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Learning & Development Blog

Road Hazards: Learning at the Moment of Need

Last week I discovered that “learning at the moment of need” is perhaps not the most effective way to learn. In fact, it can be downright risky business and quite unpleasant.

On a recent trip to New York, my job was to provide on-the-fly navigational instructions using Google Maps. Two huge problems:

First, I didn’t know how to use my Google Maps app well – at all. No problem. Right?

According to Alan Eagle (who holds a computer science degree from Dartmouth and works in executive communications at Google) in a recent New York Times article "A Silicon Valley School That Doesn't Compute":

It [technology] is super easy. It’s like learning to use toothpaste,” Mr. Eagle said. “At Google and all these places, we make technology as brain-dead easy to use as possible.”

Not so fast, Mr. Eagle. While Google Maps technology might be "brain-dead easy to use," it is not so easy that you can expect to start it up and be ready to make a snap decision ... like whether to take a left or a right at the fork in the road just ahead.

Best Performance Support Tools

The second navigational blunder was that neither my colleague, Jon, nor I took time - not even one minute - to orient ourselves to our surroundings or to turn on Google Maps to test our connectivity before leaving Avis Rental Car.

So, when we were faced with the first directional challenge – with only seconds to determine what to do – we (I!) failed.

Learning on the fly is fine and good for scenario-based “learning sessions,” but learning at a true moment of need can be frustrating, time-consuming, and stressful. Can we really expect our audiences to like it or to succeed?

Without some context-setting component, learners on the job might be reluctant to try or might completely mess up -- maybe because without some orientation, they didn't recognize an error in the performance support tools.

Without some practice using the performance support tools in a safe environment, learners might not know whether to go left or right at the fork or whether to take Route 1 North or South. They might not discover that sometimes in some places Google Maps just does not work and might have outdated data.


On the other hand, if learners have the opportunity to do some self-paced learning before diving into real-life scenarios (practice or real), they will likely have a broader understanding of the subject matter and will be less likely to make a significant mistake and more likely to give it a try.

I like Cathy Moore's approach: Put information into a job aid and design learning modules with scenarios that help learners use the job aid. Immerse learners into an activity that somewhat simulates real life using real-life job aids.

According to Cathy, we need to design learning to “surprise learners with their own mistakes.” By letting the learner use the job aids and experience the results of each decision in a realistic way, "we’ve surprised them more vividly and, ideally, will help them remember ..."

Here’s what a blended learning approach might have looked like to help me prepare for the trip:

Learning Modules: Lesson 1: Overview of Google Maps, Lesson 2: Demo of Basic Functions, Lesson 3: How to Make Sure it’s Working/Troubleshooting

Job Aid / Performance Support: Google Maps Tips and Tricks Job Aid, Google Maps timed Practice Scenarios for NYC

More evidence that a blended approach is still best.


Performance Improvement Roadmap