Using Freedom of Choice to Unleash  the Power of Learning

It’s no secret that different people learn differently. Delivering content using a multimodal, blended learning approach is one way to both accommodate these differences and take advantage of them. You can optimize blended learning even further by putting some choices directly into the hands of the learners themselves. Research shows that by giving individuals control over certain aspects of their own training process, they can learn faster, gain more skills and retain new information longer than through a more standardized, one-path-fits-all approach.

What Options are Available?

Instructional designers today have a wide array of formats and methodologies to choose from, even just narrowing them down to e-learning content. Self-paced video lessons, live instructor-led virtual classes, online projects, simulations, group interaction, gamification and even emerging technologies like virtual reality (VR) and chatbots driven by artificial intelligence (AI) are just some of the tools available. All these options can make it daunting to design the right mix of methods to match your organization’s and learners’ specific needs. 

Regardless of your technology constraints or the modalities at your disposal, there are six key areas where it’s beneficial for learners to have a choice:

  1. How they learn
  2. When they learn
  3. What they learn
  4. Where they learn
  5. What projects they produce
  6. How they are tested

What’s Right and Wrong With Classrooms?

Long the mainstay of employee training, classroom (or meeting room) sessions do offer some benefits, including direct contact with instructors and an element of socialization, surrounded by other learners. However, one of the greatest obstacles to learning imposed by onsite classroom instruction is the limited time available. Since people learn at different paces, the inflexibility of such delivery puts a large swath of learners at a disadvantage. 

Beyond simple training videos, online blended learning is capable of bridging these gaps. As Minjuan Wang and Marco Zappatore observe, “Web-based instruction and multi-user virtual environments break the time-limited barrier innate to typical lectures and explore, through innovative technologies, a concept as old as humankind: socialization and the feeling of belonging to a community.”

That’s why when choosing or designing an employee learning and development program, it’s important to provide options that provide the interactive instructional and social contact as well as the flexibility of course material that can be accessed whenever and for however long each learner requires.

Why Give Learners Choices?

People learn best when they have some control over their learning. Choice reduces learner apathy, relieves some of the stress of the learning process and motivates people to engage with the material.

Online courses provide many options that let learners choose the time, place, learning path and/or pace of their training. It’s not just a matter of the instruction process using digital tools. As noted by Clifford Maxwell, an education researcher at the Clayton Christensen Institute, “Some element of student control is critical; otherwise, blended learning is no different from a teacher beaming online curriculum to a classroom of students through an electronic whiteboard.” 

By enabling learners to pause, replay, or skip ahead, online training ensures the content matches each learner’s own pace, attention span, and pre-existing knowledge level. Allowing learners to choose the time of day of their lesson, when to take breaks and even what device they use respects people’s preferences and convenience. The flexibility of online self-paced courses is a necessity for most adult learners who must squeeze training into their busy career and family schedules.

It’s also important for learners to be able to control their learning path, including what online elements they access and in what order. “They should have a direct say in which skills they learn and have the opportunity to set their own goals,” says e-learning author Christopher Pappas. “They most likely already know their performance gaps and areas for improvement. They are also aware of past experiences and preexisting knowledge that they can build on.”

Giving learners the freedom to guide their own training activities and more options for interactivity also improves engagement and motivation—two factors that greatly improve learning outcomes. “Studies show that a higher level of engagement during training activities results in greater retention and recall of knowledge on the part of the learner,” says business and e-learning author Lance Noland. “Interactivity strategies such as the use of multimedia elements, real-world scenarios and even basic achievement levels and badges can help to transform the most mundane training modules into engaging, thought-provoking and memorable learning experiences.”

Some educators warn that putting choice in the hands of learners is problematic. “The bulk of what students must learn in a course can’t be their choice. In most fields, they don’t know what they need to learn,” notes Maryellen Weimer, Ph.D. However, she goes on to explain that choosing what skills to learn is itself a skill that can be learned with practice. Choosing one’s own learning path has the potential to motivate. “When students make a decision, they’re more likely to own it.”

Giving learners the power to guide their own process also relieves instructors and designers from some the burden of creating a differentiated learning experience for their infinitely diverse participants. In Learning to Choose, Choosing to Learn, Mike Anderson says, “Through choice, you can help students self-differentiate their learning so work is more appropriately challenging.”

How Can You Incorporate Choices?

Providing learning options can be as easy as including a few interactive components. For example, try giving learners a choice of applied projects (or even parts within those projects), a choice of exam questions or a choice about what optional content to read or view. 

As Education Week writers Carl Draeger and Daniel Wilson suggest, “One way to allow student choice in how they engage in their own learning is through the use of learning menus. Think of content in terms of appetizers, entrées, and desserts. You can opt to provide as many ‘courses’ for your students as you see fit.” 

While the core learning path and content of the subject matter could be guided by your organization’s goals, offering “electives” can provide the motivational power of choice and also enable team members to diversify and delve into specific content that not everyone has the interest in or need to learn. For example, Simplilearn’s integrated program in Big Data and Data Science includes a number of electives to ensure both a broad knowledge of the entire ecosystem as well as complementary skills in these fields. 

Of course, an e-learning program that uses a blended learning methodology with options for self-paced videos and flexible access to live virtual instructors offers numerous opportunities for learners to control their process. Although seemingly complex, giving learners the power to skip forward and back in their content, access quizzes and engage in any related social forums at will can remain easy to oversee—as long as it’s delivered through an integrated learning management system (LMS) that managers and other training stakeholders can monitor.

The Choice is Yours

All training requires at least some structure and guidance. Very few learners have the self-discipline and motivation to choose and focus on gaining their necessary skills. However, by including optional elements within the path that directed by your organizational goals, your employees will enjoy the control they need to feel involved in the learning experience.

Training Industry’s Amy DuVernet, Ph.D., CPTM warns that if employees don’t like the way training is delivered, the organization run the risk of them attempting to learn through other (perhaps less-credible) means such as YouTube. “We must empower their access to training content by making it available through multiple methods and choosing the one with which they are most likely to engage.”

About the Author

Dan BiewenerDan Biewener

With 15 years of experience teaching and developing instructor-led training and video-based e-learning curricula, Dan is currently Director of Training Research at Simplilearn where he conducts and compiles research on the latest content and training best practices. Backed by his degree in Speech Communication and numerous certifications in Digital Marketing and aviation technologies, Dan brings insights from both sides of the training process.

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