Key Concepts of Learning Path Design

Learning paths or pathways are a “new” iteration of a collection of individual, related pieces of content. Paths can be created to hold any number of individual content pieces. Paths typically follow a flow or a design to make it possible to build knowledge or a skill as you move along. And paths can contain any blend of internal, external, formal, and informal learning. As a digital learning concept, paths differ from curricula. They are a less strict, more open way of building knowledge and skill. Designing a digital learning path often relies upon curation, blended learning, and understanding the needs of the learner. Let’s look at some concepts and ideas.

Learning Path Foundations

First, some guidelines. Many people ask how many pieces of content are best for a good learning path. Well, it depends. (I know you don’t like that answer). If you are just answering a simple moment of need, it can be as few as three. But if you are building a complex skill, it can reach much more. I have seen complex layered pathways that exceed 25 pieces of content and assessments. However, remember, less is more. People today are overwhelmed, and often short on time. Respect their time and focus the content. Sure, you can add resources or reference material, but ask yourself: would you read this?  

Several well-known content subscription services build curricula (deliberate usage of that term) with 20 ̶ 30 chapters of microlearning content. Each is short, 2 ̶ 5 minutes but all together it is often well over an hour of content to address a simple concept. Who has time for that today? Be ruthless in selecting content for your path.

One of the cool parts of digital learning is the ability to blend modalities. Blending internal, external, formal, and informal content makes it more engaging and allows learners to use all their types of learning styles. It also lets us mix it up and help retention.

The Flow of a Good Learning Path

A critical skill for Instructional Designers has always been to create a good flow. We strive to create connective tissue, to build from one step to another and to design something that will drive people to continue to the end. That has not changed. What has changed is that many companies today now have Learning Solution Architects or Learning Producers. This role change encompasses some new skills: design thinking, marketing, video production, curation, and more.  

Some paths can allow for different learning styles or different goals. They allow people to select three out of five pieces of content, for example. Or they give a good foundation and show how to go deeper. In digital learning, people often want to just scan the topic. If you have an opening piece that gives that shallow understanding, talk to them about diving in to learn more.  

Finally, in terms of a flow, start with “why.” Simon Sinek expresses this best. I typically start with “why,” move to “what,” and then to “how.” I end with reinforcement and practice.

Curation of a Learning Path

I have found a few tricks to designing using curation. A hot topic today, curation allows you to pull in content from a plethora of sources.Since there are millions of resources readily available to us today, curation is often the best solution. We have subscription services, content aggregators, free and open web content, LMS content, intranet storage, and machine curation from all the above.

Here is my process flow for curating a pathway:  

  • First, I curate the content, finding all that I can to address the subject. Sometimes I am lucky and I can pull in content that exists. Sometimes I need to create content. And sometimes I need to reach out to experts or leaders to help create content.
  • Next, I filter it down to the bare bones. I look for the most relevant areas to address the need and cut the rest.
  • Finally, I check to make sure I have the right blend of modalities, voices, and depth. Then I walk away for a day or so. When I come back with fresh eyes, I can often cut more. The end result should cover the objectives without any fluff.  

     RELATED ARTICLE: How to Master the Art and Science of Content Curation

Adding User Generated Content

In the past, Learning and Development had command and control of what an enterprise employee learned. We pushed out topics and programs using a mix of classroom, e-learning, and virtual. We might get some Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) to work with us on technical subjects, but we controlled the media and program. We used complex tools to design learning. Some required years of experience to learn.

Today, there are fantastic tools to allow SMEs and other non-Learning professionals to design content. Just look at YouTube to see some of this explosion. And there are now tools built into learning ecosystems to allow simple curation or sharing. It has never been easier to create.

  • Recruit experts and leaders to create good paths.
  • Mentor them on what good looks like.
  • Give them the tools to create and you will drive up engagement.  

Blending and Delivering

Some of the best learning paths that I have seen provide a simple blend of content. For example, instead of a two-day class on Difficult Conversations, create a path with some micro learning from YouTube, TED and others; along with a short virtual workshop for practice and some tools for retention. Or, for a three-month long program on upskilling the marketing group, flip the classroom. Create a path of prework with the key concepts described in articles from Harvard, custom e-learning and a leader video. Follow that with a face to face cohort class where they practice. End with curated resources.  

Learning paths come in all shapes and sizes. Blend and curate from the best!

More articles by this author:
How to Leverage Leadership to Support Learning Success
What is a Learning Ecosystem and Should I Get One?
Machine Learning: Best Use Cases in Learning and Development

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