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The Dear Instructional Designer Show: Highbrow Courses and Subscription Learning

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I really love the idea of of creating push systems as well as pull systems. In this episode, I examine the Highbrow model of subscription courses and how we might appropriate the model for our own uses as IDs.

So several weeks ago, I wrote a blog post called, Steal this Idea: Push and Pull Systems for Marketing your Training and in it, I outline some thoughts I had and pitches I actually made to to the folks I was working with about how we might be able to do a better job of marketing our expertise and the work that we could help faculty with if we, in addition to our current pull-based system of workshops and one-on-one consultations, also developed an opt-in push-based system where we consistently created and shipped high quality content in the form of perhaps a weekly newsletter of tips for any DIY course creators or blog posts or just some consistent model where we pushed out helpful content instead of expecting faculty to come in to us.

James Finder, the ID we had on the show in Episode 11 actually mentions this type of thinking as well when he explains that part of his marketing strategy is education in the form of writing good content on his blog that potential clients could read and start using, building his brand of expertise so that by the time they choose to collaborate with him, they could feel confident that he knew what he was talking about. And with all of that in mind, one model that’s been on my mind lately is the Highbrow courses.

I’ve mentioned these before. Highbrow is a startup that delivers email subscription courses, 10-days each, that seek to allow subscribers to focus on a focused, narrow topic and learn a little bit about it. I’ve signed up for a variety of courses myself and they’re always really interesting and I enjoy that they’re kinda like a mini-series. You get the anticipation-factor of a new email for several days in a row but there is a definite stopping-point so things don’t go on forever. Overall, I think it’s a great model.

So why am I talking about this now? Well there are a few reasons. Firstly, you may have listened to the episode on side project marketing (if not, I recommend that you go check that one out). And one of the things that I’m noticing is that, basically everyone is creating an online course these days. There are tons of businesses and solopreneurs who have taken up the advice to create an online courses to educate on a particular topic as a way of building a following, finding qualified leads, and growing their business. Not everyone is doing this the same way. Some folks create microlearning video, but others are opting for email courses. And I wanted to mention that as a viable side-project option for IDs looking to set themselves up in business.

But I think that’s it’s also an idea and a model that we can take with us into our organizations. Consider, in parallel with face-to-face organizational onboarding, an automated email course that introduces employees to this or that system, this or that paperwork they have to fill out. Not all at once, but over time, just-in-time. A process that is not only more digestible, but also provides the necessary repetition so that important tasks don’t get forgotten. Or, consider the context of training salespeople on product knowledge. Perhaps after a seminar or workshop, you have an automated subscription “Course” that follows up with participants on online games or interactions they can use to help further practice their skills and remember certain concepts. Or consider creating user-focused training for an organization that included a series of opt-in subscription learning for newbies that led them along instructional-designer crafted pathways or workflows, the basics that all newbies need to know, while at the same time creating and maintaining a system of easy to find tutorials that a more advanced user could access to pull just the information they need to perform a task?

It strikes me that all of these things could be accomplished with a thoughtfully-designed push system, borrowing from the idea of something like the Highbrow courses. Of course, this is also in line with Will Thalheimer’s ideas on subscription learning. I just like that Highbrow gives me, at least a concrete example of subscription learning in action.

But Cons. We can’t forget those. What could go wrong with this idea? Well, I think the one thing that everyone worries about is that people won’t read the emails. I think the key to that is that subscription learning is always opt-in. Not dark- pattern, box is already checked opt-in, but a truly voluntary experience. If you use this as a side-project marketing, then people who sign up for your course are interested in what you have to offer. You didn’t force anyone to sign up. Another thing is to set expectations. Have a clear end point so subscribers don’t feel like your emails will go on forever. Highbrow course pages show that each course is 10 days and shows the estimated reading time for each lesson. Subscription learning in any of the scenarios I mentioned might do the same sort of thing. And if people unsubscribe or don’t subscribe to another one that’s okay.

I’d say that the other thing that I’m learning is super important is to build a minimum viable product and test it out. Before you pour months into creating anything, can you build a small course and test it out with half of your new hires or a small course and market it to your users and see if they want it? Or even pitch the idea to the end users at the end of a workshop and see if they think it sounds interesting. Those are all ways that you can get some feedback before you go full throttle.

That’s it for this Week’s show but before we part, I want to leave you with this:

I think that the benefit of subscription learning as a model, however you want to deploy it, is that it represents a push system. The kind of system that Julie Dirksen describes in Design for How People Learn as something that is particularly suited to newbies. Instead of asking them to know what they don’t know and be able to find the right class or workshop or video, you can create an opt-in subscription learning push system that offers them a pathway, a way to cut through the confusion by getting an expert curated way to travel through the way they learn a particular concept, topic, or process. I think, especially as we move to creating much more modular, much more targeted, and much shorter learning assets, this subscription model allows us to combine them again into flows, into narratives, and stories that can help our users make sense of things and actually reach the outcomes we set for them and that they want for themselves.

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