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Too much e-learning ignores the latest thinking in educational psychology

By Charles Low, Director of Education at fuel

In 1922, Thomas Edison said: “The motion picture is destined to revolutionise our educational system.” He is just one in a long line of prophets of technology that clearly missed the mark.

The latest revolution is the Internet and the flag carrier for education here is e-learning. But once again there is a breakdown between the evangelist’s heady claims and the more mundane experiences of learners. Why is this?

Before we try to answer this question, here’s a story I heard recently: a university lecturer walked into the large theatre where he was to give his lecture. There were only 5 students scattered around the banked seats, but he switched on the overhead and started to deliver his notes. After half an hour he was down to two students, and with 15 minutes left, the hall was empty. Dutiful to the end, he continued until the hour was up. Recounting the story in the staff room later, he proudly concluded: “And I’m bang on track to complete this module by the end of the month!”

It’s not too hard to draw parallels with a lot of e-learning: dutiful, comprehensive but deadly dull, and clearly not meeting the learning needs of anyone. To understand why so much e-learning fits into this mould we need a whirlwind tour of the history of cognitive psychology and its influence on training and education.

Schools of thought

The dominant school of thought for the first two thirds of the 20th century was behaviourism. Behaviourism took the black box approach to learning; you could measure what went in and what came out, and what happened in the middle was considered at best irrelevant or at worst non-existent. It was the basis of B. F. Skinner’s famous ‘teaching machines’ with their programmed stimulus-response-feedback approach.

But no one talked about ‘drill and thrill’! As psychologists decided that applying the behavioural patterns of pigeons to humans had its weaknesses, a new model emerged. The ‘50s and ‘60s saw the development of Instructivism, and the information processing model, where the human mind (people had minds again) was compared to a computer.

This became the prevailing paradigm, and led to a new quest for a scientifically based template for developing instructional materials, perhaps best embodied in the work of Robert Gagné who wrote “The Conditions of Learning”. This specified 9 instructional steps to be followed for successful learning to happen. It is still the predominant model when it comes to most technology-based (and a lot of classroom-based) training, and e-learning is no exception.

There are many positive outcomes from these decades of research – the use of feedback, the design of learning programmes aligned to specified to learning objectives, taking a more systematic approach to structuring the flow of learning programmes and developing assessment strategies in accordance with the objectives of a course are a few examples. But they do suffer from a tendency to mechanistic application: follow these rules and you will have a successful piece of learning. This isn’t the case.

Secondly, and more importantly, these models tend to regard the individual as an “empty vessel” into which knowledge is poured. The instructional designer knows what is best for the learner to know, the best path to learn it, the best way to learn it. They are teacher-centric. What this can result in, and all too often does, is dry, unengaging learning that, as the lecturer in the earlier story found out, leaves the room empty.


The most recent thinking in cognitive psychology places the individual firmly at the centre of the learning experience. At the core of Constructivism is the belief that individuals create their own understanding of knowledge and the world. By interacting with their environment, a person constructs, investigates and modifies their cognitive model of the world in an iterative fashion.

This has profound implications for the whole approach to how learning programs should be designed. Instructional design becomes concerned with facilitating the individual learning process, materials are incorporated to allow students to develop their own understanding, students are encouraged to integrate the learning experience into their own lives to make it meaningful are just some of the implications. Rather than a teacher–centric process, we have a learner-centric one.

Some experts present a Constructivist approach as being antipathetic to both Behaviourism and Instructivism. However, I would suggest that Constructivism is capable of embracing the best that these theories have to offer. There are situations where drilling is appropriate, for example, and we certainly want to continue to pay close attention to the structuring of learning environments. What Constructivism does is refocus the prism through which we view learning.

Improving e-learning

So what does this actually give us to work with? How can we improve the transfer of knowledge into long term memory, its retention and, most importantly, its effective transfer and application? The following six points arise out of research over the last 10 years or so of what makes ‘good’ e-learning (and learning in general!).

1. Learning is based on existing knowledge and experience

The prior knowledge and experiences that a learner brings with them will play an important part in how they interpret new knowledge and make sense of it. It is therefore essential that this prior knowledge is activated when they are learning, by using analogies, metaphors and making parallels with this existing knowledge.

2. Learning is idiosyncratic

As learning depends on the learner’s prior experience, and no two learners will have the same experiences, new information will be dealt with in different ways by different learners. This means that programmes must not only offer different paths through the materials, they should also offer different perspectives on the subject matter.

