The year ahead: an open letter on the future of learning

Why we wrote this

Traditionally, most companies end the year with a letter cataloging important lessons, reflections, and observations from the past 12 months. This year, we’re going to do something a little different.

It’s not that 2021 wasn’t full of challenges and milestones — it was, and the past year was nothing short of remarkable for Arist. Our team grew three-fold, our revenue and customer base grew ~10x, and we delivered over 25,000 courses to students in need globally. We also had our fair share of hiccups (delivering messages is harder than you’d imagine).

But, at the end of a crazy year, it has never been clearer to us that we’re on the precipice of a major shift in the way we learn, and we wanted to take some time to explore the future together.

The state of learning

Let’s start with some context. Today, enterprise learning has a few key challenges:

  • First, adoption, engagement, and completion rates for digital learning are limited — a recent report by Ken Blanchard found that “people are overloaded, tired, and ‘too busy to learn.’”
  • Second, over 80% of the workforce is left out of non-mandatory learning and development, as busy teams focus on “high-potential” learners.
  • Third, accurately tracking and reporting outcomes like behavior change, knowledge retention, and performance improvement is getting tougher and tougher.

At the same time, meaningful learning experiences have never been more important or in-demand. So what’s going wrong?

Unfortunately, despite working really hard to create great learning experiences, modern L&D teams are severely limited by the way learning is delivered. Currently, most digital learning is delivered in one of three ways — a live instructor-led session, a pre-recorded video, or an interactive clickthrough — all of which share a few core issues:

  • They’re time-intensive. The average length of a digital learning experience is over an hour, even though the most in-demand learning experiences are under 5 minutes long. The growing use of TikTok and Twitter for personal learning is a great example of this.
  • They’re expensive to create and maintain. Developing a single module of e-learning takes over 40 hours and thousands of dollars. Furthermore, maintaining learning gets expensive and time-consuming, especially as information rapidly changes.
  • They’re not backed by learning research whatsoever. To drive positive outcomes, most modern learning research recommends (1) spacing learning out, (2) making learning bite-size and digestible, and (3) providing consistent nudges to action, none of which are natively supported by existing delivery methods.
  • They’re often one-time experiences. For learning to be effective, it needs to be continuous and spaced out, especially when knowledge retention or behavior change is the target outcome. Because most learning lives on an LMS or LXP and is designed to be completed in one sitting, there are few easy ways for teams to space out experiences as needed.
  • They’re difficult to tie to business outcomes. Because most learning is a one-time experience, L&D teams often capture limited data. As a result, tracking longer-term retention, behavior, and performance changes is really hard.

All of these issues can be tied to one root cause: learning isn’t meeting people where they are.

To go through a learning experience today, an employee has to break their flow of work, head over to their LMS or LXP, find the right course and module, and complete a series of activities over the course of an hour or longer. On average, an employee has to go through over 7 clicks just to access content — and that’s after they’ve found time to learn.

All of this assumes that the learner has access to an LMS, laptop, and a good internet connection (not a given for over 20% of Americans), and that the learner was either selected for a learning experience or opted-in to a resource provided by their employer (both rare occurrences).

For modern-day employees, engaging with learning is immensely difficult because it just doesn’t meet them where they are. In a world where everything else comes to us — our work, our entertainment, and even our food — it’s time that learning does as well. Thus, the future of learning is simple but absolutely critical: we need to bring learning to the people.

The impact of bringing learning to the people

So, how do we meet people where they are?

At Arist, we’re focused on developing tools that help companies, nonprofits, and governments bring learning to their people — one Slack, Teams, and text message-based course at a time. As a result, over the course of 2021 we’ve gotten a glimpse of just how transformative meeting learners where they are can be. A few of our favorite examples:

  • The University of Washington delivered a 30-day message-based course to over 1,000 OBGYN trainees. OBGYNs who took the course saw a 12% performance increase on their annual exam, and over 93% of learners rated the experience as “extremely enjoyable.”
  • GLISI delivered DEI training to over 7,000 teachers, admins, and frontline staff. With a 3-month message-based course, they saw a 500% increase in completion and adoption vs. instructor-led training, with high rates of self-reported behavior change. Plus, GLISI was able to build and launch the course in 2 weeks instead of 2 months.
  • EY and SAP were able to train over 10,000 students in low-bandwidth regions of Nigeria and Venezuela on future skills like design thinking and entrepreneurship, changing lives and creating powerful upskilling outcomes.
  • As they were kicking off a large transition, one of the world’s leading technology companies needed to improve the coaching ability of their top VPs. With a 10-day message-based course, learner confidence in coaching ability increased from 6.5/10 to 9/10 — nearly a 40% improvement.

