Romance or tough love? The challenge of learner engagement

Learner engagement - romantic image of roses, hearts and chocolates

Infatuation: Falling in love with or becoming extremely interested in someone or something for a short time.

I should have saved that subject line for Valentine’s Day. But my small bursts of inspiration don’t follow the calendar.

Learner engagement

There’s a lot of buzz in the Learning and Development (L&D) space about the idea of “learner engagement”.

As the term suggests, we want people who are doing a course to be attentive. We don’t want you to play games on your phone. Or brood about the argument with your partner this morning. Or fast-forward the video while you make coffee.

Why? Because if you don’t pay attention to the material, you won’t learn anything.

This is actually more of a problem with adults than children. Surprised? Adults learn in a different way. (In academic terms, “pedagogy” is about how children learn, and “andragogy” is about how adults learn.)

Online learning makes this worse. You are on your own. There is nobody to talk to, nobody to check that you “arrive”, nobody to help or answer your questions. As a result, the drop-out rate is excessive. Completion rates of online course are estimated to be below 15%. And that doesn’t include learners who play the video at 200% speed and guess quiz answers to mark the module as complete. This is why one client told me last week that online courses “are not productive”.

All of this explains why we care about learner engagement.

The romantic approach to learner engagement

The prevalent view in L&D seems to be that romance is the way to a learner’s heart. We must entertain and reward the learner. Most articles suggest the following tips to increase engagement:

  • Be creative with the content.
  • Make engaging videos.
  • Offer rewards and badges.
  • Gamify.
  • Keep content short.

This is the romantic approach. It’s all flowers and chocolates and fancy dates. It sounds wonderful. But is this a true reflection of what the real relationship will be? Most people in long-term relationships will shake their heads. You remember those early dates fondly. But real life includes chores, debts, a burst geyser, a screaming child, an aging parent and an irritated partner.

I’m not a complete cynic. I like the idea of love at first glance. The romantic approach can work for learning that aims to increase awareness. I can imagine short fun videos to make users aware of cyber-security risks.

Romance doesn’t flip the classroom

Another buzz word in L&D is the “flipped classroom”. It works on the basis that the learner works through the content in advance, and then the work is discussed in the class. It’s a great approach, with one small problem. Can you can get the adult learner to do the work?

The answer to that is usually “no”. There are many reasons, from work pressure to family commitments. And the romantic approach to learning doesn’t help. It’s easier to end a budding romance after an argument than to work through the conflict.

The tough love approach to learner engagement

Remember those first exciting dates? The high was great, but it didn’t last forever. To make a relationship last takes effort and commitment. (I know this isn’t really the meaning of tough love, but I need some artistic leeway!)

Learning is more like a relationship than a casual date. It requires work. And I don’t just mean that the teacher / trainer / lecturer must work. The learner / student / delegate needs to put in just as much effort.

You know this. You had homework at school. You had to study and do assignments at university. Why should it be different now? Technology has evolved, but the human brain still works the same way.

Keep going when it gets tough

Relationships can be difficult. You may sometimes feel like hitting your partner with a frying pan (please don’t!). But you keep going because a good relationship is worth the work. Learning complex technologies is like that. Sometimes you want to bash your laptop with a frying pan (again: please don’t). But if you do the work, you’ll reap the benefits.

My views on learner engagement may not be popular. What do you think? I’d love to hear your opinion.

P.S. We do need some roses and chocolates, even in long-term relationships.

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