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Keep on Learning, Even in the COVID-19 Crisis

woman learning with laptop and phone in home office library office
By Christopher Stevenson, CAE, CIE

5 minutes

4 tips for staying engaged in your development while in-person programming is on hold

Years ago, long before I began working in professional development for credit union leaders, I was a middle school language arts teacher. The school district in which I taught was struggling with the “summertime slip,” that inevitable backward step that many students make when they are out school for the two or three months of summer break. 

My district’s solution was to shift to a year-round schedule in which the long summer break is replaced by a series of three shorter breaks throughout the year. The results were less than stellar. Instead of helping students remain motivated to learn through their breaks, we assumed that three shorter sessions of academic inactivity would lead to better results. It didn’t. We traded a single case of “summer slip” for three periods of academic atrophy.   

The three shorter breaks model didn’t account for the challenges of self-directed and distance learning that are very much a part of any break from school. Learning is inherently social. That’s why we like to share ideas with others in the classroom, discuss our favorite books and teach others how to pursue the hobbies we love. When we divorce learners from each other and teachers, motivation goes down the drain. We even see the effect with adult learners in online programs led by some of the top educational institutions in the world, like Harvard and MIT. The EdX courses of those top universities—which are one-way, non-interactive offerings—had only a 3.13% completion rate by all participants in 2017-2018. 

A parallel challenge to learning is now taking place in the credit union industry.

Social distancing”—or not being in close physical proximity to anyone other than those you live with—is currently being practiced in many areas to help delay the spread of coronavirus. This means that many organizations are wisely postponing traditional in-person learning events until it’s safer to travel and be in a classroom. But now, perhaps more than any time since the Great Recession, targeted professional development is essential to respond to the rapidly shifting business environment. That means your staff and board will be required to continue their professional development on their own.

Fortunately, there are things we can do to stay engaged as we learn virtually during shelter-in-place.

  • Switch things up. When we are learning on our own, we can take a lesson from the way teachers structure their school days. On any given day, students experience a range of activities—reading and writing workshops, science and math labs, model building, and small and large group discussion. The variety hamstrings boredom and keeps the students engaged and learning. Apply these principles in your own self-directed learning. Combine short articles and longer pieces of literature, videos and podcasts, case studies, and structured online learning on the topics you need to know.
  • Share and ask questions of others. Often, the biggest detriment to self-directed and online learning is the lack of interaction with other learners and instructors. This is exacerbated by current social distancing requirements. Humans learn best when we share ideas, ask questions and brainstorm together, but it requires some creative problem-solving when our teams and learning partners are all working from home. Not surprisingly, my team at CUES uses Zoom calls for more structured discussions and problem-solving, but we are relying more on Microsoft Teams to ask quick questions and share ideas and resources. It’s common to receive a chat message during the day that says something like, “Hey, I just read this article about having an entrepreneurial mindset. How can we apply the principles to our team?” Find what works for you, whether it’s Microsoft Teams, an online forum, email or text. Maybe you just want to pick up the phone. Just share your learning. 
  • Seek opportunities to interact with subject matter experts. A key benefit of learning in the classroom is the opportunity to ask questions and interact with the teacher. When we engage in self-study, we can’t always answer our challenging questions by performing another Google search or reading another book, but to our detriment, we are often reluctant to pick up the phone, send an email or ask a co-worker for help. It’s time to change that mindset. Actively seek out experts—co-workers, friends, or LinkedIn and social media contacts—who can answer questions and add more color to your learning. Don’t be afraid to contact someone outside of your immediate circle or at a vendor. People enjoy sharing and are often honored to be recognized for their expertise. Ask a question. It will enhance your learning. 
  • Apply what you’ve learned. Knowledge for knowledge’s sake won’t position your organization for success. Use your new-found knowledge to improve your processes, enhance your communication, implement a new business model or develop better plans. Applying new information on even a small scale helps us retain what we’ve learned and transfer that knowledge to new contexts, meaning we are better able to apply it to solve other problems.  

All of us hope that social distancing is effective and that the pandemic is over as soon as possible. I encourage you to keep learning through self-directed and digital offerings during the crisis, so you’ll be primed and ready to return to the full blend of options later on. As one example of what’s available, our School of Business Lending has been transformed for virtual delivery at the beginning of June. I certainly do look forward to seeing you at a future in-person learning event.

Christopher Stevenson, CAE, CIE, is SVP/chief learning officer for CUES, where he leads the development and delivery of educational offerings and products and services to help meet the professional development needs of credit union executives, directors and future leaders. Before joining CUES, Stevenson designed and developed online learning for leading companies in financial services, manufacturing and media. He earned his MBA from University of Wisconsin-Madison. Additionally, he earned his Certified Association Executive (CAE) designation from the American Society of Association Executives and Certified Innovation Executive (CIE) designation from CUES’ Strategic Innovation Institute at Stanford Graduate School of Business at Stanford University, Stanford, California.

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