Why Corporate Learning Strategies Need to Include Active Learning

Today’s companies aren’t asking if it makes sense to implement e-learning and training programs, but how. Employees’ time is limited, resources are constrained, and navigating the learning landscape can be difficult. How do you maximize your employees’ attention, get them up to speed on critical skills as quickly as possible, and, most importantly, ensure that learning is effective?

The problem is complex and the stakes are higher than ever. Businesses face enormous risk and competition in today’s digital economy and need to ensure that critical functions are in the hands of people with the proven ability to do. To meet this demand, companies must provide learning to their employees that is deep and transformational.

True workforce transformation relies on learning that translates into doing. While there are many approaches and options for corporate learning, companies often start by identifying those critical skills and skills gaps that are central to their business — and success — and develop these competencies through courses and programs designed using active learning theory.

Active learning is a critical attribute for programs that must result in employees successfully applying new skills in their day-to-day work. And it’s an effective filter for narrowing down corporate e-learning choices. Continue reading to learn more about what active learning theory is, why it’s important, and what indicators you can use to spot courses and programs that incorporate active learning strategies.

What is Active Learning?

Active learning is learning that sticks. It’s a well-known approach to designing a learning experience that pairs course material with application, feedback, and reflection. Active learning results in employees developing skills in a way that’s retainable, transferable, and ultimately transformational for the organization.

Passive learning, on the other hand, has a place in introducing employees to new concepts and information on subjects related, but not critical to, an employee’s role or the organization's core business model. In other words, passive learning exposes the workforce to new ideas and topics, but should not be the central learning method supporting your company’s skills transformation strategy.

“Active learning is a crucial component in developing skills and being able to do things rather than just know them or know about them,” said Ben Piscopo, edX senior learning designer. “There are huge chasms between those levels or abilities.”

Watch our webinar The Science of "Doing": Corporate Learning that Sticks to hear expert Dr. Nina Huntemann discuss active learning strategies that enable real capability building. Plus, learn how Mercer, in partnership with edX, is experimenting with non-traditional types of just-in-time and active learning offerings to build lifelong learning habits and new skills.

The difference between active and passive learning is the way a learner participates in the learning process: does it require engagement from the learner or is it simply watching or listening to the content? Note: While “active” and “passive” refer to how a person learns, related terms, “deep learning” and “surface learning,” refer to the depth of the skill. Passive learning tactics result in a surface-level understanding of a topic, while active learning results in a much deeper competency.

“If you look at Bloom's taxonomy, the widely used taxonomy for learning objectives and degree of proficiency, you start at the “remember” and “understand” levels. That's something that a lot of passive learning can prepare you for. But when you get into the analytical and creative parts, that's where you need deeper proficiency or deeper skills to be able to do those things versus just know about them,” Piscopo said.

Active Learning vs. Passive Learning at a Glimpse

Active Learning: Learning activities that promote analysis, synthesis, evaluation, and application, resulting in knowledge one is able to easily recall, adapt, apply, and build upon.

  • Transferable knowledge across situations and contexts
  • Provides the ability to perform tasks independently and without guidance
  • Encodes new capabilities across the organization
  • Develops subject matter expertise
  • Helps learners retain and build upon skill sets at every level of the company

Passive Learning: Quickly consuming information in order to provide cursory and brief exposure to a topic through short-term memory or to perform an activity by following a guided process.

  • Develops a surface understanding of a topic (“the basics”)
  • Enables learners to repeat a specific task that does not require memory recall (e.g., one can repeatedly look up the necessary steps)

How Does Active Learning Work? The Learning Loop

The core of active learning is The Learning Loop: one learns new knowledge, applies it to a situation, receives feedback, reflects upon what was learned, and repeats the process.

The Learning Loop Workflow

Learning loops aren’t tied to a specific length of time — loops can be short, but must include the full cycle to ensure that knowledge and skill sticks.

The acceleration of active learning comes through its modularity. Sitting through an hours-long video lecture and applying knowledge well after exposure to new information is an inefficient use of time and results in forgetting most of what was heard or seen.

Instead, when content is broken up into distinct and shorter learning loops, an employee may skip a learning section for which they already have the skills and knowledge in and jump to the sections that are new to them. In each learning loop, the employee learns, applies, receives feedback, and reflects — all of which encodes new information and skills. The employee optimizes their time, learning faster, better, and only what they need.

Benefits of Active Learning: Competence Over Confidence

Our modern learning landscape is vast. You can watch, read, and listen to content about virtually any topic from a book, your phone, or a computer in your home, office, or almost anywhere. But, as we discussed so far, not all learning is created equal; it’s easy to “know,” but knowing is different from doing.

Today’s skills gaps are often mission critical. Consider the example of cybersecurity. The 2017 Global Information Security Workforce Study from the ISC Center projects by 2022 the U.S. will have 265,000 more cybersecurity jobs than qualified workers. It’s a critical area of workforce shortage and a prime opportunity for investing in the upskilling and reskilling of your current employees. It’s also a high-stakes job. Poor training and limited skills can lead to detrimental impacts on an organization’s health and reputation.

