Go Beyond Strategy with Learning Experience

Do you know how we build a new and meaningful learning experience for our EPFL EMBA participants? The class that started this end of August is a new start for the program from several perspectives. One of those perspectives is the willingness to deliver a learning environment that enhanced participants’ potential to develop their hard and soft skills. Here is a short insight.

When I receive the mandate to propose a new Learning Management System for the program, my first question was “How to be sure that it will be useful for the end users and seen as an added value to their already challenging EMBA journey?”. At that time I was myself enrolled into the program, so I could easily connect with what an EMBA participant had to face. However, do I have the entire picture? How to make sure I was not only looking to fulfil my own challenges and wishes?

The starting point is never easy because the most obvious things are the hardest to achieve. You will think: who do not want to create a pleasant and meaningful experience for their users? The tricky part is to understand what means “pleasant and meaningful” for your learners? What for you seems friendly could be seen as a big annoyance for your users. The challenge is to overcome your own bias and step out of your own beliefs to embrace solutions that could be contra-intuitive at first.

For this challenge, I found my inspiration from an unexpected source: Sun Tzu, the military strategist and author of the well-known “The art of war”. One of his quote goes like this: “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat”. When I put this quote into the learning context, it not only gave me the starting point: the learning strategy but also brought to my attention the importance of the route to its definition. Further on I will start by clarifying the notion of Learning Strategy and then give you a four-step plan to shape it to your context.

What is a Learning Strategy?

Did you ever wonder “What is Learning?”. Richard E. Mayer, the American educational psychologist, defined learning as “the relatively permanent change in a person’s knowledge or behaviour due to experience.” In his researches, he is making a clear distinction between information acquisition and knowledge building. The later needs the experience to be accomplished because as he nicely summaries it: “People always relate it to their prior knowledge, rearrange it, try to make sense out it. That’s how learning works.”
So in other words, we can see the act of learning as the experience that produces the right change within the person itself.

Let’s keep this in mind and allow me to go back to the Strategy. Why is so important and why it should be the starting point? Johnson and Scholes proposed in 2002 a definition that combines a series of elements that resonates well within our context. They define Strategy as “the direction and scope of an organisation over the long term which achieves advantages for the organisation through its configuration of its resources within a changing environment and to fulfil stakeholder expectations”. So however big or small your organisation is, its strategy gives you the direction towards which you should concentrate all your efforts.

When we bring the two notions together, we have the learning as an experience and change driver on the one hand and the strategy as the direction on the other. Then the question to be answered is: What is the learning experience you need to generate a change within your learner inline with your organisation’s goals? Nevertheless, this is not enough. We are dealing with humans that have their demands, dreams and values that can play a decisive role in the success of your learning and development programs. The learner’s needs and constraints are even more crucial in the context of adult learning where the person is responsible for his learning and development decisions.

To summarise, the learning experience will emerge at the intersection of three components: your organisation’s Strategy, your learners’ Needs and the Knowledge you want them to acquire.

Learning Experience
Learner’s Experience

Build your Learning Experience in 4 steps

Step 1: Get to know your learner

Do you know who is going to follow your learning programs? Whom are you going to face in class or even more challenging behind a screen? Do you know what motivates them? In which context they have decided to follow the program? What are their expectations regarding the outputs? Before going any further, step out of your comfortable desk and get answers to these questions.

In the attached video, here how we EPFL EMBA approached this phase and the implications for the program.

Step 2: Align expectations with the vision

Now that you better understand your learner, his expectations and constraints, look for alignment with your program’s goals and objectives. Why you need the alignment? Because first, you validate that what you can deliver meets the learner’s expectations. Second, this will give you the high-level characteristics of the learning experience you need to create. How to do it? Have a quick look at one way to do it.

Step 3: Draw your learning environment

With your high-level characteristics in mind, you can start sketching the different elements that will compose your final environment. There are several ways to approach it, and we choose to go for a simple one. We took the Bloom’s taxonomy, and we only mapped the environment’s components on the six levels. Here how it looks:

Step 4: Analyse and decide

It is time to dive into the operational analysis of your learning environment. It is time to raise questions like what is the current situation? What are the current practices? Does your team have the right mindset? Who else interacts with the learning environment? Extend and complete your requirements list. Start benchmarking possible solutions for each element of your learning environment. Define and prioritise the criteria that will help your team take the final decision.
If you wonder how the EPFL EMBA learning environment looks like at the end, check this last video.

My main learnings from this journey are that assumptions and anticipation often lead you in vague and faulty directions. Saying that, I would like to leave you with a quote from an American historian, Daniel J. Boorstin: “The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance it is the illusion of knowledge”.