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Clocking it: Express highway learning


As consumers and employees we demand everything in an 'express' format - eating, information, communication. We have become adept at turning our activities into bite-size chunks, so can we do the same for learning - and does it matter? Annie Hayes investigates.

Bite-size learning

There are those that advocate the benefits of bite-size learning as a means of controlling time and squeezing learning into manageable chunks. It's about delivering a solution in a digestible format – a sandwich rather than a seven course meal.

Colin Thompson, visiting university professor and chairman of Oxford College of Management Studies says some intellectual weight is added to the concept when we relate it to psychologist George Miller's famous research that seemed to suggest that people could only remember the 'magic number, seven plus or minus two'.

"The cavalier way this research has been interpreted over the years has suggested that people can generally remember between five and nine items of information. More recent research, however, has pointed out that Miller was discussing very small items of information that differed only on one dimension – for example, different pitches of sound. There have been suggestions that in fact the magic number for most people might be as low as three," says Thompson.

And as Thompson says, if we understand this, it would seem that offering a small number of easily remembered pieces of information is something that training providers should bear in mind when constructing their training packages.

Bite-size elearning

Elearning is very much part of the bite-size learning solution and it's a trend that's growing. According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development's (CIPD) annual learning survey, 29% of organisations questioned believed that over the course of the next three years they would deliver between a quarter to half of their training by a process of elearning. This is a significant rise; a reason for the expected growth in its popularity could be due to the fact that it is time efficient.

Photo of Jake Reynolds"The downside of elearning is the assumption that you learn by reading on a screen."

Jake Reynolds, Cambridge Programme for Industry

Jake Reynolds, director of elearning at the Cambridge Programme for Industry says the downside, however, is the assumption that you learn by reading on a screen. It's a solution he says that lends itself to 'training' and not 'learning'.

And in a further CIPD survey respondents showed a leaning towards 'blended learning', with 80% admitting that elearning worked best when combined with traditional methods of training. Showing that there may be some question marks over elearning as a stand-alone solution.

Further research corroborates this. Balance Learning and Training Magazine's study found that blended learning is more popular in the States, where it is seen as the most effective and efficient form of training - used by a whopping 77% of organisations. In the UK, it is still used by 55% of organisations and ranks as the fourth most effective training approach – behind instructor-led training and 'on the job' training and coaching.

According to the study, one of the main reasons behind the predicted growth in blended learning is that 67% of organisations say they are looking to reduce participants' time away from the workplace by up to 50%. Yet in the UK it seems as though traditional training methods, and the ones that take time, are still winning out.

According to Stuart Lowry, training development director at Capita Learning & Development, elearning is best supplemented with face to face training. Returning to the survey that the CIPD carried out, 95 per cent of organisations surveyed agreed that elearning is most effective when combined with other forms of learning. So how can a flexible and time efficient approach be incorporated into face to face training? one method of achieving face-to-face training in conjunction with elearning is by bringing it 'in-house'. What this means, says Lowry, is that training is specifically tailored for the audience, and the efforts of travel and time away from the office are absorbed by the trainer - as opposed to the trainee, who can then return back to work as quickly as possible.

Yet even if we can reduce the time to learn - whether that is through elearning or bringing trainers in-house - there are those that still believe we must take account of different learning styles. And this means that we can't always control the time it takes to learn - this surely is in the domain of the learner.

The relevance of learning styles

Photo of Sheridan Webb"I am finding that in my role as a training designer, more and more people are looking to deliver two-to-four-hour sessions, or even move to a self-directed/work-based approach."

Sheridan Webb, member

According to different learning styles what trainers must focus on is the different ways people learn. David Kolb's learning styles have held much weight over the years. His four styles include:

Diverging – people that prefer to work in groups, to listen with an open mind and to receive personal feedback.

Assimilating – these learners prefer reading, lectures, exploring analytical models and having time to think things through.

Converging – people that like to experiment with new ideas, to simulate and to work with practical applications.

Accommodating– they set targets and actively work in the field, trying different ways to achieve an objective.

One popular adaptation of Kolb's work is the Honey and Mumford learning styles questionnaire. The main learning styles identified in this self-assessment are activists, who are described as have-a-go learners; reflectors, who are tell-me learners; theorists, who are convince-me learners; and pragmatists, who are show-me learners. member, Sheridan Webb finds learning styles particularly relevant: "Using accelerated learning principles help people to learn quickly, as does using different learning methods that appeal to all of the senses. Of course, such session will appeal to activists and pragmatists in particular.

"I am finding that in my role as a training designer, more and more people are looking to deliver two-to-four-hour sessions, or even move to a self-directed/work-based approach." It's an approach that Webb believes can work well as long as the learning is targeted.

Photo of Martyn Sloman"Although there are a variety of models that trainers find useful, there is little hard, scientific knowledge on learning styles."

Martyn Sloman, CIPD

Yet Reynolds is still wary. He says that it is difficult to adapt learning to suit 30 learners grouped together and suggests a total re-think: "The challenge for HRD professionals is to move from a strategy based upon delivery of training, to one based upon support for learning. Training is characterised as an instructor-led, content-based intervention, leading to desired changes in behaviour, and learning as a self-directed, work-based process, leading to increased adaptive capacity."

Martyn Sloman, training, learning and development adviser at the CIPD is equally reticent: "Although there are a variety of models that trainers find useful, there is little hard, scientific knowledge on learning styles.” And according to Sloman what it comes down to is the 'craftability' of the trainer - in other words, their aptitude to tailor.

"Training is a craft skill. If we had some hard information about personal learning styles wouldn't we have come up with some software to adapt it to that? There's not the slightest evidence of that."

The future?

As Sloman says, the 'unpalatable truth is that there is no magic silver bullet'. Reynolds and Sloman are quite adamant about that. Reynolds says a lot of the confusion surrounds our interchange of the words training and learning: "As a commodity you can break up training into parts but you can't commoditise learning like that."

Elearning is certainly a training package that Reynolds might agree can be time-bound neatly. It's also encompassing elements of teaching that were previously thought of as out of its domain, such as behavioural skills.

Yet learning is a little more slippery and Reynolds says we shouldn't get so hung up about time: "If it's two weeks or five minutes it doesn't matter." Sloman also says there has been a disproportionate amount of time expended to compressing learning into a bite-sized format. Yet this knowledge fails to suppress the desire to continue along the speed learning path. As further pressure is put upon businesses to produce results, and quickly, that demand looks set to continue.

Annie Hayes, MCIPD, is a former editor of our sister site She now works part time as contributing editor for both and using her wealth of knowledge to write features for both websites.


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