All posts by Mairi Thomson

learning styles: the limiting power of labels

There’s an ongoing and lively debate in the world of education about the prevalence and relevance of ‘learning styles’. Various models try to place a label on how people prefer to learn, and the number of labels within these models also varies widely. In a coordinated effort, the Debunker Club is targeting the ‘Learning Styles Myth’ throughout the month of June.

VAK Debunked
Image Source: Mairi Thomson

While there are a large number of learning style models in-use, the VAK/VARK model is widely promoted. Most people who’ve attended a personal or professional development workshop in the last 30 years have probably heard about this model and how it helps with understanding your own personal learning style so you can be a ‘better learner’.

Even more worrisome is that, despite being quite thoroughly challenged by evidence-based research, this model is still being promoted in programs for educators at all levels, with the intention that if you understanding the learning styles of ‘students’, you will design and deliver better learning experiences. While I’m all for continuing to explore every possible way to make learning better and easier for everyone, the purpose of this post is not to go back over the research findings that have debunked learning styles as a valid educational or instructional theory.

Google Trends
Image Source: Google Trends

Even though Google Trends shows a diminishing interest in the ‘learning styles’ topic, a search today still returns millions of positive results, with many hosted on .edu domains! So what’s most interesting to me is how the ongoing promotion of learning styles as a valid theory of instruction, and the placement of labels on people, could actually be limiting the effectiveness of learning.


Labelling Theory

In life, labels are useful, no doubt about it. They help us to identify and analyse information quickly, and allow us to relate new information to what we already know (or think we know). But when it comes to ourselves or others, labels might not always be so useful. Wikipedia defines labelling theory as “how the self-identity and behaviour of individuals may be determined or influenced by the terms used to describe or classify them.”

So imagine now that you’re a participant in a lesson or course, and you have no background in educational theory. You’ve just been on the receiving end of a session about learning styles. You may have even taken a scientific-looking questionnaire that confirms what your personal ‘learning style’ is.  Something in the result resonates with you, because you trust the facilitator, and she has encouraged you to relate your preferred ‘learning style’ to thinking about all of those times when learning was either very easy, or very difficult for you.

“YES!” you think. “Now it all makes sense! I’m terrible with numbers, because I’m a kinaesthetic learner, and my year 8 Maths teacher never gave us hands-on activities to do!”

What could be the limiting power of this label? At the very best, it will likely now be in the background of your life as self-talk forever, reminding you that  maths is not your strong suit. At worst, maybe it will hold you back from wanting to learn more, improve your skills, or apply for that job that would be perfect for you, if only they didn’t want someone who was halfway decent with numbers…

The science of learning and how believing you can get smarter actually makes you smarter

Learning is, at it’s most basic definition, the process of collecting, modifying, understanding and using information. How effective we are at learning new and different things is influenced by our context, our environment and importantly, our own attitudes towards learning.  This excellent research shows that believing you can get smarter can definitely make you smarter.

So calling all learners and educators: for the love of learning, please stop using the ‘learning styles’ myth to label (and limit) learning potential. Instead, lets take ourselves on a journey of open learning possibilities…

Image Source:

Post-Publish Update:

This afternoon, my daughter and I had a conversation about her day at school. I then told her that I’d written and published a blog post on learning styles. I asked her if she’d heard of them, and she said “Oh yes – we did that at school one day. I’m a visual-kinaesthetic learner.” I kind of stopped in my tracks a bit and thought about it. I’m not one to interfere too much in her at-school learning processes, as I believe that you’ve got to put trust in the teacher as the ‘person in the room’, and I never want to undermine those relationships. But later on, I asked her what being a ‘visual-kinaesthetic learner’ meant to her in everyday classroom activities:

“Well, I learn best when I see something, or have a chance to do something. If someone’s just talking, I find it hard to listen or pay attention. So that’s what it means.”

“Do you think it’s different if you’re really interested though?” I asked. “Does the topic or subject have any impact on how you learn?”

“Oh yes,” she said. “If it’s an interesting topic, that’s different. I can listen and understand then.”

So again, this ‘labelling’ and it’s potential limitations, concerns me. Do we really want people of any age going through their lives with a pre-conceived notion of how they learn best? Does the self-perception of “I’m a weak auditory learner” have a negative impact on how people then engage with content when it’s presented aurally, or requires a verbal discussion?

The world is full of a fascinating array of information that’s presented in lots of formats, and these formats might not always provide a match to a perceived learning preference. Shouldn’t we be focusing on helping learners understand how learning really works, and supporting them to know that they can and will learn, when they meaningfully engage with content in all it’s formats?

EduTech Conference 2015: My personal learning moments

I spent a couple of fantastic days last week at the EduTECH 2015 Conference in Brisbane.  I got to meet some Twitter friends in real-life, some new people from around the world and around the corner (who I’m also now connected with on Twitter), and was fully inspired by lots of great sessions in the Workplace Learning and K-12 Education Leaders streams.

Like so many others, I’m a big fan of Twitter for professional development, and I also use it during conferences to capture the best bits  to share with others who can’t be there, and to nugget-ise my own learning and create a trail of digital breadcrumbs for further reflection and action.  Here is the ‘nugget view’ of EduTECH from my perspective, via Eventifier.

There were so many great ideas being shared that I could write a post that goes forever. Ain’t no one got time for that, so here are  my personal learning moments.


A new culture of learning for the #FutureOfWork

In his opening keynote to the Workplace Learning stream, Harold Jarche talked about (among other things) how robots were coming for anyone in a job that can be captured in a flowchart. We all know that robots have been slowly taking over the world for a while now, but this really got me thinking more about the #FutureOfWork and what this means for people, schools, organisations and society. Then I learned a completely new thing about a way to crunchily examine and display the societal effects of the adoption of a new way of doing things, and how it will impact via enhancement, retrieval, obsolescence and reversal. First developed by Marshall McLuhan, here is Harold’s take on the impact of digital networks on learning:

Learning Tetrad

I love new ways of looking at big ideas, so I’m definitely going to think more on tetrads…

In the ‘Power and promise of social networks for vocational and workplace learning’ session, Alec Couros furthered my thinking on our increasingly participatory culture, and what this means for learning at all levels.

