How Learning Science Can Build Expertise:
A Conversation with Ellen Clark
At Grace Hill, courseware is the backbone of all we do — and the bedrock of our multifamily clients’ successful compliance and job training. But what principles and techniques lie behind our industry-leading courseware? And what’s on tap for the next 18 months?
To find out, we caught up with Ellen Clark, Grace Hill’s Senior Director of Content, who is the person responsible for all our learning products. In this fascinating exchange, Ellen not only offers a peek behind the curtain at our content development process, she also discusses how the human mind actually acquires knowledge and expertise – and how (and why) Learning Science informs all of our courseware offerings.
Tell me a bit about yourself in terms of your career in Learning and Development and developing training courseware. Where did you start, and where were you before you came to Grace Hill?
I grew up in the Washington, DC, area and my father worked on Capitol Hill. I thought I would follow in his footsteps – go off to college, then come back to work in politics. But when I started interviewing for jobs on the Hill I realized, “Wow, this is not for me.” Instead, I went to work for an advocacy group focused on education reform, specifically shaping charter school laws and helping states develop academic standards and accountability plans. That’s where I got interested in the critical issue of assessment: how do we know whether a learner (in this case, a student) is progressing or not? That interest led me to an ambitious start-up that, as early as 2000 (practically the Stone Age of broadband), was developing a proprietary K-12 learning management system (LMS), or “virtual curriculum.” Since the technology was so new, we knew we needed this LMS to be simple, clear, intuitive and purposeful. I also took care of aligning the content of the curriculum – and our assessment systems – to the standards of each state.
Later, I was able to take these skills to a higher level when I joined Kaplan, an industry leader in learning, whose culture was deeply rooted in leveraging learning research. That’s where my focus switched from K-12 to higher education, and then job training. All in all, I’m fortunate to say my professional background was the perfect preparation for the work I do today.
Tell me about your role and the team you oversee at Grace Hill.
The team that I have the privilege to lead are responsible for all things learning – every aspect of teaching people what they need to know to do their jobs well. And you know, building great learning products is not a one-person job; it takes the skills and perspectives of many. So one of our guiding principles is to find the right experts, and then to let them apply their expertise.
First, of course, is the subject matter expert: the person who knows everything there is to know about the content you need to train on. For all their knowledge, however, subject matter experts are typically not the best instructors, because they are so expert that they’ve often forgotten how to model the world of the novice – in other words, how to meet the learner where they are and lead them to where they need – to be.
For that, we have a team of writers who excel at “translating” that expertise into clear, concise language. They work closely with our instructional and visual designers, whose specialty is structuring and delivering that content in the way that best supports learning — visually engaging and clear. Next, our developers do the hard work of bringing the team’s vision to life and making the courses work in our LMS. And, of course, we have multiple reviews along the way, including editors who make sure we’ve dotted all our i’s and crossed all our t’s.
How has Grace Hill training courseware changed since you’ve been at the helm of development? And what accomplishments are you most proud of?
Focusing on the specific needs of our learners in the property management industry makes me really proud. After all, the purpose of job training is to help people improve their performance. So if you’re not purposeful about it – keeping it relevant to people’s roles, giving real-world examples, providing opportunities for authentic practice – you’re far less likely to accomplish your goals. I think one of the really important things that we did when I came on board was to marry learning science with the realities of the world in which our customers work. We know that busy people can only hold so much in their brains at once. So we broke all of our courses down into bite-sized chunks – designed not only to help people manage their cognitive load but also to motivate them because the format enables them to easily see the progress they are making.
And let’s face it: if you’re a leasing professional, you’re probably never going to have more than 15 or 20 minutes of uninterrupted time available before someone needs your attention. Being able to help our learners get through training during their workday makes me happy – and we’ve seen that reflected in
our feedback and in our steadily rising end-user ratings.
Finally, on the content side, we’ve invested a lot of time and resources in our compliance training, which I’m proud to say is the best in the industry. Fair Housing, anti-discrimination, anti-harassment laws are very complex topics, but we’ve managed to take out the legalese and focus on one thing: what do you need to know in your specific job, to do it well, and to do it in compliance with the applicable laws? I feel like we’ve created a next-generation set of compliance training.
You’ve worked with face-to-face, online-only and blended training programs. How has technology changed the game, in your view? What are the upsides and downsides of using technology?
