In the world of learning, modalities are essentially different ways people gather and store information. There are four learning modalities, which map to the senses: visual (seeing), auditory (hearing), tactile (touching), and kinesthetic (moving).
Each of these modalities plays a role in education at work—whether you’re educating employees, customers, or partners. Each modality is administered through different learning content delivery methods (e.g., article, eLearning course, video, live training).
The key is choosing which modality, or combination of modalities, is needed to best communicate ideas. Do learners need a visual to understand what you’re talking about? Do they need an opportunity for hands-on practice?
In this article, we’ll cover:
Modalities can be a difficult concept to wrap your head around. That’s why I love sharing a food analogy to help people understand how they work.
When you dine at an upscale restaurant and eat a prix fixe menu, the chef designs each dish—and the order in which you eat each dish—intentionally for optimal delight. You have no choice in the matter. But this is what you’re looking for.
My wife and I practice respectful parenting with our 4-year-old, Teddy. We might make him a plate with spaghetti, salad, broccoli, and bread. He’s free to choose component pieces, in whichever order he’d like, based on his preferences. Our intent is to encourage him to eat a healthy meal without forcing any one component on him; giving him a choice increases our overall success rate.
Food can be plated in different ways, and so can educational content.
Modalities are how you choose to plate your learning content for maximum engagement.
Rather than choose a delivery method “just because,” education professionals must ask themselves, “What’s the best learning experience for this audience, and how can I deliver that?”
It can be helpful to keep the following two guideposts top of mind:
Before we go any further, I wanted to quickly emphasize why modalities matter.
In our research report, Transforming Organizational Education Initiatives From Cost Center to Profit Center, we discovered that the No. 1 education challenge is that learners abandon training midway through.
Whereas employees and students are required to complete certain training, customers—and often business partners—are not. So, your ability to engage your learners directly impacts whether or not they return to your learning destination to complete their training.
You can prevent learner drop off with a combination of better content and better delivery. In other words, modality can be the difference between initiative success and failure.
There are a few things you need to consider in order to select the best-fit modalities: education initiative, audience needs, learner preferences, metrics, and company resources, to name a few.
Plating Teddy’s food is a different scenario than plating food at a high-end restaurant. While home is a low-pressure environment, the restaurant is a high-pressure environment with the possibility of negative Yelp reviews and employee salaries to pay. There’s a lot at stake.
Likewise, each education initiative has different factors that will impact the modalities you choose. If you educate multiple audiences in the workplace, think through this one initiative at a time. Ask yourself questions like:
Building off the last bullet point, company resources are a major factor impacting modality choice. While you might want to bring in a fancy video production crew to film a high-production value, instructor-led video course, your budget may not allow it. Instead, you might film videos in-house, and then add them to a course using a tool such as Articulate 360 or Intellum Evolve.
Company stage and maturity play a big role here. When you’re starting out, you likely have a small education budget, which impacts the technology and talent you have access to—and the modalities you can pull off. But as you mature and gain a larger resource pool, you can iterate on your content and your delivery modalities.
Eventually, you can update that course with higher quality videos. Or you might supplement knowledge base articles with virtual instructor-led training (VILT) inside your learning platform.
Of course, the “right” modality depends on audience needs and how you want learners to engage with your content. Do you simply need to check a box for compliance reasons? Are employees mandated to take the course? Maybe you don’t need to invest as heavily as you would for customer training with the goal of learner behavior change and churn reduction.
Whereas a customer might need a learning journey that gives them room for applying their knowledge (i.e., engaging with their own account while they’re learning), a video might suit the needs of a prospect audience who is considering whether or not to buy.
Do a proper training needs analysis to pinpoint needs and desired learner outcomes; this will start to give you a picture of how much investment you will need to fund course delivery.
This might seem obvious, but if you have data to support that your learner audience prefers a specific delivery modality, you will want to do your best to meet their preferences.
For example, let’s say you’re designing a learning initiative for a group of Gen Z learners who grew up on social media and YouTube content. They’d likely be disengaged if you asked them to read a long text guide or series of knowledge base articles. With that in mind, you would choose a modality more suited to their tastes to increase their chances of completion.
Additionally, you can:
Begin a self-guided interactive course with an introduction video. This helps you orient learners to how the course will work. This ensures they can recognize the navigation elements and support experience while also meeting their delivery preferences.
Give learners different ways to engage with a single piece of content. Returning to the introduction video example, you might let learners scroll through a page that has the video script on it to appeal to learners with different learning styles. And remember to always use closed captioning on videos for accessibility. Everyone deserves equal access to learning opportunities.
As a learning professional, you need to know:
Metrics matter. A lot. Not only do metrics inform content updates and new content ideation (you’ll want to do more of what’s working), they also help you show the value of education so you can secure leadership buy-in and necessary resources.
Let’s pretend you’re creating knowledge base articles to support a product release. You will want to identify a metric for product adoption and show consumption of knowledge base articles to prove that the education team’s efforts drove adoption. You might include a survey or assessment within the learning experience that asks the learner’s intention to adopt this feature. You could also compare product usage data for learners vs. non-learners.
Don’t believe everything you hear. There’s lots of misinformation floating around regarding modality and workplace learning. So let me address a few common misconceptions:
Misconception No. 1: We must create and deliver new content for each audience. Lots of times, you can reuse content and deliver it inside different modalities for different audiences. For example, you might create a product walkthrough video as part of your employee onboarding series. Rather than build a whole new product training from scratch for your customer audience, you might embed segments of that existing video inside a more comprehensive eLearning course.
Misconception No. 2: We must choose ONE of the modality elements. As a learning professional, you are building paths for people to follow; you can blend modalities. In some cases, you’ll design the experience (a restaurant plate). And in other cases, you’ll let them choose their own journey (a Teddy plate). Often, an academy homepage will include elements of both. Let’s say you’re launching a compliance course; you don’t need to give the learner a ton of options because it’s mandatory; and, let’s face it, the modality was likely not chosen for its engagement. But you can advocate to deliver the content in a way that engages your learners: for example, adding an introductory video from your team or including social and community tools to encourage conversation and grow connections between employees.
Misconception No. 3: One person is responsible for selecting learning modalities. Ultimately, the decision about modality and format are decided by the instructional designer or program manager. But it’s important that team members have open group discussions about it. Not only can this lead to better choices (perhaps one team member is highly data-driven while another oversees resourcing and understands what’s truly possible). It can also empower consistency in initiative delivery. Together is better.
When selecting appropriate modalities within a larger learning experience, everything comes back to the guideposts: What problem are you trying to solve and who are you solving it for? Then, of course, you have to make sound decisions that are within your means. Don’t invest in instructor-led training (ILT) if you don’t have the ongoing resources to support hiring presenters, upskilling presenters, etc.
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