Media and learning shifts

I was also reacquainted with a couple of favourite and often referenced authors from my time as a Master of Ed student (Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown) and their work on a New Culture of Learning

new culture of learning cropped

Michelle Ockers presented an excellent case study on the use of social learning strategies to support technical capability building at Coca Cola Amatil. Technical capability, for many large, complex and asset intensive organisations, is generally the province of more traditional approaches to training/learning, so it was great to hear about the a program that sets people free from the ‘training cage’ and the mindset of learned helplessness.  It can be done!

Social Learning Program Brief

And in an earlier panel discussion, a statement by Shannon Tipton really stood out for me with how to successfully engage social learners – so much so, that I captured it in a picture!

Find the Fish

Over in the K12 Education Leaders stream, Ted McCain from Maple Ridge Secondary School gave a fantastic presentation on ‘Teaching for Tomorrow: teaching as facilitating, learning as discovering’. I was particularly interested in the “9 i’s of modern learning”, which I frantically transcribed in long hand below:

The 9 is

What I love about this is how it breaks down the digital-age skills needed to successfully engage with content, for learners of any age from Pre-K to adult. You can access Ted’s full presentation here.

This also connected with a point in the closing keynote by Harold Jarche on the new literacy for the digital age – Personal Knowledge Mastery (PKM) and Intelligent Communication:

Intelligent Communication

In the Workplace Learning congress, Amy Rouse from AT&T University shared the fantastic success they’ve had implementing MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) across their workforce.

Got MOOCAmazingly, they have successfully ‘MOOC-ified’ a Masters of Computer Science, so the sky really is the limit when it comes to the complexity of content and learning that can be accessed in an open model.

In the spirit of openness and working+learning out loud, we also had a session with Joyce Seitzinger on Social Curation, with some fantastic tips on being more mindful and deliberate in how we go about collecting and sharing ideas. As an old corporate L&D leader/new freelance blogger/consultant, this resonated loudly with me, now I’m out in the big bad world and don’t have a captive audience… I particularly loved the suggestions below:

Social Curation


Want to engage learners? Make it #DifferentAndBetter

Marigo Raftopoulos eloquently shared her perspective on the importance of tapping into human desires when designing learning.  I particularly loved the notion of placing the learner as the hero at the centre of their own personal learning journey…

The future of work and workplace learning

Keep it real

Over in the K12 Education Leaders stream, there were some great sessions focused on immersive learning.

Matt Richards from the Mind Lab spoke about the success they’ve been having in creating and supportive collaborative learning and computational thinking in schools, via Learning Commons spaces,  virtual reality technology, student-led Maker Spaces and shared Minecraft worlds, where learners create challenges for each other.

Learning Commons

Minecraft Mineclass Challenge

A panel session on BYOD in schools with Georgina Allardice, Head of eLearning Jindalee State School, Ben Wells, IT Coordinator Sanctuary Point Public School, and Derek Wenmonth, Director eLearning CORE Education, was full of practical tips for schools looking to move towards a 1:1 device program for their students.  Here again, the big takeaway was that engagement – with learners, teachers and parents – was key to implementing a sustainable program. Derek described his view of BYOD, which I loved, and captured below:


Georgina also stressed the importance of continually asking learners for their feedback throughout the BYOD experience,  which resonated with advice from an earlier session with Amy Rouse in the Workplace Learning stream…

BYOD Advice

Jennie Magiera gave an inspirational and passionate presentation on the work she and her colleagues have been doing at their schools in South Chicago. Here students face significant challenges  just getting to and from school safely each day, so a Student Innovation Team of 4th-7th graders came up with an app proposal. You can read more about this #ProblemBasedLearning challenge here.

Problem Based Learning


Problems as Motivations


Disintermediation – cutting out the learning middleman

Leadership for an open world – the topic of the session by David Price – focused on the ubiquity of social, democratised and  open learning, and built upon the themes of previous sessions.  And it got me thinking again about the shift that all learning practitioners need to be making to just keep up, let alone add value and stand out, in an increasingly self-learning enabled world…

Boring Training

The rise of social learning and the growing acceptance of badges as evidence of own-time/off-site gained proficiency, mean that  learners are no longer captive to organisational/institutional content. I even found myself in a meta-example of David’s excellent ‘Six Motivation of Social Learning’  during the presentation…

Six motivations of social learning tweet

A later session from Ian Jukes at the end of the conference reinforced this ‘Learners as Customers’ theme. It struck me that the fenced-in world of corporate learning, where most organisations have no clue about the hidden talents of their employees, and the monetised world of higher ed and learning services, are in for a paradigm shift whether we like it or not.

Students are our customers

Chief Learning Rebel Shannon Tipton, summed up my personal learning from EduTECH nicely, with her thoughts on what’s killing Learning Organisations right now…

Killing Learning Organisations

…and what we, as Workplace Learning leaders need to do about it:

Learning Status Quo

performance support in the real-world

My laptop crashed a couple of weeks back.  All was working perfectly the night before, and when I shut down and was prompted to install Windows updates, I did.  The next morning, I was met with this…

Windows 8 Error

I found myself stuck in an endless loop of sad face.  After the initial panic subsided, I worked through some diagnostics and error codes, and with the help of Google, found that I needed to do a system refresh, to take me back to a simpler time of pre-update harmony.  I was reassured by the on screen advice that my files and settings would be preserved, but I may need to reinstall some software and apps.  Sounded great to me, so I did what I was told, and all appeared to be well.

