Making Self-directed Training Accessible and Learner-centric

We’re taking a bit of a departure from the normal theme of The DevHops Podcast to focus on virtual training! Shannon Tipton sat down with us at Training 2016 to give us a preview of her session, “Creating Your 21st Century Toolbox.” Shannon explained how the modernization of training involves using traditional tools in a new way, and why training needs to be available whenever, and wherever students need it most.

We hope you enjoy the show, and a transcript is provided below if you’re unable to listen!

Noel:  Your session here at the show is called, “Creating Your 21st Century Toolbox,” and just to get things started, what is your definition of a 21st-century toolbox? What does that look like and why maybe do they need updating? What about them had become in need of some modernization, if you will?

Shannon:  Well, your typical trainer’s toolbox, when you think about it, is you reach into your bag of tricks and you pull out your typical ice breaker. “Who here has worked for more than 20 years?” Yada, yada, type of stuff. Then you would have your flipcharts and your markers and all those other sorts of activities that go along, which are still relevant today if you’re doing instructor-led training, however, today that now needs to be augmented.

We need to include tools that will engage the learner before, during, and after the training session occurs as well as to continue to move that learning throughout the organization so that the information is sustainable and it’s evergreen. It continues to grow as the learning progresses. Learning doesn’t stop when you exit the training room. It continues to grow and it should continue to grow.

What are you doing within your toolbox to ensure that that occurs? What sort of collaborative tools are you using? What sort of curation tools are you using? What sort of communication tools are you using? In tomorrow’s session, we’ll talk about how you connect those three different types of tools to really build a robust toolbox that will indeed keep the learning sticky and continue to grow your organization.

Sudesh:  That’s interesting. One of the questions that I have for you is, do you see the social tools that people use commonly, like the LinkedIns, the Twitters, the Facebooks, as being one of the ways that folks curate what’s most interesting? Also, what’s most timely for a continuous training approach? One of the challenges, I’m sure you guys probably have faced this, is that you get so much information. What’s the filter there? I would say, thinking about the evergreen, sort of keeping things fresh and continuously delivering that stuff from a training perspective, where does your mind go around filtering for the right solutions?

Shannon:  That’s a really good question. When you’re talking about curation you’re talking about being able to review, vet information and not be necessarily a hoarder of a billion pieces of information. You really want people to do your research once it comes in. That’s where tools like Pocket or Instapaper or Feedly, that’s where those sort of tools really come in handy because you can choose what information gets filtered to you. You can then review it and then send it back out again. You have a tool like that which essentially becomes your middleman.

Sudesh:  Yeah, like a content tool.

Shannon:  Right, exactly. It’s your content manager, if you will, to a certain degree. Feedly is a beautiful tool for that because you can categorize, you can keyword, you can tag, and then you can send out links to certain pieces of information itself. It’s a very robust tool to help you to not just hoard information but to really curate it.

When you think about a modern curator in a museum or in an art gallery, their purpose is to put pieces of information together so that it tells a story to the people who come to visit. That is your job as a learning professional, to be able to take pieces of information, put it together in such a way that it tells a story and it drives the learning forward. Tools like Feedly, Pocket, Instapaper, Flipboard, etc., will help you do that. That’s our main messaging.

Sudesh:  One of the things that really makes me think about, and, Noel, I don’t know what your thoughts are on this subject, but training and learning are not static. I feel like in a lot of the CBT world and a lot of the curated learning world, courses are approached as a static thing that doesn’t change at all. It’s interesting. I’d be interested to hear thoughts on what dynamic continuous training actually looks like and what that paradigm is. Do you have an organizational example that might come to mind or something of that nature?

Shannon:  Sure. When you think about dynamic training in my world, I put that into a virtual training model, asynchronous self-directed. We’re not plunking people down in front of a computer and forcing them to take hours worth of learning or putting them into a classroom. And not to say that those modalities don’t fit any longer—they fit within purpose. You need to determine your goal. But for the most part, I find that people want learning when they need it.

