I’m 44 and a big fan of Lego. Luckily for me I have two young boys who also love Lego, which gives me the perfect excuse to continue playing with it as an adult. We build cars, caravans, houses, spaceships and a lot of fantasy stuff combining any of the things mentioned above and much more. But our favorite is the Lego castle. Not sure why my boys like it so much, but my excuse is that I grew up only a holiday away from some of the most beautiful castles in the world (the Belgium Ardennes, Luxembourg, North of France and the Eiffel/Moselle River area in Germany). So every summer holiday we went camping in any of these area’s visiting lot’s of castles and medieval towns. (The image above is from the castle in Bouillon in Belgium)
However as much as I would like, this post is not about real castles. It’s about Lego castles. Moreover it’s about how Lego castles evolved over time and why this illustrates how you can update your learning experience design approach to optimize for personalized experiences driven by data, analytics and AI that can fuel your up- and re-skilling strategy.
The Yellow Castle Theory
The first real successful Lego caste was the infamous yellow castle launched in 1978. We actually got one from ‘Sinterklaas’ (the Dutch predecessor of Santa Claus) a few years later and my parents still have it for their grandchildren to play with. Arguably, this ‘first’ (that is actually the second castle launched) Lego castle seems to still be the most popular. Prices on eBay approach 3.000 US$ for a new set. I do not have any scientific evidence why this castle seems the most popular after more than 40 years, but do have a theory.
The reason I love Lego is that it gives you unlimited abilities to mix and match Lego bricks to make anything you want. As children my brothers and I played with an early Lego set that was once owned by my father at our grandparent’s house. That set only had 2 colors, and 5 or 6 different bricks. And despite this limitation, we managed to build a lot of stuff to play with.
The yellow Lego castle has mostly yellow bricks (duhh…) and as you can see from the picture all of its components are very generic 1×2,1×3,1×4 bricks etc. Even the horses are made of fairly standard Lego elements. In all more than the 5-6 my dad used to play with, but still ideal standard bricks to make a fantastic castle and many many more Lego items.
Things changed a bit with the second series of Lego castles launched in 1984. We also got one of these as a gift when I was a kid and they looked even more realistic with proper grey colored stones and beautiful horses. But there was something interesting happening. This time Lego included ‘prefab’ elements: larger (much larger) bricks that replaced some of the simple 1×1, 1×2’s and 1×4’s in the yellow castle. They also created more realistic horses from a single brick complete with saddles and stirrups.
Many years later, we are now in 1995, Lego launched another series of castles. And this time large custom pieces were added for walls, towers and a jail. But more noticeable, Lego added a full custom made ‘ground plate’ to enable the castle to stand on top of a hill. The change from ‘standard’ Lego bricks to larger custom elements added huge realism and detail to the Lego castles of ’84 and ’95. And they were still great to play with (although I actually never owned and played with the 1995 one;-), but that realism limited kids (and adults;-) to mix and match the Lego bricks to create and build something completely different. It was still possible, but not like you could do with the yellow castle: The wall sections can only be wall sections, the ‘ground plate’ can only be a ground plate. The horses cannot be anything else then a horse. (Although, with a lot of imagination you could make it into a Pegasus….).
So my theory why the yellow castle is still the most popular is this: It is Lego in it’s most ‘natural’ form: simple components that still make a beautiful product, but also inspire creativity and endless possibilities to re-use the bricks for building anything you can imagine.
Exchanging modularity, flexibility and personalization for more detail and realism?
So in essence, with the larger prefab elements in later castle series to replace the simple elements of the yellow castle, Lego exchanged modularity, simplicity and flexibility for more detail, more esthetics, more realism and possibly more revenue (but I’m not sure about the last one). Lego actually went through a whole period where they added more and more (small and large) custom pieces to all of their product groups, not just castles. In short: Lego was walking “the line between giving people more pieces that can be used to add detail and restricting the pieces to inspire creativity.” (Quote from somebody who has really researched and analyzed Lego)
Now, I might be biased (it seems adults prefer building with Lego, kids prefer playing with it) but I’m a fan of the older sets, where pieces were more modular and more flexible to combine with other pieces into basically anything you wanted.
What has this to do with Learning?
You might wonder: “what has this to do with learning?”
Like Lego, everyone who works in learning design has a choice. Do I design large custom assets that look really good and realistic? Or do I design a set of smaller, more modular assets that can easily be mixed and matched, but might look less fancy and realistic when you put them together?
With Artificial Intelligence and Learning Experience Platforms (LxPs) becoming mainstream in learning, our ability to start mix and match content for employees that exactly meets (or as close as possible) the needs of employees opens up huge opportunities. It allows us to tailor learning experiences, it allows us to break from the tradition of designing very generic one-size fits all hour long (or longer!) eLearning. It allows us to really do targeted upskilling and reskilling based on what employees already know and already can do.
