Why e-learning is not Netflix
There is no doubt that effective employee learning and development programs are a must in today's corporate world. Most of the organizations have come a long way when it comes to using technology in corporate learning. Many companies have turned to Netflix-like learning solutions that place a high value on entertainment.
But are these actually effective?
Remember the last time you started Netflix and felt overwhelmed by the vast selection and turned it off again? Or when you wanted to buy some batteries on Amazon but did not know which ones to choose? We all experience this situation on a regular basis, and that's despite the fact that all these companies do a really good job of tailoring their recommendations to you individually! In early 2020, Netflix offered more than 35.000 hours of content, and yet they magically manage to provide us with series and movies that actually interest us.
Recommender systems, like the one Netflix uses, assist us in areas where the amount of information simply exceeds our own ability to oversee, process, and select. And they are, in large part, the reason for the great success of their respective companies. With a huge amount of data at their disposal, they are designed to offer the top rated, the most viewed, or simply similar items to what we have just consumed. And they do that pretty well.
Let us take a quick look at some of the characteristics of common recommender systems. Quite obviously, their mission is to entertain us users as quickly as possible by recommending items that will satisfy our needs immediately - and get them the desired click-through rates. As a result, they are often more short-term oriented: There's no guarantee that we will stay interested over a longer period, although some of us have certainly developed an unhealthy relationship with one streaming service or another. However, if we do stick around longer, it's usually because these systems only offer us content they are sure will interest us. They rarely let us look beyond our own "zone of interest" because that exploration carries a certain risk of backfiring: If they do not meet our tastes, we may stop consuming.
With commercial recommender systems successfully dominating most aspects of our consumer lives, adaptations were soon made in other areas. When online learning services and courses began to be developed in the early 2000s, especially Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), they faced essentially the same problem as commercial companies had before: how to distribute as much learning content as possible to a large number of learners without overwhelming them with the many choices available? At first glance, the challenge seemed very similar to commercial recommender systems, so many approaches and platforms adapted existing systems and how they worked. And online learning platforms are flourishing, with COVID-19 manuring where it can over the last years.
But does all that commercial success translate to learners?
Is online learning really the same as consuming videos that others have enjoyed watching?
At second glance, learning in practice actually seems to be much more complicated and confronts us with a variety of deeper problems. To learn successfully, we need to set learning goals and set a manageable path to get there so that we can monitor our progress along the way. It requires long-term commitment, because our path will usually be long and rocky, and we will have to overcome obstacles when it is difficult or perhaps not interesting at all.
It's no secret that learning isn't always fun.
More importantly, the content we need to learn should by no means depend only on fun and interest, but on a whole set of interacting factors. Our prior knowledge and education, our cultural background and socialization determine very individual paths to our learning goals. Having the same learning goal does not mean we start from the same origin or follow the same path. And learning goals are also highly individual: in addition to the factors already mentioned, they depend on our current position and professional development goals, our company's strategy, the use cases we might want to solve, and much more.
So no, you do not want to simply learn what others have learned.
And speaking of companies: Workplace learning is even more complicated. Successful workplace learning depends not only on us learners, but also on the needs of the organization, the learning culture, and the time available for learning, as well as the applicability and acceptance of our newly acquired skills by our colleagues. Learning has a strong strategic component for everyone: it is exhausting and time-consuming, and it is often rewarded only after a delay and is difficult to measure. Over a longer period of time, you rarely do it just for fun.
Given all these challenges, traditional commercial recommender systems suddenly seem a bit underqualified for the job, don't they?
So here is what we can do about it.
If we want to revolutionize online learning, we need to move away from classic commercial recommender systems that still leave too much responsibility and choice to the learner. Instead, we need more guidance and systems should provide us with the possibility to:
The most obvious, but rarely done. Our prior education and skills have a large (if not the largest) impact on the choice and attainability of learning goals, our respective pathways to those goals, and, consequently, the time and effort we must invest to achieve them. By incorporating this information into learning recommendations, we can find the most efficient path to our goal. Thus, whenever possible, we can skip content and acquire only the necessary skills rather than relearning what we already know.
In workplace learning, we need to engage businesses as stakeholders in the learning process and enable them to translate their strategic thinking into skill sets for their employees. Together with our personal development goals and existing skills, these form the basis for setting appropriate learning goals, which can then serve as fuel for new recommender systems that provide us with learning content that meets all these needs.
Just as we need to incorporate skills into learning content recommendations, we need to make them visible to learners themselves. Rather than tracking progress on courses, we need to let learners monitor their progress in developing their own skills against learning objectives. In this way, new skills and abilities become much more visible, sustainable, and manageable.
We need to stop thinking that more input equals more output. Too often, we confuse learning progress with time invested and blindly demand specific hours and amounts of learning from learners, regardless of whether it is necessary or not. Instead, we need to make learning processes output-oriented:
Consider a skills-based approach instead of focusing on content. Skills-based learning allows you to connect learning and business goals, strategically develop employees, and achieve measurable learning outcomes - rather than "watched content". We have helped many clients implement skills-based learning to make their training more engaging, effective, and measurable. If you'd like more information, check out our product or contact us. We are happy to help!