Subscription Learning as Performance Support Coaching

Subscription Learning is the idea of providing short–usually less than 10 minute–nuggets of learning content or learning interaction. Often, we think of this as an information-delivery platform. In other words, we think of it as training that is spread over time in tiny packets of training content.

But we really ought to think beyond this limited “training” perspective! Subscription Learning can be so much more.

Just this week, I spoke with Marty Rosenheck of Cognitive Advisors, a cognitive-science inspired consultancy and learning-development shop. Cognitive Advisors has recently released TREK, a “Learning Experience Manager” that allows organizations to go beyond training and support people as they learn in the workplace.

From the Cognitive Advisors website, here’s what TREK does:

  • Manages, tracks and reports on the full range of learning
  • Is built from the ground-up with the Experience API (Tin Can) to capture learning outside the LMS
  • Offers cloud-based software designed for today’s mobile workforce
  • Aligns all learning experiences to competencies
  • Supports personalized learning paths to tailor learning for each learner

This technology wasn’t possible just a few years ago, and the future of this product category, which Marty has coined the “Learning Experience Manager,” seems exceedingly bright. The future looks promising because it fulfills a real need, providing support for on-the-job learning.

Indeed, one of the problems with the last decade’s flirtation with informal learning (and on-the-job learning) is that it happens willy nilly without adequate support. People can learn the wrong things, they can learn too slowly, they can get frustrated and give up, they can fail to learn. Just as learning researchers have found that discovery learning is not generally effective–unless it is “guided,” informal learning is often not as effective and efficient as it ought to be.

Real-world Example

Here’s a real-world example of how TREK has been used:

Professionals in the water-quality-assessment field have to get up to speed quickly to do their jobs. And, they have to do their jobs right. There’s no tolerance for poor water-quality testing. The problem is compounded because there’s so much to learn. New folks often feel they’re gazing through muddy waters until they’ve got lots of experience under their belts–and they have clarity about what to do when. They rely on experienced people to answer questions, provide guidance, and monitor their progress.

The down side of this is that it’s very expensive to keep sending experienced people out with the new folks, and its very inefficient and frustrating when inexperienced people have to keep calling their supervisors and mentors from the field.

Enter TREK. The Water Quality Association, working with Cognitive Advisors, piloted a program to provide their members with a structured on-the-job learning path, enabling learners to learn on the job–while being coached by their immediate supervisors.

TREK worked using employee’s smartphones’ sensors (camera, audio and video recorder, and GPS). Employees captured evidence of their critical actions at each step in their learning path. This evidence was submitted through TREK to each person’s designated manager-coach. As each step was completed, managers were notified and were prompted to review their direct reports’ submissions.

Managers provided brief feedback–either written or in a recorded audio nugget–and this feedback was presented to the learners. Managers weren’t left on their own to flounder in their coaching activities. They were provided with coaching guides, checklists, and success criteria within the TREK interface on their smartphones.

Interestingly, what TREK did in this case was to provide support to both learners and the learners’ managers. For both groups, this improved the effectiveness and efficiency of the learning/coaching experience.

Not Just a Technology

As Marty explained to me in discussing this new product category–the reason Learning Experience Management technology is possible now is that several forces have come together. First and foremost, a new database specification has been developed (Experience API, also known as Tin Can) that enables experiences to be collected and categorized–where once we could only capture training-related information. Second, mobile technology is now ubiquitous in cell phones. Third, cloud computing has become a norm, enabling continuous connectivity between learners and others. Finally, learning analytics, social media, and badging have added to the user experience.

But even given these technological advances, the thing that makes TREK and its performance-support coaching possible is that it aligns with human cognition. The key to providing a great learning experience is to ensure that the learning content is captured and presented in ways that can maximize learning.

Marty illustrated the key link in the process, as he described how he leads customers through a cognitive task analysis process he’s perfected over the years. He calls it knowledge harvesting. It reminded me very much of my days building simulations and working with SME’s to extract knowledge. It’s incredibly valuable, but you don’t want to skimp on the process.

Why is This Subscription Learning

TREK provides a subscription learning experience because by focusing on individual workplace tasks, it is providing small chunks of learning that is spaced over time.

The diagram Cognitive Advisors uses to explain their cognitive apprenticeship model highlights a number of small nuggets on the learning-path trajectory.


Folks to Watch

Marty Rosenheck and his business partner Colleen Enghauser are folks to watch–as is their company, Cognitive Advisors. Their dedication to creating learning technology aligned with the learning research is inspiring!