In the learning technology industry, the distinction between resources, learning and communications is very important. A lot of organisations will identify a need for ‘learning’ when, in fact, resources or communication would be a better solution. It is important to identify which method would be most appropriate, as the delivery and treatment of the information is very different depending on its category.
These categories may, to some, seem like semantics – and it’s true that there are many grey areas. However, the distinction between learning, resources and communications is an important one. This is especially true for those in the learning technology sector.
So let me just expand on how I am using the terms in this article:
Information: Facts provided on a topic or process. It could be information on how to do something, how to operate something or even how to communicate with somebody. Information provides the building blocks for learning.
Resources: Information presented in an ordered and easily accessible manner so it can help with specific tasks or problems at the time of need.
Learning: Information that needs to be internalised. As outlined by Blooms taxonomy, this can range from simple learning, where the information is memorised, to more complex learning, where a system is understood and can be used in a variety of situations.
Communications: Information being shared. The type of communication I’m referring to here is essentially one-way communication like a broadcast or a communiqué. This could be letting people know there is a new, or updated, policy or process.
“You can’t teach people everything they need to know… The best you can do is position them where they can find what they need to know when they need to know it.” Seymour Papert , MIT
Why it matters
The trend today is generally towards resources. This is due to the amount of information we have at our fingertips and the way in which people expect to interact with technology to get answers. Learning is increasingly being pushed to the periphery.
However, no matter how comprehensive a set of resources you have, people still don’t know what they don’t know and resources can only really be useful when someone knows they require the information. Learning will therefore always play an important role as an initial source of gaining knowledge and understanding of something, or a way of improving that base knowledge. This broadly lines up with the first two learning moments of ‘Five Moments of Need’ (Bob Mosher & Conrad Gottfredson) As you can see below.
It’s worth noting that this relates to learning technologies. There are of course various items missing, such as face-to-face courses, coaching, discussions feedback etc.
Designing for the right category
The first thing to do when treating any content is to figure out where it sits in the learning journey and which category it best fits into. Then you can decide how best to treat and deliver it.
Learning requires the user to understand and retain the information long after the course has been completed. They may not need to use the information for some time or it may just be an initial building block en route to the more complex information that they will use on the job.
The prior knowledge of the users should be known and more or less equal. This means that they all start in the same place and take the same route through the learning journey.
Learning requires the information to be structured into an instructional approach – Gange’s 9 steps, for example, or Schank’s building of a story. The learner requires formative questions, examples, summaries and tests. The information needs to be put into a format that will help the learner retain (and ideally understand) the information. It needs to be built up step-by-step from the simplest concept, moving toward the most complex. Concepts such as primacy and recency need to be exploited to ensure that learner uptake is maximised.
Structured learning is usually assigned to people who are directed to where they can access it, and it usually sits on an LMS so it can be tracked and scored. There needs to be a clear route through the course and module’s various check-points. Depending on the content, the learning blocks can be large, but in the modern workplace even learning should be shortened and split into chunks so that it can be delivered in a flexible manner.
Resources require the information to give immediate solutions to real-world problems in order to answer the specific questions learners are asking. The learner doesn’t necessarily have to retain the information after they have used it.
The audience is anyone who needs support while performing a specific task or process. Resources should not be user-specific as there could be a range of experience or prior knowledge. The only thing the users of resources may have in common is the fact that they need help on a specific task.
The information needs to be laid out logically with no extras such as questions, scenarios, quizzes or games. People need to be able to see the useful information immediately and generally don’t need a pathway or journey.
Resources are ‘just-in-time’ sources of information that people need at their fingertips. They need to be easily accessible and searchable – ideally not behind various logins or labyrinthine folder structures. Links added to logical places on your organisation’s intranet is a good idea or, if possible, have them tagged and indexed so they can be found on internal wikis or home pages.
Communications in this sense can be thought of as a broad type of learning where the information is not necessarily related to a specific job role. It is information that people need to be aware of but won’t necessarily change the way they work. Things like codes of conduct, induction courses, or the majority of compliance training, could be considered communications.
The audience is usually large, varied and broad here, and can often include the entire company or department regardless of position or experience.
The structure of a ‘communication’ varies. It may be the case that it is an important communication but the content is boring, so a game could be used to make it more engaging and memorable. It may be a requirement to prove that people have read it, so a quiz could be added at the end or summative questions included through the content. There may be a need for people to re-read it on an annual basis – if this is the case there could be a shorter version for people who have done it before or a diagnostic-style quiz so they can prove awareness of the message.
The way communications are delivered depends on the content and the nature of the message. It is often on an LMS so it can be tracked to see who has accessed it and when. This channel often involves compliance-based content, so there needs to be evidence that people have completed it.
There are many grey areas and cross-over points between resources, learning and communications but, to get the results, your information needs to be treated, structured and delivered in line with its category.
In order to get this right you need to spend a lot of time really getting to know the audience, including learning why they need the information and how they will use it. Identify the correct category and designing will be easier, the user experience will be better and you’ll be far more likely to achieve the optimum results you’re after.
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