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NIGP’s Pathways, Adult Learning, and a Year of the Pandemic

By Richard Pennington posted 02-05-2021 18:22


The title of this blog uses “a Year” because it’s not over. Countless families are enduring suffering and death. I had a 10-day COVID hospitalization but avoided the ventilator. It’s a crappy disease.

One way I deal with the bad feelings is to dive deeply into the positives when I can find them.

NIGP: The Institute for Public Procurement, now on Training magazine’s Top 100 list, pivoted this past year from a largely face-to-face training suite to essentially 100% virtual. In its Pathways program, NIGP was developing online courses, but not delivering them virtually to this extent. Allow me to reflect on some positives from the last year's change driven by the pandemic.

I’ll start with the obvious: availability.  Time and again, I hear NIGP instructors recount comments by students along the lines of, “I couldn’t have attended this class without the virtual option.” “I’ve returned to work, and these virtual classes permit me to also get work done.”  “Even after the pandemic is over, I hope NIGP will at least have hybrid events that permit some participation virtually.”

Availability. All the great adult learning strategies mean nothing if people do not attend.

By many accounts, formal training accounts for only 10% of learning compared to hearing, seeing or doing. Blended learning is promoted to leverage the different learning styles.  I am most familiar with Zoom, a little with AhaSlides, and see how these platforms can better integrate hearing, seeing, doing, and teaching. Some of these techniques can be or have been used face-to-face in training, but the virtual environment often makes their use easier and more efficient. 

  • Video clips can easily be integrated into presentations.

  • Breakout rooms have been used by students to plan for negotiations.

  • Instructors can use short mock trials to practice advocacy and persuasion.

  • Breakout room features permit movement at the speed of light; there is time overhead associated with physical movement in classes.

  • Movement is known to improve learning, and this is one area where virtual platforms are at a disadvantage; yet the ability to mute, turn off video, and listen to computer speakers while stretching is not disruptive.

  • Instructors who “drop in” add blended variety and make the trainings more conversational; “Drop ins” were almost unheard of in the pure face-to-face days. 

The Issue of Curation. Boomers went to the library to find relevant information. Information is everywhere now.  But identifying and curating useful, valid information is an issue. Already mentioned, there is more opportunity now to select and use relevant videos. Other curation opportunities include:

  • Readiness is a key element of effective adult learning. Use of pre-work is curated by the NIGP instructional designers and loaded on the learning management system for access through the student’s log-in.

  • On-the-fly search for relevant examples of statutes, policies, and other documents for use during class; much easier than trying to do this on one’s feet in a physical classroom.

To frame the remainder of this blog, I'll use ideas from the best book I’ve read recently on learning. Peter Brown, Henry Roediger III, Mark McDaniel, make it stick: The Science of Successful Learning, Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2014.

Spaced Practice and Reflection.  Blocked practice, engaging and completing a single topic before moving onto another, used to be a traditional approach to training. Now, spaced practice and reflection is considered more “sticky.” 

  • NIGP loads pre-work in advance on its LMS, available on demand for the student.

  • Online Pathways courses permit learning at the student’s speed.

  • Recorded webinars, VCon, and Forum presentations allow spaced reflection by letting attendees engage the topics and conversations at their own pace. 

Generation. Generation is a principle being applied when a learner tries to answer a question or solve a problem before being presented with the answer or solution. It readies the brain for retention and promotes better learning. 

  • Features like AhaSlides’ Word Cloud and Zoom’s Whiteboard promote early reflection and the “why” readiness step to cement the reasons for learning. 

  • Online systems permit polling to get students thinking about an issue; AhaSlides lets instructors develop pre-tests in a variety of question formats. 

  • Sometimes breakout rooms can be used to promote early discussion of a problem or issue to leverage other students’ experience and start to develop the framework for models that are later discussed in class.

  • Chat questions can prime thinking using problem-solving.

Elaboration. Elaboration means expressing a concept in one’s own words. Instructors have always experienced the real learning that comes with teaching and explaining concepts.

  • Chats enable short explanations in the student’s own words.

  • Whiteboards permit reflective categorization of concepts.

  • Breakouts promote more engagement and practice of oral elaboration during conversations. 

Interleaving.  Interleaving is weaving different skills or topics throughout rather than teaching topics linearly. It’s more effective than practicing each in sequential blocks.

  • Instructor “drop ins” can have the effect of interleaving, often reinforcing concepts already covered.

  • Chat questions, Zoom polling and, assessment question features of AhaSlides permit periodic integration of and return to concepts in the class.

  • The mere act of running a Zoom training exercises fluid intelligence.  Crystalized intelligence is the ability to retrieve information and explain it. Fluid intelligence is the capacity to apply it in an adaptive environment. Like juggling lots of balls.  Like a Zoom training session!

A colleague who teaches leadership for a major university recounted a conversation he had with another faculty member.  According to her, the pandemic has accelerated digital transformation by a decade. We’ve seen rapid improvements in instructors’ ability to navigate the virtual environment and use the tools.  NIGP chapters report higher attendance at virtual events, if only from availability. The NIGP NSite Community now includes a virtual learning resources topic. And students over the past year have become remarkably adept as using the features of online learning platforms. 

So despite the suffering that the pandemic continues to inflict, there are some bright spots. NIGP’s virtual learning is one.  What to you are the biggest advantages remaining in face-to-face learning now that you’ve been through a year of virtual?

Richard Pennington, J.D., NIGP-CPP, CPPO