Unfortunately, once I got going again, I found that some of my Outlook data files had not restored properly.  I’ve long been a user of the Notes feature in Outlook to store useful info, including the usernames and passwords for my many subscriptions to sites and services.  And like a numpty, I had not backed them up anywhere.

After Googling and then searching through my system files, I found where Outlook had stored the archive file that contained the Notes and Contacts.   The trouble was getting Outlook to recognise and open the file. After much interweb searching and experimentation throughout the day, I found similar tales of woe, but no successful advice on what to do.  So  I ‘phoned a friend’ – a web chat with the Microsoft Technical Support crew, and started a late night discussion with a lovely fellow in another timezone.  He remotely logged on to my laptop, I showed him where the file was, and together we tried several ways to bring it back into Outlook.  He got his colleagues involved. We tried a few more things, but the upshot was that my Notes were apparently gone forever.  Paraphrased: ‘So sorry Mairi.  This new version of Outlook will never open that file.  It’s a bug that we’re aware of and will try to rectify in the future.  But this will not help you. Thanks for calling Microsoft.  Is there anything else I can help you with today?’

Not being one to easily give up on anything, let alone the mini-passports to my increasingly digital life, I kept searching for a solution to recover them, or at least a way to open them so I could copy the information into new notes and back them up.  I found a few Outlook recovery tools that looked promising, but I wasn’t prepared to pay the big bucks their creators were asking.  But then I stumbled across a free demo that suggested maybe all was not lost.  I downloaded it, ran the extractor, and my heart skipped an excited beat when all my Notes, with clickable access to their precious content, appeared before me.  I opened up Outlook, and set about creating a new set of Notes files, singing a happy tune as I went.  And then I set a click-speed record backing those little gems right up!

In the spirit of sharing good fortune (and great learnings), I initiated another web chat to my friendly Microsoft Tech Support Crew fellow, told him the good news, and gave him the lowdown and links to how I’d solved the problem.  He was grateful and I went to bed a very happy girl. 🙂

Over the following days, I got to thinking about how this was a good  real-life example of Performance Support in action.  All the ingredients were there:

  • I had a wicked real-time problem that my tacit knowledge alone could not fix.
  • I had a clear view of the performance goal and was motivated to achieve it.
  • I had a network of technical experts available to me to bounce ideas off that might help me fix my problem.
  • I had easy access to a rich array of information generously shared by others that helped me understand more about my problem and contained guideposts to potential solutions.
  • I had an experimental mindset and I persisted until I achieved my goal.
  • When I finally achieved my goal, I paid the learning forward.

Performance Support is a valuable tool for learning in any sector.  It’s a fancy name given to something that has happened as a matter of course in nature forever – a problem is presented, available  resources are used to solve it, and life goes on.  This natural approach resonates with the relatively recent use of the term ‘Learning and Performance Ecosystem’.  I just love the mental imagery this conjures up of the world of learning – one of connection, collaboration, adaptability, responsiveness, creativity, persistence.  All wonderful attributes, and all very natural for humans of all ages everywhere.

The more we can foster, create and support learning and performance ecosystems, particularly in our workplaces, the less we will need to rely on traditional training models, where we attempt to predict all possible performance problems, and inject the knowledge to fix them ahead of time.  Now more than ever, the world doesn’t work like this, and neither do people.

infographic: the state of leadership

The state of leadership

Printable PDF: infographic: the state of leadership

learning through drawing: developing visual literacy


I’m participating in a Twitter Draw-a-Thon that was kicked off last week by Blair Rorani. (read his original blog post or search #everybodydrawnow.) Aside from having great fun, I’ve met some new Twitter peeps and learned how to use a cool + free iPad app called Paper from FiftyThree along the way.

Learning something new is always a good thing, but it also got me thinking about how drawing engages the brain in different ways, and how this could be useful for corporate learning programs.

We live in a world of ‘big data’ that requires deep analysis and interpretation, and creative visualisations can help us to make sense of it. Even for less complex topics, images and visual media are increasingly being used to tell a complete story via traditional and digital communication platforms.

An important 21st Century skillset is being ‘visually literate’ – described by the Association of College and Research Libraries as being able to ‘critically view, use and produce visual content to engage capably in a visually oriented society.’

What the research tells us

In a study on visual literacy skills of college-age students, published in The Canadian Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, Justine Bell found that students who learned material through drawing had significantly higher grades on an initial quiz than students who learned the same material by computer.

In their research on integrating visual art, language arts and science for The Journal for Learning through the Arts, Monique Poldberg, Guy Trainin and Nancy Andrzejczak found that the use of an integrated curriculum that included visual arts reduced performance gaps in the classroom.

In an article on using spatial thinking as a teaching method in American Educator, Nora Newcombe proposes that ‘active sketching enhances engagement, deepens understanding, requires reasoning, forces ideas to be made explicit, and supports communication in work groups.’

Tytler and Hubber, writing for Australasian Science, also propose that drawing enhances engagement, representation, reasoning and communication skills, and can help organise and integrate knowledge and understanding.

Reimagining corporate learning programs to incorporate activities that develop visual literacy skills

As with all learning program design, we should start with the end in mind – what outcomes are you trying to achieve? Drawing could easily be incorporated in many programs, but will be of most impact if it’s thoughtfully integrated with other activities that will improve understanding and application, and get learners interacting with each other, and the content, in meaningful ways.

As a starting point, using drawing or visual representation of information could be used in getting-to-know you activities. Instead of a ‘let’s go around the room’ introduction activity, give people the option of drawing a picture or diagram that best represents them in that moment.


An activity to create a mind map could build a bridge between art and language, as they can use images as well as words to represent meaning. Topics for mind maps are limited only by the imagination, and can be used to explore and create anything from a personal story, concept or project planning, to organisational strategy development.

