At Saffron we recognise that for learning to be engaging, it has to involve a certain degree of challenge. However, learners are often at different stages in their development, so you can’t challenge everyone with the same content. It’s the exact same problem faced by classrooms across the world: how do you structure your learning so that each student is working on the specific content that will suit their competence? In a typical class you’ve got Gregory in one corner who’s struggling to perform simple division and David in the other corner solving complex algebraic equations. How can you engage them both with the same lesson? Do you teach the hard content and risk leaving Gregory behind, or the easier content and bore David to tears? The same thing can often be found in a business context, with staff having different competencies in IT, compliance, process or literacy.
To get around this, you might split people up into separate groups depending on their competence, as is often practised in the classroom. The problem with this, as many of you have probably experienced, is that with such a balancing act even minor differences in competency can cause learners to fall behind or become bored. So, how can you structure your digital ‘classroom’ (your learning platform) to challenge each of your learners when they’re all so different? Here are just a few of our simple innovations that can help:
1. Boost your performance with a recommendation engine
You’re watching a video on YouTube, searching for a product on Amazon, looking for some information on Google, browsing Facebook and Twitter, or reading an article on any given news website: what happens next? As you cast your eye to the end of the article, move your cursor to the side of the screen or simply finish watching a video, you’re pointed to a similar piece of content. Usually, this recommendation is unsettlingly prescient. Something that you’re actually interested in engaging with, causing you to click through and carry on your experience with that website. Maybe you’ve been reading about the flooding in your area and a meteorological cookie has been generously left for your next visit to Amazon: where you are greeted with all kinds of weather-defying apparatus, from umbrellas to wellington boots. ‘How thoughtful…’ you mumble to yourself as you hastily throw down hard cash to purchase those waterproof galoshes.
We’re accustomed to being recommended content, and the curation of this recommended content is becoming smarter and more adaptive every day. For learning platforms, that thoughtful recommendation could be another elearning course or supplementary materials that can continue a learner’s experience, guiding them down a personalised path. This recommendation can and should be more than just sequential courses (you’ve done part 1/3, now do part 2/3). If your LMS has social features involving liking or sharing content for example, you’ve got an even more detailed data profile from which an algorithm can draw recommendations. Liked an article about agile project management? Here’s a course that can help you sharpen your skills. Completed a course on basic Microsoft excel skills? Here’s an article explaining some more advanced features.
Not only does this help to tailor a learner’s experience to their specific needs and likes, but it also helps to prompt knowledge sharing and actively promotes a culture of learning in your organisation. How many times have you discovered some online content from a recommendation that you’ve then gone onto share with your friends? A recommendation system puts learners into that inquisitive frame of mind, tapping into the virality of modern websites.
2. You can’t programme your learners, so let them play with lists
Learning playlists are another method of providing curated content for learners with a simple innovation. These could be created by management and used as a means of structuring content into a recommended sequence, or more interestingly they can be user-generated and shared among colleagues. For instance, a learner might recognise a gap in a course, identify the necessity for more supplementary reading, or even recognise that a specific part of a learning programme is unnecessary. With the ability to create learning playlists they could set up a bespoke path through the course that takes learners to other useful (but tangential) content, and avoids content they don’t need, as a means of creating a better overall learning experience. This makes the content of your learning platform more fluid and personalisable.
Learners can share playlists with friends, mentors can create playlists for their mentees. The point is that a playlist is inherently social. It encourages creativity and collaboration by allowing learners to generate their own content. Imagine how much more engaged you will feel, completing a playlist that has been created especially for you by a friend sitting a few desks down, rather than a catch-all learning programme designed by someone you’ve never met.
These ‘programmes’ force learners down a path. Instead, a playlist guides a learner through a bespoke experience and encourages them to think about how this experience can be improved. Rather than categories and a draconian overarching structure, the focus is on ‘what’s next’ and ‘what I can add or remove’. Importantly, your learner is presented with content in a way that they’re accustomed to, from using services such as YouTube, LastFM or Spotify. At Saffron, we believe that learning playlists are a very successful way to prompt the sharing of knowledge and encourage users to generate content and participate in the development of themselves and others.
3. Have your content adapt to your learner, not the other way around
Adaptive content, using artificially intelligent software, is becoming more common in the classroom, as a means of avoiding the problem of varied competence I mentioned at the beginning of this article. The software ‘ALEKS’ has been designed to test students and analyse their competence in different areas, simultaneously structuring a learning programme for them which will address their weaknesses. Once they have completed a diagnostic, the students begin learning a specific section of the content (depending on their answers) and the next step of their programme is dynamically generated from their performance in this section. This next step could be further questions or supplementary materials to address a weakness or flaw in their understanding.
Although this software is designed primarily for teaching ‘hard’ subjects in a school setting, the principle of adaptive content is universal and very appealing. In video games it has been used to establish the user’s skill level at the start of the game, throwing them into content that adjusts depending on their ability. In elearning courses it enables the learner to skip content they might not need to complete, perhaps by identifying their job role or completing a diagnostic.
Adaptive content is an extremely useful tool for avoiding the problem of varied competence in a learning platform. You could have a diagnostic that establishes a learner’s competence, generating a custom playlist that will address their weaknesses, dynamically suggesting modifications to this playlist from their performance as they progress through it. Alternatively, the learner could skip the diagnostic and start on a medium-level piece of content, and depending on their performance they could then be taken up or down into different tiers of content. What’s important is establishing the type of adaptive content that will best suit both your learners and the content of your learning programme.
Adaptive content may seem like a pipe-dream to some of you, but as technology improves the capacity for data that can feed into adaptive content increases. We’ve already seen innovations like cloud-based learning platforms that use the principles of adaptive content. Bandwidth and internet speeds are ever expanding. As more data is gathered and more effective uses of that data are found, we can more effectively reach every single one of our learners and safeguard them from boredom.
If you’d like to find out more methods for better reaching your learners and improving their performance, join Saffron Interactive at the Learning Technologies show on 3-4 February at Kensington Olympia, London, stand E13. Toby Harris, platform product manager, and Alastair Maclean, head of design and development will be delivering a key seminar for exhibition attendees: “Exploding the myth of ‘one best way’ and using playlists to deliver personalised learning that improves performance”.
You can also get in touch to book a meeting now!