In this exclusive interview with Learnnovators, Julie Dirksen shares her insights on the changing nature of workplace learning based on the research behind behavior change.

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Julie Dirksen is the author of the book Design For How People Learn and an independent consultant and instructional designer who has more than 20 years’ experience creating highly interactive e-Learning experiences for clients ranging from Fortune 500 companies to innovative technology startups to major grant-funded research initiatives. Her focus has been on utilizing the disciplines of educational psychology, instructional design, and behavioral science to promote and support the improvement of peoples’ lives through sustainable long-term learning and behavioral change.

She holds an M.S. degree in Instructional Systems Technology from Indiana University and has also been an adjunct faculty member at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.

She’s happiest whenever she gets to learn something new and you can find her online at www.usablelearning.com.


Crystal Balling with Learnnovators is a thought-provoking interview series that attempts to gaze into the future of e-learning. It comprises stimulating discussions with industry experts and product evangelists on emerging trends in the learning landscape.

Join us on this exciting journey as we engage with thought leaders and learning innovators to see what the future of our industry looks like.


1. LEARNNOVATORS: We are great fans of you, Julie. You are an expert learning designer who has been continuously inspiring the world to design better and meaningful learning experiences. It’s an honor to have you here today to discuss the past, present, and future of workplace learning.

You are considered an expert on topics related to learning, specifically on behavior change, and have been trying to help the community better understand the science behind it and ways to bring that into learning design. What does your experience say about the changing nature of workplace learning based on the research behind behavior change?

JULIE DIRKSEN: Technology has been solving many of the problems facing workplaces, so most of the hard problems that remain are related to human behavior. For example, technology can make significant improvements to the safety of workplaces, but keeping the rate of accidents low still relies on human behavior. In healthcare, technology and science have made huge strides, but we still need people to wash their hands appropriately.

The advances in artificial intelligence will mean that some of the common topics in learning and development will go away. For example, many people in L&D spend a lot of their time creating or delivering software training, and I believe that much of that will go away as AI replaces some of the more routine software jobs or makes software training something that can be created by AI without an instructional designer. When we no longer do so much procedural training, we need to have other skills to keep us relevant and useful, and I believe that an understanding of behavioral design is a crucial part of that.

2. LEARNNOVATORS: Back in the day, formal learning was the only source of information or expert knowledge. However, that’s not the case today. Google and YouTube have changed the game. The focus is on learning how to solve problems on the go. There is a fundamental shift in how organizations even perceive workplace learning. We google first for ‘helpful resources’ on the topic, and maybe check with our peers at the workplace next if required. We at Learnnovators agree with the school of thought that advocates for a purpose-built ‘Resources First’ approach that respects the intelligence and the prior experience of learners. In this context, it is exciting to see you too advocating for using ‘better ways to make information available to people in their environment so they can get it when they need it than making them to hold more (information) in their heads’. Given this scenario, do you think e-learning, in its original format, is dead or has become irrelevant? What would be the best approach to move away from ‘learning’ to ‘resources for performance support’ to support newer ways for people to learn and perform at work?

JULIE DIRKSEN: I think that one of the questions you should always ask is: “Where should this information be to best support performance?” Often the answer is that it should be as close to the point of performance as possible. But we still have a role to play in the acquisition of more complex skills. Performance support is a crucial tool, and we should use it as much as possible, but there will always be a need for helping people develop complex skills. You don’t want somebody learning how to engineer bridges or provide mental health counseling just by using job aids.

I’m not worried about the need for elearning disappearing, but I am concerned that the elearning industry seems focused on better and faster ways to deliver information. Skills require practice, and practice requires feedback. Most elearning technology assumes that the basic unit of learning is a piece of information, but a much better frame would see the basic unit of learning as a learner action with feedback.