Today, we spend over 50% of our time at work in messaging tools (like email, SMS, WhatsApp, Slack, and Microsoft Teams) and less than 2% of our time in an LMS or LXP. As a result, we truly believe that one of the most effective ways to bring learning to the people is through message-based courses, which typically consist of interactive bite-size lessons spaced out over the course of a few days or weeks (try one here).

By bringing learning to the communication channels we use the most, a few really important shifts happen:

  • Learning becomes bite-size and continuous. There’s a natural limit to the length of a text or Teams message (our research has found that 1,200 characters or ~250 words is ideal), meaning that learning can be condensed to the absolute essentials. We can focus on delivering knowledge one concept or case study at a time and give learners the space to digest and act on what they’ve learned. Plus, we can regularly send new lessons, nudges, and assessments as needed.
  • Adoption and accessibility become a given. Because courses can meet learners at the right place, time, and platform, adoption rates of 80%+ become a reality, even for optional experiences. Since each lesson takes no more than 5 minutes a day, learning can be fully embedded into each person’s life and workflow, and with 95% of learners open a message in 3 minutes, there’s a level of immediacy unprecedented for learning. Most importantly, learning built with wage & hour-compliance in mind means that everyone has access — no internet, laptop, or LMS required.
  • Cutting-edge learning research is easy to implement. Harvard research indicates that making content bite-size and spaced out can increase knowledge retention by over 50%, while research from Stanford and UPenn indicates that text messages are one of the most effective ways to drive behavior change. Because message-based courses seamlessly enable spaced and bite-size learning, research is directly embedded in the delivery method.
  • Outcomes become trackable. Because message-based courses interact with learners over a longer period of time, tracking knowledge retention and behavior change becomes as easy as sending additional nudges and assessments 30, 60, and 90 days out. We can also track far more data points, including long-term sentiment, confidence, and more complex performance outcomes.
  • Course creation becomes a breeze. Writing and editing message-based lessons is far quicker than recording videos, cutting down course creation costs and times by over 80% (read: immediate ROI). Plus, external resources and assessments can be added in one click and learners just need to text back to answer.

As we look towards the future, meeting employees where they are via message-based learning has a few other major benefits.

First, new text-based AI tools like GPT-3 make AI-enabled course creation a reality, with AI already helping develop message-based courses over 500% faster in internal tests. Furthermore, AI can enable more in-depth feedback for learners as well as real-time course creation feedback for educators based on prior data.

Second, content and skill-building can become truly modular. Every message-based course consists of a series of bite-sized lessons and exercises strung together, which is far more similar to how humans actually learn complex subjects like neuroscience or build skills like leadership. In the future, different combinations of lessons could be pulled together to rapidly create new learning experiences, and lessons could also be intelligently resurfaced as skill gaps come up. The atomic unit of learning becomes smaller.

And third, because learning can now be just one message away, employees can easily pull knowledge and build skills just by texting a phrase in their communication tool of choice. A salesperson that wants to upskill themselves on a new product line can instantly pull a multi-week learning journey customized to them and delivered in between sales calls via Teams, while a cashier that wants to upskill themselves on becoming a manager can instantly pull a learning journey delivered on the bus ride home via text message.

Here’s to the year ahead

We believe that this is just the tip of the iceberg. As L&D teams focus on meeting people where they are, the resulting learning outcomes will be transformative, enabling a new era of growth, development, and performance. At the same time, everything about the way that we create, deliver, and track learning will dramatically change, from the speed and cadence of learning experiences to the amount of data that we capture. We believe that this shift will meaningfully define the way we learn over the next decade — and we couldn’t be more excited.

Today, hundreds of millions of learners lack access to high-quality digital learning experiences, while hundreds of millions more lack the bandwidth to learn. As a result, we believe that making learning more accessible and frictionless is one of the most important challenges of our time.

In 2021, we learned one key thing: bringing learning to people changes everything. So let’s make 2022 the year of making learning human-centered and beautifully embedded into the flow of work and life. Let’s make 2022 the year of bringing learning to the people.

Here’s to an incredible year ahead,

Michael, Ryan, and Maxine

Co-founders, Arist

P.S. Arist started as a way to deliver learning and training in the Yemeni conflict zone. One of our inspirations was a student named Mohammed Al-Adlani, who helped us understand the limited internet bandwidth that many students in Yemen face.

One of our 2021 highlights was finally meeting Mohammed in-person — proof of how much learning can bring people together.


To learn more about Arist and meeting learners where they are, schedule a demo or conversation with us here.