Similarly, a visual flow chart could be a simple way to introduce some creativity if your program is related to a process-based topic. While standard flow charts are a form of visualisation, encouraging people to add some graphics or drawings might help aid understanding and engagement with the content.

Collaborative drawing is another option to use if your program involves building a collective understanding of a concept. A group exercise could start with a basic framework of whatever the concept is, that is then built upon by individuals adding elements to help flesh it out. Using post it notes or smaller items that can be rearranged might help with those people who aren’t confident enough to directly draw or sketch on the group project.


This kind of collaborative activity could also work well to create an infographic – graphic visual representations of information, data or knowledge intended to present complex information quickly and clearly. Most, if not all, organisations would have internal processes, or data sets, that would be great topics for infographics. Using a group-based activity to create these would engage people in both the concept, and the process of creating a visual representation. And the output could then be used to communicate the information and help others understand it – the gift that keeps on giving!

“But I can’t draw!!!”

Look inside any daycare, kindergarten or primary school classroom, and you’ll find kids of all ages doodling, drawing, painting and sculpting with no inhibitions or concerns. Creativity of expression is actively encouraged in our younger years, but somewhere between childhood and adulthood, many people lose confidence in their artistic abilities.

Art as a disconnected and ‘graded’ activity in later years of schooling might have something to do with this, along with the perception that it has no place in the serious world of work (and learning). If you’re looking to incorporate drawing and visual creativity into your workplace learning programs, you will definitely need to be prepared to help people to overcome their fears.

Drawing doesn’t need to be hard, and our drawings don’t need to look like ‘real life’ to be useful. I don’t know about you, but my favourite business drawings are usually based on simple stick figures. And pen-on-paper drawing needn’t be the only creative visual process you introduce into your programs. Providing a choice of artistic medium will encourage people to try different things – blackboards, whiteboards, windows or glass walls with chalk pens, flip-charts, graph paper, post-it-notes, cut-out pictures, stickers, tablets with a stylus, digital drawing programs – the possibilities are endless.

The most important thing is to encourage a safe space to experiment, and continually reinforce the bigger picture – we’re not looking for an art-gallery-ready masterpieces – the power is in the process, and the self- and other-generated meaning derived from it. There are no rules, and no right answers, and if people want to add contextual language and labels to what they’ve created later on, then that’s OK.

If you need ideas or help from the experts

Maybe you want to think more about this and see some examples of what is possible? Or maybe you have a really complex program topic that you think would be made more impactful by incorporating drawing or a creative visualisation process? If so, and you don’t know where to start, don’t despair. There are many individuals and organisations who specialise in surfacing, talking about or solving problems through visualisations that have some great resources for you to explore. Here are just a few I’ve found:

  • In Australia, Fever Pictures illustrates conversations, systems and stories. Check out their Twitter Feed – @FeverPicture – for some excellent illustrations of archived TED Talks.
  • Dave Gray, founder of Xplane, has a personal site where he shares his thoughts and some wonderful videos on unleashing your artistic creativity. Check out the XPlane site too if you’re looking for some paid professional help with a project.
  • Dan Roam, author of ‘The back of the napkin’, ‘Blah, blah, blah: what to do when words don’t work’, and ‘Show and Tell: how everyone can make extraordinary presentations’, has a great site with lots of information on using pictures to learn and solve problems.
  • The Toledo Museum of Art has an excellent site focused on visual literacy, with some inspiring examples and videos exploring the themes of creativity, critical thinking, education, empathy and technology.

Developing visual literacy

If your organisation has prioritised visual literacy as a skill that needs improvement, or you want to concentrate on developing your own abilities, then you’re in luck! The Association of College and Research Libraries in the US has developed a comprehensive set of visual literacy competency standards for Higher Ed, complete with learning outcomes, that has transferability and application for the workplace sector. Check it out here.

Have some ideas?

Please share your thoughts below and contact Open Access Learning if you’d like to explore the opportunities for developing visual literacy, or improving understanding, knowledge retention and engagement through incorporating drawing in learning programs. I’m no expert, but I am happy to go on a creative learning journey with you!

Further reading

The Association for College and Research Libraries: Visual Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education.

Bell, J. (2013) Visual literacy skills of students in college-level Biology: learning outcomes following digital or hand-drawing activities. The Canadian Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning; Volume 5, Issue 1.

Center for Visual Literacy: Toledo Museum of Art.

Gray, Dave.

Kemp, Will: The 3 reasons why you can’t draw (and what to do about it)

Newcombe, N. (2013) Seeing Relationships – using spatial thinking to teach Science, Mathematics and Social Studies. American Educator; Spring 2013.

Poldberg, M., Training, G., and Andrzejczak, N. (2013) Rocking your Writing Program: Integration of Visual Art, Language Arts, & Science. Journal for Learning through the Arts, Volume 9, Issue 1.

Roam, Dan.

Roam, D. (2009). The back of the napkin: solving problems and selling ideas with pictures. Penguin Books.

Roam, D. (2011). Blah, blah, blah: what to do when words don’t work. Penguin Books

Rorani, Blair.

Tytler, R., and Hubber, P. (2011) Learning by Drawing. Australasian Science.


Printable PDF: learning through drawing – developing visual literacy

calculating the cost of corporate learning

HR and L&D Managers: do you know how much learning actually costs your organisation? And if not, how can you know for sure that you are delivering value?

The transformation and acceleration of corporate learning has jumped to third place in the list of talent challenges facing organisations in 2015, and only 5% of companies are confident in their ability to successfully correlate HR data with business performance. (Deloitte University Press: Global Human Capital Trends 2015)

Are you confident your organisation has a solid view of the true cost of L&D, and is investing these dollars wisely?

Setting the scene

I joined in the #OzLearn Tweet Chat a couple of nights back, and the topic was bidding farewell to Learning & Development. Based on a thought provoking post by David D’Souza, we imagined ourselves to be in the year 2025, conducting a hypothetical autopsy on L&D to understand the cause of death. We then travelled back to the present to discuss what learning practitioners could do to prevent the untimely passing of our old mate and generous benefactor.

