TikTok is (not) the future of learning

In Featured, Technology by JD Dillon

Facebook is the future of learning.

Wait …

YouTube is the future of learning.

Hold on …

Netflix is the future of learning.

You see where I’m going …

Over the past week, I’ve heard/read the words “TikTok is the future of learning” six times. Some came from vendors trying to get attention with snappy email and webinar titles. Some came from very smart and reputable HR/L&D pros.

So, what’s the deal with TikTok?

Prelude

If you’re not familiar with TikTok, you should be familiar with TikTok. It was the second most downloaded app in the world in April 2020, just behind work-from-home mainstay Zoom. It currently has 800 million monthly active users. For comparison, Twitter has 386 million. Instagram has 1 billion. TikTok users spend an average of 52 minutes per day on the app. Twitter: 3.39 minutes. Instagram: 53 minutes.

TikTok’s approach to short-form video is similar to the now-defunct Vine. Here’s a quick breakdown of how it works from Learn Online Video on YouTube.

Seems pretty simple, right? Well, along with its extreme popularity, TikTok continues to encounter its share of problems. Security and privacy concerns pop up rather frequently. TikTok is on a long list of Chinese apps that are now banned in India. There’s also conversation about a possible ban in the US. Let’s put these issues aside for the moment.

So why is this the future of learning?

#LearnOnTikTok

Like many other apps, TikTok is already used for educational purposes. After all, if it can be used to make videos about anything, people will eventually use it to explain how to do stuff. For example …

@selfmagazine

Anyone else not sleeping at all rn? 🤚##TikTokPartner ##LearnOnTikTok ##LearnFromMe ##TikTokWellness ##cantsleep @kennythapoung

♬ original sound – self

TikTok recently formalized this idea through an initiative called #LearnOnTikTok. The company allocated $50 million towards its Creative Learning Fund, which “supports creators with the production of learning content, provides resources for learners, and introduces emerging teachers to the TikTok platform.” Early partners include Bill Nye, Jose Andres, Lilly Singh, Tyra Banks and Neil deGrasse Tyson.

So this is the future!

No. It’s not.

Every time a new technology becomes a consumer sensation, we declare it to be “the future of learning.” But how has that worked out with Facebook, YouTube and Netflix? Or smart watches? Or Second Life? L&D is still trying to figure out “social” in the workplace. We’re only now taking full advantage of video. And Second Life … well … 🙂

The future of learning is the future of work. It’s not an app. It’s not a device. It’s our ability to use all of our tools and tactics to help people do their best work as the world changes around them.

Why bother?

It’s the most popular app in the world right now! Of course people who work in fields like marketing, communication and education should pay attention. Their user experience influences people’s expectations when it comes to digital content and technology at work. Whether you like them or not, they are the standard by which L&D solutions are judged. To quote David Kelly

“If these technologies are changing how we live and learn in day-to-day life, it stands to reason that expectations for how we learn in our organizations will shift accordingly.”

However, we shouldn’t jump to the question “how can I use TikTok with my employees?” The same goes for the unnecessary “what does this tell me about how Gen Z prefers to learn” question. Instead, L&D should be focused on “what can we learn from TikTok that can improve the way we apply content and technology to support employees?”

Takeaways

Everyone will interpret the value of TikTok differently based on the work you do, the tools you use and the problems you’re trying to solve. Here are a few of my observations.

