Incremental Innovations: Building Learning Pathways

We live in a hypertext world. This shift has forever changed our assumptions about the shape of knowledge and our access to it.

When I share back-in-the-day stories with my kids about rifling through card catalogs and researching articles in periodical indexes, they giggle. How silly and inefficient!

Knowledge is no longer confined to paper. Ideas are now accessible anywhere, anytime. And the shape of information is what the learner makes it.

Our learners are accustomed to discovery learning, solving their immediate problems by accessing an on-demand global network. Modern learners are content creators and curators. They are collaborative. They are digitally sophisticated, spending a large portion of their day in mediated environments. Above all, they expect personalization and choice.

What seems silly and inefficient now is how we continue to deliver one-and-done conferences and courses – and expect outmoded formats will continue to resonate within this new paradigm. To remain relevant we must evolve. It’s not enough to just develop warm feelings toward technology and the digital learning landscape. To remain relevant we must embrace it and compete within it. Because that is where learners live.

A reasonable starting point is building learning pathways. And that’s the focus of this Incremental Innovation.

What Are Learning Pathways?

Many organizations invest in learning technologies because they know they need to “get content online.” Often I see that content is a library of artifacts from live programs such as PDFs, recorded webinars, and lecture recordings.

How often do you pull out your smartphone to find the answer to a question? When you scan the options, is it the PDFs and hour long lectures that catch your eye?

You don’t have the budget to attend a conference but still want to continue learning about what it takes to advance in your field — what type of online experience do you look for? Are you hoping for a 60-90 minute recorded session (excluding you from peer interaction) that you can sit back and dig into when you come home from work at night and pick up your Surface Pro for 20 minutes of me-time in between dinner and the kids’ bedtime?

Can we be honest about this?

The intent to get content online is a great one. That is a critical first step. The next is to ensure that content is designed for the channel of delivery (laptop, tablet, phone) and your specific audience — understanding that their expectations for how they consume digital content are much different than in-person classroom content.

Crux: Pouring our resources into one-and-done events is the very catalyst for our fixation on re-purposing content: we’ve created something good but it seems a waste that it’s over so maybe we can repackage it in formats the content was never intended for.

Solution: Instead of re-purposing, we should be purposing. And we can do that with the resources we have right now with learning pathways.

Learning pathways coordinate content delivery through multiple touch points over time maximizing the strengths (aka: best experience) each channel offers.

Key take-away: In order to embrace the new expectations of learners in the digital age and maximize the potential of our content channels to meet our learners where they are, build learning pathways.

Enter the Pathways Paradigm

The Learning Pathways Paradigm asks us to take a look at our education program portfolio from a strategic perspective. For the moment, let’s set aside the silo’d program administration approach we are accustomed to and helicopter over our assets. We have our content priorities, we understand our audiences, and we have defined the experiences we want to offer to increase the impact of our education programs. Now consider: How can we leverage our content channels over multiple touch points to deliver upon our content priorities to our target audiences maximizing the experience each channel offers?

When I talk about content channels, I’m referring to live learning (conferences, courses, workshops, etc.), print (publications, blogs, eNews, etc.), digital learning (eLearning, microLearning, podcasts, learning portal resources, social media delivered content, etc.) and mobile learning (apps, push notifications, text reminders, etc.). All of the channels you use to deliver content. Each has strengths and weaknesses. Each is a strategic lever.

The ultimate goal is to plan how you will thread your content priorities through your channels for the coming year. But we’re all about incremental innovations here so now let’s consider how we can apply this paradigm to a two-day leadership workshop with four speakers, each leading a half-day program.

Content priority: Develop the next generation of leaders within the profession we represent.

Audience: This program targets intermediate industry learners who hold senior management or director positions interested in polishing their leadership skills in preparation for future advancement.

UX: While the core experience is the two-day workshop, we want to support these learners as they begin to try and apply these new skills and techniques. To do that, we’re going to offer digital learning extensions. We want to support learners before, during and after this event.

learning pathway example

Since we are now proactively purposing our content (vs. repurposing), we consider ways we can collaborate with our four experts to maximize the content they are preparing to widen the impact for this event.

Here’s the plan:

  • Interview the experts for an article published before the workshop offering a few key concepts that workshop attendees will really get to explore. This piece could potentially drive additional participation for the event. From an instructional design perspective, it prepares learning expectations and primes them for the event.
  • Each expert will be expected to contribute a blog post on a key point from their presentation that will be published during the event with links to additional info to explore online. This supports discovery learning, individualizing participants’ experience. (Tactical tip: Some orgs ask their experts to contribute the blogs and some have a staff writer draft them based upon the interview content and offer experts opportunity for review.)
  • Each expert will contribute a resource or tool instead of their slide deck for participants which can be added to your member-only online resource library after the event if you choose. These resources could be action plans, job aids, checklists, processes, skill-builder exercises, models for practice, etc. These resources support applying the content in practice – where the real learning takes place.
  • Host a follow-up webinar discussion to extend the conversation about applying the strategies addressed in the workshop in day-to-day practice. Dialogue about obstacles and how to over come them. This supports learners in adapting the content for their context, providing a community of practice around shared challenges.
  • Offer an eCoaching session for attendees to get one-on-one mentoring on their skill building goals. Your workshop experts may offer these coaching sessions, or you may select advanced practitioners from within your membership to coordinate a one-hour coaching call.
  • Upon receiving feedback from the webinar discussion and coaching sessions, you’re likely to discover some common challenges and themes. Some of those themes can be tucked away for future programming, and a few of them will be perfect for a podcast series serving as a capstone to the leadership program. This is a good-for-you and good-for-them step that serves as both an important listening opportunity to better understand the needs of your learners and a personalization opportunity, meeting learners where they are in the trenches of developing new skills.

Bonus: Don’t forget to share some of the results of this learning experience with your membership at large by publishing a rewind article highlighting key features of the experience and attendee testimonials. Consider offering tastes of some of the digital content portions to tease next year’s event.

A few things to notice:

  1. Our experts aren’t preparing new content, they are maximizing what they are already preparing to be utilized through different channels (increasing their own exposure!) supported by our team managing this learning pathway.
  2. The workshop is no longer a one-off event. We are extending the learning from curiosity to application developing a relationship with our learners over time.
  3. This learning pathway doesn’t require a big technology purchase or new program roll-out. It utilizes channels you already have or could easily acquire at low cost.
  4. The organization proactively listens to the learners (through blog comments, webinar discussion, coaching feedback) during the program, not waiting for the final evaluation, so that adaptations may be made increasing the immediate value of the program.

And what does all of this require? Planning and coordination.

These are all programmatic things your organization is likely already doing – they just are not meaningfully coordinated around your content priorities. You can do this!

Once you’ve been in the education portfolio helicopter, it’s hard to view your programs the same way again. And why would you? Meet your learners where they are. Embrace their expectations and maximize your channels for meaningful and memorable learning pathway experiences. I guarantee this will set you apart from competitors.


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