What is Subscription Learning — by Dr. Will Thalheimer

In my last blog post I argued that for microlearning to be effective the individual learning nuggets must be embedded within a larger learning strategy. In Intela, we call this larger strategy “Learning Subscriptions.” After I wrote the post I came across an article written in 2014 by Dr. Will Thalheimer (www.work-learning.com) making a similar argument.

 I have long been an admirer of Will’s work. He and I agree that if we are to consider ourselves professionals we must take an evidence-based approach to our field — and he has spent more than a decade challenging us to do so.

With Will’s permission I am reprinting his article on Subscription Learning here. It is somewhat longer than what I usually write but well worth the time. (Truthfully, he does a better job making the case than I did.)

Steven Just Ed.D.

Subscription Learning Defined

Subscription learning, as its name implies, provides an intermittent stream of learning-related interactions to those who are subscribed. These learning-related interactions–called “nuggets”–can involve a great variety of learning-related events, including content presentation, diagnostics, scenario-based questions, job aids, reflection questions, assignments, discussions, etc.

Nuggets are short, usually presented in less than five minutes, delivered to recipients using push technology; either through email, text messaging, cell-phone alerts, desktop notifications, or some other form of prompting. Nuggets are intentionally scheduled over time to support learning, often utilizing research-based findings related to the spacing effect. Learners subscribe (or are subscribed) to one or more series of learning nuggets, called “threads.”

Learning threads can be predesigned, creating nuggets based on anticipated learner needs or they can be dynamically created based on learner performance. Threads can be an alternate way to present course-like information, they can augment other learning interventions, or they can provide an alternative to traditional learning approaches. In addition, subscription learning can go beyond learning delivery and be designed to create open communication channels, directly prompt performance, or provide hybrid experiences.

Visual Representation

Let’s compare a 90-minute elearning course to a commensurate subscription-learning thread. Typically, learners will engage a 90-minute elearning program in one sitting on one day, never to engage the learning material again. A standard e-learning course could be pictured as one big block of learning, whereas the same content in a subscription-learning thread could be presented as 18 five-minute learning nuggets.

Screen Shot 2018-01-09 at 10.00.18 AM

Given the time-based reality that subscription-learning nuggets are spread over time, it’s probably best to present nuggets as typically distributed on a calendar.



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Special Capabilities of Subscription Learning

Subscription learning provides affordances that standard elearning typically does not provide. Here’s a short list:

  • Relatively long spaced-repetition intervals to maximize remembering
  • Engagement in the learners’ work context over time
  • Opportunities for learners to practice real-world tasks over time
  • Increased likelihood that learning will be discussed with coworkers
  • Multiple learning contexts in terms of cognitive frames of mind
  • Heightened attention to learning content with fresh engagements
  • Potential to prompt on-the-job actions with multiple prompts
  • Potential to engage in social-media conversations that support learning
  • Potential to engage with senior leaders or other organizational experts
  • Potential to modify content in response to learning dynamics
  • Potential to modify content in response to organizational changes

Research-Based Benefits

From a learning standpoint, subscription learning has several advantages over typical training. First, it keeps learning fresh in the minds of learners. Forgetting is a natural cognitive process, but it is the scourge of most training programs. By utilizing a thread of short nuggets, key concepts stay accessible from within long-term memory. Second, subscription learning can be designed to utilize the spacing effect—one of learning science’s most studied phenomenon. The spacing effect is the research finding that repetitions of concepts spaced over time are a more potent way to support long-term memory than repetitions that are not spaced over time (or are not spaced as widely in time). Interestingly, while the spacing effect is one of the most studied learning factors it is also one of the most underutilized in training and education.

Note that while subscription learning is the learning approach most amenable to the spacing effect, subscription learning need not utilize the spacing effect. When a learning thread presents new content in each nugget–and never utilizes the power of repetition–we still have subscription learning, but we don’t have the spacing effect.

Macro vs. Micro Spacings

While immersing myself in the research and attempting to bridge the gap between the research and practical learning situations, I realized that a new terminology was needed. Spacings can be relatively long, say providing a content repetition after four days; or relatively short, for example providing content repetitions after a minute or two. In practice, both can work very effectively—but their relevance depends on factors like the topic, the learners’ knowledge level, importance, etc.

