Community Learning in the Age of Advanced Technology

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Data Society
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August 2023
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As technological advances transform industries, they fuel mounting demands—and expanding options—for workers to update their skills. Many of today’s training programs take advantage of recent innovations to meet this need with convenient, accessible, and self-paced educational offerings. However, time-honored elements of the traditional classroom remain powerful tools in the pursuit of effective instruction. Aided by the latest digital technologies that enhance—rather than replace—human interaction, cohort-based, instructor-led training continues to prove the value of community in delivering learning that sticks.

The Growing Need for Effective Skills Training

The impetus for workers to acquire new skills has never been more evident. Several trends drive this need. 87 percent of companies surveyed for a 2021 McKinsey study report that they either have skills gaps or expected to have skills gaps in the near future. For many companies, as demand for new skills in the workforce evolves in pace with new technologies, skills are eclipsing experience and university degrees as hiring considerations. According to the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report 2023, more companies surveyed report using skills assessments than university degrees in selecting candidates. 

In light of these trends, it’s clear that today’s professionals face a compelling need not only to participate in training programs, but to receive training that helps them fully digest, retain, and readily apply new skills in their work. These current learning requirements challenge organizations and individuals to identify the most effective training resources in a vast field of offerings.

The Unrealized Promise of MOOCs

For several years, massive open online courses (MOOCs) provided what appeared to be ideal solutions to burgeoning demands for workforce training. These broadly available classes offered the convenience of accessible, self-paced learning that could accommodate limited schedules and budgets. However, MOOCs’ outcomes over the years have fallen short of expectations. Low completion and retention rates cited in a study of MOOCs in higher education reflect MOOCs’ limited power to engage learners and hold their interest. This failure to capture and retain the attention of learners, despite the benefits of convenience and accessibility, minimizes the overall impact of this once promising resource and highlights the value of real-time human dynamics in learning.

The Power of Community to Drive Learning Outcomes

In contrast to MOOCs, learning environments that provide the community experience of traditional classrooms can captivate, motivate, and engage learners. Whether delivered online or in person, cohort-based, instructor-led training programs give learners access to the widely recognized advantages of social learning, such as knowledge sharing, exposure to different perspectives, and the encouragement of peers. The perceived value of social learning is evident in LinkedIn Learning’s 2020 report, which stated that 75 percent of L&D professionals surveyed expected an uptick in social learning, such as online learning groups, in the years to come. 

With the shared experience of a cohort and the real-time guidance of a live instructor, learners reap several benefits—such as mutual accountability and the ability to ask and answer questions in the moment—that lead to deeper learning. By supporting peer-to-peer and instructor-to-learner interaction, training programs tap into natural human dynamics that encourage learners to make meaningful investments in their learning journeys. There are several ways in which cohort-based learning and instructor-led training support these outcomes. 

Cohort-based Learning 
When it comes to immersing learners in a subject, there is no substitute for shared challenges and accomplishments. In contrast to MOOCs, some cohort-based programs report a completion rate of 85 percent. Cohort-based courses support and motivate students through the power of real-time interaction among peers, which fuels their drive to meet one another’s expectations and contribute to group success. In this environment, learners have opportunities to offer and request feedback from their peers and work together to overcome shared challenges. 

Fostering collective efforts and mutual support, cohort-based learning experiences offer an additional benefit for today’s professionals by nurturing soft skills, such as communication and collaboration, which are rapidly climbing the list of critical workforce tools. Finally, and importantly, cohort-based courses provide strong foundations for networks of professional support that can endure long after a training program draws to a close. This can lead to communities of best practice forming across organizations, which can reduce time on challenging tasks and institute standard practices.

Instructor-led Training
A training program’s power to engage learners relies heavily on its appeal to learners, and research indicates that learners rank instructor-led training on the top of their list of preferred training methods across both generations and subject areas. Instructor-led training nurtures learner success by creating interpersonal connections that spark curiosity, facilitate open dialogue, and nurture growth.

A skilled instructor at the helm of the classroom is able to provide personalized guidance and additional support as needed by assessing learners’ engagement, understanding, and progress in real time. Continuously tracking these measurements of learning enables instructors to respond and adapt readily to challenges as they arise. For example, they can modify course materials and select different examples for demonstrations to make the content more relevant and accessible to a given cohort. In addition, they can adjust course pacing to devote more time on a topic that learners are struggling to grasp. 

This routine classroom interaction also helps instructors remain accountable to their learners, learn from them, and update course topics to equip them with the most current knowledge and skills. Given these strengths, instructor-led training is an especially effective method for instilling knowledge of complex topics and cultivating technical skills.

Learning Through Technology and Community

While cohort-based, instructor-led courses embrace the time-honored strengths of traditional classrooms, their impact can only increase with help from the latest technologies. Digital platforms such as Zoom have facilitated virtual classrooms that deliver the impact of collective learning with the convenience of the virtual world. In addition, generative AI is introducing powerful new tools into the field of instructor-led training. For example, instructors can enhance learning experiences by using generative AI to develop personalized content, analyze learner responses to materials, perform assessments, and facilitate collaboration. Other use cases for generative AI in education include creating customized activities and study plans based on individual learners’ strengths, weaknesses, and interests. The technology can also help identify skills gaps and overcome language barriers in the classroom. 

Despite reservations about the challenges this technology presents, its appeal among educators appears to be growing at a rapid pace. A recent survey found that 67 percent of higher education professionals reported optimistic or very optimistic attitudes toward generative AI in April 2023, as compared to only 54 percent just two months prior.

Old-School Approaches to Building New-School Skills

Options for training are rapidly evolving at a time when workforces face mounting pressure to upskill and reskill. In this climate, professionals are seeking learning experiences that produce real and lasting impact. Taking cues from the success of the traditional classroom while embracing emerging technologies, cohort-based and instructor-led training programs continue to demonstrate their power to deliver learning outcomes that empower today’s workforce.

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