Hands-On Learning: The Fast Track to Developing Today’s Critical Skills

The skills we require today look very different from the ones in demand a handful of years ago. The rise of remote and hybrid work, artificial intelligence, automation, big data and other emerging technologies has fundamentally altered the workplace — and will continue to do so at an increasing rate. With this comes a shift in the skills needed for permanent and contingent workers to succeed now and in the future. According to The World Economic Forum, analytical thinking, creative thinking, AI and big data are skills that will be in high demand over the next four years.

These skills are not suited to classroom learning, which is too theoretical and knowledge based. You need hands-on practice to build such skills to a job-ready level. You don’t learn creative thinking effectively from someone passing on their understanding, nor is it easily taught by reading a book or listening to a podcast. You might get some valuable tips from such learning content, but to truly become an expert in it, you need the opportunity to do some creative thinking in real life.

Unfortunately, most learning programs offered by employers today fall short in this area. They are very good at offering reams of learning content for quick consumption by employees and (in some cases) the extended enterprise of customers, partners, contractors, freelancers and alumni. But nobody checks if the employee is learning or if the skill is being built to its required level. That’s a huge oversight because as soon as you deploy a worker on a project or job based on their learning, you need to feel confident that they can do the task.

Consequently, the only way you can confidently say that someone can do a skill needed for a project is by challenging them with hands-on learning and testing that validates that skill. For example, someone learning to do analytical thinking could be tested with a quiz or simulation that requires them to demonstrate a specified level of analytical thinking in real time. Of course, by testing in real time, you’re getting as close to a real-world application as possible without throwing them in at the deep end of a project.

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The dwindling half life of skills also warrants a mention here, as workers are being asked to upskill and reskill almost as quickly as new skills arise. Prompt engineering was unknown just a few months ago, and by the end of 2023, who knows what new skills we’ll need? Time is of the essence, and organizations cannot afford to waste time on ineffective learning that doesn’t build skills to the necessary level in the right time frame. Why spend billions of dollars on learning that you cannot validate or deploy with confidence when skills are needed? Skills are best validated through evidenced behavior change and performance — especially when they are as urgent and critical as AI, data and cybersecurity skills.

Of course, you might wonder how to scale this kind of learning across your workforce. Virtual skilling labs are becoming popular among L&D teams because they make hands-on learning much more accessible and scalable compared to in-person workshops. You get the benefits of hands-on learning, as people can practice skills and reinforce knowledge-based learning without the hassle of arranging travel or alienating those who cannot attend in person. It makes hands-on learning a lot more equitable and effective as more people can participate. As skills are being learned through an online learning lab, they are constantly being tested and validated.

Having validation baked into the process of learning creates a focus point too. Wasted learning is the worst feeling for workers and employers. Challenging your learners as they grow their skill level shows them the real-world applications and opportunities that their new skills will open for them. Plus, there’s nothing more satisfying than acing a challenge!

That’s why it’s important for organizations to keep an eye on the trends in hands-on learning over the next few years. Organizations are realizing that purely knowledge-based learning isn’t enough to upskill their people to the right level, at the right time, in high-demand skills. For many workers and organizations, it’s time to take matters into their own hands.

Sarah Danzl

Sarah Danzl
Sarah Danzl is CMO at Skillable.

Sarah Danzl

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