Wouldn’t it be great if you could get inside a learner’s head and see their entire experience with your educational programs from their perspective? You could see what they experience as they become aware of a program, register, participate, and apply what they’ve learned back at the office. What sounds like futuristic science fiction is actually semi-doable right now—it’s called learner journey mapping.
Learner journey mapping is an exercise that produces a visual representation of a person’s journey from program awareness to registration, from pre-course preparation to evaluation and beyond.
The goal of journey mapping is to put your team in the learner’s shoes so you can better understand their needs, perceptions, and emotions, as well as the factors that contribute to or detract from their experience. This exercise prompts conversations and insights about needs, pain points, and opportunities for improvement.
Customer journey (or experience) mapping has been around for a while, but we haven’t seen much use of journey mapping in associations. However, learner journey mapping is used in corporations by training/learning and development (L&D) professionals. In their case, learners are employees, and the entire journey usually takes place within the company.
Benefits of learner journey mapping
Learner journey mapping forces you to shift your perspective from inside-out to outside-in. You normally push out information, products, and services to your audience and market. Journey mapping turns this around by forcing you to take on the outside perspective—a perspective that helps you gain understanding and empathy for your education customers.
This understanding leads to insight and a more realistic view of your existing programs. You learn what’s really working and not working. You uncover the positive and negative influences on the learner experience.
Journey mapping helps you get at the root cause of problems. You might discover that processes or policies are getting in the way of the purchase decision or learning experience. Or, you might learn you’re not providing the information customers need to make purchase decisions or the conditions learners need to develop relationships with fellow students. The exercise might reveal information that can help you make a case for sunsetting programs or changing processes and practices.
This exercise helps you identify opportunities to improve the learning experience from program discovery to skills application. You can design a more effective learner experience that meets both educational and emotional needs. When you engage a learner’s emotional needs, they’re more likely to retain what they’ve learned, remain loyal as a customer, and refer others to your programs.
Gather your mapmakers
Besides your professional development team, the exercise will benefit from the input of members and/or customers who’ve been through the learning journey. You could rely on a learner’s memory for the information you need, but it’s better to ask volunteers to take notes or fill in worksheets as they go through the learner journey. Giving them a full refund for the program is a nice way to thank them for their efforts.
If you can’t get others to help, you can do this exercise on your own. You’ll certainly discover things you hadn’t considered before. When you bring these findings to your team, you’re more likely to get support for a full-blown mapping exercise.
Start simple with one type of learner profile. Like marketing personas, different segments of your market may have different experiences. Experiences will vary by type of program too—a 12-week online course experience is different from a mini-course or watching an on-demand webinar. You may want to map the journey of credential applicants and credential holders too.
Get your supplies ready—large sheets of paper, markers and post-it notes.
Identify journey touchpoints
First, identify the different actions taken or experienced by the learner as they progress from awareness to application. Place these in order across the tops of your sheets of paper—a long wall comes in handy. You’ll see that a journey often has different entry and exit points as well as side trips too.
Here are some possible touchpoints for an online course.
#1: Awareness: The prospective learner receives a newsletter or promotional email with a link to an LMS catalog page for a specific program. Or, they learn about the course through a Google search, website or LMS search, or a related content link on your website, member portal, or LMS.
#2: Research: They read catalog information about the course and perhaps testimonials too. They search for similar programs elsewhere so they can compare content and value.
#3: Purchase: The customer registers and pays.
#4: Acknowledgement: Look into what happens next.
• Do they receive an email?
• Where are they sent?
• What are they told to do next?
#5: Pre-program activities: Does anything happen before they begin coursework? Self-assessments? Orientation? Learning success tips?
#6: 'First day of school': What happens during those first few modules or units?
#7: Coursework: Examine different elements of the learning experience, for example:
• Instructional materials in all formats
• Supporting resources
• Mid-course assessments
• Homework and projects
• Interaction with the instructor and/or classmates (when applicable)
#8: Final assessment: How is mastery of new skills and knowledge assessed?
#9: Completion: Examine how achievement or mastery is recognized, for example, digital badges, certificates, micro-credentials, transcripts, and credits. What else happens after a course is successfully completed? Or not?
#10: Post-program activities: Beyond the student’s evaluation of the program, this phase is often overlooked.
• How do you know if the program delivered long-term value?
• Is there any post-course follow-up with the learner to see how they’ve applied new skills and knowledge on the job?
• What program should the learner take next?
• Does anyone make suggestions?
• Do you communicate with 'alumni' in any way?
When mapping journeys for credential applicants and credential holders, your touchpoints would include applying, studying, testing, receiving results, renewing, and submitting credits.
Elements of the mapping exercise
Now that you’ve identified the touchpoints, it’s time to look at the factors that influence the learner’s experience at each touchpoint. These factors can go on a vertical axis underneath each touchpoint.
Learner needs, thoughts, emotions, and expectations
At every stage (touchpoint) of the learner journey, write down what they’re thinking and feeling as they go through the process.
• What do they need at each touchpoint?
• What expectations do they have?
• What are they thinking? What questions might they have?
• What are they feeling? Doubt, fear, excitement, confusion, anxiety, frustration…?
You can make decent assumptions based on what you might feel or what you’ve heard others say, but having the input of actual customers and learners who have recently gone through the experience is more valuable.
Interactions and influences
At each touchpoint, describe the impact of technology, processes, policies, people, and other factors in the learner’s life. What influences the learner’s experience in a positive, neutral, or negative way?
By now, you’re spotting places where you can improve the situation for the learner. For example, you may discover touchpoints where the learner’s functional and/or emotional needs aren’t being met.
The next step is to understand why it’s happening, which may involve uncovering systemic or cultural issues. These issues don’t always reveal themselves immediately, but the “5 Why’s” exercise helps you get at the root cause. This means asking “Why” something is happening (or not), coming up with an answer, and asking “Why” about that, and so on.
Come up with as many ideas as possible to solve the problems and improve the situations you’ve identified. Keep your focus centered on the learner so you solve the right problems for the right reasons.
Visualizing the impact
Besides serving as a morale booster, it’s important to visualize how a new idea or solution can change the experience.
• What might happen?
• How could value be enhanced?
• What’s the impact on the learner?
• What’s the impact on your association?
Select and prioritize a few ideas to test. Start with simple experiments.
The learner journey map itself isn’t the most important part of this exercise. You will never completely capture every learner’s journey. It’s the process—the mapping journey—that matters. The value of this exercise lies in the discoveries, conversations, questions, and insights that come along the way. Bon voyage!