Beyond The Modern Learner

🕑 8 minutes read | Jul 18 2022 | By Olga D. Wasyluk, TTA Learning Consultant

“The Modern Learner” is a learning framework infographic developed by Josh Bersin for Deloitte in 2017.  It altered how organizations viewed their learners by classifying them essentially along 2 dimensions – how learners are feeling (left side of infographic), and what learners are expecting (right side of infographic).

modern learner infographic

(Source: Meet the Modern Learner:  The Disruptive Nature of Digital Learning: Ten Things We’ve Learned, J.Bersin, Bersin by Deloitte,, 3/29/2017)

Factors comprising the “feeling” dimension of learning include being distracted, impatient, and overwhelmed. Factors along the “expecting” dimension show learners as untethered, seeking on-demand learning, collaborative, and empowered. This framework became an outstandingly succinct summary of how learning had changed in recent years. It also addressed how the pace of those changes had increased due to organizational accelerators such as technology advances, customer demand, and economic impacts.

Two years after the introduction of this learner framework some unprecedented global events occurred.  The world entered a pandemic that completely altered how business was being conducted and how people work. This pandemic was seismic in that it lasted for over 2 years and affected nearly every country on the planet. It had massive impacts on employment demographics and employee expectations. It altered the basics of how society interacts.

Then the war in Europe occurred producing huge impacts on global economies and the supply and demand of basic goods. It had a massive effect on energy supplies, which in turn affected employees who had just begun returning to on-site work.

As if that wasn’t enough, the economies of the world began a slow slide toward recession. The effect on employees was significant, whether in terms of their job retention or personal budgets. Suddenly employees began facing the need to re-skill and re-tool to maintain personal economic balance.

As the pandemic waxed and waned throughout all of this, companies began changing worker presence from all remote, to partially in-office, too, ultimately, a completely new work mode called, “hybrid”.

Bersin’s The Modern Learner didn’t know any of that was coming.  It remains an incredibly accurate framework on many levels even after these huge socio-economic world shifts. In some ways, however, it has changed and those changes impact how we create learning in today’s post-pandemic, economically shifting, world.

Changes in Learning Modes

Instructor-led in-classroom learning programs shifted to online formats – rapidly. A course once delivered in a class may have needed to move into an online VILT format. Suddenly instructors were Zooming or Webexing their classroom content. This changed how learners interacted in these modes.  The distracted, impatient, and overwhelmed Modern Learner was now dealing with having to focus on one more open tab on their screen rather than having a more structured classroom environment.  Opportunities for interactive discussion in these live online formats changed as well (“oh sorry, you go ahead”). A learner could turn off their camera to handle personal distractions or have a bad hair day.  Earlier classes of 30 or 40 in-classroom participants became unwieldy in an online live video format. Paying attention to a screen became incredibly difficult for hours of time, in contrast to the classroom.  This new dynamic hyper-emphasized The Modern Learner’s distractibility and impatience. Suddenly these dimensions became glaring and exhausting.

A new need emerged for changing the design of earlier instructor-led classroom material into the new interactive space of the Zoom call. It did not become a matter of merely chopping the material into bite-sized chunks. In some cases, entire segments of the classroom needed to be re-designed or designed from scratch, for the new interactivity dynamics of the online classroom video call format.

Learning Program Flow

Learning programs need to be re-evaluated because “blended” learning took on new meanings. Earlier combinations of self-study and instructor-led study now became self-study, group online study, and possibly reduced instructor-led components of study. Program flow and timing needed to be reviewed. The pacing of courses within a program needed to be re-examined and potentially re-designed.

Untethered Learners

The Modern Learner framework addresses “untethered learners” who learn from multiple locations in untraditional ways. These new post-pandemic changes emphasize the “untethered” component even further. Some learners may have become 100% remote while others are hybrid, spending some days in the office. How does the learning professional now design an instructor-led experience for these learners? Do they separate the remote from the on-site learners? Do they combine them? If so, where – online or in the classroom? What are the considerations for employees who have physically moved across the country for attending an in-classroom course? Where is the classroom now, anyway – in the office or in some new halfway location? Some learning experiences can simply not be duplicated through completely e-learning formats. How willing are untethered learners to attend in-classroom sessions anywhere? Although this sounds like a call that should just be made about how in-classroom sessions will be conducted, in this new post-pandemic environment that “call” has a new impact. The importance of up-front clarity around this new dimension between the organization, its learning department, and its employees is critical around these aspects of their learning and development.

