Three Skills for Online Learning that no one is Teaching

There can be no doubt that online education is the way of the future, as I pointed out in an interview with Robin Phillips last Spring. Few would deny this, yet it is puzzling that most online programs routinely fail their students through giving them insufficient instruction on the skills required by this new learning environment.

Imagine asking a class of students to study texts in Greek without instructing them on the Greek alphabet and grammar, or requiring a class of math students to use a slide-rule without teaching them how it works. That is almost what it is like now with the advent of online learning: universities are folding entire classes, or portions of them, into online platforms without instructing their students about the skills needed for effective internet learning.

On one level this is not surprising. Most teachers, let alone students, do not even realize that special skills are needed for studying effectively online. After all, almost everyone imagines he or she is already an expert at using the internet. The idea that a unique set of skills might be required for studying online will strike many in the younger generation as odd.

The reason it seems odd is because the skills I’m talking about are not the obvious things that first come to mind when we think about using the internet effectively. I’m not talking about things like knowing how to get around on Google, or how to find reliable information when doing a web search, or how to save information on your computer for accessing later. Most students nowadays are adept at performing such functions, or can pick them up with relatively little effort.

Rather, the types of skills I’m talking about require us to give attention, not just to the content of our online learning, but to how the medium itself affects the learning experience.

In the middle of last century, communication theorist Marshall McLuhan helped us to understand that whenever a new medium comes into widespread use, most people get so preoccupied with the content coming through the medium that they often fail to give adequate attention to the way the content, and us as people, alters to fit the demand of the new vehicle. We can become so focused on the information being conveyed through the new technology that we fail to consider the demands the medium is making on us, and how the content must be subtly repackaged to fit the new technology. The future of online learning hinges on whether we can avoid this mistake. Specifically, this means that online learning programs need to devote attention, not just to the content of their programs, but to the types of skills necessary to use this new medium in an effective way.

What types of skills am I talking about? Here are three.

Skill #1: Learn to Protect Your Executive Memory

Our executive memory (also known as short-term or working memory) can only hold so much information at any one time, which is why it is important not to overload it. We want our executive memory to work well so that the information it contains can eventually be solidified in the long-term memory (also known as “explicit memory”). But unlike the long-term memory, which can store vast amounts of data, our short-term or working memory can only take in so much at any one time. That is why overloading ourselves with too much stimuli doesn’t just stop the process of remembering, it can also squeeze out other information from your short-term memory that then disappears forever, never having the opportunity to form into long-term memories. (For more about this, see my earlier post ‘Don’t Overcrowd Your Working Memory‘.)

Protecting your executive memory is important in all learning contexts, but especially when engaged in online education. This is because when we’re online its easy to be bombarded by distractions that don’t feel like distractions because they are part of the “background noise” going on in our brain. As Robin Phillips observed in a Touchstone feature:

“From animations, to hyperlinks, to pop-ups, to audible email notification, to live feeds, the internet seems designed to be always distracting our attention from one thing on to something else. When we go online, we enter what Cory Doctorow has appropriately termed an ‘ecosystem of interruption technologies.’ Our attention is scattered amid a panoply of stimuli, and our minds inundated with rapidly dispensed, and often disconnected, bits of information.

In short, the calm, focused, and linear mind of the reader is being pushed aside by what Nicholas Carr, in his book The Shallows, has descriptively termed “a new kind of mind that wants and needs to take in and dole out information in short, disjointed, often overlapping bursts—the faster, the better.”

When studying online it is crucial to protect your executive memory by not allowing yourself to be sucked into this ecosystem of distractions. As we have observed elsewhere on this blog, shifting attention from one thing to another—even very briefly—requires a temporary orientation of the brain around the new activity. When we then return to our online study from checking our email or looking at a Facebook update, there are other things buzzing in the background of our mind, depleting the amount of working memory available to us. As Maggie Jackson explained in her book on multitasking, “the brain takes time to change goals, remember the rules needed for the new task, and block out cognitive interference from the previous, still-vivid activity.”

Skill #2: Print


When studying online, make sure you have access to a good printer. Then print the material you need to read, particularly if it is something important that you’ll need to remember later.

We don’t think of printing as a skill, but choosing to take the time to print a resource that we could read online takes a degree of conscious effort and deliberation that only comes with practice.

But why is this even important? Why waste paper and ink when you could just read something online?

Studies have shown that reading printed material goes into a different part of your brain than the material we read online. Specifically, when we read online, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex in the left front of the brain is activated. This is the part of the brain involved in controlling decision making, complex reasoning, problem solving and vision. By contrast, when we read texts off-line, researchers found that the part of the brain associated with language, memory and visual processing is activated, not the part of the brain involved in problem-solving. And that is what you want. When reading material that you need to remember, it’s important that your executive memory not be taxed by being in problem-solving situations. (For more about this, see Graham Taylor’s article ‘The Virtues of Printing.’)