  • Video. It’s ubiquitous. Most people can effectively play and consume a video. A growing number are able to create their own with minimal resources. Live streaming is now part of most workplaces as we shift away from offices. Video is never guaranteed to be the best way to communicate a message. But it’s a strong option in the right context. No “click next to continue” required.
  • Brevity. Native TikTok videos are limited to 15 seconds. That means you have to get right to the point. No fluff. No lengthy intros. Just the meat of the content. Viewers get what they came for and move on.
  • Simplicity. Using TikTok is so simple that it makes other popular social apps feel clunky. It’s just scrolling and tapping. Limited need to search. No clunky menus. Built-in tools also make creator experience extremely easy.
  • Discoverability. Of course there’s an algorithm. The app learns your preferences based on how you interact with each video and elevates related content. The “Discover” tab curates content based on popular and emerging themes.
  • Creativity. People become popular on TikTok for a variety of reasons. There are plenty who lean into lip sync/dance content (and do it very well). But you have to give credit to those who find incredibly creative ways to leverage the app. They’re using minimal resources to create engaging 15-second video clips to build a following (and in some cases make piles of money). Well played, TikTokers.
  • Engagement. TikTok is fun. No links to outside content. No repetitive memes. Just creative people doing interesting things. This is why people spend an hour every day watching 15-second clips. That’s 240 videos per day.
  • Shareability. “Have you seen this?” TikTok takes content sharing to another level based on all of the factors we’ve already discussed. Someone shoves a phone in my face to watch a TikTok video at least once per day. Content can also be curated and repurposed for Instagram, YouTube and Facebook.
Application

Compare your digital learning experience to TikTok based on the above list of considerations. There’s a basic truth we must consider. Learning a new lockout/tagout procedure will never be as interesting as watching someone prank their parents by pretending to shave off their eyebrows. However, we can still improve the employee learning experience by leaning into the same attributes that make TikTok (and other apps/platforms) so popular.

  • Be where the people are. Academic educators (who don’t have corporate firewalls) are using TikTok in school for several reasons. But it starts with access. Why bother implementing a new app when you can just use the one students already love? In the workplace, L&D should find ways to leverage existing tools and access points, including personal mobile devices.
  • Match format to message. Have you ever gone looking for a simple piece of information only to find a 5-minute video that you don’t want to watch? This is a mismatch between format and message. L&D shouldn’t assume that one format is the best way to help everyone in their organization learn. Instead, we should align the content format (video, text, image, interactive module, etc.) with both the message and the user’s context.
  • Get to the point. Get rid of the first 3 slides. Cut out the first 30 seconds from the video. Tell people what they need to know. That’s it. TikToks (and all other engaging videos) don’t begin with a list of things you will learn by watching. They demonstrate their value quickly in the way they communicate the message.
  • Be complex, not complicated. A scrolling playlist of videos will not solve every workplace problem. Employees need more options. However, they will quickly get lost in a sea of disconnected content and platforms. L&D must architect a people-first ecosystem that is both simple and deep. Apply right-fit tech with purpose. Clarify the WIIFM for every tool people are asked to use at work. Make workplace learning as simple as using the apps on your smartphone.
  • Expand data and AI. “You watched this so you’ll probably like that” works on a basic level with entertainment content. It doesn’t work with learning content. Workplace challenges are nuanced and personal. L&D must apply multi-dimensional data, including KPIs, behavior observations and learning data, and artificial intelligence to connect employees with the right resources.
  • Apply purposeful creativity. It’s fun to flex your creative muscles. I once designed an instructor-led training program to mimic an episode of Kim Possible. However, creativity doesn’t matter if people fail to get value from the learning experience. We can have fun with our jobs, but that fun must support the message being delivered and take into account the overall user experience.
  • Balance motivation. L&D usually favors the intrinsic. People should be motivated to learn because it is personally rewarding. They shouldn’t need gimmicks likes points or leaderboards. Here’s the thing. Gimmicks work – when they’re applied effectively. Your training program won’t generate results if employees never complete it. Motivation is personal. People have their own reasons for engaging. L&D must provide choices that balance extrinsic tactics with intrinsic value.
  • Help people share. “I just completed this course in our LXP. You should definitely check it out!” said no employee ever. That’s an overstatement, but it’s also just not how most people behave. Employees already share resources that they find helpful with their peers. They just usually don’t include L&D stuff because it’s too hard to share (long courses, complicated content, hard to access in an LMS). If we want people to share our content, we have to make it more shareable (easy to find, consume, share, curate).

Is TikTok the future of learning? No. However, we can learn a lot from TikTok (and plenty of other consumer technologies) to improve the way we design and provide solutions to the people we support every day.

Be well.