many people I am naturally curious and sometimes I even border
on seeming nosy. If I’m cramped in an airplane, I often strike
up a conversation with the person sitting next to me, propelled
by something the person is reading, or, dare I admit, what’s visible
on their laptop screen. On a recent flight, my fellow row-mate
came sprinting onto the plane with seconds to spare before departure.
We commiserated about flight delays, and as the conversation turned,
I asked what line of work he was in. Turns out he’s an emergency
room doctor who also researches medical economics issues. We had
a fascinating conversation about nosocomial infections, the transmission
of bacteria, and the impact of household antibacterial products,
such as soaps and creams, on the efficacy of antibiotics.
does this apply to an article about lonely learners? I wanted
to illustrate how we might not even know when we will have a learning
moment with another person, yet how rich the interaction can be.
In this experience, I felt comfortable talking with a stranger,
as do many travelers. About thirty minutes into the conversation
the other person in our row heard what we were talking about asked
a few questions about an antibiotic. Our simple conversation organically
grew to include someone else with a similar interest. I didn’t
know in advance that I’d be “learning.” I pursued my natural curiosity
in a random fashion.
kind of interaction makes me wonder if some of the current designs
of elearning courses and experiences could inadvertently create
a generation of “lonely learners.” By lonely learners, I mean
people who go through the experience of learning largely alone,
without the benefits of interacting with other people to bring
a larger context to the issues at hand, to add to informal knowledge,
to encourage further exploration, and to inspire and motivate.
makes learning modules available on the Internet, at the learners
computer or hand-held device. We are fortunate to be evolving
from eLearning modules that are glorified page turners—where a
company has ported the linear content that used to reside in a
book on a CD-ROM into HTML—to more thoughtful designs that allow
flexible navigation through the content. But, while a learning
module may have compelling audio accompaniments and sexy TV-style
video clips, it does not necessarily foster involvement with the
concepts in a way that stimulates further pursuit of knowledge.
In other words, it’s not a truly interactive experience. Yes,
the module might pose difficult questions, where you can punch
in a response or change a set of variables to see a graph change.
But, would you really say that interacting with the computer is
like interacting with a colleague or expert or friend? Where is
the human interaction that fosters further thinking that provides
context and even makes learning more fun? “Single user” learning
designs do not provide the learner the chance to find others who
face the same problem or share the same interest. This is a shame,
for the Internet is such a fantastic vehicle for connecting people
to pose questions about the material and have meaningful dialogues.
50% of universities in the United States offer at least one online
course, with the number of courses growing rapidly.
People in these courses do have a chance to converse—through email,
discussion boards, synchronous chat, and even collaborative events—with
the professor or teaching assistant, and even fellow virtual classmates
(real people, mind you, just logging in from the ‘virtual’ world
of cyberspace). However, losing
40-50% of the initially enrolled students by the end of the course
is not uncommon. This happens because 100% distance learning
courses cannot build the kind of trust you can build by getting
people together in the same room, and letting them see each other,
read their non-verbal gestures for meaning, shake hands, go out
for coffee or a drink.
don’t devalue the convenience associated with being able to take
a course over the Internet. I’d say, however, that my experiences
in fully online courses have left a lot to be desired. Although
I was an A student from grade school through grad school, I dropped
out of all three distance education courses in which I was enrolled.
When I posted challenging questions about specific issues I was
facing relating to the coursework, I was disappointed when classmates
did not read and respond to my online queries. Perhaps we lacked
enough in common, or we didn’t know enough about one another to
know what would make for a compelling posting on a discussion
board, or because there were no social incentives to look out
for each other. It was simply too lonely for me, and I grew to
think of the experiences as glorified correspondence courses mediated
on the Internet.
problem with many of the Internet-delivered courses is that “help”
is offered too much through the online medium, and not enough
by real human beings. While I am very self-sufficient and self-motivated,
I find it annoying to be relegated to FAQ links (frequently asked
questions) to find answers. For example, my previous employer,
a consulting firm, offered a CD-ROM program (which I’d bet, by
now, is offered online) on a specific problem-solving methodology.
I wanted to apply this methodology to a particular client challenge,
with specific industry characteristics. The learning module offered
a help function in the form of video interviews with experts in
the methodology, so when a learner faced a problem or wanted to
explore topic further, he could type in key words and get a list
of questions addressed by the learning module. But, these were
pre-determined questions, and none of those addressed the specific
industry context I needed.
didn’t like to use the learning modules at my desk, at home, or
at a client site. I only really enjoyed this self-paced instruction
in the learning lab, where we could temporarily escape client
demands. I’d deliberately seek out a group of people who were
working through the same learning module, and start a conversation
about the topics. I found that through our shared stories and
anecdotes, my motivation to learn and apply the concepts was much
higher than if I had been learning on my own. Why? Because I had
the chance to discuss it with others and self-direct what I was
learning to the contexts in which it made most sense. I invite
you, when faced with similar stand-alone learning resources, to
seek out other people also completing the same learning sequence,
and get together. Form an interest group. Raise and tackle challenging
and novel issues. Have fun and enjoy the company of others.
