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Learning Transfer: How To Make eLearning Relevant


Why Is Relevance Hard To Achieve?

“The biggest problem with eLearning at the workplace is not the authoring tool or the LXD expertise behind making it engaging… it’s relevance.” My post generated a lot of interest on LinkedIn, so I thought it would deserve an article because the relevance of learning has some nuances that just didn’t fit into a single post.

The “ROI” Illusion Of eLearning

If you were around in the year 2000, the eLearning industry was buzzing about online courses. Learning Management Systems (LMSs) appeared and finally, we found the solution for the challenge of distributing computer-based training (CBT). That was when web-based training (WBT) was born: all online, accessible for anyone, anywhere. eLearning was the solution. Or, was it?

…We sold this idea to management in 2000 that we can just create one course, once. And then everyone can get it on-demand. And the more people “consume it” the cheaper it gets.

It sounds good on paper. In reality, we may have some general knowledge and skills we need but the bigger your audience is (and the more global and diverse it is) the more likely that the content is way too generic and not relevant enough for the task we all need to do in our role, in our projects for our business unit under specific conditions.

So the edtech disruption will not come from VR or XR or AR or Metaverseland… not even from content aggregation… it will come from those who can make learning relevant for who we are, what we do, and what our current knowledge and skills levels are.

This article is about why relevance in eLearning is a challenge and what we could do about it.

Who Wants To Be Irrelevant?

Nobody wakes up in the morning with the firm determination that they’re going to make irrelevant eLearning at work. Good Instructional Designers (IDs) and learning experience designers (LXDs) do proper needs assessment, create learning personas, and get multiple review cycles with Subject Matter Experts (SMEs)/stakeholders to create effective courses. If the course content is solid and covers the topic, it should be relevant for those who take it.

However, in workplace learning, our ultimate goal is not learning. Especially, not taking formal courses. Our goal is to enable the workforce to do their job well. Learning is a process that enables the workforce to perform their job to meet given expectations. Learning can take place everywhere and at any time. One type of learning is called formal learning. Formal learning is generally what L&D has control over: designing, developing, and delivering formal courses. But again, there are lots of other ways to “learn” how to do something (ask a colleague, Google it, find the answer in the knowledge base, trial and error, etc.).

Focus On Learning Transfer

Again, our ultimate goal is not to build a course. This is important to keep in mind for the rest of the article because when we do need to design formal learning, our focus should be on the learning transfer (that is, the application on the job and not just completing the course)! Without effective learning transfer, all your effort invested in formal learning is irrelevant. And relevance plays a significant role in learning transfer:

The results of the study revealed training efficiency and relevance were critical in the transfer of learning among the study participants. The findings of the study showed combined training efficiency and training relevance enabled training participants to acquire knowledge and skills for application in the workplace and had significantly positive influence in transfer of learning.

So, let’s keep our focus on the transfer of learning, the application on the job. Another “side effect” of focusing on learning transfer is that it reinforces the right way of thinking about learning: before, during, and after any learning event. Workplace learning often falls into the trap of asking the wrong question: “how can we be more efficient and create content faster?”

This is the wrong question to ask. Creating content that does not make the desired impact on the job faster just means more wasted resources. That’s why it’s important to expand our thinking beyond the duration of a course. Workers have a life before, during, and after the event. In fact, focusing on the “during” part decreases our potential impact, according to a study. The purpose of the study was to investigate in 150 organizations the extent to which they implement training activities for facilitating the transfer of learning before, during, and after training. What they found was thought-provoking: “[…] activities before, during, and after training were significantly related to the transfer of training; however, activities in the work environment before and after training were more strongly related to transfer than activities during training.”

That means, if your learning organization is focusing on creating engaging learning experiences (often eLearnings stored in the LMS), your solutions might be less effective because you’re missing out on the impact of the critical pre- and post-activities. And so, while relevance is a significant factor in learning transfer, so is the design and delivery of that relevance.

