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The Two Lifelong Learning Walls

Transitioning towards better lifelong learning will involve facilitating more structured learning and leaning into the natural motivation and behavior.
Alberto Arenaza
November 6, 2019

The two key challenges to lifelong learning and how Sunlight approaches them:

Last weekend, I was sitting at home when I slowly started sliding down the Youtube rabbit hole, watching videos of people teaching themselves languages in short periods of time.

"How I learned Italian in 1 week!" or "Showed up in Paris not knowing any French - now I'm fluent!".

It was so entertaining: these people would reflect on how they've learned most effectively in the past, look at similar cases, and research pedagogy and cognitive papers to better understand how to use their brains most effectively. Once they figured out a strategy, they went really hard for a few days to make sure they learned what they needed. At some point I decided to shake off the Sunday laziness and move on with my day.

While I was inspired to give Italian a try after watching these videos, I wasn't necessarily watching because I wanted to learn - I was watching because I was genuinely entertained by this content, and the learning happens as a side product. I'm sure many can relate to this experience.

This sort of experience is very relevant to the workplace today, as companies acknowledge lifelong learning as an important factor for career growth and workplace satisfaction. But companies keep hitting a wall when it comes to adopting tools that will foster lifelong learning and incorporate it into the users' careers.

The way I see it, there are two key components to understanding why this type of learning hasn't successfully trickled down to our method of learning in the workplace.

The first wall is the lack of an appropriate learning structure. 

When we gain new knowledge (in this case, how to learn new languages more effectively), this new nugget of wisdom is rarely connected to our wider "blocks of knowledge": most often, we stop thinking about it as soon as the autoplay countdown comes to an end and we move on to the next video, so it only stays momentarily in our working memory and peacefully escapes after a few days .

In other words, by not incorporating it into our wider network of things we know about the world, we don't consolidate that knowledge and we easily forget it. For example, we could use this new knowledge about language learning to better understanding how one works best with others (when you should have alone time to focus vs when you should be in meetings), how one approaches daunting tasks, how one can learn other skills more effectively, etc.

The lack of learning "infrastructure" slowly kills this newly found knowledge, and fails to incorporate it into our work and wider understanding of the world.

The second wall has to do with terrible design slowly killing the learner motivation.

Let's look at the design of YouTube, Netflix or Spotify, who are designed to keep users coming back to their platforms and consume as much content as possible: ethical issues aside, they are very successful at designing products that will trigger our curious minds and take us through these aforementioned rabbit holes. But the lifelong learning tools today look nothing like this, many with terrible Moodle-like formats. Nothing about their product design tells the user "come back for more".

Motivation is vital in the context of lifelong learning: most micro-credentialing initiatives in fact depend on the employees' own drive to want to learn, competing for time and attention with getting more urgent work done or spending time outside of work. Because of these two reasons, it's not enough to simply certify that an employee has learned something by putting a seal of approval or creating a certificate - if we really want to leverage what users are learning in their own time, we must meet them where they are learning. 

No lifelong learning tool will successfully engage employees in learning without understanding how to effectively connect new and old knowledge and motivate them to use the tool through beautiful and simple design. Here's our own approach at Sunlight, and why we think our bet on playlists will allow us to capture the 1) the ways in which employees more effectively learn and 2) the ways in which they naturally like to learn and consume content.

1. The playlist as a learning pathway

Playlist allow for consequential introduction of the content, in a way that can start with the basic building blocks (terms and concepts) and proceed to higher levels of complexity with time. This allows for a better pathway towards understanding the concept of study: in learning how to play the guitar, jumping straight into learning difficult guitar solos will only drive learning through muscle memory, but won't allow the musician to better understand other songs as a result of the learned piece. Starting from the basics will allow them to make sense of the solo by understanding the scales and chords that ground it.

But this aspect could also be attained through a simple document! The key feature is that playlists lower the barrier to collaboration, which make the creation of a learning path more collaborative and open. For example, if I hear from my colleagues that I need to refine my presentation skills, who would be better position to refer me to learning resources than them? I can create my own learning path and open it up to my manager and colleagues for suggestions and guidance.

2. The playlist as a tool for engagement

The second use case of the playlist is driver of employee engagement. Opening the learning process to the rest of the team allows for better transparency, accountability and engagement, and the playlist as a social and collaborative instrument enables this. How much music has been discovered through the Spotify sharing features? How much has been caught by users seeing their friends listening to music in real time?

If you add a beautiful UI design to the playlists, we think playlists present a very promising case as a driver of better learner engagement.

Overall, we think that transitioning towards better lifelong learning platform design will involve facilitating more structured learning and leaning into the natural motivation and behavior of the user. We are moving in this direction at Sunlight, and hope you can join us on this journey!

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