Digital Learning in a Post-Corona World: For Better or Worse?

With schools and organizations across the world rushing to transition to digital learning and working environments, we’re getting some mixed reports. This is to nobody’s surprise within the field of learning design. Many people are bored, unengaged and feeling disconnected. Suspicions confirmed: this whole online learning thing is overrated, and will never replace the real thing. When can we get back to the way things were? 
Before we all jump to any conclusions, allow me to make a case for leveraging the COVID-19 pandemic to make a transition to a more effective and engaging way of working and learning. 
That’s not to suggest I or anyone else can say exactly what this new world will look like. Only suggesting that the potential exists for something better, and if we can find the conviction and determination to build it together, it can become a reality. 
Here’s are a few things we do know, at least with some degree of certainty: 
1.  Creating effective digital learning experiences takes time and specialized knowledge. 
Translating an instructor-led classroom experience to an online environment requires that we do some rethinking and redesigning. Using the same approach as we did in the classroom is almost guaranteed to produce disengaged learners and unmet learning objectives. 
In a digital environment, we are accustomed to interacting with both content and each other far differently than we do in a traditional classroom or formal training setting. Digital learning experiences should harness these well-established patterns of interaction to hold our learners’ attention and facilitate meaningful engagement with content and one another. 
2.  Digital learning offers the potential for a far greater degree of integration with daily life. 
Learning that takes place in the classroom is, by nature, separate from the “real world.” To participate in these synchronous experiences we must take time away from our normal tasks, which is often inconvenient and creates an opportunity cost that may be hard to justify. As a result, many of us show up to these events with the attitude that it’s a poor use of our time, and understandably so. Unfortunately, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. 
Digital learning, on the other hand, provides us with the opportunity to reimagine what learning is. Content and activities can be spread out, engaged with asynchronistically (on our own time), and even integrated into the normal workflow. Instead of taking time away from work to learn, work itself can be framed as a learning experience that is strategically supported by targeted content and facilitated interactions within knowledge networks. 
3.  We have already outgrown the old way of learning—there’s no going back. 
The truth is, the traditional approaches to learning and training have been struggling for quite some time. In a 2017 LinkedIn Learning report, only 8% of executives thought that their Learning & Development initiatives had a measurable impact. Another 2019 report from Karl Kapp showed that only 6% of L&D budgets led to any behavior change. Ouch. 
The main reason for this, we’ll argue here, is pretty simple: things are changing too rapidly for the traditional, information-dump-based approach to learning to keep up. By the time information is filtered through the development process, it is often either obsolete or readily available to learners elsewhere. 
As a result, these interventions are seen as a waste of time, people don’t show up with the motivation and attitude they need to make the most out of a misguided attempt at supporting their development, and they fail to deliver any real value. 
4.  Many of the skills we need most either require hands-on practice, or are yet unknown. 
In a world driven by rapid change and emerging technologies that are increasingly making old skills obsolete, our current approaches to education and learning are also failing in dramatic fashion. For one, as information-delivery systems, these approaches are designed to produce the types of skills that are quickly being automated. When it comes to memorizing and reproducing information, we don’t stand a fighting chance against the computers. 
The skills that are most valuable now require more of our uniquely human abilities, or those that are most difficult to automate. These include creativity, leadership, communication, critical thinking, self-directed learning, decision-making, emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills, among others. 
What’s more, these are skills that are largely developed through real-world experience. We’re not going to get very far with them by reading a book or listening to a lecture—we’ll need to put theory into practice, reflect, learn from our mistakes, share and engage with others’ ideas, and keep experimenting.
We must also consider that many of the skills that will be needed, even in the near future, are still unknown. In a 2016 Forbes article, it was predicted that 65% of the jobs that Generation Z will perform don’t even exist yet. As old skills become obsolete and the demand for new skills keep emerging, we need an approach to learning and development that is far more agile and responsive to these shifting demands. 
5.  We can lo longer rely on others to tell us what we need to learn. 
As things change faster and faster, and as more and more depends on our own unique context, we increasingly have to be equipped on the individual and team levels to make decisions about what we need to learn and to direct the learning process ourselves. We simply don’t have the time to wait around for a training program to be developed. 
Leaders and L&D professionals must reimagine how we are supporting learners to develop the skills they’ll need to succeed in this new world. 
Designing our way forward
It’s clear that we have an opportunity in front of us to let go of many of the practices and ways of thinking that were no longer serving us well, and to create a new way of approaching learning that is better suited for this rapidly changing, increasingly complex yet also increasingly connected world. 
What might this new world look like? We don’t know exactly, and that’s the point—we still rely on many systems that were designed to prepare us for a known world with known tasks and roles and needed skills. However, things have already begun to change and many in the field are doing inspiring work to move in a new direction. 
I will emphasize that we should also be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. There is still a place for more traditional approaches to education and learning. 
However, as these old ways are becoming of increasingly limited value in many cases, new systems and approaches are needed to support us to embrace the unknown, to integrate learning with daily life, and to navigate our way through a changing world. 


How can we support you to create more engaging and valuable experiences for your learners? Book a no-cost, no-pressure Discovery Call here and let’s have a short chat to find out!

Tom Palmer


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