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Successful eLearning requires the application of purposeful learning transfer technique

The efficacy of digital learning initiatives, and eLearning specifically, is frequently questioned and challenged, and it is widely considered that they are less effective than face-to-face learning modes.

Improving eLearning has tended to focus on enhancing the design, interactivity, and media elements of the content. Such investments have certainly led to the production of much-improved eLearning products in terms of their look and feel and the learner experience, but they still fall short of offering the desired increase in learning efficacy.

Perhaps the issue is that our focus is misdirected, and we are failing to properly address some key pedagogical matters.

Let’s just remind ourselves of the meaning of the word ‘pedagogy’. It is a term that all of us as educators will probably have heard, but perhaps not all of us, fully understand. Pedagogy can be defined as the approach to teaching, is the theory and practice of learning, and how this process influences, and is influenced by, the social, political, and psychological development of learners.

Pedagogy is an important concept in helping us think holistically about the learning process. It is the last part of the definition that makes this clear in terms of recognising that learning takes place in a social, political (both external to the learner, and think of lowercase ‘p’) and psychological (internal to the learner) context.

Returning to the point about learning efficacy, it is important to remember that efficacy requires that learning is transferred from the learning environment to other environments, such as the workplace. This process of learning transfer is a key element of the pedagogy that requires attention to social, political, and psychological perspectives.

I would suggest that when we address the low efficacy of eLearning initiatives, we should be focused on the process of learning transfer, more than any other aspect of the learning model. Much of the effort to achieve learning transfer is out of the scope of the design of an eLearning module itself; requires the determination of the learner themselves; and, most importantly, the encouragement and support of others such as L&D teams, co-learners, and the organisation.

The question is, how can we do this best? I recently read an academic paper on this subject that, surprisingly for such papers (in my experience), offered some simple, practical advice on this very matter: Roumell EA. Priming Adult Learners for Learning Transfer: Beyond Content and Delivery. Adult Learning. 2019;30(1):15-22. doi:10.1177/1045159518791281.

Roumell explains that in adults there are seven conditions that support meaningful change: (a) reasoning, (b) seeking new knowledge, (c) resonance and personal identification with the idea, (d) finding new and varied ways to present/describe/understand the new idea, (e) resources and rewards for motivation, (f) relevance to a real-world context, and (g) overcoming personal resistances.

Furthermore, these seven ‘levers to change’ can b grouped into three practice areas:

  • Individual commitment (purpose + motivation + pathway) - (reasoning, resonance, and identifying one’s resistance to learning)
  • Intentional, reflective application during instruction - (seeking solutions, varied applications, relevance)
  • Organisational mirroring and owning the learning - (reflection, resistances, resources, rewards)

Roumell suggests that educators can address these three important practices in a number of practical ways in the design of their learner journeys.

  • Helping individuals identify and communicate their learning commitment (purpose + motivation + pathway). The important point here is to give learners the task of articulating and expressing (ideally verbally) their objectives for undertaking a learning programme. The communication process itself offers a psychological benefit to the process of change. If the learner is able to articulate their own resistance to change and how they may address this, then that is even better.
    I am committed to promoting better student interactions in my online classroom, so I will learn and apply new social media teaching strategies. I will learn how to incorporate course support software into my online classes by August.
    I am committed to being an effective educator, so it is important for me to stay up-to-date with new technologies. Even though the technology learning curve can be steep and time-consuming, I am willing to try new ways of reaching out to my online students.
  • Helping individuals to abstract the general principles of the learning and show how they will apply them in the real world. The learner needs to become the primary actor in a process of writing and/or verbalising how they will behave through case studies or stories. This process allows learners to identify and come to terms with the changing social expectations and actions that will be required of them. (FREE course)
  • Helping individuals mirror and own the learning process. Learners need a safe ‘holding environment’ where they can emerge from their embeddedness in their old habits, to renegotiate how they will perform with their new knowledge, skills, and world views.

People are better able to achieve mindful transfer when their environment allows them enough space to practice and change, and it mirrors those changes back to them. Creating such a holding environment facilitates internalisation, and allows knowledge and skills to be rescripted, transferred, socially reinforced, and more successfully integrated.

This must be a social activity best achieved by bringing people back together into a group after they have had a chance to apply some of their new knowledge and skills individually. For this stage of supporting the transfer process, individuals are invited to share selected aspects of their learning experience and identified solutions. This creates a space where learners can collectively analyse their experiences ad reflect the process of change back to each other.

Typically, these processes and activities need to be ‘wrapped around’ the primary digital learning activity(s) such as eLearning to offer a cohesive learner journey through to the point of learning transfer. We need to remember that not everything happens inside the ‘classroom’ whether that is a physical classroom or an online space. If we paid more attention to the fullness of a learner journey from where it really starts, commitment to start a learning activity, and where it ends, applying the learning in the real world, then our learning initiatives will likely be more effective, whether digital or not. The challenge with digital learning is that you need to be much more explicit and exacting about ensuring that these processes are properly addressed; there is very little chance that they will be in an accidental way, which may be more the case in more face-to-face programmes as people engage more socially and informally as part of their learning journey.