Category Archives: Active learning

Wellness: Return on Investment

I was challenged recently about whether the food and breaks at our internal learning conferences are conducive to learning from an energy management standpoint.

That challenge seems reasonable. No matter whether a course is well- or poorly-designed, the physical state and alertness of learners should impact learning. So, I’m reading about it.

One incidental thing that was interesting to read: apparently wellness programs at work return on average $5.50 on every dollar. That’s impressive, and appears to be from a pretty good meta-analysis*. The building my firm is in just installed a free gym downstairs, and I get a lot of use out of it; I hope I earn my firm back that kind of return for whatever they are paying.

*Frustratingly, the meta-analysis is behind a huge paywall. I could only find a brief, so it is hard to know what all the assumptions and limitations are.

The Role of Technology in Improving K-12 Education

Like most people, I live in a school district that features an administration and staff that really care about students and about building their own skills as educators. They care about the community and about engaging with parents.

One initiative in the works in our district is an investment in technology to encourage educators to better use active problem-solving-based instruction.

At least, that’s what the initiative sounds like. In reality, I think it’s much better than that. I believe the effort is focused on supporting educators’ use of active problem-solving-based instruction and providing the education and tools, including technology tools, that can help.

The last two paragraphs sounds like they describe the same thing–more technology and more problem-solving-based instruction, but one leads with technology, the other with pedagogy. The distinction is critical because leading with technology makes adoption of technology the end goal.

Technology is not a goal in and of itself; it is an enabler for higher level goals. The higher level goals are the ones that need to be embraced. If they can be achieved without an investment in technology, great. If an investment in technology will advance the goal meaningfully, let’s do it. The critical piece is to stay focused on the end goals and not let achievement of the enabling goals alone be the criteria for success.

Compression: Live Training, Elearning, and Time on Task

I learned a term recently for something I’ve thought about in the past but didn’t know was a thing: compression. Compression means it will take learners longer to complete a live class than an equivalent elearning. In other words, if a four hour class is offered in both a live classroom version and a self-paced elearning version, participants will complete the self-paced version quicker with the same level of achievement.

Apparently–and I didn’t know this either–the rule of thumb for compression is 50%. A four hour live class can reasonably be turned into a two hour self-study. The persuasive utility of this, of course, is huge. What leader wouldn’t want their people in training only half as much time?

There are some enormous caveats. One is that time spent practicing cannot be compressed, so the more focused the training is on practicing skills, the less compression is possible. It also appears that the elearning has to be text-based in order to allow significant compression. People read faster than they talk. The elearning we produce at my firm are audio-based, so one wouldn’t expect very much compression.

That brings up the question, should our elearning be audio-based? We use audio for a number of reasons. The most important is that from a cognition perspective, using the audio channel for narration and the visual channel for complementary information (charts, organizational bullet points, tables, etc.) leads to better learning.

The question then morphs to: Is the increase in the quality of the learning worth the investment? Experienced professionals can take in new information very efficiently. If training is focused on them, it’s possible that the increase in learning may be immaterial compared to a time savings of 50%.

It would be interesting to offer the same elearning two ways (audio or text), randomize which one people get, and measure time on task, satisfaction, and exam performance across the two conditions.

Deliberate Practice

I’ve already noted that I think Peak is an important book. I like the distinction that Anders Ericsson makes between practice and deliberate practice.

Practice is what I do when I go running. I’m mostly interested in burning calories quickly, so if I’m a sweaty winded mess when I get home, that’s success.

Turning that into deliberate practice would require me to add measurable goals. I’d have to start timing myself and try to get faster. Eventually I’d plateau, so I’d need someone who knows more than me to give me feedback and advice. I’d need to target specific skills and isolate those elements in practice.

I’d have to stop listening to There’s No Such Thing as a Fish and other podcasts while I run and instead focus on my movement. Is every step as efficient as possible? How is my form? What happens if I try this instead?

Deliberate practice is more difficult to design for ill-defined problem solving skills like managing a team, but still should be the inspiration for how we improve.

The Future: Brain Monitoring

Michael Allen brings up the possibility (p. 146) that brain monitoring during instruction may not be that far away. There’s an interesting thought. What if we could monitor the brain directly during instruction to tell true engagement levels?

This may sound invasive or creepy, but what about as a personal learning tool? Metacognition is not easy; we don’t always realize when we aren’t learning very efficiently, so what if there was a machine that could measure our current level of learning? It could signal us that it’s time to take a break, or shut off distractions, or try a different learning approach.

From there, it’s not a long leap to elearning that can respond to real time monitoring of learning efficiency to make instructional choices for us, or gently suggest it’s time to take a break.

In terms of classrooms, it’s not hard to imagine a classroom setting where learners would want instructors to have (probably aggregated, anonymized) access to real time data about engagement if it could lead to a better classroom experience. Maybe! It’s interesting to think about (acknowledging that it is also interesting to think about the myriad privacy concerns, slippery slope possibilities, dangers of blurring the line between thought and algorithms, etc.).

Presentation or Interaction

Michael Allen notes (p. 128 of Designing Successful e-Learning):

While much of today’s e-learning fails because it is simply a glorified, electronic presentation of information rather than the learning experience people need, there are times when just making information available is enough.

Allen’s book is about e-learning, but I’d argue one could say the same thing about instructor-led training (offering lectures when guided practice is what’s needed). Allen follows up with an interesting table describing when to offer a presentation versus when to offer interactivity.

As I’ve noted elsewhere, I think this is an important topic because adding interactivity is a non-trivial investment.

Allen asserts that presentation is the most appropriate design when the content is readily understood by the targeted learners, when errors are harmless, when the desired change is minor, and when mentorship is really available.

Allen’s view is sensible. I was initially surprised he didn’t also call out learner motivation as a factor. Learners who have high intrinsic motivation for a topic are more likely to thrive despite passive instruction (in just the same way that learners with low intrinsic motivation can defeat even the best designed instruction). However, upon further reflection, I’m not sure it is fair to force more motivated learners to suffer through inappropriately passive instruction just because they will.

One related thought I have from time to time is that I fear SME developers (SMEs who develop courses in their area of expertise because they are expected to, not because instructional design is a passion) may actively seek out justification for creating presentations instead of interactive instruction. That is to say, given a decision table to help them decide whether to do a presentation or build interactivity, SMEs will try to find a way into the first category. It’s less work for them, more comfortable. This impulse is compounded by the reality that SMEs tend to overestimate what their learners already know. To that extent, I think it’s smart that Allen uses pretty stark language in his table, reserving presentations for low-importance situations.


In recent years, grit has been upheld as the key factor in educational success.

I found this recent David Brooks commentary interesting and insightful.

Grit has been upheld as the most important attribute for success in our educational system. Grit is what helps you endure when you lack passion for a task. The fact that grit is so important to academic success, then, says a lot about our ability, or lack of ability, to spark passion and curiosity in schools the way we currently design them.