It's not exactly subscription learning–at least not the way MIT is talking about it yet–but the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is considering breaking their courses into modules.

Read the article in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Here's a great blog post I just found on micro learning. Those interested in subscription learning will definitely want to check it out.



Michael Sunderman, Executive Director, Verizon Training and Development, is a big believer in subscription learning. In Verizon, they've got dozens of subscription-learning threads in use at any one time. They call these threads "campaigns" using the language of QMINDshare, the tool they use to deliver their subscription-learning nuggets.

Most often, Verizon uses subscription learning to reinforce previously-learned content. So for example, in a training program on Change Leadership, the learners were given a one-day workshop where they learned about change leadership and developed their own change-management plan. The workshop was then followed by a campaign of learning nuggets, reinforcing the key points and spurring further change-leadership actions.

Verizon has also recently begun using subscription learning nuggets to deliver new content as well. In one such campaign, they are teaching how to manage cross-functional projects and teams. Nuggets include content delivery, short videos and other interactions. Sunderman, who might have been a bit skeptical about using subscription learning to deliver content, has been pleasantly surprised by the result–an 89% participation rate.

What drew Michael to the use of subscription learning? He knew that creating learning alone is not enough. He had an interest in taking initial learning, making it stick, and enabling learners to put what they learned into practice in their work.

Verizon has all levels of subscription-learning campaigns. They've got some that are accessed by 2200 learners, some as small as 24 people. They often have participation rates in the 90th percentile. And, just like the rest of us who are using subscription learning, they are developing a list of lessons learned. Here is a small selection of what they've learned:

  1. Keep content nuggets short. Ideally, to keep them under 2 minutes, UNLESS the information is particularly critical or engaging.
  2. You must respect every second of your learner's time. Every piece of content must be relevant and needed. Every interaction must be meaningful.
  3. When your organization has lots of subscription-learning threads deployed, you have to be careful not to overwhelm any one person. We do this by knowing our employee groups and by having people consider who a proposed subscription-learning campaign might impact.
  4. Because subscription-learning is new, there are not a lot of expert developers of subscription-learning nuggets in the marketplace. This is probably our biggest challenge right now. We are developing our own expertise through repeated experience and my monitoring our results.
  5. Before deploying a subscription-learning thread, write all of your nuggets. If you don't, your initial enthusiasm may wear off, and you may struggle to develop nuggets as the thread is deployed.

Michael sees subscription learning as a new technology the way elearning was a new technology a decade or two earlier. The biggest mistake the field made when it started using elearning was that it tried to use classroom methods in elearning, when such methods weren't always consistent with the technology. He worries that we'll fall in to the same trap, using elearning methods when we really should be using specialized subscription-learning methods. Therefore, the key is for subscription-learning developers to think beyond the old models, be open to experimentation, and to learn from each other.

Kudos to Michael and his colleagues for seeing the need for learning that sticks and for taking the lead in innovating with this new learning methodology.

Philip Guo, doing research on EdX courses, found that videos that lasted more than about 6-9 minutes started to lose learner attention.

His conclusion: "The take-home message for instructors is that, to maximize student engagement, they should work with instructional designers and video producers to break up their lectures into small, bite-sized pieces."

Another reason for a subscription-learning approach.

I started using subscription-learning nuggets in the mid 1990’s when I ran a leadership-development product line for the Strategic Management Group. I did a little experiment in teaching some of my courses on change management. What I did was simply send a series of emails in the month after my courses ended. My learners loved them. They said stuff like this: “Well Will, I didn’t read every email you sent, but I did read some of them—and I got a lot out of them. They reminded me what we learned and nudged me to put stuff into practice.”

Since those early efforts, I’ve created subscription-learning threads for clients and for my Work-Learning Research learners. Fortunately, I’ve learned a few things over the years—so I make fewer rookie mistakes now. First, instructional-design still counts. Subscription learning still must have great content. It must still engage. It should follow research-based principles to support remembering.

While more and more sophisticated subscription-learning tools are available, let me highlight the fact that subscription learning can be done in a low-budget way with tools everyone is already familiar with.

For example, even in a regular email, we can prompt learners to engage meaningful decision-making scenarios, providing them with retrieval practice opportunities, feedback, spacing, etc. Second, emails can be sent in a coordinated fashion from email-marketing autoresponders. I use iContact, but most email marketing tools have this capability. For example, I can write 20 emails that are carefully crafted to get across a short set of learning points. I can schedule these emails to maximize the use of spaced repetitions. Once a person signs up for a thread, they automatically get the emails—I don’t have to do a thing.