Technology is an enabler of solutions, be they good or bad. So we always focus first on the learning solutions that we know are good and work well. I think where technology really shines is that it not only enables innovative approaches to learning, it also enables us to scale it up. And that’s key because, in the job training world, you have to be efficient with both the company’s resources and the employee’s time and attention. That, in turn, enables the company to optimize precious face-to-face time on the trickier aspects of applying the knowledge – for instance, in real-time observation, practice or role-play. And then there’s the administration, tracking, and management aspect, which is equally important. You want to be able to have all your data in one place, so you can track activity, examine trends over time, have your documentation at hand, etc. In the past, if you wanted to assess the effectiveness of a learning system, you had to deal with a lot of paper, sign-in sheets, emails to track down, paper-based assessments and surveys. It could be a confusing, time-consuming mess. Nobody wants to go back there!
Can you give me a specific example of how this works in the real world, with Grace Hill’s clients?
Sure. One of the things I find fascinating about teaching and learning is thinking about the roles of two different kinds of knowledge – the what and the how. The what we could call “declarative knowledge” – basic facts, concepts and principles – and the how you could call “procedural knowledge,” in other words, knowing how to apply those facts, concepts, and principles in specific real-world contexts. That requires judgment, strategy, experience.
In multifamily property management, for example, learning about federal Fair Housing law is critical: you need to know that the law exists and some basic tenets of the law, like its purpose and the definition of protected classes. That’s declarative knowledge – a body of facts and concepts that you just need to know. You don’t need to hire an army of traveling instructors for this: you can teach it efficiently in a fully online asynchronous environment. That’s not to say you can’t teach a good deal of procedural knowledge in online courses: technology such as simulations can help with that.
But where face-to-face training is irreplaceable is when you get down to the individual context. What is your specific situation? Where is the property located? What are the rules in that local jurisdiction? What kind of property is it? What are the specific policies and procedures you must follow? What is particularly
difficult or tricky for your specific set of learners?
We take the heavy lift off the shoulders of our clients and enable them to zero in on the personalization their people need to do their jobs well in their specific context.
How does Grace Hill approach training courseware? What’s unique and different about it?
I think, in addition to creating those manageable, bite-sized courses, we really focus on ensuring each one has a purposeful structure that tightly aligns objectives and assessments. By that, I mean never losing sight of the goal of the course. We always start with an overview that clearly articulates what the learner will know and be able to do once they’ve taken the course, that emphasizes the value of learning the content – and that sometimes explains the risks of not learning it. That can help motivate the learner to persist. Each short course ends with an assessment of the learning objectives. Results are shared with the learner and the company, which is not only good for learning but also provides valuable data on the courseware’s effectiveness.
The other thing we made sure to add to our short course structure is the opportunity to practice. Because we know knowledge alone isn’t enough: practicing in real-world scenarios – and getting feedback – are essential to developing expertise. That alignment, between goal and outcome, is crucial for both the learner and the company. It sounds simple, but it’s not. It’s something we as a company have put a great deal of thought into.
So what’s on the roadmap for training courseware/content development for Grace Hill? I’ve heard about this concept of “micro-learning”… can you tell me a little about that?
We have some really exciting new learning products in the pipeline that build on all we’ve already accomplished but take it to a new level – one that reflects how the brain actually learns and retains knowledge.
We know that learning, building expertise, is not a “one and done” deal. It’s a process that happens over time. Our approach to training is a process, too. Those short, structured courses we’ve been talking about are essentially foundational courseware – the big, complex, basic areas you need to know all about in the property management industry.
But you can’t just do that once and never come back to it. To keep that foundational knowledge fresh, to keep it current, you have to revisit it over time. That’s why we’re creating a series of “learning boosters” which leverage the concept of micro-learning you’re asking about – a very short (under five-minute) learning experience focused on a single, discrete topic.
For example, once you’ve got your foundation in Fair Housing compliance, a learning booster can help you reinforce what you learned previously, or apply it to new situations you might encounter. This is how you embed important things in your long-term memory, how you combat the so-called “forgetting curve.” Learning science tells us that you can change that curve if you actively re-engage your brain to resurface the important things over time.
Call it “mental muscle memory” – it’s key not only to learning but also to succeed in today’s property management industry, where the stakes are high. Smart learning can give you a competitive advantage.