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Do you want to be effective or efficient?

Let’s talk about learning programmes and how we measure them.

Effective learning and efficient learning are two important concepts to understand when trying to measure success. Effective teachers are those who can engage their students in learning and get them excited about it. These teachers are able to make learning fun and interesting, and their students tend to excel academically. Efficient teachers, on the other hand, are those who can get the most out of their students in the shortest amount of time. They know how to manage their classroom and keep things running smoothly.

Effectiveness is about achieving the desired outcome, while efficiency is about using resources in the best way possible. Effectiveness is often thought of as the end goal, while efficiency is how we get there. The distinction between the two is often a difficult one to make, as effectiveness and efficiency often go hand in hand.

The old school

The traditional schooling system was never designed around the efficiency of its learning programmes. In a standards-based education model, programmes have always been designed around effectiveness, and we’ve always been highly focussed on the quality of teaching that schools are delivering. 

In contrast – learning and development initiatives within corporate environments with engagement targets and ROI to justify – have been driven predominantly by efficiency. 

But now that most schools are delivering their programmes in blended and online formats, we are much better able to report and analyse their success with data analytics tools and software, and the actual efficiency of those programmes is now on the table. With the rise of “digital fatigue” in our post-pandemic learning environments however, the question arises, where and how can we strike the balance between learning efficacy and efficiency? 

Which is more important?

Online learning can be significantly more cost-efficient than the alternatives, and there is considerable research into the efficiency of corporate learning. It would make sense for schools to develop the same kind of rigour into their learning programmes, but if efforts to improve the quality of learning focusses solely on the experience of its delivery, something vital will have been missed. 

We don’t just need a quality learning experience to combat digital fatigue and prove ROI within our schools. We also need quality results that are going to advance Australian education systems and their students on the world’ stage. 

This means improvements in performance and productivity, which will lead to positive outcomes for the entire institution. 

Of course, striving for a better learning environment is essential. Learning experiences that don’t engage our emotions in some way are unmemorable and unproductive. If we don’t care about it, we can’t learn it. There is plenty of research to support the idea that the most effective learning outcomes hinge on high quality learning experiences – such as those that emphasise student agency – choice and interactivity – as part of a more learner-centred approach.

But we must also take care to balance other evidence that warns against too narrowly focusing on what the learner experiences, to the exclusion of other factors. Gamified learning for example, can be extremely effective (as shown by the success of language-learning app Duolingo for instance). However – too much fun can be distracting and destructive to the learning process if it becomes distracting or creates additional cognitive load. 

The New School

Realistically speaking, there is no one-size-fits-all. Some learners, in some situations, seem to respond best to direct instruction over open-ended discovery learning (which many constitute as the definition of a top quality learning experience).

Others have been found to be poor judges of their own learning anyway. It is very possible for learners to report having a really engaging learning experience which, when the subject is tested, turns out to have resulted in little retention. 

In practice, great learning experiences that achieve great outcomes must balance both effective and efficient processes. As schools strive to professionalise their discipline in the digital age, awareness is spreading of the role that good learning science should play. 

We’re only just catching up with the potential of digital technology to put more data at the fingertips of the learning professionals themselves, and personalise the experience for every individual. We stand poised on the brink of a new era where technology drives quality improvements that really boost the effectiveness of learning across the board. 

But the key to this new effectiveness will be good learning science that helps inform quality learning experiences that also have quality outcomes.

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