What Should We Call Them?

MH900448555Recently, I found myself involved in a lively debate via Twitter on the use of the word “Learner” when describing those who participate in learning. When I say lively, I mean lively. Just know, the feelings were at least as strong about “Participant” and “Attendee”.

Several people in our industry feel this is no longer an appropriate reference. I respectfully disagree. At least until we determine a strong alternative reference that many-to-most can agree upon.

New employees and new associates, as such, are used when describing a subset of the full group whenever needed. I don’t see how this is objectionable. Do you? In fact, I believe a qualifer like this is is necessary when in conversation with leadership, planning for the future, determining needs, and more. At times, it is also necessary to refer to the various departments in the same manner. For example, finance, operations, clinical, etc. The organization is huge with a matrix organizational construct. Being specific when referring to associate work groups saves time and is universally understood.

Learner also works when discussing concepts and practices with learning professionals –no matter what their industry– across the globe.

Some suggest simply calling them “Workers” or “Employees” is all that is needed. Does this adequately define the group being referred to? For me, these terms are widely in use for a variety of other reasons and broader reference. I don’t think this is the full answer.

So, the question is still out there. What should we call them? I’m okay continuing to stick with “Learners, Attendees, and Participants”, until further notice. But, I’m open to suggestion. Wha cha got?

2 thoughts on “What Should We Call Them?”

  1. Hi Tom! Thank you for your comments. I know this is a hot topic for many in the L&D field at this time, unfortunately I was not party to the chat – that being said here are my comments anyway.

    I use the word “learner” in most situations that pertain to: training, course, or session. To me the word attendee or participant is not a call to action. It implies passive participation and passive expectations on the group. The are “attendees” well, they attended…what else do you want?

    In this context they are a learner, and should be regarded as such, we want people to learn either in a formal setting such as in a formal F2F setting or even in an informal water-cooler setting. The nomenclature is semantic at this point, it is the mindset that is important for both the “instructor” (facilitator, moderator, leader or whomever) as it is for the “learner” (participant, attendee, gaggle of people or whomever). Understanding that everyone is participating in the learning session for some purpose or another; and in most cases, with the exception of the training hostage, they are there to learn something regardless of it’s in the stated learning objectives. And really in the scheme of things what is wrong with having that mentality?


  2. Dawn, as you know I was part of the lively discussion on Twitter. As I’ve now had some time to think about this issue, I think it comes down to timing and appropriateness. Reuben Tozman asserted that once you call them learners, training is the presumed outcome (paraphrased). I think he’s right, based on what follows.

    Timing: When a performance need is surfaced, who addresses it? If it’s an instructional designer, the presupposition is a training solution and that eliminates a whole slew of options. I’ve seen this in action, a group of three workplace learning professionals and one instructional designer, the ID always proposes an elearning solution. Labeling “them” as “learners” early on leads down this path. If a workplace learning professional takes the lead, they’re supposed to look at the range of options that include existing on-demand resources, connecting with appropriate expertise, other performance support options, and so on. They basically look at everything. The target audience doesn’t become “learners” or “participants” until a training solution (instructor-led or elearning course) is the chosen solution.

    Appropriateness: Once any determination is made, all bets are off. Call them learners for F2F or elearning course takers when talking with peers. Call them participants for a range of formal activities. But then when talking to execs, talk about employees, workers, associates, or whatever fits your organization. In my place, we call them engineers, in some settings. Use the language of your audience – it’s communications 101.
    If you think it through, who cares what “they” are called as long as you intelligently communicate.


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