The art of learning: Why engagement is everything

Julian Stodd
Co-captain
Seasalt Learning
Columnist
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I'll give you an hour of my time, but will I give you an hour of my engagement? There's a difference between the two and Julian Stodd wants to explore what it is.
Sitting in the room or taking the elearning is not enough; we need learners to be engaged. But what does engagement mean? How do we get it, and what are the impacts if we miss it? In this article, I want to explore how we capture this most elusive of qualities in learning.
There are two sides to every story; what the organisation wants and needs, and what the individual learner wants and needs. Sometimes the two coexist in harmonious peace, but not always. Sometimes organisations want to take people to places they are uncomfortable with, places that are hard to get to. When this is the case, the gap between what I as a learner want, and what the organisation needs grows broader and the leap required to bridge the gap is longer. At times like this, engagement is key.
 
"There are two sides to every story; what the organisation wants and needs, and what the individual learner wants and needs. Sometimes the two coexist in harmonious peace, but not always."
The starting point is to recognise the everyday reality of the learner; what challenges do I face? (as opposed to what challenges the organisation faces). They may be the same, although my personal challenges may be a subset of the wider picture. For example, the organisation may want higher sales, but I may just want reliable IT. The organisation may want better leaders, but I just want better interviewing skills. In one organisation I worked for, they spent incredible amounts of effort trying to convince people how important customer service was. But when you actually asked the learners and measured the data, we found that they already knew and were living this message. The issue was that they couldn't email information to customers: they didn't have individual email addresses. They felt disempowered, second class. That was their everyday reality.
We don't have to cater for every whim or need of individual learners, but we do have to understand their reality. If they are under pressure to perform in one area, if their metrics for performance management are in one area, then getting their engagement in another will be a real challenge.
People are discerning consumers of media: there are so many demands on our time, so much to choose from, that I am only going to engage with things that are worthy of my attention. The learning needs to be relevant, relevant to me that is, to my current role, to the demands on my time. It needs to be high quality: I wouldn't hang around in the cinema to watch the end of a poor film so why would I hang around till the end of a poor piece of learning, and it needs to be timely. Is it what I need now? Tomorrow is a whole new day. So, timely, relevant and high quality material is what's required.
But that doesn't mean expensive. Quality is not determined by gloss, it's determined by substance, by a strong narrative and internal cohesion to the work. Is it well written? Does the story flow and make sense? These are relatively easy things to get right, but all too often they are gotten wrong. It can be as simple as reading a piece of learning out loud: does it sound like someone speaking or does it sound like a convoluted, over-edited essay by committee? If it's the latter, find a journalism student and give them £20 to edit half out. Generally elearning is too long anyway. Shorter is invariably better.
 
"Quality is not determined by gloss, it's determined by substance, by a strong narrative and internal cohesion to the work. Is it well written? Does the story flow and make sense? These are relatively easy things to get right, but all too often they are gotten wrong."
So what is the impact of low engagement? Well, people may simply fail to complete the training, or worse, they may sit there and nod, but do nothing with it. Ultimately, the point of learning is to change behaviours, skills, knowledge. If we remain unchanged at the end, we have failed. Learning can become a highly abstract experience, isolated from reality, possibly enjoyable, possibly making sense at the time; but if we are unable to apply it, it's worthless.
When we think about learning, we should think about engagement. What will draw people in, what will drive them away? Everybody wants people to engage, but in order to really catch them, the learning needs to be relevant to the individual, it needs to be high quality to compete against other demands for our attention and it needs to be timely. What I need, when I need it.

Julian Stodd is a founding director of Marton House, a leading learning and development consultancy. As well as his learning blog Julian regularly contributes to international magazines and online publications, and recently released his first ebook entitled 'Exploring the World of Social Learning'. Julian's next publication, 'A Mindset for Mobile Learning', will be released later this year

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