The panic to get online has seen virtually every available square Yoctobyte of internet space plastered with just about anything to fill the yawning chasm left by the abrupt lockdown. Word has it that organisational Learning and Development (L&D) has led the charge in a wholesale digitalisation of everything that isn’t already. If the internet was a wall, it is now splathered in a tangle of turgid PDFs, yawn-inducing powerpoint decks, pointless Zooms (Zoom = noun, verb, adjective), droning podcasts, and more. As someone recently said, it’s a bit like “Ready…. Fire” without the ‘Aim’ bit. Or an unattended firehose pumping at full pressure. Spare a thought for the learner (victim) at home, perched on a kitchen stool or trying to work at the family dinner table surrounded by persistent distraction – trying to fulfil their obligation and learn something.

This is not learning, this is datafication.

What’s been your priority training topics – how to use the organisation’s VLE? How to use Zoom? Did you set up quick courses in helping people become better self-directed learners? After all, that’s what you’re asking of them. Did you offer some tips and exercises on knowing how to learn? Or did you just assume that they already know this? Did you stop to think ‘’will this work in the same way online” before hitting the upload button converting a 2-day F2F workshop into an endurance zoominar?

All we’ve done is add to the internet noise. Pre-Covid 19 there were just under 2 billion websites, more than 4 billion users, and 7 billion search queries a day processed by Google alone. According to some estimates, the internet was set to reach 44 zetabytes of data this year. This has probably now doubled. As internet users, you are also competing with bots, said to make up around 52% of all internet traffic. It really is the new Wild West. This is the 21st Century 24/7 100% online learning and development space.

The initial urgent imperative to ‘take action’ and convert everything to online is probably, round about now, starting to be questioned. Is this really working? Is this giving us and our organisation the results we need and expect? Are we really expecting our cohorts of learners to learn like this? Is this really as good as it gets? Have the last few months set a precedent from which there is no turning back?

So, OK, job done. Stop now.

I put it that L&D now has a unique opportunity to not just improve on what’s been done in the name of ‘filling the void’, but in fact to improve everything and turn to Learning With Understanding. Time to re-group and press the re-set button.  We could start by taking a cold, hard look at what we’ve been calling learning (online or otherwise). Did we put the learners first, designing around how adults learn best, or did we put technology first?

Imagine a spectrum with two end points: at one extreme, we have ‘engaging the learner’ as the chief focus often manifested as clever devices which have nothing to do with the subject to be learned, while at the other we have the imperative to deliver ‘bums on seats’ for the record. This risks obfuscating the point of learning, and leads to the situation where the VLE has a higher asset value than L&D department (probably even more so today).  Is this approach helping in the battle for L&D to be taken seriously and to have an active voice in organisational strategic decision-making? What do you think?

Take an example: does your organisation need to engage in compliance training? Usually justified as the ‘tick in the box’ exercise, the format most often requires the learner (victim) to unzip their head, pour in lots and lots of facts, figures, statements, maybe the odd scenario. At some future point they’ll be required to regurgitate the right bits when needed with reasonable accuracy – to answer assessment questions, for instance. The good news is that Ebbinghaus demonstrated the most efficient strategy for doing just that: committing useless facts to memory. He called this the theory of the arc of forgetting (c. 1887) because it equally applies to memory degradation and it’s still valid today. It’s a favourite with students cramming for exams. But it’s not real learning in the sense L&D needs to practise it. It’s learning by memorising. And that’s far from learning with understanding.

Another way of thinking about this type of ‘learning’ is that it’s learning that – the act of ingesting knowledge with, at most, the ability to retrieve it from memory and parade it parrot-fashion. Compare that with learning how – the act of ingesting and processing knowledge to align or map it with existing knowledge including the actions of rehearsal/practise and reflection. (For a more detailed account, see my book: Crane, L. (2016). Knowledge and Discourse Matters: relocating knowledge management’s sphere of interest onto language. New York: J Wiley & Sons). This leads to learning that is coded to contexts where it’s relevant and applicable, and which can be actioned. As top information scientist professor Paul Duguid once said, you don’t become a physicist by reading a book on physics, you become one by practising physics in an appropriate setting. You actually need both – that’s learning with understanding, the route to competence and mastery.

Over the last couple of years, we’ve been researching, trialling and developing ‘the New Blended Learning’, a methodology for 21st century adult professional learning and development which builds on and improves previous ‘models’.  The New Blended Learning is grounded in research and theory in the Learning Sciences, and in practice, and is equally applicable to both online and off-line learning. Its foundation is Learning With Understanding, while at its core are three principles – the CAP principles.  These can be thought of as the principles for learning and strategic design and as the benchmark against which courses – and learning strategies – can be evaluated and measured. They have been developed based on considerable research and evidence of how adults learn most effectively.

Figure: CAP DESIGN PRINCIPLES ©. Knowing How, 2020


  • Connect & Engage: connecting and engaging minds and emotions not just engaging through online interactions, bearing in mind that individual prior knowledge, experiences and motivations to learn shape how and what people learn, and how they interpret it;
  • Actionable & Sustainable: learning is more effective when connected to real-life problems and instantly applicable, with learning embedded to action and reflection, and aligned with people’s own personal goals;
  • Personalised & Meaningful: learners’ motivations influence how effectively they learn, how they internalise learning, with motivations themselves influenced by understanding why they are learning this, how they will use it and when they will apply it. This is about facilitating and encouraging learners to make the learning their own, to take control, and be agents of their own learning and development. It does not mean assessing existing knowledge and understanding with a pre-assessment on which learning content can be subsequently arranged.

A strategy based on learning through understanding puts the learners first and foremost. Asking people to learn any other way is just asking them to remember the shopping list.

Dr Lesley Crane, June 2020


Director of Knowing How Lesley Crane PhD MA BSc Hons is a consultant, strategist and researcher specialising in workplace adult learning & development with EdTech. She has a background as an e-learning developer, and considerable experience as a consultant in both private and public sectors in the UK and Europe. Her book, “Discourse and Knowledge Matters” is an internationally recognised definitive text on the subject of organisational knowing, and she has more than a dozen research papers and conference presentations published in international journals. She is an Associate with the Learning & Work Institute, National Foundation of Educational Research and the International Centre for Guidance Studies. @LesleyCrane12