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Less Is More in Learning, Too

Short bursts of learning are transforming skill development. Is career development next?

less is more in learning There are no longer any valid excuses when it comes to avoiding exercise.

Too hard? Yoga, tai chi and swimming offer a range of low impact options for those averse to more traditional cardiovascular exercises like running or biking.

Too expensive? Penny-wise fitness buffs have designed a dizzying range of physical exertions that require no more than your own two feet.

But what about time — the No. 1 excuse for reluctant exercisers? Sorry to break it to you but that’s no longer a valid reason to avoid sweating it out, either. All it takes to reap real benefits from exercise is one minute a day.

According to exercise scientist Martin Gibala, just one minute of vigorous exercise can have the benefit of 45 minutes of traditional moderate exercise. A measly 60 seconds a day can lead to dramatic changes in fitness and health. Who doesn’t have that kind of time?

Gibala, a professor and head of the kinesiology department at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, reveals the research behind this finding in his recent book, “The One-Minute Workout.” And it’s not just super-fit elite athletes or caffeinated exercise freaks who can reap the benefits of shorter workouts. According to Gibala, your average couch potato can see results equivalent to 150 minutes of moderate exercise in just three minutes a week.

Even accounting for time spent warming up, stretching and cooling down, sofa spuds can see real health results in 80 percent less time. The key is what’s known as HIIT, or high intensity interval training. In a nutshell, that means pushing yourself nearly to exhaustion for a short period of time, then resting for a few minutes before repeating.

Elite athletes and seasoned weekend warriors have long known the benefits of short bursts of vigorous activity to overcome performance plateaus.

But until relatively recently, no one had really explored if it could be used to boost the health of more sedentary folk. The work of Gibala and others changed that, opening up the possibilities of high intensity interval training to novice exercisers, too. His one-minute workout — three 20-second intervals at maximum effort on an exercise bike with two minutes of slow pedaling in between — delivered significant health benefits to his test subjects, including lower blood pressure and better aerobic fitness.

The concept won’t be unfamiliar to many in the learning industry. Pressed for time and strapped for resources, learning departments have embraced shorter, impactful opportunities for learning and skill development.

Time-strapped employees and results-oriented bosses have pushed learning departments to embrace microlearning. These short, snackable bits of content often enabled by technology and delivered at the point of need are a natural response to shrinking attention spans and competing demands on time. But they can also be strikingly effective when delivered in the context of the job.

The implications of shorter, more intense bursts of learning go beyond performance support. The rise of nanodegrees, pioneered by MOOC providers and often developed in partnership with a corporation, are reshaping skill development, too.

As opposed to a costly and time-intensive traditional degree, nanodegrees can be completed in a matter of weeks through a set of short courses tailored to a specific skill such as data analytics or software coding. The benefit works on two fronts, giving employees valuable and marketable new skills and helping employers fill critical talent gaps quickly and cost effectively.

But what about complex learning objectives like career development? Can high intensity, interval learning play a more significant role beyond skill development?

It’s no secret employee tenure has been steadily decreasing. As a result, many employers often struggle to justify expensive and time intensive leadership and career development programs. They fall back on an old excuse: why should I invest in training them only to see them go work for a competitor.

Thinking about career development as a series of intense intervals rather than an endurance race might just be a useful way to tackle that problem. Employees see a direct investment in their careers — in a potentially more efficient and effective way, to boot — and employers can reap the benefits of better leaders sooner rather than later.

Who doesn’t have time for that?

Mike Prokopeak is the editor-in-chief for Chief Learning Officer. Comment below or email editor@CLOmedia.com.

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