My response to one of the questions posed touched on a focus I’ve had for a long time, and continue to have: what are the true costs of our work, and are we getting the best value for our investment? When I was an operational and line manager, this was a natural question to ask myself and my team, and fell squarely within my responsibility and accountability.

But in the world of back office functions (like HR), I was the recipient of many sideways glances when I started a project to calculate the annual cost of learning across the organisation.

Why did I do it?

Before I get into the reasons why, let me say that I agree with the belief many HR and L&D leaders have that learning is about building capability, improving engagement increasing productivity and lifting performance. But as a former procurement manager, I also say that we ignore cost at our peril. All forward thinking L&D leaders know that we must get better at building the commercial connection between our work and the business.

Here are my top three reasons why L&D Managers need to have an accurate view of the true costs of learning:

  • It will help to set the strategic imperative for L&D in your organisation
  • It will help to identify areas of focus for improvement
  • It will help in calculating true value and ROI

1. Setting the imperative

If you’re lucky enough to work in an organisation where learning is always seen as strategically important and you never have to fight for budget allocations or technology upgrades, or protect your team from cyclical restructures, then you’re likely in the minority. In other organisations, L&D is not well understood, and is often not viewed as a priority when compared to other functions – particularly by executives planning the next phase of organisational strategy, dealing with the tyranny of the urgent or making budget-based decisions.

Putting an accurate and defendable $ figure on learning can help to shine an attention-grabbing spotlight on the investment that your organisation is making in skill development. You can then springboard this attention into a discussion about strategic value, alignment with organisational objectives, and future investment decisions.

2. Identifying areas for improvement

With objective data on the end-to-end cost of learning in your organisation, you can be reassured the decisions you and others are making about improvements are based on the full picture. Whether your business model is based on maximising private or shareholder profit, improving customer service, delivering charitable works or advancing government priorities, the ability to identify and free up costs to be redirected to emerging priorities is one of the foundations for sustainability.

All business functions, including L&D, should be looking at how cost structures could be optimised to continually improve their contribution to the bottom line, regardless of what yours is based on. Developing a ‘big picture’ view of costs will enable you to drill down on the drivers of those costs, place all learning initiatives and programs into a commercial context, and support further comparative analysis.

3. Calculating value and ROI

With a sound cost base to start from, objectively calculating value and return on investment is one step closer. Some practitioners see learning ROI as the L&D Holy Grail, while others are less enamoured with the concept. My opinion falls somewhere in the middle. Do I think L&D (and all corporate functions) should be able to demonstrate their organisational value? Absolutely! Do I think that ROI should be calculated to the nth degree on absolutely every activity or project? Not necessarily.

With a wide range of organisational stakeholders, plus inputs, drivers and outputs to calculate, sometimes the time and effort required to analyse legacy learning programs is too onerous to justify. Unless you have been rigorous in analysing and quantifying the originally intended outcomes of every activity or project, it may be too difficult to work backwards. (Not impossible, but I’ll leave this for the topic of future post.)

That said, we surely won’t get there if we don’t comprehensively understand our costs in the first place. Imagine how fantastic it would be if you could take your analysis to the next level, and calculate value and ROI for your entire learning organisation. Just as a well-conceived and designed program or project should lead to a measurable improvement in performance or productivity, so should the strategic cost impacts of learning be measurable at any single point and over time.

What should be included in your calculations?

Most L&D cost analysis and benchmarking looks at two elements: the labour and consumable cost of the centralised L&D team, and the cost of external vendors who provide training or learning materials for your employees. If this sounds like what you’ve traditionally based your calculations on, you’re probably missing the majority of costs. Here are some additional data points that you could consider including in your analysis:

Learning attendance costs:

  • The productivity cost of all employees attending learning programs e.g.: number of employees x hourly labour rate x total duration
  • The productivity cost of all employees delivering learning programs (including outside of L&D) e.g.: number of employees x hourly labour rate x duration

Learning facilities and systems:

  • The commercial asset value of the learning facilities in use e.g.: lease costs or foregone revenue if the rooms/buildings could be used for something else.
  • The commercial asset value of learning equipment in use e.g.: purchase, depreciation maintenance and/or lease costs.
  • The invested value in learning systems e.g.: purchase, depreciation, maintenance, licensing, registration.

Travel and accommodation:

  • The cost of learning related travel to attend or deliver learning programs

Competence cycle time:

  • The cost of employees who aren’t operating at full capacity until their learning program is fully completed e.g.: interns, cadets, trainees, apprentices etc.

This last one is significant, particularly for organisations dependent upon a high number of technical, trade or specialised skill based roles.

Why would you include all of that?

The saying ‘what gets measured gets managed’ applies here. For every one of the above data points, understanding the total cost will help direct strategic focus on what management intervention may be required to improve the overall performance of the learning function and process.

For example, if the total productivity cost of learning attendance turns out to be alarmingly high because you have a high number of learning programs that are delivered in a traditional, off-the-job, classroom based approach, you could consider whether a review of delivery methodology would deliver a better balance. Think self-paced learning, project-based learning, performance support options etc. Aside from the potentially significant improvements in learning effectiveness and impact, this could also reduce the costs of learning facilities, if it means you’ll need less space for rooms set aside for traditional classroom sessions.

Competence cycle time can also be a major opportunity. If your cycle time is long and expensive, then a targeted review of the end-to-end programs focusing on improvement, integration and delivery methodology could deliver major cycle time reductions that lead to cost benefits.

It’s hard work, but worth the effort

This post is based on the premise that unless you’re actively analysing and calculating the cost of learning for your organisation, then you’re probably presiding over a lot of wasted time and effort and failing to realise true value. The opposite could equally be true of course – you could be significantly under-investing in learning!

