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Brain training games do not make you smarter. This terse verdict from the MRC published in Nature,[1] also implies awkward questions about the effectiveness or otherwise of other electronic learning methods.

In particular e-learning, beloved by those hoping to make large savings in their development costs must now be treated with much more caution.

In an era of rapid change, the sort of learning we need differs from the way many of us learned in the past.

Instead, we require the vital skills of unlearning and lateral thinking. If we are to be innovative thinkers who deal with current issues, we must become adept at quickly discarding or ignoring what we have already learned.

This means a shift from a focus on how much is stored in our brains, to acquiring skills in solving new problems in innovative ways. In theory, e-learning ought to be a powerful tool for doing this.

In fact, the e-learning revolution reveals “a landscape littered with poor products and a lot of disillusioned learners” as one reviewer put it graphically.[2]

E-learners of today are voting with their keyboards and switching off. Many are simply refusing to switch on. For example, a study of 40 Global companies by the Forrester group found that unless forced, the majority of workers in the study (68%) would not sign up for voluntary online courses.

Even when these were compulsory, nearly a third (30%) refused to sign up and another study showed that those who do sign up for e-learning, between half and 80% never finish the course.

It is perhaps cruel to site the multiple reasons for some of the failures of e-learning since in many ways this industry remains a fledgling one, despite the hopes, hype and predictions. But the problems of making e-learning effective remain formidable.

Yet you would hardly know there were these obstacles by viewing the web sites of e-learning providers, with their claims of huge savings, and transformations in individuals and organisations. One even boasted that using its services would result in “shock and awe!

A thorough and stimulating review of the entire e-learning industry completed in 2004 by Dr Gary Woodill concluded that there are several inter-related reasons for e-learning failing to deliver.

These include a premature rush to market, an excessive focus on new technology rather than instructional design, boredom, a lack of understanding of learning and teaching, and most fundamental of all, not appreciating the unique teaching advantages of electronic media.

In response to the obvious inadequacies of e-teaching the industry has re-grouped and is now pushing the so-called rapid e-learning solution.

This “new” version of e-teaching is said to be outpacing traditional e-learning custom development that is recognised as too slow and too expensive.

The essence of rapid e-learning is extremely short developmental lead times for creating learning programme on-line and equally short learner experiences These usually rely on a specialised computer authoring tool. In other words, more software, though probably faster and more flexible software.

Rapid e-learning is claimed to be more like a surgical strike with a small window of opportunity to learn, usually 20 minutes or less. It does not attempt to hit more than one or two key points and its effectiveness is said to lie in its ability to focus in on a very specific target and deliver with precision

The Blended Response

Even the enthusiasts for rapid e-learning accept the limitations of their technology. They and others therefore argue the merits of so-called blended learning. In this version of e-learning, the technology is less a panacea and more a supplement to more conventional forms of teaching.

But blended learning is really a cop out, a fallback position from facing up to the real problems of turning e-learning into an effective teaching tool.

It is also a clever way of reassuring those who fear they will be pushed out of a teaching role by new educational technologies.

Rather than talk of e-learning it would probably make more sense to talk of e-teaching. This consists of using electronic means to either induce learning , or to track the results of learner behaviours and assessments.

Tracking aspect of learning perhaps offers a less ambitious yet useful support tool for learners. These systems ask learners to record their progress in their learning once they have already learned something. They may go further and put them in touch with a learning community that is also trying to implement similar recent learning.

This is the basis of new version of Maynard Leigh’s Progressit ® Service in which using the on-line facility workshop participants and ot hers can make contact with others who have similar learning objectives and create their own learning community.

Another reason why e-learning still has some way to go before it can claim to be revolutionary is that its instructional design is often underwhelming, with little real planning and building for effective on-line teaching.

Younger learners, that is those under 40 do less reading than older adults and actually think differently. They expect to be actively involved in the learning experience and the success of interactive gaming shows one way that e-learning might go. Rather than receptive learning we are witnessing active learning.

This of course chimes with the kind of experiential learning provided by certain kinds of people developers.

For example, use of methods drawn from the theatre can provide a profoundly different experience to more traditional methods that demand less from the learner and accept greater levels of passivity.

How we learn

We also learn through being challenged or questioned about our decisions, behaviour or attitude. But there is little room for this kind of interactivity in most forms of e-teaching.

Simulations are another way to provide interactivity. This has been growing in popularity but even the best risks being over simple. The best ones are likely to be one with many layers of complexity that can gradually be added to make the simulation more realistic and challenging.

Most on-line learning environments are in fact devoid of what talented leaders, workshop leaders and coaches bring to the learning experience. It is hardly surprising that a two year study of 169 internet users found that they were more isolated and depressed at the end of studying than when they started.

Emotions, motivation, feelings and attitude play significant roles in many forms of learning, particular attempts to enhance someone’s soft skills.

New learning may involve not merely different behaviour but the unconscious. You may call this intuitive learning but whatever it is, it is not easy to affect. No wonder they say the soft skills are the hardest.

Much of what people learn on development programmes may occur at an unconscious level. In contrast, abundant information technologies may actually result in a starvation of the senses and information poverty.

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[1] Brain training Games will not make you smarter, by Josph Milton, Financial Times 21.4.10

[2] Where is the Learning in e-learning: A critical analysis of the e-learning industry, by Dr Gary Woodill, published by Operitel Corporation, 2004
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