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Online Learning Insights From The Pandemic

A passion for people and their potential has to be manifested as much in your pedagogy as in your team.

The year 2020 threw curveballs at many of us - the entire learning ecosystem was collectively put into question and organizational strategies that used to work now faced wide barriers. In these confusing times, an abiding hope for the future, an urge to grow amidst the churn and gloom, and an effort to feel (somewhat) in control drove so many of us to focus on self-development: we all know stories of incredible weight loss, new fitness regime, an embracing of new passions, such as cooking, or the determined rise in upskilling and reskilling.

As an entrepreneur, I was fortunate enough to not only survive but thrive this year at Harappa. This progress that so often seemed almost impossible, or much too daunting. I was able to grow my startup almost three times in team strength, and have achieved all our business goals. 

Managing the above has been thrilling and intense enough, but what's been most exciting is the many insights I’ve gained about online learning. These insights are a nod to the year when so many of us became online learners for the first time.

Indian professionals value social proof

As part of the Nudge engine we have created at Harappa, we send out reminders, designed on behavioural science principles, to help our learners make progress on their learning. These reminders help them track their course learning patterns and formulate dedicated timelines that evoke in them a sense of competence and achievement. One such cohort-wide nudge is the Honor Roll, to congratulate learners who have completed the course that week. It’s based on the principle of social proof, and it works like a charm.

Lifelong learning is for real: don’t assume who wants to learn what!

Throughout last year, as an entrepreneur I’ve learned so much— most importantly, not to assume who wants to learn what, when, and at what stage of their life and career. Our learners come from all walks of life: teachers, data science professionals, government administrators, first-time entrepreneurs, and senior corporate managers. Contrary to what some people may believe, the learners in the older age category engaged more with our cognitive and social courses compared to younger learners. 

Learners still care about 'marks'!

I consider online learners of today to be early adopters of new technology. Usually, early adopters are rebels at heart, excited by new frontiers and new futures. But, even the most future-forward of us have been shaped by our past. This has been most evident to us when it comes to assessments—and 'scores'! More than anything on any other part of the learning journey, learners are highly invested in the feedback layer on the practice and assessment segments in our courses. Their engagement, probably because it leads to their scores, is highest at these points. Encouragingly, they also ask for qualitative feedback, discuss the scores they have got, and debate answers they got wrong! Queries from our learners about details of their answers marked wrong and conversations to understand why a specific framework was applied to our correct answer indicate their inclination towards the evaluation segment of our course.

There is a prime time for learning too!

The learning phase appeared less evenly distributed during the entire day but rather showed an acute variation in learner behaviour: specific peak hours and most preferred days of the week. Lockdowns had an impact on popular learning days too. The research for it introduced us to principles on foundational skill learning patterns that these learners inculcated in their routines. 11 am was the most popular learning hour (no-commute and learning with morning tea/breakfast works!) followed by 4 pm for our learners. 

Also, the weekend binge was real! Weekend learners spent more time on the platform. Sundays had the highest session duration, followed by Saturday (20-25 minutes). The average session duration on weekdays was about 15 minutes.

Well begun is half done!

If the learner can break through the inertia, friction, and barriers, in the beginning, learners become more invested in completing the courses, programs, and journeys they take on. A course that is started, keeping in mind learner behaviour in a peerless narrative, is much likely to respond better. 

As learning pioneers, we need to focus on getting them started and started well. If educators can help trigger motivation, buy-in, and the right behaviours at the beginning of the journey, and anticipate the challenges learners go through at that time, we can set the stage for high completions.

Communication and thinking skills are the most in-demand

In our direct-to-learner segment, Speaking Effectively emerged as the most in-demand course. Of course, this is a function of our early hypothesis that impactful speaking is an acutely felt pain point for professional and personal success and would appeal to a wide range of learners. Courses that emerged as clear frontrunners in terms of the trials they attract, without any marketing push, included Leading Self, Unleashing Creativity and Writing Proficiently. These skills are powerful and have key value for creating a new frontier of excellence, and we are excited that there is a growing intrinsic pull for them!

