Blended learning strategies to grow your people into being self-guided learners

Blended learning strategies to grow your people into being self guided learners

I recently ran a webinar on how to grow your people into being self-guided learners. In this blog post I'm going to explore in more detail some of the blended learning approaches that I talked about during that session. In the Learning While Working manifesto, I raised three things that are driving learning and change in organisations:

  • Constant change
  • Complexity is now the nature of business
  • Collaboration

I call these the 3 Cs. Especially in the knowledge-based industries in which Sprout Labs works – such as healthcare, government, finance, insurance, engineering, media and professional services – there is a need to be constantly learning to cope with the increased change and complexity of work.

Self-directed learning is one of the key skills that enables employees to gain a mindset of learning while working.

Often, employees are not well prepared to develop into self-guided learners. In many of our workplaces the learning that is provided is highly structured and doesn't encourage self guidance. They are told to do their compliance training.

Learning while working is not all about unstructured informal learning. In many cases, learning does need to be driven by organisational and business needs. But these formal programs can be reworked, redesigned and reconfigured to encourage your people to become self directed in their learning and to provide them with better skills.

What does a self-directed learner do?

The idea of a self-directed learner is not new, although it is more commonly talked about in education than in workplace learning. In some ways our education systems are preparing people to be self-directed learners, but our highly-structured (often compliance-driven) approach to learning in organisations doesn't help to foster their abilities in that area. Then there are the existing employees who have become used to being told what and when they should learn.

A self-directed learner is able to:

  • self assess and identify learning needs
  • find resources and people to assist them
  • practise and trial new behaviours and skills and gain feedback on performance
  • articulate and reflect on what they have learned
  • evaluate and measure their own learning.

A scenario: Project management in a FinTech company

maryMeet Mary, the learning and career development person at a fictional financial technology (FinTech) company. The rest of this post is organised around a learning and performance problem that Mary is working on.

I've chosen a technology company for the scenario because these are the organisations that are disrupting the way business is done. The 3 Cs: Change, Complexity and Collaboration come naturally to these businesses and the employees within. For an employee in a tech company, learning is often what they spend most of the day doing: new programming languages, new approaches, problem solving, and coming up with new solutions to existing problems.

While Mary's people are engaged and motivate to learn, things are not perfect in her business. Her workforce is generally younger and not great at project management. Being curious can have its drawbacks – people go off on tangents and the right work doesn't always get done.

Let’s look at the project management program Mary has set up that fosters self-guided learning.

When an organisation moves to the 70:20:10 model, learners are expected to be more self guided. An organisation will often jump to the end point, which often means removing the structured learning experiences that employees are used to and focusing on informal learning. Learners are often ready for this need to be more guided towards the end point, and blended learning programs offer great opportunities to help get them there.

Mary has arranged her program into two stages, to help scaffold and support the learning processes. The early stage is structured and guided, and prepares the learners for the second stage, which is more flexible and focused on informal learning.

The early stages of the program

The features of the early stage are:

Learners choose to participate
Learners choose to be part of the program, they are not told they have to do it. Most of the target audience can see the value, and the learners who don't sign up early soon realise that they might be left behind.

Self assessment
The program starts with a simple self assessment that means learners get to know their current strengths and weakness.

This first stage of the program happens over three months
Learning and change takes times, as does real behaviour change. Mary could have run the program as a week-long intensive course, but the participants would be more likely to forget what they learned and would not have an opportunity to apply what they're learning as they go. Mary’s whole organisation is based around a cycle of three-month goals for teams and individuals, which fits well with the program and the quarterly planning cycle.

The learner is in control of navigation
This first stage is a digital learning experience based around a series of scenarios. The learners follow the stories and solve the challenges. Each time there is an interaction they are given access to various resources that can help them to make decisions. The resources might be a handbook, a playbook or job aids. The navigation of the resources is set up so the learner can access them in the middle of the learning experience by clicking on a guide or help icon that triggers a pop-over on top of the activity. They can go back to the resources afterwards as well.

The learning experience is based around activities, not content
This learning design is based around the decisions a learner has to make, not what they need to know. One reaction to this is, ‘But we haven't taught them that yet.’ The content and ‘teaching material’ is still there, it's just set up to be accessed only if the learner needs it. There’s a lot more doing the real task and requiring the learner to take responsibility for their learning.

The learners are able to freely navigate around the learning experience
Accessing the guide while doing the activities is just one way learners are able to freely navigate around the learning experience. All the materials that can be accessed for the guide icon are organised into a handbook that can be browsed and used as reference material. They are also free to jump ahead and see what activities are coming up. They often do this at the beginning and then realise they are not ready for that material. This could be seen as negative – confusing the learner – but it's actually helping them to become stronger self-guided learners, as they are self assessing their current expertise and regulating what they are doing.

Allowing the learner to freely navigate around the learning experience is a subtle way of giving them control over what, how and when they learn. But it's the complete opposite of forcing them to click on the ‘forward’ button and not allowing them to move until an activity is completed. That approach is definitely not putting the learner in control and is not helping them to become self directed.

The later stages of the program

Spaced practice – a fictional world
The digital learning components of the program shift to being micro challenges that are sent to the learner every few days. Like in the first stage, these are built around a scenario. A fictional story unfolds and evolves in the background of the learner’s day-to-day work. These give the learner the opportunity to practise and be reminded about the new skills and expertise they developed during the early stage of the program.

The lunch and learn program
This is a peer-driven program, where each participant researches an aspect of project management and then gives a short presentation on the topics, leading a discussion afterwards. The lunch and learn program could actually be commenced early in the program.

Each learner undertakes a small learning project that is about making a change and improvement to current project management practice in their team or researching a new practice. The participants mentor each other during this process.

Final self assessment
The final task is for the learner to complete the self assessment, in order to gauge and reflect on their improvement during the program and to think about further areas for improvement.

How this program is helping Mary’s people become self-guided learners

The learners are provided with more control over what, how and when they learn. Merely freeing up the navigation gives them a subtle level of autonomy.

Instead of all the content just being handed over to the learner, the participants are having to actively work. Instructional designers talk about how they feel like they are in the role of being the learner when they are writing summaries and explaining concepts. In a program such as Mary's, lunch and learn, and the individual projects, mean that the learners are actively doing this work of summarising, articulating and applying new skills and knowledge.

This blog is based on a section of the How to grow your people into being self-guided learners webinar. The full webinar includes a section on strategies to provide learners with more autonomy and personal learning environments.

Watch the full recording