Micro spacings are utilized when learners have to learn many separate bits of knowledge. For example, in learning a language, learners are trying to learn tons of vocabulary—so waiting a week between content presentations would be too slow. In such a case, micro spacings present many learning opportunities within a short time frame. Micro spacings are particularly valuable for things like language learning, vocabulary, multiplication tables, or any learning situation where there is a lot of learning information—or there is a short time horizon for learning a smaller set of information.

Macro spacings are utilized when learners only have to learn a short list of learning points (say less than 20)—or when there is no urgency in learning and repetitions can be leisurely spread over time.

Of course, we shouldn’t forget the findings of the learning researchers. In general, the longer the spacing interval, the longer the information will be remembered. Indeed, micro spacings often require a hybrid spacing scheme, using multiple micro spacings in one sitting, but then utilizing macro spacing to ensure long-term remembering.

The diagram below is my attempt to show how micro spacings differ from macro-spacings—and how they can be combined.

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Why is the Subscription-Learning Notion Important?

To put it simply, subscription learning is a radical new paradigm in elearning. It enables us to think about elearning in new ways–in ways that challenge our old mental models of elearning.

Elearning is still a relatively young field, having its start in the 1960’s during the advent of the computer age and gradually gaining a critical mass after the internet became a mass phenomenon. Because it’s a young field, we are still learning how to think about elearning. With each new paradigm, we think more deeply, more fully about what elearning is–and can be. Below is my categorization of the most important elearning paradigms as of 2014.

eLearning Paradigms 2014

  • Content Presenter (enables content to be presented to learners)
  • Comprehension Tester (enables learners’ knowledge to be tested–and feedback provided)
  • Practice Provider (enables learners’ decision-making to be tested–and feedback provided)
  • Performance Supporter (enables performers to be prompted toward action)
  • Reminder (enables learners or performers to be reminded to learn and/or take action)
  • Social Augmentation Provider (enables learners to learn from and with each other)
  • Gamification Provider (provides motivational incentives and behavioral prompts to action)
  • Mobile Learning Provider (provides learning and/or performance support through mobile technology)
  • Data Utilizer (enables data collection and data-based interventions)
  • Video Provider (enables video to be utilized in various ways)
  • Learning Organizer (provides organizational structure around learning opportunities)
  • Personalizer (enables content or prompting to be individualized or tailored)
  • Learning-Delivery Augmenter (enables easy delivery of content or prompting)
  • Context-Based Triggerer (enables content or prompting to be delivered depending on context)
  • Cost Saver (enables learning to be delivered at a lower cost)

I’m sure that I’m missing some elearning paradigms. You might have noticed that I’m only listing elearning memes that have a positive connotation. I am not mentioning such things as boring, trivial, poorly-designed. Also, some of the list may not be true, or may not always be true. For example, I’ve recently read research that shows that elearning is not often a cost saver. The bottom line, however, is that the list above represents a good number of the ways in which we tend to think about elearning.

Here’s the thing: The paradigms listed above represent the dominant mental models we use when we think about elearning. As Thomas Kuhn wrote many years ago, paradigms are a double-edge sword. On the one hand, they help us think. On the other hand, they put boundaries on what we think. For us in the learning field, we get both benefits and costs from our elearning paradigms. They help us consider ways that we might design or utilize elearning. On the darker side, they constrict our thinking. One of the reasons we created the eLearningManifesto was to get the field to think beyond some of its weaker paradigms.

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The Subscription-Learning Meme

I am pushing the idea of subscription learning not just because it is aligned with the learning research on the spacing effect, but also because it gives us a completely new way of thinking about elearning. It opens elearning to new possibilities.

Where we often think of elearning content delivery as requiring relatively long events of 30 minutes or more, subscription learning lets us think of much shorter events spaced over time. Where we often think of performance support as being delivered through a single-focus system at a time of known need, subscription learning can prompt a series of thoughts or actions even when learners don’t know they need to know. Where we think that learners have to seek their own learning nuggets, subscription learning can push learning to learners to better support learning as a process.

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