I’ll bet that most organisations have a bit of both happening – wasted effort in some areas, and underinvestment in others. Either way, the time and effort to build a true picture of the cost of learning will most definitely be worth it, if it means you can have meaningful and objective conversations with your executive team about the value of investing in the right knowledge and skill development priorities for your organisation.

Have some ideas?

Please share your thoughts below and contact Open Access Learning if you’d like to continue the conversation about the opportunities for you to better understand the true cost and ROI of learning in your organisation.

Further reading

Deloitte University Press Global Human Capital Trends 2015

101 Half Connected Things: The death of L&D – a post mortem

Printable PDF: calculating the cost of corporate learning

what L&D could learn from other education sectors

L&D Managers: could you improve the performance and impact of your workplace educational practice through learning from other sectors?

As a keen follower of what’s happening across all areas of education, I’m always interested in how advancements or areas of focus in one sector could be applied to another. So here’s my take on a couple of things from each sector that could have some useful transferability to L&D and workplace education.

Pre K & Early Childhood

One thing that Pre K and Early Childhood educators do exceptionally well is focusing on the importance of learner centredness and maximising the power of play.

Learner centred instruction is based on the constructivist principles of Piaget, where learners use their prior knowledge to construct a mental model of the world, which forms a foundation for future learning based on experience and discovery.

A play based curriculum supports the constructivist theory of learning, by giving learners the space, time and scope to explore and experience a range of activities that lead to meaningful learning. Physical, emotional, social and academic development occurs through the learners participating in activities that provide the opportunity to:

  • Develop fine and gross motor skills,
  • Practice positive behaviours by engaging in and resolving conflict,
  • Use communication and negotiation tactics to advance their needs,
  • Develop curiosity, openness and creativity, and
  • Build resilience, optimism and empathy for others.

The academic requirements of the early childhood curriculum are oriented to be achieved in parallel, through the educators constructing and maintaining the appropriate environment, resources and activities required to provide a rich range of learning opportunities.


The K-12 sector is the broadest educational sector, due to the age range of learners and the highest engagement levels, and because it’s compulsory! Not surprisingly given their scope, this sector excels at maximising the engagement of school communities, encouraging collaboration between learners and educators to experiment and innovate to improve learning outcomes, and increasing learner self-responsibility through building social and emotional maturity.

Building learner, parent and community engagement to improve the focus on learning outcomes has a positive impact on student achievement. Increasing the transparency and communication of school-life, including target curriculum areas and results, behaviour expectations, decision making processes, current areas of challenge and progressing the creation of school-community partnerships all combine to create an atmosphere of joint responsibility for successful learning.

Collaboration, experimentation and innovation is also a major focus area, both within the implementation of school curriculum to build learner-learner relationships, but also between educators across the world. School based teachers are an incredibly generous and collaborative bunch, focused as they are on improving the quality and effectiveness of their individual and collective practice.

In addition to the more established opportunities for peer-to-peer collaboration, there are hundreds of regularly occurring Twitter Chats where teachers share ideas and resources with each other, and spark countless projects for innovation and experimentation that transcend school, specialisation and geographical boundaries. The exciting thing about Twitter Chats is that anyone from any sector is able to follow along and join in the learning fun.

Self-responsibility is also of increasing focus in the K-12 space. The sector recognises the importance of implementing strategies that create an environment for students to learn the social and emotional skills of self-awareness, self-management, building and maintaining relationships and making good choices. One small example of this is from direct experience – my local school has had a fantastic program in place since my daughter’s first year there, which support students to manage their own behaviours. The Behaviour Management Framework clearly and simply articulates five levels of behavior, complete with examples of the acceptable (and not acceptable) behaviours aligned to each level. Consequences are also clearly articulated, and consistently implemented across the entire school.

From a student’s point of view, it provides them with the transparency and guidance they need to understand what good and bad behaviour looks like, and what will happen to them if their behaviour causes them to move up and down the levels. From a parent’s point of view, there is no subjectivity or confusion about the implementation of rewards and consequences. It also instils greater confidence that the students who have experienced this self-managed-behaviour model in practice may be that much more prepared to function in the world outside of school. And perhaps most importantly, from an educator’s perspective, shifting some of the responsibility and ownership for behaviour management from teachers to students allows more time, energy and focus to be redirected towards creating a cohesive learning environment.

Vocational Education

The vocational education sector has long been focused on macro-level requirements to build workforce participation and productivity through skill development. The dual challenges of unemployment and underemployment, set against the background of the imminent retirement of baby boomers, is a situation facing many countries, including Australia.

What the vocational education sector does well is building and maintaining a long term view of labour force requirements, and focusing investment and funding to incentivise skill development across industry. The government architects of the vocational education sector are adept at creating a macro view of current and future trade-based geographic influencers on required workforce productivity and participation.

The establishment of evidence-based targets for achieving long-term skill development priorities provides certainty for employers and market providers, and by extension, navigable career paths for prospective students and employees.

Workplace Education

Workplace education has always been about skilling people for the work they do with whatever company employs them. There is some crossover between workplace and vocational education, but for the purposes of this exercise, workplace education is considered to be the internal strategies and frameworks an organisation puts in place to develop the knowledge, skills and abilities of their workforce.

Workplace education is one sector where there has been more variability in how effectively and efficiently employee learning and development has been implemented. Maybe this is because it’s the least regulated of all sectors? Or perhaps because it has been, and still is, highly dependent on company priorities and budgets, and more easily influenced by management, leadership and HR fads? That’s a topic for another post…!

The 70:20:10 model of learning, introduced in the mid 90’s by McCall, Lombardo and Eichinger, proposes that learning best occurs in the ratios of 70% experiential, 20% through other people, and 10% formal training. This model has been adopted as a guiding framework for workplace education by many organisations. However, observers would say that it has been slow to get real traction, as many less progressive companies are yet to truly capitalise on the benefits and impacts of informal and experiential learning, and fall back on formal training as the basis for much of their focus and investment.

