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How Do We Learn Best?

by Dave Hannon

January 14, 2011

Dave Hannon

Education is a funny thing. Scratch that—learning is a funny thing. Each of us learns in their own way. Some people can pick up very technical concepts quickly, but make the same social blunders time and again. Are they good learners? Some students take copious notes during lectures and others just “absorb” the information. Who’s the better learner there? Have you tried to teach your parents how to use a cell phone yet? There’s a lesson in learning!

Of course, the Internet today provides a truly limitless amount of possibilities for learning online. It has revolutionized the dissemination of learning materials, but has it changed how we learn? Take, for example, MIT’s decision to put all of its coursework online through the OpenCourseware initiative making it available to anyone with an Internet connection. (Am I the only one that has Will Hunting’s voice in my head saying “You dropped a hundred and fifty grand on an education you could have gotten for a dollar-fifty in late charges at the public library”?)

Well I, for one, would disagree with Good Will and say there is a fundamental difference between reading a pile of books (or web sites) and “learning” no matter how smart you are. I’d argue that learning is more effective when done in a group with a facilitator to “teach.” Maybe it’s because most of us were taught to learn (there’s an odd phrase, huh?) in a classroom from a very early ag e, but I feel learning, by definition, is give and take; question and answer; shades of grey. (I’d also argue that MIT, in its infinite wisdom, agrees with me, which is why they’re willing to give away their course materials – without a teacher and class, it’s almost meaningless).

In the most recent issue of insiderPROFILES, we touched on this topic in the story “Why In-Person Training Is More Important Than Ever for SAP Customers.” In the context of professional learning, all of what I said previously is even more important. There’s an element of “best practices” that is extremely valuable in professional learning that simply can’t happen from simply reading materials. We’ve all seen it at conferences. “When we tried that, we saw…” with a few other heads nodding in the crowd. That’s sometimes the place you learn the most. At least, where you might learn the most applicable lessons.

Webinars and online forums incorporate aspects of these benefits, of course. They're somewhere between reading a web site alone and sitting in a room with people learning. Some might argue they're more interactive because people are more willing to ask questions online.

As always, I welcome your thoughts on this topic. How do you prefer to learn?

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