Reinforced self-paced learning:
sticky training for new tech skills

This image shows a computer screen. At the center is a male African-American instructor with a big smile. In tiles around him are images of the course participants. Reinforced self-paced learning often includes brief instructor-led teaching or mentoring sessions.
Reinforced self-paced learning: sticky training for new tech skills

When employees need new tech skills to support a significant digital transformation, does your organization gravitate toward self-paced learning options? Videos. Interactive online content. Reading. Assessments and so forth. If yes, how are you ensuring that all these resources create a cohesive learning experience? What steps are you taking to confirm that every employee can translate what they learned through self-study into their day-to-day work?

Organizations pursuing digital transformations are realizing they can’t afford to take chances. They need to make sure every employee can hit the ground running on mission-critical endeavors. Toward this end, many companies are augmenting their self-paced learning with more comprehensive opportunities for application and feedback.

Why do organizations opt for self-paced learning?

Self-paced resources are tremendously valuable for accommodating the needs of a diverse, multi-location workforce across time zones. People have different learning preferences and they learn at different speeds. Having self-paced options available 24/7 allows employees to learn new tech skills on their own schedule, from anywhere in the world.

Additionally, some organizations pursue self-paced programs in response to resource constraints. For example, managers may not be able to give employees dedicated time for instructor-led training, due to project deadlines. Or they may perceive the cost of instructor-led training to be prohibitive.

However, when supporting large-scale transformations, you can increase the return on a self-paced investment exponentially by adding instructor or mentor reinforcement.

Ways to connect asynchronous learning to current projects

While some employees find it easy to apply new tech skills to their projects at work, others don’t. Or worse, they think they’re ready, but they have knowledge gaps that lead to on-the-job mistakes. Simulations, exercises, labs and other hands-on opportunities, coupled with personalized guidance from an expert, can help reinforce self-paced learning. If someone has a knowledge gap or misunderstands a concept, the expert can spot that and provide support.

Personalized guidance can take many forms: A mentor within the organization. A peer with more experience. Virtual office hours with a subject matter expert. Job shadowing. Sometimes, the best option is an outside instructor, since this maximizes the amount of time internal SMEs can devote to their own project work.

The best support includes these five elements:
  1. A safe setting to ask questions. Employees can ask any question without fear of ridicule from peers or others.
  2. Ways to practice that weave multiple concepts together. Learners need to be able to try out their new skills in ways that mirror the specific technical work they’ll be doing on the job.
  3. Opportunities to fail without adverse consequences. Sometimes, the best learning comes from making mistakes and examining what went wrong.
  4. Individualized feedback. Employees want specific input on what they are doing well and what needs adjustment. This nuanced feedback helps them hone their new tech skills, equipping them to perform better at work.
  5. A chance to collaborate with peers. People learn by working together, exchanging knowledge and batting around ideas. One employee may be an expert in an area where another is a beginner, and vice versa. They can learn from each other by pairing up on projects and taking part in discussion forums.

Building new tech skills: the right type and amount of support differs by learning objective

Employers vary their support depending on the goals of the asynchronous learning program and the type of learner. For example, a new-to-the-workforce employee needs more guidance. So does a person who is making a career change from a non-technical field into software development.

Generally, the more time-sensitive and mission-critical a project is, the more support an organization should provide to reinforce self-paced learning. Engineering managers and CIOs want error-free performance, not people who are learning by trial and error on vital projects.

Instructor support in action

Converting instructor-led programs into self-paced sessions with support can take many forms. The two sample designs below rely primarily on self-paced learning, while including a touchpoint with participants at least once per week. The touchpoint can be a webinar, office hours or group projects that allow participants to collaborate with each other.

Employees work together on exercises that mimic their organization’s specific projects, receiving valuable guidance from an expert. A capstone project demonstrates readiness to transition from practice to on-the-job application. In both models below, participants have access to expert practitioners, yet are learning at their own pace, on their own schedule.

Design 1: Learn to Code Reskilling Program

How do you convert an immersive, bootcamp experience into a virtual, self-paced program? Carefully select online content and spread the topics over a longer period of time, augmented with weekly instructor check-ins. In this model, participants work consistently over time to acquire, practice and apply their new knowledge.

This image shows a training design that assumes 6 to 8 hours of self-paced work per week. To reinforce learning new tech skills, this design includes weekly instructor support through mini-workshops, virtual office hours and projects.
Design 2: Traditional Upskilling Course

Even in a shorter course, participants still benefit from instructor interaction. This second example converts a three-day course into a four-week learning program. Online content is segmented into consumable learning chunks. Instructor sessions offer opportunities to tie multiple concepts together and allow participants to ask questions and get clarification. A project allows for hands-on application to ensure the learning sticks.

This illustration shows a training design for a shorter course. To reinforce new tech skills, self-paced learning is bookended with mentoring sessions and brief instructor-led workshops.

These two sample designs are variations on a theme. Both reinforce self-paced skill acquisition by infusing instructor support at key points in the learning process. The main difference is program length.

Reinforcement helps learning stick

Programs such as the two examples above enable companies to maintain the majority of their training in a self-paced format. But they leverage instructors to pull the learning together and provide feedback to students, improving the overall course effectiveness. This human touch helps boost mastery, and most importantly, it ensures employees can perform the work you need them to accomplish. In the end, instructor or mentor support protects your training and technical investments, improving ROI for both.

If you’re interested in hearing how other organizations are weaving in support for asynchronous learning, email info@developintelligence.com.

About the author

Jessica Schneider, VP, and her team at DevelopIntelligence design Reinforced Self-Paced Learning programs for Fortune 500 companies. 

Photo credit: istock.com/fizkes

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