What is encouraging is the slow but steady shift towards improving the practical application of learning for higher performance. Strategies that focus on the measurable transfer and application of knowledge, skill and experience are being implemented in Learning and Development functions the world over. The adoption of performance support tools to support or even replace a more traditional learning process is on the rise. Think of performance support as processes, tools or systems that help people learn what they need to perform the job, or solve the problem that is right in front of them, in real time.

The broader learning and performance ecosystem of people, processes, content and technology, is increasingly being recognised for the important influence it has on the success and sustainability of workplace education initiatives.

Higher Education

With education as the core business and high levels of competition to attract prospective students, my observation is that higher education invests more than any other sector in the development of research, systems and infrastructure for successful graduate outcomes. There is a high focus on understanding and improving the impact that physical and virtual campus spaces have on learning, and the adoption of flexible technologies to maximize student engagement.

The higher education sector is also focused on increasing the accessibility and flexibility of learning by improving pathways for students from diverse cultural and socio-economic backgrounds and regional areas, removing educational barriers for students with disabilities, and targeting gender balance across areas of study.

Adult and Community Education

The community and adult education sector is a broad one, based around a learner centred approach to providing the necessary skills and abilities to improve lifelong and lifewide learning and participation.

With such a broad focus, the sector is excellent at recognising and working to remediate the challenges facing adult learners across all stages of life, with a focus on developing the underlying skills and abilities to improve access to learning and participation. Literacy and numeracy is one of the most significant barriers, with an estimated seven million adult Australians currently lacking the literacy and numeracy skills to effectively function in modern society.

The successful adoption of flexible and innovative learning approaches, in collaboration and partnership with community based organisations, councils, state and federal governments and adult learning practitioners is also a strength of this sector, as they work towards closing the gap for unemployed, underemployed and underskilled adults, and breaking the intergenerational impacts on children, families and communities.

Education Services

The education services sector encompasses all private providers who provide a learning-related services for a profit. This is another broad sector, ranging from small one-person operations, to large corporations operating across entire countries or internationally.

Operators within this sector have built their business by targeting areas of learning need not adequately met by the other education sectors, and/or creating a market for their services. Many providers focus on the ancillary or support areas of education, including the systems and technologies that are increasingly required to implement, manage and track learning in the digital age.

Not surprising for a sector at the mercy of market forces, the education services industry as a whole excel at predicting the future requirements of their own and other sectors, and by tailoring their services to meet the needs of their clients.

Open Learning

While open learning as a concept to enhance or extend opportunities beyond formal education has been around since the 1970’s, it is only really in the last decade that technology has enabled it to progress to what could be considered a sector. The rise of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) has seen existing and new players provide free or inexpensive content, courses and qualifications that can be easily accessed by anyone with access to the internet.

The standout achievement of this fast-moving sector is the low or no-barrier-to entry nature of the learning it provides. It enables learners to experiment and engage with an increasingly broad range of topics, with no risk and often no cost. The use of learning badges is also a reasonably recent innovation, which provides a learner-centred approach to collecting evidence and external recognition for their efforts, and allowing people full control to create personalised learning pathways to career or professional advancement.

In a nutshell – what could L&D teams adopt from each sector?

Sector Standouts What L&D could do with it
Early Childhood Learner centredness and the power of play Deconstructing the curriculum to create more self-directed opportunities for learning, and building experimentation, discovery and fun into course design
K-12 Community engagement, collaboration and increasing learner self-responsibility Build greater engagement with learners and leaders to build the learning-through-work community, and develop learner self- responsibility for managing and monitoring learning transfer and performance impact
Vocational Education Macro-level workforce participation and productivity through skill development Improve long-range evidence-based forecasting of workforce learning and performance requirements, to prioritise focus and investment, set targets and smooth or remove implementation roadblocks
Workplace Education Practical application of learning and use of support tools for higher performance within the learning ecosystem Re-imagine the role of L&D within the learning ecosystem, and elevate the importance of performance support systems to optimise practical application and reduce off-the-job learning time
Higher Education Learning research, systems and infrastructure investment to improve student outcomes Invest time and effort into researching, designing and creating the capabilities, spaces and systems for L&D to support current and future learning and performance outcomes
Adult and Community Education Identifying and addressing underlying challenges of learning and working within and across communities Identify and analyse the underpinning challenges and individual differences of the workforce, and enable the creation and maintenance of communities centred around needs and interests
Education Services Predicting future requirements and customisation of services to client needs Work closely with internal customers to diagnose learning and performance problems, plan and deliver solutions, and track successes and failures
Open Learning Lowering or removing the barrier to entry and putting full control in the hands of learners Open up non-traditional cross-company learning opportunities, and encourage the collection of externally achieved badges for company recognition of learner-achieved knowledge and skill development


Have some ideas?

Please share your thoughts below and contact Open Access Learning if you’d like to continue the conversation about the opportunities for your L&D team to learn from other sectors.

Resources and further reading

Printable PDF: what l&d could learn from other education sectors

give your compliance learning program a shake up

L&D Managers: is your compliance learning program increasing risk, wasting time, money and employee brainpower, and damaging your internal brand?

Most organisations, particularly large ones, usually have a comprehensive compliance-based learning program covering the legislative and regulatory obligations of employers and employees. Course topics generally include health, safety and environment, corporate ethics, information and systems usage and employee conduct.

Getting compliance-based learning right is a critical risk mitigation process for organisations, and for many employees, these courses will probably be the most regular and predictable training they undertake across the course of their employment. But if the content is overloaded, irrelevant, and not immediately applicable, it might also be the most boring training they will ever do!