What Relevance Is Not: Learning Styles

Let’s get this nonsense out of the room: learning styles are not making learning relevant to individuals. I know, you google “learning styles” and you find thousands of these articles like this explaining how to create training for people with different learning styles. It’s been debunked. Google that too. This particular article at least provides a reference. Although, it references one of their own articles, with even more pixies’ dust data, like 5% of all learners are kinesthetic while 65% are visual. No, this is not relevance. Your performance and learning goals should define how you design the most effective learning, not some bogus theory.

Why Is Relevance A Challenge In The Workplace?

Because it is multidimensional. The reason why the relevance question is not simple to tackle is that it is a multidimensional challenge, it is complex. Let’s see if any of the following scenarios resonate. What common theme do you recognize in the following scenarios?

  • Kristy, an accountant, is sitting in a training covering the new accounting system that is being rolled out in three months. While it is hands-on and detailed on how to manage accounts, Kristy doesn’t believe it is relevant right now.
  • Ankit, one of the top sales agents, is attending a workshop on moving from the current 7-step sales methodology to the new 5-step sales methodology. It is a gamified experience and fun, filled with competition and prizes for correct answers. Yet, Ankit doesn’t feel like it is relevant to them as a top performer.
  • Petra, a junior learning experience designer, is attending training on measurement and evaluation. There is pressure to use more data-driven measurement and evaluation on projects in their org. Petra clearly sees the importance of all the sophisticated stats being discussed and wishes that they had paid more attention to basic stats in high school. Petra doesn’t believe they are capable of applying these skills well enough on the job, and so questions the relevancy of the training.
  • Pri, a new manager, is learning about emotional intelligence. While the activities are interesting, even thought-provoking, they can’t imagine how any of this would fit in the tight time frames allocated for coaching today. “This would never work in practice,” they conclude. And so, they kind of check out halfway through and answer some urgent questions from their direct reports on their phone.

What common theme did you discover in these scenarios? Do you think the topics in each training scenario are relevant to the audience? Or not?

All About The Perceived Value

The common theme in the scenarios reveals the complexity of relevance: it is not enough that you, the learning designer, know that what you’re teaching is relevant. You also have to convince each of the “learners” that it is relevant to them. The perceived value, however, depends on multiple factors, such as the learner’s self-efficacy.

“Self-efficacy refers to an individual’s belief in their capacity to execute behaviors necessary to produce specific performance attainments” (Albert Bandura, 1977, 1986, 1997). And so, our job is not only to design and deliver relevant content. We need to make sure that the audience actually believes that a) it provides value for them worth pursuing; b) it is relevant in time; and c) they have the confidence that they will be able to execute the skills and apply the knowledge in their role.

Does higher self-efficacy mean better performance? A large meta-study indicates the correlation between self-efficacy and work performance: “Results of the primary meta-analysis indicated a significant weighted average correlation between self-efficacy and work-related performance.” Beyond the perceived value and self-efficacy, the scenarios explore the many dimensions of relevance:

  • Relevance to the organization (Is it profitable? Is it aligned with the strategy?)
  • Relevance to the business unit (Is it aligned with the performance targets?)
  • Relevance to the team (Is it relevant to the team’s focus and scope?)
  • Relevance to the role (Is it aligned with the performance expectations for the role in general?)
  • Relevance to the person (Does it enable you to develop the right skills at the right time to deliver on the performance goals?)

That last bullet has even more sub-dimensions:

  • Relevance to the person’s knowledge, skills, and abilities (both current and desired)
  • Relevance in space and time (right place, right time)
  • Relevance in perceived value (Do you believe this is the right way and time to learn the skill?)

To the last bullet point: when your company IT publishes the annual cybersecurity training, it is important and relevant to everyone. However, if I believe the way they designed the training is not relevant to me (for example, the scenarios are way too easy and I believe I would never click on those emails), it will fail to achieve its goals. And I’m not questioning the importance of the topic, I’m questioning the design. Those are two different things!

What Went Wrong With The Learning Transfer In Each Scenario?

Let’s look at the scenarios again and analyze what went wrong in each one.

