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 …

So why are people now saying that TikTok is the future of learning?

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? 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 social apps, TikTok is already used for educational purposes. If a tool can be used to make and share videos, people will eventually use it to explain how to do stuff. For example, here’s one of the best explanations of spaced practice I’ve ever seen …

@k8sabz

pt 1 of my new memory hack series to help u learn languages faster 🤩✨ #polyglot #languagelearning #memoryhacks #ItBeLikeThat

♬ CRAFT – OFEKNIV

TikTok recently formalized this concept 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, L&D pros declare it to be “the future of learning.” But how has this tendency worked out with Facebook, YouTube and Netflix? Or smart watches? Or Second Life? Many L&D teams are still trying to figure out how social media applies within the workplace. We’re just now starting to take 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 every available tool and tactic to help people do their best work and keep up as the world changes around them.

Why bother with TikTok?

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. The TikTok user experience influences people’s expectations when it comes to digital content – at home and at work. Whether you like them or not, consumer apps 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 stereotypical “what does this tell me about how Gen Z prefers to learn” question. Instead, L&D should be asking “what can we learn from how people use TikTok in order to improve the way we apply content and technology to support our employees?”

Takeaways

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

  • Video. It’s ubiquitous. Most people can easily play and consume a video using available devices. Adaptive streaming limits bandwidth issues. A good video is still hard to make, but more people have the tools needed to give it a try. Live streaming is now part of most corporate employee experiences. 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. You have to GET TO THE POINT. No fluff. No lengthy intros. No bullet point objectives. Just the meat. Viewers get what they came for and move on.
  • Simplicity. TikTok is so simple to use that it makes other popular social apps feel clunky. It’s just scrolling and tapping. Limited search required. No clunky menus. Built-in tools also make the creator experience super easy.
  • Discoverability. TikTok may have the most powerful algorithm in social technology. 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).You have to credit those who find 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 just 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. Someone shoves a phone in my face to watch a TikTok video at least once per day. Even more come in via text. 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. There’s a basic truth we must acknowledge. 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.

  • Go where the people are. Educators (who don’t have corporate firewalls) are using TikTok because it helps them reach their students. 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 familiar tools and access points, including personal mobile devices and embedded technology.
  • 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 format/message mismatch. L&D shouldn’t assume one format is the best way to help everyone in their organization. Instead, we should align 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 the first 30 seconds from the video. Tell people what they need to know. That’s it. TikToks (and really any engaging video) don’t begin with a list of things you will learn by watching. Demonstrate value quickly so the user can make a snap decision regarding a video’s usefulness.
  • 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 for entertainment. It doesn’t work for learning. 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 resource at the right time.
  • 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 doing our jobs, but that fun must enable the message being delivered and support the overall user experience.
  • Balance motivation. L&D aspires to the intrinsic. People should be motivated to learn because it’s personally rewarding. They shouldn’t need gimmicks likes points or leaderboards. But “gimmicks” work – when they’re applied effectively. Your training resources won’t generate results if employees never use them. 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 an honest assessment of how people behave at work. Employees share resources they find helpful with their peers. Unfortunately, L&D resources often fail to reach this threshold. Sometimes, L&D stuff is just too hard to share (long modules, complicated content, hard to access 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 certainly take inspiration from TikTok (and plenty of other consumer technologies) to improve the way we design and implement solutions for the people we support every day.

Be well.

  • JD Dillon is the world’s foremost expert on frontline learning and enablement. He is also one of the most prolific authors and speakers in the workplace learning community. For 20 years, JD has worked in operations and talent development with some of the world’s most dynamic organizations, including Disney, Kaplan and AMC. He is the founder of LearnGeek, a workplace performance advising and insights group. He is also Chief Learning Architect with Axonify, where he builds technology, content and services that enable frontline employees around the world to do their best work every day.