Many organizations deliver learning experiences (e.g., courses, training, workshops) that are central to their value proposition.
- For a nonprofit organization, learning experiences might be how their mission is carried out.
- For a business, they could generate revenue or deepen connections with customers.
- For a university, learning experiences might be the method of delivering on its educational promise.
Historically, many learning experiences have been delivered in person, but when COVID-19 hit, these organizations had to take their learning experiences online.
Now that the immediate crisis of the pandemic has eased, leadership in these organizations must determine what other investments should be made in online experiences. Yet they often have a limited understanding of both what is possible with online learning and which mental framework will help them understand the options available.
In this article, I’ll address these issues and provide guidance to leaders facing these decisions.
Defining Richness and Reach
In their 1999 book on business strategy, Blown to Bits, Boston Consulting Group leaders Philip Evans and Thomas S. Wurster examined the relationship between “richness” and “reach.”
- “Richness means the quality of information, as defined by the user: accuracy, bandwidth, currency, customization, interactivity, relevance, security, and so forth.”
- “Reach means the number of people who participate in the sharing of that information.”
Before digitization, there was a tradeoff between the two. You could “share extremely rich information with a very small number of people and less rich information with a larger number.”
Two decades later, digital technology has eliminated the compromise between richness and reach in a variety of industries. When it comes to digital learning, Extension Engine witnesses this transformation every day.
Digital Learning: Compromise or Optimize?
The pandemic forced many organizations to quickly pivot to digital learning. Surprisingly, even after they established their online presence, they didn’t always take advantage of this union of richness and reach. More than a year later, they still think they must dilute what they offer as they expand the audience they offer it to. Few leaders realize how effectively they can deploy experiences that push boundaries.
This graph captures some of the possibilities. As you can see, these different digital methods optimize richness and reach to varying degrees, but none of them require you to sacrifice one for the other.
Asynchronous learning provides all resources online so that students can complete a course without the teacher being present. It enables greater reach than synchronous learning, where the teacher must be available in order for students to learn. Most current asynchronous learning experiences reach wide audiences, but they are so low in richness that it makes a highly rich experience seem impossible to create.
Let’s look at each of these methods.
How The Approaches Stack Up
This is the standard high-richness/low-reach learning experience. It can be highly engaging, but there is a real limit on how many learners can participate.
MOOC/Generic commercial platform
A MOOC (massive open online course) is the opposite of an in-person class. It’s the quintessential low-richness/high-reach learning experience. These learning experiences are almost exclusively asynchronous and provide little variety in the online experience; they mostly consist of watching videos, reading text, and completing individual exercises, with no opportunities for active engagement.
When the pandemic hit, organizations almost universally moved from face-to-face learning to Zoom-based learning, possibly also supported by a commercial learning management system. Unfortunately, as some leaders discovered, Zoom is not ideal:
- Richness: Since courses were often still structured the same way they had been in person, Zoom severely reduced the richness of the learning experience. For example, many face-to-face courses require physical manipulation of objects, moving around a classroom, and rapid exchanges among participants, none of which are easy, or sometimes even possible, online.
- Reach: Zoom removes the impediment of geographic distance, but it doesn’t effectively increase the ability to teach more students. It might even decrease it. With Zoom, an organization can reach more students for whom access had previously been a problem. However, to actually serve those additional students well, an organization usually has to add personnel.
As the restrictions of the pandemic are loosened, some organizations are considering hybrid courses that blend online and face-to-face instruction. This model allows students to participate in face-to-face interactions, along with providing the flexibility of remote participation for most of the course. Hybrid classes do increase richness (for at least some of the overall experience), but compared to Zoom-based alternatives, they reduce the reach of the experience (though it’s still higher than an in-person class).
Modified commercial platform
This approach takes an existing “off-the-shelf” solution an organization currently uses and supplements it with modifications that enhance the existing platform. There are a range of enhancements for an existing platform, from third-party apps installed on the platform, to adding a dashboard that sits on top of your learning management system, to modifications that smooth the student experience.
Organizations that rely on asynchronous learning can increase the richness of their experience by investing in modifications to their existing platform. But anything they do will be constrained by the existing technology. They’re adapting based on the technology rather than making the technology do exactly what they want it to.
