Learning Preferences at NNSA

Learning Preferences at NNSA

Linear Content, Collaboration Are Ranked High By Employees

According to a survey conducted by the Office of the Chief Learning Officer (OCLO), most National Nuclear Security Administration employees prefer to engage in learning that incorporates linear content and some aspect of collaboration. (See Fig. 1.)

Participants who prefer to learn in real time (synchronous) are split 50-50 with those who prefer flexible time (asynchronous). All respondents are familiar with available hardware and software tools, but not all tools are used both professionally and personally. For instance, Blackberrys are not preferred for personal use; DVDs are — yet DVDs are seldom used in the workplace, according to the survey.

Many employees report using Web 2.0 tools, but their use is primarily limited to browsing and passive interaction rather than creating content or other forms of active participation. Favorite Web 2.0 tools of NNSA employees for learning are Internet search engines (71 percent), virtual call centers (68 percent), Webinars (50 percent) and video sharing (41 percent). (See Fig. 2.)

These same survey participants prefer smaller group sizes. While they are somewhat comfortable in a physical classroom setting (38 percent), only 9 percent prefer to learn from large group participation settings. Small student ratios were preferred, with 47 percent selecting the physical setting of small groups, 27 percent opting for discussion with a few colleagues, and 65 percent choosing to learn one-on-one with a subject matter expert (SME). Only a small number (15 percent) prefer to sit in front of a computer or television to learn.

Possible Technologies

Because of these survey results, the Office of the Chief Learning Officer determined that training initiatives should at lease consider two more technologies, Webinars and instant messaging.

Employees indicated that 38 percent had used the Webinar format, and 50 percent perceive it as a possible learning tool. They further indicated that they appreciated the “virtual” aspect and ability to interact with the instructor. Webinars easily lend themselves to linear construction and also can be archived and viewed at a later time. The available tools to create and deliver this training format include participative tools such as polling, instant messaging/chatting, and whiteboard drawing.

Employees appear to be users of instant messaging on a personal basis (80 percent) but not at work (26 percent). The nature of instant messaging technology lends itself easily to a collaborative environment. However, if attempting to apply this tool within the NNSA culture, it would be important to ensure the discussion is structured to enable baby boomers to understand and engage in learning.

Speaking of baby boomers (born 1946 to 1964), the results of this survey convey the desire of employees to maintain some learning principles from that era — specifically, structured content delivered in a linear format. Yet those boomers also respond positively to a key principle of the Generation Y-era (born after 1979) characteristics: collaboration.

Podcasts as Tools

Employees participating in the survey clearly preferred linear content and learning in small group sizes (one-on-one and small group discussion). To address these preferences, the Office of the Chief Learning Officer would suggest that training events incorporate choices and options into their design. The ability to build in choices can call for complex skills, but can also be quite simple. Two options are to incorporate an in-person event that is extended with virtual elements (podcasting), or to build a virtual event that is extended to an in-person event (blogging).

Current use of podcasting technology is not part of the NNSA culture, though it does have the potential to be integrated for learning events. An example of podcasts in a learning event is the introduction of a concept or theory (during an in-person classroom session) extended by a podcast resource (virtual), which would interview a scientist or engineer currently applying the concept or theory within his or her work.

Three benefits of incorporating podcasts into e-learning are:

1) They are convenient and flexible, providing employees with choices. They are usually posted on a Website and can often be accessed with multiple player applications. Employees can choose to listen and/or view the podcast while at the computer (which, according to recent research, is the most popular access). Yet, if employees choose and IT policies allow, files can be downloaded directly to audio and video players, allowing them to listen and/or view the podcast whenever and wherever employees prefer.

2) Podcast production quality spans a wide range but can achieve effective results with very little investment. Podcasts currently exist in two primary formats: audio files and video files. Audio files are produced with either digital audio recorders or software programs; quality will differ depending on the creation device selected. However, many quality podcasts exist today that were created with relatively low cost devices. Video podcasts are more complex in that the creator is often mixing media (video, sound and graphics). Video files also tend to be larger in size. Audio podcasts are an effective and efficient starting point for integrating into learning events.

3) Podcasts are not just for lectures; multiple approaches attract multiple employees. A popular production style for podcasts is the radio show format, which works well with content such as interviewing. Yet the format is adaptable and can accommodate a range from simplistic information sharing to more creative endeavors such as scripting of real-world scenarios.

What About Blogging?

Beyond podcasts, blogs (Web-based platforms for hosting discussions around specific topics) have emerged as preferred by users of electronic formats. Data from this survey conveys that NNSA employees are only partially familiar with blogs (47 percent have never visited a blog site), and those who have visited blogs only viewed the site rather than contributed to the dialogue.

Given the valuable opportunity blogs provide, the Office of the Chief Learning Officer sees them as a way to begin dialogues and ease employees into the use of Web 2.0 tools for their learning purposes. Creating a blog with stakeholders (virtual environment), and then extending the blog dialogue to an event such as a brown bag lunch (in-person), may provide employees with an opportunity to participate and collaborate as desired.

Two benefits of incorporating blogs into e-learning are:

1) Creating an interest among stakeholders. One format for blogs is to invite a group of people to contribute to dialogues. The stakeholders could take turns weekly posting an editorial comment and inviting employees to comment. This format is most successful when the original author of the post then returns mid-week to comment on the posted comments of others. Interest measured by amount of comments would indicate the value of creating an in-person extension to the dialogue (brown bag lunch).

2) Increasing trust while building a collaborative environment. Blogs often adapt guidelines such as e-mail policies to avoid abuse. Posting information that may be false is often avoided because of the audience’s ability to question and hold authors accountable. Blogs also are found to be more collegial environments for discussion and lend to more permanence of content (adding an additional benefit of collecting knowledge wealth). Promoting blogs may send a message to employees that they are trusted to share; censorship becomes the exception as opposed to the rule.


NNSA’s OCLO states that one of its primary objectives is to make employees more amenable to learning and make it more valuable to them. Based on the results of the survey, designing learning events that move employees from passive participants to content creators will enable the OCLO to meet its strategic goal while creating a collaborative culture.

The OCLO eventually wants to utilize emerging technologies and learning tools (while considering employees’ learning preferences) to create new, more beneficial learning events. These events would offer some familiarity to employees, but would also gently encourage them to expand into new contexts and formats. This approach would enable the agency to capture the valuable knowledge wealth of SMEs while motivating other employees to engage in collaborative opportunities of professional development and contribute to the overall collective knowledge of the agency.

—This article excerpted from the National Nuclear Security Administration’s “Office of Chief Learning Officer 2008 Survey Results.”

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