Note that even though these budget-conscious methods can be effective, they do lack a clear feedback loop that more sophisticated subscription-learning authoring tools can provide. If you want to ensure engagement or require completion of learning segments, you’ll need a dedicated subscription-learning authoring tool. But if you want to get the benefits of subscription learning on a shoestring, it's definitely doable. Or, if you want to experiment, you can start by using the delayed-send feature of your email program.

One of the worries expressed by people new to the idea of subscription learning is whether learners will actually stay subscribed to subscription-learning threads.

As evidenced in other blog posts here, getting people to pay attention doesn't have to be a problem, though it can be. Strategies that work include requiring learning engagement, creating relevant interactions, building interesting learning events, tracking progress, encouraging interpersonal competition, providing rewards, et cetera.

We know that people aren't hard-wired to avoid subscriptions. People have been subscribing to magazines and newspapers for more than a century. Charles Dickens had people subscribing to his books back in the 1800's. Steven King has done the same more recently.

Now we have more evidence. As reported in The Boston Globe, the modern serial novel is hot, hot, hot! Indeed, it says, "Wattpad is a leader in this new storytelling environment, with more than 2 million writers producing 100,000 pieces of material a day for 20 million readers on an intricate international social network."

If you're interested in subscription learning, Wattpad might be worth a look–not as a delivery device, but as a way to generate ideas for your subscription-learning efforts. Or, if you're lazy, you could just decide that storytelling is the key and incorporate elements of storytelling into your subscription-learning threads.

Here's an example of an author whose 110-part series has been read over 1.7 million times!



If you've seen anybody using story-telling for subscription learning, please let me know!


Micro Lectures, 1 to 3 minute recorded lectures, are offered as a way to support learning. See today's blog post from Jana Jan, who is a provider of a tool to enable micro lectures connected through "learning maps."

Unsupported with other instructional scaffolding, micro lectures will not be as effective as they could be.

I recently talked with Dennis Rees, CEO of NexLearn, about his company’s use of “Micro-Learning Objects”—subscription learning nuggets used to reinforce previously-encountered learning objectives. He told me about a program NexLearn helped develop that focused on stroke prevention and atrial fibrillation, delivered to board-certified family physicians. By providing subscription-learning nuggets starting four weeks after an in-class learning experience, learning results improved dramatically.

Here’s how the program worked. Physicians would come to a classroom to learn concepts in a three hour session. About half of the session was devoted to using scenario-based questions presented through two video-based cases. The facilitator, a nationally-recognized expert on atrial fibrillation, introduced concepts and took people through two cases.

At various times during the video, the facilitator would pause the action and present learners with multiple-choice questions asking for their recommendations on the case situation. The participants played the role of a doctor taking over an ongoing practice. They were coached in the simulation by the practice’s soon-to-be retiring doctor.

The in-class portion of the learning was co-developed by NexLearn and its partner Edumotion and delivered using Edumotions’ Ambient audience-response technology. The program captured learner data that helped assign subscription-learning nuggets based on each learner’s performance in the classroom cases.

After the initial three-hour learning session, the physicians returned to their regular workplaces. Depending on how they had performed in the classroom cases, the doctors were assigned to one or more micro-learning objects. As reflected in the graphic below, the MLO’s (micro-learning objects), were delivered every two weeks starting four weeks after the end of the classroom sessions. Some learners were assigned with all three MLO’s, some got two, and some got one.

As you can see in the graphic, the pretest to posttest improvement was 38.5%, raising performance from about 40% to about 80%. Obviously, this result is due to the whole learning experience—not just the additional subscription-learning nuggets. Still, the relatively short micro-learning objects (about 5 to 12 minutes long) seem to have supported the initial 3-hour classroom experience in helping learners remember.  Consider that 10 weeks after the classroom experience (and two weeks after the final micro-learning object, learners understood and remembered very complex drug recommendations and other complicated information at a very high level.

To create these micro-learning objects—and the web-based portion of the program—NexLearn utilized its proprietary simulation authoring tool, SimWriter. One of the benefits of SimWriter is that it can publish its programs to the cloud—thus enabling it to create subscription-learning nuggets (or what NexLearn calls “micro-learning objects”).

One of Dennis’s lessons-learned in building learning programs and authoring tools over the years is that there is value in being a “Master Mechanic.” While he reads ample amounts of stuff based on research and the insights of other learning practitioners, he and his colleagues have also learned a ton by simply being reflective practitioners—that is, trying things out that seem reasonable based on research and best practices, measuring learning results in relatively rigorous ways, and making improvements based on their findings. More elearning companies should do the same—elearning is a technology that enables data-gathering. More of us should collect data to help us build virtuous cycles of continuous improvement.

