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  • Marcia Nuffer

Online Learning Addiction

Updated: Aug 9

Online learning can be, and should be, as addictive as the other technologies we use.

We are addicted to technology. Multiple studies say we check our phones between 50 and 80 times a day. Millennials up to 150 times. Sure, 90% of that is probably checking the time, using social media, and taking selfies. But a good part of that time is also used to look something up that we want to know. Add in the time when we're doing the same on our computers and, in many ways, you can say we already learn online all day.

But in the workplace, when it comes to what we typically call online learning - the courses, modules, webinars, videos, and of course Zoom sessions available to us to do our jobs better, we turn to it much less frequently.

What is keeping us from being hooked on online learning?

Well, of course, there are lots of reasons. We are busy and it’s hard to break from work to “do learning.” The right content is hard to find. When we do find it, it is often not specific enough for our particular need. We are not confident that the time investment will be worth it. In fact, in research that a colleague and I conducted at a professional services firm, we found that employees primarily use two criteria to decide where to go for help: Is it fast? Is it the best expertise?


And they do not have confidence that online learning will deliver on either of these.

Whether people like it or not, online learning is an ever-increasing part of our development.

We all know the demand is increasing. With the sudden shift to a more remote workforce, both employees and companies are feeling the need. In a Robert Half study of 1000 employees, 70% say they want fewer in-person meetings and trainings in order to feel safe at work. Companies are seeing online learning as a vehicle for not only building capabilities, but also for fostering connection and sustaining culture in this new environment.

Supply is increasing as well. Every company I’ve talked to has quickly moved their most important in-person courses online - most often through videoconference platforms such as Zoom. External offerings have also exploded. In a bit of grandmother research, I counted over 50 emails from 30 different providers in my in-box in July alone, all advertising new online learning offerings. Again, almost all offered in Zoom-like formats... with most of the same drawbacks and dissatisfaction that have accompanied online learning in the past.

Do not misunderstand me. There are terrific adaptations to make Zoom sessions more engaging and higher impact than in the past, attending to the social-emotional components of learning rather than just the cognitive components. However, at the end of the day, learners are still experiencing the same limitations of online learning: insufficient relevance, efficiency, or impact on how they do their jobs.

I believe the current combination of disruption, demand, and dissatisfaction are going to drive a fundamental transformation.


Even prior to COVID, innovation in learning technology was already happening at a rapid pace and, as demand increases, I believe we will only see it accelerate. EdSurge reports a record $1.7 billion of edtech investment in 2019, a five-year high in value. Of the top 14 funding deals last year, 8 were companies focused on corporate learning. And many innovations are focusing on the perennial pain points of online learning. For example:

- Learning Experience Platforms such as Degreed that make it more efficient to find what is relevant, whether formal or informal learning


- The integration of learning into Microsoft Teams to surface learning content in the flow of day-to-day work (System of Learning in Microsoft Teams - roughly at 37:00 in the video)


- Learning program design - Directed Performance Support - that centers on skill-building, peer-coaching, and feedback as a person completes a real task on their job. (See Integrating Learning Into Work by Adam Neaman and Victoria Marsick.)


- Virtual reality that extends the impact of online to interpersonal topics, like what Mursion is doing on coaching and unconscious bias.

So... what will it take to making learning online addictive?

Technology innovation is only part of the answer. In my opinion, for online learning to become, if not addictive, then at least habitual, employers and learning providers are going to have to capture the holy grail of integration with and improvement of real work, in real time.


As Roger Schank says, “Learning happens when someone wants to learn, not when someone wants to teach.” To make online learning addictive, we will have to have a much deeper understanding of when people want to learn and what their real needs are at those times, answering questions such as:


- What are the triggers that cause people to want help?


- How do these triggers differ for different types of needs - to solve a problem, to build a skill, to develop in their career?


- Where do people go for help today?


- What works and what are the pain points of these solutions?


Customer-insight-driven design approaches are commonly used in the consumer world. We need to start systematically applying these best practices to the world of learning if we really want to crack the code on how to embed technology-driven learning in people's lives. (More on that in another article.)

When people see immediate positive impact on their work, on-line learning will be ubiquitous and yes, addictive. At the point when technology-enabled learning is a seamless part of our day... when it becomes almost as invisible as checking the time on our phones... the term “online learning” will not even be relevant anymore. At that point, we won’t need to call it anything... we will just be learning.









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