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All Learning Is Not Created Equal


Last updated 8/5/2010

We have more learning options than ever available to us today. Pick virtually any subject you can imagine, and chances are that you can learn a good deal about it without ever leaving your home. Just consider the popular Website ehow.com, which offers more than 180,000 how-to articles and instructional videos dispensed by individuals ranging from experts to amateur enthusiasts. Drawing more than 17 million visitors each month, the Website includes advice on everything from “how to communicate with your spouse” to “how to change your oil.”

The Website—and the countless others like it—are a useful resource for many things. But the limitations of the Web to deliver true learning, as opposed to mere data and information, are readily apparent. If you doubt that, just try explaining to your significant other that you get your relationship and car maintenance advice from the same source. See how well that goes over. The point is, it would not be wise to be overly dependent on a learning platform that treats spousal communications and automotive maintenance as roughly equivalent.

The same is true when it comes to choosing a learning platform to meet the professional development needs of your organization. While there are certainly some tremendous new opportunities with everything from podcasts and Webcasts to self-paced e-learning programs, perhaps we’ve been a bit too hasty in anointing technology as the future of professional development. There are still some subjects that require a deeper level of engagement than such platforms can provide, and we need to think twice before we treat all learning options as equal.

 

“Go and See”
No, the Internet is not “making us stupid,” as a provocative recent cover story by Nicholas Carr in the monthly magazine The Atlantic suggested. Nor is it necessarily making us any smarter. As a learning platform, the chief thing that the Internet, e-learning programs, and technology in general do is expand our access to information. That’s a wonderful benefit. Any platform that better allows us to gather, disseminate, and otherwise manage information has the potential to play a significant role in professional development.

But information is only one part of the learning process, and simply increasing the amount of “stuff” we know about a given topic does not necessarily mean we have learned anything about it. Toyota has a management practice that captures this difference between information and true learning: genchi genbutsu—roughly translated as “go and see.” In essence, this means that to truly grasp an issue, employees must get up close and personal with it. Toyota employees are legendary for the fanatical lengths to which they will go to follow the genchi genbutsu principal, such as the car engineer who drove a minivan through every American state, every Canadian province and most of Mexico just so he could get a full understanding of how it performed under different conditions.

While that might be an extreme scenario, it illustrates the basic truth that there is a difference between information, which merely requires us to casually engage with a subject, and knowledge, which requires us to become committed to understanding a subject and making it a fundamental part of our intellectual framework. Technology-based learning platforms, while quite successful at facilitating information transmittal, are not well-suited for building knowledge of the kind that leads to transformative learning.

Granted, depending on the specific technology and on the subject, sometimes the level of information offered can be quite detailed and perhaps comparable with what one would find in a traditional instructor-led classroom setting. But this is only the case for straightforward, factually-oriented subjects that involve limited contextual understanding—subjects that don’t need much of a human touch.

Consider self-paced e-learning programs, for instance. Because such programs are very expensive to develop, many e-learning vendors try to offset the cost by including everything that every potential user of the program might need to learn. That might work if the material being presented is clear-cut, such as training on how to use a new software program, but not if the subject is more open-ended, such as communication skills.

Ironically, the rampant enthusiasm for technology actually prevents us from getting the most out of it. By using technology indiscriminately we waste its considerable potential to play a significant role in professional development. The first thing to ask yourself when considering a technology-based learning solution is whether or not it aligns with your learning needs. If all you’re looking for is a short overview or a quick introduction to a topic, a Web-based learning platform such as a Webcast or podcast can deliver that information very efficiently. If you’re looking for something more substantial and the subject deals primarily with unambiguous facts, then an e-learning program can fit the bill.

If, however, you’re interested in learning not just a new piece of information but a new skill, then instructor-led training is still the best choice.