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Understanding Today's Learner

Part Two: The practice

The second part of this report documents the outcome of a number of interviews with eLearning Guild members from both education and workplace learning, in response to three key questions:

1.What differences have you noticed in learners today?

2.To what extent are you implementing Web 2.0 learning approaches and technologies to meet the needs of these new learners?

3.How do you ensure that other, more traditional learners are prepared for these Web 2.0 learning approaches and technologies?

Interviewees identified a number of characteristics in today’s learners, which concur with the research findings, but also added some further interesting reflections.

Generational differences

Byron Cutting, Learning Solutions Specialist with AAA, had spotted generational differences in learners when he was teaching, “Whereas traditional learners (i.e. those that grew up prior to the Internet) are used to sitting through lectures and long reading assignments, newer learners often struggle to do so. Instead they prefer to gather information from multiple sources, often simultaneously, to gain knowledge.” He noticed too, the younger learners in his classes would turn to Wikipedia or Google to look up additional information as he was lecturing. He remarked, “I discovered very quickly that not only were they gaining the deeper knowledge they sought from the Internet, but they were also picking up on the key points from my lecture – even though they didn’t seem to be paying any attention.” In his current organisation, he says, “Older workers often do their best to avoid CBT offering and not use the collaboration tools available to them. The younger workers, however, can be seen IMing, texting, surfing, and flipping back and forth through multiple browser windows.”

Roger Pearman of, Inc. said that, “While it is tempting to note generational differences, I’ve observed that the issue is more complex. I have had a sizable number of 55-year-old participants who are using blogs and iPods in our programs. As is often the case, “learners” are those who use multiple strategies to achieve a new understanding and greater effectiveness. It is just that in today’s technological environment there are more strategies than five years ago to learn new information and behaviours.  I’m coming to the view the true learners are eager to use as many pathways as possible — especially if it will allow multi-tasking.”

Use of technology

Marcel de Leeuwe, an Educational Scientist at a multimedia publisher in the Netherlands, noticed that today’s younger learners use the technology without even realising it; whereas older, less tech-savvy workers require instructions and books to find out about it. He also felt there was also a big difference in the mindset of workers; again today’s younger learners want to create and share content themselves, but this is beyond the comprehension of most older employees.

Nicola Avery saw a big difference in confidence levels at the University of Surrey in England, where she is an E-Learning Advisor. The students who had more experience in trying things out online were happy to get stuck in and experience the technologies, compared with the educators who were more resistant to using the technologies, and then were more likely to use them for their own research rather than for teaching purposes.

Inge de Ward, E-Learning Coordinator for the Institute of Tropical Medicine (ITP) in Antwerp, Belgium also identified geographical differences in the use of technology and culture of the international students at the Institute. Students from Asian countries appeared much more competent with the use of mobiles and computers than some of their Western counterparts, and “In Western learning culture, most of the learning process is focused around ‘me’ while in a lot of Southern hemisphere countries (e.g., Peru) as well as in other cultural groups (first nations for example), learning is part of a community engagement.” She has also observed that African countries, which may not be so advanced in their use of technologies, are making an enormous leap into Web 2.0, as they are eager to become engaged and acquire knowledge from others.


Charles Jennings, Global Head of Learning at Thomson Reuters, noted that today’s learners expect learning to be absolutely relevant to their tasks and responsibilities; they expect access to the Web from work; and they also expect to be able to carry out their learning from wherever they are and whenever it best suits them.

Bradley Shoebottom, Information Architect at Innovatia in Canada, agreed that employees want learning “just in time,” and don’t have the time to hunt around for it.

The extent to which interviewees’ organisations were implementing e-Learning 2.0 approaches to meet the needs of learners today varied quite considerably, from a few who had no plans to implement it to those who already had made significant steps (as the Guild’s survey data also shows).

Self-organising learners

In a few places the impetus often came from the students or workers themselves. Nicola Avery had observed instances where the use of social tools had been instigated by self-organising students at her university, for example, they set up their own study groups on social networks. Inge de Ward cited a similar example of a group of students who had set up their own discussion group when they were unable to access an ITP discussion forum.

Mike Taylor, Learning & Development Consultant at Fossil & Hydro Generation, also mentioned a number of blogging and wiki initiatives that had been set up by younger employees, albeit “under the radar.”

Adding-in or replacing

In the organisations where e-Learning 2.0 was being implemented top-down, some were adding on Web 2.0 approaches to their current offerings, whilst others were using them to replace traditional approaches.

In educational organisations it seemed to be easier to add-in new tools, since course management systems provided a much wider range of functionality than corporate learning management systems. Bradley Shoemaker explained that at the Royal Military College of Canada, where he is an ILT instructor, “The Desire2Learn platform allows discussion groups, blogs, and even student-created ones.”