3. LEARNNOVATORS: It is amazing to see how some instructors are conducting online training in a highly creative manner. At the same time, there is a dire need of hand-holding for many of our educators with respect to taking offline (physical) classes online (virtual). In this context, you say, “… a lot of what makes for a great learning experience is not about the content, but is about the way the content is taught.” What are your recommendations to learning designers for designing effective online classes? Also, what advice would you have for trainers for delivering impactful virtual classroom sessions?

JULIE DIRKSEN: There are people with much more expertise in virtual classroom design, but one of my basic principles is that it should be a conversation with learners, and not a one-way lecture. I also think we should challenge the assumption that “we can’t do that in virtual online.” Instead we should ask: “how would I do that online?” Think about what the core of the activity is, and what the online version would look like. There are some psychomotor things that are probably impossible to do online with current technology, but it’s always worth asking the question.

4. LEARNNOVATORS: We find the Learning Guild research report Augmented and Virtual Reality for Behavior Change that you co-authored absolutely insightful. It was especially fascinating to read the case studies that show how Virtual Reality (VR) can be a great tool for behavior change in various domains and situations. We too believe that, though VR holds the power to address some unique learning challenges, Augmented Reality (AR) and Mixed Reality (MR) offer greater opportunities to deliver learning and performance support in our workplaces, simply because we all carry AR / MR powered smart phones with us at all times. If we subscribe to this view (by Rachel Anne Sibley of the Singularity University) that AR & VR are going to be the “operating systems of the future workplaces”, how significant is it for our learning systems to evolve to accommodate this change? How should we in learning get prepared to meet this future?

JULIE DIRKSEN: I think AR & VR will absolutely transform our field beyond all recognition, but there are two elements that need to evolve before we will really see that. The first element is the authoring environment. Right now, we have a strong bias in the field toward authoring tools that allow us to build without developers, but we either need to let go of that for AR&VR and hire developers more, or the authoring tools need to evolve. The other part of the equation that we need to look at — particularly for VR — is where in the physical world will people interact with VR? You often need safe, dedicated spaces for this kind of training to happen.

AR will probably be more of an incremental increase, but some of the adoption for that depends on how wearables advance.

5. LEARNNOVATORS: You say, “Training is usually only part of the solution… any time a job aid would work just as well or better.” In this context, we get reminded of this fascinating thought by the late Joe H. Harless: “Inside every fat course, there’s a thin job aid crying to get out.” This idea resonates absolutely well with us. In fact, in many instances, we have effectively used job-aids and other ‘non-course alternatives’ to replace courses entirely. And, we believe it is high time that we think beyond e-learning to performance support solutions that really help people in their moment of need. What are your thoughts? What are some of the interesting ‘non-course alternatives’ that you think are possible to design using the new technologies available today (such as AR, VR, XR, and AI).

JULIE DIRKSEN: Job aids should be the first stop for any intervention. We should always ask if there’s something we should put into the work environment that will solve the problem before we take people out of it to teach them things. If a job aid is insufficient, then the conversation can move on to other training solutions from there.

6. LEARNNOVATORS: You are one of the instigators of the Serious eLearning Manifesto. It is one of the initiatives we have been following and supporting, and putting into practice since it was launched by you in 2014 along with Michael Allen, Clark Quinn, and Will Thalheimer. It is inspiring to see new endorsements by learning professionals across the world even after its launch five years back. However, many in the community have been looking forward to see this initiative as an ongoing exercise with continual updation of the concept based on the challenges and opportunities we have been facing. We also are of the opinion that this initiative shouldn’t be limited to only e-learning and should encompass all forms and types of learning (including blended learning and Virtual ILT). What are your thoughts? Why should it be called ‘eLearning Manifesto’ and not just as ‘Learning Manifesto’? What are your plans to bring in the impact that you had envisioned?

JULIE DIRKSEN: I think it was also an expression of our beliefs about learning and not just elearning. We wanted to make a resource that would help people in the community, and provide some guidance the L&D people could use with stakeholders in their organizations.

