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Push vs pull: How to engage online learners

We all want to say our online learning materials are engaging, but what does that really mean? 

One way to look at this issue is to consider the push-pull relationship between the course content and the learner. The idea that content may be “push” or “pull” is actually a popular marketing concept, which might sound unappealing to some designers. However, the analogy can be a useful frame for instructional design discussions and may even challenge tendencies to commodify knowledge and learning experiences.

A push strategy in marketing would introduce and promote a product to a target customer, while a pull approach would draw them towards the product, often when they already know what they are looking for. Substitute the “product” component with “learning opportunity”, and swap “customer” for “learner”, and you probably get the general idea. 

You may have noted that I use the term “learning opportunity”, as opposed to “content”, when the latter might have seemed the natural counterpart. Here’s why. I am not the first person to explore the Pull-Push analogy for learning, but the interpretations I have seen tend to focus on the way a course is “delivered”, in terms of administration and defined content. With this interpretation, we could legitimately claim that any successfully completed course qualifies as having been delivered. But could we confidently say it has been received, digested, understood and applied by graduating learners? If this were a marketing strategy, we would want to see evidence of a behavioural response from our customers, to know that they actively engaged with our campaign. So what would we, as educators, hope to see? 

So, when I talk about content, I don’t mean just packets of information to be delivered. I mean all the “stuff” that learners experience as a result of participating on the course. That includes, of course, the texts, media, videos, lectures and discussions learners encounter. But I would also include the broader experience: the mistakes made, things that made them laugh, a change of opinion or interest, new social connections, even revelations. Sometimes interaction and engagement with content leads to acquisition of knowledge and skills, or behavioural change, but sometimes it doesn’t. 

A passing score on a test can only tell you so much. And, while you may be confident in the quality of your content, there is no guarantee of meaningful learning or long-term behavioural change, even if objectives seem to be being met. So, whether you are bringing learners to opportunities, or opportunities to them, meaningful engagement is hard earned and subjective on either side. 

So, if you are tasked with identifying the most effective way to create meaningful engagement for a diverse learning audience, would you aim to achieve this through a Push or Pull strategy?

Push strategies

A Push strategy in marketing might involve delivery of information through advertising and newsletters to a recipient i.e. their target customer. In online learning, reading materials and video lectures, or anything that can be “delivered” in a standardised format to a learner could be considered Push by nature. The first issue with this approach is that it is often happening to or at the learner, placing them in a passive position. And, in both marketing and teaching, the recipient can block, ignore or fail to absorb the key points of the content. Of course, we can’t assume that will happen, but we’d want to do better. Whether we are talking about an advertisement or a video lecture, it is usually a choice on the recipient’s part to engage with that content, based on whether it interests them, or if they are sufficiently motivated. 

If you have a course made up of reading materials and presentation-style lectures, you have a lot of Push content. If you want to increase engagement in your course you could first try to make your learning materials more interesting. This tends to involve improving the visual appeal, adding dynamic elements e.g. animation, using attention-grabbing language, or building narratives. However, if you combine Push strategies with Pull strategies, you could find more exciting and effective ways to engage and motivate your learners. Interesting is not the same as engaging!

More attractive and interactive does NOT necessarily mean more engaging.

If you use authoring tools like Storyline, Captivate or Lectora to create interactive materials, good instructional design can make the difference between shiny clickable graphics, and meaningful engagement. An example of where interactivity lacks purpose, is the over-use of click-to-reveal interactions. While these can make content seem a little more interesting, engagement may be superficial – little more than a guided reading experience. 

Breaking up bulky texts to create an interactive guide makes sense when you want learners to quickly locate and extract key information. However, think carefully before chopping everything up into clickable fragments. Fragmented texts will slow down and disrupt the flow of reading. If there is not a pedagogical¹ intention behind it, then this can be distracting and prevent connections from being made.

As a general rule, base your approach on the type of cognitive processing you want to facilitate, not just aesthetic appeal. To add pedagogical value to click-to-reveal interactions, organise content around a related visual concept, such as a process diagram, or labelled structure. 

Good instructional design will discourage the use of unnecessary animations and other examples of style over substance. To engage with, and therefore at the very least include, a diverse audience of learners, high quality online learning materials should now reflect modern accessibility standards. I have found that aiming for at least WCAG AA requires that you clean up your design practice and, as a result, you drop outdated and unnecessary features. For example, drag and drop interactions, as much as we might love them, are not accessible to everyone. That’s not a problem, it’s a challenge. A talented instructional designer will find creative alternatives!

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Pull strategies

A Pull learning approach can be implemented in various ways, depending on the context and what you are hoping to achieve. This requires framing learning objectives, or parts of them, as self-directed independent or collaborative challenges. For example, you might give learners a problem to solve, which could only be achieved if they take the initiative to research relevant topics and work through potential solutions. Such an approach may also be described as heutagogy.

In a workplace learning and development context where staff need to improve their digital literacy in line with their role, you might consider a just-in-time learning initiative. Maybe curate video tutorials for them to dip in and out of, perhaps with some gamification or reward system to motivate their self-directed development. However, even in more standardised e-learning formats, such as SCORM packages, there can be Pull learning opportunities. Branching scenarios could be designed this way, but there are plenty of other options. For example, by presenting the learner with a challenge or problem to solve, with signposts to useful external links where they can go to explore and gather notes. Upon their return they may receive automated, customised feedback to their responses.

