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The revolution in learning

There’s a picture in our office at Circus Street. It’s a classroom from the 1800’s. 35 kids, sat in rows, with a teacher at the front writing on a blackboard. Fast forward 200 years and the blackboard has been replaced by a white board. In truth, while the world has moved on, we haven’t really changed the way we teach people in several hundred years.

In corporate training there are usually around 12 adults being taught per session. As adults you would expect them to be as well behaved as the sepia students in the 19th century photo. Rather than being spellbound by a sensational trainer there are laptops on desks for those “must be done today” reports or emails, phones ring for calls that have to be taken, body language experts would spot the post lunch slump and you’d have the class clown in there as well.

Bums on seats, doesn’t lead to brains engaged. Telling people when to learn has always been problematic with responses ranging from staring out of windows through to “this is really getting in the way of me doing my job”

In the US the flipped classroom, first used by Eric Mazur of Harvard University in the 90’s, has proven that getting people together to tell them stuff in the form of lecturing and then sending them away to solve problems in the form of homework, is far less effective than letting them learn stuff before they get together using online video and then bringing them together to solve problems. Students taught in this way consistently out perform their peers and its becoming the norm in the American education system. Sal Khan is having amazing success with the Khan academy. His simple video based learning is now being used by millions of US school children to great success. It’s backed by the Gates foundation and he’s a favourite of many a talk show. He delivers all of the content himself and his enigmatic style is definitely the magic behind the method.

This has led to the MOOC’s. The massive open online courses like Udacity, Coursera and EdX. These are free courses that take a learner on a journey towards accreditation. The learner buys accreditation and this is meant to deliver massive returns. The challenge though is that learners aren’t completing the courses.

There are many reasons for this including the way that people learn online being different from how they learn in groups but what is interesting is that the quality of the content consistently comes to the fore. Where the content is of high value both in terms of relevance and in the quality of production, engagement levels improve. Where there is genuine interactivity and assessment that feeds back improvement, this also has an effect. My own experience in the education sector was that learning management systems remained switched off due to complaints by teachers that they were too complicated to use and when they got to some content it was usually “pretty crap”.

The MOOC’s have played an important role in delivering education on a grand scale, to millions of learners in fact but in the corporate world, the sort of engagement levels they see, which are on average 8%, just don’t cut it. As a business it’s not acceptable to have people dropping out of training. Even if the course is free, the investment in time is not. You need to ensure that if you spend time and money on training it needs to do the job. The job isn’t getting people to training. The job is getting people to learn.

At Circus Street we know that engaging the learner is key to our success and as a result our completion rates far outstrip the MOOC’s or any other form of online learning our clients have used before. We only teach digital so it’s a hot topic anyway but the focus on engaging the learner is the most important part of the process. Be warned though. If you decide that a flipped classroom approach is right for your organisation you can’t simply dump it on your staff and hope that they pick it up. It takes careful planning, preparation and communication as well as monitoring and intervention. It’s certainly a lot cheaper than classroom training and takes up a lot less management time to make sure that it’s effective, but it’s no magic bullet. You still have to take responsibility for landing it and making it work.

Without doubt learning is changing. Despite the rear guard action of the red brick universities here in the UK, education is going online. In the same way that media and marketing companies have embraced digital to prosper, companies that adopt the flipped classroom approach will enjoy greater returns from training investment. Find out more at Jonny Townsend, Operations Director - Circus Street