WALT Learns Together: Overcoming the Paradox of Anytime + Anywhere = Never
The Washington Library Trainers (WALT), an interest group of the Washington Library Association, is a group of staff training and development professionals working in Washington libraries. The group meets in person quarterly, with in-between meetings held virtually to share best practices, staff training resources, snacks and laughs. WALT members are drawn to the group by a strong desire to learn continuously and to support each other's growth and professional development. "WALT Learns Together" was born from the idea that individual members are more likely to focus time and energy learning or exploring if the learning goal was shared by trusted peers.
More specifically, the group sought to use themselves as "test subjects" for a problem everyone faces with self-directed learning—when you have an unlimited amount of time (no real external deadlines), and can engage from anywhere (wondrous, terrible internet!), you never actually get around to the learning. Or, as one member began referring to it, Anytime + Anywhere = Never. Despite our best intentions, our super-fast-paced lifestyles seem to leave very little time for things that aren't required, NOW. Continual learning, like any other self-care practice, gets put off again and again, sometimes for so long that we actually forget why we wanted to do it in the first place.
To get started, WALT brainstormed the specific factors that result in Anytime + Anywhere = Never, and how they might be overcome. These included:
Make a plan for your learning
- Set small frequent milestones.
- Deadlines are motivating; for example: library books due in three weeks prompts faster reading.
Schedule it—get it on the calendar, don't leave it open-ended
- Block out multiple times for self-directed learning on your calendar.
- Put the meeting event on all your calendars (Outlook + Google + other) so you get multiple reminders.
- Schedule your learning closer to the group meeting so it's fresher in your mind.
- It's not about finding the time, it's taking the time.
Socialize your learning
- Watch the learning videos with a friend, read the same article, journal article, etc., and discuss.
- Support others' learning by sharing individual goals and checking in on progress periodically.
- Group learning means clear articulation of each person's role, consensus on group norms and setting expectations.
- Chunk your learning: 15-minute learning bursts are fine if that's what fits best with your busy work life.
- Chunked content to zero in on quickly; narrowed focus or choices rather than overwhelming amount of content.
- Have a reliable, trustworthy go-to resource (Wikipedia?).
As you can see, the real crux of the equation, where things really fall apart seems to be the Anytime part, thus many of our solutions are focused on that aspect. Anywhere, on the other hand, can actually be a benefit, so long as you're able to select from multiple modalities in your learning pursuits. So while technology can be a major contributor to Anytime + Anywhere = Never, it also offers solutions: combating Anytime with synced calendars between desktop, tablet and phone, and enabling learning from Anywhere in our ability to watch, listen or read about practically any given subject—each suited to its own "where" or rather, HERE, when the NOW is at hand.
Motivation is Key
The particular role motivation plays in the success or failure of learning in general is widely accepted in learning theory, and critically to self-directed learning. Motivating factors identified by the group as likely to result in positive outcomes (increase likelihood of learning) include:
- Immediate need to learn something specific
- Like to try things, experiment (=autonomy)
- Genuine curiosity about a topic, a problem to be solved
- Professional work ethic to do work-related learning
- Peer pressure (positive)
- FOMO (fear of missing out)
- Expectation that learning will be effective
- Fear of future repercussions
- Feels like a bargain or a sweet deal if getting free access to otherwise for-fee content
On the flip-side, demotivators also play a role. These were articulated as:
- Not seeing a purpose
- No WIIFM (what's in it for me), no personal connection
- No plan for how or when the learning will be accomplished
- Ambiguity in the topic, what is expected
- No accountability or responsibility
- Class too big/experience is impersonal
- Overwhelming amount of content
- Put off by terminology; for example "Brain Rules" sounds boring and scientific
Some of these seem to be more ubiquitous, and some may only work for a few people. When we take time to pay attention to our own experience and reflect as we go, we can learn what works better for us and what isn't effective, for each of us, personally. A Learning Journal is one possible tool that could facilitate this.
The Formula to turn Anytime + Anywhere = Never into This Time (or this next one, or the one after that, but at least by then) + Anywhere = Got it Done!
Based on this, WALT developed a group plan for success:
- Find a time that works for everyone and schedule discussion time (create a deadline).
- Each person blocks three "learning times" on their calendar—time in advance of the meeting during which they'd engage in the learning. Why not just one? Assume that not everyone would get to it during the first learning time, and rather than snoozing the alarm, which can create additional stress, plan for this in advance with backup times scheduled instead. (schedule multiple times for accomplishing the task).
- Choose a focus for learning, a topic of interest to all. Ideally this would be a topic everyone had wanted to learn but hadn't gotten around to in the past. For anyone not acquainted with the topic, we worked to provide enough background that they'd see the relevance and value in learning (personal, individual motivation to learn).
- Designate two facilitators to share the work of sending reminders, developing discussion questions and facilitating the discussion.
- Identify and offer multiple learning modalities, each of about the same, agreed-to length of 30 minutes. This addressed several of the factors we identified as being important to success:
- Having specific resources helped remove the "where do I start/what do I choose" issues
- Only one or two people had to take the time to explore rather than the whole group
- Being able to read an article or chapter, listen to a podcast or watch a video provided flexibility and depth—you could choose just one, several or all, depending on whether you're a diver or scanner
- Short, chunked time
- Facilitators send at least one reminder (ideally two) with enough time for learners to engage with material before the scheduled discussion time.
Supporting Others' Learning
As training managers, much of what WALT members do is seek ways to support others' professional development and learning. Many library staff have professional development needs specific to their individual role and duties in the library, so self-directed learning is often what makes the most sense. Recognizing this, several of WALT's member libraries are experimenting with system-wide approaches to supporting self-directed learning. Library staff are supported with organizational resources (time and money) to pursue learning that directly impacts their work, with the following best practices in place to stack the deck for success:
- Supervisor-level agreements about learning
- Clearly articulated goals, expectations, context, benefits
- Scheduled and supported time for learning
- Recognition of accomplishment; certificate
Progress to Date
WALT has undergone three cycles of learning activities thus far, with a fourth currently in progress. Overall, the plan initially developed has proven effective for everyone—and members agree it would be close to 100% effective if it were followed step-by-step and to the letter every time (pesky humans!). The group is reminded to reflect on their own individual learning and note how the motivation and best practices they use impacts the effectiveness of their personal ability to overcome Anytime + Anywhere = Never.
All members definitely noted that socializing the learning with a group of trusted, well-liked peers goes a LONG way to individual success. At WALT's last meeting, in response to the inevitably question "how did the learning go?", one member spoke of listening to a recommended podcast while getting ready for work that same morning, and another listened in the car on the way to the meeting. Both expressed that without peer pressure as a positive motivator, they probably wouldn't have engaged. It was enough, just in time. We'll take it!
This case study is part of a set of WebJunction resources on self-directed learning.