3. Learning is goal-orientated

Individuals, and adults in particular, approach learning and training with specific objectives in mind. They need to realise that the activities they are undertaking are related to their real life requirements. And because these needs are often related to solving problems, courses that are task focussed situated in environments that help them to activate the knowledge in real life, problem centred environments will result in more effective learning.

4. Learning depends on self-awareness

Good learners know not only what and why they are learning but also how they learn. This lets them take a ‘step back’ from the actual material and start to make the relationships with their existing knowledge and the application of the new information to their needs. Courses need to build in self-reflective activities, through questioning and tasks that make this explicit.

5. Learning is social

People do not learn material in an abstract vacuum, they learn it, and use it, in a socially situated context. This idea is becoming increasingly important in the most recent thinking about learning, giving rise to the Social Constructivist School. Incorporating e-mail, on-line discussions, virtual communities and other peer-to-peer communication strategies into the whole learning environment are ways of facilitating the social dimension to learning.

6. Learning is active

Developing the neural networks that constitute the physical basis of memory is an active process. Learners that are not engaging with the learning materials, in other words actively cognitively processing what they are learning, will not have a successful educational experience. One point of interest here is the difference between ‘shallow’ and ‘deep’ processing. Rote learning is a typical trait of the former type. Students expend huge amounts of effort memorising information, but fail to integrate it into their own understanding. Deep processing requires the learner to make personal sense of the knowledge. Presenting too much information, presenting information in an abstract fashion, and presenting information screen after screen without allowing the learner to actively use the material or require them to apply it in new and meaningful ways positively encourage shallow processing.

I have deliberately left this last point to the end. For me, active learning is the crucial determinant of successful learning. There are many dimensions to active learning: individuals preferences for the way that material is presented, their learning styles, implementing cognitive strategies for attention focussing, interactivity, the wider context in which the learning is situated and many more. However, paramount amongst these elements, and underlying many of them, is the factor of motivation.


We all have a propensity to learn, and absorbing knowledge which interests us is usually not a problem, no matter how the information is presented. The ability of football supporters to reel off infinite amounts of game statistics, players’ names and so on is a classic example of this. The trick is to get involvement in material that may not be intrinsically interesting to an individual. How do you create and sustain motivation in the learner over the length of a course?

There has been a lot of research into motivation in the last few years, but it is still an evolving field. In e-learning courses, multimedia - animations, video, audio and so on are often cited as promoting interest and motivation, and to an extent this is true. But they are still passive media.

I think that one of the key weapons is the meaningful use of interactivity. This is a much-abused term, and by the term ‘meaningful’ I want to emphasise interactivity that requires the learner to think. Clicking a button is not interactive, nor is dragging an object to another one to start an animation. Getting someone to categorise, analyse, synthesise, problem solve, and so on, is.

Further, the more targeted the feedback is that they get doing these activities, the more powerful they become. That is to say that the all too pervasive “That’s not right. Try again.” is massively under-using the potential of the medium.


An area that I am particularly interested in is the use of games. Not only embedded mini-games that act as knowledge reviews, but immersing whole courses in a game environment. When you are doing something you really enjoy, you may have experienced ‘flow state’, that feeling that comes when you are so completely involved in something that you don’t notice that you have been occupied the whole night: games playing is a good example. This might seem far fetched, but my most recent efforts in this direction involved taking a legal course in risk management and putting it into a time travel scenario. Games can not only involve problem-solving applications of knowledge techniques but also elements such as manual dexterity, humour supported by artificial intelligence to create such environments.

The power of the human mind

What I am asking for is that we respect the power of the human mind. The ability of the brain to process information is phenomenal: we do it a disservice with the impoverished learning environments that are so common. Multimedia courses are often promoted as a remedy to this, but look at what many of them offer. Tedious static pictures, clip art, maybe a talking head video. The brain can process 36,000 visual cues per hour!

Research establishes the capacity of the brain to ‘dual process’ both visuals and words and that capitalising on this ability creates deeper understanding and greater recall. The brain has to work to expand neural interconnectivity, and to do that the learner must actively participate in the experience. A recent study showed that the brain is more active when it is sleeping than watching TV.

Good e-learning has the power to be the equivalent to an hour down the gym for the mind. Strategies and techniques such as those we have been looking at are like having a personal trainer advising you and pushing you on. It is what is needed, if we don’t want e-learning to be a couch potato.


Robert Gagne, 1979. "The Conditions of Learning"
B. F. Skinner

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© 2004 fuel Group. Reproduced with permission. Any opinions or views contained in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of Training Reference.

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