Katie Santo

Supporting Self-Directed Informal Learning

A mobile app to help higher education employees navigate and own their professional development experience.

My project design supports self-directed informal learning in higher education by creating a platform that guides and supports a network of peer learners through professional development experiences that they can connect to career aspirations.

Katie Santo.mov

Project Background

The problem statement for my thesis project is: How might we better support self-directed informal learning for higher education professionals?

Being a full-time working professional during the midst of a global pandemic presents a very challenging and interesting mix of opportunities. Not only are we in the middle of what is being dubbed “the Great Resignation” (Cook, 2021) but over the next ten years about 16.5 million jobs (Torpey, 2020) will be held by a retirement-eligible population. That’s a lot of employee turnover, which is both a major and costly challenge for HR populations (Society for Human Resource Management, 2018; Mahan, et al., 2020).

While there are many potential solutions that can help ease this impact, my project highlights the importance of employee retention and professional development.

Access to professional development is a key factor in employee satisfaction and retention (Volini, et al., 2019; Fusch, 2017). And voluntary turnover costs exceed $630 billion dollars (Mahan, et al., 2020). And in higher ed, an industry already known for not having the most lucrative budgets, that can have a huge impact on the bottom line (Mrig, et al., 2020).

My goal with this project is to empower employees to grow the skills they need to excel in their roles, improve employee satisfaction through increased professional development, reduce employee turnover, increase the pool of highly qualified internal candidates, and help the higher ed sector prepare for the influx of open positions when employees begin to retire.

In an ideal world, my project can positively impact employees regardless of industry but as someone who currently works in higher ed, I’m selfishly focusing my target audience on full-time higher education professionals—specifically my administrator colleagues here at NYU so that I might positively impact my place of employment as well as the career aspirations of my colleagues.

70-20-10 Model of Professional Development

Let’s start by looking at NYU’s approach to professional development, which is the 70-20-10 model.

For context, according to the 70-20-10 model (Leading Effectively Staff, 2020) of professional development, 70% of development should come from challenging on-the-job experiences or assignments, 20% comes from developmental relationships (e.g., coaching and mentoring), and 10% of development should come from formal coursework and training.


On the job experiences


Coaching and relationships


Formal training and coursework

User Research

As part of my research, I conducted a series of focus groups with NYU employees to learn more about their thoughts on professional development. Here are a few quotes from those sessions that help highlight some of what I learned and brought into my design and overall approach.

Key Takeaways

  • Time, or lack thereof, is a major factor for employees and the likelihood of their participation in professional development.

  • Employees need guidance on how and what skills they need to develop.

  • Employees need opportunities for connection, whether within their own team or across the organization with employees in similar roles.

  • Employees want to connect their professional development activities to their career goals.

  • Reflection needs to be flexible to fit into unpredictable workdays

"I think we’re failing, we’re all so busy."

"The reflecting part is what’s missing, we need to acknowledge that [development] is happening."

"I don’t have time [...] to cull through resources to find things important for my role."

"In the moments when dealing with performance communications and needing to reflect on these experiences, it never feels natural or organic."

"Peer colleagues in my group [or] in other divisions [help me develop…] they struggle with similar things."

"I [like] learning through my own work [... but] it’s more about the recognition of skills I need to develop, I’m in my own bubble."

Design Rationale

The design rationale for this project is based on the employee learning and development orientation (ELDO) model (Maurer, 2002), which provides guidance on creating professional development interventions that motivate employee buy-in and meaningful impact. The ELDO model involves four main components: a cognitive self (“what I am” and “what I might become”), the affective impact of cognitive self on learning and development, overt behavior in learning and development (participation and persistence), as well as work context and content.

In the context of employee development, the cognitive self is presumed “to influence attitudes toward and feelings during learning activities. These attitudes and feelings subsequently have effects on participation and persistence in those types of activities” (Maurer, 2002, p. 12). This is manifested as an employee’s self-schema (Maurer, 2002) which can be broken down into their actual self (“what I am”) and their possible self (“what I might become”); both of these selves need to be taken into consideration when developing a PD program and associated support system. An employee’s actual self is where they are at present, which includes their role within the organization and metacognitive awareness (Winne & Azevedo, 2014) of their knowledge and abilities. Whereas an employee’s possible self is the combination of their career and developmental aspirations, containing any number of potential paths they may take as well as the knowledge and abilities they either wish they exhibited or would like to develop further. An employee with a strong connection to their actual and possible self enhances their level of self-efficacy (Bandura, 1997), which impacts their overall attitude towards development activities and confidence in completing those activities (Maurer & Tarulli, 1994; Gist, 1987).

An employee’s understanding of their cognitive self has a significant impact on how they approach learning and development. Employees who view developmental activities as performance related, rather than as learning opportunities, risk feelings of anxiety and inadequacy (Dweck & Leggett, 1988). PD programs should then be less prescriptive and more self-directed, instilling a sense of ownership and self-efficacy (Bandura, 1997) within the employee to help promote developmental challenges as part of a larger learning goal rather than a performance goal. According to Maurer (2002):

A learning goal, however, means that challenge will be viewed as an opportunity to learn something new, and risk of failure signifies not inadequacy of ability but rather a need for increased effort or a different strategy. This leads to constructive self-instructions, a positive prognosis, and positive affect. (p. 23)

An employee’s overt behavior in terms of their learning and development (Maurer, 2002) takes the form of their active participation in development activities and their persistence with said activities, especially when those activities become increasingly difficult. Participation may constitute an employee seeking out PD activities, researching potential career paths, and exploring the skills needed to be successful in different roles. Persistence, however, may be more difficult to observe as it relates more directly to an employee’s mindset and their approach to development. One interpretation of persistence is that of exhibiting a “mastery-oriented pattern” (Dweck & Leggett, 1988) which “involves the seeking of challenging tasks and the maintenance of effective striving under failure” (p. 256).