Charles Jennings described how at Thomson Reuters, they had already embedded a number of on-demand learning resources, particularly as part of their Institute of Technology, which is a performance support environment that includes courses, online books, blogs, podcasts, RSS feeds, and wikis for expertise sharing. This was done because they needed to be more responsive to business problems, and avoid taking people out of their jobs. Charles and the Senior Talent/L&D team at Thomson Reuters, have also just recently developed a totally new learning and development strategy that has at its core Learning 2.0 principles that include social learning, and which is relevant to the needs of a changing workforce.

However, a number of users were finding it slow or difficult to incorporate e-Learning 2.0, as they were coming up against barriers.

Old mindsets

Marcel de Leeuwe stated that, as it was educators, learning managers, and instructional designers who were commissioning learning, they were not asking for learning to be delivered in this new way. He felt that most of his customers were scared of allowing others to share and create content; they wanted to control it, and for many of his corporate customers, he believed that e-Learning 2.0 was simply beyond their imagination — and there were not enough big companies implementing new methodologies to influence their thinking.

Misty Campbell-Olbert, who is an instructional designer at Compass Knowledge Group, agreed that, whereas some of her clients were beginning to embrace blogs and wikis, they had not branched out to any of the social networking sites as yet. She felt it was a slow road to a “mentality” change in the concept of social networking in the field of academia.

Blocking of sites

A number of interviewees reported that the blocking of many social media sites, such as Blogger, YouTube, and Facebook, by their organisations made their job very difficult. (In fact, The eLearning Guild survey results showed that blocking of sites is quite widespread). Whereas other organisations, like Thomson Reuters, don’t limit access to Websites or tools, but rather have an “appropriate use” policy

Entering new territory

One learning and development practitioner from Australia said that he had to liaise with Knowledge Management and IT services to open the doors to Web 2.0 usage, as Web 2.0 was not in use anywhere else in the business. As a result, he was entering new territory and dealing with the red tape which comes with integrating social software in a corporate professional services environment. He added that it might be very tempting for someone not sold on social software to place it in the “too-hard basket,” but he felt it was worth the effort. This seemed to be the case with a number of the interviewees who were experiencing barriers and challenges; they remained positive and optimistic as they tried to “chip away” at the obstacles, and eager to change mindsets.

In those organisations that were implementing e-Learning 2.0 approaches, interviewees offered some key advice and suggestions as to how to get traditional learners involved.

Provide traditional information

Ole Kristenson, who works for Grundfos, explained that as part of rolling out the new collaborative tools they try to have traditional information about them, e.g. e-mails, text pages, small presentations, and software simulations.

Start with what they know

Nicola Avery mentioned that, as educators tend to go for tools that replicate what they already know, this is a good place to start getting people engaged with new tools. Marcel de Leuuwe also picked up on this; he felt that traditional learners want something that is very close to their own learning or working. With blogging, he felt that this had been more successful when implemented within a course management system like Moodle – which teachers understood — rather than getting them to set up a Blogger account — which was a step too far.

Ease them in gently

Inge Waard made an important point. As social media participation is possible at a number of different levels, for those who are unaccustomed to these tools, simply by encouraging contribution – whether it be in a discussion or some content – they are actively engaging, and it doesn’t have to be a difficult or uncomfortable experience. In other words, you ease them in gently rather than expecting them all to be creating their own content from scratch.

Inge also made another interesting point. She felt wikis were probably the most difficult social media tool to implement, since they required significant involvement to make them work. It is much easier to get people to recognise the value of shared bookmarks in a team, or connecting with overseas colleagues through social networking sites, so start with simple things.

Marcel de Leeuwe agreed that wikis were not the best tool to start with, as they generally required both technical skills and a different mindset to use them. He also thought it was important to look for quick wins, like demonstrating the value of a RSS reader.


A number of the interviewees also felt that piloting was important. Bradley Shoemaker said that for internal personnel at RMC, they start with pilot groups to make them advocates of the new learning methods. They also test what does and does not work with the pilot group. Misty Campbell-Olbert uses the same approach. If they make use of a new technology, they place it in an orientation course so that users can practice with it. They incorporate it into one pilot course, and then survey the users before deciding to implement it. 

Whilst conducting the interviews, it became very clear that the most successful implementations or drives towards e-Learning 2.0 were largely due to the passionate learning and development individuals who were highly engaged with social software themselves. This begged the question to what extent learning and development professionals need not only understand the concepts behind e-Learning 2.0, but also experience Web 2.0 social media tools at first hand in order to be able to advise on the implementation of appropriate approaches and tools. In fact to what extent do they need to be Learners 2.0 themselves?

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