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On-demand learning: What it is and why your organization needs it

On-demand learning has become the cornerstone of a modern L&D strategy. Here's why.
On-demand learning
Credit: Elena Poritskaya; Nobilior, stockphoto-graf / Adobe Stock

Although it’s been around for some time, on-demand learning is back in the spotlight. This is partially due to learner trends – a recent study revealed that 74% of employees want to learn during their spare time at work. And another shows more than half of employees prefer learning at their own pace. 

Broader trends, like accelerated technology adoption and the shift to remote work, have only further rendered traditional learning delivery methods less feasible. It’s no surprise, then, that on-demand training has become a cornerstone of modern learning and development strategy.

What is on-demand learning? 

On-demand learning refers to how a learner accesses knowledge. More specifically, it’s knowledge that can be accessed anytime, anywhere.

On-demand learning can include almost any kind of content – videos, podcasts, games, blog posts, elearning modules, job aids, and more. The key is how it’s being delivered. For on-demand training to be effective, it should have the least amount of barriers possible for a learner to access it.

For example, L&D might typically host an in-person lunch-and-learn that requires learners to be available when the event is scheduled and to show up at a specific time. An on-demand lunch-and-learn, however, would be recorded, cataloged within a video delivery service, and made available for employees to access at their convenience – on the weekday of their choice during a break, or even during their subway commute to the office. 

74% of employees want to learn during their spare time at work.

Does your organization have protocols for answering phones, or specific tasks that have to be completed at the end of every shift? Providing that information when the employee needs it offers a more flexible and convenient way to learn. It reduces barriers such as relying on other people for knowledge transfer or requiring learners to be somewhere at a specific time.

Today’s always-connected, on-the-go culture brings with it a set of expectations. Millennials, the largest generation in the U.S. labor force, count on technology ecosystems in their workplaces to match that of their personal lives. Gen Z is right behind them, demanding more mobile learning experiences. 

For both of these groups, on-demand learning often takes place in the palm of their hands. Mobile is king, and having to log on to a desktop computer is seen as an obstacle. Since Gen X and Baby Boomers aren’t digital natives, their expectations might look slightly different.

But with any generation, organizations can use on-demand learning as a way to meet workers right where they’re at.

The benefits of on-demand learning

In 1885, after a series of experiments, German psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus hypothesized that humans start losing memory of learned knowledge within a matter of days, with the steepest drop in memory happening within the first few days. This is known as the “Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve.”

With on-demand training, learning and development teams can combat the effects of the Forgetting Curve. Reviewing key information at differing points on the curve helps reinforce knowledge, so learners can remember it longer. 

On-demand learning gives L&D teams ways to deploy reinforcement training modules that learners can access in their own free time. And timeliness is key. Offering a relevant training experience in the moment, when a learner most needs it, means they’re even more likely to take the opportunity to engage with the content and remember the information. 

In addition to improving information retention, on-demand learning can be more cost-effective, especially for globally-distributed teams. It eliminates the need for a venue, meeting rooms, and travel-related expenses, and it often decreases instructor costs.

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Because employees don’t have to spend time rearranging their calendars to accommodate these learning opportunities, on-demand training minimizes losses to productivity. And with 97% of professionals saying they don’t want to return to the office full-time, helping employees remain as productive as possible is crucial. 

Overall, on-demand training helps L&D teams improve employee satisfaction as it gives learners the freedom of choice to further tailor their learning journey to their individual needs.

Best practices for implementing on-demand learning

L&D teams should be strategic about the structure of on-demand learning programs. Although the flexibility of on-demand learning evokes a sense of freedom, it isn’t necessarily a free-for-all. 

In a Big Think+ lesson, workplace culture consultant Jamie Notter says, “I think the best idea is to create containers within which people can make their own decisions – ‘Within these walls you can do whatever you want. You can experiment. You can be in charge.’ And you just have to be clear about where those walls are so that they don’t have huge impacts on the rest of the enterprise.

I also think, in general, organizations will be pleasantly surprised when they start letting their employees experiment, because I think they’ll start seeing results that they wouldn’t have predicted they would get.” 

Notter’s idea that organizations should offer freedom but set up appropriate boundaries is a solid foundation on which to develop effective on-demand learning programs. Below are some additional things to consider when creating on-demand learning experiences.

  • Usability: Because more and more learners are starting to prefer digital-first experiences, this creates a bevy of considerations for L&D around technology. It may require hiring a learning technologist or partnering with the IT department. Either way, the technology that facilitates on-demand learning shouldn’t be so complex to use that it distracts learners from the content itself. Learning experiences should be easy to navigate and support should always be offered. 
  • Interactivity: On-demand learning is most effective when it’s interactive. Include different media types to appeal to all of the widely accepted learning modalities – visual, auditory, reading/writing, and kinesthetic – and integrate a variety of learning activities such as simulations and branching scenarios. Instructional designers can also create opportunities for learners to receive feedback in the moment with formative assessments, such as quizzes. 

When curating on-demand learning experiences with the help of third-party content providers, it’s important to vet resources for quality and convenience. Services that offer microlearning for on-demand delivery, such as Big Think+, up the convenience factor and can be even more beneficial for information retention. (See the example below).

Micro-lessons like these are beneficial because, when part of a series, they allow for knowledge reinforcement at multiple points after the initial learning experience. Going back to Ebbinghaus’ Forgetting Curve, this enables employees to recall what they’ve learned days and weeks afterwards.

Final note

On-demand learning is easy to implement and pays dividends. To get started, focus on curating high-quality, interactive resources and using tools that offer a learner-friendly user experience. Remember to listen to employees, assess program outcomes, and continue to improve on-demand learning offerings over time.

Using on-demand training as one component of a comprehensive, blended learning strategy can further employee growth and take an organization’s learning culture to the next level. 

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