In a higher education degree programme, a Pull strategy may be particularly appropriate to learners’ critical and reflective level of learning. It might involve designing a learning journey that facilitates pathways and outcomes that are equal in academic value, but unique to each learner’s interests and goals. To offer this level of freedom while also maintaining academic rigour, often requires a well-designed rubric and peer/self-evaluation system. There are numerous benefits to such an approach, including improved accessibility and inclusivity. Furthermore, individualised and peer-facilitated assessment strategies can be used as a more ethical alternative to antiplagiarism technologies.

One of the benefits of the Pull approach is that a lot of the content already exists on the open web, reducing resource development requirements. This frees up instructor/lecturer time and allows the educator to refresh and update their knowledge alongside their learners. As experts in their field, educators are of most value to learners when they are available to pose critical questions, stimulate discussion, and respond to student needs.

There are shared benefits when source content is continuously discovered, refreshed and critiqued by learners and educators alike. Asking learners how they selected their sources and reached their conclusions develops critical thinking and promotes a sense of ownership and accountability. Further down the line, too, course reviews and updates may be less cumbersome, as the curriculum evolves organically and is always subject to ongoing critical engagement.

group of students discussing a project with their lecturer

Ways to engage learners

There are lots of ways to engage learners with strategies that combine the most effective Push and Pull approaches. You may find that Push content demands more development time to build and style. So, try to balance the time you invest with the level of pedagogical impact. Attractive-looking content might lure your stakeholders in, but return on investment (ROI) is ultimately what they will be looking for.

The ideas below do not fall neatly into either Pull or Push categories, so consider them as ends of a spectrum. How you use and combine these suggestions will determine their Push-Pull leaning and overall pedagogical effectiveness.

Select each approach section below to explore examples:

Push

  • Add elements of surprise e.g. fun facts, shocking statistics.
  • Ask a thought-provoking question.
  • Create a narrative, tell a story.
  • Start with a problem and solve it as the content unravels.
  • Use real-world examples.
  • Vary the format, e.g. use transcripts from interviews, use poetic and artistic works as starting points for discussion.
  • Present content in a visually interesting way e.g. powerful images to aid memory.
  • Organise content around a memorable theme e.g. ‘5 things you need to know about…’

Pull

  • Provide helpful tips and ‘how to’ resources.
  • Create social spaces with regular events and tasks.
  • Provide interactive videos with branching decision points.
  • Provide digital walls/boards for learners to post ideas, links, comments. E.g. https://wakelet.com/https://miro.com/

Push

  • Add intermittent quiz questions during a lecture, or a challenge at the end of a unit.
  • Highlight opportunities to practise and apply learning within the content.
  • Create a personal connection i.e. encourage learners to see the importance of an issue and how they can make a difference.
  • Relate content to personal and professional goals.
  • Emphasise any negative repercussions of not understanding a concept e.g. fire safety, legal professional requirement.
  • Personalise content – if you can configure the system to address the learner by name and tailor feedback to their goals.
  • Award points for completion of content through gamification and digital badges.

Pull

  • Present a problem to solve or set a challenge that requires the learner to research/explore.
  • Set up a digital scavenger or treasure hunt.
  • Create extended opportunities e.g. sustained/meaningful engagement with resources contributes towards other personal goals e.g. accreditation, portfolio sample, create a personal job aid, respond to an ongoing issue.

Push

  • Teach active reading and listening skills.
  • Provide learners with an activity to complete as they follow along e.g. crossword with clue answers revealed in the text/presentation, a bingo card for keywords.
  • Use animation to illustrate complex concepts.
  • Add polling and voting mechanisms.
  • Set reflective tasks to encourage learners to relate what they have learned to their own experiences.
  • Suggest the use of annotation and discussion tools for reading exercises e.g. https://web.hypothes.is/

Pull

  • Create a collaborative resource e.g. wiki, where learners research, create and review their own learning resources.
  • Provide opportunities to discuss, debate and share feedback.
  • Suggest opportunities to “make a difference” e.g. apply learning in the workplace or public environment.
  • Give learners a personal web space e.g. blog, which they can curate, customise and share with others. E.g. https://wordpress.org/
  • Include practical activities that learners can do at home, using spaces and common household objects.
  • Enable peer assessment (anonymised if appropriate) to understand the evaluation of their work through the perspective of others.
  • Involve learners in the design of their assessment briefs and marking criteria.

The lists above aren’t exhaustive, of course. You might have expected to see more “bells and whistles”, but what enhances the experience of one learner, might hamper it for another, so start with the substance and pedagogy. Enrich learning through meaningful connections – to the learner, to the content, between concepts, between learners. When adding features to enhance content, ask yourself whether you are really aiding the learning process. 

Finally, and most importantly, the most valuable way to find out how engaged your learners are would be for you to engage directly with them.

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Pedagogy

Pedagogy is generally defined as the art, science and craft of teaching. The first pedagogues were Greek slaves who were responsible for caring for and instructing their masters’ children. In fact, the Greek origin of the word means ‘to lead the child’.

So, pedagogy may also be considered to be about nurture and pastoral care, as well as teaching. Despite the reference to children, the term is used fairly comfortably in adult education contexts. However, andragogy, which translates as ‘to lead the man’, may be used to refer specifically to the teaching of adults.

A number of related and derivative terms may be used to define particular fields of pedagogical interest, including digital pedagogycritical pedagogy, and heutagogy.