The Future of Upskilling Business is..?

Do you know that on average, 2.5 quintillion data bytes were generated daily in 2020?

Now, that’s a huge number, and given the nature of online content, it’s only going to increase exponentially.

A corollary of this data could be that content is a commodity. After all, if you search for, say, even a niche topic like Product Management, you will find 10000s of blogs/videos/tweets floating around.

Even with this, people are still not learning enough? Not upskilling enough?

What’s the answer, then? Cohort-based learning?

Before we answer that, let’s first understand what is happening in the content space.

Content, whether in online education or even otherwise, is evolving. The entire content landscape has changed drastically over the last 4-5 years.

Evolution of Content Format: Why and how?

The audience is evolving and has completely moved away from the traditional digital learning style, i.e., sitting in front of their laptop (Udemy’s course completion rate is ~3%).

Mobile has completely eaten (and crushed) the content world.

Yeah – we all know about the attention span issue (refresher: as per research by Microsoft, most people can focus effectively for only eight seconds).

But is it just about attention span? 

If yes, how can one explain the fact that mega consumption of Netflix/Disney+ on mobile? 

It actually isn’t just about the audience’s attention span, but the fact that the boring content isn’t acceptable anymore. 

Boring content is a commodity. It is dead. It is over. Completely.

And this applies to educational content as well. 

No one has the patience (and attention span) to watch a 45 minutes educational video – live or recorded. 
But they are going to binge-watch an interesting 10-episode web series.

No one has the patience (and attention span) to read even a 750-word article.
But they will read interesting books, written in a jargon-free conversational style, and the ones that bring different perspectives (Nassim Taleb, Morgan Housel, and the likes).

No one has the patience (and attention span) to listen to 1 hr boring podcast.
But they will spend hours listening to hour++ long episodes of Farnam street or Reid Hoffman.

You see the dilemma.

It isn’t about the content, but the problem lies with boring content and the traditional delivery format that isn’t acceptable anymore.

The boring content is now completely rejected. It is truly commoditized.

How does this apply to online education?

First of all, we the humans have shifted to smartphones for all non-work-related activities.

And anything on your phone competes with Instagram and WhatsApps of the world, so why is it that online education refuses to follow the trend?

This is where most (new or old) online education platforms fail. 99.99% still think laptop-first, long-format-video-first.

Cohort or not, you still cannot watch 45 minutes / 1 hr of boring videos. It might work for celebrity speakers, but beyond that – you just can’t. 

You need stories, conversational formats, and more actionable learning to enable this.

That is, one needs to rewrite and redesign the learning content for a mobile audience.

This isn’t easy. It takes time to recreate bite-sized, conversational content and yet, does not lose out on depth. You just cannot repurpose content – so this is real, hard work.

But, can people learn (serious stuff) on mobile?

Forget mobile. Let’s understand the most important and measurable RoI of Learning, i.e., learning retention. 

Before I go further, let me introduce the most important academic work done on content retention, ‘The Forgetting Curve.’

The forgetting curve hypothesizes the decline of memory retention in time. This curve shows how information is lost over time when there is no attempt to retain it. A related concept is the strength of memory that refers to the durability that memory traces in the brain. The stronger the memory, the longer period that a person can recall it. A typical graph of the forgetting curve purports to show that humans tend to halve their memory of newly learned knowledge in a matter of days or weeks unless they consciously review the learned material []

How can one apply this in online education?

First, the format matters.

Make skills (and not just courses) available in the right format.

What’s the difference between skill-based learning and courses? Courses are high-level entities, while skills are unbundled actionable units and provide a clear, meaningful learning experience.

For e.g. product management as a course can have 30+ skills – ranging from understanding the role to defining requirements to creating MVP to analytics etc. You don’t need to learn all of them in one shot – just learn/practice/implement when you need to.

In new age online education, unbundling is the real game, and instead of courses, learners will eventually opt for skills, that are going to be useful in another few weeks or months – not ‘somewhere down the line’.

Secondly, learn a skill when you know you can apply it.

College (+ cohort based courses) teach you everything in one-go. If you are lucky, you will apply 10% of those learnings within 6 months of course completion. Naturally, you are going to forget everything else.

What am I driving at? There is a time and place for every skill, for everyone.

Skills are useful only when they are available and can be learned (and implemented) at the right time.

What about cohort-based courses? Isn’t that the new thing?

Well, cohort without format disruption doesn’t really move the needle. If you think cohort-based courses can solve all the woes of a learner, then stop blaming the education system or your colleges/classrooms because your classmates and the entire structure was…basically a cohort—a cohort where the learning content was yawningly boring.

I will share more thoughts on cohort-based learning later (I have taught product management to 300+ professionals), but the one thing that we all need to understand is that cohorts or no cohort, learning for 4-6 weeks and chilling later doesn’t help in 2021 and beyond.

The world is changing too fast.

Learning new skills can’t be a 1-time activity – enough research shows the importance of spaced repetition over traditional learning.

What’s spaced repetition?

Memory mastery comes from repeated exposure to the material.

Hermann Ebbinghaus (1850-1909), a German psychologist and pioneer of quantitative memory research, first identified the spacing effect.

Ebbinghaus observes, “Left to itself every mental content gradually loses its capacity for being revived, or at least suffers loss in this regard under the influence of time.”

Cramming is not an effective memorization strategy. Lacking the robustness developed in later sessions, crammed facts soon vanish. Even something as important and frequently used as language can decay if not put into use (via).

Spaced repetition is an evidence-based learning technique that is usually performed with flashcards. Newly introduced and more difficult flashcards are shown more frequently, while older and less difficult flashcards are shown less frequently in order to exploit the psychological spacing effect. The use of spaced repetition has been proven to increase the rate of learning [Wikipedia].

[Via: Farnam street]

TL;DR: How do you make learning stick? Use flash cards based technique.

Guess who used this insight and scaled it like hell? Well, Duolingo productized this technique and scaled the business – and no one, literally no one else copied them.

Because nobody believed in the *flash card* based insight.

New-age learning content boils down to just one thing – mobile (flash cards) and completely revamped format that offers spaced repetition (some call it microlearning, but is more than just jargon).

What does human psychology tell us about the mobile-based learning format?

According to the Journal of Applied Psychology, microlearning’s bite-sized format works very well with spaced repetition.

  • Learning in bite-sized pieces makes the transfer of learning from the classroom to the desk 17% more efficient.
  • People who learn through microlearning techniques answer questions 28% faster.
  • 75% of tech-savvy employees are more likely to watch a video than to read emails, documents, or web articles.

To cut a long story short, the real revolution in learning hasn’t begun yet, but here is what’s happening.

  • Boring content is commodity.
  • Cohorts aren’t anything new. Just one more buzzword. Doesn’t work without the most important ingredient needed to increase learning retention, i.e .mobile-first.
  • Mobile content needs to be recreated all over. 

Interesting content continues to rule the eyeballs and the emperor in this new world is going to be delivery format, which has massively transformed over the last few years.

The big question, however is what’s going to be the outcome of courses/skills?

A job? Or get better at job? Well, this is where community play will bring upon the disruption. People will opt for platforms that offer the community to tap into when they need it.

A ‘better’ content or course won’t alone solve the puzzle.

Serendipity of community will.

Let’s hope the disruptor move the world FWD.

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