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Kerryn Kohl

The Coaching House


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The digital learner: a new breed of learner in the digital age


We have plunged into the digital age.

There are many of us who would have preferred to dip a toe in first; however, with the pace of technological advancement, change no longer happens gradually. These days there is only one speed of change… breakneck!

And the only way to keep pace is to become an accelerated digital learner.

The benefits of digital learning

Digital learning technologies enable learners to grasp concepts faster and gain deeper understanding, connect theory and application more adeptly, and engage in learning more readily.

According to the Office of Digital Learning, they also help improve instructional techniques, enable better usage of instructor time and facilitate the widespread sharing of knowledge.

When organisations digitise learning they allow employees to become proactive and engaged learners who are also partners in the learning process. Thus giving rise to a new breed of learner.

The digital learner

This type of learner is always connected and seeking information from many sources. They are highly visual, preferring to process pictures, sounds and video rather than text.

Digital learners are experiential, social learners. They like to interact with the content and other learners to explore and discuss information, and draw their own conclusions.

This trend will be further fuelled with the increase in technologies such as virtual reality and the highly anticipated Hololens, which will allow learners to fully immerse themselves in the learning experience.

Digitisation has levelled the generational playing field.

In addition to this, digital learners can also be characterised as:

  • Needing immediate feedback, responsiveness and ideas from others, as they are used to instant gratification and feedback
  • Independent learners who are able to teach themselves with guidance (think YouTube at present and VR in the future). They don’t need sets of instructions as they expect learning technology to be intuitive
  • Preferring to construct their own learning. They are comfortable entering into learning from any point in the process and often construct learning journeys that go back and forth in complexity of information

This stands in contrast to current organisational reality in which traditional sequential learning programmes with prescribed content dominate. These, of course, do not take the individual learner, their prior experience, current interests or needs into account.

You may think this description of the digital learner sounds similar to how we would describe millennials. But we need to start shifting our perspectives away from generational theory.

Instead of seeing learning or learners from a generational perspective, we need to look at learning, and the digital learner from a ‘Digital Learning Quadrant’ point of view, as suggested by Don Pontefract.

His Digital Learning Quadrant Model cuts across multiple generations, encompassing all ages and taking into account situational realities regarding access and participation levels.

The Digital Learning Quadrants

According to Dan Pontefract, one impact of the world going digital is that digitisation has levelled the generational playing field.

Yes, there are still many ways in which generational theory still applies; however, the lines are slightly blurred especially when it comes to learning.

There are just too many anomalies around ‘being digital’ for generational theory to hold true. For example, there are many tech savvy boomers and many Gen X and some millennials who are completely behind the adoption curve.

Therefore within the digital landscape it becomes preferable to move towards using the Digital Learning Quadrant model to explain the differences in digital learner behaviour.

This is mainly due to the quadrant model being underpinned by practicalities such as availability of technology, affordability of data and the individual’s ‘digital quotient’.

In using this model, it becomes easier to explain learner behaviour regardless of age or situation. In addition it also helps us make sense of the irregularities we see in trying to classify learners as digital natives versus immigrants as per the Prensky and Tapscott Net Generation model.

The purpose of a digital learning environment is to create equal opportunities for learning regardless of age cohort.

Defining the Quadrants

The four quadrant classifications are based on the learner’s willingness to participate in the digital world and the degree to which they choose or are able to access and use the digital environment.

Let’s look how Dan Pontefract defines participation in each of these quadrants:

Disconnected Nomad

This type of learner has very little exposure to and use of technology. The reasons for this are mainly socio-economic related. However there is the underlying assumption here that if this learner were to gain access they would embrace its use and quickly move through to one of the other quadrants.

Connected Lurker

The connected lurker can be likened to a ‘voyeur’ in a manner of speaking. It defines the group of digital learners that has access to technology and exposure to the digital world but chooses to limit themselves to being consumers of information as opposed to contributors.

Willing Participant

This type of learner is only constrained by time and tools. As a willing participant they possess the enthusiasm to actively be a part of the learning process as often and as best as they can. However their enthusiasm is hampered by their accessibility.

Collaborative Learner

The Collaborative Learner has access through one or many devices. They are connected all the time. Access for them is whenever, wherever and fully participative. They see technology and connectivity as essential components of the learning process itself, and use the ‘collaboration cycle’ as a means in which to achieve success in their learning.

Opportunities for all

When it comes to learning in the digital age, we need to acknowledge that different generations will ultimately respond differently to technology-enabled learning. However the purpose of a digital learning environment is to create equal opportunities for learning regardless of age cohort.

Now, the only thing left is to create equality in the opportunity to access and participate in the digital world… that’s not too much to ask, is it?


2 Responses

  1. I love the flip in thinking
    I love the flip in thinking with this one. I think it is time to move away from generational thinking and to embrace digital learning and how we can ensure everyone has the same access and availability.

  2. I like the move away from
    I like the move away from generational thinking, because I think there are people of every age who adopt technology and the behaviours commonly associated with millenials. There are also plenty who don’t, but its good to stop generalising the behaviour of a generation and remember that people are fantastically good at adapting.

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