Tag: formal training

Should We Create Courses or Just Performance Support?

In my last post, I shared some thoughts about why people need to actually learn and remember things, rather than assuming we can always look them up. This post continues that discussion with the question of whether we should create courses or whether informal learning and performance support are sufficient.

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Question 2: Should We Create Courses?

Another argument is that while people do need to learn, they can do it all on the job with performance support and coaching. According to this perspective, informal and nonformal training is good, but formal training and courses are a waste of time.

Alexander Salas has argued against courses as an “academic model.” His LinkedIn post asking to “stop giving me courses” has generated almost 100 comments to date.

What Is a “Course”?

Some of our disagreement is due to differing definitions of “course,” which Alexander sees as a purely academic tool, divorced from practice and feedback. I think courses can and should include practice and feedback.

Alexander defined a course as “an academic tool to achieve educational objectives.” If you define course as something that can only be used in academia, obviously it doesn’t fit with workplace training. I’m not sure that’s a useful definition though. If courses are only academic, what do you call formal workplace training?

In that same conversation, Mirjam Neelen explained, “For me, a course means nothing but ‘a formally designed learning experience’ and can include many different instructional AND learning methods. A course can include on the job learning, coaching, performance support tools, in other words, the whole shebang.”

Mirjam’s examples might be a bit too broad, but I agree with the first part of a “formally designed learning experience.”

My definition: A course is a formally designed learning experience with a defined start and end point (either in time or content).

I want to differentiate a particular course from a whole curriculum or longer program, and I think ongoing performance support and coaching aren’t actually courses and should be excluded from the definition. Coaching and on-the-job learning are also not formally designed.

Five Moments of Need

I find it helpful to refer to the Five Moments of Need for these types of discussions. Conrad Gottfredson and Bob Mosher have identified five different types of situations when learning needs to occur. Here’s how they define the five moments:

  1. When people are learning how to do something for the first time (New);
  2. When people are expanding the breadth and depth of what they have learned (More);
  3. When they need to act upon what they have learned, which includes planning what they will do, remembering what they may have forgotten, or adapting their performance to a unique situation (Apply);
  4. When problems arise, or things break or don’t work the way they were intended (Solve); and,
  5. When people need to learn a new way of doing something, which requires them to change skills that are deeply ingrained in their performance practices (Change).

— Conrad Gottfredson and Bob Mosher in Are You Meeting All Five Moments of Learning Need?

When it’s a New skill, formal training is usually the fastest way to get people up to speed. It may not be the only way, but it gets people to the desired level of competency faster. If your work mostly deals with Apply, Solve, and Change, courses might not be the best approach.

Mosher and Gottfredson argue for performance support through the learning process. They’re right to criticize the field for focusing solely on single event training, which is really most appropriate for New needs (and sometimes More). However, a performance support approach doesn’t mean we should never create courses or provide formal training. It means formal training isn’t our only solution.

Faster Expertise

Ruth Clark has written about accelerating expertise with scenario-based elearning (to be clear: I consider that a course). In one example described, they found that automotive technicians need to complete 100 work orders before reaching competence.

    • If they do on-the-job training (OJT), that takes them 200 hours.
    • If they do instructor-led-training (ILT), they can cut the time in half to 100 hours.
    • If they do scenario-based elearning, it only takes 33-66 hours to reach competence.
Chart showing Hours for Automotive Technicians to Reach Expertise with OJT, ILT, and scenario-based learning
Chart based on data from Ruth Clark’s book Scenario-Based eLearning and article Accelerating Expertise with Scenario-Based eLearning

Can technicians get there with OJT and no courses? Sure, but you waste money and time doing so. The best decision for the business and the learners is to create a scenario-based elearning course. In this case, ILT might be a viable solution too, since it cuts the time to expertise in half. Regardless of the method or technology, formal training means becoming competent at least twice as fast as just learning as you go.

For a new skill, learning how to do something for the first time, you need formal training to establish the foundation skills. Learning a new skill on the job means more errors, greater frustration, and longer time. People may develop faulty mental models of how things work if they aren’t trained, which becomes more difficult to unlearn than if they’d gotten formal training in the first place.

Practice with Feedback

One of the criticisms of courses raised in this discussion was that how people really learn is through practice with feedback. That is clearly true; practicing a skill while getting feedback to adjust and improve your performance is critical. I argue that good courses should (and do!) include opportunities for practice.

In both academic and workplace training courses, we can spend time on practice, not just information sharing. When I taught K12 music and band, we spent probably 4 times as much time singing or playing as talking about theory. We spent most of our course time doing the thing, rather than talking about the thing. That’s my background, and that’s still how I try to approach workplace training.

For training network engineers, I’ve done paper cutouts, stickers with icons, or digital graphics to practice making network diagrams to solve a problem in a case study. For training WIC counselors, one way I provide practice opportunities is with branching scenarios to simulate conversations. For training bulldozer safety, I gave learners a simulated dashboard with a warning light and asked them to decide what to do next. For food safety training, I gave learners a picture of an employee where they needed to identify the violations and how to meet the standards.