I’m not sure what will happen next with it, but I do think that having people in the community share examples of the work they do that lives up to the goals of the manifesto would be one of the best ways to make use of it.

7. LEARNNOVATORS: To quote this McKinsey & Company post, “The research shows companies struggle to train people to do something completely different. What’s critical is to think carefully about the nexus between what a person is doing today and what that person could be good at in the future.” In this context, we find this opinion of yours very relevant: “There’s a gap between your learner’s current situation and where they need to be in order to be successful. Part of that is probably a gap in knowledge, but as we began to discuss above, there are other types of gaps as well. If you can identify those gaps, you can design better learning experiences.” How do you think this (identifying the right type of gaps) is more relevant than ever in workplace learning today? What advice would you have to guide our learning designers on this aspect for building the right kind of re-skilling solutions to face the challenges of tomorrow?

JULIE DIRKSEN: I’d like to see more emphasis on taking people from intermediate to mastery. So much of our work focuses on taking people from novice to intermediate, but there’s little focus on solutions to move mid-range people to the next level. It makes sense — the greatest need is at the novice level, but there’s so much untapped potential in people at the mid-range point. People get to a point of plateau with their skills, and I’d love to see more of an emphasis on how to move people beyond that.

8. LEARNNOVATORS: There are many out there who have been voicing their concerns on the poor quality of e-learning courses. We feel that e-learning hasn’t yet started leveraging the incredible power of the web. For example, we still do not see successful e-learning implementations that are powered by real-time interactive and collaborative learning modalities. When it comes to e-learning, we are locked up inside a dreaded ’course’, whereas the games that keep kids as well as adults engrossed today are ‘real-time’ and ‘multiplayer’. Not a lot has changed with respect to e-learning in all these years compared to the advancements that have happened in other aspects of our lives. You too feel that a lot of instructional technology/e-learning doesn’t look that different today than it did 10-15 years ago because we seem to be stuck in a cycle of primarily information delivery. It’s thought-provoking to hear you say, “EA sports games are intentionally designed to make decision every 1-2 seconds, get feedback on that every 7-10 seconds… How often do users get feedback in e-learning?” Would you subscribe to the thinking that e-learning is yet to evolve to remain relevant in this digital and social age? If yes, what would be your suggestions for e-learning to step up?

JULIE DIRKSEN: It often costs a lot to build games. We don’t typically have the kinds of budgets that allow for use to compete with the kind of interactivity in games. Part of that is the fact that we struggle to show our value in organizations, so training costs are viewed as an expense to be minimized, rather than an investment with a potentially large payoff. We also don’t have big enough audiences inside individual organizations to amortize the development cost of games. A triple-A video game title might sell fifty million copies, so investing millions in its development pays off.

That said, if we framed our learning experiences around learner actions with feedback, we would find ourselves moving much closer to the kinds of feedback that you see in games. I’m a big fan of consequence-based feedback. Basically, in learning scenarios, have learners try something and see what happens, instead of being told “right” or “wrong.”

9. LEARNNOVATORS: To quote Clark Quinn: “We, should, as professionals, have a solid basis for our decisions. Just as you wouldn’t want your doctor not to know biochemistry and biophysics, and your electrician not to understand voltage and current, you similarly should want your instructional designers to understand how learning proceeds.” You too agree that “As learning leaders, it’s important to understand how learning happens.” As a person who is passionate about inspiring others with the skills needed for designing good learning experiences, and inspiring the community and impacting their work for many years now, what would be your advice to newbie learning designers to do justice to their profession, and be successful in their journey?

JULIE DIRKSEN: Clark’s book on learning myths, Ruth Clark’s or Patti Shank’s books on evidence-based design or Jane Bozarth’s (for The Learning Guild), Will Thalheimer’s research reports are all ways to learn about learning science and ensure that you are not going down an incorrect path. Being a professional in this field means you have a responsibility to educate yourself about learning science. Keeping up with academic research is hard, and often unfeasible, but making sure you know who the trustworthy people are who translate research into practice is a much more practical way to do that.