The Accountant Scenario

  • Kristy, an accountant, is sitting in a training covering the new accounting system that is being rolled out in three months. While it is hands-on and detailed on how to manage accounts, Kristy doesn’t think it is relevant right now.

Have you ever worked on a system implementation plan where training on a new system was “plugged in” by leadership or operation without any consultation from learning professionals? Usually at the end of the big project plan? In this scenario, three months before the start date, they started training part of the target audience on the application that was not even in place yet. (Yes, it’s real. I had to once create Photoshop images of an imaginary application screen, because they were late with development, but training was already scheduled.)

Is it relevant to the accountant role? Yes. But the timing is wrong. The learners will forget all the tiny details about the application by the time they come to use it. And if for the accountant the perceived value of the training is not relevant, they won’t even bother paying attention to the training.

The Sales Scenario

  • Ankit, one of the top sales agents, is attending a workshop on moving from the current 7-step sales methodology to the new 5-step sales methodology. It is a gamified experience and fun, filled with competition and prizes for correct answers. Yet, Ankit doesn’t feel like it is relevant to them as a top performer.

Have you ever met a top salesperson who was not convinced they were the best? Now, imagine if you’re a top sales agent and you’re told to stop making sales and attend this workshop on a new sales methodology. It’s going to be fun! Gamified!

This sales agent will not see any relevance in learning something new when the old is working pretty well for him. The only way they could see the relevance is if they see the value. Why in the first place are we doing this? What if this sales agent is not aware of a regulation, or a competitor landscape change that is about to disrupt the current market? And maybe that’s the reason why they’re switching to the new model? Changing someone’s perceived relevance requires change management and not just “how to” training.

The LXD Scenario

  • Petra, a junior learning experience designer, is attending training on measurement and evaluation. There is pressure to use more data-driven measurement and evaluation on projects in their org. Petra clearly sees the importance of all the sophisticated stats being discussed and wishes that they had paid more attention to basic stats in high school. Petra doesn’t believe they are capable of applying these skills well enough on the job, and so questions the relevancy of the training.

In this scenario, Petra understands the value of what these skills would bring. However, they have doubts about self-efficacy. Petra does not have the confidence that they have the capability to do this well. When they try to use the skills in the training, they encounter a negative experience which further lowers their confidence. As a result, they conclude that these skills, at this point, are not relevant.

The Manager Scenario

  • Pri, a new manager, is learning about emotional intelligence. While the activities are interesting, even thought-provoking, they can’t imagine how any of this would fit in the tight time frames allocated for coaching today. “This would never work in practice,” they conclude. And so, they kind of check out halfway through and answer some urgent questions from their direct reports on their phone.

Pri, in theory, sees the relevance of emotional intelligence to their role. However, in practice, they reject the idea due to priorities and tight schedules. Since it is not applicable to their role under the current circumstances, the training is not relevant to them. It is another question, though, why they do not have time for something that clearly would improve their skills. Maybe they’re spending too much time on inefficient methods of dealing with “fire drills” that should not happen in the first place? Maybe, but we will never know unless we extend our focus from the scope of the learning event.

Conclusion

Think pre-, during, and post-learning events when designing formal learning. We should measure the outcome of learning design not only in content consumption, but, at a minimum, in learning transfer. Without learning transfer, there is no behavior change and there is no performance improvement.

Relevance is also significantly correlated with performance. Therefore, we must explore how to increase relevance in multiple dimensions when designing formal learning, so the workforce is not only motivated to learn but also has high self-efficacy that leads to the application of knowledge and skills on the job. If you’re interested in more details on how self-efficacy and relevance play a role in motivation to learn, this study compares five common motivational theories.

References:

  • Albert Bandura. 1977. “Self-efficacy: Toward a Unifying Theory of Behavioral Change.” Psychological Review 84: 191–215.
  • Albert Bandura. 1986. Social Foundations of Thought and Action: A Social Cognitive Theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  • Albert Bandura. 1997. Self-efficacy: the exercise of control. New York: W. H. Freeman.



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Andy Neal

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