Great Reads: Stephen J. Meyer, CEO @rlinstitute, explains paradigm shift to better #elearner engagement.

As I research interesting companies in my region offering innovative eLearning solutions for corporate clients or educational institutions, I often come across powerful ideas that offer important insights on some of the biggest challenges for eLearning developers.

This illuminating interview is with Stephen J. Meyer, the CEO of Rapid Learning Institute. His ideas are born out of corporate soft skills training, but they are clearly applicable across the eLearning industry. I know that I will apply his thinking about “thin-slicing” educational content videos to my future Udemy courses.

Here are some highlights from the interview  and a link to the entire talk is found below.

So, back to what instructional designers missed for three decades. They were applying legacy instructional design principles to video – the wrong thing to do. At the same time, learners’ brains were being re-wired and their attention spans shortened (at least when learning on electronic devices). This double-whammy is what created the horrendous utilization rates that defined the first three decades of e-learning, and still define much of the e-learning consumed today.

So there are two answers to the question “What’s the alternative?”

  • First, from the perspective of the e-learning developer, when you create a soft-skills e-learning module, your point of departure needs to be that you’re creating a video, and that it’s competing against all the other videos (mostly 5 to 10 minutes long) and distractions that are available on the Internet.
  • The second answer is where the learning paradigm shift comes in. In the early days of e-learning, a lot of people naively believed that technology could reduce or eliminate the need for humans in training. If you think I’m overstating that, answer this question: “Why else would learning professionals spend half a million dollars a year to offer thousands of employees access to an enterprise e-learning platform and expect them to actually use it?” Fact is, you can’t eliminate humans from training and shouldn’t want to. E-learning should be thought of as an adjunct, a tool that can be deployed by trainers and managers, not as a solve-all-your-problems learning vehicle.

He makes this point in reaction to the industry norm of companies buying often expensive eLearning training solutions and simply expecting the employee to complete the modules without guidance, coaching, or mentoring.

Meyer goes on to offer suggestions for a paradigm shift in eLearning content development to provide a far more compelling learning experience and to improve utilization by the eLearner.

That is, if you want a good ROI. I see two approaches to help make it happen.

  • One, single-concept learning, is pretty straightforward.
  • The other, getting managers involved, is more complex, but maybe not as hard as people think.

Let’s start with single-concept learning, or what we sometimes call “thin-slicing.” It’s a radical departure from linear-logical-complete instructional design. Instead of taking a lot of learning information and presenting it at once, or even chunking it into smaller units, “thin slicing” is about isolating a single learning concept that’s designed to change one behavior and achieve one desired outcome.

“Thin slicing” is a term used in psychology to describe how human beings can perceive a narrow window of experience and from very limited information draw very powerful conclusions. This is what Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Blink” is about. We’ve hi-jacked the term and applied it to learning. We believe it makes sense to isolate “thin slices” of learning and with very limited information provide powerful learning experiences.

One big obstacle to manager engagement is the way they frame their talent development role. A sales manager who frames talent development through a wide lens and thinks, “My task is to teach my reps ‘to sell’,” will feel overwhelmed. Most managers have neither the time nor the expertise to accomplish that task.

Fogg’s model suggests we should make the task seem easier by framing it through a narrow lens, as in “I’m going to teach my reps to handle the first 20 seconds of a cold call.” That, you’ve probably recognized, is a classic example of “thin slicing.” The task of teaching a narrowly defined cold-calling skill seems doable to most managers. And if you provide managers bite-size e-learning modules, you’ve given them practical tools they can use to train their people.

Meyer’s ideas relate closely to various vague assumptions I made when authoring my first Udemy course, “Your Writing Process”.  When I was teaching the Media and Pop Culture course at AIPH, I had my students read the essay, “Is Google Making Us Stupid” by Nicholas Carr, to help them see how media reshapes us over time. It turns out Meyer’s ideas are born from a similar source as Carr later wrote a book that Meyer refers to in the interview, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.

I was calling them micro lessons and my idea was informed by my knowledge of working with college students over ten years and with being a deep user of technology. I know that learners have very short attention spans, and they need to believe there is an immediate utilitarian purpose for the knowledge they are acquiring.

For my next course, I will adopt Meyer’s use of thin slicing. Each of my videos in my upcoming course, The Persuasive Toolbox,  will offer a single concept designed to change one behavior to arrive at one desired outcome.

To read the rest of the interview go to the Rapid Learning Institute Website.


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