10. LEARNNOVATORS: To quote Andrew Jacobs, “Your online offer has to be as simple to use as Google, recommending like Amazon, as comprehensive as Wikipedia.” We agree on this thought since we too believe that online learning cannot be any different from these other online experiences, and in fact should reflect the great qualities of these experiences. Would you agree to this view? If yes, what would be your recommendation for learning designers to transform themselves into learning experience designers? If not, how do you justify e-learning interfaces not being in synch with the transformational changes happening in the other applications we use in our daily lives?

JULIE DIRKSEN: I have lots of thoughts about this, but at a minimum, user experience (UX) design should be a core competency for learning designers. I believe that learning about UX requires people to gain competencies in three main areas: user research, prototyping, and user testing. On the technology side, I do think we need to get better at integrating existing technologies, and not insisting that we build our own version of everything just for elearning.

11. LEARNNOVATORS: As we understand, aside from being the latest bandwagon in town, Artificial Intelligence (AI) has real power, when used well, to transform learning – to make learning truly ‘personalized’. Here, we are reminded of this interesting story by Ashok Goel, a Professor of Computer Science and Cognitive Science in the School of Interactive Computing at Georgia Institute of Technology: He created Jill Watson, an AI teaching assistant, whom he used for one of his grad-level classes, without any of his students noticing. We believe that we should learn to see how best we can leverage the tremendous power of such a technology to make learning a much more personalized experience. From a behavioral science standpoint, what do you think learning leaders should keep in mind while experimenting with this evolving technology to make ‘artificial teachers’ or ‘virtual teaching assistants’? Will AI render teachers and trainers jobless? If you agree, how do you think they should upskill themselves to avoid getting outdated?

JULIE DIRKSEN: I already addressed some of this in the first question, but one thing that I think is important to keep in mind regarding AI is that the best, most successful AI learns from human examples or experiments in the environment.

If you want to move some simple customer service requests to a chatbot, for example, you need to record and decode real customer conversations to identify the patterns of how those conversations are going now. You can’t just script how you think it should go — you need to look at how it’s already going, and use that to create your virtual experiences.

12. LEARNNOVATORS: It was fascinating to read Arie de Geus in a 1998 HBR post taking Titmice and Robins as examples, and comparing and contrasting their ‘ability to learn’, to explain institutional learning. Arie concludes the article by saying, “The best learning takes place in teams that accept that the whole is larger than the sum of the parts, that there is a good that transcends the individual.” In this age of business digitalization, we believe that the very first step for companies to be successful is to have the right learning vision, and a learning culture that aligns with the vision. At the same time, we realize that ensuring this is a real challenge. What role do you think learning leaders can play in thought-partnering with senior management in forming the right learning vision, and shaping the desired learning culture?

JULIE DIRKSEN: I don’t actually think that thought-partnering is the big issue facing most learning organizations. I think the biggest issue is that L&D has been struggling for decades to get feedback on their efforts, and therefore have a hard time showing their value at the executive level. That means that they aren’t necessarily evolving their approach, and that it can be hard to get funding for L&D. We aren’t learning enough from our own efforts, which has stagnated our own development. The increase in metrics and data being collected about performance will change this, but we desperately need better skills at collecting and using data about learner performance.

13. LEARNNOVATORS: It indeed is important to align the learning solutions we build with the way people learn. As the author of ‘Design for How People Learn’ – one of the best books on learning design that we have today, we are curious to hear your thoughts on this: Is how people learn changing? If yes, what would be your advice to learning designers to keep up with these changes? How would you look at Professor Sugata Mitra’s notion of ‘the end of knowing’ where we learn only just in time rather than carrying all knowledge within us? If you believe that is the ‘essence of the 21st century’, what re-thinking would this entail on our traditional principles around learning design, especially those that are related to behavioral science? Has this situation already inspired you to think of a new edition?

