In March 2020, Liz Morehouse, Director of Educational Strategy at Alpha Gamma Delta had a really abrupt “breakup” with the status quo. Returning from maternity leave to a reduced headcount in a global pandemic, she felt like she was facing an insurmountable challenge. Her team needed to quickly reassess and prepare for an already planned launch of their new educational program. Except now, it all needed to be done virtually and, at that time, without a learning management system.
Discussing her experience at Open LMS’s recent online learning summit, Innovation 2021, Morehouse provided a brilliant account of ending her team’s relationship with “business as usual” activity and discovering the ultimate “relationship goals” for education programs. The solution’s key pillars were a new LMS and a new emphasis on microlearning. Her team’s journey makes a great read for anyone embarking on similar work.
Evolving Towards a Better Learning Program
Alpha Gamma Delta’s education program prior to 2020 was called the “Alpha Gamma Delta Experience”. It was mainly delivered as a series of peer-facilitated, hour-long programs held every few weeks. Unfortunately, feedback on the Experience didn’t align with what members wanted to learn, and it didn’t meet the organization’s stated goals. The organization also ran into problems with the requirement that chapters schedule extra touchpoints with subgroups of members, something that was widely considered “burdensome and boring”.
The team set about creating a new solution, called Epsilon Pi, focusing on four paths that were designed to better meet members where they are in life and provide opportunities for personal growth. The format was also changed: rather than having a handful of chapter meetings, chapters would instead be asked to host six programs—three per term—and provided with facilitator guides and other implementation resources.
A Pandemic Pause for Thought
Then the pandemic happened, and the new working reality for Alpha Gamma Delta members prompted further refinements, plus an honest reassessment of the initial plans for Epsilon Pi. The team realized that the lack of buy-in for Alpha Gamma Delta Experience was causing them to be too cautious. The plan at the time was aligning topics with the interests of members, but not embracing the program’s potential to create behavioral change.
With only an hour six times a year to introduce new knowledge and provide a venue to practice new skills in, the team knew that it needed to expand the number of possible training touchpoints to better offer value to members. It sought a new learning management system in order to support the team’s growing ambitions: Open LMS was selected (presented as “Acorn” internally). Alpha Gamma Delta simultaneously began investigating the eLearning options and best practices that a modern LMS would open up, leading them to the concept of microlearning.
The bite-sized nature of microlearning was a perfect fit for Alpha Gamma Delta’s requirements. Whether in the form of video, interactive games, short readings, or eLearning courses, shorter pieces of content help to keep learners focused. The team moved from building a face-to-face program of six one-hour sessions per year to a hybrid model focused on six themes per year. These themes included three microlearning opportunities available on Acorn designed to support a main program (delivered virtually in the pandemic).
Addressing Member Needs Through Program Themes
“Elevate” is one of the four main paths on Epsilon Pi, targeted at initiated members, primarily sophomores, juniors, and seniors. As with the other paths, the content is informed by data from Alpha Gamma Delta’s annual membership survey, as well as wider research on the main demographic (in Elevate’s case, Gen Z).
The 2019 survey was particularly notable for flagging low self-efficacy surrounding mental health. Meanwhile, research on Gen Z emphasizes the group’s need for increased personal and professional development opportunities, as well as a preoccupation with return on investment.
With these focuses in mind, the team selected content that:
- Challenges members to build resilience
- Explores conflict management strategies
- Prompts members to discover their leadership style
- Helps members connect and develop a sense of belonging within their community
- Offers opportunities to practice networking and identify personal purposes
Chapters are encouraged to host the program during chapter meetings and given resources to assist in introducing members to new skills. For September 2020, for instance, the theme of building resilience was covered in the first chapter meeting and featured breathing exercises, self-reflection, creating 1-3-5 to-do lists, and using gratitude as a method for rebuilding resilience. For the rest of the month, the theme is reinforced using microlearning opportunities available on Acorn. Activities included an interactive self-care game created in partnership with Polaris Counseling and Consulting, a gratitude-focused “impact talk” video, and Angela Duckworth’s TED Talk on grit.
4 Tips for Effective Microlearning
Along the way, the Alpha Gamma Delta team picked up a few tips for making impactful microlearning.
1) Be Flexible About When and Where Microlearning Is Consumed
The collaborative, communal nature of Alpha Gamma Delta’s work means that some chapters still opt to complete microlearning activities together during their meetings. However, a great strength of microlearning is how individuals can pick it up and learn from it whenever it suits them. It’s important to build resources and use systems that support this kind of approach.
2) Microlearning Isn’t Ideal for Communicating Complex Topics
Because of its “short but sweet nature” nature, microlearning isn’t a great way to introduce complex topics. This said, it still has a role to play in helping learners understand such topics: it can reinforce and amplify them once they’re dealt with in a core session.
3) Have a Real-World Idea of What “Micro” Means
Alpha Gamma Delta’s benchmark for microlearning content length is “no longer than the average TED Talk to complete”. Taking what was already a popular format among members gave the team something realistic to aim for, and ensured they could be completed by a group during an officer’s report at their weekly chapter meeting, or by individuals in the gap between classes.
4) Offer Visual and Media Variety
The look of a piece of microlearning is an important factor in how engaging it is. The way it’s laid out also has an important role to play. By using a tiled format, the team focuses on chunking the content and incorporating the visual cues that drive course completion. The team also varies media types and interaction types to keep things fresh.
Alpha Gamma Delta’s Key Takeaways: How to Build a Better Learning Program
Ultimately, Alpha Gamma Delta’s work provided the organization with three key takeaways:
i) Give the People What They Want
From the board wanting the program to align with the organization’s purpose, to members wanting to feel connected and more confidence navigating mental health concerns, the program had to evolve to take on board everyone’s wishes. By consulting research, feedback, and staying true to the underlying purpose, it was possible to find the best solution.
ii) Deliver Consumable Content
By treating members like adult learners and building programs that help them identify why the topic matters to them, the organization has been able to build learning that is engaging, informal, and fits around learners’ lives.
iii) Prove That It Matters
The team implemented a four-pronged approach to proving the worth of what it was doing. Firstly, it included pre- and post-assessments with each program. Secondly, it evaluated chapter completion and tied this into the existing “Collegiate Good Standing” points system that chapters are required to complete each year. Thirdly, focus groups were conducted with key collegiate leaders and their mentors. Finally, the team continued to use the annual members’ survey.
All of the hard work on Epsilon Pi and Acorn has paid off and the measurement has helped to prove it. Nearly 70% of chapters completed four or more programs in the first year and 98% have completed at least one. Acorn meanwhile saw 100% adoption. Most importantly, one of the key behavior change goals of the work—mental health self-efficacy—has seen significant improvements—despite the upheaval of the pandemic.