We don’t realize that reading online puts us in problem-solving situations, because it happens just on the edge of conscious awareness. Yet there are numerous decisions we make when reading online, such as

  • Should I continue reading this article or glance at my email?
  • What’s happening in that advertizement that just popped up on the side of my screen? Should I ignore that and come back to it later?
  • Should I click on this hyperlink that looks really interesting?

This last question – to click or not to click on an interesting hyperlink – gets to the heart of why reading online involves the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (the part of our brain involved in making judgments). As Nicholas Carr explained when commenting on the aforementioned study,

“Whenever we, as readers, come upon a link, we have to pause, for at least a split second, to allow our preforntal cortext to evaluate whether or not we should click on it. The redirection of our mental resources, from reading words to making judgments, may be imperceptible to us–our brains are quick–but its been shown to impede comprehension and retention, particularly when it’s repeated frequently.”

Printing is a good solution to this problem. Or if you are using Safari, you can select ‘Reader Mode’ which helps to eliminate some distractions. Another solution is that instead of clicking on any hyperlink that grabs your attention, right click ‘open in new tab’ and read it later after you’ve finished reading the original article. You’re still having to make judgments each time about whether or not to open the link, so this is less preferable than printing. The goal in all these suggestions is to help preserve your executive memory so that what you read stands a better chance of making it into your long-term memory. For more information about this, see my posts ‘Managing Hyperlinks (part 1)‘ and ‘Managing Hyperlinks (part 2)‘ and ‘Managing Hyperlinks (part 3)‘.)

Skill #3: Turn Off Distractions

When studying in a traditional classroom environment, there are external forces that motivate us. We have to go and be somewhere at a certain time; we have to attend to what the lecturer is saying in real time; we have to be prepared in case we’re called on to participate in a class discussion. It’s still up to us to pay attention to the class, but we can also be pulled along by the corporate activity.

By contrast, when we study online at our own schedule and in our own home, the necessity for internal motivation is much greater. The onus rests on our own shoulders to carefully police our environment for potential distractions. That means that we have to develop the skill of turning off our distractions. This especially applies to services like email or Facebook which are on the same medium we use for studying, namely the computer. (For more information about the distractions caused by email, see ‘Managing Email (part 1)‘ and ‘Managing Email (part 2)‘.)

In my post ‘The Off Button‘, I gave some tips for what this looks like in practice. I pointed out that when you’re studying online, your Facebook page should not be open in another or window, and any other social networking media should also be turned off. This includes services like Skype which operate in the background but change color when someone is trying to contact you. If what you are studying doesn’t require a live internet connection, then you should disconnect from the internet completely. If you do this, you may find that the ‘off’ button is the most important button in your entire study experience.

In his book The Overflowing Brain: Information Overload and the Limits of Working Memory, Torkel Klingberg cites a survey of workplaces in the United States which “found that the personnel were interrupted and distracted roughly every three minutes and that people working on a computer had on average eight windows open at the same time.” If this parallels your experience as a student, you could be unnecessarily compromising your executive control and vastly underperforming as a consequence.

If you are skeptical that we are over-emphasizing this point, try this test. Every hour you are studying, keep track of how often you use the internet (including a smart-phone) on things not related to your study, even if it’s something as simple as checking your email.

Remember, every time you click a button, it represents a small break in your concentration and thus a decrease in your executive control.

In raising awareness about distractions, part of the problem is that most people tend to see the problem of distractions as being purely about time rather than about the burden they create on the executive memory. Accordingly, many of us think that managing distractions like smart-phones, emails and text messages involves keeping these activities as brief as possible. In reality, the problem with these distractions is that they drain our cognitive resources even if they only occupy seconds or micro-seconds. I’m not saying you shouldn’t use these technologies, only that they should not be allowed to invade your study process. It would be better to text, tweet, surf and do Facebook for an hour once a day then twenty minutes interspersed throughout the time when you are supposed to be studying.

Robin Phillips has observed that when we think about the distracting nature of our machines we “almost always think that the problems with our digital distractions are that they use up too much time.” He continued

According to this narrative, distractions are bad for young people today because they use up time that might be put to a better use. The problem with this narrative is that the main problem with distractions is not primarily that they use up time: glancing at an incoming text message while you are hiking or reading a novel may use less than a second of time. Similarly, quickly reading an email during your time of prayer may consume just as much time as taking a break to go to the bathroom or get a drink of water. Instead, the main problem with distractions is that they take juice out of your working or short-term memory.


Online learning is a tremendous blessing, but in order to take full advantage of the blessings provided by online learning we need to develop certain skills. I have suggested three such skills, but in reality they can all be reduced to one, namely developing mastery in controlling our digital devices instead of letting them control us. Only when you have developed such control is it possible to take full advantage of the benefits offered by online education.

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