Sunday thoughts about Just-In-Time learning

Person on phone walking into a wooden revolving door. Door is on an elaborately carved marble bank building.

My fella and I were having a conversation about the state of things this morning (as we often do), talking about some of the systemic choices that have led us to where we are right now as a community, as a culture and our places with COVID-19. In among all of that was embedded the idea of ‘just-in-time’ (JIT) service delivery and how the shift from a service warehousing model to a JIT model has failed us in some ways, how the system has no room in it for things that can go drastically wrong (much like our current situation with COVID). This article is not about all of that, but about the education-related light bulb that went off for me while we were talking. . .

I originally learned about just-in-time delivery in the Education and Technology Masters program I’m attending through RRU. The idea of JIT learning is one, like many things in education technology, that evolved in a different setting and then was applied to education as a model of teaching/learning: JIT service delivery originally comes from the automotive manufacturing world. Before the advent of the internet and the ability to manage large-scale supply chains through stock-management software that integrates end-sales/supply/manufacture into one streamlined flow, large numbers of car parts and components were manufactured and housed in warehouses throughout the country. The model then was: make many, distribute widely, have relevant parts available at multiple locations, and the end user will have access not just to what they need in the moment, but to everything that they might need. The JIT manufacturing model cuts out the large scale-warehousing piece by a tight management of the feedback loop created between end-user consumption and manufacture. The model here is: make as many as are being sold to the end user, distribute only to where they are needed, at a rate that is dictated by the rate of purchase/use. Much less warehousing, much less choice, much less availability – but in a perfect world, what you need is available when you need it.

The application of JIT learning to education started withskills training for people in their workplaces. JIT is “learning that is anywhere, anytime. . . just enough, just for me, and just in time” (Weintraub & Martineau, 2002, as cited in Brandenburg & Ellinger, 2003, p. 309). JIT learning makes some assumptions – that people know what they will need to learn, be able to assess their own gaps (or have access to someone who can identify gaps for them), and that discrete learning modules will be available for student consumption as they need to learn the content.

There are things I like about this and things that I struggle with. It’s only really this morning that I’ve been able to put my finger on why I struggle.

First: I like that JIT learning is really learner-driven. There are pieces about this that are really beautiful, empowering the learner to move at their own pace, to reach for the amount and type of information they need/want. There is, inherent in this, an assumption of student motivation (be it intrinsic or extrinsic).

Second (and subjectively): I think that this model reflects the way that many of us, as informal learners, are accessing the internet for the things that we need or want to know both for work (for instance, how to share a collaborative document), or for play (in my case, how to put a shuttle race on the floor loom).

I’m in the home stretch of this degree program, and through it have had opportunity to experience many different teaching and learning styles, to experience and read about many, MANY theoretical frameworks, pedagogies, androgogies and models of education. There have been times when I have availed myself of JIT learning, and places where I’ve tried to understand how/whether that might be applied in my work context, as an instructor in Human Services.

Ultimately, I’ve decided that the problematic parts outweigh the relevant pieces for my instructional context. This morning clarified why I struggle with the application of this model:

To ensure that our students are prepared for the human-centred work that they will do, they have to walk into their practicum and work situations with an already-formed foundation of practice that involves a strong understanding of their own orientation within the work (that includes at least a basic understanding of a couple of models of practice and the history of their field), their own values, a strong sense of boundaries and understanding of self-care, and a growth mindset about themselves and others.

Human services has a very high turnover rate, particularly for front line workers. Historically, people have been hired into these professions with very little or no training, leaving them and the people they are supporting vulnerable to emotional/physical stress and burnout (Gomez & Michaelis, 1995). Workers were expected to learn as they went (JIT?), both to their own detriment and that of the individuals they were supporting. As someone who entered human services after a two-day workshop that included wheelchair transfers and how to clean a sink, I was woefully unprepared (back in 1989, when I worked for an emergency-based medical services company). I can remember being angry at my employer, insecure about my ability to support the people I was sent out to, and upset at the system that would allow this to happen. And, I wasn’t even aware at the time of how I was part of the revolving door of service providers that individuals receiving support had been subject to for years (and the consequent repercussions in their lives).

Finally – this morning it came clear for me. That the Human Services field has had long, informal experience with the JIT model, and that it has been shown to be a poor way to deliver education for people in this sector. Sadly, this mis-fit has been at the expense of untold numbers of people who could have been happy, competent service providers, and worse, at the expense of the people who receive support. Comprehensive training and standards of practice protect both all parties in the support relationship. JIT training might have other applications, but this is not one of them.

Edited to add:

I’ve been thinking about this throughout the day while listening to 25 Years in Ed Tech (the podcast) and want to be clear that I understand the difference between having training available to people as they need it, and sending them out without enough training to start with. There are places like Open Future Learning that have done an amazing job of creating bite-sized sessions that address specific training needs. Conversations that Matter is place that allows people to be introduced to new ways of thinking and reflect on those perspectives.

What I was trying to get at was more about the concept that the worker/learner doesn’t know what they don’t know. My experience as a worker (in the early days, before my training) was that I had to know what I wanted to learn more about, find my own resources, build a framework to understand them, and integrate them into my work. I think about the current learners in our program, some who come from other industries, would not know what to look for, or where to look – even in this information-rich world.

I’m still not capturing the complexity of it here, but my thinking is getting more ordered through the process of writing about it. Thanks for sticking with me for this part of the ride. (Cheers. L)


Brandenburg, D. C., & Ellinger, A. D. (2003). The future: Just-in-time learning expectations and potential implications for human resource development. Advances in Developing Human Resources, 5(3), 308–320.

Gomez, J. S., & Michaelis, R. C. (1995). An assessment of burnout in human service providers. The Journal of Rehabilitation, 61(1), 23.

Photo: BY CC SA Hernan Pinera, 22 October, 2015

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