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TLDR Culture and Learning to Learn in a Digital Age

One of the great joys in life is watching your children grow and find their own way in the world. As a parent, it can also be one of the most frustrating. I frequently find myself asking why don’t my two teenage boys do things the way I did them?

This is never more true than when I watch the way they learn. Both are now on university courses, and with the current pandemic restrictions this means studying online from home. As an educator I have an idealized image of students receiving the wisdom I impart from my lectures, how they hang on to my every word, pounce on the reference I provide to delve into the details of the topics being addressed, taking copious notes that they study, embellish, and share with their class colleagues. Of course, this is a myth.

In what I am sure is a familiar scene in homes everywhere these days, I watched one of my boys, slump out of bed at 10:30am to sit on the sofa with his laptop and headphones half listening to his university lecturer on a Zoom call with a bowl of cornflakes in one hand and while furiously tapping on his mobile phone with the other. He was “taking notes” he claimed. Well, maybe.

Is this what they mean by a “hybrid learning environment”? Am I looking at the future of online education? Quite possibly.

Stories of the death of traditional forms of education delivery have been written for many years. Electronic books will kill the physical book business. MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courseware) will bring an end to face-to-face classes. And online collaboration tools, Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) technologies will remove the need for a physical learning experience forever.

In fact, until recently very little of this had come to pass and traditional educational approaches continued to dominate. However, even though moves toward digital transformation in education have been slow, these initiatives had begun to change much of the dialogue toward a greater emphasis on more flexible learning styles, democratization of learning, personalized education pathways, and a shift to seeing people as lifelong learners.

At the centre of this debate is our evolving understanding of how people learn in a digital world.

Understanding the most effective learning approaches (pedagogy) is a major concern for all educators, but now receiving particularly attention in digitally disrupted corporate learning scenarios and at universities.

Most universities have had “digital learning” teams in place for some years in support of teaching and learning activities. While most of the effort to digitize university courses has focused on remote teaching and the challenges of broadcasting lectures online, there has been a great deal of discussion for some time on what constitutes best practice in digital pedagogy from a theoretical point of view, and as seen in practical e-learning situations. Their discussions and approaches have been revitalized in the current pandemicas face-to-face teaching was reduced (or stopped) and educators were forced to adapt to rapidly evolving learning scenarios. The speed of this change has caused some level of chaos. In some cases, even a refusal to adopt digital delivery.

In my personal experiences over the past 18 months, the main challenge in digital learning is engagement. Face-to-face teaching helps to ensure student participation by direct physical interaction between educator and students, and amongst the students themselves. Especially in corporate education, engagement is encouraged through workshop activities, task-centred “action learning” cycles, and “flipped classroom” approaches. As education moves online, challenges in remote teaching must be addressed: How do educators ensure that learners engage with the new ideas in meaningful ways?

In a digital world, maintaining a user’s engagement (aka “attention”) is key. Study of online behaviours indicate that users engage best with digital delivery of information when it takes place via short, discrete explorations. Some even highlight that digital ways of browsing information have rewired our brains to be less capable of longer-term focused analysis.

Multi-tasking and moving quickly across multiple digital channels seem to be the norm. This is something I now refer to as the “TLDR culture”. With attention spans getting shorter, in one form or another “Too Long, Didn’t Read” seems to be the response I get most often from students when I ask them to read an article or examine any written materials.

What are the alternatives? Many of the research reports, case studies, and opinion pieces published recently place an emphasis on digital approaches to learning with three critical characteristics: short, personalized, and varied formats.

  • Short. Learning pathways formed from collections of consumable learning packages (modules) each lasting only a few minutes.
  • Personalized. Learning materials filtered or adapted to a learner’s context, needs, and experience.
  • Varied formats. Learning styles composed of one or more formats to ensure variety and encourage engagement with the materials.

This thinking has resulted in a wide collection of pedagogical activities captured in approaches such as “micro learning moments”, “content snacking”, and “personalized learning journeys”.

These more flexible and adaptable approaches raise some important challenges to educators. At the top of the list is the conflict between customized delivery and delivering at scale. Both in university and corporate settings, key to their sustainable business model is the ability to manage large groups or multiple smaller cohorts of learners in an efficient, repeatable way. To achieve this while delivering a personalized experience with large numbers of smaller learning packages in different formats requires significant effort and cost.

How will this play out? The answer is uncertain. With many forces at play, the push to revolutionize education delivery will always be dampened by external forces that necessarily emphasize consistency, auditability, strong governance, and inclusive access. For now, I will just have to watch my sons’ ways of learning with a suitable balance between my educator’s excitement for new learning styles and my parental concern that it’s all going to go horribly wrong.

P.S. And for those of you who made it to the end of this article, well done. Award yourself a gold star!

Source: AWB Digital Economy Dispatch #30

Alan Brown

Alan W. Brown is Professor in Digital Economy at the University of Exeter Business School where he co-leads the Initiative in Digital Economy at Exeter (INDEX). Alan’s research is focused on agile approaches to business transformation, and the relationship between technology innovation and business innovation in today’s rapidly-evolving digital economy. After receiving a PhD in Computational Science at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Alan spent almost 2 decades in the USA in commercial high-tech companies leading R&D teams, building leading-edge solutions, and driving innovation in software product delivery. He then spent 5 years in Madrid leading enterprise strategy as European CTO for IBM’s Software group. Most recently Alan co-founded the Surrey Centre for the Digital Economy (CoDE) at the University of Surrey where he led research initiatives in 4 EPSRC-funded research projects.

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