From “Just in Case” Learning to “Just in Time” Learning

In my work now, I’m often approached by subject matter experts who know they need some sort of training in place but who need guidance on the details of how to implement it. It becomes clear that they are envisioning something that looks a lot like a course in school, with long lecture presentations that learners are expected to sit down and CONSUME in one sitting, or many.

Often this learning modality does not match the needs of the learners (did it ever?) and produces less-than-engaging learning experiences. Someone once told me that most teachers are just doing their best impression of their own teachers a generation before, and when most people think of teaching, their first instinct is to imitate the schooling experiences they went through as learners.

In this post, we’ll discuss the difference between “just in case” learning and “just in time” learning, showing the ideal use cases for each.

Just in Case Learning – the Traditional School Experience

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

The school experience we all remember is what’s called “just in case” learning. They stuffed us full of facts as sixteen-year-olds, just in case we’d need to know the Pythagorean Theorem or the Hawley-Smoot Act some day far in our futures.

Every student who’s ever asked “when am I going to ever have to know that mitochondria is the power house of the cell?” is giving voice to the despair of learning information that doesn’t feel relevant to real life. Just-in-case learning is stuffed into young people in the hopes that the information will be useful to them sometime in the unknown future.

As our education system has traditionally scaffolded up from k-12 to college, it was a safe bet that teachers could teach a student to read Shakespeare in high school and trust they’d be prepared when they see it again in college. We expect students to commit some information into their long-term memory so they’ll be ready to use it when it (eventually) becomes useful.

The problem comes when we assume that all learning should look like this. Much of the information we convey in workplace training is designed to change workers’ performance now, not in some far future date. To produce immediate changes of behavior and performance in learners now, we need to go beyond the familiar methods of “just in case” learning techniques.

Just in Time Learning – Intelligent Supports for Optimal Performance

“Just in time” learning, by contrast, is learning that is accessible to the user exactly at the moment they need it most. With the rise of the Internet, we’ve all found ways to find instant answers to the challenges we encounter — right when we need those answers most.

When you have a plumbing problem, it’s OK that you were never formally trained as a plumber — you can fix your leaky sink after watching a few YouTube videos or reading an Instructables post on the subject. If you need to refresh your memory about how osmosis works, you can just do that and get on with your life. It’s even OK if you forget that information, as long as you know how to find it again next time!

You may recall the scene from The Matrix where Neo instantly downloads a lifetime’s worth of knowledge in Kung Fu directly into his brain on demand.

While that may still be science fiction, it reveals our desire to be able to…

  • realize we have a gap in our knowledge, with high motivation to fill that gap
  • know where and how to find the right information to fill that gap
  • learn everything we need to know in a short time, and…
  • use that information immediately to improve our performance on the task at hand

In “just in time” learning, you don’t focus on stuffing the learner’s long-term memory banks with information that they may (or may not) ever need again. Instead, you surround the learner with a powerful toolkit of resources they can draw on when they need those answers. Then, if training is still even necessary to improve worker performance, you train learners how to use their new toolkit to find the answers they’ll need in their day-to-day work.

Thinking of training this way may lead you to scrap that two-hour training on the finer points of this year’s third-quarter business model update, and instead create an instantly searchable knowledge base and FAQ that answers the most likely challenges your learners will face in their daily work. Then, create a short video or two with quick, simple directions on how to find and use this great new resource.

Wherever possible, explore ways to surround learners with powerful tools that help them get to answers more quickly. Often, these answers exist somewhere in your organization, but may benefit from an effort to make them easier to access, more attractive, and complete. Sometimes good information gets trapped in bad platforms that discourage use, and it’s worth discussing whether the platform itself could be improved or replaced.

You may find that the answers workers need can be easily accessed by a third-party web app or tool they didn’t previously know about. Maintaining a list of such tools and their recommended uses can empower your learners to solve persistent performance issues by using better tools.

You may even develop the capability to build more “job aids”, infographics, and interactive guides that are designed for ongoing access, rather than designing course experiences that they will consume once and quickly forget.

“Just in Time” Learning in Practice

I was recently brought in to develop a training plan to support the rollout of a new software platform to our internal sales force. The information involved lots of step-by-step technical information that would be tedious to consume in a single-sitting training, and hard to retain without immediate opportunities to practice the skills. They were requesting a series of training videos that would’ve taken multiple hours to complete, but as I listened to them talk, they repeatedly asked for information that learners could get at quickly.

I persuaded them to develop the content on an internal wiki site, organizing the information so each discrete topic has its own page and canonical URL. This content became easily searchable like they wanted. The training course on this topic was simply a guide to teach learners how to access, navigate, and search the wiki to find the resources they need.

They recently moved the wiki knowledge base into a tool called Guru that adds a little help icon into the actual software users work in, intelligently recommending help articles relevant to the page the user is on at the time. Closely integrating help resources into the work environment lets users get help just-in-time without even leaving their work.

One Last Note

Please don’t take my critical tone as a complete dismissal of just-in-case learning. There are definitely times and places where it’s the preferred method, and I hope this post helps you decide which is the best approach in each situation. As this author points out, learning information “just-in-case” builds your overall awareness of the wider world of available information so you can avoid blind spots in your knowledge. It’s also good “exercise” for learning in general, building metacognitive abilities of executive function and self-regulation so you can direct your own learning.

But before you plan a lesson that looks like school, consider ways that you can instead reproduce the experience we have of Googling plumbing tutorials to

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