Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Importance of Relevance

Lots of kids find school boring and a waste of time. If you ask them why, odds are they just don't see how it applies to them - they don't see the relevance.

This feeling carries over to adults, particularly when it comes to training in the workplace. One of the basic principles of Andragogy (the art and science of helping adults learn), developed by Malcolm Knowles is as follows:

"Adults are most interested in learning subjects that have immediate relevance to their job or personal life."

If you think about it, it makes perfect sense. We adults have a lot to do. Any subject that can help improve how we do our job or our personal life is important. Anything beyond that may be nice to know, but if it's information that won't help us in the here and now, it's something that can be put off until later.

This issue of relevance becomes even more important in an e-learning environment. Why? Consider this:

1. E-learning environments come with lots of distractions.

Most e-learning is done by the user at their workplace computer. That means they have their work phone, their co-workers, and their boss nearby that can be very distracting. They also have e-mail that will alert them when something new is arrived, and will take away their attention from whatever course they may be involved in. If the material is not relevant, it's very easy to tune out or turn off e-learning when the phone rings, or an e-mail comes in, or a co-worker pops in to talk about the weekend. With relevant material, particularly material that's essential or important to getting work done, it becomes more of a priority, and distractions become easier to resist.

2. E-learning feels informal.

When sitting by yourself in front of your computer in your office or a cubicle, it's a very different experience than sitting in a classroom with other people and an instructor in front of you. In a classroom, you almost feel a sense of obligation that you are there to learn something. You grew up in this type of learning environment. Even if you didn't care for the subject or the teacher, not paying attention could have consequences (assuming the teacher was any good). When it's just you at your desk with nobody else looking, if the content is irrelevant, it's easy to just click through it as fast as possible and get it over with. If you find the material relevant to your job, you're more likely to pay attention to it, even without being in a "formal" learning environment.

3. E-learning does not have the benefit of an external motivator (extrinsic motivation).

What do I mean by an external motivator? Very simply, an instructor. In a classroom, a good instructor can read a class and can tell if the learners are engaged or not. If they aren't, the instructor can take action to get them engaged through exercises, pop quizzes, or a discussion. He or she can motivate them to learn, or at least pay attention. Even if the material is irrelevant to the learner, having a human being interacting with them can keep them (even reluctantly) engaged and motivated. In e-learning, particularly asynchronous e-learning, there is no external motivator keeping you engaged. Yes, you can try to make e-learning that buzzes and beeps and has movies and interesting effects, but if all that revolves around irrelevant material, people will still tune out eventually - unless you provide other external motivators such as punishment or reward. But without these motivators or an instructor, it's easy to ignore irrelevant e-learning. Relevant e-learning gets people motivated from within (intrinsic motivation). They WANT to learn how to make their jobs and/or lives easier. Make sure they are getting relevant material that internally motivates them.

So before you put together a course - any course, figure out if the material being taught is relevant or not. Will it improve how they do their jobs? Will it give them important information they didn't already have? Will it offer them realistic solutions to realistic problems they may encounter?

We are working more hours with less help than ever before in the workplace. There are lots of distractions coming at us from every angle, and we can only do so much. If your material is important and relevant, you will find your learners are more likely to ignore those distractions and get engaged in that relevant material. If it isn't, you may be spending a lot of time and money creating a course that nobody will have any interest in.

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