I read this research on the Internet, so it has to be true.  Learning hurts your brain. I first began to suspect this was true in 4th Grade Spanish class with Mrs. Gonzalez, where I was called “Ricardo” for reasons that remained a mystery to me all year long.  (Hey — I’m just visiting your country for an hour a day.  I’m not planning on renouncing my citizenship and living here as an ex-pat like Hemingway, lady.) But I digress.

The researchers exposed J20 and wildtype mice to new cages to increase neuron activity. Surprisingly, after 2 hours in the novel environments, the number of gH2A.X -positive neurons spiked in the brains of both healthy and diseased animals, primarily in areas critical for memory formation and learning—suggesting that the brain activity itself was triggering DNA damage.

Interestingly, the damage was resolved in wildtype mice within 24 hours back in their home cages, but the damage persisted in J20 mice. Furthermore, the damage was higher in J20 mice, which had up to three times as many gH2A.X-positive neurons—and the differences could be detected as early as 1 month, before the J20 mice began exhibiting cognitive symptoms. The results suggest that perhaps the high levels of amyloid in the brains of these mice was preventing DNA repair. SOURCE

So — Should You Be Worried?

A slightly “less scientific” version of the findings published on Ars Technica suggests, reassuringly, that this “shouldn’t keep you up at night.”  And that it may even provide some useful insights into the cure of Alzheimer’s. But if you’ve already substantially damaged your neurons by moving to a new cage, you may not even be aware of what you’ve lost.  Check around your desk for degrees that you may have earned, patents in your name, and photos of you with famous people.  You should also ask close family members if you’re a big deal in any way at least once per day.

As educators, I think most of us are already aware of this situation.  I can say that any time I’ve tried to instill learning in any meaningful amount, it makes my brain hurt in a direct relationship to how hard I’m teaching.  That’s why, as I get older, I teach less and less and listen more and more.


(First published on www.aeseducation.com)


A client recently relayed a comment to me from a classroom teacher.  The teacher was disappointed in our e-learning unit because some students would just quickly “click through” the content, rather than spending several minutes on each screen.  The instructor wanted to know if we could modify the product to force the students to spend a couple of minutes looking at each screen, before they were allowed to click “next” and proceed.  My client asked how I would respond to the question.

Here’s what I said — I’m curious, how would YOU respond?

Would Forcing Longer Time On A Screen Help?

I usually start this answer (if I think the teacher can take a little gentle ribbing) by asking if, before they hand out the textbooks, they glue down the corners of all the pages.  When they say “no” I let this lead into having the group list the uses of a textbook – not just a front-to-back read, but for reference, to use for review before testing, to quote in projects, to refresh memory during open-book tests, and so forth.

From there, I start talking about how e-learning content can be used in many different ways by a learner.  Some learners will start at the beginning, and go from front to back.  Some will dip their toes in at different places.  Some will scan for subjects of interest.  Some will use the “search” function to find a specific subject.  (I stop to point out that, as educators, we don’t get a vote in this.  It’s how learners build knowledge in the world today.)  So we need to understand that, and build it into our understanding of how we help them facilitate their learning.

What Has Changed In Learning, Anyway?

Back when I was in the 3rd grade, Mrs. Solem had a huge amount of control over what I learned and exactly how that happened.  Today, learners expect to be able to make a lot of decisions about what and how they’re going to learn.  (They make GOOD and BAD decisions, of course.  That’s to be expected.)  Our job as teachers and facilitators is to help guide them as they do this, to show them how to make good choices, and (ultimately) measure the outcome of their choices and achievement.  The learners own their success or failure.

Technically, it’s easy to set a minimum screen time.  Practically, we’ve found that learners just go browse the web or read email or paint their nails or do something else.  I’ve seen no solid research that there’s a corresponding increase in learning.  Much like gluing the pages down in a textbook to force students to spend more time on each one, you’re just going to frustrate the participant.

The larger question that needs to be asked here is why does the learner skip through the content, not learn, and end up with “some quiz and test scores so low”?

Given Good Content And Teaching, Why Don’t They Learn?

If we assume the content is good quality, and the teaching is good quality – why do students skip through it and fail the tests?  There are enough answers there to fill a thesis dissertation, but I’ll focus here on just one.  Motivation.

If we’re trying to teach a student how to write an MLA footnote, and the student sees no reason that they need to learn to do so – I could make them stay on that page for an hour and they probably won’t learn the content.  (Unless I tell them there’s a test they have to pass to graduate.) Google the difference between “intrinsic” and “extrinsic” motivation for extra credit.

But if I tell the student the next screen will show them how to double their score at “Angry Birds” they will stay on that screen until they’ve squeezed every drop of knowledge out of it.  Because they want that information for themselves and see the value.

