How to design your learning ecosystem: what to consider

What combination of learning methods work best for your training?

Designing and implementing a professional learning initiative is a complex process. To be successful, organizers must consider a multitude of factors, from learning content to adult psychology to pertinent technologies.

We won’t try to outline the perfect training program for you. That would be impossible. Implementing training involves a series of decisions that only you are in the position to make. Your audience, your content, your resources, and your culture will determine your perfect training program.

What we can do is provide you with information that will help you to successfully forge your own path toward program success. We will show you the following:

  • What to consider when choosing the best strategy for your learning goals
  • What’s out there
  • What your options are

It will still be up to you to do the heavy lifting. However, understanding these three factors will undoubtedly lighten the load.


The nature of adult learning

When devising your learning strategy, bear in mind that adults are self-directed learners. They draw from a deep well of personal experiences and insights. In addition, they appreciate flexibility and real-world applications.

This important to know because our understanding of adult learning preferences will influence the development of an educational platform that caters to those preferences. Having an assortment of learning options or educational tools at hand will allow you to tailor your training to the individual needs and preferences of your learners.

The prospect of using educational tools raises a variety of questions:

  • What new options are available and what educational doors do they open?
  • What role does technology play?
  • How do you choose the right options for a particular circumstance?
  • When should you blend varying techniques to capture the strengths of a training style that satisfies specific learner preferences?

The answers to these questions do not solely rely on learner preferences. More tangible factors such as budget, geographical proximity, content, and delivery also play a part. In the following section, we’ve broken down the learning ecosystem into a series of broad categories that represent different educational strategies. We’ll explore what those categories are, educational techniques within each category, and how they relate to one another.


    Choosing components for you learning ecosystem

    You can think of the learning ecosystem as a spectrum, ranging from established formal learning practices to more informal learning, all centered around the learners themselves.

    In the interest of clarity, let’s establish a couple of definitions.

    “Formal learning” refers to an educational environment in which materials, courses, and curriculum are organized and delivered in a deliberately structured way, typically through a designated educator (teacher, instructor, instructional designer, etc.). The term “informal learning” indicates a more organic process in which learning stems from impromptu events such as discussions, observations, or trial and error.

    However, it’s important to keep the previously mentioned idea of a spectrum in mind. Learning in the real world is not black and white, or strictly formal or informal. Different learning strategies will produce learning environments with varying degrees of formality. The best training programs often draw on multiple learning approaches to best meet the needs of their particular circumstances and learners.


    Traditional learning

    Traditional learning is the most formal method of learning. This is the use of traditional educational tools – such as documents, videos, and CDs – to teach a predetermined curriculum. The learning content and courses are generally static and somewhat rigid, but the delivery is straightforward, efficient, and easily measurable. In addition, traditional learning is typically not very reliant on advanced technologies. Therefore, it may be useful for delivering content to a group with significant technological barriers.


    Self-paced (asynchronous) learning

    Since asynchronous learning is self-directed, it aligns with adult learning preferences. It’s a less formal style of learning, but it still involves a structured presentation of material. However, learners can work on course material whenever they choose (within a certain timeframe). Since this type of learning usually occurs online, it removes geographical constraints as well as time constraints.

    Asynchronous learning can be delivered through multimedia, web-based courses, simulations, and even mobile applications and modules designed for on-the-go learning. We highlight a few of these approaches in more detail below:

    • Web-based courses – Also known as eLearning, web-based courses are best for reaching large audiences. This approach allows for the tracking of learners’ progress and is most effective when there are clear and measurable learning goals. The learning experience can be personalized by matching different multimedia and interactive games learners’ needs in addition to enabling learners to set their own schedules for working on materials.
    • Simulation – This approach brings a realistic context to learning and is often used to better engage learners and help them practice for real-life events. Simulations allow the educator to facilitate training that would be impossible or too dangerous to implement in the real world.
    • Mobile application – Making learning available via mobile devices can help adult learners balance their learning needs with other important responsibilities such as jobs and families. Providing them with the flexibility to learn in short digestible lessons on-the-go, is often the best way to reach this audience.

    While self-paced learning provides the freedom to engage with content in new ways, this freedom often comes with technological challenges, including device compatibility and connectivity. You should consider the demographics of your audience and the accessibility of the technology you plan to use.

    The most significant shortcoming of self-paced learning is the absence of human connections. This needs to be considered not only from a motivational perspective but also from a content standpoint.