Put information in front of people when they need to have it, and when the organization needs them to have it. That becomes critical.

Here’s my example for you. It’s a personal example of the last time that I worked for an organization and I worked for an organization that was holiday sensitive. Information needed to be out at Christmas. Christmas doesn’t change. It’s the same day every year. An emergency, if you will, did come up where new information needed to be out before Thanksgiving so that it would be in time for Christmas. What do you do? You only have a week. This falls on my desk.

What we did is we created micro-bits of video, and we did not plug it into the LMS—because that would be problematic. That means that people had to jump through firewalls in order to get it. You put it outside of that into a safe environment—one that is still protected to a certain degree, but we didn’t link them together. You go out and you need to find that nugget of information within that video. Each video was maybe two to three minutes long so you go in and you find exactly what you need. You watch the video and you’re out.

It’s not unlike what YouTube does today. When you need information, you go in there, you search for it, you find it, you watch it, you go. That is exactly what we did at that time. It didn’t take us long to do it and you don’t have to be Spielberg in order to make it happen. You just need to make it accessible. Sometimes accessibility trumps quality to a certain degree because you could have the best content in the world but if people can’t find it and people can’t get to it what use is it? That, again, comes back to being able to curate that information appropriately and then communicate it out to make sure that people know where they can find it at the drop of a hat.

Noel:  One of my questions was going to be what makes a course learner-centric but I think we’ve already answered that. It’s that accessibility. It’s giving it to them in a way that they can consume it quickly—if that’s an option—and not causing them to have to disrupt their entire day, or have trouble getting to it. It’s that accessibility, easy to consume.

Does self-directed training make it easier to make courses learner-centric?

Shannon:  It does make it easier. When you’re making self-directed learning you always have the end-user or your customer in mind, or you should anyway. Of course it should meet some sort of learning purpose goal. When you have those two criteria, when I’m thinking of you, when I’m creating the self-directed learning, and I’m thinking of the overall business goal or your goal for the learning, then it becomes an easy do. Especially when you’re doing it in such a way that the self-directed is … it’s perhaps dropped. “I’ve got five lessons on how to use Excel,” just to throw an example out, “five lessons on how to use Excel. Here’s the link for it.”

You can take lesson one when you feel like it. You can take lesson five when you feel like it. That makes it learner-centric because I put control of learning into your hands, not in mine. I don’t own it nor should I. You own your own learning. When you put self-directed learning into that context then it becomes even more successful, becomes more impactful because you then are going to connect more strongly with the learning that’s coming in front of you. I’ve chosen this and that’s why it’s going to stay even further.

Sudesh:  That’s interesting because we had a conversation yesterday with Ajay, and we had gone back and forth about this kind of… It’s the nexus of the learner, because, is the learner motivated to get the content that they’re actually really interested in? Then I think that the second part of that is, does the learner get what they need from the content at the time they need it? That’s a whole triangle that’s formed around the learner. That does bring up an interesting point, and this is something we discussed briefly yesterday as well, is that it creates some challenging operational goals for learning organizations that are not used to this paradigm.

Shannon:  It’s the control.

Sudesh:  Right. How do they go about going through the process of creating this new organization and what are some of those key steps for them along that path?

Shannon:  What I would recommend to anyone who wants to go down this path and you really should go down this path, you need to give up the idea of the ownership of learning. We really do. We need to change our focus for this. The way to start doing this is first to just start. Just jump on in, the water’s nice and warm. Just jump right on in. First what I would recommend is when you’re starting to pilot some sort of asynchronous, self-directed type of modality is to start it with a pilot group.

Have your goal well-set. What is it you’re trying to achieve, or really, with self-directed learning it’s all about what problem are you trying to solve? Because that’s why people go to YouTube. I have a problem and I need to solve it so I’m here. Start thinking about what problem is the big pain point in your organization or within people within your organization then create a pilot group, 10 people, 15 people. Create something, send it out to them.

