I was recently interviewed for a German audience on subscription learning.

You can read the interview here in German.

Here is a rough American English translation:

Will Thalheimer as Interviewed by Andrea Sattler

What is subscription learning (how does it work, what topics does it cover, who is it designed for/ what’s the target group…)?

Thanks Andrea for inviting me! I’m delighted to talk about subscription learning because I think it offers us, as elearning developers, a powerful new tool in our elearning toolbox.

As I wrote on the Subscription Learning website, Subscription Learning, as its name implies, provides an intermittent stream of learning-related interactions to those who are subscribed. These learning-related interactions–called “nuggets”–can involve a great variety of learning-related events, including content presentation, diagnostics, scenario-based questions, job aids, reflection questions, assignments, discussions, etc. Nuggets are short, usually presented in less than five minutes. Nuggets are intentionally scheduled over time to support learning, often utilizing research-based findings related to the spacing effect. Learners subscribe (or are subscribed) to one or more series of learning nuggets, called “threads.” Learning threads can be predesigned, selecting nuggets based on anticipated learner needs or they can be dynamically created based on learner performance.

Why do you recommend the use of “nugget learning”? What is it based on (e.g., are there any studies that prove that learning in short sequences is most successful…)?

Subscription learning is not new, of course. People have been learning from the content of their magazine subscriptions for over a century. Apprentices learned their trades by working alongside master craftsmen, and getting short doses of instruction spread out over months and years.

The subscription learning idea occurred to me when I was researching the spacing effect in the learning research. The spacing effect shows that repetitions of content are much better remembered when they are spread over time. Every university student knows what happens when they cram repetitions to prepare for exams. The do well on the exam, but they soon forget everything. The spacing effect demonstrates the opposite finding. When we spread learning over time, we remember more and we remember for longer periods of time. Interestingly, the spacing effect (also called spaced practice, distributed practice, etc.) is one of the most robust findings in the learning research, but one of the least utilized in the workplace learning-and-performance field.

My research-to-practice report details over 100 studies from scientific refereed journals.

In addition to the spacing effect, there are other reasons that subscription learning is effective:

  1. Learners can engage learning nuggets on their own timeframes.
  2. Learners can keep their learning easily accessible in memory.
  3. Learners can relate their learning more easily to workplace issues.
  4. Learners are more likely to integrate their learning with workplace cues.
  5. Learners can be prompted to actions while at work.
  6. Learning is often more palatable in shorter chunks.

How do learners benefit from this kind of learning? (if this is not already included in the answers to the above questions)

Learners benefit because they don’t have to sit through long and tedious classroom sessions or through similarly long elearning courses. They benefit because—if the subscription-learning is well designed—the learning will actually stick. It will be remembered. Learners benefit because the learning will be easier to integrate into their work.

How can subscription learning be integrated into corporate learning?

What’s fantastic is that we have arrived at a time and place where subscription learning can be utilized through both simple and complex technologies. Subscription learning can be as simple as a string of emails or as complicated as sophisticated decision scenarios triggered through software that highlights new learning nuggets on one’s mobile phone or laptop.

Subscription learning can be a standalone learning intervention or as an adjunct to traditional learning courses (or elearning). It can be part of a run-of-the-mill training session or part of a strategically-important initiative led by a company’s CEO.

Do you have any experience with subscription learning in companies? If so, can you give us an example of how this is used in the company, and what experiences they have had so far?

Although I am now a dedicated learning consultant, I once led a leadership-development product line and taught leadership to managers at large corporations. After my courses, I would keep in touch with my learners through email over the next several months, sending engaging and entertaining emails that reinforced key learning points. I still remember one comment from a learner that reinforced the value. “Hey Will, I didn’t read every email you sent, but the one’s I read, I really did get value out of. They reinforced what we learned in the training. Thanks!”

Subscription learning is erupting everywhere. Last year, a subscription-learning program used by people all over the world to learn languages won Apple’s App of the Year. Verizon, a giant telecom company in the United States is using subscription learning in many ways. A large financial services company used subscription learning to prepare their sales folks.

Any Final Thoughts?

Subscription Learning is here to stay. But here’s the thing. We’re just getting started with it—we have a lot more to learn. And I don’t want to be accused of adding to the hype cycle. Subscription learning, although it is an incredibly powerful tool that will transform the elearning landscape, won’t replace traditional elearning. We’ll still have relatively long elearning engagements. But in addition, we’ll now have another tool in our toolbox.

The key to success for organizations who want to use it today will be to follow research-based learning design recommendations and find innovative vendors who can have already captured lessons learned. It’s imperative on us all to begin experimenting and learning how to use the subscription-learning approach.