Are Online Learning Programs Right for You?

In 1993 most people had not heard of the Internet. Yet there I was, in my attic office, corresponding with 300 people around the globe on a discussion list for training and development managers. Although many of us worked in organizations with e-mail systems (some of us in the corporate world, others in academia) all of us knew we were doing something revolutionary. We were working outside of our organizational silos, talking with one another about topics ranging from the development of 360-degree multi-rater feedback systems to someday facilitating classes online. We were doing this without having met one another, having much knowledge of one another's organizations, or making a specific intentional effort to learn from one another. Nevertheless we were networking and we were learning nonstop.

It's too bad that few current-day elearning programs incorporate some of the lessons learned on that list: that learning happens in context, with the help of other people, when you are motivated to learn the subject, and spurred on by originality.

Although a small percentage of elearning programs are impressive looking—and many are better than programs available even five years ago—most elearning programs are still designed as turn-another-page Web-based tutorials and teacher-led-classrooms-on-the-Web. They make elearning bland, static, and confining. Others that use dynamic technologies, including games and simulations, can score high on the cool meter but flounder when it comes to knowledge transfer and behavior change. What sells because of its glossy seductiveness can fail where it counts: helping them get what they came to learn.

It's no surprise then that people still wonder if we can really learn online. But it's worth pointing out that it's not the tools, but the tired assumptions underlying them that come up short. More specifically, the problem lies in the notion that all people learn in the same way.

We can learn online. In fact, with almost every visit to the Web we are learning something, whether it's about new developments in the world, the weather in our area, a changing stock price, or who won the big game. We decide which sites to bookmark and which sites to avoid. That certainly sounds like learning to me. Likewise, based on our style, some of us get more from elearning programs than others.

To maximize the value of elearning programs, it's important to understand why people venture to learn and the different ways they do it.

Motivation Style

Over 30 years ago, education experts Cyril Houle and Alan Toughs identified three natural motivations for learning. There's learning-focused motivation, meaning that people may learn because they enjoy it. There's social-focused motivation, or learning driven by the social aspects of the activity. And there's goal-focused motivation, meaning that those learning are doing so in pursuit of a specific goal. Although these drives overlap, Houle and Toughs observed that a person's motivations for learning tend to carry across topics and situations. In other words, no matter what the circumstances, individuals generally have one main motivation for learning, whether online or off.

When it comes to learning online, then, those pursuing a goal are likely to reach for that objective using almost any means. In seeking the clearest path to their target, tech-savvy learners may go straight for their computer and their browser window. Other learners will turn to whatever other means can get them to their goal.

Those who simply love learning may turn to the same resources. But many in this camp may feel frustrated with online learning programs that devote more time to process than actual learning. I still find it remarkable that it takes longer to learn how to use some programs than it does to master the content within.

If you learn best when engaged in conversation with other people because you're building relationships, you're likely to entirely avoid learning online unless there's a strong social component. You pick up the essence of issues from body language and subtle cues, and you get that from those you're learning around—not online chat, IM, or discussion lists.

What Senses Do You Rely on to Learn?

Learning styles also influence how and where we learn best. We take in information directly through our eyes, ears, muscles, and nerve endings. Each of us prefers to receive information using one of these senses. We may have a secondary mode we prefer, but one is usually dominant in each of us. And it doesn't change much over time.

Similar to motivation styles, people with some learning styles are more suited for online learning. Most elearning programs include pictures and graphs (best for visual learners) and almost all include words and audio clips (preferred by traditional auditory learners). It would seem this meets the needs of at least two learning styles. Not true.

Although some auditory learners take in information best by hearing it (hearing either another voice or their own in their mind's ear when they read) a less-recognized type of auditory learner needs to articulate his or her thoughts aloud. Most elearning programs rarely help this type of learner.

Today, most online programs offer even less for tactile learners (those who learn through their nerve endings) or kinesthetic learners (those who learn with their muscles). Sitting at a computer usually engages only the fingers and occasionally an arm. To reach users with these learning styles, elearning programs must include as many physical activities as possible. Otherwise they risk losing learners mid-stream.

What Can You Do Now?

If you are interested in learning more online, take the time to understand the different ways you take in information and why you seek to learn. Motivation styles and learning styles are a key component to finding your best path.

Ask yourself if the medium you're using suits your style and if not, what you might do to supplement the program. If you're socially motivated, for instance, consider doing the work with a group of people, be it neighbors, coworkers, family members or friends.

Watch for new programs that employ both engaging technology and sound educational architecture. Personally, I'm intrigued by the promise of educational content being delivered over mobile handsets because you can literally learn as you go.

Supplement any elearning program with additional resources including articles you find through search engines, books on your teammates' shelves, and ad-hoc conversation with colleagues over lunch.

Finally, don't discount the learning you do online each day without the aid of any program. Reflect on what worked and what you learned... and then consider how you might be able to employ that same method to learn something else.

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  • Carson Kelly

    This is good information but is there any new data to support the different types of learners that may or may not succeed? I guess "know thy self" is timeless but some fresh data would be great.