While subscription learning nuggets are typically less than five minutes long, the program Dennis shared with me shows that rigid assumptions about timing don’t necessarily apply. Indeed, the complexity of the content and the use of contextually-appropriate scenario-based decisions required that each subscription-learning nugget took more than five minutes of learning time.

The bottom line thing we have to remember in any learning program is that we have to provide learners with the right level of scaffolding (1) to motivate them to apply what they’ve learned, (2) to build correct mental models of the content, (3) to support learners in remembering, and (4) to enable after-learning follow-through. The NexLearn program did an especially good job of providing the three most critical factors in supporting remembering. It provided the learners with retrieval practice, aligned with meaningful performance contexts, and spaced repetitions of realistic practice over time. To provide such strong support for remembering, a little extra time was needed—a very smart tradeoff!


NexLearn (disclosure: which has invited me to keynote and teach workshops at its Immersive Learning University conference), is known for its simulation-based elearning programs, its simulation authoring tool SimWriter, and its custom elearning-development services.

Subscription Learning Defined

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, delivered to recipients using push technology; either through email, text messaging, cell-phone alerts, desktop notifications, or some other form of prompting. 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, creating nuggets based on anticipated learner needs or they can be dynamically created based on learner performance. Threads can be an alternate way to present course-like information, they can augment other learning interventions, or they can provide an alternative to traditional learning approaches. In addition, subscription learning can go beyond learning delivery and be designed to create open communication channels, directly prompt performance, or provide hybrid experiences.

Visual Representation

Let’s compare a 90-minute elearning course to a commensurate subscription-learning thread. Typically, learners will engage a 90-minute elearning program in one sitting on one day, never to engage the learning material again. A standard e-learning course could be pictured as one big block of learning, whereas the same content in a subscription-learning thread could be presented as 18 five-minute learning nuggets.

Given the time-based reality that subscription-learning nuggets are spread over time, it’s probably best to present nuggets as typically distributed on a calendar.

Special Capabilities of Subscription Learning

Subscription learning provides affordances that standard elearning typically does not provide. Here’s a short list:

  • Relatively long spaced-repetition intervals to maximize remembering
  • Engagement in the learners’ work context over time
  • Opportunities for learners to practice real-world tasks over time
  • Increased likelihood that learning will be discussed with coworkers
  • Multiple learning contexts in terms of cognitive frames of mind
  • Heightened attention to learning content with fresh engagements
  • Potential to prompt on-the-job actions with multiple prompts
  • Potential to engage in social-media conversations that support learning
  • Potential to engage with senior leaders or other organizational experts
  • Potential to modify content in response to learning dynamics
  • Potential to modify content in response to organizational changes

Research-Based Benefits

From a learning standpoint, subscription learning has several advantages over typical training. First, it keeps learning fresh in the minds of learners. Forgetting is a natural cognitive process, but it is the scourge of most training programs. By utilizing a thread of short nuggets, key concepts stay accessible from within long-term memory. Second, subscription learning can be designed to utilize the spacing effect—one of learning science’s most studied phenomenon. The spacing effect is the research finding that repetitions of concepts spaced over time are a more potent way to support long-term memory than repetitions that are not spaced over time (or are not spaced as widely in time). Interestingly, while the spacing effect is one of the most studied learning factors it is also one of the most underutilized in training and education.

Note that while subscription learning is the learning approach most amenable to the spacing effect, subscription learning need not utilize the spacing effect. When a learning thread presents new content in each nugget–and never utilizes the power of repetition–we still have subscription learning, but we don’t have the spacing effect.

Macro vs. Micro Spacings

While immersing myself in the research and attempting to bridge the gap between the research and practical learning situations, I realized that a new terminology was needed. Spacings can be relatively long, say providing a content repetition after four days; or relatively short, for example providing content repetitions after a minute or two. In practice, both can work very effectively—but their relevance depends on factors like the topic, the learners’ knowledge level, importance, etc.

Micro spacings are utilized when learners have to learn many separate bits of knowledge. For example, in learning a language, learners are trying to learn tons of vocabulary—so waiting a week between content presentations would be too slow. In such a case, micro spacings present many learning opportunities within a short time frame. Micro spacings are particularly valuable for things like language learning, vocabulary, multiplication tables, or any learning situation where there is a lot of learning information—or there is a short time horizon for learning a smaller set of information.

