Why Transformational Learning Requires Engagement

February 20, 2024

Think of the last time you learned something online. Maybe you joined one of the millions around the world who picked up a new language thanks to Duolingo or pushed through the pain to climb a higher hill on your stationary bike with a Peloton instructor. Or perhaps you had to sit through a professional development session or a lecture video for a class you weren’t interested in, your attention wandering as you waited for it to end. 

There are obviously many differences between these experiences, but the most important one is your own level of engagement. And that’s a much more complex topic than it appears to be at first. 

We’ve all experienced the thrill of being fully consumed by the process of learning a new hobby, skill, or topic, as well as the drudgery of slogging through a boring, but mandatory training session, classroom lecture, or professional development course. At first, it might seem as if that thrill is mostly or even entirely due to the subject being studied and whether you chose it or it was assigned to you. But it’s likely that at some point, you’ve been in a situation in which you ended up deeply invested in learning something thanks to the way the information was presented and how you and your peers participated. 

Creating an enticing experience for learners isn’t a matter of luck or accident. It’s the result of a deliberate process of choosing the right approaches and tools based on learners’ needs, goals, and circumstances. World-class content is not enough. A learning experience has to motivate learners and bring them into the process of learning, tapping into their aspirations and goals to make them active participants who feel connected to and empowered in their learning. In short, to be truly transformational, learning must be engaging.

For us at Studion, engagement is the defining quality of a well-designed experience that captures a person's attention, delivers the encouragement, and provides the support necessary to inspire and reinforce their motivation in achieving an intended outcome. 

Engagement seems like a buzzword, but it’s neither a poorly defined concept that you only know when you see it nor a metric for clicks. It’s a fundamental and essential characteristic of any high-quality digital learning experience. The best such experiences have one thing in common: they’re created by people who know how to identify, measure, and design for engagement. These learning experience designers, user experience designers, and software engineers understand that every decision they make shapes how an experience is built and operated. High engagement is more than just high production values. When our team at Studion created a digital Fundamentals of Marketing Effectiveness course for Effie Academy, a part of Effie Worldwide that provides thought leadership and education as well as a case studies library and industry awards, we knew we had to make it richly engaging. We accomplished this with on-demand, bite-sized learning; case-based challenges; and custom interactives including visually appealing media, leading to an experience that adapts to the abilities of the learner. From the pedagogical practices to the technological features, an array of tools and skills can be used to increase learners’ investment in the learning process. For the digital Master’s in Data Science program we designed for Notre Dame, the final product comprises an attractive, intuitive, branded dashboard that features one-click access to calendars, discussion channels, videoconferencing, and the Google suite, a setup that prizes community interaction and centers the student to give them the Notre Dame Edge they expect from the university. 

Engaging learners leads to genuine, measurable benefits, both for learners and for the organizations serving them.

There’s a deep body of research demonstrating the importance of engagement for learner success, as well as its far-reaching benefits after students leave school. (Toth, 2021) Higher levels of rich engagement correlate strongly with retention, satisfaction, and mastery. And that matters because we recognize that, in today’s market, learners have a dizzying array of learning options to choose from. Therefore, organizations that offer learning experiences can’t succeed without being well-designed to keep learners involved, providing them with clear and tangible returns for their time and money in terms of new skills, new connections, and new opportunities.

What’s more, because engagement is something we design for intentionally, it’s less elusive than the success outcomes that we’re ultimately aiming for. By using leading indicators to look towards the future, we don’t have to wait for learners to complete a learning experience to gather data about our results. Instead, we can improve these experiences as we go, building in interventions intended to prevent problems before they happen, yielding tangible benefits for both learners and organizations. This approach helped a nonprofit client that improves student learning by providing high quality professional development opportunities to teachers and school leaders, by providing them with a platform that gives them dynamic, real-time reporting on the value and success of their training programs.

Of course, every organization has its own list of priorities for investing in digital learning experiences: to drive revenue growth, to develop and retain employees, to stand out from competitors, to better serve key audiences and stakeholders. But in every case, higher retention and learner satisfaction and mastery are important, and rich engagement is a gateway to all these crucial learning and organizational outcomes.

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