Matt Burr: Solving the digital learning paradox

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Digital learning has a problem. Find a moment for an off-the-record chat with a seasoned investor, L&D professional, or entrepreneur and they’ll all admit the same basic issue: No one has figured out how to deliver high-quality learning experiences at scale.

The problem is fairly straightforward: You cannot have great learning without great, relevant content. And good content is expensive and difficult to produce at scale. Relevant content is even harder. As a result, most of today’s learning platforms are extremely hit or miss when it comes to content. Amidst vast seas of boring talking head videos, there are the occasional stand outs, it’s true, but these are few and far between. The dismal engagement rates for online learning are the inevitable outcome.

The fact is, no matter how slick the platform, how simple the interface, or how compelling the brand, if a learner isn’t engaged, intrigued, challenged, and hungry for more every time they consume a piece of learning content, the system will fail.

So, part of the answer to the quality/scale problem is simply to put content production at the center of learning development. Hire creative people, empower them to do great work, and put in place editorial and quality control processes found in media companies.

But, of course, producing great content only answers one half of the original problem (the quality half), but doesn’t seem to address the scale problem. Tackling this challenge requires a significant shift in how we approach the content design and production process.

Here are a few key principles to deliver high quality and challenging learning programmes that engage users:

1. Keep Content Concise and Carefully Curated: In today’s content-rich world, creating effective learning experiences doesn’t just mean producing short pieces of content; it means curating that content effectively. Great curation means selecting the right ideas and concepts to teach, the right order in which to teach them, and limiting the learner’s experience to a very narrow set of concepts at any given moment. It requires content that is both conceptually precise and consistently engaging.

2. Don’t Rely on One Type of Media: While we agree that high quality video has an essential role to play in engaging users, the vast majority of today’s online platforms are far too dependent on video. The key is to use video sparingly, where it will have the most impact. By using less video we can invest a lot more in each clip. That ensures that the video does what it does best: tell stories, illustrate a process in action, enliven a debate and leaves other types of learning: teaching basic concepts, principles and practical tips to text or interactive elements.

3. Ask Good Questions, Spark Conversations: Today’s learners live in a social world. They expect to interact, discuss, challenge, and dissect the content. Most importantly they want to find answers for themselves. The guiding principal of great digital content is a desire to spark conversation rather than providing answers. Viewed through this lens, it’s clear that great social learning content does not have to be expensive to produce. But it does require a different mindset and a different definition of success. Content quality must be measured by the type and intensity of the conversation it provokes, how deeply it engages, and how quickly it adapts.

Taken together, these three principles point to a solution to the quality to scale paradox. If a learning solution is struggling with either quality or scale, we can ask some basic questions about its approach:

• Is the content concise and efficient?
• Is it teaching the right concepts in the right order?
• Is it overly reliant on one type of media?
• Is the variation between different content types systematic and thoughtful?
• Does it seek primarily to teach answers or provoke questions?

The organisations that are getting these questions right are starting to see amazing things happen: conversations emerging in tens of thousands of comments in real time across the world; motivated learners hungry for more and powerful, measurable organisational change happening at a speed and scale that was never before possible.

The quality/scale paradox is not easy to solve. But the rewards for solving it are immense.

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About Matt Burr

Matt Burr, CEO and Co-Founder, Nomadic

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