The future of learning is (not) digital

Computers, smartphones, and tablets have become essential parts of our daily learning environments. At the same time, the popularity of digital learning settings like massive open online courses (MOOC), learning apps, and open learning forums has risen significantly in the past years – the year of 2012 was already labeled “Year of MOOCs” by the New York Times.

When discussing the future of work – which appears mobile, flexible and self-regulated (Süddeutsche Zeitung, March 2015), digital learning spaces, accessible anytime, and from anywhere, seem the obvious consequence. Online courses at top-rank universities (e. g. Stanford Online) offering qualitative, unlimited learning for free, enjoy great popularity and reflect this current trend of a democratization in learning and working.

Thus, one could conclude that the future of work is digital! But can digital learning really cover the learners’ needs completely and lead to sustainable learning outcomes? Or are, in times of dissolving mental and structural boundaries, real experiences becoming more and more important?

In their Delphi-Study on the Future of Personnel Development, Schermuly et al. (2012), asked experts to rate different personnel development instruments concerning their predicted in- or decrease of importance. Surprisingly, E-Learning and blended Learning did not score highest. Instead, a strong increase of importance was assigned to the experience-based concept of action learning by the experts.

Empirical research on learning indicates similar trends: The multisensorial theory of learning states that the brain learns faster and more efficiently if information is perceived via different sensory organs. A particularly decisive role in this process is ascribed to motion perception.
These findings are displayed in a current study of Mayer et al. (2015), which asked participants to memorize abstract words. In a first experiment, these words were presented by showing the participants a matching picture or gesture. In a second experiment, they had to draw the word symbolically into the air or express it through a gesture themselves. Results revealed that after actively expressing the word through a gesture themselves, participants received best results.

Practical implications for designing effective learning environments can be concluded from these findings: Learning processes aiming at multiple sensory organs and implying direct actions of the learner are particularly promising. They also attribute a whole new meaning to the importance of designing and planning these environments.

The effects of stimulating multisensorial learning experiences can also explain the success of co-working spaces. These locations, where social learning and working takes place, show an increase of 97% in Europe (Deskmags second Annual global Coworking Survey, 2012).

The lesson is clear: The future of learning cannot be solely digital. Inspiring and stimulating learning environments, supporting a sensorial learning experience, and enabling social learning are essential for sustainable learning outcomes.