In search of effective learning

In search of effective learning

This past year has seen accelerated growth in online learning in both institutions of higher learning and in corporate settings.
The folks at the Sloan Consortium report that nearly 30 percent of all college and university students are taking at least one course online. (Click to download a PDF of the Sloan findings: “Class Differences: Online Education in the United States 2010.”)
The American Society of Training and Development (ASTD) notes that in 2009, 27.7 percent of all formal learning hours made available in corporate training were online, an increase from 23.1 percent in 2008. (Click to access ASTD’s “2010 State of the Industry Report.”)

We’ve seen the same sort of growth at MindEdge, with existing partners expanding their e-offerings and new clients eager to add our online learning to their training or educational mix.
We’ve discovered that educators and trainers face somewhat of a paradox. Learners have more ready access to courses, learning environments, and digital content than ever before, as ink on paper has been converted into bits and bytes and face-to-face instruction has moved to the Web. At the same time, however, students struggle with drinking from this technological firehose of information. They seek structure, relevance, and engagement when they learn. They want choices—not only formal and sequential education but also just-in-time (JIT) learning.
We’ve found that as we develop learning solutions, it’s crucial to employ technology as a tool, not as a substitute or crutch,
but as means of helping learners maximize comprehension, retention, and mastery of key skills. For example, MindEdge often turns to narrative learning, with coached simulations and case studies—which can require some sophisticated software running in the background—to allow students to learn through making decisions and seeing their consequences. The technology enables this learning model in an unobtrusive way that doesn’t overwhelm the learner. Putting technology in proper perspective also means keeping course navigation simple and intuitive and reducing the number of learning elements that a student encounters in any given assignment.
The future will bring more technological choices: more platforms, more ways to communicate, more ways to integrate learning, more information resources—and more potential for distraction and confusion for learners if these advances aren’t handled appropriately. The key is to focus at the start on learning objectives and desired outcomes and then find the best solution. For example, we wouldn’t advocate migrating text-based learning directly to mobile devices—instead, we’d suggest that some elements (skills drills or just-in-time snippets of information) could be delivered to a smart phone, and others need to remain in a more welcoming fuller screen environment.
As we look ahead to developing content, courses, and simulations for 2011, we know that we’ll be called on to integrate pedagogy (or more precisely, andragogy, since our focus is on adults) and technology. We’ll continue our search for the most effective ways to do that, and to empower learners.


Jefferson Flanders is president of MindEdge. He has taught at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University, Babson College, and Boston University.

Copyright © 2010 Jefferson Flanders