Minding the gap: Apps, relevance and autonomous learning

Our Project Manager Claire Stevenson is currently embarking on one of the most significant learning journeys an adult can undertake: parenthood! How can the masses of free content and resources on this key topic help us rethink digital learning in the workplace?

If, like me, you discover a gap in your knowledge that hinders your ability to get on in your job, I’ll bet you do your utmost to do something about filling said gap. You might ask your peers, you might do some online training, you might learn on the job – but one way or another, you’re going to find out.

But what about those moments when you need to learn about something because it affects your life outside of work? Or because you need to know about something because your circumstances are about to change forever? Are the motivations different, and can we harness them to drive behaviour change and improve productivity in other contexts?
Finding the self-motivation to learn about something that isn’t work-related can be so hard. We’re all so time-poor these days and we all want to spend our leisure time doing things we enjoy, not worthy, deferred-gratification activities like learning. But sometimes you find yourself needing to learn so that you’re as prepared as possible for this life-changing event.

It could be a move to a country that doesn’t have English as its first language. You could be starting your own business. It could even be something like expecting a child.

For me it was the latter. I admit that, when I found out we were going to have a baby, I had little knowledge of what to expect of pregnancy, labour and parenthood. This is a life-changing event.

Of course, I did what many people do and Googled furiously for the first few days. But then I decided to take a more pragmatic approach and downloaded an app that had been recommended by a friend.

“You are 34 weeks pregnant. Your baby is about the size of a cantaloupe melon.”

That’s what my BabyCentre app told me this morning.

I’m not sure precisely what to make of the comparison of my unborn to a fruit that I’m not even fond of (not during pregnancy, not ever). I do know that, week by week, I devour the information fed to me by this little app so that I can fill that nine-month, baby-shaped gap in my knowledge.

What the app contains
Each week, the app gives me a (probably not that useful) vegetable/fruit comparison. There’s also different pregnancy-related content for each day of the week. There’s a countdown, then an opportunity to take a ‘bumpie’ (a selfie, side-on, to show me how my bump is growing. As I can no longer see my feet, I don’t need the reminder but it’s a nice-to-have tool to record the size of said burgeoning bump!)

The content also contains a recap of my pregnancy symptoms each week, a topical video (this week: the all-too-real reminder that there’s not long left now – ‘Signs labour is starting’. Then there’s other content centring on safety (for example, using chemical products such as hair dye), health and wellbeing (meal plan suggestions, exercise suggestions). And it finishes each week with some baby name suggestions.

If I hook myself up to Wi-Fi or the internet, I can access my birth club forum too. So there’s an opportunity for chatting to other mams-to-be, if I want it.

Who's Queen?
Admittedly, if I wasn’t expecting, then the likelihood of me downloading this particular app would be quite, quite slim. I mean, why would I? It would be of absolutely no relevance to me. 

So each week why do I willingly tap and swipe the app? After all, the mindset for self-motivated learning can be difficult to achieve.

I think it’s down to the fact that, as with any information provision, content is king – but relevance is queen. And that’s the crux of it. I became curious about filling the gap in my knowledge with relevant information and content to fit my very specific, very particular (learning) needs and circumstances.

Self-motivation, social learning and personalisation are all inextricably linked in the digital age – we go out of our way to tailor our social media feeds to show us exactly what we want to see and filter out what we don’t, to satisfy our FOMO and our thirst for those 'I-want-to-know-now!’ moments (or point-of-need moments, if you like).

Baby knows best
A bonus is that BabyCentre has a social element which enables me to post to my birth club. This element lets me tap into a whole wealth of experience from other pregnant women and mothers. Any time of the day or night, I can immediately share my thoughts, contribute to discussions and learn from others – it’s all contextualised, targeted (ie personal) and relevant, which makes for great self-motivation. We have been able to forge relationships and rely on each other's support at difficult moments, without even needing to know each other.

In short, this little app does a marvellous job of helping me to personalise my own learning. I feel like I’m developing my own learning pathway, albeit one that isn’t going to see me achieve a certificate, or one that helps me with my career, but which is focused on a serious mandatory deliverable: getting through pregnancy in one piece!. I’ve decided to fill that need, I’ve created the learning pathway, and I've designed a positive and relevant learner experience for myself. There was no extrinsic motivation here – all that needed to happen was for my learning need to exist and the resources (content- and community-based) to be accessible. I linked them all together myself.

This leaves me with a take-away that does very much inform my thinking about L&D in the workplace: how can we make all learners' journeys as straightforward, as personal, and as easily met?