The last main component of the ELDO model centers around both the context and content of an employee’s work. Work context (Maurer, 2002) includes a variety of elements that may impact an organization’s approach to and employees’ attitudes of development, as well as the support systems that may be in place to guide that development. For example, an organization without PD resources in place or unsupportive supervisors can negatively affect an employee’s development mindset, which also negatively impacts their motivation to participate in L&D activities (Maurer & Tarulli, 1994). In an organization with a strong development culture and support system in place, employees may receive support from supervisors and colleagues in the form of positive feedback, coaching, and the sharing of career journeys. Similarly, the content of an employee’s work may also impact their approach to L&D, with some occupations (Maurer & Tarulli, 1997) more likely to require characteristics more closely associated with having a development mindset than others. For example, according to Maurer (2002) “to the extent that one is surrounded by others engaged in the same challenging work, and they can be observed to engage in developmental experiences successfully, this can serve as a source of modeling” (p. 31). Exposure to others excelling in a position where an employee may aspire helps make that career goal more realistic and make it possible for the employee to see themselves in that role in the future, thereby motivating them in their own development activities.

Design Solution

My design solution (http://bit.ly/ingenium-app) went through several iterations based on information received through informal user testing and feedback sessions, as well as adjustments made to better align with the ELDO model and its guiding principles. The implications of the ELDO model on my final overall design solution include supporting an orientation of self-efficacy, creating opportunities for benchmarking, connecting employees to career aspirations, lowering the barrier of entry for participation, and integrating peer and leadership support systems.

Explore the Ingenium Prototype in Figma

Scan the QR code provided, go to bit.ly/ingenium-app to explore Ingenium.


When users register for Ingenium they are guided through a series of easy to answer prompts that use the information provided to recommend learning paths and competencies that may be relevant to the user. The registration process is intended to be quick and create a low barrier to entry for participation, so new users are not intimidated. Users can easily update their responses or take a more extended career survey when editing their user profile.


The Ingenium dashboard is the default screen users see, either upon completing the registration process or when returning users log in. The dashboard serves as a way to benchmark their progress by providing an at-a-glance view of their progress through their development challenges, highlighting their achievements with a series of trophies (e.g., completing 10 challenges), and spotlighting milestone achievements for other users in their organization. From this screen, users can also navigate to and update their profile.


The profile section of Ingenium lets users update the responses they provided during registration. This is also where users can indicate who their direct supervisor is, which will give their supervisor access to suggest (not assign or require) learning paths and competencies. The distinction between suggesting a development competency and assigning it is significant, as per the ELDO model, it is important that employees see PD from a learning goal mindset rather than as performance goals so as not to risk negative feelings and anxiety (Dweck & Leggett, 1988) as well as to promote a sense of self-efficacy (Bandura, 1997).


The “Learn” tab in Ingenium is where users can find the learning paths and competencies they have selected in addition to choosing new ones to add to their development plan. They can navigate through each learning path to look up new developmental challenges. After they complete a challenge, they can mark it as complete where they are encouraged to submit a reflection entry.

Career Pathways

The “Career Pathways” tab of Ingenium is a way for users to more easily connect their development goals with their career aspirations. Users can explore roles in different occupation categories they may not be aware of and get access to career planning tools. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2021) and National Center for O*NET Development (n.d.) both offer extensive resources in this area that help populate some of this content.


The “Network” tab of Ingenium is another way for users to access their developmental support system, specifically in the form of individual users, affinity groups, and other users who are interested in the same topics as them (e.g., user experience design). Users can send individual and group chat messages to others within their organization, locate and join affinity groups, and read and post messages on forums related to specific topics of interest.


The “Reflect” tab in Ingenium takes users to their previous reflection entries and includes an option to submit a new entry. Reflection entries fall into one of five categories: text, question, guided, media, and audio.

Text entries allow the user to submit a freeform text post with rich text formatting options and no requirements or suggestions as to the content of their reflection. Question entries ask users to respond to a single question prompt that relates to their overall development and career, but does not necessarily connect back to a specific learning or developmental experience. The guided entry prompt is intended to be used after an important PD experience, whether positive or negative, that can serve as a significant learning experience for the employee. With the media entry option, users can post multimedia (e.g., a video) that they find interesting or relevant to their development. The audio entry option allows users to record a voice memo and, similar to the text entry, there are no requirements or suggestions related to the content.

Users are also able to edit previous entries as well as share individual entries with other users in their network who can then provide comments. Sharing reflection entries is one way to build and nurture a support system for employee development, as well as seek feedback and guidance from that system.

Questions, comments?

Email me at katie@nyu.edu to share your feedback, questions, or comments.


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