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Thursday, June 15, 2006

Choosing Media - Push vs. Pull - Part 1 of Many

I'm slowly beginning to prepare for some future presentations and slowly writing a couple of articles that discuss the impact of relatively newer developments in eLearning such as: Rapid eLearning, the Shift in eLearning from Pure Courseware towards Reference Hybrids, eLearning 2.0, Podcasts, Wikis, Content Management, etc. I would welcome feedback on various related topics that I will be writing about over the next few weeks (hopefully its not months).

Let me start with a big one...Choosing Media. In other words, what combination of documents, web pages, emails, IM, SMS, video, audio, podcasts, vodcasts, Faxes, RSS feeds, telephone calls, direct mail, blogs, wikis, recorded presentations, etc., etc., etc. should I use?

Actually, let me start by avoiding the harry mess that is the question, "Does the media make a difference?" This question is a great way to generate an argument at any dinner table involving learning professionals. You will get to hear people on both sides arguing based on conclusive research across hundreds, maybe even thousands of studies. If you are interested, take a look at:

I tend to avoid this theoretical debate as much as possible by pointing out that in the real world you have to choose your media, and they certainly not created equal.

I wish there was a simple formula for deciding this on a project, but instead for any project you use lots of rules of thumb, past experience, iterative design, and finally land on what you consider to be a reasonable mix. If it was easy, they wouldn't be paying us learning professionals so much money. Hmmm ... wait a minute ...

I tend to start my media choice by examing what my reasonable set of media choices might be in a particular situation. Often based on end-user characteristics, e.g., no audio on desktops, we can often narrow things down. In some cases, you quickly find that you have such limited choices that you are virtually forced into particular media. For example, Apple has used audio training for their remote sales force for years. For many years this was done by publishing Audio CDs that the sales force would listen to in their car. Now, they use Podcasts that they listen to on their iPods (naturally). The media choice is obvious given the limitations.

Given my list of media choices, I then generally think about media in terms of
  • Kinds of teaching methods available given the media and its fit to my goals, learning design, etc.
  • Efficiency of media in terms of providing quick support or quick transfer of information
  • Ability to reach the audience

In this article, let me focus on that last item first. I normally segment my learning strategies fairly quickly into Push vs. Pull. This comes from marketing and Wikipedia tells us that Push-Pull is defined as:

In a "push" system the consumer does not request the content be sent; it is
"pushed at" the end-user. An example of this is a network television commercial.
TV viewers do not request to see a car advertisement; it is simply "pushed" at

In a "pull" system the consumer requests the content and "pulls" it through
the delivery channel. An example of this would be a web search using a search
. The consumer performs a search for a specific car and information is
pulled up in response.

In the eLearning world, we use Push to indicate that we need to get the learners attention to notify them of information or to begin (or continue) transforming performance. We are reaching out to them. We use Pull to indicate that we are going to create resources that will be available to be found based on need.

In terms of media selection, the reality is that this is a spectrum of how able we are to grab the attention of someone and it is highly dependent on the behavior of the person. For example, we would generally consider putting up a web page on your intranet to be a pull approach. However, if this is a page that someone visits every day or every hour and your content is located in a highly visible place, then the reality is that this becomes a push strategy. Conversely, email is generally considered a push strategy. However, many users tune out emails from particular email addresses (like those from training) and thus you’ve not reached the audience.

Often we find that we will separate our overall design into separate problems of Reach and Teach (although Teach is a somewhat older term). This problem is actually more complicated because in many cases we are trying to do this iteratively, over time and reaching not only the primary audience but secondary audiences as well (e.g., managers).

So, what I really am doing is looking at the target audience and secondary audiences and asking first whether this is Push vs. Pull (Do I need to reach them, or will they come when they need it?). If it's push, then I ask

  • How often do I need to Reach them?
  • What media are available to Reach them?
  • Will the media get their Attention? What can I do to improve Attention during Reach?

A couple years ago, the answer to this was often quite simple. 90% of push was email. 90% of pull was web pages or by putting content in my LMS. Actually, the pull side was probably 90% "Hey Joe" but I'm assuming that we are only counting places where we are trying to do more than that.

Now the answers here are more complicated. First, email is far less reliable in terms of using it as your sole means of Reach. Now you have to consider email in terms of how you will follow-up and escalate when it doesn't work.

We also have interesting technologies that play in here although today they still probably wouldn't be at the top of your list. You still should know about them:

  • Telephony solutions - there are a variety of solutions that allow automated calling and leaving of messages. Your local AYSO (soccer) probably uses this to notify parents. So do your political candidates. Again, small today in corporate solutions, but a well timed vmail from a senior leader in the organization might be a great way to reach your audience.
  • RSS Feeds (including Blogs) - I personally have not seen a company where enough individuals are using RSS readers to make this effective, but in a couple of years this is going to be important because of its unique place in between push and pull.
  • Podcasting - Works well at Apple for sales people. I wonder if this wouldn't be a great way to hit distributed sales forces in a lot of organizations. Or maybe the Telephony solution + Podcasting.

Each of these represent possible avenues to consider.

For Pull based solutions, I'm pretty sure that other than the shift of content from being buried inside your LMS to being put on your intranet, most of Pull is being done as web pages.

I would very much welcome thoughts, comments, etc. on this post.

Next post on this topic will look more at effectiveness of media types during communication/teaching.

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