With the current necessity to move even more learning online, we need to refrain from over-complicating this transition. We might need to learn some new skills, however the principles of how people learn are fundamentally the same. Just like when we moved from slates to pencils, the move to online is neither a disaster nor does it guarantee that the learning is enhanced.
The mistake we make in using online tools is to presume the tools themselves make for engaging learning. While this might be true for a very short period of time when the tools first come out, fancy tricks quickly lose their lustre. Like in the old days when we first used Powerpoint and were amazed by slide transitions but quickly became immune the point of the common expression ‘death by Powerpoint’.
Online learning can be inspiring, exciting, rich and rigorous. It can also be tedious, mechanistic, incoherent and repetitive. Online learning that is unexceptional arises from two common misunderstandings about learning:
- Education is about transmission of information
- A focus on content over process
Learning is basically a human pursuit and it is much more than the transmission of information or even communicating knowledge. And yet many education and training programs are written like the resources are the learning. People build expensive solutions based on the assumption that by assembling detailed information, people are going to read it, absorb it, regurgitate it and act on it as you have written, by osmosis.
Actually, educational design and teaching is a creative and complex art of getting to know the individual and providing both a rich environment and the invitation to learning that is strong. It is about:
- understanding what an individual can do, how they see the world and what motivates them
- supporting them to make connections from the material to their experience and support them through risk-taking and exploration to test out concepts for themselves
- caring about a person and investing in them and their goals
- providing meaningful and timely feedback
Alvin Toffler said ‘The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.’
A focus on content can create information overload and cause fatigue. A focus on process means we can confidently transfer skills to different fields of knowledge – skills like critical thinking, learning how to learn, problem-solving, team-work and communication. Too often while these elements are included in objectives, higher order thinking is neglected in learning materials or in activities. It is not enough that people have access to knowledge ‘to fill their cup’, they need to do something with it, interacting with it to create something new. These higher order skills are best developed through interaction with others, working through the complexity that characterises modern work life.
My experience in supporting online learning during the current pandemic is that people are craving connection with their facilitator and with each other. Amplifying the human element through meaningful interactions and relationships meets peoples’ needs as well as improving their learning.
Research on effective online learning underlines the importance of communication, engagement and well-organised content. We certainly need to develop technical skills for online learning. However the technical tricks are less important than remembering that a human being is at the other end. We would all benefit greatly from reigniting the joy learning creates through enhancing the human connections that the online community can offer.