3 ways high-stakes learning differs from low stakes

A new report looks at the priorities of high-stakes learning businesses, including engagement, learner performance, mastery-based learning, engaging features, and cutting-edge tech.


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As the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths continue to rise in the US, a complete return to in-person school doesn’t seem feasible, at least not in the near future. Because it’s desperately needed now and likely in the uncertain immediate future, e-learning—and the quality of it—becomes increasingly important.

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Whether completing a degree, obtaining a higher degree, or collecting certifications to become more valuable in the job market, an encounter with online learning and management systems (LMS) is inevitable. Many upper-division schools now continue to operate remotely or as a hybrid, and, for those attending in person, either full or part time, on-campus classes are often held outside, under tents, as they currently are at Bard College in New York. However, winter will soon hit, and Bard, like many other colleges throughout the country, will need an alternative, and that’s probably going to be fully remote. 

With these educational challenges, there’s high currency to be had in learning products. 

A new report from cloud-learning platform provider BenchPrep looks at the priorities of high-stakes learning businesses, including engagement, learner performance, mastery-based learning, engaging features, and cutting-edge tech. 

To gather the research, BenchPrep surveyed 248 organizations specializing in high-stakes learning products, including professional membership associations, credentialing bodies, training companies, and extended enterprise learning organizations, to determine how its priorities differ from other types of learning businesses.

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It’s established that critical learning products, across many markets and industries, need to feature course material that’s easy to master, but content and experience need to be substantial and engaging. Of course, those selling learning programs hope to drive revenue.

The high-stakes learning market includes many businesses—professional certification test prep, highly-skilled professional training, continuing education and more—but they are very much distinct from low-stakes learning companies. 

The BenchPrep report discovered  three  trends that set high-stakes learning products apart from low-stakes learning companies.

  1. Learner engagement and learner performance are No. 1 priority for high-stakes learning businesses.” As a general rule, learning and development (L&D) professionals measure learner performance and engagement, but do not make it the top priority. High-stakes providers ranked learner engagement as the No. 1 priority. They found 42% of high-stakes learning providers report improving engagement as a reason to search for a new learning program, and 60% say improving engagement is a top business goal.

  • A popular trend has been to tie business goals to learner performance and engagement:
  • 64% said improving engagement is a top business goal
  • 50% are already working to improve it.

2. “Premium features and a modern user-experience are must-have components of high-stakes learning platforms.” The promise of mastery-based learning is a foundation of high-stakes learning providers. These businesses must offer engaging features  and cutting-edge technology. And for 20% of high-stakes learning lenders aren’t worried about cost, and actually said they’d pay what they have to, in order to access these critical elements. 

Respondents listed their top three most desired features as: 

  • AI (76%); 
  • Gamification (74%); and
  • Microlearning (69%).

3. “Generating revenue is at the heart of high-stakes learning business success.” Use a balance between securing essential features and managing costs and your business will be able to select the right learning platform. It will be an investment, but one that will help drive revenue. While learner engagement is priority No. 1 generating revenue comes in at a close second and

  • 59% cited increased course enrollment as a business goal; and 
  • 48% plan to increase course offerings in the near future.

The report strongly suggested businesses look into extended enterprise learning (or more colloquially, in-house learning), which will save the average 8% of training budget reserved for outsourcing classroom facilitators, LMS hosting/administration, and learner support. Interestingly, the larger the organization, the more likely it’ll outsource.