I should begin, perhaps, by stating the obvious. Learner empathy is critical for all formal education efforts, not just associations.
Our goals as educators or learning environment designers should always be to do something “for” learners as opposed to doing something “to” them. Such empathy begins with knowing who our learners are, what motivates them, and what strategy they already have for acquiring knowledge.
Great teachers incorporate empathy into their learning design by observing, asking questions, and doing research about their students. Great learning environments reflect deep empathy through the choice of materials, options for personalization, flexible access, and points of entry.
Continuing education courses offered by associations are excellent examples of learning environments that demand a focus on increased learner empathy. Unfortunately, we often design continuing education environments around a limited, pragmatic, “send only” learning intent. Our primary goal is simply to deliver information in order to update member knowledge in a particular area. We focus exclusively on packaging the information and sending it to the learner so that s/he can unpackage and try to “learn” it.
This strategy is, at best, about information acquisition. It often forces the learner into an inefficient and less-than-pleasant learning experience. This approach to education design results in continuing education courses that meet an information objective but that have limited appeal to members and do not measure up against alternative information and learning resources.
Thinking about our learners empathetically helps us design learning environments that are effective sources of information
Thinking about our learners empathetically helps us design learning environments that are effective sources of information and that also increase the knowledge connections and personal growth of association members. Equally important, continuing education programs designed with empathy offer unique appeal to members and meet their needs in a way other programs cannot.
A good place many associations can start with empathetic learning design is by focusing on the present and future contexts in which their members already process or acquire knowledge. This emphasis will help with the incorporation of design elements and tools that align more meaningfully with the needs and interests of members.
Mobile learning is a useful example for illustrating this kind of empathetic design emphasis. While it does not apply to all association learners – a spectrum almost as wide and diverse and the global learner population – we can use it to model the types of questions we want to ask in order to ensure our education programs are designed for the needs of our specific learners.
How mobile are my learners?
Understanding the mobility of your learner population, their ownership and use of different mobile devices, and how they use their devices for accessing information is vital to designing empathetic learning products.
Designing learning environments for mobile learners is much more than ensuring that all your course materials can be accessed on a mobile device. In fact, such a strategy is particularly non-empathetic and inevitably results in frustration for learners.
We often limit our thinking about mobile to devices which, while important, are only one part of the larger empathetic equation. Mobile is also about context, time constraints, and sizes of information consumed at any one time. Not surprisingly, mobile e-learning generally takes place on different contexts than simply learning on a laptop or desktop computer.
When we design environments specifically for highly mobile learners, we want to think about the ways they normally access new information as well as what their expectations are for interactivity. We want to think about travel patterns – domestic and international. Finally, as we look at devices and ancillary apps, we should consider the entire learning ecosystem that will shape the environment we’re designing.
From a learner empathy perspective, here are some of the questions we might ask members before beginning our learning design process:
1. What does your “typical” workday look like? What percentage of your workday is spent in transition from one point to another?
2. In addition to your normal work commute, what other mobility patterns appear in a typical day or week?
3. Is the amount of time you spend “on the go” at work increasing or decreasing? Why?
4. What are the different ways you access new information when you’re mobile for work – including commuting, travel, at meetings, and moving between meetings? What is your preferred personal process when you’re “on the go” for accessing new information?
5. Of the different tools or devices you use for accessing new information while “on the go,” which seem to be most effective? Why?
6. If you could design the perfect delivery and access solution for acquiring new information “on the go,” what would that look like? What form would the information take? How would it get to you?