Assigned Learning – An outdated modality

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In preparation for this post, which is likely to stir emotions on both sides (supporters of assigned learning vs those who are not), I went about and did an exploration of various sites on the web. I stayed clear of academic journals and academic articles, because academics are not the ones taking the online learning courses/content at the corporate level. They are not a new employee. Nor are they the blue-collar worker on the manufacturing floor who is lucky if they are provided time during their day to go online and take some courses/content.

The academics are not mid-managers, managers, let alone C-level suite executives. They do not run an association’s training/education, nor non-profit learning/training, nor customer education in various industries.

There isn’t anything wrong with academia, I speak from experience, but when relying solely on academic data even with online learning (they usually focus on the higher education/ed type of learning – synchronous based), is a detriment. For those who cover online learning, asynchronous based, it is always with the “completion” angle in play.

This was clear in the web searches with the term “assigned learning success rate”.

Every site that I went to, matched assigned learning and thus success with completion. As completion equates to success.

On one hand, there are a lot of L&D, Training and other folks (HR, Sales, EdTech) who truly believe that the best way to show the proof of success for their employees, customers, members and even students are completion rates.

A completion rate though doesn’t tell you whether the learner really is interested, let alone will retain, or the goal of online learning – synthesize the knowledge and build upon that.

Completion rates are something that is learned at an early age. When were you first assigned learning? The first homework assignment? The first read this entire chapter and let’s talk about it the next day?

The process simply repeats itself each and ever year in school. Going to college or a university? Assignments are everywhere (Not every faculty member does this, but the masses do). The term though be be listed as “homework”, as if the one word will change the perception of what is merely assigned. Going to grad school? Flexibility starts to appear, but assigned does show up depending on the professor/instructor/etc.

What is left is an embed on the type of learning, that I’d argue most people were never fans of to begin with. Yet that embedded form of learning is not discarded in online learning for adult learners; oh no; it is embraced with all the extra trimmings.

Synchronous based learning (SBL) is highly used in EdTech Online. You can easily recognize it the moment you see a syllabus or similar. You go step by step. You complete assignments with specific due dates. You complete the entire online course. In turn, the university or college or school can show those completion rates – the high rate – and say, “See – success!”

Brown University has a web page dedicated to “effective online assignments and activities.” One section says the following, “The first assignment is a good indicator of whether a student will complete the course.” (

Note the words, “complete the course”. Brown isn’t alone in this thinking, but it reinforces the idea around assigned learning.

Coursera offers a report called “Drivers of Quality in Online Learning”. In the executive summary alone the following is presented to the reader

  • Under Instructors – Keep lectures under 10 minutes to improve completion rates by 16% and increase learner satisfaction. Courses that are “roughly” a month long have the highest completion rates.
  • Actionable Takeaways for learners mentions completion multiple times.
  • Under the section, “How to Increase Engagement” – “we use completion rates among the population of learners who are eligible to complete and are the most likely to have a goal of course completion”

The rest of the report taps into the completion aspect, even bringing up MOOCs whose own completion rates are beyond poor, and have been since they arrived on the scene. Who typically takes MOOCs? Adult learners – non-traditional learners (usually refers to adults over 25).

Who tends to buy Coursera? Adult learners – whether they are getting reimbursed by their company, or doing it themselves, or the company is buying it for their learners.

Corporate Assigned Learning

Corporate learning/training with learning systems continue to push the heavy usage of assigned learning. They mention it in their marketing of their system – “assigned learning”. They note in when folks ask about it, “yes, you can do assigned learning”.

The Argument for Assigned Learning on the corporate side

Mandatory. That’s the term we use for assigned learning. It sounds extreme. Do you know who else over abundantly uses the term “mandatory”? Prison.

Mandatory learning – and for our purposes – online, is cited as essential for

  • Compliance of any kind. Let’s not kid ourselves, compliance required training is because companies due not want to be sued. This isn’t about being proactive from the learner standpoint, it is from the corporate, state/province, government, regulatory commission. When do people tend to take compliance courses? Usually at or near the deadline to complete it. Check your data – and let me know how many times Mike went back into that “How to drive a forklift” course? OR how many times did your VP of HR go back into any of the compliance courses they had to take and complete?

Compliance creates a conundrum to those folks who believe assigned learning is not an effective way nor means to retention and synthesis of learning, and acquiring knowledge. It is required, do not pass go – which for now, has to be followed – no exceptions. Could compliance content be turned into something more engaging via interactive labs, with short modules, with benefits to return to the courses/content to continue improvement? Could it be achieved without making it mandatory by the end of quarter or month? Or is it something that has to be done, just as you have to wait at the DMV for hours just for them to tell you, you do not have the appropriate form?

What else is mandatory?

