Training for the 140 Character Attention Span: How Learning Professionals Can Keep Up

Attention span is defined as the length of time a person can concentrate on a task, activity or idea without becoming distracted or having the mind wander off. This is a consideration that learning professionals must constantly be aware of when designing a training course for their audience. How long do we have to get the key messages across before we begin losing our audience? Complicating matters are today’s popular communication methods such as text messages, Twitter and instant messaging which are redefining how we receive and digest information.

Even in the world of news media we have seen the transition from in-depth coverage to quick hits and summaries. Tweets now count as news coverage and feature stories in print publications and online now contain a few bullets at the top to provide story highlights for those not inclined to read the entire piece. We have become an information society where instant access to data and information is the rule and instant gratification is the expectation. The training industry has not escaped this phenomenon and learning professionals are being asked to reexamine training approaches to appeal to an audience conditioned to receive information in shorter bursts across multiple channels and devices.

By viewing these changing behaviors as an opportunity rather than a challenge, learning professionals can take advantage of emerging technologies to better address an audience that is expecting training “how they want it” and “when they want it”. Delivering “just-in-time” training is not a new concept for learning professionals.  For years, we have offered a variety of solutions for learners from web-based training to quick reference guides all aimed at providing training to the learner when they need it.  But mobile technologies, particularly tablet devices, provide a channel that can make learning more accessible than ever.  Courses built as small nuggets of information can be easily delivered to a learner’s mobile device allowing them to decide when and where training is the most convenient.

These emerging technologies are also enabling learning professionals to incorporate the power of user-generated content and social networking in their training solutions.  Learners today spend an enormous amount of their non-work time updating their Facebook accounts and uploading videos to YouTube.  These platforms are comfortable for them, and they have become used to getting information from these types of social channels.  Learning professionals can leverage this comfort by blending Web 2.0 elements into their formal training courses.  For example, a community of practice – associated to a formal class – could be created to facilitate collaboration between class participants through instructor-moderated discussion groups, forums and blogs.  In this way, students become more active participants in their learning experience, expand their sources of information on the topic and increase their retention of key information from the class.

We are under an information blitz on a daily basis. The more learning professionals can utilize tools that employees are already comfortable with and enable them to access training at times of peak learning, the more successful everyone will be. Attention spans are only getting shorter, so we as learning professionals need to get creative in maximizing the value of the time people are actually paying attention.