So as a teacher, one of the most useful things you could possibly do is to show your students that what you’re teaching is connected to their real lives, and actually means something to them.  And that’s a huge, huge job.

So — what do you think?  Do you glue your virtual pages down?


I spend lots of time developing learning that lives online.  e-learning, web content, videos, podcasts, support information, application forms for tractor assembly jobs — so I fancy myself as a bit of an expert in how this type of content is consumed.

(Many other people in my discipline would use less flattering terms to describe me — including references to rodents, orifices and familial relationships.  But even if true — I design a bunch of online learning.)

As part of that, I joust regularly with people who teach and train in something called “The Real World”.  I have a hazy memory of this place — it involves chalk boards, rows of desks, and children in freshly-pressed jumpers smiling up at me as I whack their knuckles with a wooden ruler.  I rarely teach there anymore — nobody wants to pay my embarrassingly high prices, and I keep trying to click on individual students and block them.

baggageAs they move into the world of online teaching, most “real world” practitioners attempt to bring all their baggage with them.  And as the airlines have found, the more baggage you allow the more difficult it is to get the damn thing off the ground.  So I’m here today to show you a few of the cherished icons of classroom instruction you’re going to have to leave at the gate if you want to succeed in the online world.

Everyone Does Not Stay Together
In your classroom, you can exert a good deal of control that all students advance at a controlled pace — by assigning readings, presentations, and in-class activities.  You’ll find that online students will lag behind and race ahead.  Some will have questions about section 14 on the third day of class.  Oopsie.

So you’d best be prepared on Day 1 to teach the whole thing, or you’ll take the wind out of the sails of the students who are really engaged.  And you’ll have to be willing to support someone who’s going back to the beginning for a refresher during the last week.

Everyone Expects Personalized Support
Blame it on Tony Hsieh of Zappos — a large number of your students will now expect to interact with you via email, chat, FaceBook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, Snoozle, Schmaltz, Fizzle, Abdalo, Whackadoodle — ok, I was just making up those last few.  But you get the picture.  If you’re not careful about designing how you set up your assignments, your workload will go up exponentially.

Be sure that you set your assignments up so that students interact with each other, rather than always depending on you.  Be sure that you become an Online Facilitator, and let go of the idea that all learning comes from you.  Be sure that you spend some time learning new skills for this new role that you’ve taken on.

Everyone Will Not View Every Screen
Do you have a DVR?  If so, I bet you don’t watch commercials.  Or the boring parts.  And your e-learning students are going to do that, as well.  In your classroom, they sat their in their seats and pretended to listen during the boring parts.  Online, they’re just going to skip past the things they don’t want to pay attention to.  (I always find it amusing when teachers complain about learners ignoring boring online content.  I ask them what they, personally, do during the sermon in church.)

So you’d better make sure the e-learning you’re using is interesting, engaging, and makes your learners want to pay attention.  Or find a way to introduce it so they will.

Quit Measuring Stuff You Don’t Track
There’s no reason to add in all those little “Check Your Understanding” and “Quick Quiz” screens throughout the e-learning, unless you’re going to collect the data and use if for something.  Only three possible outcomes:

  1. Student actually knows the answer. Wow.
  2. Student doesn’t know the answer.  Unless you force them back through the content, you just make them feel dumb.  Wow.
  3. Student skips past the test — which the majority will do.  Wow.

If you feel you must do this, just have a question and the correct answer on the next screen, like a flashcard.  That way you’re reinforcing a positive.  There’s good data to support that.  And you can re-use that content for test prep at the end of the course.

Let The Inmates Build The Prison
As I’ve mentioned above, you need to start thinking more like a “facilitator” than a “teacher”.  You’re guiding this group of learners through the curriculum, and no longer the main source of knowledge.  Let them learn from each other, from resources you provide (and that they find and vet through you), bring in live humans via Skype or Webcasts, have them do original research and share — be creative in how each new class discovers information.

Each course will look different, and that’s ok.  Each group of learners will approach the problems in a different manner, and the shared knowledge that they create will be unique.  That’s one of the amazing parts of online learning — those “Poindexters” that sit in the front row will fade into the background, and you’ll meet a whole new group of people you never heard from before.


old-classroomLast week I was having a nice conversation with a new online friend about helping her move her “in-person” teaching into the land of the Interwebs.  (This is a conversation that I’ve now had 21,586 times — since I do this sort of thing for a living — so I’m getting better and better at it.)  As usual, she was bemoaning the fact that there were parts of the in-person teaching experience that you “just couldn’t translate” into the online world.

With great sensitivity and thoughtfulness, I told her that those of us with a great deal of experience in developing online learning had a technical term for that concern.  We called it “dumb”. As you might expect, a short silence followed.

