The current pandemic has shaken up many systems society thought were in place, starting with the obvious — the healthcare system, the education system, the transportation system — and all the way to housing, finances, how we deal with mental health issues, how we work. It’s natural to want things to go back to normal, but the new normal, the one after the pandemic will end, must be different than the normal that was before it.
We, humans, have survived many hardships. Our ability to adapt is what will help us overcome all challenges.
One very clear example of how fast we can adapt lies in the way so many people have come to manage the realities of remote work. A growing number of employers and employees realize that work is an activity, not a place. Remote workers can be as productive — if not more — as those who go to the office each day.
Of course, not everyone can perform their jobs from their homes, but for those that can, remote work should be a sound alternative to working in an office. Twitter was the first to open up this path, allowing employees to work from home in perpetuity; other tech companies will surely follow suit.
Remote workforces could very well become part of the new normal. But there’s one thing as old as times that will remain true even then: people will always need to learn. Remote employees will still need to learn and develop professionally if they are to not only ensure business continuity but also business success.
Therefore, trainers and instructional designers need to step up their game and create the best learning experiences for remote employees. Luckily, technologies like learning management systems that make it possible to create online asynchronous training courses, have their backs.
Exploring 5 types of asynchronous training
Last time we explored the spectrum between synchronous and asynchronous training as the basis of understanding how to create a great asynchronous learning experience. Now let’s move on to what options you have as a training instructor when designing it.
So let’s discover the five types of asynchronous learning and what each one brings to the table in the whole scheme of training a remote workforce:
The simplest style of asynchronous is what we call linear autoplay. The easiest way to do this is to create a series of training modules in video format (of five to 10 minutes each, for example), connect them in a sequence, and let the learners go through all that video content at their own pace. Once the first module ends, the learning platform will automatically feed the next one, and so on.
Of course, users should be able to hit the pause button if they need to, resume watching when they see fit, rewatch each video if they want, how many times they want — basically have some control over their learning journey. It’s a very pleasant and convenient way to learn.
LinkedIn Learning is probably the best example of asynchronous training in the form of linear autoplay. They have a large library of videos on a vast amount of topics and users can advance at their own pace.
In a lot of cases, linear autoplay is all you need when designing asynchronous training. If the topic that has to be taught is fairly straightforward, it’s enough that each video module builds upon the previous one, and learners can establish a few rules of their own in their learning process.
Linear with hurdles
Building upon the first type of asynchronous learning, how can instructional designers make sure that learners don’t just go all the way to the end of a video training course without actually having learned something? Just because someone watched a video doesn’t mean they automatically absorbed all the information presented in that video, after all.
An efficient trick used by many online trainers is to add a short quiz or another type of assessment after every two or three video modules. In a series of 10 or 12 modules, for example, there could be three or four such “hurdles”. Users can still decide when to learn, to pause or rewatch a video, and take as much time as necessary to go through all training content. And when they reach the end of a course they will have passed a number of these interim assessments.
Each hurdle acts as both a natural pause, as we know people can’t focus for extended periods of time, and as a way to ensure learners have mastered the main concepts of the first modules before moving on to the following, more advanced ones. If they didn’t quite understand something, they must take action if they want to progress.
As an instructor, you can make those quizzes quite sophisticated, by the way. For instance, you can create question banks, and have each question bank tagged with the specific concepts that it’s measuring, so that every single learner gets a different, personalized quiz. And with the right learning platform, it can be done in minutes.
As we all, know, things don’t always have to happen in a particular order, and this can apply to learning, too. Sometimes people already master part of the training materials, or they simply are more interested in one module over others and they want to start with that.
Let’s just say that your particular course is a collection of modules that don’t necessarily have preconditions. In other words, a learner doesn’t necessarily have to do module A followed by module B; maybe they can do A, and then D, and then B, and then F. Each module could have a small quiz at the end, but its passing doesn’t affect the ability of the user to go to another module.
The order in which learners take each module is irrelevant; what matters most is that they take them all and pass the final quiz. That’s what we call random access.
This type of asynchronous training is also quite easy to design, but it’s fairly uncommon because most of the time in a course there is some degree of dependency, and learners expect that; they don’t have the concept of going through any training module in any order.
Having choices is important for adult learners. The more agency they have over their learning process the more involved they get. Nobody likes being told what to do, so instructional designers have this tricky task of telling people what to learn, but in a way that gives them enough control and the feeling they’re in charge.
Static branching takes things a step further in asynchronous training, by offering a higher degree of agency to learners. For example, a training course could start with an introduction and then expand into three different branches, about three fairly different subtopics of the course: Branch A might have three modules, Branch B might have four, while Branch C only two.
The learner decides which branch to start with, which one they’ll take on next, and so on, but they can’t jump from one branch to another without finishing a quiz, nor they can finish the course without going through all modules from all branches.
So things are still quite static. The instructor figures out exactly all the secrets. Everyone will ultimately take exactly the same modules. The only difference is you have given learners a kind of curated pathway and the freedom of determining which pathway they’re going to take first. At the end of the day, people are still being told what to do.
And this brings us to the final type of asynchronous training, which is also my favorite:
Dynamic branching is the most sophisticated type of all. It makes it possible for each learner to take different modules compared to any other learner — and still finish the course. It’s a more personalized, adaptive way of doing things.
For example, a training course could offer learners a real option in terms of how they want to complete it: through a case study, or through a simulation. Regardless of which option a learner takes, at the end of it, the course is considered finished; they don’t have to go through the other path as well.
Also, learners can have their prior knowledge about the topic of a course assessed. If they prove to know the material very well, then the system might show some advanced modules. But if they’re not doing very well, it might show them some remedial modules that they have to take before it unlocks the advanced modules. In other words, based on how learners are doing in your course, as well as their own personal learning needs, they will have their own circuit through that particular course.
Both of these examples are totally possible to design using a sophisticated learning platform.
Now that we’re clear on the differences between synchronous and asynchronous training, and the various types of asynchronous learning, we’ll move on to explore a number of specific techniques online instructors can use when designing the best asynchronous training experience for remote workers. We’ll do that next time. So keep an eye on the MATRIX Blog!
Graham is the CEO and Founder of CYPHER LEARNING and NEO. He is a serial entrepreneur, e-learning enthusiast, published author and educator.