Why Courses Should Be Longer…Not Shorter!

instructional design

Learning is a long term process. Traditional training is mostly approached from the content perspective. People need to learn how to do something, or how something works. We define the “something” and design the best method in which to present it. Historically, instructional methods have been designed around a singular event. Even if the course is made up of multiple sessions, each session usually contains new content. This basically means that learners are exposed to the content they need to know only once…formally. The rest of the learning process depends on the learner. The course event ends up being a very small part of the long term learning process.

Technology Helps Reduce Costs

The online learning gold rush, started in the 1990s, was driven by the desire to reduce the cost of training. And it worked. It still does. Delivering learning content via computers had significant startup costs. But once the hardware and systems were in place, training costs were significantly reduced. And now with mobile learning, employees can consume training courses anywhere at anytime. Mobile learning is also one of the influencers of shorter courses. But no matter how the content is delivered, shortening training events significantly reduces time away from the job.

And, of course, eliminating travel costs is a no-brainer for enterprise executives. Even the most skeptical research proved that the shorter online learning was at least no worse than the longer classroom training courses. Technology delivered significant financial return with online learning that took only a fraction of the time to complete. But now that we’ve squeezed all the pennies out of the training department, it’s time to take a look at quality, and question the short course.

Neuroscience, Tech Innovation, Questions about Learning

There are many researchers studying the neuroscience of learning. And you won’t find any of those studies here. For this post I’ll stick with one basic idea: Learning is a long term process. And it is not a new concept. The spacing effect has been studied for over 100 years. But only recently have we learned how long it truly takes for the brain to hard wire content into longterm memory. Dr John Medina reminds us that “what you learn in the first grade is not completely formed until your sophomore year in high school.

With everything we know about learning and memory, it seems counterinteruitive for learning professionals to be shortening courses. If learning takes so long, then why don’t we craft courses that support that length?

Courses should be getting longer not shorter. So why is micro-learning such a popular trend?

We started out by shortening courses and now we’re supporting micro courses. Why is this happening?

There are many answers to those questions. It’s interesting to reflect on where we’ve been and look to where our industry is going. It’s questions like these that help us make sense of the disruption happening all around us. Change is not easy for most people, and redirecting the path of a large organization is truly a complicated task. However, our new reality is very different than it was even 5 years ago. We won’t be successful having conversations about today’s instructional design challenges based on yesterday’s business environment.

What Does a 10 Year Course Look like? I Don’t Know…

Micro-learning, social learning, user generated learning content, and so many other new realities are only the beginning. At some point you will see content that supports the 10 year learning process. I don’t quite know what that will look like.  I’m guessing that a course lasting 10 years will end up with a name other than “course”. And it will no doubt consist of many short bits of learning content mixed in with learning experiences that may take a little longer. And yes, its strange to think about creating something that lasts 10 years.

Perhaps the answer has been with us all along. Perhaps teaching people about learning, and how to learn more efficiently, we can let them handle their own 10-year plan.


What are your thoughts on this? Let me know @Litmos.