Learner Engagement — why is it so hard?

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learner engagementLast week we were talking to an L&D leader at a large US corporate client. She was lamenting the fact that they had just ended the relationship with their open learning provider. Why? Because no one used the platform.

So, what drives learner engagement at work? A recent LinkedIn survey showed that 68% of employees prefer to learn at work and that the ‘shelf life’ of skills is diminishing, so, with no shortage of motivation to get employees engaged, why can learner engagement be a tough nut to crack?

Moving beyond interactivity

If we look at online learning, there is a lot written by the industry that suggests the secret to engagement is storytelling or interactivity. While this might help, there is more to it. ATD’s 2019 State of the Industry Study showed the first rise in formal learning via instructor-led classroom sessions in the last 8 years. This is partly due to the increased use of virtual classrooms and partly due to the increased focus organizations now place on developing interpersonal skills — a skillset not best placed for online solutions.

Could it also be that people crave interpersonal learning experiences? With 35 years’ experience in L&D consulting, here is our take on the 3 components that drive learning engagement:

1. Relevance

Most people ask themselves ‘Do I need to learn this?’ People need to understand how a capability will extend their current skillset. Helping people recognise there is a gap between their current ability and what is required can be a great route to learner engagement. Feeling comfortable and believing that we are good enough rarely is.

2. Context

Understanding how the skills or knowledge on offer fit into a learner’s world is crucial for learner engagement. In the book Transfer on Trial by Dettermann and Sternberg, a learner’s ability to take learning from one situation or context to another is revealed to be a rare occurrence. Giving people general assets to use is therefore unlikely to result in high learner engagement. People want specifics that relate to the situations they now face.

3. Reward

As a learner, can I see the gain from the learning on offer? Motivation will doubtless be different for different people at different times but promotion opportunities, commission, recognition are all common themes that drive learner engagement. Understanding or believing that through specific development I can earn more and be more highly regarded is a strong driver of learner engagement.

Clearly there are other factors at play such as self-belief, ambition and personal beliefs about learning. There are those who rightly argue that company culture will also determine whether people access learning opportunities and self-develop. However, most people’s experience of ‘culture’ is what happens in their department or team and this is most highly determined by the local leader and how they engage with their team. Once again LinkedIn research demonstrates a strong correlation between manager involvement and learner engagement.

Ultimately, learner engagement is a complex issue. We don’t pretend to have the perfect solution but having studied the data from our own learning platform, we believe high levels of learner engagement can be achieved through a combination of digital drivers.

Drivers for learner engagement with online learning

When we started-out designing our learning platform, On.Board we sought to bring the best of human interaction and digital facilitation together to deliver something different for the corporate learning space.

First, we recognized that online learning modules are brilliant for learning facts and understanding but they are much less helpful for actually developing skills. Skill development requires practice, feedback and repetition.

Second, immersion is key. People engage more when they experience a deductive task rather than an instructive one. In other words, it is vital to provide opportunities for people to learn by doing.

We designed features that leverage the capabilities of mobile devices, for example, facilitating development tasks where learners can capture evidence of their deductive approach. A task that challenges a learner to fix faulty equipment could invite them to collate photos showing their approach to the task, or a task that invites a learner to video themselves making a sales pitch.

We use this range of capabilities to create immersive, deductive tasks that provide:

What about manager engagement with the learner experience?

We’ve explored learner engagement but how do you get managers to engage in this process? We are asked this question a lot. We have data that demonstrates that if you provide a convenient process and structured feedback questions to answer, the vast majority of managers do engage.

One of our large corporate clients has a program running with about 185 participants and a supporting group of 71 managers and learning facilitators. This learner community has engaged in a staggering 6792 development activities across 7 programs in just 2 months, averaging at 18 activities per month. The manager group has responded with feedback at a rate of 10 activities per month (not all activities require a response). Their rate of outstanding responses is just 1.8%, highlighting their considerable commitment.

The data we’ve discussed is in and of itself a powerful tool in creating virtuous circles of behaviour.  When you can share such data and recognize the great work of your management community, as well as identify outliers, you can drive behaviors that lead to a culture where development is an everyday occurrence. It enables people to better recognize the context, relevance and motivation which drives learner engagement and with-it organizational improvement.

If you would like to more about how we deliver great learner engagement and help some of the world’s leading organizations continually improve, please get in touch.

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