Are we asking too much from remote learning?


When I tell someone that I work from home, the standard response is, “don’t you get distracted?”,  followed by, “aren’t you tempted just to get a load of washing on, or watch a bit of daytime TV?”.  If I’m honest, yes I do get the washing done, but I also am at my most productive sitting in my little office at home. I love a chat and so having a willing volunteer sitting at the next desk to catch up with the latest view on who is going to win Strictly this year, is far more tempting than a sneaky watch of daytime TV.  I wonder though, if we have fully considered the impact of distraction on the effectiveness of remote learning?

In the classroom, the facilitator is in control. They have the ability to engage the audience with the material.  A good facilitator brings the material to life and energises the delegates so that they are keen to hear more.  Subject to the content, they will involve them in various activities in keeping with the various learning styles.  The classroom environment allows the learning to be free from outside distractions – as long as the facilitator remembers to make the crucial request of turning off all phones before the start of the session!  But how do we ensure the same level of attention in remote learning?

Over the years of working from home, I think I have perfected the art of concentration.  I would suggest that I find myself in the ‘zone’ at least once a day.  The ‘zone’ being that lovely mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement and enjoyment in the process of the activity.   In essence, being in the ‘zone’ or in a flow state is characterised by complete absorption in what one does. I know that when I am there, in the zone, I am at my most productive.  I get lost in my work and it is not uncommon for me to find that 3 hours have passed before I even look up.  Thank goodness for the regular call of the washing machine finishing that tells me I’ve been sitting still for too long.

the information presented to a learner should always be of sufficient complexity to maintain their interest, but not so complex as to discourage them.

So how do I get there and what relevance does this have to remote learning? Over the many years of working from home, I have learnt the best time of the day for me to do certain tasks.  I know my most productive time of the day is straight after the morning school drop off – hence the 3-hour daily slot where I frequently get into the zone before I am interrupted by my hunger pangs.  This time slot is also when my attention to detail is at its best and as long as I have a clear outline of what I need to do and how I am going to do it, I can generate a high quality output at pace.  In doing so, I have met some of the conditions for reaching the flow state, as I know:

  1. what to do – I have a clear goal and can assess my progress;
  2. how to do it – I have a clear direction and structure to the task; and
  3. how well I am doing at it – I have confidence in my ability to complete the task at hand and can adjust my performance to maintain the flow state when necessary.

Crucially though, I am also actively participating in the task; you have to be active in the task to enter a flow state.  So how does this transfer to learning?  We know that challenging tasks that (slightly) stretch one’s skills lead to the flow.  If the learner receives information too slowly then they are likely to become bored and attend to other irrelevant data.  If the information given indicates too precisely what responses the learner is required to make, the skill becomes too easy to perform and the learner again tends to become bored.  If the information given is too complicated or is given at too great a rate, the learner is unable to deal with it.   The learner is then liable to become discouraged and lose interest in performing or learning the skill.   When the learning is delivered in a classroom, a skilled facilitator will be able to read the room and adjust the presentation accordingly to keep the learner engaged.  But how do we do this with remote learning?

Ideally, the information presented to a learner should always be of sufficient complexity to maintain their interest, but not so complex as to discourage them. To maintain that flow state, the learner must seek ever increasing greater challenges.  Attempting these new, difficult challenges stretches the learner just that bit more and keeps them engaged.  To ensure that the content is delivered as described previously, it is essential that you know your audience and can devise an appropriately paced learning journey.  Easier said than done when typically you are trying to accommodate a range of abilities within a scale of knowledge, skills and experience.

If we manage to get that right, we’ve covered the ‘what to do’ and ‘how to do it’ points but what about the two other pieces of the jigsaw namely, ‘how well am I doing’ and ‘participating in the task’?   Much of the movement in the industry at the moment appears to be heading towards interactive documents.   These are often not so dissimilar to the format of the paper workbooks of old, but are instead accessed on screen allowing the learner to flick around the information quicker and easier, and of course are much more environmentally friendly by wiping out the printing costs.

Using these interactive templates, the learner can to be ‘active’ by typing responses into pop up boxes, but I wonder what effect this is having on the learner’s ability not to become distracted?  When I am in the flow, rarely do I stop to ask myself what have I learned.  I just know I am hitting the mark with the pace of words flowing freely onto the page.   Likewise, when we are learning, we know we are taking the new knowledge on board when we start to create links in our brains and find our ‘ah ha’ moments.    I am not questioning the validity of knowledge testing, but instead asking if the methods we are using in our remote learning to check ‘how well they are doing’, are in fact causing a distraction.  Further can typing into a pop up box really be classed as ‘participating in the task’?

We want individuals to find the zone when learning, as we know they emerge from a flow experience with a bit of personal growth and great feeling of competence and efficacy.   By increasing time spent in the zone, intrinsic motivation and self-directed learning also increase.  We have been quick to embrace the benefits, and rightly so, of remote learning.  In the same way as we have seen with other revolutionary ideas, sometimes once launched, we often need to pause and reflect before moving forward again to make sure we are not creating a future problem for ourselves that we may have not initially seen.


About Author

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As an experienced and professional Consultant and Training Professional, I have had the privilege of working across a wide range of companies and business areas predominately in the Financial Services sector. Wherever I am and whatever job role I am undertaking on behalf of a client, you will always find me influencing and driving others to produce results.

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