Accelerated Learning Takes Off

The trainers and Bell Atlantic found a way to make employees productive in half the time of traditional training methods. In the bargain, they created a learning atmosphere that was fun, efficient, and beneficial to everyone involved.

By Dave Meier and Mary Jane Gill

The basic challenge for many corporate training departments is to produce well-trained, productive employees and reduce the amount of time it takes to train them. The trainers at Bell Atlantic's C&P Telephone Company, which serves Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, and Washington DC, found an answer to that challenge in the principles and techniques of accelerated learning. In the bargain, they created a learning atmosphere that was fun, efficient, and beneficial to everyone involved.

After testing the water with a pilot program, the company allowed the training department to convert two of its customer-service-representative Training courses - courses that produce the company's bread and butter - to the accelerated learning format. As a result, the costs of one course were reduced by 42 percent and the other by 57 percent. In addition, the satisfaction of students and trainers greatly improved, as did their job performance. Those facts were reflected in the supervisors' overwhelmingly positive evaluations of the new graduates (Figures 1 and 2).

This article provides a brief report of what Bell Atlantic did and what results it achieved.

Basic principles and guidelines

The purpose of accelerated learning is to provide effective training in a short time. The methods are interactive and treat learning as a collaborative effort of equals, rather than a hierarchical relationship between teacher and pupil. The principles for the learning environment are that it:

Be positive and accepting
Provide and natural, comfortable, and colorful setting
Exalt rather than trivialize the trainees
Help people eliminate or reduce any fears, stresses, or learning barriers
Be supportive of both trainer and trainee
Provide a multidimensional approach to learning
Accommodate different learning styles, speeds, and needs (rather than force people, assembly-line fashion, through a uniform process at a uniform speed)
Make learning fun rather than serious and overbearing
Provide for group-based learning
Present material pictorially as well as verbally

The first steps

From the outset, accelerated learning methods seemed intuitively sound, but the company wanted to make sure that the methods would work effectively when applied to critical customer-service-representative training course, and that the costly conversions of those courses would be worth the money.

The company started out by providing the training manager with a week of training in accelerated learning. A few key trainers in the organization also received training, and short in-house seminars gave the other company trainers a foundation in accelerated learning concepts and techniques.

The company had the training department test the techniques on a 12-day technical course, a course that was historically unsuccessful and that most people found complex, confusing, and tedious. The course was redone completely in an accelerated learning format and delivered to new trainees. The results were overwhelming: training time was cut by more than half, trainers and trainees were happier, and trainers found that trainees learned more than from the 12-day course. That was all the proof the company needed, and they were ready to work on some of the company's larger, longer, and more costly courses.

Taking on the big courses

They selected two customer-service-representative training courses for conversion to the accelerated learning format: a six-week one in private-residence order taking and a four-week one in private-residence billing. The courses were long and costly, but absolutely essential to the company's business. A large number of employees relied on them for initial training.

The training department decided from the start that it would not simply fine-tune the courses with a few accelerated learning techniques, but that it would completely rewrite them. It brought together a team of course developers, some of whom, in fact, had no experience in course development - the department wanted people who were free of prior habits and biases and who could bring fresh perspectives to the project. The project manager, however, had been trained in accelerated learning course development and had a background in behavioral science and organizational development.

The development team worked in a think-tank environment it called the Skunk Works - an office far removed from the team members' normal workplace. Life in the Skunk Works was designed to be informal, playful, and creative, with an energetic environment that would stimulate everyone's imagination. The room was colorful and had fresh flowers, relaxing music in the background, and plenty of snacks. Wherever possible, accelerated techniques were used to drive the development process.

As the team members thought about and planned the courses, they wrote their thoughts in words and pictures on large sheets of paper. They created huge information graphs (ýmindmapsţ) to help them capture, visualize, and interrelate ideas. And they used mental imagery quite effectively. They would sit quietly and imagine the perfect customer-service training course in action (a technique known as ýend-result imageryţ). Then they shared their imagery experiences, elaborating on the ideas and building a curriculum.

