Why Technology (E-Learning) Fails As A Teaching And Learning Tool

The Fundamental Flaw That Afflicts ALL Technology and E-Learning Strategies By Robert Bacal

One of the advantage of getting older is that one starts to see patterns reappearing over decades, and that's no less the case with the use of technology (or e-learning whatever that's supposed to mean) to teaching and training.

The field is growing, at least in terms of expenditures, driven by marketing efforts (it's a lucrative industry), rising transportation costs, and more difficult economic times where training and development move downwards on the organizational list of priorities.

What's not clear, at least yet, is when technology is a good choice, and when it isn't, beyond the superficial metric related to reducing delivery costs.

Failures Galore And The Essential Excuse: "They Didn't Do It Right"

Technology has and is failing as a tool to improve teaching and training. Whether you look back to the sixties, or the present you find some commonalities:

  • The advent of television sparked huge optimism about it's application to learning, with a lot of claims about how it would revolutionize how learning was delivered. The upshot was that schools spent huge amounts of money on televisions, only to have them languish in "storage", largely unused.

    The reasons for this were varied, the first being a lack of quality programming. The essential excuse put forth by learning television advocates was that the programming was "bad", but the concept was good. Not true. In retrospect, now that we know more about television and how brains react to it, it turns out people have difficulty learning from "screens", because watching evokes brain states that do not facilitate learning.
  • Later on, in the 70's and 80's computer assisted instruction and its various flavors were also touted as revolutionizating learning, and the school system. Optimism was so great that some advocates suggested that schools would go the way of the dinosaur, and learning would occur at home, in private.

    It hasn't turned out that way. Again, advocates made the point that the software was terrible (often the case), but that's not why it has not had the impact envisioned "back then".

    Human beings are social. Our brains function differently when in the company of others, and we are genetically inclined towards human contact -- that is face-to-face contact. Different neurons fire when others are present.

    While we don't yet know exactly how this affects how learning occurs, and the impact of "learning alone", I have no doubt that as neuroscience advances, we'll find that the genetic "pack animal" that is human, learns better, feels like learning, more effectively when other people are present and we can interact face-to-face.
  • Finally, to the present, where, once again we have a huge and influentical population of advocates for e-learning and Massive Online Open Source (MOOC's) courses. The term e-learning itself is deceptive because it's so broad, that it encompasses almost any learning activity where technology is used, from reading on a Kindle to participating in learning events via multi-media, and various other combinations.

    The hope, and claims of vendors and advocates, is that e-learning is more efficient, and cost effective, and if you exclude the time to develop really GOOD software and technology, it IS cost effective, although we don't know if the quality of the learning is the same, cognitively speaking.

    But using technology as a delivery medium hasn't yet succeeded. MOOC's - free online courses delivered by universities are a really cool idea, until you find out, as the research says, that the completion rate for these courses ranges between three and seven percent.

    People don't like them enough to complete them. Likewise, companies that have moved to e-learning for voluntary training and development (as opposed to mandatory training) have found that their e-learning facilities are incredibly under-used.


The push to use technology to "communicate" and facilitate learning is continuing, largely ignoring the fact that we are genetically coded to function in groups, and even require human contact as infants, to develop properly.

That's not to say technology is no place in learning. It does. But it's not necessarily a drop in replacement for group and face-to-face learning.

One thing is sure. The claims of the advocates for technology seem more interested in the technology than the learning.

You've probably heard of learner-centered instruction, and teacher centric instruction, but these advocates are, regardless if they admit it or not, pushing technology centered instruction. In either zeal or for profit motives, the claims made go way beyond the research.

Eventually we'll discover there is NO technological substitutes for human to human, face-to-face interactions, because we simply work as social human beings.

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