Tag Archive for: subscription learning

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.

To put it simply, subscription learning is a radical new paradigm in elearning. It enables us to think about elearning in new ways–in ways that challenge our old mental models of elearning.

Elearning is still a relatively young field, having its start in the 1960’s during the advent of the computer age and gradually gaining a critical mass after the internet became a mass phenomenon. Because it’s a young field, we are still learning how to think about elearning. With each new paradigm, we think more deeply, more fully about what elearning is–and can be. Below is my categorization of the most important elearning paradigms as of 2014.

eLearning Paradigms 2014

  • Content Presenter (enables content to be presented to learners)
  • Comprehension Tester (enables learners’ knowledge to be tested–and feedback provided)
  • Practice Provider (enables learners’ decision-making to be tested–and feedback provided)
  • Performance Supporter (enables performers to be prompted toward action)
  • Reminder (enables learners or performers to be reminded to learn and/or take action)
  • Social Augmentation Provider (enables learners to learn from and with each other)
  • Gamification Provider (provides motivational incentives and behavioral prompts to action)
  • Mobile Learning Provider (provides learning and/or performance support through mobile technology)
  • Data Utilizer (enables data collection and data-based interventions)
  • Video Provider (enables video to be utilized in various ways)
  • Learning Organizer (provides organizational structure around learning opportunities)
  • Personalizer (enables content or prompting to be individualized or tailored)
  • Learning-Delivery Augmenter (enables easy delivery of content or prompting)
  • Context-Based Triggerer (enables content or prompting to be delivered depending on context)
  • Cost Saver (enables learning to be delivered at a lower cost)

I’m sure that I’m missing some elearning paradigms. You might have noticed that I’m only listing elearning memes that have a positive connotation. I am not mentioning such things as boring, trivial, poorly-designed. Also, some of the list may not be true, or may not always be true. For example, I’ve recently read research that shows that elearning is not often a cost saver. The bottom line, however, is that the list above represents a good number of the ways in which we tend to think about elearning.

Here’s the thing: The paradigms listed above represent the dominant mental models we use when we think about elearning. As Thomas Kuhn wrote many years ago, paradigms are a double-edge sword. On the one hand, they help us think. On the other hand, they put boundaries on what we think. For us in the learning field, we get both benefits and costs from our elearning paradigms. They help us consider ways that we might design or utilize elearning. On the darker side, they constrict our thinking. One of the reasons we created the eLearningManifesto was to get the field to think beyond some of its weaker paradigms.

Our Thinking on eLearning is Still Evolving 500px

The Subscription-Learning Meme

I am pushing the idea of subscription learning not just because it is aligned with the learning research on the spacing effect, but also because it gives us a completely new way of thinking about elearning. It opens elearning to new possibilities.

Where we often think of elearning content delivery as requiring relatively long events of 30 minutes or more, subscription learning lets us think of much shorter events spaced over time. Where we often think of performance support as being delivered through a single-focus system at a time of known need, subscription learning can prompt a series of thoughts or actions even when learners don’t know they need to know. Where we think that learners have to seek their own learning nuggets, subscription learning can push learning to learners to better support learning as a process.

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.

This week, on March 19th, Wednesday at 10:45 AM, Will Thalheimer (that's me) will be speaking on Subscription Learning at the eLearning Guild's Learning Solutions Conference.

300 people are expected to attend, so come early for your seat!!

Details: Learning Solutions Featured Session F2

Slides for the session

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.

Does Subscription Learning have legs?

It's too early to tell, but the eLearning Guild is buying Google Ads on "subscription learning."

Capture of Guild Advertisement

A subcription-learning program wins Apple's App of the Year contest!! Read more.

I'm telling you. The time for subscription learning is now!!! Indeed, if you attended my keynote address earlier this year on subscription learning, you would have learned all about Duolingo and other subscription-learning applications. Stay tuned for more. For example, I've been invited to give a Featured Session at the eLearning Guild's Learning Solutions conference coming up in March 2014.

My daughter and I use Duolingo to learn Spanish. It is super impressive. It nicely blends many of the most important learning factors (as outlined in the Decisive Dozen)–for example retrieval practice, repetition, spacing, context-alignment, and feedback–into a package that also includes what I might call gentle gamification and social-learning strategies. When my daughter's friend Emma passed me one day, Duolingo notified me. And let me tell you how motivating that was! I was NOT to be OUTDONE by a fifth grader; so I got immediately online and learned some more Spanish…

Anybody interested in elearning should check out Duolingo now…