally to the access systems used – e.g. LMS, learning portal. Here a key factor is providing usable interfaces and coherent learner journeys. The way that learners interact with your organisation’s ‘learning brand’ online can provide powerful reinforcement of learner engagement. Alternatively, if it is done badly, it can have highly deleterious effects!

Improving learner engagement for the Home Office

The Home Office and its frontline services, the UK Border Agency, Identity and Passport Service and the Criminal Record Bureau put out an open tender for the provision of e-learning services and implementation of a new customised LMS. The key objective was to create an intuitive portal that would allow all users to quickly and easily search for and access all e-learning content. The functionality had to be simple and seamless from the user’s perspective for all levels of IT literacy. All too often an LMS can provide too many barriers to learning, which damage engagement.

LEO Learning procured and implemented an LMS, branded internally as ‘Discover’. Alongside this LEO Learning facilitated the content conversion of 80 legacy courses, the development of 5 bespoke e-learning courses, a full branding exercise and a launch communications campaign for all 30,000 users.

“The Discover LMS implementation was an incredibly complex programme that involved migrating data from a legacy (and unintuitive) system into a dynamic, user-friendly secure LMS … It was essential to ensure that the complex functionality required was delivered without complicating the end user experience. LEO Learning Communications Programme Management was integral to ensuring this was achieved.”
Former Home Office Programme Manager, Peter Fox

Within the first 16 weeks after the launch of Discover, 20,000 registered users were recorded, a significant boost to learner engagement.

Saving time and gaining learner commitment for Ikea (Inter Ikea Systems BV)

Inter IKEA Systems BV (IISBV) wanted to make the training offered to its 295 retailers in 36 territories more interactive and more concept-focused, as well cutting the time involved.

LEO Learning assisted with the shaping and development of a fully-blended programme, based around an entirely new approach. This offered an online tool (which can also be accessed after the training), a fictitious competitor story (the ‘Mobile Multicolore’ films) and the opportunity to introduce the participants to a self-managed discovery tour. Small teams of participants researched a topic area in a self-driven discovery and then created ‘learning materials’ with the objective of training the other teams. They, in turn, would also get trained by the other teams. The facilitator monitors the progress, gives feedback along with tips and tricks for the discovery journey.

Training time was halved, and learners were engaged in the fictitious scenarios, which needed total commitment to get the solution to work. Evaluation has since shown improvement on participant skills such as research, planning, execution, follow-up, questioning and transferring know-how.