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Virtual but still human? The future of learning in the cyber age

By Annabel King

Modern society embraces technology in almost everything we do, even in our physical bodies. The pandemic has cemented this connection even further. As learning evolves in virtual environments, Annabel King considers the benefits, the pitfalls, and how we might keep hold of the human elements.

Humans have always been interlinked with technology. Throughout our existence, the human story has been told through the lens of technological innovation. As far back as ancient Greek times, the myth of Prometheus told the tale of how humans were created from clay. Importantly, Prometheus’ first gift to humans was the gift of fire – a tool to help them get an edge above other creatures on Earth.

In 2021, we are surrounded with technology more than ever. Our smartphones act as extensions of our arms. Sometimes we have smart watches on our arms too. We use voice-activated smart devices to control our environment: music, light, heating… We take vitamin supplements and vaccines; we wear glasses for our eyesight. Our children are given braces; we have hip replacements and pacemakers. These are not unusual things. We are already beyond the simple organic human; we are part-machine.

But since the arrival of the pandemic, this has progressed further. Through socialising, medicine and work, we have seen more obvious signs that we are indeed living in the post-human era, where technology is an irrevocable part of everything. As well as being cyborgs, we live in cyberspace.

Working in cyberspace

One year into working from home for many of us, we’ve all adapted to communicating through Zoom, Teams, Slack, whatever it is – we now accept this as our prime form of communication. But further to this, we’ve seen the introduction of more creative and innovative solutions, which go beyond the virtual in a more dynamic way.

Tools like Pragli offer the ability to connect with cartoon avatars of your colleagues. Outside work, too, Nintendo has seen millions turn to Animal Crossing to socialise.[1] Players trade virtual assets, design new environments and even host parties. We have started to live through virtual personas as an extension of our physical bodies.  

But what about learning? Has this also advanced during COVID-19? We’ve started to see a shift in companies increasingly choosing to move their training and learning resources online. Companies are turning away from classroom learning, in what seems like the most natural step forward, given the circumstances.

Is learning different in a virtual world?

After all, this is the age of learning from the internet. We get stuck on something, and we Google it, knowing that someone will have created some instructions somewhere. Here, we have control over how we learn. We pause, rewind, skip forward; we get what we need out of it. Instead of listening to a lecture in a classroom, we can tailor our individual experiences and forge our own path.

So, if this is the appeal of online learning, why do companies so often opt for fixed elearning modules, which echo the linear experience of classroom education?

In this fixed approach, we cannot explore – we are restrained. And yet we know that control and personalisation are so important for learning – we need to feel something is relevant to us, and have some sort of emotional reaction to it. The digital learning medium lends itself well to this sort of learning, however this opportunity is sometimes not seized.

L&D teams are already embracing social platforms (or new areas of cyberspace) to enhance virtual communication. How do we keep pushing forward in digital learning, rather than making it simply compliant?

This isn’t necessarily a case of finding the latest cutting-edge innovation, such as creating intricate VR experiences to reach new digital spaces. It could be much simpler. Greater control and personalisation can be offered through branching learning scenarios, more flexible, less locked-down content, and individual components that offer an element of choice.

We can make use of the opportunity to be creative; elearning has the scope to be memorable and enjoyable, and we shouldn’t shy away from using humour and emotion to make the messages come to life.

Can we recapture ‘reality’ virtually?

If there is a move from face-to-face classroom training to more virtual experiences, what would we miss? We don’t get the same experience of physical presence: catching the train to go to the session, talking informally to colleagues as you arrive, the smell of the coffee as you sit down, the murmur of voices around you, and also having a real person there to keep you motivated and on the right track. How do we replace those?

Physical experience

Firstly, we miss physical sensation. We miss movement, using our senses. If learning is all about feeling, as Nick Shackleton-Jones argues[2], the more we can use our senses, and simulate embodied experience (for example, through sound and movement), the more the messages are likely to make an impression.

Casual exchange

And what about dialogue? How can we replace those spontaneous conversations we find ourselves in in a social space? These help us to learn in a different way, as we bond with others and understand other points of view.

It has become clear during the pandemic that Zoom isn’t liked by everyone. Many people suffer from social anxiety and video conferencing can make this even more difficult.[3] Many are afraid to speak in virtual classroom events; announcing your opinion to everyone on a Zoom call is different to casually talking to the person sitting next to you. But what can we do about this?

Perhaps the virtual sessions could be made more inclusive by giving people the option to use to express their opinions in different ways: for example, using a collaborative post-it note board or mind-map, instead of asking people to present their thoughts through speech. This is just one idea – there are many options to explore.

The teacher role

How about that lecturer or facilitator at the front of the room? Do we need a physical person to guide the agenda?

Distraction and confusion abound in the digital sphere. Things were simpler when all we had were libraries and people to teach us. Clearly, some guidance is needed, or people may feel lost.

But this is possible online; we can create a basic structure at the same time as giving people choice and flexibility. If anything, virtual learning has the potential to transform guidance into something new: through data, AI and evaluation, for instance.

What might the future look like?

So, we’ve lifted the anchor and begun moving beyond classroom learning, into new digital spaces.

Aside from the implementation needed, which may cost time and money, we seem mentally ready.

There are already virtual alternatives for doing almost anything, and we continue to innovate. We have the potential to develop learning to make it more personalised, engaging and human, and to widen our horizons.

However, as a species which struggles to take a step back and un-invent, we must be wary of moving too quickly and losing valuable elements that we once had. We may be post-human, but “human” is still a part of that.

We should take a minute to consider human nature as we navigate through cyberspace and discover all there is to offer.


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