The development-team members finished their initial work by creating a facilitator guidebook and a student workbook. Then they were ready for the delivery.

The classroom experience

The development team gave the course instructors (called learning advisors) three basic guidelines:

1. Keep the threat low.

2. Keep the energy high.

3. Trust the learner and the learning process.

To create a trusting environment, the learning advisors revamped the classrooms: they put pictures on the walls and colorful objects around the room, arranged tables in small clusters, played soft music, and put flowers on the tables. They wanted to give the rooms a natural look and to make them learner-centered, even playful - places where people could relax, be themselves, and enjoy learning.

From the start, the learning advisors expected the trainees to be proactive rather than passive, to take charge of their own learning, and, certainly, to master the learning material of the course. To achieve that, they made trainees responsible for correcting any aspects of the physical environment, the materials, or teaching/learning methods that were getting in the way of their learning. Before the end of each day, the class created a wall chart on two topics: what went well that day, and what could have gone better. Where possible, the learning advisors immediately implemented the ideas and suggestions. In that way the trainees became part of the development staff for the ongoing evolution and improvement of the course.

Learning accelerators

Collaboration rather than competition is important for accelerated learning. Trainees were encouraged to help each other in any way they could. At various times throughout the course, they formed ad hoc learning groups or reinforced each other's training in pairs. They were responsible not just for their own learning, but for the learning of everyone in the class as well - everyone was a student and a teacher simultaneously.

One important collaborative learning technique is learner articulation. To his or her partner, the learner describes, out loud and in detail, the material he or she just learned. This articulation of newly learned facts, ideas, and procedures (with demonstrations where possible) helps speed the learning and make it stick.

Many other kinds of learning accelerators were built into the course - some subtle, but most quite obvious. Here's a partial list:

Positive suggestions
Time for preparing the learner to learn
Metaphor and mnemonic devices
Relaxation exercises
Mental imagery exercises
Learning labs (multipathed, self-paced environments)
Role plays, games, songs, and team projects
Information graphs (mindmaps)

Of course, different accelerators work better for different people. The environment has a lot of diversity, and people can pick from a smorgasbord of options and choose learning methods and materials that work best for them.

Evaluations

Training courses that employ the techniques of accelerated learning are now a standard part of Bell Atlantic's training program. Trainees, learning advisors, and supervisors all positively evaluate the results of the new courses.

Trainees give the course excellent evaluations in most cases and often remark how stress-free and enjoyable the learning is. Most find that the learning was easy and fun, and many report a high level of job confidence as a result of the class. The drop-out rate from the course has declined from 20 percent to 5.5 percent; in addition, it seems that people are less likely to drop from the accelerated learning course because of learning difficulties.

The learning advisors like the new courses also. At the start they worried about their loss of control in an environment that stressed learner independence and mutual collaboration. But once they were involved in it, they found that their teaching was easier and more effective than before. And, they say, because they allow themselves to step out of the role of dogmatic instructor, they (like the trainees) go home at night relaxed and energized.

Supervisors give the graduates of the accelerated classes higher grades for job performance, as shown in Figures 1 and 2. Compared to graduates of standard courses, the new graduates, they say, have greater confidence, problem-solving ability, and team spirit. They can work better without supervision, provide customers with more accurate information, and produce better sales results. They also work more speedily with reference materials.

For Bell Atlantic, the payoffs of converting to an accelerated format have been significant. Compared to the results from previous courses:

Employees are productive sooner
Job performance is higher
Training time has been virtually cut in half
The new courses are easier to update

The learning process is less tedious and more humanly enjoyable for students and instructors, improving the work atmosphere.

Bell Atlantic has discovered that accelerated learning technology is a powerful all in meeting today's challenges to do more with less. In an era of limited resources and increasing need, accelerated learning has proven to be an instructional technology whose time has come.

This article originally appeared in the Training & Development Journal, January 1989