JULIE DIRKSEN: I don’t think that the fundamental ways we learn has changed much. From an evolutionary point of view, things just don’t change that quickly. I do think that the way we distribute cognition with technology has changed many things, however. We have speed and capacity that we did not have 15 or 20 years ago, because we have learned strategies for using our smart phones or Google or other tools to extend our cognitive capacity and flexibility.

14. LEARNNOVATORS: The success of the NASA rebels shows that rebels are exactly what organizations need, and why more of them are needed. We too believe that, in today’s learning landscape, the community is in dire need of ‘learning rebels’, ‘agents of change’, and ‘learning provocateurs’ more than ‘learning conformists’. Because we are going through a time of major learning transformation, radical thinking that will help us get started on the transformation has become quite critical. In this context, it is inspiring to note that you too are an ardent advocate of a workplace learning revolution. Being a change agent yourself, what message do you have for our readers on the significance of being a changemaker in our profession?

JULIE DIRKSEN: (I don’t apparently have access to the full article, but will try to address the question).

We always need to be careful about what types of behavior we are incentivizing. If we double down on compliance, we potentially squash initiative. If we try to eliminate all error, we also potentially harm creativity. Many organizations talk about the value of innovative ideas, but I think the hard part is not throttling those innovative ideas before they get a chance to grow.

Part of innovation and creativity is failure. If you take bold actions, you have to be prepared for a certain number of them to fail, and smart organizations factor that in and plan for it. Failure should be data that is fed back into the system to improve the next attempt, not fodder for blame.

I see learned helplessness in many organizations — “Management won’t let us do that” or “We tried that before and it didn’t work” or “We want to do that, but IT won’t support it.” These are not organizations where innovation will flourish. And not every organization should be all about innovation, but if that’s a priority for an organization, they need to ensure that they support it in meaningful ways.

15. LEARNNOVATORS: Our hearty congratulations to you on being recognized by The Learning Guild as a ‘Guild Master’ and by Work-Learning Research as the winner of their ‘Neon Elephant Award’ for exemplifying enlightenment, integrity, and innovation in the field of workplace learning and performance. These and others to come, we believe, are absolutely deserving recognitions for your incredible work in inspiring the learning community to design better learning. How do you look at these honorable achievements? How do you think such recognitions will help fuel your vision for the learning community?

JULIE DIRKSEN: My role in the community is to figure out straightforward ways to support them and to help them be better. I work to figure out what tools I can give L&D practitioners to make their jobs easier, and to make their work more effective. I’m really pleased to be recognized by organizations and peers, but the most meaningful feedback is people who tell me that my work really helped them do their jobs.

16. LEARNNOVATORS: It is inspiring to hear you say, “For me, the goal of good learning design is for learners to emerge from the learning experience with new or improved capabilities that they can take back to the real world, that help them do the things they need or want to do.” It is great to see you on this inspiring journey to help drive change in the way learning is designed for people at work. Just like you, we too are excited to visualize the future of learning; it looks very bright. We believe that learning will evolve much further than leveraging the power of emerging technologies to some incredible dimensions. What are the trends that will shape the future of workplace learning in 2021 and beyond? And what is your vision for the learning community?

JULIE DIRKSEN: I love working in L&D because almost everyone who works in L&D found their way to this field because they had an affinity for helping people, which means we are a tremendously supportive and collegial community. I do think we need to evolve and grow, but there will never not be a need for good learning design.

LEARNNOVATORS: Before we sign off, we thank you so much for your time today, Julie. We’ve had an amazing time reading your insights with many valuable takeaways. We’ll take these learnings to foster our commitment to practice and promote continuous learning and innovation at work. We eagerly look forward to collaborating with you on some exciting initiatives in future. Thank you!

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