learning is fast and cost-effective, but the student’s aptitude, approach and
way of thinking must also be taken into account, says Patrick McCurry
important are individual learning styles to the success of delivering training on-line?
As companies grapple with the potential of e-learning, there is growing debate
about how employees can get the best out of it, whether individual learning
styles are important and what preparation and support for learners is required.
is being seen by some companies as a panacea for delivering training more
cheaply, but this is a myth, according to Steven Phillips, who is responsible
for corporate learning and development at Raytheon Professional Services.
lot of organisations are looking to deliver low-level training via e-learning
because they see it as a cheap option, but they’re not evaluating it or looking
at the impact on the learner,” he says.
are being offered a huge number of e-learning platforms and material by on-line
training providers, says Phillips, and the result has been a “gold-rush” to
lower cost delivery. “But many of these companies are not looking at issues
such as the IT literacy or technical capability of learners.”
an attempt to assess the learning styles of on-line students, training company
KnowledgePool has launched an on-line evaluation system, which it says explores
students’ strengths and weaknesses.
Butler, KnowledgePool chief executive, says e-learning has mainly been a
“one-size-fits-all” approach, but that mapping learners’ styles and psychology
can help them learn more effectively.
evaluation is a 10-question assessment that rates various characteristics, such
as psychological styles, ranging from the cautious and precise approach of
“cool blue” students to the competitive and de- manding style of what are
called “fiery red” learners.
some trainers argue that such evaluations are simplistic and of limited use in
designing training, Butler finds that they can help employers to tailor courses
for the learning group. “For example, a company could decide that 70 per cent
of a training course be delivered on-line and the rest in a classroom
Swannell, head of instructional learning at Wide Learning, which provides
financial systems training, says US research suggests individual learning
styles are secondary to how on-line training material is presented when it
comes to effectiveness.
show that training results and retention of knowledge are mainly down to good
presentation, teaching and the student’s motivation,” she says.
adds that learners’ perceptions of how they learn best are often not related to
their actual performance, so asking people about their preferences may not
achieve very much.
Swannell does modify courses depending on the learning group. “It’s important
to make the training lively and interesting. If I’m delivering training to a
group that includes graduates of languages, physics and so on, I’d probably
first use graphics or visual aids because that reaches most people, then text
and finally perhaps, for the physics graduates, mathematical formulae.”
e-learning company Acadamee, the way on-line training material is presented is
very important, says chief knowledge architect Kim Lafferty. Material is
divided into “need to know”, “good to know” and “nice to know”.
want the presentation to entice learners to delve into different parts of the
material by using lively graphics at the top through to more content-rich
material further down,” she says.
allows those learners who just want information to access that, while others
can get an overview of the topic. For example, if a piece of legislation is
being studied there can be extracts at the top and the material in its entirety
has signed up mind expert Tony Buzan to try to ensure that courses have the
content and functionality to help the human mind learn and remember, says
Lafferty. “He joined us because of our emphasis on being learner-friendly
rather than content-centric, and he’s keen to enable a larger audience, who may
have been put off learning at school, to learn.”
Lafferty stresses that one of the most important things in any on-line training
or learning is supporting the student in what can feel an isolating situation.
“The biggest thing an e-coach can do is provide support and motivation, and
that could be a weekly e-mail to ask how the student is doing or a longer
chatroom communication or, in some cases, a phone call.”
Ian Angell, professor of information systems at the London School of Economics,
is sceptical about making e-learning content too focused on lively
presentation, particularly when it comes to education on-line. “I’m suspicious
of the ‘Disneyland’ school of education, where everything has to be fun because
there are [bound to be] certain parts that are tedious and the student just has
to knuckle down and learn.”
dismisses attempts to assess individual learning styles. “Fatuous profiles
aren’t much use and [techniques such as scoring with] numbers to characterise
people are simplistic.” He argues that e-learning is just one channel to teach
people and should be seen in a wider context. Personal relationships with
tutors and meeting people face to face are still extremely important, he adds.
for the e-learner is also stressed by Tim Drewitt, world manager for
professional learning services at Xebec-McGraw Hill.
people say technology-based training is not suited to certain learning styles,
but in practice I’ve never heard of it being a problem. But you need to give
people preparation and support for them to get the best out of it.”
should include asking the learner why they are taking the course and what they
hope to get out of it, he says. “This kind of preparation is standard practice
in classroom-based training, but for some reason can be forgotten in
Angell, Drewitt believes e-learning often needs to be integrated with a wider
training approach. “It’s often good to incorporate some classroom activity or
on-line chatrooms as well as on-line training so that those individuals who
prefer to interact can get that buzz.”
important issue in the debate on learning styles is cultural differences. For
Raytheon, whose clients include multinationals, there are problems if a company
expects that an on-line course can satisfy the training needs to employees
spread around the world. Raytheon has staff in 46 countries who can adapt
training material to the particular local culture.
companies see e-learning as a way of rolling out training worldwide, but they
often underestimate the cultural differences,” says Steven Phillips.
is one issue, he says, although English is fast becoming the preferred
international business language. “But there are also more subtle differences between cultures, such as currencies,
legal frameworks, and working practices,” he says.
debate about how to get the best out of e-learning and how individuals can be
prepared and supported in studying on-line is likely to continue. But it seems
likely that on-line learning will not turn out to be the simple, cheap solution
to organisations’ training needs that some companies have been led to believe.
key will be using e-learning as part of a wider training programme and ensuring
there is enough evaluation of how students are learning on-line, either through
on-line testing or conferences, and that they are able to transfer that
learning to the workplace.
on learning styles
education experts have argued that educational environments, such as
e-learning, should be adjusted to reflect the learning styles of particular
groups of people.
according to recent research by David Merrill of Utah State University,
learning style is secondary in importance to an appropriate method of teaching
the particular material.
Instructional Strategies and Learning Styles: Which takes precedence?, he says,
“Many research studies have demonstrated that, regardless of the learning style
of the student, when the goal of the instruction, measured by tests that are
consistent with this goal, are consistent with the strategies used to teach
this goal, then learning is optimal.”
may have different learning styles, says Merrill, but the basic way material is
delivered should not be affected by that. For example, someone with
bodily-kinesthetic intelligence may learn to dance very well but be less suited
to learning maths or science.
whatever the kind of material, the outcomes are similar, such as acquiring a
concept, learning a procedure or understanding a process.
a learner’s strength is logico-mathematical or bodily-kinesthetic… it is still
necessary to have a definition, examples, non-examples and to practise
identifying previously unencountered examples, in order to acquire the
problem, argues Merrill, is that too many instructors – live or technology-based
– do not understand basic teaching strategies. In his opinion, therefore, much
of what passes for instruction is often inadequate.