We’re going to open with a bold and brash statement—eLearning has really dumbed down the training world.

We know that’s blasphemy from two people who have both been immersed in the eLearning world for over 20 years.

Here’s what we’ve seen: with the onset of technology tools and the ability to create “courses” with just the flick of a button, people have created masses of poor-quality content that get labeled as training.

Many of these are PowerPoint decks with text bullets and a few animated graphics. Some of them have multiple-choice quiz questions. Most of them bore people to tears. And yet this is what some project sponsors have come to expect when they request “training” for their teams. Employees have low expectations of eLearning as they’ve come to equate “training” with “death by narrated PowerPoint.” Learning, for most people is completely different from training—it happens on the job and not during “training.”

As a profession, it’s time we all gather together and walk through the streets in indignation. It’s time for us to do a better job.

The single-eLearning-course approach has helped solidify an event-based learning mindset. Event-based learning generally assumes that you hit me once with your content and then I’ve got it and am ready to go forth into the world.

The reality is people need to go out and try things a few times, mess up, get feedback (if possible), and go back to the books even before they get back on the horse and try again. Building this type of structure and scaffolding into a training program moves you out of an event mindset and more into an apprenticeship model—where you’re taking people on a journey through your content—from novice to mastery.

When it’s well-executed, eLearning can be a great investment. But far too often, it lives in a vacuum. It’s an event that happens in an echo chamber with no real connection to the outside world. There’s no follow up, no tie in to real jobs or problems that need to be solved today.

Another downside to the proliferation of eLearning is that it’s allowed busy managers to escape responsibility for their people’s performance. Their mindset could very well be I don’t have to train because L&D has provided training for them.

So how can we reinsert the manager into the learning and development equation? This is one of the problems we’re challenging ourselves and our clients with. Using technology to support the process, can we create a more efficient and structured way to get a front-line leader or manager back into the role of mentor or coach? We think so. We’re calling this approach “managing the journey.”

So what does it look like?

We’re currently working with a fast food company. They came to us with a challenge: every year they train more than 1,000 people on mostly procedural content. We could have created 20 hours of eLearning for them. Sounds natural, right? But our concern was that this approach wasn’t going to help them improve results. Their ultimate end goal is about improving performance and getting people to proficiency—and ultimately mastery—as quickly as possible.

Take a look at some of their challenges:

  • They have a tremendous variety of tasks, which are mostly relatively simple.
  • Training happens on the job, where you get interrupted all the time.
  • There’s a lot of physical “feel” to the work—you can’t just watch a video and get it. Practice is critical to mastery.
  • People have a tremendous ability to learn on the job if they can only get beyond a certain level of proficiency.

At their company, people are in it for the long haul. They have employees who start as fry cooks and work their way up, staying with the company for years and sometimes landing in senior management along the way. They have a clearly defined set of capabilities determined for each operational level in the organization. You graduate when you can show that you can do all those capabilities on the job. The model is not novel; essentially you see it, you do it, and you are evaluated. But their investment in authentic evaluation is much higher than we see in most organizations. You don’t just take a multiple-choice test. Your actual performance on the job is “observed” using a clear rubric. This is a low stakes evaluation and you get formative feedback. Then you are “assessed” using another rubric. This is high stakes. You need to pass to earn the ability to do the job. Again, you get formative feedback. Then you move onto the next capability and the next skill level. The level of operational discipline they have implemented is off the charts.

This approach has been part of their training DNA for years and a big part of their success as a company. They nurture team members and provide mentored tasks and structured journeys through the content in order to foster that environment and build the right culture. They came to us looking for more structure and tracking. They knew they wanted to develop some online content and capabilities to create a more efficient system, but they also didn’t want to break what was already working so well. As we started our initial design conversations with them to put this model into an online format, we knew that the mentored face-to-face feedback component needed to stay front and center.

We’ve collaborated with them to design a training program where technology doesn’t replace people, it backs people up and enhances the work and support they’re already doing. We’re creating a beautiful open source LMS that looks nothing like an LMS—it’s branded to their organization and feels like a part of the work. Much of the training still happens on the store floor, where people are shoulder to shoulder with experienced mentors and managers.

Taking a flipped classroom model, we provide short eLearning nuggets to explain why something matters and provide up close demonstrations. The trainers on the store floor then get to keep their focus, not on lectures, but on mentored practice and coaching. Checklists and observation forms launched from the LMS provide rubrics—and tracking—for managers to identify where team members need more support.

What we are actually doing is supporting their original training approach rather than trying to replace it. This means creating a blended journey in which demonstrated performance is the clearly understood end point. Through easy-to-read reports, results are transparent across the system. Individual stores can easily see how individual employees are doing. Badges and ratings systems, both in the system and in the real world in the form of pins, allow team members to proudly show their capabilities. eLearning modules are inserted in the process where they make sense—it’s not a splatter approach, but a thoughtful process where we identified those moments where eLearning could help a training manager be more efficient.

This is definitely not event-based learning. There’s a view to the long-term end goal for an individual team member—performance improvement and proficiency.

So why don’t we do this for more cases where we require demonstrated performance? Let’s go beyond designing an event-based eLearning intervention and instead help our businesses take charge of their critical learning journeys.

Note from the editor

Catherine Lombardozzi’s live online course from the Guild Academy, Learning Ecosystems: Designing Environments for Learning, will help you plan learning environments and journeys to demonstrated performance. Open the link above to see the course description and registration information.