This is a question I hear often, and only recently has research become available providing us with an answer. But before we get there, take a moment to ask yourself two questions: “How much learning really occurs in instructor-led training?” and “How much learning really occurs in elearning courses?” The reason I call your attention to these questions is that for many trainers in many organizations, the honest answer is “I don’t know.”

But you should know.

Whether learners are actually learning is important information for companies that are finding themselves increasingly required to provide more training, more frequently. Too often, however, we focus so squarely on training delivery that we fail to measure, or even notice, if anyone on the receiving end of that delivery is even awake, much less encoding any information.

The problem of forgetting

One of the main challenges for workplace education, what Art Kohn calls “the dirty secret of corporate training” is that learners forget, and they forget fast. Kohn cites research showing that learners forget 50% within an hour, 70% within 24 hours, and as much as 90% within one week.

Perhaps the single biggest cause of this extreme forgetting is the fact that traditional training doesn’t gibe particularly well with how people learn. Bottom Line Performance President Sharon Boller puts it well when she writes: “A significant portion of what organizations label as training fits [a common but ineffective model]: it’s delivered as a single ‘glop,’ and large volumes of it are delivered up at once with nothing repeated. The intent in these instances is efficiency, but the result is the opposite because people don’t remember well in these scenarios.”

Will Thalheimer argues that the percentage of forgetting depends on various factors, including the type of material, the learners’ prior knowledge, and the power of the learning methods used, among others. The idea that the post-training flow of information out of the brain can be stanched is encouraging, and it’s up to us as training professionals to use scenarios that give learners at least a fighting chance at retention.

The MOOC advantage

MOOCs have many advantages over both ILT and elearning. The one I want to single out here is that, unlike traditional training formats, MOOCs take place over time. The content is not delivered in a “single glop.” Instead, learners participate in the courses over several days or weeks. Because MOOCs are video based, learners can go back and review information, and MOOCs that incorporate real-world problem-solving and meaningful assessments give students the opportunity to use what they’ve learned. Both of these practices can lead to higher levels of retention. In addition, since the content and resource materials remain available even after the course is over, learners can go back and refresh their memory as needed.

Learning in MOOCs

So, how well does it work? Does learning occur in MOOCs? It has been a challenge to measure learning in these new digital environments. There are several reasons for this:

  • For courses offered through major MOOC providers like Coursera, the completion rates are generally low. It took some time for the education community to accept the idea that for free online courses, completion rates aren’t particularly meaningful metrics.
  • MOOC students come from different backgrounds (e.g., some are experts in the field; others are beginners) and have different intentions when taking the courses (some want a certificate of completion to put on their resume; others just want to learn something interesting).
  • MOOC students engage in the courses in different ways. For example, some students are very active on discussion boards and complete all assignments, while others may limit their participation to doing the readings.

Recently, though, researchers at MIT, Tsinghua University in China, and Harvard, analyzed data from more than 1,000 students in an edX physics course. Their results were both encouraging, and (to some) quite surprising. Here is what they found:

  • Students in the course all showed relatively the same amount of learning gain, regardless of their prior knowledge about the course material. This finding is especially meaningful because the range of prior knowledge was huge—some students hadn’t even graduated from high school, while others were physics teachers themselves. The various student groups didn’t all achieve the same level of success, but they all demonstrated roughly equal amounts of improvement from pretest to posttest. In fact, the students who scored lowest on the pretest showed the most improvement over the course.
  • Students in the free MOOC also learned just as much as MIT freshman who were required to take the course. In addition to the MOOC content, the freshmen had access to four hours of weekly instruction, as well as tutors, instructors, and other students. Even without these advantages, the MOOC students showed learning gains comparable to those of the MIT students.

What these results show is that not only do MOOC students learn, but they learn at high levels. In addition, MOOCs appear able to cater well to student groups that are highly diverse in terms of prior knowledge.

The forgetting problem doesn’t need to be corporate training’s dirty little secret anymore. Using MOOCs—which provide the repetition and experiential learning that is missing from most training—can create the conditions necessary for meaningful learning to take place.

Read more about how to measure success in a training MOOC.

Copyright 2014 Bryant Nielson. All Rights Reserved.

Bryant Nielson – Managing Director of CapitalWave Inc.– Being a big believer in Technology Enabled Learning, Bryant seeks to create awareness, motivate adoption and engage organizations and people in the changing business of education. Bryant is a entrepreneur, trainer, and strategic training adviser for many organizations. Bryant’s business career has been based on his results-oriented style of empowering the individual.

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Bryant Nielson is heavily involved in the Corporate Training and Leadership and Talent space. He currently is the Managing Director for CapitalWave Inc and the training division, Financial Training Solutions. He brings a diverse corporate experience of organizational development, learning and talent development, and corporate training, that also includes personal coaching of top sales individuals and companies of all sizes. For the prior 4 years, Bryant was the Managing Director and Leadership and Talent Manager for Lengthen Your Stride! LLC. In this position, Nielson was the developer of all of the courses for MortgageMae University (MMU), the Realtor Development Center (RDC), and of Lengthen Your Stride! (LYS). In that position, he developed material, refined over many years of use and active training, and condensed the coursework and training to be high impact, natural learning, and comprehensive. Bryant has over 27 years of Senior Management experience encompasses running his own Training and mortgage firm, in New York City. He strongly believes that the corporate training is not to be static but should 'engage and inspire' students to greater productivity and performance.

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