Knowledge & Encouraging Further Exploration
thing that irks me about much of the elearning I’m seeing is its
focus on completion. By completion, I mean two things. First,
completion means that the learning has defined end points. It’s
rather like saying “OK, you’ve finished three modules, now, you’re
done. No more learning needed.” Let’s say that you hear a great
speaker—say Peter Drucker—at a convention. When his talk concludes,
you seek out the person three rows ahead of you who posed an intriguing
question. You invite her for coffee and talk over the themes of
the presentation. The conversation steers through many interesting
tangents, and soon, you’ve gained an insight that helps you solve
a major problem at work. If you had viewed the same content, all
by yourself, on the Internet, you would probably have missed the
random conversation that was provoked by serendipity. Very few
learning designs would have allowed you to reach the same beneficial
outcome. Yet, even with something as simple as a discussion board
dedicated to those conventioneers who heard Drucker, and a moderator,
the learning could continue for everyone, as the Internet allows
them to connect and converse virtually.
second problem with learning designs that force completion is
their over-emphasis on testing. When you complete a module, a
test pops up to check your learning. Maybe it’s a multiple-choice
test, where you click the correct answer to demonstrate your knowledge
of a set of definitions. For that snapshot of a moment, you might
know the information. But…so what? Does demonstrating your recall
ability at that point in time really determine whether you will
grow, stretch, try out new ideas, or do something differently
as a result of your learning? Naturally, most companies want to
know that their investments in education are paying off, so they
attempt to track whether people have learned. This in itself is
inherently difficult to do.
suggest that we need new metrics that assess what new connections
have been built between people within a organization discussing
a topic, and that these are tracked continuously, not just in
single-point observations, like tests. We could look at what new
discussion threads are popping up on discussion boards, who is
having those discussions, and what value that adds to the organization.
I’d like to see organizations move towards metrics that encourage
behaviors such as sharing information, mentoring others, and contributing
new perspectives. If you’re with me on this, please start considering
and promoting these metrics now. Let’s not wait until they are
codified and published and the consulting firms are selling them
as methodologies. We have the chance to influence collaborative
learning, beginning now.
than go on about my fears about creating lonely learners, I’d
like to share a few more suggestions on how to connect real live
learners to each other.
encourage sharing between people, it’s vital that they trust one
another. To the extent possible, we ought to encourage learning
designs that gather people together physically, in addition to
virtually. In the ideal world, we’d start learning experiences
with face-to-face events. People mix, mingle, and begin to feel
comfortable with one another. After the live event, they can continue
the conversations online, and branch off in new and interesting
ways. Blair Sheppard, President and CEO of Duke Corporate Education, describes
this live and online blend as Place
and Space education, something the Fuqua School of Business
has done successfully with their Global
Executive MBA program and their new MBA Cross-Continent
Help People with
Common Interests Find One Another
the learning design for the elearning you currently have is really
a stand-alone, do-it-yourself, experience, you can still prevent
learners from becoming lonely. Set up an explicit way for people
taking an online course within your organization to meet each
other. You could create lots of ways for people to find each other
– from sign-up sheets in the company break room at the low end,
to specific online discussion boards where people can post background
information about themselves, the skills or knowledge they need
to build, and the expertise they’d like to share.
can also invite alumni of online classes to mentor people currently
taking the class, and share their ideas for how to get the most
out of it, and how to contextualize what they are learning to
their job or to the organization. While I might not know that
others in my company are taking the same online course, if someone
lets me know who they are and how to reach them, I can extend
my learning beyond my own keyboard, screen, and modem. In addition
to the teacher or subject matter expert highlighted in this online
learning experience, I now have the chance to learn from others
much closer to my own situation.
Interactions for Multiple People
like to encourage designers of online learning, and those who
buy and use it, to explicitly design interactions for multiple
people, with online and offline components. A great example of
this would be multi-player simulations. People can experience
a similar online environment, where they change variables and
outcomes shift, and then discuss what has happened, and how that
translates to their own work. One company in particular, Strategic
Management Group, offers teams the chance to make online decisions
within a mock eBusiness, and see the results of their choices.
The group then works with a professional facilitator to debrief
the experience, and this helps them to solidify what they have
learned and think about how to apply it back on the job.
I’ve been investigating ways to prevent loneliness in learning,
I stumbled across a perspective I’d encourage you to investigate—activity
theory. According to Professor Richard
Beach, Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the Center
for Teaching and Learning at University of Minnesota, activity
theory posits that by actively engaging in joint activities, students
learn social genres or systematic ways of acting or thinking associated
with becoming certain kinds of thinkers. A whole
body of information exists about the importance of getting
people together to learn, and how much more powerful it can be
than leaving a learner to the solo perspective.
you agree with my concerns, and want to ensure that elearning
helps us connect more, not less, with others, please join me in
building an informal network of like-minded people who want to
develop knowledge about blending live and online learning. We
can explore with one another, and be cheered on by fellow learners.
Consider this a launching point for a group exchange of ideas
and issues. This is your personal invitation to find and be introduced
to others who share your passion about blending the live and virtual
worlds of learning. We can meet at conferences, when we travel,
and even in our own offices and home towns. Or, on airplanes.
the way, a nosocomial infection is a hospital-acquired infection.
The good doctor I just happened to meet in the friendly skies
told me so.
Campus Computing Project Survey (1999). Encino, CA. www.campuscomputing.net
Bernstein, M.B.A., wrote this article while working as a marketing
manager with an elearning company. She is currently coaching professionals
in transition through her own venture, Tune In and Turn On and
pursuing a PhD in Somatic Psychology at Santa Barbara Graduate
Institute. Somatic psychology brings together the mind and body
for performance enhancement and healing, including helping people
to overcome loneliness. You can contact Susan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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