Learning: Bites, Snacks, and Meals

Media communications is trending toward generating content in small forms. What does small ‘snackable’ content mean for learning big things?

It’s back to school time in many parts of the world and with it a return to a different pace of life.

Throughout history we’ve not had many models of structured, intentional learning. Until the latter part of the 20th century our formalized learning systems looked like this:

  • We watched others who looked like they knew what they were doing and copied it
  • We apprenticed under an expert for years to learn our craft
  • We joined guilds and associations, met and shared our experience with our peers
  • We went to school where we were taught by lecture using books as the core resource.

Even as our work changed and our need for structured, technical learning increased our methods didn’t change much until the internet became available. Through the internet and the technologies like the personal computer, mobile handset, and widespread availability of multimedia production tools (e.g., digital photography, cameras on phones, software) supported by broadband the game changed.

The question is: what is the score?

Same game, new rules

The game (learning) might be the same, but the rules are changing quickly. The way we communicate now is different than ever before. Tools like the variety of social media platforms, video sites like YouTube, and blogs like this one us all publishers and broadcasters now, meaning we need to think in those roles to communicate effectively.

Effective communication requires attention and engagement.

We are nearing a tipping point for learning and education. Portable, handheld media has shifted its focus from the long narrative to the ‘snack’.

Marketing consultant and speaker Chris Brogan summarizes the shift as one of speed and focusing on three things (and one messenger thing):

  • The snack — short, small media bites
  • The Show – a podcast, a video channel or something that provides content-driven entertainment
  • The Letter — direct-to-consumer communications
  • Device-sized messages

Most health communications is not designed for this. Most complex social issues — from climate change to social policy to electoral and democratic reform — don’t fit this model well.

Yet, this is how people are consuming content. In a recent consultation we did at Cense on democratic engagement with those under age 25 the average length of a video that they would tolerate watching was under 10 seconds (with captions) unless it was something they were explicitly seeking out. Ten seconds.

The rules are changing and while people can continue to generate content that fits the old model the fact is that such content won’t be viewed, read, or learned by many because the game is changing.

As we rely more on the internet and the web (pun!) of tools that it provides we are habituating ourselves to consuming media in new ways. Brogan is right:

Your buyer doesn’t have time to read Moby Dick. Mind you, they’ll binge a whole season of Mindhunter in a day’s time, but if you slow them down with print, it’s not going to happen.

Chris Brogan “Marketing in the Faster World”

What do we do?

Media and messages, lessons and learning

There is little evidence that people are learning much more, better, or even at all from these ‘snacks’. What might work in marketing to capture attention is not the same as changing behaviour and taking action, particularly on big, important, and difficult issues.

We try to learn online, but often find ourselves like the tweet above — buying courses, but not actually completing them. As anyone familiar with the word ‘Tsundoku‘ knows, it’s easier to acquire reading materials than actually to read them

If you’ve read this far, you’re in the minority (or so we’re told): most people don’t read. If people don’t read, they don’t have time to watch long-form content, or complete courses, although at least 30 percent of Americans listen to podcasts, even though there are more than 700,000 episodes of them.

We can complain, we can study this, but one thing we can’t do is stand still.

With that, this space is about to change. We hinted at this in early June and now things are about to get interesting — for all of us.

If our aim is to support learning and engagement on ideas about innovation it’s time to look at the trends — just as we do with our clients and research projects — and design for where things are going, not just where they are (or more likely, where they were).

This all begins with The Letter (as Chris Brogan writes). Censemaking is starting a newsletter, following it with much more. This is going to be part of a grand experiment in writing, publishing, recording, publishing, teaching and learning and I hope that you come with me.

Stay tuned and sign up for the newsletter here. Much of the content from that will be syndicated on this site and on new feeds and channels coming soon. In keeping with the purpose of this site, I’ll also be recording and reflecting on the lessons learned from this ‘experiment’ and will share it with you.

The aim is to make us all better at innovation and communication. By that, we mean its time to set the table, get out the snacks and make a meal of it all. Or, to use another metaphor: It’s back to school time and that means: time to learn.

Class is now in session.

Image credits: Hermes Rivera on UnsplashMatthew Guay on Unsplash . Thank you both for sharing your content with the world.

Cameron D. Norman

I am a designer, psychologist, educator, evaluator, and strategist focused on innovation in human systems. I'm curious about the world around me and use my role as Principal and President of Cense Ltd. as a means of channeling that curiosity into ideas, questions, and projects that contribute to a better world.

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