L&D departments have an important role to play in ensuring that the learning process doesn’t take a back seat to ‘butt-covering’. If you feel that there is room for improvement in how your organisation does compliance training, then read on for some handy tips to set you up for success before you design your new program.

1. Develop a current state view, including costs

Start by analysing your entire compliance learning program, and quantify everything you can. Put together a table capturing summary info on each course: topic areas; learning objectives; modes of delivery; completion timeframes; reaccreditation requirements and completion rates. To get to a deeper level of analysis, include the relationship between each course and the specific legislative, regulatory or risk elements they are designed to address. Going back to these first principles of what and why is particularly important to understand and capture, especially if you have a legacy program that has been in place and/or added to over a long period.

Make some assumptions about what the overall program costs to implement on a recurring annual basis. If you have access to standardised hourly labour rates across your company, and can apply this to the number of learners completing the programs in any given year, then use this calculate the exact costs. If you don’t have standardised rates, get your calculator and work out an average hourly rate for all learners and use this. It’s important to understand the true costs of your total compliance learning program so you can make informed assessments about impact and value.

This overall current state analysis will be very useful throughout the process of engaging stakeholders and informing review and future state design considerations, and later as a baseline to evaluate your new program against.

2. Know your stakeholders

There are many people who have a stake in the process and outcomes of compliance programs. The most obvious ones are the people who are responsible for organisational compliance. At the highest level, your CEO and/or Board are the people who are ultimately accountable for ensuring that all employees know what they need to know to keep the company out of legal trouble.

Depending on the size and complexity of your organisation, you may have a legal, risk or compliance team, who have assumed some delegated responsibility from the CEO and/or Board for managing the overall compliance program.

There will likely also be subject matter experts, who are the key authority for a particular topic. These people can be the trickiest to manage, as they will be neck-deep in the specifics of their focus areas, and may not be able to see ‘the wood for the trees’.

Managers are also stakeholders, from the perspective of the amount of time it takes them and their team members to complete the program of courses, and having to manage the application of what has been learned to daily business operations.

The most important stakeholder group are the learners themselves. With compliance programs, this is everyone, from the boardroom to the frontline, including everyone in the above groups.

3. Ask for feedback

Whether you want to gather feedback formally via focus groups or surveys, or informally via observation, anecdotal evidence or random interviews, it’s important to understand what people across all stakeholder levels think of your current program.

To get a richer level of feedback, try to construct questions that go beyond content and delivery, and gather information about the relevance, application and effectiveness of the learning. Look for examples of where the programs may have failed, and dive into why that could be. Your earlier analysis of costs, along with feedback gathered, will be important information to use if you decide to proceed with a project to revamp your program.

4. Research and create the overarching principles for your new program

Compliance programs can historically be dry and boring, and are often overloaded with content, so don’t fall into this trap with your new design. A good guiding principle is to include only that content that ‘everyone in your organisation needs to know every day.’ This in itself may sound like a recipe to include everything, but it’s not! You should aim to elevate the content to just the absolute basics. Many employees may not need to apply their learning very frequently, so it’s important that the content covered is relevant, delivered appropriately and immediately useful, to make the knowledge as sticky as possible.

Where more detailed information needs to be included, consider the performance support options available to your learners. Your program principles should then include how to best build your employee’s understanding of when and where to access this additional information e.g.: via your company policy and procedure manuals, intranet/portal sites for further information or key contacts for specific expertise or help desks.

It’s far more important that learners can identify and understand when and where to seek further information than it is to attempt to build a program that imparts an encyclopaedic knowledge of everything. It will cost a fortune, it won’t work, the learners will hate doing it, and your compliance risks will skyrocket.

5. Reference best practice and standards wherever possible

When considering the principles for your new design, refer to best-practice wherever you can. It can be very helpful to reference external research or published standards for compliance programs, particularly if you find yourself dealing with stakeholders who want to include reams of unnecessary content at the expense of the learning process.

There is a new ISO standard (19600:2014 – Compliance Management System Guidelines) that goes into some detail about the competence and training requirements of compliance programs. Copyright restrictions prevent me from including the full reference, but in nutshell it suggests that organisations should make sure that employees are competent via education, training and work experience, and that results would be evaluated for effectiveness and evidence of competence records should be retained. It also suggests that training should be tailored to company and employee obligations, be based on an assessment of knowledge and competence gaps, practical, relevant and easily understood, and flexible enough to allow for different needs.

For those of you with programs that have a never-ending cycle of reaccreditation – i.e.: some or all courses need to be redone at regular intervals – the ISO standard has a section on what the triggers for considering retraining should be. These include when there is a change of positions, responsibilities, policy, procedure, structure, company obligations, or issues arising from program failures or recorded non compliances. So unless any of the above have occurred, or you are subject to a piece of legislation that specifically mandates a training frequency, the courses in your compliance program should not need reaccreditation.

Your stakeholders might think that repetition = learning, but that doesn’t mean it’s true. Do we really still believe that a person who needs to repeat a course on an annual basis understands everything on day 364, and on day 365 the knowledge just falls out of their head? It’s a ludicrous proposition, and if you can’t appeal to your stakeholder’s better judgment by referencing your feedback analysis and/or adult learning principles, the ISO standard might just help you to prove it.

Click here to purchase the full standard if you’re in Australia, or here for the rest of the world.

So what are you waiting for?

Compliance based learning programs get a bad rap in the world of work. And if they aren’t designed and reviewed properly, they probably should. If you’ve gotten this far, the next steps are where the fun begins – design, development, implementation and measurement!

Need help?

Contact Open Access Learning if you’d like more information or support to review and redesign your compliance learning program.

Further reading

Andrew Gerkens has published a great post on compliance training on LinkedIn Pulse – you can access it here

SAI Global have developed a useful and free illustrated guide to effective policy communication and training – you can access it here

Printable PDF: give your compliance learning programs a shake up