Every one of those practice examples above was part of a course. Any definition of course that excludes practice isn’t a viable definition.

Use Both Courses and Performance Support

The solution here isn’t to only use courses and forget about everything else. The question shouldn’t be should we use courses or performance support; this doesn’t have to be either/or. The answer is to use both courses and performance support, depending on the learner and organization needs.

Your Thoughts?

When do you use a course as a solution versus performance support? How do you determine which solution (or combination) is the best path? Let me know in the comments.

Do People Need to Learn, or Can They Look It All Up?

I have been part of several discussions recently that questioned the value of creating courses and delivering formal training. There’s a perception among some people (including some L&D folks) that as long as you have Google and a good network of resources that you can look up anything you need. The other, related idea is that everything can be learned on the job with performance support, without formal training. In this post, I’ll examine the first question.

Do People Really Need to Learn?

Question 1: Do People Need to Bother Learning?

The first argument asks if people need to bother learning anything at all, or if they can just look it up when they need it. Do you really need to remember if you have a mobile phone and a search engine always available?

For example, Bruce Graham started a lively conversation in the Articulate Heroes community by describing someone he met at a conference. She said she takes all the elearning in their organization, regardless of quality, but doesn’t bother to remember much because she knows she can always look it up later. Bruce explains that Henry Ford approached building cars the same way; he found ways to assemble a group of experts and made them available any time he had a question.

He did not need to learn, just have access to knowledge.

If this is how people are REALLY now using online learning, and using our product(s), do all our clever animations, graphics, interactions and so on actually matter any more?

Let’s just give out facts, because millennials know how to access it, and will go back when they need it.

Why do they need to bother learning?

Sometimes You Can Look It Up

I think plenty of things can just be looked up at the time of need. I don’t need to memorize the recipes for most of the dishes I cook; I can just read the recipe to get the exact amounts and steps. For those sorts of tasks, we should probably be creating job aids (recipes and hints for work tasks) rather than courses. At a minimum, we should be creating training plus job aids, or training that helps people learn how to use performance support.

I recently wrote a course where one of the main goals is for people to know where to find and how to use the resources. We don’t care if they can remember all 10 points and 50+ subpoints of this policy. We care that they’re aware that the policy exists and that they can navigate the website to look up the policy when they need it. Therefore, the content delivery is very light. The practice activities are questions like “look up in Table 1 what you need for this safety precaution” and “use this self-assessment to determine what components of the standard you’re currently meeting or not.”

Deeper, Internalized Expertise

Some tasks require a deeper expertise though. A musician can’t stop in the middle of a song to look up a fingering. A salesperson can’t ask a customer to “hold that thought” while he fires up the elearning on objection handling. A doctor can’t ask a patient to wait while she pulls up the example audio of what a heart murmur sounds like for comparison. A line manager can’t walk out in the middle of a meeting to review the online course about delegation. Those skills require internalizing knowledge deeply enough that you can use them at the time of need. You can’t have everything be “just in time.”

Finding Information Isn’t Learning

Steve Flowers argued that searching is fine for finding information, but that’s not the same as training.

We have unprecedented access to good and bad information. To perfectly valid facts and information that can help us get things done. To perfectly misleading and wrong information that can lead us down the wrong path.

This is the core problem with the way many view training and learning. This conflation of movement of information with the efficiency of a training solution is flat wrong. It’s not about storing information in our heads. It’s about being able to adapt and adapt quickly to whatever challenges the task you’ve trained for presents. This rarely hinges on our ability to recall information. Doesn’t mean information isn’t important. But that’s only one ingredient.

Cake != Flour. It’s more than that.

Information != Knowledge != Behavior != Task Success != Results

Work is more complicated than, “Let me Google that” for many types of things that we do. Adept search skills are great. Helpful. But that domain expertise does not transfer to all other domains equally.

I think Steve makes a really important point here. Training is more than just sharing information. It’s also providing people opportunities to practice skills and get feedback to improve performance.

Which Tasks Need to Be Trained?

Sometimes, looking things up (like a recipe or a table of standards) is enough. Sometimes, it’s not. So how do we figure out which tasks are skills that need to be trained and which ones just need a job aid or a searchable resource?

Julie Dirksen shared an idea in her Learning Solutions Conference presentation that I think helps make that distinction.

Think of a task or topic where you might create training or performance support. Is it reasonable to think that someone can be proficient without practice? If people can be proficient without practice, you don’t need training. If people need practice to be proficient, that’s a skill where training might be helpful.

Performance support might also be helpful, especially after the initial training when people are practicing on the job. If it’s something you need to practice, just searching for information won’t be enough though.

Should We Create Courses?

In my next post, I’ll expand more about whether or not we should create courses. (Hint: I think we should, at least sometimes.)