Macro spacings are utilized when learners only have to learn a short list of learning points (say less than 20)—or when there is no urgency in learning and repetitions can be leisurely spread over time.

Of course, we shouldn’t forget the findings of the learning researchers. In general, the longer the spacing interval, the longer the information will be remembered. Indeed, micro spacings often require a hybrid spacing scheme, using multiple micro spacings in one sitting, but then utilizing macro spacing to ensure long-term remembering.

The diagram below is my attempt to show how micro spacings differ from macro-spacings—and how they can be combined.


(Subscription Learning—using elearning to send learners short nuggets of learning-interactions spread out over time—is a relatively new phenomenon. As such, it is subject to the same learning curve that all new technologies entail. As a learning researcher/consultant who has been heavily pushing the idea of subscription learning in keynotes and articles recently, I’m fascinated by the human side of this burgeoning field. It’s thrilling to see new subscription-learning applications
enter the learning field, but it’s even more interesting to explore the human aspect of invention and technology-dissemination.

Eric Blumthal, who along with his business partner at count5, Gordon Eilen, set out in 2005 to create a subscription-learning platform to help sales reps better use their valuable time. They’ve created something even more broadly applicable, but their story is instructive. Eric, who had years and years of experience as a sales guy—a former VP of sales—saw a need. Sales people would be pulled away from selling to learn a ton of information, but they’d soon forget it. What Eric saw was a broken model—and a waste of time and productivity—and a loss of sales! He thought—with little or no background in the science of learning—that what was needed was a “reinforcement strategy.” When he surveyed sales organizations, hardly any had a way to reinforce what was learned. They were all leaking knowledge!

What Eric and Gordon created—along with their team—was Q MINDshare, a subscription-learning reinforcement tool. But just like all innovations, Q MINDshare has morphed and improved over the years, now incorporating learning approaches that have proven to work with real employees. And they’ve expanded beyond sales people to provide value for customer service folks, field technicians, managers, supervisors, university students, and others.

Q MINDshare – How it Works

Q MINDshare’s authoring tool is designed for non-technical subject-matter experts. The tool provides many types of interactions, including presentations, questions, videos, job aids, documents, animations, etc. They also have scenario-based open-ended question responses and then ask the learners to grade themselves. Soon they will have the capability to let learners record what they are going to say. Nuggets can be tagged with variables—for example different learning goals—and information on the learner’s progress toward these variables can be displayed to learners and provided for work-learning professionals and stakeholders on the business side as well. As an example, a Fortune 20 client of count5 uses Q Mindshare with about a dozen variables tied to the learning objectives of their training program.

From the learner’s perspective, they’ll get a notification on their computer, or phone, or tablet, which prompts them to engage in a short nugget of learning interaction.

On a computer the notification looks like this on the bottom right of the screen:

On a smartphone or tablet, it looks like this:

While most people engage immediately, the system keeps track and feeds learners new nuggets only when they’re ready. Learners typically get some sort of question to test their understanding, and then several weeks later they get a follow-up question on the same topic. The schedule of questions depends on how well the learners do the first time they answer the question.

What Eric and Gordon have Learned

Eric, Gordon, and company have learned a ton of stuff over the years. Eric first had the idea for a reinforcement tool way back in 2002 or 2003. They went to market with their system in 2005, and have been making refinements based on real-world application ever since. The following will describe some of what they learned.

Email Push Technology Doesn’t Work That Well

One of the most important things they’ve found is that people are so desensitized to emails and are so likely to ignore them that they had to invent a more potent push-technology delivery method. Specifically, they have found that they get 10-20% engagement with email pushes, but 90-95% engagement with their embedded push technology. They call this a “Cut-Thru™ technology” and refer to it as “The Q channel.”

Eric makes sure to preach the importance of using the Q channel ONLY for the really important stuff—to the organizations that count5 works with. For example, at one client, Q MINDshare is deployed to about 5,000 folks (soon to be about 25,000), but only about a dozen employees have privileges to send messages on the channel. These gatekeepers learn that keeping the channel clear of detritus is a key to keeping it valuable for employees. Indeed some companies have begun to use Q MINDshare for strategic messaging from their senior management—so that the messages get through.

The PC is still King

When people get notifications—pushed nuggets—through their PC’s, their engagement level with those nuggets is higher compared with those who get nuggets pushed to their smartphones and tablets. However, those who get nuggets pushed to both their PC and their smartphones show the highest engagement. Eric and I surmised that the PC is the most-work-focused device, whereas smartphones and tablets are often used for non-work activities. Of course, the technology landscape is always changing so the future may bring different patterns—and different user groups may have different profiles.

