In the last few years, the research on the spacing effect has become more widely known in the workplace learning field — perhaps, maybe a little, from my translational research work, particularly the research-to-practice report I wrote back in 2006. Even more importantly, subscription-learning authoring tools have emerged (e.g., QMINDshare, Cameo, Mindmarker) that enable learning nuggets to be spaced over time.

But a story told to me by Bill Welter of Adaptive Strategies made me realize that the underlying need for some sort of long-term learning engagement was really a timeless need — based on the fundamental components of the human-learning architecture.

Bill’s Story

A few years ago Bill was approached by a senior executive at a large corporation with a request to help her “improve strategic thinking within my team.” Unfortunately, for all involved, there were severe time and distance “issues” so a workshop (either face-to-face or online) was ruled out.

Bill suggested that she have her team read Joan Magretta’s book, Understanding Michael Porter: the essential guide to competition and strategy, and that he (Bill, not Michael) would provide commentary and “points to ponder” for each of the chapters. She liked the idea.

So, for a couple of months, Bill sent weekly e-mails to her team with commentary and questions for each chapter in the book. The client was happy and need was fulfilled, but Bill looks back on the experience with some regrets — regrets that recently came to light as he learned about the power of new technologies to keep learners engaged over time. One of Bill’s major frustrations was that although he invited feedback and comments, the engagement turned out to be mostly a one-way communication. Bill sent reflection prompts, but he had no way of knowing how engaged, interested, or committed his learners were. After the fact, he had people tell him that they liked the book and his comments, but he didn’t have access to today’s social-learning tools nor to subscription-learning.

When Bill told me the story, I immediate thought of my own work as a leadership trainer back over a decade ago. There was something that made me realize that my learners needed more learning after the formal training had ended. I sent them emails for a month or so after the training. Like Bill, it was mostly a one-way line of communication. I sent nuggets, and I got responses from a few of my learners (very positive comments as I remember), but I wasn’t really able to monitor progress, provide feedback, or modify my content/delivery based on new insights about how the learning was going.

I also remember a military intelligence expert who taught a course and offered his learners the opportunity to subscribe to his email blasts after the course. He wasn’t a learning expert, but he figured that since he was collecting and curating this information anyway, that his learners might be interested. He not only got about 95% of folks signing up, but his emails often got lots of responses from folks who found them valuable.

Long-Term Learning Engagement

There are many examples of long-term learning engagement besides these. For at least a century, colleges and universities have had 10-15 week sessions, engaging with learners over time. Many leadership programs I’ve been involved with teach stuff in the classroom, then have the learners go back to the job for a month or so, then go back to the classroom, then go back to work, etc. Religious congregations have meetings once a week — sometimes more often. Parents inculcate values and life skills everyday over many years.

What Makes the Need Timeless

It’s clear from these examples that engaging learners over time is a powerful learning approach — probably even a NECESSARY one.

What makes this need timeless is the human cognitive architecture itself.

  1. First, there’s often a lot to learn.
  2. Second, repetitions support learning because people often need repetitions (a) to fully understand something, (b) to learn the information they missed earlier, (c) to remember things they’d forgotten, and (d) to strengthen and reinforce what they already know.
  3. Third, spaced repetitions strengthen long-term remembering, and can minimize forgetting.
  4. Fourth, human beings are more reactive than proactive. They may need prompts to remember to engage in a task — to put their learning into practice.
  5. Fifth, humans may need motivation to engage in learning or engage in learning application — motivation that can be supplied by prompts and/or by human connection.

When we know the learning research, the need for long-term learning engagement becomes a no-brainer. Subscription learning just makes sense!

Technology Helps

In Bill’s story — and in my leadership development story — both of us were frustrated because we didn’t have all the tools we needed to fully support learning.

Fortunately, today’s technologies are making it easier to engage with learners in a way that better supports them.

Here’s some of the crucial functions that subscription-learning tools should supply:

  • Delivery of information.
  • Delivery of questions.
  • Ability to provide scenario-based questions.
  • Ability to provide learners with feedback.
  • Ability to monitor learner actions, engagement, decision-making, etc.
  • Ability to utilize rich media (e.g., video, audio).
  • Ability to deliver nuggets through PCs, phones, tablets, etc.
  • Ability to encourage social learning.
  • Ability to prompt and monitor tasks.
  • Ability to include ad-hoc learning nuggets.
  • Ability to re-use content.
  • Ability to track learning variables.
  • Ability to provide effective schedules of spaced content.
  • Et cetera… There’s much more, but these are some of the most critical…