(I need to interject here that my new friend understands that I’m an obnoxious, opinionated old bear and doesn’t object to that at all.  Had I been dealing with someone who was more sensitive I might have described this as a “possible disconnect in her evaluation of the potential learning modality available within the online form factor as it relates to the more traditional instructor-led design model” or something like that.)

When she asked me to give her more detail, I said that thinking of the digital world as a place to just move her in-person class model didn’t make sense, because she already had a great place to teach in person.  It was called real life. What she needed to do was learn about the wonderful things that you can do in the online world that you can’t do in person, the experiences that learners can have in the online world that can’t be replicated in the meat world, and the ways that a digital teacher can create amazing experiences that would never be possible if they were in a traditional classroom.

How About An Example, Then?

Thank you for asking. One of my favorites involves what I call the “Poindexters” that all of us have in our real-world classrooms.  They’re the ones who sit in the front, have a pocket protector and a fresh notebook, and wave their hands high in the air every time we ask a question.  They want to be called on, they crave attention, and hope that the whole class hears them answer every question. (I have a great sympathy for them, because I is one.)

In the back of the room, we have the Wallflowers.  Heads down, never engaging, terrified that you’ll call on them and make them look stupid if they answer wrong.  Many of these people have the correct answer — and often some of the most interesting ideas — but you never get to hear them.  Because over the years in education we’ve taught them that the focus is on getting the right answer at all costs. So they just won’t participate.

In the online world, I can ask every student to log in as their favorite candy bar for the day.  (This means nobody in class knows who they are.)  Then, when I ask a question, the Poindexters and the Wallflowers are on a level playing field.  You should see the sparks fly!  You should see the creativity, the passion, and the engagement!

There are many more examples.  Online offers learners more time to create their thoughts and craft them carefully.  Those learners who are glib and can speak quickly and easily (I’m also guilty of that) are no longer at an advantage.  Collaboration looks very different online.  Research looks very different online. And peer-to-peer learning works wonderfully online, meaning the poor teacher doesn’t have to be the source of every bit of information.

So Online Learning Is All You Need, Then?

Oh, Pish-Tosh!  It’s just one more tool in the bag.  Just because we got pens, we didn’t give up on pencils.  There are good parts and bad parts to any way of delivering knowledge to young skulls full of mush.  And so far, we’re only scratching the surface on how to do digital learning right.

Want to glimpse the future?  Take a look at Building Intelligent Interactive Tutors: Student-Centered Strategies For Revolutionizing e-Learning” by Beverly Park Woolf.  In a nutshell, it’s AI that watches how the student is doing and offers meaningful help just when it is needed.  (Think “Clippy” on steroids.)

We’ll always have classrooms, and I’ll always love to teach in them.


This morning I noticed a tweet from @JaneBozarth, the Doctor O’ Learning who writes books and is the Worlds Worst Bureaucrat in Raleigh, NC. She was pimping an article she’d written for Learning Solutions Magazine on measuring the results of your e-learning, entitled “Nuts And Bolts: How To Evaluate e-Learning“.

Always the snarky guy, I tweeted the link out to all my little followers, but then sent a comment direct to Jane:


I spend a lot of time promoting the idea of assessment in learning — and rarely, if ever, get much interest from clients in including that part of the project.  Because it’s expensive, difficult, time-consuming and often embarrassing.

She responded quickly:


And that’s the sad truth.  Lots of people don’t really want to know if their learning, “e” or otherwise is working.  Because it’s hard to measure, it takes time and dedication, and (ultimately) you might just embarrass yourself.

So Why Bother To Measure At All?

Because I don’t create amazing training the first time I try. My first version is usually somewhere between “good” and “sucks”.  I don’t spend a lot of time on it, it isn’t real glossy and pretty, and sometimes there are even some big empty gaps.  But I quickly evaluate how well it worked — using the actual learning goals and the assessments we all agreed on at the beginning — and then go right back to designing.

By version #2, I’m usually at about “great”.  But I don’t stop there. Now, I’m able to really start making things happen.  I can add teaching suggestions, more interactions, alternate models, and lots of nice media and facilitation. Then I head back to designing.

By version #3, we’re up to “amazing”.  Most people would hang it up. Not me.  I’m drilling down on the 20% of the assessment questions that people are still missing.  I’m asking the students what isn’t engaging them, the instructor what still feels stiff, and the client what they might have forgotten to include.

At version #4, we’ve reached “in-freakin-credible”.  Go ahead and measure me. Bring it on! Want to talk about R.O. I.?  I’ve got your ROI right here, sucka!  Want to compare me to your PPT lectures?  Go for it!  Want to put your next training project out to the lowest bidder?  Listen to me chuckle my evil chuckle!

So the next time somebody asks you whether you include assessment, just smile and say “of course — that’s where we start!”