Intensity in Learning?

Intensity in Learning??
By: Elliott Masie

When I consider a potential learning activity, I always think about intensity.

How intense will this activity be for learners? Consider several dimensions:

  • Intensity of Interaction: Will the learner watch/read the content and then have to interact, either with structured questions or in a classroom engagement?
  • Intensity of Content Struggle: How difficult is the content for the learner? Is this a mild upgrade of current skills or will the learner have to work intensely to master the new material and mental framework?
  • Intensity of Evaluation/Assessment: How tough is the assessment for this program? What is the percentage of learners that pass or fail the first time through?
  • Intensity of Transfer: How “ready” will learners be to actually implement the outcomes as soon as they return to the work setting?
  • Intensity “Brand” of Learning: When learners complete this program, will they have a sense that they “survived/mastered” this activity the way some refer to a difficult statistical course or a “High Ropes Outward Bound” leadership activity? Or, will they see it as just another module or video segment they experienced?

Clearly, as we design or select learning programs, these and other dimensions of intensity are chosen; yet, the learning field rarely has an open, honest conversation about intensity and our behavioral and instructional assumptions. Most course descriptions list content and a bit about methodology, but it is difficult for a learner or manager to sense the intensity without connecting with others that have witnessed the program.

Currently, as organizations are rapidly expanding the agility, mobility and compression of learning experiences or “objects”, the norm seems to be less intensity. Here are a few examples:

  • 41% of organizations The MASIE Center polled about webinars are planning to significantly increase the amount of webinar content delivered in the workplace, but most learners are minimally engaged in many webinars, often double or triple tasking while participating just a bit.
  • Video content clips, aka “YouTube User Knowledge”, are growing in popularity. These are perceived as great, short and targeted performance support elements. Perhaps they are intense in their brevity, but usually have no interaction or other intensity in the design.
  • Leadership programs are often seen as some of the most intense offerings because of elements like 360 degree feedback, coaching and group exercises; yet, many programs have increased the use of external academic lecturers who often share overloaded PowerPoint presentations of their business stories with low learner engagement.
  • eLearning for compliance and regulatory purposes continues to grow rapidly and, by design, aims for a pass rate of 97% - 100%. This lowers the learning intensity and is often experienced by learners as something to “check the compliance box” rather than shift their performance.
  • Massive, Open, Online Courses, Open Content and knowledge segments like Khan Academy are rising in popularity, moving more of the design and interactivity structuring to the learner. These innovations are enticing and will continue to evolve, but many have high levels of participation, moderate levels of completion and often much lower levels of intensity.

To be honest, I am a fan of intensity in the learning process, at key phases. The teachers and courses I remember most that have truly shifted my skills and competencies were quite intense. As a teacher in face-to-face classrooms or online sessions, I design around intensity and look for ways to create learning activities, stories and moments that are more intense.

In the learning field, we do not have a language or taxonomy for describing or comparing intensity. Are orientations that are more intense for new hires more or less successful? When considering three different courses or eLearning programs about the same content, what language or ratings do we use to make selections? And, how much freedom – from total to none – do we offer our learners in selecting the intensity of a required program?

As we add social and collaborative learning to our learning mix, how intense is the assumption of learner-to-learner interaction and codependence? Learning intensity is a powerful arena for our field to focus on, with comparative research on outcomes and transfer, along with a common set of terms to describe the intensity of programs. Clearly, our learners will have a wide continuum of intensity in their learning activities. As learning leaders, let’s add a design level and intentionality to the dimensions of intensity.

Elliott Masie is the Chair of The MASIE Center’s Learning CONSORTUM and the host of Learning 2012.

(This article also appeared in  the CLO Magazine)

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