Let them pilot it through. Let them debug it. Let them give you feedback. Build that brain trust of people who are smarter than you. Let them pick the content apart and then come back to you and then they’ll tell you what was intriguing, what fell flat, the video didn’t work—and then you build it out that way. Then you continue to roll it through. It’s kind of like a snowball effect. The more you roll it forward the bigger it gets and you want to build word-of-mouth. Through that, you’re building word-of-mouth and people become more excited. “Oh, I want to be part of that.” First, let go off the control. You cannot control it and that is the toughest … That’s an internal conversation that L&D people need to have.

Sudesh:  Yeah, because I feel that sometimes a lot of the reason for the control comes from maybe a budgetary worry that they want to maintain their budgets and this type of paradigm really is changing the way that an organization works. What’s an interesting aside there is if you’re not going to provide them the content they need when they need it, they’re going to go find it someplace else.

Shannon:  They are. Absolutely.

Sudesh:  If that’s not your internal training organization then you have a bigger problem which is …

Shannon:  Exactly, you got bigger issues. Some of the feedback that I get is, how can I trust them to take the course? If trust is an issue you’ve got bigger issues within your organization, because we have to start from a place of trusting people. Trusting them to put their learning into their own hands. I think that if that’s your kick-off concern, “that I don’t trust them,” then you’ve got bigger issues as an organizational culture that this conversation here is not going to solve.

Sudesh:  Right, right. That’s really, I think, is the key. One of the things that I particularly have to deal with in a position as basically a solutions architect as well as a business development function, is I have to work through pretty complicated learning and training scenarios. Someone may understand what they want as their outcome but they may not understand how to get there and every so often, I have to learn about their technology set really quickly and I have to do a lot of pulling to get that information. I may contact folks in my organization. I may reach outside of my organization.

I think one of the things I’m curious if you’ve had to deal with is, are there modalities, or are there approaches that really do emphasize self-directed learning effectively? Because some of the stuff I do I don’t get the right response. “Hey, do you understand how this widget works out in the world?” “No, I don’t understand how that widget works. Go ask 10 other people.” Other times I’ll get a dissertation from a college thesis and I’ll say, “well, this is really great that they tried 10,000 widgets at one time but I only need one widget 10 times,” that sort of thing. What are your thoughts on that? How does the learner effectively adapt to getting that content because there’s two sides of the coin. There’s the organizational side and then there’s the learner side.

Shannon:  That’s really where content design comes into play, easability. For example, there’s two methods that I prefer to drop self-directed learning. One is through a traditional blog. This is about taking tools that we don’t traditionally think of in that way and using it in a different way. Let’s just think about WordPress for a second, or Blogger, any one of those blogging tools.

You put up a lesson on a blog site. You have a video, you have your lesson, you have a worksheet that you use as a downloadable and then you keep the comments section open. Lesson one becomes how to turn the widget. Here’s your video on how to turn the widget. Here’s your download that is a checklist for the widget. Then those comments then become, “Did you find this worksheet helpful? What troubles did you have?” Then you have to seed that and sometimes you have to go beyond it and get your champions and have them ask questions so that other people … Nobody wants to be the first person.

You have them come in and ask questions so that way you can respond to them. Use a blog format because people are used to that. They’re used to seeing that. They know how they operate it. They know how they work. They know how they function, so you’re essentially fishing where the fish are. The second tool that you can use is you can do this by “drop lessons.” That is through using a newsletter format, so a tool like ConstantContact or MailChimp or something like that. The same sort of design methodology there. You’ve got a video, you’ve got a lesson, you have a link. You have a downloadable, and you send it via email and you can automate that. As soon as I see that you’ve opened it I can send you lesson two, and then as soon as you open that I can send you lesson three. That becomes automated so the speed and purpose of the lesson become again in the hands of the learner, not of mine.

Sudesh:  That is a great way to think of it.

Shannon:  It’s using traditional tools in a different way.

To check out more of Shannon’s awesome work, check out We’ll be recording and posting more episodes of The DevHops podcast soon, so be sure and bookmark the Skytap blog, or follow us on our SoundCloud page!

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