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The Way I See It … Bite-Size Learning


Careful you don't choke on a huge task - Keith Dixon of learning solutions provider Academee explains the benefits of managing training in bite-size chunks, and why taking learning online is nutritious and delicious.Whiteboard

“Nothing is particularly hard if you divide it into small jobs.” -- Henry Ford

What is bite-size learning?

Bite-size learning is a phrase that has come to prominence in the last five years or so. In particular, promoters of the Learning at Work Day have adopted the phrase to refer to training courses that can be run for employees in the workplace without impinging too greatly on their output.

An obvious implication of the phrase ‘bite-size’ is that whatever it is, it’s a small chunk that can be easily digested – in the case of learning, quickly learned and easily remembered. With employers eager to gain productivity from their workforce, the prospect of sending them on two or three day courses may not be as seductive as the idea of training them while they’re sitting at their own desks – or in the training room down the corridor.

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!

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 e-learning

E-learning is a tool that lends itself well to the bite-size format, for the following reasons:

  • 1. Learning in front of a screen is different to learning from a trainer, or even from a book. We tend to ‘scan’ a computer screen in a different way, and in most of today’s offices we’re doing it in the company of many other – distracting – people. Hence whatever we’re seeing or hearing on our screens must grab the interest, make its point, and move on. You can’t relax comfortably into an armchair with a 17-inch screen!
  • 2. It can be delivered to the desktop and therefore doesn’t require extensive logistical preparation. For a training course to run, it is typical that a room must be booked, a trainer engaged, materials prepared, timetables consulted and so forth. To get maximum benefit from this use of resources, the course will probably run for at least half a day, and usually more. By contrast, e-learning can be accessed by learners when they need it and according to their own schedule – fifteen minutes here, half an hour there.
  • 3. With half a day or more to play with, a trainer will try to construct a course that ‘hangs together’ and make sense to the delegates. This is a skill but can be tiring for all involved, as various topics are strung together or elaborated upon. However, individual learning outcomes can often be achieved quickly with a single input, and while it is true that human interaction can add another dimension, the knowledge itself can be transferred efficiently through e-learning.

Bite-size blended learning

In 2004 two major reports, a UK based survey from the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), and a transatlantic study from Balance Learning and Training Magazine, co-sponsored by the American Society for Training and Development, predicted that the use of e-learning would double by 2006.

Most respondents to the CIPD survey, however, favoured a blended learning approach, with 80% saying that e-learning worked best when combined with traditional methods of training. Academee has experienced growth in demand for its e-learning products over the past two years, but has seen a greater demand for blended learning programmes. Blended learning is extremely flexible, it can be tailored to the needs of individuals as well as organisations, offering unique learning experiences in a series of intense shorter sessions.

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 77% of organisations. In the UK, it is used by 55% of organisations and ranks as the fourth most effective training approach – behind instructor-led training, ‘on the job’ training and coaching and behind ‘on the job’ training and coaching.

Of the 55% of UK organisations, the study found blended learning is used for:

  • 67% management and leadership training

  • 52% interpersonal skills training

  • 41% customer service training

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 participant time away from the workplace by up to 50%. Less than two thirds of organisations (64%) said that the cost per participant was a key factor when developing a training solution.

The Future?

The prevalence of broadband, the ubiquity of cheap computing, the expectations of media savvy employees, the increasing cost of travel, the focus on daily productivity – all of these elements suggest that learning on demand, in a bite-size format, will play a greatly increased part in working life.

At the dawn of e-learning, the focus was usually on skills training, and computer skills at that: how to use various applications such as spreadsheets or database systems, for example. These days the net of e-learning is being cast further and further afield so that behavioural skills are now a central part of the remit.

In brief, it would seem that the future of learning is bite-sized. Or should that be byte-sized?

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