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In 1996, Patrick Crispen created the most popular elearning workshop of all times. Within a year, it attracted over half a million students from 120 countries—almost 100,000 learners in its first few months. The program was called the Internet Roadmap. Patrick announced the workshop one night, went to bed, and by the next morning 2,300 people had signed up.

Despite the throngs of people taking this class, you’ve probably never heard of Patrick or his program. That’s too bad because the Internet Roadmap taught me how to use the Internet and that, without a doubt, we can learn online. It’s also too bad that few current-day elearning programs follow this program’s model: that of a roadmap, taking full advantage of the web’s non-linear nature.

Instead, many modern-day Programs squander a wonderful resource (the Internet) to reproduce two of the most limiting instructional modelsclassrooms and manualsand replace them in equally, if not more, limiting ways. They ignore that the Internet offers learners the opportunity to go anywhere, link to a vast array of content based on what they find interesting (and are therefore motivated to learn more about) and see things in entirely new ways. They try to control the environment and, too often, limit the experience. Our thought-patterns are not linear; why should our education programs be?

I am sad to report that there are so many yippi-I-can’t-wait-to-turn-another-page web based tutorials and classroom-over-the-web tools that elearning has become synonymous with poor-quality experiences and almost-but-not-quite-useful training programs.[1] No wonder scores of people ask me if we can even learn online. Vendors are trying to replace something that had limited benefit to begin with. Move it online and suddenly, it will become worthwhile? Even if you were raised in a barn, you know better.

For many years, I thought I was the only one underwhelmed by online learning programs (the title elearning came much later), but recently the bashing has become deafening. Contrarian that I am, I thought it time I point out it’s not the medium, but the message, that’s falling short. We can learn online.

In fact, each of us visiting the web learns almost constantly. [2] We learn where to find something we haven’t seen before, we learn about a change in a stock price, what’s happening in the news, and we decide what we want to see again and which sites we won’t be visiting again soon. If this isn’t learning, what is it? The question those people are asking me is not really, “Can you learn online?” but, “Do elearning programs help us learn?”

To that I have a mixed response.

eLearning programs vary in quality and capabilities. Some meet the learners’ needs: many don’t. But if you, as a learner, program developer, or business leader don’t take the time to understand the different ways learners take in information and why they seek to learn, it's unlikely you will benefit from the Internet as the greatest learning mechanism of all times.

So let me revise what I said earlier. We can learn onlinebut we may not always want to nor find it’s the best means to meet our ends. Let’s look more closely at how learning works.

Why Adults Learn

To understand if we can learn online, we should ask, “Why do adults learn online?” That leads to the inevitable, “Why learn at all?” Let’s take these in reverse order.

Adults learn for a number of reasons. We learn because:

  Acquiring new knowledge brings delight, passion, and even power. Disreali said, “The delight of opening a new pursuit, or a new course of reading, imparts the vivacity and novelty of youth even to old age.” Just about everyone at some time has realized that knowledge can lead to power.

  Learning can provide an escape. Who hasn’t plunged into a good book or web-surfing session to avoid doing something less pleasant or engaging? Martha Stewart, the media mogul and hyper-homemaker, has even begun to enrich her magazines and websites with mini-elearning tutorials to supplement or distract you from actually baking that cake.

  Education offers adornments that can lead to higher perceived value in the marketplace. Visited many doctors or lawyers without a wall or two lined with diplomas. Met a Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer who doesn’t work that achievement into his introduction to all newcomers?

  Studying helps us achieve specific goals. Aristotle said, “A person studies because of a goal to gain pleasure or glory.” We may study to become a better farmer or business leader; to serve more effectively as a citizen, elected official; or to know how to use leisure wisely. Practical needs and problems have always given rise to learning activities and thus to the idea that education is the way specific and tangible goals are reached.

  Learning something is compulsory. Often times, learning interventions are prescribed. Those in charge are sure that the value of education is so great that anyone not willingly seeking it must be required to do so. [3]

Now, let’s examine how people learn.

Motivation Style

Crossing over these reasons for learning are the natural motivations that Cyril O. Houle and Alan Toughs identified in the 1950s and 1970s: people usually find motivation to learn something new because they enjoy learning (learning-focused motivation); they seek relationships that come from the social aspects of learning (social-focused motivation); or they are learning to achieve a specific goal (goal-focused motivation). You can see the overlap with the reasons, but what Houle and Toughs observed was that these motivation styles are more likely to work consistently for individuals across topics and situations. In other words, individuals tend to have a motivation-style that crosses all situations and influences why they like to learn all things.

You probably know someone who only learns to achieve a certain goal and wouldn’t dream of learning something new for enjoyment. Likewise, you might know someone who learns best when engaged in conversation with many other people and is building relationships alongside their learning. The first is goal-focused; the latter is socially-focused. The rest of us think learning, itself, is exciting.

