When I signed on for my first instructional design course— a three-year program leading to a diploma in designing Web-delivered instruction—my motivation to learn was
off the charts. I'd written about, talked about, and sold training for more than 15 years, and I wanted to learn more about the isd process. If nothing else, I figured I would at least learn how to tell the difference between good and bad instruction. A useful thing, as it turned out.
About 30 hopefuls registered for the program, but by the end of the first semester fully one-third had dropped out. Most complained that the program was too theoretical. "I don't want all this stuff on learning styles and task analysis," confided one classmate. "I want to know how to create animations and 3D buttons."
Those of us who remained—and we were an eclectic bunch of part- and full-time teachers, trainers, returning workers, business owners and graduate students—pressed on. We jealously guarded our assignments and never shared answers to in-class tests. (At school we used to call this cheating, now I gather the modern colloquialism is collaboration.)
But by the end of the second semester, the difference in us was plain to see. Barriers down and confidence up, we had transitioned from a collection of individuals to a learning set. By the start of our second year, we qualified as a bona fide social group.
I can't remember exactly when I first noticed the change, but it was remarkable. We began to take a genuine interest in each other's work. We went out of our way to share knowledge. Learning had become organic; the lecturer created the spark, and we fanned the flames. The fast learners coached the slower ones. When someone encountered a "blockage" we'd form an impromptu problem-solving quorum and discuss it. And with our newfound confidence and insights, we even began making suggestions on how the program might be better organized.
Don't get me wrong, this learnfest was no picnic. Being a government-funded program, the equipment would best be described as state-of-the-ark; we took lessons with no obvious structure; and we coped with lecturers who occupied all points on the credibility continuum—from inspirational to comical. We were taught contract law, for example, by a guy who openly admitted to using his tenure to rustle up new business; and project management by a teacher who couldn't get to class on time.
Looking back, the program design was a mess—what irony. The course outlines, sparse as they were, changed frequently; prepared materials were a luxury; and as for learning objectives, well, there weren't any. Even the most recent "seminal" text had a 1970 pub date ... we began the program in 1994.
And yet, despite all the impediments to learning, learn we did. In fact, you couldn't stop us. From this experience I can draw but one conclusion: My drive to learn was of far greater significance than how the material was taught.
Robert Gagne, in his nine "conditions of learning" places motivating the learner in pole position and for very good reason: You cannot assume the learner will want to learn, nor can you leave it to chance or "deal with it" at the beginning of a lesson or during the intro phase of a computer tutorial, now matter how whizbang it might look.
Current wisdom takes a contrary view. The key to keeping 'em interested long enough to complete the lesson is to put time and resources into creating interactive, engaging lessons that match the student's preferred learning style. As instructional designers, this should be among our aims but a bells and whistles-laden tutorial offering alternative forms of presentation will not, on its own, solve the dropout problem. Neither, for that matter, will a workshop overflowing with games, experiential exercises and other "fun" activities.
Where my class was concerned, motivation to learn was the fixed component: Since we were volunteer learners we could shop around until we found the content (the variable) that matched our need. In the workplace, of course, it's usually the other way around: Content often is fixed, and the learner's motivation becomes the variable.
Some people possess a strong desire to learn and need no encouragement. Others want to learn, or at least know they should, but find plausible and valid reasons not to. Still others cannot see the point to learning at all. This is frequently the constituency of a workforce. Hardly surprising then, that not everyone hangs around for the credits to roll.
If you're experiencing a lemming-like drop-off rate and you're tempted to overhaul that workshop or call in the designers to jazz up your Web content, resist. Fight that urge. Instead, walk down the hall and slide $50 into the hands of the first 10 people you meet. Tell them, "Learn Word Mail Merge by Wednesday and there'll be another $50 in it for you." It works for me. I'd rather stare at a freshly-painted wall than sit through a Word tutorial.
If you have more than 10 employees, this profligacy might not be such a good idea. You may need to think a little more strategically. But you catch my drift.
Financially rewarding people based on their commitment to learn isn't as daft as it sounds. It might have greater impact than that program redesign, and it is worth considering if a smart workforce is key to your organization's competitiveness.