    Live (synchronous) training

    Live or synchronous training is the best strategy for accommodating both formal and informal learning. Synchronous training is an event that occurs at a specific point in time with the expectation that learners will be available to participate. While it does present logistical concerns around timing and location, it presents opportunities for learners to develop relationships with each other (which can be a powerful tool for motivation and morale).

    Live training is often thought of as location-bound lectures, discussions, presentations, mentorships as well as hands-on or on-the-job (OJT) training. However, advances in technology enable companies to employ these same practices in a digital environment through virtual classrooms, live webinars, and video/telephone conferencing.

    Let’s examine these educational approaches:

    • Virtual classroom – The virtual classroom presents an opportunity to blend the benefits of in-person and technology-driven education. While learning is restricted to a specific time, learners and instructors are not required to be in a particular geographical location and the number of learners does not need to be limited to accommodate a physical space. In addition, learners can associate with each other through webinars or video conferencing, which strengthening their relationships and their emotional connection to the course content.
    • Physical classroom – The most common form of education is teaching in the physical classroom. When learners and educators are in the same room, it facilitates more organic dialogue. Plus, physical interaction and proximity encourage deeper engagement from participants. Some individuals simply prefer the familiarity of classroom learning.
    • Mentoring – Mentoring is on the informal side of the learning spectrum. Learning through personal growth and relationship building is the basis of this approach. Mentoring is an intimate form of learning that requires a closer level of attention from both mentor and mentee. This makes it a useful technique for teaching sensitive topics or reinforcing soft skills.
    • Hands-on/OJT – Typically implemented to teach job processes or specific tasks, OJT allows learners to get hands-on practice and emphasizes experiential learning. Typically taught by experts in the field, this style tends to appeal to adult learners who value practical learning with tangible benefits for career growth and investment

    As discussed, live (synchronous) learning emphasizes the relationship between learning and human connection. Live training, however, also introduces logistical limitations since it tethers education to a fixed time. This may alienate some participants and erect a barrier to their education.

    As previously stated, it is beneficial to consider the context of your training program. What is it that you are teaching? Who is your audience, where are they located, and what are their preferences? Considering these factors will help you understand when live training is beneficial or harmful to your learning objectives.


    Social learning

    Social learning is on the informal side of the learning ecosystem spectrum. This strategy is centered on the idea of facilitating organic learning through social interaction. Consequently, it is more about providing opportunities for learners to communicate than it is about dictating specific learning content. For example, social learning occurs in communities of practice, discussion groups, and user-generated content where learners can discuss, share information, and build relationships in a non-formal setting.

    Social learning participants are encouraged to collaborate with their peers to develop solutions to challenges by sharing ideas, strategies, and innovations. These social processes can, and often do, lead to incidental learning. It is important to note that the learning outcome, in many cases, is intangible and unregulated. Since it is much harder to evaluate, social learning is best geared towards high-level thinking and broader topics of discussion.


    Web browsing

    Finally, at the far end of the informal learning side of the spectrum, is learning via the web. It is a method that has become ubiquitous in today’s digital age where “googling” is an actual verb. Most of us learn this way daily, simply by surfing the web and tapping into the vast amount of information available on YouTube and Wikipedia as well as a seemingly infinite array of tutorials, guides, opinions, and advice. Much of this information is unsubstantiated. Nonetheless, it represents a powerful tool for informal eLearning and information sharing.


    Choosing the environment for your strategies

    The strategies listed here provide you with an assortment of educational tools to draw on, depending on your audience and program needs. However, choosing targeted approaches is just one part of the larger picture. You must also think about how these approaches fit together when applied in a learning program. That requires considering delivery, administration, progress tracking, and reporting. To this end, we can refer to the final layer of the ecosystem, the learning management system (LMS).

    An LMS is designed to provide an environment in which learners may interact with your content. As you customize your training program with different educational strategies, you will need to consider what content should exist within the LMS and what will be delivered outside of it. It is now possible to use an LMS to execute both formal and informal learning strategies, which can include anything from sharing simple documents to delivering complex simulations and mobile modules. You can even use an LMS to host live learning events such as virtual classrooms and mentoring programs or to create social learning communities and discussion groups. 

    Admittedly, not all these systems are created equal. There exists a range of products with varying capabilities and prices. The LMS that is right for you will depend on the strategies and learning approaches you intend to implement. However, the possibilities available can allow you to create a custom learning environment that is tailored to your organizational needs.