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Inside the IRS’s Digital Microlearning Program

The Internal Revenue Service handles all federal taxes, so training employees about such a huge responsibility can seem intimidating. But, since 2013, the Self-Help Online Tutorials (SHOTs) program has been the IRS’s secret weapon.

SHOTs utilize microlearning — or short, simple educational videos — to inform IRS workers about topics such as safety leave. Through SHOTs videos, IRS employees can brush up on a subject in about three minutes or less on average.

GovLoop spoke with SHOTs Program Director Kelly Barrett about how these microlearning videos are acclimatizing employees to the IRS’s nuances.

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The interview below has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

GOVLOOP: What inspired SHOTs, and how does the program work?

BARRETT: I’ve been with the IRS for 22 years now. Outside of work, I use YouTube for just about everything. With SHOTs, I just saw a need and started creating them.

The problem with formal training is it is a one and done. Once you get that green checkmark, you rarely retake that course. Sometimes, you may be sent to training because it’s the only time it’s offered. However, as time passes, and you don’t apply it, you’ll quickly forget it. Like the adage, ‘If you don’t use it, you lose it.’

So, sometimes the piece you need is that one step. With microlearning, we are trying to break down the topic into single, specific actions. You just need to know that one step. You can watch the piece you need in one screen, and then do it live in one application. You’re learning by doing.

How might virtual collaboration and training benefit the IRS beyond the COVID-19 era?

I think SHOTs is a huge benefit. Attention spans drop significantly after any longer than an hour.

With virtual learning, you don’t have eye contact with the instructor and with virtual learning, there can be many distractions. In formal training, you rarely relaunch an eLearning course or go back to the instructor and ask for the lesson again.

The SHOTs program solves these problems. We try to keep our videos to three minutes or less. We find that is the perfect amount of time to relay pertinent core information. SHOTs videos help employees learn quickly when they need it.

And the key to SHOTs are they are always available. It is 24/7, 365 days a year. If you forget something, you can go launch the video again.

How do SHOTs aid IRS leaders and workers?

Employees don’t always have a lot of time for training. SHOTs can be huge for providing immediate, on-demand assistance.

Often, the same question is asked repeatedly at work. SHOTs are meant to help employees do their jobs more efficiently and with higher quality. Less time is spent asking other people for help around you. It ends up saving the organization money because people are being more productive.

Leaders can also relay pertinent information. For instance, we did a series of SHOTs on leadership. As employees retire, a lot of knowledge and expertise walks out the door. The SHOTs program allows us to capture that knowledge and expertise before they retire.

What separates SHOTs from traditional, in-person training?

Instructors became experts over many months or years. We can’t expect people to be an expert after only an hour or even weeks.

Our SHOTs videos, meanwhile, are much shorter. Our brains learn much like our stomachs. Take a little bit at a time and learn bit by bit. You build knowledge on top of each bit of information.

Now, we teach other areas in the IRS how to create their own SHOTs videos. They know their work, and they are the best people to do it. They learn how to storyboard, edit and publish these videos. Employees love it. Many have told me it’s their first place they look to learn something new.

Systems and applications change and get updated. If there is a video that will get us un-stuck, that is key. We are adding videos every month.

SHOTs videos can be embedded or incorporated into traditional learning. The key is the videos are available days, months or years after they’ve completed their formal training. People can get an immediate refresher when they need it. I think programs like SHOTs are the wave of the future for learning.

Kelly Barrett is a former GovLoop Featured Contributor. His work is available here.

A version of this article originally appeared on January 18, 2021.

Image by Mohamed Hassan from Pixabay 

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