The Learning Content Paradox: you cannot mix and match well with large content assets!
Before you proceed, I do need to mention that the below example is only using LinkedIn Learning out of convenience. I have a LinkedIn Learning account which makes it easier for me to use it as an example. It does not represent in any way my opinion of LinkedIn Learning. In fact, I really like the structure and quality of the courses and have worked with some of the amazing people from LinkedIn Learning…
Below is a screenshot from a LinkedIn learning program on Data Science. It covers more than 14 hours of learning. When looking at the title and index, not all of it is relevant for me (I know a thing or 2 about data science) but there are very useful elements in there. Now imagine the most advanced AI recommends me this 14+ hour training. Rightfully it does, given my interest and no doubt data recorded on this interest, my role and my learning history. The challenge is that even with the best AI and the course perfectly tagged (see also my worst shopping experience ever) I will still dislike the recommendation and probably fully ignore it. Why? Because I know that the 14+ hour program contains many elements that I already know, and I do not feel like checking what is relevant vs what is not. For sure I’m not interested in going through content that I am already very familiar with.
The 14+ hour course is like a Lego castle build from one huge brick. Interesting for those who have no previous experience with data science, only want to play with a Lego castle and nothing else.
Fortunately LinkedIn has split the program into several courses. So yes, the Lego castle has bricks! And the bricks are of different color (topics) and of different size (different length). And fortunately, when you integrate LinkedIn Learning with your LMS, you actually get these bricks, not the full castle (if you want to rebuild the castle, that is another challenge). So problem solved you would say. Well…not quite..
You see, the bricks are still very large. All but one are more than an hour and the longest on ‘Data Fluency’ is still a massive 4 hours. That means that these bricks are like the prefab walls, horses and ground plate of our 90ies Lego castle. You can use them for only one specific purpose, and they are hard to mix and match. Similar as with the program, if I would get the 4 hour+ course recommended through the best available AI engine, the course being tagged in the best possible way, I would still be dissatisfied. Again, I know a thing or 2 on Data Fluency, so I know I would be interested in only a few segments of the course. I for sure would want to skip the first parts as in most cases they contain introductions and very generic information. I might have a look, because its 4+ hours rather than 14+ hours, but that is highly uncertain.
Interestingly enough, the courses do break down in smaller parts. Each course on LinkedIn Learning contains a set of video and tests, nicely structured. These ‘Lego bricks’ are like the yellow castle! Perfectly sized (around 5 minutes each) to mix and match. If I would (from that still amazing AI engine with each video perfectly tagged) get specific recommendations for some of these video’s on only the topics that I am less familiar with… I would be positively surprised and will definitely look at at least some of them.
In fact, I might even start to do some curation for my learning analytics playlist. Including only the best and most relevant video’s from a number of different courses. I would be building my own multicolored Lego castle so to say. Will it look as beautiful as the 1995 one? Most likely not. It will be a bit messy having different video’s from different experts with each their own style. The videos might not fit as nicely in a flued story (as happens with Lego bricks after years of use and re-use). But people will recognize it as a castle and my for sure kids love to play with it! (They added the airplane windows on the gate themselves by the way, so the guards can shelter from the rain but still look out for enemies)
All in with 1×1 Lego bricks ?
So, with all of this in mind, should we go all in with 1×1 Lego Bricks in our content strategy? Should we only create the smallest possible learning assets? (did I hear somebody say Micro Learning?)
When sharing this observation with LinkedIn Learning, they explained that there’s tens of thousands of video’s. How would you handle these volumes given the fact that each video must be stored, accurately tagged and created as a content item in your LMS or LxP.
They are right. Going for the highest possible level of granularity for your learning content would create huge flexibility in mixing and matching small content assets to create highly personalized learning experiences. But it would massively inflate your catalogue. It will be a nightmare to maintain and manage. Moreover, in area’s dealing with complex topics or addressing complicated business challenges you probably will loose very essential context if you don’t use a specific combination of content and activities for example.
On the other hand, right now we continue to create mainly large learning bricks. Bricks that cover multiple topics, multiple skills and multiple proficiency levels. These large bricks cannot be split up and repurposed, and not be mixed and matched in a personalized playlist. We also have increasing technical capabilities to manage and tag large digital libraries with AI which will become a great help in managing large (and I mean seriously large) learning catalogues.
So I would encourage you and recommend to start thinking about the level of granularity of your learning content. Start making conscious decisions on how big you want your bricks to be, rather than by default put everything together in a single
brick course. Perhaps, you can start by making sure each learning asset addresses a single topic, or a single skill, in a single context and at 1 specific proficiency level. This would already create so much more flexibility in curation (by humans and AI!). A nice additional benefit is that the increased level of granularity enables you to do much more valuable analytics! But that is for a next post.