Learning Experiences Often Not Learning At All

“Part of the problem with all this talk about ‘learning experience’ is it’s questionable whether learning is actually experienced at all.”

This brilliant quote, by Leonard Houx, skewers the recent hubris around ‘learning experiences’. Everything is an ‘experience’ and what is needed is some awareness of good and bad learning experiences. Unfortunately, all too often what we see are over-engineered, media heavy, souped up PowerPoint or primitively gamified ‘experiences’ that the research show, result, not in significant learning, but:

1) Clickthrough (click on this cartoon head, click on this to see X, click on option on MCQ) that allows the learner to skate across the surface of the content,

2) Cognitive overload (overuse of media) and

3) Diversionary activity (Mazes and infantile gamification). What is missing is relevant effort and cognitive effort, that makes one think, rather than click. There is rarely open input, rarely any personalised learning and rarely enough practice.

Media rich is not mind rich

The purveyors of ‘experience’ think that we need richer experiences but research shows that media rich is not mind rich. Mayer shows, in study after study, that redundant material is not just redundant but dangerous in that it can hinder learning. Sweller and others warn us of the danger of cognitive overload. Bjork and others shows us that learners are delusional about what is best for them in learning strategies and just pandering to what users think they want is a mistake. Less is usually more in that we need to focus on what the learner needs to ‘know’, not just ‘experience’.

Research is bedrock of design

There are those who think that Learning and Development does not have to pay attention to this research or learning research at all. It is still all too common to sit in a room where no one has read much learning theory at all, and whose sole criterion for judgement on what makes good online learning is the ‘user experience’, without actually defining it as anything other than ‘what the user likes’. Lawyers know the law, engineers know physics and it is not really acceptable to buy into the anti-intellectual idea that knowing how people learn is irrelevant to Learning and Development. It is, in fact, the bedrock of learning design.

Less is more

Increasingly, online learning is diverging from what most people actually do and experience online. Look at the web’s most popular services or experiences – Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Snapchat, Whatsapp, Messenger, Amazon, Netflix. It is all either mediated by AI to give you a personalised experience that doesn’t waste your time or dialogue. Their interfaces are pared down, simple, and they make sure there’s not an ounce of fat to distract from what the user actually needs. Occam was right with his razor – design with the minimal number of entities to reach your goal.


An experience can be a learning experience but all experiences are not learning experiences. Many are, inadvertently, designed to be the very opposite – experiences designed to impress or dazzle but end up as eye-candy, edu-tainment or enter-train-ment. Get this – media rich is not mind rich, clicking is not thinking, less in learning is often more.

About the author – Donald Clark

Donald Clark was CEO and one of the original founders of Epic Group plc, which established itself as the leading company in the UK online learning market, floated on the Stock Market in 1996 and sold in 2005.

Describing himself as ‘free from the tyranny of employment’, he is a board member of the University for Industry, City & Guilds (Council), Cogbooks Ltd, LearningPool Ltd and Deputy Chair of Brighton Dome & Arts Festival Ltd.

Donald has 30 years experience in online learning, games, simulations, social media and mobile learning projects and designed, delivered and advised on online learning for many global, public and private organisations. He is an evangelist for the use of technology in learning and has won many design awards, including the first ‘Outstanding Achievement in E-learning Award’.

An award winning speaker at national and international conferences…… also a regular (and controversial) blogger on technology!

Check out and register for Donald’s blog by clicking here or follow on twitter @DonaldClark

Connect with Donald on LinkedIn

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