Overcoming barriers to online learning

The delightful bus stop cartoon that is this week's featured image, is the original creation of community member Matt Champlin.

Matt is an engineer and cartoonist, and led us in a fascinating group exercise last Saturday called the Lightning Decision Jam.

The purpose of the Lightning Decision Jam is to help a group quickly discover the main thing holding them back from achieving a particular goal, and then work collaboratively to find solutions to that problem.

At last Saturday's meeting, we used the activity to explore the following question:

"What's holding us back from our goal of transformational online teaching helping us survive and thrive during these challenging times?"

And the answer that the group arrived at was a powerful one. 

We discovered that what's holding us back in our online teaching

 is the very thing we rely on

 to engage in online teaching to begin with.

What's holding us back is


Frustrated cartoon woman pulling her hair out

Talk about a Catch 22...or as I like to put it:

"Technology! Can't live with it, can't hurl it out the window."

Technology is not new.  The Online Etymology Dictionary gives us the Indo-European root “teks” relating to weaving, fabrication, and the creating of useful implements.

Related words include text,textile, texture, architect, and context.

People have been using tools, creating textiles, fabricating things, and building buildings for thousands of years, and they've always used the technology of their time to do it.

Technology has always been part of education too. An educated person in the time of Hammurabi would need to be able to manage the technology needed to write cuneiform on clay tablets... and we're pretty much back to that now with our use of emojis, but I digress.

While technology per se is not new, the pace of its development has accelerated so rapidly in our lifetimes that people of different generations living in the same household no longer know how to use the same tools.

For some comic relief on this subject, take a look at this video showing how young people growing up with cell phones, reacted when asked to dial a rotary phone.

One reason this video is so charming is that it's a reversal of the situation most of us older folks find ourselves in today.

In the words of  Marc Prensky's seminal 2001 article,we are "digital immigrants" in a high-tech world where people younger than us are "digital natives"... and that in itself poses a challenge for educators who are trying to teach tech-savvy  younger generations using tools that the teachers themselves often find challenging.

Young adult angry woman sitting in an office and holding speech bubble above her head, screaming at the camera.

In his wonderful book, The Design of Everyday Things, Don Norman points out that when objects are poorly designed and don't work right, the people using those objects often tend to blame THEMSELVES rather than the object.

We often jump right to "Why can't I do anything right?!" rather than thinking, "Why is this object so poorly designed that it doesn't work the way it should, for me or anyone else?"

But even if an online course is designed and built right, everything in it is not always going to work right for every learner. 

One of the things that happens when you launch an online course, is tech support calls from learners needing help with everything from logins to passwords to navigation to links not working.

As an online course creator, you must EXPECT that to happen and be prepared for it. All of that navigation and all of those links may work perfectly for YOU, but your learners are located in various locations, with different types of internet service, different bandwidth, using different types of devices, different browsers, having varied skill levels, and so on.

Links and connections that work beautifully in some contexts, or even most, may nevertheless malfunction for some users in some locations on some devices under some conditions.

The key to creating a great learning experience for your course participants is to make sure they know how to reach you (or your support team) for help if they need it, and be sure to create a culture of always asking for and responding to feedback from your course participants.

So what's the solution?

The solution to the tech support calls, is to be prepared for them, and adopt an attitude of service and a philosophy of providing excellent support. If your course is small enough, you can do that all yourself, but if you start to have a large number of students enrolled, some kind of help desk might be needed. The important thing is for each customer to feel heard and supported and be able to get their needs met.

If  technology is working right, but people don't know how to use it,

 the solution is to

 train people on the technology BEFORE expecting them to use it.

This is where implementing the steps needed to effectively teach "how-to" skills, comes in.

 (I explain these steps in my book, Course Design Formula: How to Teach Anything to Anyone Online.)

The solution to the deeper problem of technology as a barrier to,

rather than promoter of, online learning,

 is one we need to explore collaboratively in greater depth.

 That's what we'll be talking about at the Learn and Get Smarter community meeting on Saturday, September 19th.

There are many tech barriers that prevent people from learning online. The most serious is complete lack of access to technology to begin with, a factor that relates to social and economic inequalities within societies and around the world.

And there are many other factors beyond that, that prevent people from learning through technology, online.

One of the ways that many people are ABLE to survive and thrive during the pandemic, is THROUGH technology.

But what if that isn't working for them in any of a huge number of possible ways?

a group of people looking surprised

Are you surprised that many people experience technology as a barrier to learning? I was.

I'm used to looking at technology in terms of how it SUPPORTS and PROMOTES online learning (which it also does).

But it's important for all of us as online educators to be aware of how technology can get in the way of learning, so that we can best support our students, clients, and customers in persisting past the challenges they will inevitably encounter along the transformational learning route.

Come to the community meeting on Saturday 

as we continue to work collectively

 to explore this critical issue.

How do YOU feel about technology --do you find that it helps, or hinders, your learning more often than not?

  • Do you like learning how to use new technologies? 
  • Do you enjoy solving tech problems and overcoming tech challenges?
  • Or is that not something you enjoy at all?

Share your experiences, insights and opinions at next week's meeting, in the Facebook group, or by writing to me at Rebecca@learnandgetsmarter.com.

I once considered myself a non-techy person... but over the years I've come to enjoy learning how to use different tech tools.

I'll write another blog post about the relationship between mindset and technology...which is in itself a major topic as humans go up against bots.  

And remember, the solution to many tech problems is the same one that works for humans when we need to take time out to reboot, recharge, and sleep on it: 

to quote the hilarious TV show, "The IT Crowd":

Have you tried turning it off and turning it back on again?

Come talk about it at the Learn and Get Smarter community meeting on Saturday, September 19th or  in the Facebook group!

Come to the community meeting

Saturday, September 19th,  2020

9 AM Pacific/ 12 Noon Eastern

many people online in a conference call

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