On-line learning : a panacea or a hoax ?

One of my favourite exercises for leaders is about daring to share vulnerability.  First, I ask participants to write down their greatest professional fear.  They do this individually and anonymously.  Then I mix up the responses like a deck of cards and have them read the answers out loud.  Without fail, there is a surprise effect as the responses always boil down to three varieties : “losing face in public”, “having to come clean about mistakes” and  “losing control”.

As you could have guessed,  this is not an exercise you do at the start of your leadership program. You need to build trust amongst participants first. Could you do this exercise in a webinar ? From a technical point of view, why not ?  Would it yield the same results ? I dare to question that.

That’s why I am puzzled that online learning seems to be L&D’s  only answer to how to  deal with this Corona mess.  Even those who pre-Corona swore by classical workshops and face-to-face coaching sessions are frantically digitalising their programs. 

More often than not,  ‘digital learning’ turns out to be a loose translation for ‘watching a set of slides while listening to someone reading the text on the slides’.  Interaction is limited to filling out a poll or chatting about what’s being said.

Though I may sound like it -  I am no foe of digital aids.   I am not  against  books, films, podcasts and virtual reality either. But if you wish to contribute to lasting results, you need to apply each learning tool or method in a targeted way. 

The affective side of learning

It is a common and stubborn misconception that learning is the same as knowledge transfer.  If you want to teach something, it ’s enough to transfer the knowledge in an amusing way.  Why not ? Now, let’s take that idea a step further by suggesting that an online offer is maybe the most efficient way to learn. That way, you can learn whenever and wherever you choose to and the teachers bringing it to you are always a pleasant sight to behold.  Right ? 

I don’t buy it !

In recent years, a lot of research has been conducted on how we learn. One of the few things that everyone can agree on is that we only learn when there is an emotional link with what we learn. 

If I put my hand on a cold stove, I don’t learn a thing. If I touch a burning hot stove however, I immediately learn that this is a stupid thing to do.  What’s more, I’ll still remember it years later because I will always remember the pain.

I  vaguely recall most of my elementary and high school teachers. Even the sound of their voice is still in my memory.  But I’ll admit that I’ve forgotten most of what they explained. Except of course when it was something that I found interesting or that they brought in an engaging way. 

How much do you still remember of the (digital) meeting you attended last week ?  There’s a good reason why we jot down to-do lists so we don’t forget anything.  But you probably won’t need to take notes in order to remember who disagreed with each other or who showed up with a weird new hairdo.

Our brain doesn’t store things or experiences but it stores those things or experiences that make us feel something :  the things that are important to us - to which we have an emotional reaction.  And that is what determines what we notice and what we remember.  For some people this will be soccer results, for others the historical battlefields of the Napoleonic wars.

If something isn’t interesting to you (be it auto mechanics or time management) you can be sure that it won’t stick in your memory, no matter the learning method or content.  And even if it does interest you, you will only remember it if it touches you in one way or another. 

You only learn from what  touches you. 

An ancient way of learning is still one of the most effective ones : telling stories. 

A good story is always about ‘us’. ‘Conversare’ literary means ‘moving together’.  In a good conversation, we show empathy and we feel understood.  Someone who only talks about stuff he or she finds interesting but doesn’t show any interest in us, will quickly bore us to tears.  A story only moves us when it contains elements that we find important. 

Really good story tellers are able to engage us in any story, even those in which we are not a priori interested. They make sure that we share their questions and concerns and that’s what makes us curious to hear their answer. 

Unfortunately, most managers aren’t especially gifted story tellers. That’s because they tend to talk about what is important to them.
Before they even subscribe to a course in storytelling, they should better wonder what concerns or questions occupies the mind of their team members. 

A lot of learning methods - experimental learning, serious play, participative observation -  work in the same way as a good story does : we learn because we experience an emotion. 
We don’t only observe what others do, but we also see what makes them happy, scared or angry. Playing diminishes some emotional risk (I can make a mistake as it’s only a game) while it adds other emotions such as excitement and the desire to win.

That’s why you shouldn’t underestimate the ‘campfire’ effect of a training. Sharing experiences and stories with others builds an emotional connection.  This helps people to open up more to what’s being said in a session and this, in turn, will help to remember it better.  After all, it’s about you.

Online trainings and webinars often have the right content but it is undeniably more difficult to create an emotional connection.  

The highly acclaimed autonomy of participants is also limited. In a book, you can make  your own notes, skip or go back to a certain chapter, or re-read some parts more than once. All this is impossible in most online programs.  The content and order in which you need to go through the course, the tempo, the exercises you’ll need to make … all of that was predetermined for you.

Real learning = real conversation

Most people want to enjoy their work and do a good job.  That is why they look for information that gives an answer to their questions : how do I replace the toner in my printer, what can I do to encourage a better collaboration between colleagues ? 

An organisation can enable their employees to easily find this information, preferably in a handy format. That can be a paper checklist, youtube video’s, digital question and answer sessions and so on.

People also want to get better at what they do.  As an organisation, you don’t only wish to help them in that quest, you usually wish to guide them in a certain direction.  

If you want people to learn something that they themselves didn’t ask for - for instance, how to give and receive feedback - you will first of all need to make sure that they find it worth their time. Only after you have accomplished that, you can start to think about the right learning method. If you want to ensure that they’ll remember what you would like them to learn you need to make their concerns the starting point and then make them experience something that moves them.

Can you do that digitally ?  If you want to learn how to swim you can give an online course on how to execute the perfect crawl but sooner or later you’ll need to jump in the water. 

Quickly offering your slide deck through zoom is more like a panic reaction.  If you want to go digital the right way, you will need to invest time and resources and even then you can wonder if all the effort was worth it. 

I believe that real learning happens when you engage in conversation.  Socrates knew it. I’m pretty convinced that after this forced time of isolation, the need for real (life) conversations will be bigger than ever before.


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