These motivation styles and the reasons that people learn strongly influence the next question.

Why Do Adults Learn Online?

If you’re goal-focusedlearning to achieve a goalyou are likely to reach for that goal through most any means necessary. It’s the goal, not the means, which holds your attention. In seeking the clearest path to your answer, you may go straight for your computer and your browser window. Less tech-savvy, goal-motivated people may turn to a library or expert: whatever, and however, they can satisfy their goal.

Those who just love learning may turn to those same resources, but not with the locus being the goal: for us, the experience of learning, itself, drives why we learn. Those of us in this category often feel frustrated with many online learning programs because we spend more time on procedure and process than actual learning. I’ve always found it interesting that it takes longer to learn many of these programs than to master the content within them. Have you?

If, for you, learning only comes along for the rideyou meet people and interact with others and from that you learnyou are likely socially-focused and not likely to turn online for learning at all. If you can’t get what Hal Richmond, Ph.D. calls, “the juice of the experience,” the essence, and the feelings from those you work with, you’re not likely to enjoy the experience or really learn anything new.

Learning Styles

In addition to our reasons and motivation styles, learning styles also influence how and where we learn best.

We can describe learning styles in many ways, but the ones with the most bearing on learning online are specifically known as perceptual styles or perceptual modalities. (I’ll just refer to them as learning styles). There are four: auditory, visual, kinesthetic, and tactile. This classification recognizes that 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 backup (secondary) sense we prefer, but one is usually dominant in each of us.

Here again, some styles are more suited for online learning. Most elearning programs include pictures and graphs (best for visual learners); all include words and audio clips (both preferred by traditional auditory learners). It would seem we’ve met the needs of at least two of the learning styles. Not true.

There are two-types of auditory learners. Most take in information best by hearing (either another voice or their own, heard in their mind’s-ear, when they read.) The less-recognized type, however, are verbal-processing auditory learners who do best when they have an opportunity to speak and articulate what they are thinking.

Many people know intuitively that until they say their thoughts aloud, they are not quite certain of their thought or its implications. Many people need to hear themselves say it, argue it, discuss it, and then they realize what would then follow and how this thought fits in with others. These are the learners you’ve probably heard talking to their computer screens or the characters in a book. While it’s not quite the same as talking with someone else, it is necessary for them to learn.

eLearning programs have even less for those who learn through their nerve endings (tactile learners) or their muscles (kinesthetic learners). In the future, there will hopefully be more opportunity for tactile and kinesthetic learners with mobile, wireless learning devices and more touch screens. Until then, we’ll just hope that elearning developers include as many activities as possible. This could include more actions with the mouse and touch technology. Without these activities, we see a lot of gum chewing and tapping feet while tactile readers scroll or press all the buttons. More programs should also encourage these learners to move about, stand up and walk around. Without those physical elements, many of us are opening new browser windows and looking at five web sites at the same time, doing whatever is necessary to fulfill our movement quotient.

What about all those bells and whistles (animated gifs and soft music) that well-intentioned, trying-to-liven it up developers add to websites and increasingly to elearning programs because they’ve heard people enjoy all these trimmings? These gimmicks are more likely to aggravate learners than contribute to the learning experience. What sells because of its glossy seductiveness, often fails where it countsretaining the learners and helping them get what they came for.

Coming Up

As you can see, there are many issues to understand in order to answer the question, “Can we learn online?” Learning and motivation styles are just two of the factors. In the coming months, we’ll be looking at other conditions for learning including:

  The difference between global and sequential learners

  The impact on pace and space

  How the computer display affects our ability to comprehend information

  When simulations and experience is required

  The effects of attention and memory on learning online

  The role that design plays in creating the right learning environment

We’ll review the literature and research being conducted in these areas. If you have other areas you’d like me to address, please let me know. In the meantime, notice why and how some things appeal to you more than others. As you share your own experiences, you can improve your own learning. and also more effectively impact what others learn. We can learn online!

Marcia Conner is editor in chief of LiNE Zine and CEO of the Learnativity Alliance. She has been a leader in the cognitive revolution for over a decade and is in the process of writing a book on how learning influences life. Ask her questions or suggest another angle for the rest of this series at



[1] Page turner is a term popularized with computer based tutorials (CBT), but equally application with some elearning programs, that describe page after page of content that only requires the learner to turn the page in order to progress.

[2] For the purposes of this article and most anything I write, I define learning as the act, process, or experience of gaining knowledge or skills. Physiologically, learning is the formation of cell assemblies and phase sequences. Children’s learning builds these assemblies and sequences. Adults spend more time making new arrangements than forming new sequences. Experience and background all us to learn concepts and take new actions.

[3] Cyril O. Houle, Patterns of Learning. Jossey-Bass, 1984.


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