From learning curve to full circle

Lifelong learning has become a mantra of modern existence, whether to explore passionate interests or enhance workplace skills. Once you hit the mid-career mark, however, it’s increasingly difficult to find good, useful and affordable professional development. Rare indeed are the one- or two-day sessions that actually deliver on what they’re advertising in a practical, transferable way. If not immediately applied, even the most promising models or tools quickly lose their lustre and become the latest additions to that one credenza drawer dedicated to conference swag.

Some argue that these events are more about networking anyway; if so, they should be developed and marketed with agendas better designed for mixing it up. Participants would need to know that ahead of time, of course, so they won’t be peeved that they can’t sit with their work chums and talk about what’s going on back at the office.

But changing organizational behaviour is tough. Early in my career, I had the chance to learn from a business strategist during a major re-engineering project. Through dogged prompting of other options and teasing out of risks, the naysayers were redirected by first-class change management until everyone heeded the boarding call. I admit to my own reticence when first hearing about tactics from their prestigious education, but I applied some of them in later years myself.

This kind of on-the-job learning, gained by observing and then doing, can be ideal. While you might not know all of the theory behind a certain technique, there is definitely an osmosis factor. Then knowledge turns to experience and wisdom through trial and error, exposure to new people, projects and environments, and zigzagging between roles and sectors.

We all hit the change-weary wall at some point though. I strongly resisted the digital-age machine until I felt the fear of falling out of step. I dove in headfirst, immediately hooked by the snappy headlines and instant gratification of new information. Nevertheless, the superfluous volume of content, along with the repetitive strain of clicking, thumb-typing, sweeping and scanning, made me long for a way to cut through the ambient noise and ambiguous discourse of digital-age mass communication and marketing.

Through a splendid stroke of serendipity, I saw the link for a certain MOOC (massive open online course). MOOCs are designed to connect interested learners with university courses offered at a variety of institutions – complete with lectures, tests and discussion forums – and free of charge other than the investment of your time and energy. You don’t earn a credit per se, but the value proposition can be high.

Critics of these programs note the tension between traditional brick-and-mortar classroom teaching and the so-called impersonal, anonymous online environment, citing issues of depth, quality and other factors both tangible and intangible, such as completion rates. But here’s the thing: MOOCs are ultimately a complement to formal in-class learning, not competition for it. There is a time and a place (and an audience) for both. Further, MOOCs are a safe way to try on a subject area without the drastic financial and life commitments that formal programs entail.

I found the materials in the MOOC I took to be highly engaging, the format readily accessible and the professors absolutely top-notch. There was also a vibrant and diverse community of students actively sharing, debating and connecting. I had to study, once I remembered how, because the quizzes and final exam very much tested whether or not you were paying attention “in class”. But I could immediately apply what I learned – some of the principles even as I was learning them – making the overall experience more beneficial than the aggregate of all of the brief professional development seminars, workshops and conferences I’ve attended over nearly two decades.

Ironically, the sponsoring institution for my course was the same school as that attended by the business strategist who wowed me early in my career. Now there’s a virtuous circle of learning if ever there was one.