Career services is an acutely felt pain

In our work with higher education institutions, we’ve found that from all the offerings we have from Year 1 to final year, it’s our Placement Readiness Program that really stands out for students. This is not surprising of course, getting the right job and getting a good salary is top-of-mind for most students. According to the surveys, earning their own money and learning new skills is what graduates look forward to most after college, yet nearly half of all students lack direction.

Keep practice short, sweet and simple!

To reinforce concepts already learned through running behaviour challenges, we've realized that the activities must be simple to do. This is one of the most important things to get right for deliberate practice after a course is completed (key for building habits and changing behaviours!) and is as true for mature professional learners as it is for younger learners. High-effort activities see less engagement and participation from learners. Keeping these practice lessons short facilitates learners to engage well that further leads them to the completion of the course. 

Make the peer group 'herd' each other!

Peer-to-peer interaction accounted for increased attentiveness in the course structure. Herd immunity took on a whole new meaning in 2020 but the wisdom and trigger of the community were powerful for engagement in this learning phase too. We used the principle of Rational Herding (when people react to the behaviours of others who are similar to them) to validate this. More than 31 per cent of learners showed renewed interest in a concept when they saw a peer ask about it, either on a common email chain or in a live session. Two elements amplified this:

  1. When the difficulty of the material was at the upper end, there was a positive correlation with Rational Herding.
  2. When the cohort was a homogenized group (designation bands such as VPs together or first-time managers together), Rational Herding was 4 times more likely to occur.

The more the merrier: an involved custodian equals great outcomes

Most learners respond better when they get to engage with a single point of contact, their SPOC and have their queries and difficulties addressed. In our business-to-business segment (institutional and enterprise), it’s evident that the more involved the SPOCs are, the better their cohorts tend to perform. These people are also willing to experiment with new ways to engage learners and yield better learning outcomes. An “involved” SPOC participates in the learning experience, corresponds with our delivery and engagement teams deeply, shares feedback from other stakeholders within their company with us and actively solves for individual learners who are stuck on the learning journey. 

Learners are inspired when they realize good communication isn't just good English

Nervousness in English holds people back and is the most important reason for poor interview performance. Fluent English skills remain a valuable currency of progress in urban India, irrespective of its debatable fairness. But, proficiency in the language isn’t the only way. It's why our Speaking Effectively course is a huge revelation for our learners.  The course begins with the story of entrepreneur Arunachalam Muruganantham and his powerful speech at a UN conference where English isn’t Arunachalam’s first language but his speech’s message is clear. This is a memorable Aha! a moment for our learners and a moment of reassurance. It’s a shot of positive can-do that does more than the best theory can to make learners believe they can improve. Treating language as a barrier results in learners regressing on the path of development.  

An engaging online course is like a medley of elements— or a great Indian thali!

One of our major takeaways from last year has to be that engagement is the holy grail of online learning. We’ve been deeply committed to ensuring high completion rates, as a key metric of engagement. To make this happen, we knew that we would need to blend several elements. Our hypothesis that you need a range of features to appeal also seems to be validated.

BFSI & IT/ITeS want communication & leadership!

Top skill needs from IT/ITeS look something like this:

Learners from the BFSI segment have expressed the need for the following skills:

  • Writing and real-life presentations skills
  • Techniques to add speed while maintaining clarity of communication, for both verbal and written communication
  • Understanding body language, and desire to demonstrate authority, while being calm, compassionate and fun was highlighted by 21 per cent of the learners

The clear difference in learning preferences across generations!

In skill learning courses, age affects learning behaviour and directs their engagement metrics. A great privilege is that our learners' age group range is 18-55.

  • Learners between 18-22 years most prefer learning through collaboration with peers and experts. 
  • Learners between 22-37 years most want learning to be customized to their individual needs. 
  • Learners between 38-55 years aspire for high proficiency in learning so that it can help them contribute to direct revenue increase and social impact.

Your learners meet your team first

It takes a team that has the heart of an educator and nurturer, and the mind of an innovator and builder, to establish a learning business. Our dedicated team is the backbone of the entire learning structure designed for our courses. As much as we are nothing without our learners at Harappa, we are nothing without our teams. 

Our learners meet our team first too, whether it's through our online learning support, or in live sessions: a passion for people and their potential has to be manifested as much in your pedagogy as in your team.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house


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