3 ways to make professional development meaningful

professional development
Girard Dorney


written on March 16, 2017

Having a good professional development program for your staff is crucial to a number of HR concerns, from growth and innovation to employee retention and engagement.

E-learning isn’t what it was meant to be. The online tools that were supposed to transform professional development ended up being a difficult process with a thousand kinks to work out. Worse, rather than understanding all the advantages technology had over traditional brownstone-building education programmes, e-learning often relies on the same philosophies with a few digital trinkets to make it seem fresh.

But it’s still the future, and an ever large part of the present, so what should HR professionals be looking for in a digital professional development course?

We sat down with Adam Brimo, co-founder of OpenLearning, an online platform that allows educators to design courses for students, and asked him about what are some of the common mistakes you should avoid in a development course, and what best practice looks like.

1. Is memorisation even useful in the age of Google?

When I was at university I had a course where the lecturer talked about how realistic the idea of a cyborg was. I figured, we’re years away from someone even approaching the vague outline of such a thing. Wrong, she said, we’re actually very close. Forget about mind-controlled robot arms that give a sense of touch (which now actually exist), anyone who uses their phone to search for local restaurants is augmenting their natural abilities with technology.

It’s just a fact of modern life. But is your professional program taking it into account?

“Most online learning, most professional development, focuses just on the remembering part of learning, just getting people to memorise something and then prove that they memorised it by doing a quiz about it,” says Brino.

“But when you have staff, people you want to up-skill, these days it’s not really about memorising or remembering things – because if you need to know something people usually look it up. More important is that they know how to find information, they know how to analyse information, that they can draw conclusions from information. So the requirements have changed. Maybe a while a go memorising was very efficient, because you couldn’t go google and find stuff, but now you can.”

Gamification, the buzzword and the reality

Not just a buzzword for the HR profession, gamification is an idea we’ve all heard of and of which we are rightly skeptical. Because how’s it supposed to work exactly, you offer your employees graphical badges and suddenly they’re scrambling to complete a training course, desperate to have the most pixelated icons?

“Gamification is a buzz word but when done well it can be quite effective. But I think the way to think about is that using the dynamics, or the mechanics of a game, and weaving those into the design of the course rather than just arbitrarily using extrinsic rewards like a badge or star.”

This idea of intrinsic motivations is crucial, and something that also informs employee engagement strategies.

“Most people don’t respond to extrinsic rewards. And it’s the wrong reason for them to be trying to learn. The way we approach it is, there are gamification tools on our platform but the way that you use it can’t interfere with or drive the learning experience. Because the other thing is that most people who design courses don’t yet know how to use them well. And it’s better to not use them than use them incorrectly.”

Social interaction as a feature, not a bonus

Students in a course that features high social interactivity feel it’s a tremendous aid to learning, a 2013 study found. But like gamification, the trick to including a social aspect to professional development is to avoid the superficial.

“On something like Instagram or Facebook a lot of people interact with other people for purely social reasons. Sharing pictures from the party, chatting about what you’re up to. But in a learning environment the social part isn’t there just because it’s good to have social interaction. The way we see it, all of the social interaction is geared around the learning experiences in the course. So the activities themselves that are designed in the course drive peer to peer interaction.

“An example: let’s say you’re doing a course about giving better presentations. The way that would happen is you would actually give a presentation somewhere and record it and you’d share it back with the entire community. So other people could give you feedback and you could give feedback to their presentations, but you could also reflect on it. So you’d share things you thought you did well, and what you thought didn’t go well – “five minutes in I got really nervous and I made this mistake”.

Tell us what you think, and share your experiences with online professional development programs in the comments.

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One thought on “3 ways to make professional development meaningful

  1. Great article! E-learning and gamification are front of mind in the l&d space. I particularly like the concept of peer to peer interaction. Peer to peer interaction isn’t a new concept in and of itself, but when combined with the idea of gamification and elearning, I think the potential to enhance one’s professional development is enhanced. While this mode of learning will enhance the learning experience for a lot of staff, how do we ensure that it is catering to the needs of all staff with varying experience, age, roles, gender? How do we make the learning experience all-inclusive?

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