Attracting Talent, New Hires, and Having The “Right” Learning Programs

A huge worker shortage emerged post-pandemic. Seismic shifts in employment occurred as workers resigned, moved, and sought new opportunities. This, in turn, created the need for organizations to attract new talent, onboard them successfully and offer the best learning programs to their new hires.  One aspect of The Modern Learner is that learners feel “empowered” to learn and seek their own learning options. This post-pandemic shift in talent has highlighted the empowerment aspect of the employee even further, and their search for the right professional opportunity.

How should we design new learning programs to attract this shifting demographic of learners? If the employee has multiple employment offers, how will an organization’s learning opportunities attract this talent? We can look at corporate learning paths as trajectories for talent. Where does this new hire want to go in their career and why does an organization have an edge in providing them with such a trajectory? The need to attract talent has never been greater, and the organization’s learning programs are now part of the entire talent sales package.

A company’s learning programs are now also competing with a plethora of learning bites available elsewhere online. Learners turned to a variety of technologies to enhance their skills while the pandemic was sorting itself out. YouTube, TikTok, and new bite-sized apps became available in the chaos vacuum of changes during the pandemic. Employees continued to need answers and they researched a wealth of sources. The “on demand” aspect of The Modern Learner searched smartphones and search engines in much greater numbers during this time. How will an organization’s learning programs attract the type of talent that has become accustomed to this level of learning availability and digestibility? It needs to be succinct, available, and current for this new batch of talent.

And, once they are in a company’s door – how will new hire programs change to provide them with the immersive learning experience they need for retention? For this aspect of learners, spending some time with an organization’s most recent hires may be helpful. Their feedback is fresh and most closely reflects the current environment. They should be asked what they wish had been offered (the responses may be enlightening). Ask them what was most exciting to them as they started, and what was most unnerving. New hire programs should be designed that incorporate these answers.  Organizations should have their recent new hires collaborate with their newest new hires. The Modern Learner prefers people to share what they know. The company needs to provide more opportunities for their newest talent members to do this. This “collaboration” component of the Modern Learner has become more important than ever before.

Analogies to the IT World

The world of information technology (IT) may be seen as analogous to the speed of changes we are now seeing with learners. IT moved from slow sequential system development life cycles (Waterfall SDLC) to rapid, iterative development cycles (Agile). The learning and development world paralleled these same development frameworks with the ADDIE (sequential) and SAM (iterative) development methodologies.  What did the IT world learn in the process of technology and user changes at hyperspeed? It learned to “de-couple” segments of code and create code objects which could be executed as needed, on demand.  Perhaps the next step for our learning and development world is to similarly break apart learning components into discrete learning objects which may be taken on demand with less sequence and structure, while not losing sight of the overall learning trajectory itself. Learning objects which would permit distracted and overwhelmed learners to truly seek on-demand learning in their own ways. Learning objects would include new opportunities for collaboration and learner empowerment.

How Does a Learning Professional Design for This?

We, as a learning community, are experiencing tremendous changes within our learning audiences. We now have The Modern Learner Plus, so to speak.  Our learners, who were once accurately described by Bersin, are further changing, and evolving in ways we never envisioned. Some dimensions of his framework are now more prominent, such as distraction and being overwhelmed. Some dimensions of his framework have taken on completely new meaning such as being untethered and empowered as never before.

Learning professionals need to begin from this understanding, they need to immerse themselves into the mindset and approach of these current learners in new ways. Rather than beginning from course objectives or program outcomes, the learning professional needs to start with learner needs and environment, and subsequently weave in objectives and outcomes. Start with a learner who has no time, is persistently distracted, and is feeling somewhat isolated. How would you design a course for this learner? What aspects would you build into this learner’s course by default?

First, and foremost – talk to learners. Learning professionals often talk predominantly to subject matter experts prior to formulating their course or program. While this is necessary for content, talking to learners provides a better picture of precisely the aspects Bersin originally outlined – how they are feeling and what they are expecting.  These discussions need to focus on why a learner does things, and how they prefer to do them; what they are looking for; where do they want the learning to take them.  Most importantly, learning professionals need to let learners do the talking without leading their answers. A surprising amount of information can be gathered that will help the learning professional better accommodate learner needs.

Bersin’s Modern Learner continues to evolve, as world events alter learner expectations and outlook.  Our purpose as a learning and development community is to remain attuned to these needs and be the conduit for a learner’s trajectory.  We should always be looking for ways to better deliver on that purpose.  To learn more about the modern learner, check out our eBook:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *