Make Learning Small, Medium and Large

By Elliott Masie - 6/27/12
 – Featured in the July 2012 issue of Chief Learning Officer Magazine 


Learning professionals should take a cue from coffee houses and cafés to devise fresh, agile language to describe the size and depth of each content module.

In the world of coffee houses and cafés, size matters. I can order my morning cup of java in about 8 sizes, ranging from a single shot to a super large, foamed-topped jug. Buyers get to select the size of their cups based on a whole range of factors, like what’s available, their daily rituals or how their stomachs handle the first tastes of the day.  And, some will order a medium sized drink knowing full well that they will follow up with another one after 20 minutes of sipping.

But in the world of learning, most of our “cups” have been one size. Learning professionals deal with a set of administrative realities, which have led to:

  • One-Hour Webinars: Regardless of the content richness, 60 minutes fits the schedule neatly.
  • Two- to Five-Day Residential Courses: If learners have to travel to a training destination, might as well add another day to leverage the transit costs and time.
  • eLearning Module Length: Each organization has a few “default” module lengths for digital learning assets. These are often 15 minutes for an eLearning segment, 5-13 minutes for a user created video and 60 minutes for a regulatory offering.
  • Books of a Certain Length: Length traditions even extend to the world of books where publishers want 130 to 280 pages of content to justify the production and retail price, even when a “mini” book of 35 pages would deliver higher impact.

We see these length defaults in large and small organizations. They are reinforced by our instructional designers, managers and even the regulatory agencies that drive much of our compliance related learning. These default rituals have come to be expected by learners as well.

Imagine if learners received a notice about a “9 Minute Webinar at 3:00 pm today”.  They would probably have a few immediate reactions:

  • “Can’t be that important if we are only spending 9 minutes.”
  • “Why would they bother to gather us for only 9 minutes?”
  • “Oh no. They might be selling the company and this will be a short shocker.”

But these same learners are deeply engaged in selecting their food sizes. They know how to pick a size that fits their real needs in that moment or to plan on taking the remainders home as left-overs for another round of consumption. Why not provide the same options for learning?

What if an organization rolled out a new process and offered learners a sizing menu?

  • Give Me a Venti Module: This would be the grand and deep tour of the content.  It would be of longer length and would have detailed procedures, a rich framework overview and multiple levels of context to reflect how it will be used in the workplace.  
  • Can I Have a Grande Lesson? This would be a smaller version of the Venti and would rely more on either what the learner already knows or on other learning assets. The Grande might be done in about half the time of the Venti.
  • A Shot of Content, Please: The learner gets a strong and short shot of information, procedure and reference. Think of this as a “Just in Time” performance support element. The shot might be used as a stand-alone asset for a new learner or as a review component for an experienced worker.
  • Foam That Module with User Content: Sometimes, the worker knows the information but really needs to understand it from the perspective others using it in actual work situations. We might take a small shot of content and “foam” it with video content from many different workers in diverse work settings.

I am not suggesting that we use the exact language of a coffee house or restaurant, but as a field of learning professionals, we might start to devise some fresh and agile language to describe the size and depth of each content module. The language of learning choices should start in K-12 education, continue to higher education and be leveraged in multiple workplaces.

The sizing of content should start with the sponsors of education content: managers and regulators. It should reflect organizationally assigned content (e.g. take a Grande as a new hire and add a shot every six months to reflect changes) but will also deeply enable the learner to be more actively and effectively engaged in the learning process. I’ll drink to that!

Elliott Masie, is the Chair of the MASIE Center’s Learning CONSORTIUM and the host of Learning 2012 – www.masie.com