Last week, I had the opportunity to face one of my greatest fears: going to the dentist. Like many others, I go twice a year, get poked in the gums, and receive chastisement for my flossing habits. However, this visit provided an interesting conversation with my dental hygienist that resulted in some reflections on online learning which I’d like to share.

“What do you do for work?” Sudy, my hygienist, asked.

“I work for NovoEd in San Francisco and design online courses,” I replied.

“Online courses? Oh, that’s not for me,” she stated emphatically. “I tried an online course in financial planning before. It was terrible. I spent all this time reading chapters, and then I took a test. And I wondered, ‘Are these questions even about the chapter I was reading?’ I mean, I’m not dumb, and I have never flunked a class before. But I just couldn’t pass those tests.”

I winced. I wasn’t sure if it was because my chosen field of online learning had left such a poor impression on Sudy, and perhaps her entire generation, or if I’d just been jabbed in the gums again.

A few minutes later, the conversation turned towards Sudy’s son’s upcoming prom. When her son had asked her to find a corsage a few days before the event, she had panicked when she found that orders had to be placed a week in advance.

“Thank God for YouTube. I watched a video and went to the store and made it, and it was so pretty. I was worried that it wouldn’t last the whole evening, but my son told me it did. You can learn so many things with YouTube. It’s amazing.”

“You see,” I noted, without missing a beat, “you actually can learn online.” I couldn’t see whether Sudy was smirking behind her mask.

After the appointment concluded, with the typical admonishment about flossing habits, I left with a realization. My hygienist’s story highlighted a common misconception of what online learning looks like: that it is about absorbing dense material on a screen, and taking detailed tests on that content. But Sudy’s YouTube experience felt 180-degrees from that, and was a helpful, wonderful experience.

The educator Malcolm Knowles, postulated some well-known precepts about effective learning for adults (or andragogy, which is distinct from pedagogy, which technically refers to teaching children). Here are Knowles’ Four Principles of andragogy.

1. Adults need to be involved in the planning of their instruction
2. Experience provides the best basis for adults’ learning activities
3. Interest is maximized when the subject is of immediate relevance
4. Adult learning is problem-centered rather than content-oriented

When Sudy learned how to make a corsage for her son’s prom via YouTube, it satisfied all four of these principles: 1) she chose the topic of study, and selected a video which she felt she could learn quickly from, 2) the video assumed some level of comfort with using pins / tape / scissors, and focused on corsage assembly, 3) it was highly relevant, as Sudy had no other options but to make this herself, so she was highly motivated, and 4) the goal was not to create a foundation of knowledge, but to make something that could be used right away.

This leads to the obvious question: why can’t more online learning look like this? Online learning doesn’t have to follow the traditional “Click next to continue” approach. I would hope that people like Sudy, who are motivated to learn and willing to try new methods, finish their online experience with a sense of accomplishment, rather than defeat, and have real-world applications that are meaningful for them.

Online learning doesn’t have to follow the traditional “Click next to continue” approach.

At NovoEd, we’re changing the way people approach online learning by enabling collaboration and team projects to apply the learning. It is exciting to work as a learning experience designer here, where we can follow the Four Principles of andragogy, and create meaningful learning experiences for people. Reflecting on this incident, and the potential for improving online learning to make it relevant and engaging, brings a smile to my face…and, thanks to Sudy, that smile is even brighter.