A few weeks ago, I had a problem to solve and it was something of an emergency. My Keurig had failed to make my morning cup of coffee. I followed the directions, like I’d done a hundred times before, but it just sat there, mocking me. I could have opened the minuscule user guide that came with the device, but I was in a hurry, and caffeine withdrawal was already kicking in. So, I found a video on YouTube that showed me how to clear a tiny clog in the filter. Two minutes later, the aroma of Sumatra beans brewing in pressurized steaming-hot water was wafting through my nostrils and stimulating a rush of endorphins. Just the thought of enjoying my morning coffee was already sending dopamine to my brain’s reward center. I had figured it out on my own – and I was darn proud of myself.

Thought leader and President of the eLearning Guild, David Kelly, would say that I experienced a shift from waiting for someone to solve a problem, to just finding the resources and solving it myself.

Because this shift in the way people consume learning experiences has been facilitated by technology, it is often called “Digital Learning.” The truth is that we humans have always been “digital learners” – long before computers or the Internet even existed. Our ancestors developed an insatiable curiosity and a knack for solving problems to help them survive a hostile world. Along the way, we developed the tools and technologies to make our lives safer and more comfortable. But that comfort came with a price. The same brain that can be such a remarkable, proactive learning machine can become lazy and passive – particularly if passivity and conformity are rewarded generation after generation. As we built the modern world, we built a new type of human – one who waited to be told what to do, had goals handed down from people above them in the food chain, and went to training when scheduled, rather seeking knowledge when it was needed.

Digital Learning shatters that paradigm and re-awakens the resourceful explorer inside each of us. As the trend towards Digital Learning transforms the way we learn, we must re-imagine learning in the corporate environment. And to do that, we must re-imagine the environment itself.

1. How Has Digital Learning Changed the Way You Learn?

Before we tackle your entire organization, let’s start with you. Unless you’ve been on another planet, you’ve probably had an experience like mine – you instinctively turned to online resources to solve an immediate need. I don’t use that term, “instinctively” lightly. Biologists define instincts as genetically hard-wired behaviors that provide a survival advantage. Your brain is constantly predicting future outcomes and evaluating their likelihood. When faced with a problem, your brain seeks the most likely place to find a solution, based on experience. In today’s world, that often translates into a digital resource, like YouTube, Facebook or Google. After years of exposure to search engines and social media, your brain has learned that these resources give you nearly instant, highly reliable information in easy-to-digest formats. Let’s face it – when was the last time you decided to sign up for a workshop or elearning course to solve a real-life problem?

2. Solving Problems is the Essence of Learning

If you are employed in corporate training or education, it is easy to fall into the fallacy of thinking that what you do is “learning.” Learning, as it takes place in the brain, isn’t about processes, onboarding, teamwork, leadership, math, English, history or any other content area. At its core, learning is about solving a problem, making us a bit more likely to survive another day. Your brain is like a heat-seeking missile. Left to its own devices, it will always seek out the most likely, most efficient path to a resolution. If the selected path turns out to be a mistake, your brain re-calculates, incorporating the new information and choosing a new path, until a resolution is found. This simple concept is so powerful that it is the fundamental principle of machine learning and is driving the development of machines that learn from their own mistakes – just like us.

3. What’s in Your Database?

The more information you have stored in your memory banks, the more effective your predictions can be. That’s one reason why we get better at certain types of cognition with practice, and make better life decisions with maturity. As we look at encouraging a more self-directed learner, we have a potential weakness to consider. Not every person willing to answer your question is an expert. In fact, the odds are that many answers you receive and many videos you watch will be full of misinformation, or worse. It’s the classic case of GIGO: Garbage in; garbage out.

4. The Dark Side of Digital Learning

Because it is so instant, so generally accurate and so physically addictive to our solution-seeking brain, digital learning can be dangerous. The same process that taught me how to fix my coffee maker also “taught” millions of voters to believe patently false claims and allow their vote to be influenced by the information delivered in Facebook ads disguised as news. In fact, according to a recent survey, some people trust their social network more than traditional news sources. This might be fine if social media were designed to provide impartial, carefully vetted news. As we all know, it’s about posting whatever the user wants to share. It doesn’t have to be newsworthy information; it doesn’t have to be true; it doesn’t even have to be information in the strictest sense of the word.

And yet, it is delivered to us in exactly the way the brain wants to receive information – short, snappy videos, powerful images and instant gratification of our deeply wired need to find the answer NOW. What does this mean to the learning professional?

Lessons from Digital Learning

Our brains have been changed by the seductive, addictive nature of our online world, and we are now hard-wired to crave it. There is no use blaming the learner for eating it up like candy. Instead, we need to figure out how to incorporate these less formal sources into our learning programs.

Let’s say you’re designing a sales enablement program for new hires in your company. Chances are pretty good that your learners have already consumed multiple selling skills videos before they even come to class. They may even think the information they can find on their own is better than what you are giving them (and it may very well be).

Digital content is competing with your formal training programs for eyeballs, hearts, and minds.

It’s hard to copy in a formal training environment, but you’re going to have to if you want your learning programs to stay relevant.

No amount of coffee is going to change that fact.