  • Onboarding – Not always all the content, but a chunk of it – sure this is dependent on who is overseeing this, but we are talking general here. A friend of mine who started a new job was given access to the learning system and assigned a set of courses. The courses included such items as company’s procedures, values, navigating the office (they work remote), welcome to the company with the CEO thanking them (pre-recorded) and a video of various employees talking about how much they enjoy working at the company. What value! Any mention of where to find your parking spot?
  • Tasks – The worst. This implies that you have to complete this task – perhaps daily, and in turn it will increase your knowledge and retention because it is often. They are right in one way – your retention – from the standpoint of how much you will dread taking it. Daily assigned tasks are ideal if you want to reside in a flat/home with a significant other who expects (understandably) for you to take out the garbage, mow the lawn, wash the car, water the plants, get the mail, listen to your Dad tell you that they mowed lots of lawns for free, so getting a quarter should be a happy blessing. Seriously though, task assignments, are assignments – like homework but for adults.
  • Job role related – This one makes zero sense. It is as though we are all back at school learning a specific subject and that to proof that we know said subject, you are given due dates/completion requirements. Many a times, it comes from the manager of said individual. If you are telling an employee that you believe in their learning/training of X skills, and “open exploration”, it kind of goes out the window, the moment you tell them, they have to take this and complete it. Couldn’t you achieve the same objective by putting together a catalog of courses/content for that individual or group, let them select from it, (which will tell you far more about them and learning goals for skills and insight) and then monitor from there. If I see that Melissa selected three courses around leadership, then my guess is going to be she is a)interested in this subject b) planning to tap into it or has a reason for seeking that information, c)if she is a manager, then this is an area she wants to improve or build upon, d)if not, she may be looking to develop these skills for future opportunities to be a manager.

Completion Equates to Success

Malarkey. Utter rubbish.

We in the corporate world (and education too) look at those completion rates as though they are the validation we need to show someone, anyone that online learning works and is successful. Successful for the department. Successful the institution, entity, business, association, and so on. Learner completes – therefore they know the information/skill/whatever and this equates to success. High completion rates – we are successful with our online learning.

It means NOTHING. NOTHING. You are not in fifth grade here. You are working at a company. You are not in Ms. Willard’s class staying after school to complete the book report, you failed to turn in during class.

There are learning systems whose entire machine learning algorithm (noted as A.I. by the vendor) is based heavily on completion of the content. Fail to complete? No worries, it is not computed with the algorithm – skipped. Fail to complete? No worries, you are given less weight than if you complete it. Fail to complete? No worries. Just click the “complete” button.

I like Degreed, but from day one (and yes, I saw the system when it first came out, so many moons ago) their system was setup with completion as a key indicator. I remember getting into a discussion with then CEO and Founder, David Blake on whether or not he knew why WBT was created (it wasn’t about completion), because of their instance on completed with the system. Telling someone to click “complete” so that it shows it is completed, skews data.

Skews how you say?

The recommended playlist? Based on completion. So even if Mark spent 29 seconds in course X and clicks complete, the system says he completed it. Despite the fact that Mark never went any further, never went back, did nothing.

Assigned learning? Well, if the majority of company is assigned six courses of the same subject and topic, what do you think will appear skill/topic wise with recommended?

Suggested or most popular? If assigned is the backbone of your employees’ learning or customers, then most popular is skewed.

The data you are looking at with systems whose algorithms weight heavily around completed, or penalize (okay, ignore in some cases), non-completed, is IMO, data misrepresented.

This is why I always ask every vendor the question around weights, completion or non-completed, bringing up a core reason on why WBT was created in the first place. To empower the learner – to learn what they are interested in, when they want to, wherever they are. They are not forced nor required to complete the course/chapter/etc – because synthesis is the better data point here, not completion.

If your learning system presents as a key data indicator – completed vs non-completed and you are relying on this data as the CORE for proof of validation, you need to go back and re-think this thru.

If assigned learning is the ESSENTIAL to your learning for your employees, students, customers or members, then you need to go back and re-think whether this is how you felt when you were assigned learning during your days at school.

If you ever have had the pleasure of listening to employees gripe on having to attend a training session, and take away from their time to do their job, you will recognize first hand, how required really plays here. What is the completion rate for attending? 100%. What is the comprehension and synthesis for these happy err less than enthralled employees on this subject? Very low. They are still stewing about attending.

Bottom Line

If you have a learning system, take a look at whether or not completed is one of the data points you are seeing. My guess, is it will be.

Ask yourself, what completed really means to you? What does it really tell you about the learner? Their retention and synthesis of the content?

Is your learning or training success level solely tied to completion?

Because if that is the case,

Please assign yourself a task.

To re-think your


E-Learning 24/7


  1. Great thought provoking article Craig. Next thing you are going to tell us is that you can’t determine productivity by seeing what their attendance was in the office.

    One other thought, if people only did what they loved or wanted to do – aka not manadatory, I suspect many jobs would not be done, or half/poorly done. Let’s face it learning can be fun and so can exercise, but it’s also hard (or often can be) but if the motivation isn’t there – aka sometimes someone just needs to tell ya to do it (ask any parent) – it doesn’t get done nor is it learned.

    Reminds me a bit of one of my favorite Calvin and Hobbes strips:

    1. It’s one thing around doing the job you have been hired to do, and getting access to learning and training to benefit you as an employee or a customer, or member. Forcing learning is what academia does, one of the reasons I believe we have issues here, especially online. We have to change that. Otherwise, we are not moving forward.

      1. In terms of Academia, once could easily argue you are doing those tasks/learning to obtain something from the organization (degree/certificate). In terms of a job, if someone is hired to do X and they don’t come perfect when they join (often the case), expecting them to learn (however that is done) to do the job better, more efficiently etc., seems to me to be part of what one is hired to do. It’s awesome when an org empowers/enables learning on demand and the folks take advantage of that – thus win win, but that seems to me to be something that occurs less often. Perhaps something more in the middle is dedicating part of a work week to learning and that folks can “choose” but they need to spend the time on learning (and the org helps that to happen – aka expectations are in line for doing it as well as NOT doing other work items).

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