The Problems with eLearning (and how to fix them)

Don’t get me wrong – online courses are nothing short of miraculous. Now is the best time in human history to learn. The barriers for entry have crumbled down – cost, geography and schedule conflicts have all been banished to the Realm of Solved Problems. Anyone with an internet connection can learn at a university-level at their own pace. Ten years ago, this was a dream, a promise. Today, it is mere reality.

We have solved the impossible problems of delivering education to everyone. Yet, most educators are still stuck on the easy ones.

Let’s take a look at Coursera. On their About page, they say:

“That’s why we designed our platform based on proven teaching methods verified by top researchers.”

Sure enough, the principles they follow are effective. Peer assessment is an especially effective technique when it’s done right. When learners grade each other, it exposes them to different perspectives, new approaches and common mistakes. The course forums are excellent for this reason as well.

So it’s not all bad. But Coursera falls well short of even basic learning principles. I’m going to pick on the Data Science Specialisation from John Hopkins University. Before I do, let me say that the content of this program is excellent. The fact that it is free (or cheap, if you want the certification) is a sign of how incredible technology can be. I worked through most of the specialisation and got a lot out of it, so I say this out of love.

The courses are terrible. They are awful. As good as the content is, I’m amazed anyone learns any of it.

Most of the courses are structured the same. Each week has hours and hours of videos. These videos are a talking head bombarding you with huge volumes of content. There’s the occasional demonstration. In other words, it’s just like those face-to-face lectures you used to dread, now available in your own home.

Sure, it’s a recording, so you can pause, rewind or skip at any time (another miracle of technology). But reviewing the same confusing spray of contextless theory only helps so much.

Adults learn best when we can see the relevance of material, relate it to our experiences, engage with the concepts and share our thoughts with others. This is why you don’t remember anything from those traditional lecturers from university. Lecturers that talked at you until the clock ran out taught you nothing. So why on earth did Coursera import that model to the internet? It’s 19th century teaching over 21st century platforms.

Each week of the Data Science Specialisation ends with a quiz, which is a nice chance to review the content. There’s also a (peer-reviewed) assessment per course. This is great, except half the time you realise you learned nothing from a topic. One that you watched 40 minutes of videos on.

What a waste of time.

It’s true that some concepts are hard to understand. It’s also true that the content has to engage the learner. If the learner has to force their brain to pay attention, the content won’t make any impression. Think about it this way: the learner needs all their mental energy to process and understand new ideas. The more effort it takes to stay focused, the less is left over for learning it.

At least Coursera makes an effort to follow adult learning principles. PluralSight, which needs a paid account to access, is even worse. Most of the courses I’ve looked at are pure theory. A disembodied voice sprays words at you while a PowerPoint presentation plays. Although PluralSight courses have the option to include quizzes and activities, most don’t.

Again, the content is excellent. But who cares when the delivery is neurologically optimised to be ignored and forgotten?

A Better Class of eLearning

On these platforms, some courses rise above the others. Learning How to Learn is an example of a course that teaches. The delivery is well thought out. It’s designed to make the material as memorable and engaging as possible. It’s easy to stay focused during the videos. It’s easy to understand, recall and apply the concepts.

What can we learn from the best of these courses? We learn that eLearning works when:

The material engages your emotions. Maybe you can’t stimulate love for the concepts. Maybe using fear and anger aren’t great ideas. But it can be as simple as a touch of surprise and humour. Representing the formula for acceleration with a skydiving donkey works because your brain isn’t expecting it. Your brain is constantly predicting the future – when something violates that prediction, it pays extra attention.

The material is relevant to your life. We’ve all struggled to learn something. When someone explains why you struggled and what to do about it, it’s hard to ignore.

The material is time-effective. If your course includes five hours of video per week, maybe the learners will watch an hour a day. More likely, they will have to cram during their free time. The only thing this will achieve is stressing people.

We learn by relating new concepts to familiar ones. If a single concept is too strange to us, it can take a long time and a lot of effort to bridge the gap in understanding. Meanwhile, these videos could be barrelling through ten new concepts an hour. Learning becomes futile.

Slow down. Give learners time to process the concept before moving on. If the five hours of video are racing through the concepts, there’s too much content. Slow. Down.

Learning How to Learn is wonderfully paced. It covers a lot of material, yet the videos are short and never rushed. There’s time to assimilate the new ideas before moving on. This is because they focus on the key points and convey them well.

The material engages your senses. With the internet, adding images, audio and video is easy.

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Nothing I have said is controversial. These ideas are well understood in the context of educational theory. Yet how many online courses follow these? Which is why I launched Mindwalker Training. I saw a gap in the training market, both in content and delivery. Mindwalker Training is my mission: to teach the skills that people need in a way that engages the mind.

Support this mission because we can’t leave education in the hands of the clumsy few. When teaching fails, the consequences are worse than most people realise. Time and mental energy – our most precious resources – are squandered. Egos are depleted. Some people give up on subjects, thinking the problem lies with them rather than the educator.

This is what I pledge to solve. If all educators followed basic principles, the impact would be greater than any revolution in the past. It’s time to demand more from those that offer training. It’s time to expect engaging material. If your source of knowledge doesn’t, give Mindwalker Training a visit. You’ll be amazed at the difference.

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You should see my Study Skills course because it helps you learn things – even from badly delivered courses.

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