Prompting Attention

While there are a number of interactive methods in use through Q MINDshare, even simple presentations of information are paid more attention because the learners know that they might be asked a question about the information later.

System Design Can Lead to Continuous Improvement of the Learning

Learners can favorite any item of content in a learning interaction. They can also rate each item using a three-star scale combined with their comments. Both of these tools not only boost learner engagement, but they also help count5 learn what works best and what needs to be improved.

In many instances, when work-learning professionals review the results for one of their Q-channel threads, they often will spontaneously create follow-up learning or create job aids on information that the learners don’t seem to be getting. This is phenomenal! It’s a system that prompts us—as work-learning professionals—to get good feedback on what we’re doing so that we can build continuous cycles of improvement into our practice. Using feedback to improve our learning products is freakin’ revolutionary, but it should be common practice.

The following graphic shows one of the reports that are available. Note how high the participation rates are and how feedback and second chance opportunities lead to better proficiency.

Avoiding Chapterization Produces better Learning

As Eric and count5 have deployed subscription learning, they’ve learned that interleaving topics produces better results than teaching one topic at a time (and never coming back to reinforce them). In the learning field, we too often use such a “chapterization” strategy, when we should be using an interleaf strategy like that which count5 has found most effective. Interestingly, the research on learning suggests the same thing, showing once again that if you’re getting good feedback on real results of your learning interventions, you may find out what works without ever looking at the research. And of course, even if you’re following research-based practices (HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!) it’s still wise to verify the research recommendation with your own content and learners.

Augmenting Traditional Training and More

Originally, count5 started out to augment traditional training with follow-up reinforcement, but now Eric is pushing the concept of using Q MINDshare to provide stand-alone threads to convey learning content. His clients have also used it for prework as well.

Creating Significant Learning (and Financial) Benefits

A huge financial services company was going through the chaos of mergers and their salespeople were not selling enough title insurance. The company provided the usual PowerPoint-dense training program and followed that up with two typical elearning programs for each of their sales reps. But in addition, they also decided to try Q MINDshare as an after-training learning reinforcement device.

Not everyone at the company was completely sold on the idea, so they decided to do what the smartest companies do. They provided Q MINDshare reinforcement thread for half the sales people, but not for the other half. Then they examined the results. Their learning folks came up with a competency test that was given to all their sales folks at the end of the Q MINDshare trial. The good news for Eric and count5 was that the sales reps that used Q MINDshare performed better on the competency test by 40%—and 80% when the easiest questions were eliminated from the analysis. More remarkable were the actual sales results. Each Q MINDshare rep sold more than $200,000 more than the non-Q MINDshare reps! And this wasn’t just a few learners. There were over 200 reps in the comparison.

But even as these numbers were giving Eric thrills, there were still questions from within the sales organization. One day, as Eric was regaling the Senior VP of sales about the results, they began focusing on the biggest sale of all—a plus-million-dollar sale by Lisa, one of the best sales people in the organization. The VP decided to call her up and ask her to come immediately to his office. When she arrived—surprised if not befuddled by the sudden call to attention—the VP asked her straight-up, did Q MINDshare make the difference in her getting her million-plus deal. She said, with some humble gravitas, that she was the one responsible for the sale—that she had long been one of the most productive sales people. She also told the story of what happened.

When she’d gone to the three-day training and then taken the standard elearning courses, she didn’t feel very confident that she could sell title insurance competently to her clients. She even made a conscious decision to avoid emphasizing it with her best clients. But then, when she began to get the Q MINDshare nuggets, her sense of competence rose. Perhaps just as importantly, after about a month of engaging the Q thread, and specifically after she had engaged a Q nugget earlier one day, she was talking on the phone to one of her biggest clients and decided to broach the idea of title insurance. The rest is the history of a million-dollar sale. As you might imagine, Eric Blumthal—sitting there in the VP’s office listening to this story—was floating with delight, seeing that years of hard work and innovation had paid off big time.

Will’s Summary

Eric and Gordon of count5 are engaged in a cycle of innovation and creativity—specifically aimed at figuring out what works and what doesn’t in subscription learning. Their instincts about what might work have always been good, but now they are incorporating the latest research on learning (and spacing and feedback in particular) into their product designs. Q MINDshare is a potent subscription-learning product, worthy of our admiration. Eric and Gordon are years ahead of the field in many respects because they‘ve done the hard work of trial-observe-improve, they’ve done it time and time again, and their work shows the results.