What’s the best way to upskill and reskill employees, then — especially in critical skills like cybersecurity? We know video is a highly preferred method of consuming information, but in order to transfer knowledge into skills, the learner must also perform the new skill. Passively watching, listening, or reading won’t cut it, and in fact runs the risk of overconfidence. A University of Chicago study found that watching a skill being performed fosters the illusion of skills acquisition. Study participants who viewed instructional videos, merely watching others perform skills without actually practicing themselves, believed they could perform the skill too. However, the participants’ actual abilities, despite their confidence, did not improve.

How to Identify Active Learning

You know what active learning is and why it’s important, but how do you actually spot learning environments and activities that incorporate active learning and translate into truly transformative change? Where do you look and what do you look for?

Look Across the Learning Loop

Active learning is a teaching method that uses techniques such as writing reflections, discussion, problem solving — active learning activities promote analysis, synthesis, evaluation, and application that guide students towards achieving learning objectives. To spot indicators, look at how courses and programs are structured, whether through auditing or a syllabus, or talk to the learning platform or provider to learn more about their approach:

Where to Look

Audit a course: In courses with open enrollment, enroll as an audit learner. You’ll be able to see many of these indicators of active learning listed below, likely as "prompts," throughout the course. On edX, an audit learner would most likely see these prompts noted in a text block, a video, or in the title of a discussion.

Look at the syllabus: The syllabus of a course should show some active learning elements, e.g., expectations to complete homework submissions or project work. Deliverables, throughout or at the end of the course, tend to signal that there is more application of the skills students are learning.

Talk to the company: When in doubt, go straight to the source. Talk with the people behind learning platforms to learn more about their methodology and mission.

What to Look for

To spot active learning techniques at work, turn back to The Learning Loop. Learning activities at each stage of the loop need to be substantive. Look at common methods employed across the loop to spot learning platforms and courses that employ active learning methods:

Learn - read, watch, hear

  • Learning can come through text, audio, or video, but must be closely followed by prompts that ask learners to retrieve or recall information previously conveyed, perhaps in a previous module or week.

“There's this litmus test of a learner doing something, making a decision, selecting an answer out of options, where at a minimum it’s a basic active learning opportunity because it's getting you to retrieve and recall information,” Piscopo said.

Apply - try, practice, learn in context

  • Learners are asked to demonstrate a process or use it in a new situation, in a platform feature, such as a lab, vs. copying content into a field or form. More valuable types of problems ask learners to compare or contrast concepts or predict what will happen.

Feedback - get input, evaluate learning progress

  • In a well-designed course, learners receive regular feedback from knowledge checks, quizzes, group discussions, and peer learning opportunities.

Reflect - discuss, self-reflect, journal

  • Learners are prompted and have a forum to reflect, debate, connect ideas, predict results, etc., vs. open ended discussion with no connection to the course concepts. Note: In some cases, a course that relies heavily on open-ended discussions is intentionally designed for more advanced learners.

“A text block can be employed as a discussion prompt, but it can be used actively or passively. For example, I'll go into a course I'm being asked to evaluate and look for regular knowledge checks interwoven in videos, readings, or other types of content. If it's just video, video, video with a discussion block dropped below each one, that's still very passive because that discussion has no prompt. It'll be a ghost town. That suggests to me that the content of course is more passive without including things like a prompt, question, activity, project or even self reflection; a way to connect this story to something in your life,” Piscopo said.

Learn more about Piscopo's role as a learning designer at edX.

Overall, look at learning activities and platforms and identify if learners are being asked to:

  • Write, discuss, or think meaningfully about the topic
  • Reflect or make sense of something they learned
  • Connect ideas to something in their personal or professional life
  • Predict what will or might happen
  • Retrieve/recall previously learned facts and concepts
  • Compare or contrast concepts that are similar
  • Build or create something new based on what they’ve learned

With Active Learning, Everyone Wins

Ultimately, active learning creates knowledge that employees are able to access, adapt and apply repeatedly, and build upon. Active learning is designed to develop skills that are able to be effectively used.

For working professionals, it may sound like a tall order to invest in active learning-driven, transformational skills development. But there are burgeoning online learning programs designed to be flexible for the full-time worker, disruptively priced to be accessible to companies and employees alike, and result in credentials from leading universities. For example, Georgia Tech’s online master’s degree in cybersecurity with edX is the only interdisciplinary degree in cybersecurity from a U.S. News & World Report Top 10-ranked public university that you can earn online, on your own schedule, for a tuition less than $10,000.

The corporate learning space is still relatively new, but employees are willing to put in the work to learn new skills. It’s your job to give them the best path to do it. Developing active learning around functions both central to the health of your organization and your business is an important step in setting up your corporate training and learning programs for success and a great place to start when looking for third-party partners.

The edX platform was developed with active learning theory at our core. Our programs are credentialed by and developed in partnership with leading universities and endorsed by trusted corporate partners.

Learn more about how edX can help develop active learning pathways in your organization.

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