Even with these investments, organizations still aren’t taking advantage of everything possible in a digital environment. In-class tools such as Articulate Rise might increase an organization’s ability to customize the experience and increase its interactivity and relevance. But the limitations of the tool (such as the lack of ability to easily respond to gathered content or to integrate tools) prevent the organization from maximizing the richness of the in-class portion. At the same time, learning-adjacent activities (such as connection to alumni or career services, integration with the larger community, or a smooth workflow from inquiry to enrollment and suggestions for follow-up courses) sometimes become more important than the actual in-class activities. Unfortunately, the market has not addressed the need to enrich in-class activities with the same effectiveness — limited as those solutions still may be.
Commercial platforms provide a relatively strong and straightforward structure for learning but offer only a static and siloed structure for other activities. Customizing these off-the-shelf solutions to fit an organization’s unique value proposition is almost always infeasible.
Custom learning experience
A custom learning experience is an approach to learning unlike any other. It offers unique and powerful learning that leverages the latest in learning science and advances in technology to engage the learner, motivate faculty, and support an organization’s mission by channeling what makes it unique.
Unlike a modified commercial platform, a custom learning experience is truly customized because it starts with an organization’s design goals (not someone else’s technology). Focusing on elements like program and learning design puts learners’ needs and the organization’s goals at the center. Once that design is complete, the organization can select the best technology to realize its vision and goals. This approach allows an organization to formulate the ideal balance of richness and reach based on the needs of its learners, institutional values, and strategic objectives.
By starting with design, you can focus on flexibility, agency, collaboration, interactivity, and personalization. A custom learning experience can integrate asynchronous or synchronous and recorded or live content to create an innovative learning experience that will impact people long after they leave your virtual doors.
This approach can be applied to any organization looking to advance its strategy and mission: higher education institutions, corporations, nonprofits, and any organizations that want to use digital learning to grow their work and excel in their fields. That's because creating a custom learning experience relies on the organization’s unique values, goals, and constraints, and above all, the organization’s people.
More than any other approach to digital learning, custom learning experiences give organizations a path to realizing the richest experiences along the widest reach possible. The results are almost instantly discernible:
- Richness: We all recognize a rich learning experience when we feel it. It’s the feeling of “leaning into” the learning rather than “watching” it. The learner interacts with the content, engages with the community, gets and gives feedback, and makes mistakes that inspire “aha” moments. The learner loves the experience and tells colleagues, friends, and family.
- Reach: Learning with increased reach means expanding the organization’s impact without expanding resources. The organization can measure the impact according to its own benchmarks: learners engaged, courses offered, certificates completed, programs available, districts or regions covered, or revenue increased. It’s up to the organization. The goal is to increase reach through an approach to online learning that doesn’t require linear growth of personnel.
When Extension Engine worked with Harvard Business School Online (HBSO) to design, build, and implement their custom learning experience, former head of HBSO Bharat Anand named this synthesis of richness and reach “high engagement at scale.”
What's the Right Balance for My Organization?
The question for leadership remains, “What level of investment should our organization make in online learning?”
The answer to this question comes down to scale and revenue generation, which guide multiple scenarios:
- Small scale that maintains current impact: If the organization has been well served by its in-person teaching model (first face-to-face and then over Zoom), then there is no need to invest in moving to a synchronous model that would significantly increase scale.
- Small scale with a need for a bit more reach: If the organization would like to reach geographically distant learners but does not need to scale dramatically, then the next move should be either continuing to teach by Zoom or adopting a hybrid model.
- Large scale but low revenue: If the organization has significant scale but little revenue at stake, it’s prudent to invest in modifying the learning management system or technology so that it addresses pain points. If providing highly rich learning experiences at scale — which takes significant investment — won’t generate substantial revenue, then the organization should invest only enough to protect its market share from poaching.
- Currently small scale with a desire to increase scale with significant revenue at stake or already large scale with significant revenue at stake but with a need to provide highly rich learning experiences: Both scenarios signal that the organization should investigate custom learning experiences. These high-richness learning experiences also enable extensive reach. Investment in this approach can be significant, but the alternatives are not attractive: 1) Forgo significantly increasing market share or 2) Go to market with a learning experience that does not truly support the organization’s brand and risk losing existing market share.
Helping You Find the Ideal Option
Learning experiences with high richness and high reach are no longer the stuff of science fiction. Given the appropriate effort and investment, digital tools enable organizations to create learning experiences that provide both.
Extension Engine has helped organizations determine what level of investment is right for them and partnered with them to create learning experiences that have transformed their organizations and their positions in the market.
To discover how these digital experiences can accomplish this for your organization, set up an appointment to talk with a learning strategist at Extension Engine.