How are Digital Technologies Shaping the Modern Learner?

Sarah Flesher

In the 1950s and 60s, Canadian professor Marshall McLuhan put forth the proposition that media shapes the way in which we think. Television had become a must in every middle-class home in North America, and McLuhan argued that the way people thought was being transformed as we moved from print to electronic technology. And I think time has proven him correct.

Today, with communication and information available to us almost anywhere, is digital technology shaping us as learners? If so, how?

In this article, I'll talk a bit about the effect of digital technology on the learner and how we, as learning providers, can make sure we are meeting the digital learner's needs.

Have You Ever Been Phubbed?

There you are at a nice restaurant with one or two friends, engaged in lively conversation when one friend receives a text message. Mid-conversation, she picks up her phone and begins to text with the caller, completely oblivious to how rude that action is, and continues to text for the next few minutes. Has this happened to you? If so, then you've been "phubbed".

Phubbing, the act of snubbing someone with whom you are conversing to look at your cell phone, or, even worse, to start texting, is just one indication of how our behaviours are being shaped by our digital devices. The modern learner is also being shaped by smartphones, tablets, PDAs, etc. and we need to understand how that impacts learning.

Who is the Modern Learner?

The modern learner is anyone who uses digital networks to obtain or share information. That means the child doing arithmetic problems on the computer and the grandfather using his smartphone to Google how to change the handle on a fridge door are both modern learners.

Declan Mulkeen describes the modern learner as one who is always connected, always on, has a short attention span and is hungry for information. Does that sound like anyone you know? This infographic by Bersin by Deloitte neatly sums up who the modern learner is:


Source: Bersin by Deloitte

With this in mind, how do we, as learning providers, effectively serve modern learners?

Meeting the Needs of the Modern Learner

Modern learners can be overwhelmed, impatient, distracted, untethered, collaborative, on-demand and empowered. To meet their needs, we must provide eLearning that is delivered:

  • In small, easy-to-manage bits
  • In ways that meet their digital learning style
  • As a networking experience
  • With learner engagement in mind

Let's take a closer look at these concepts.

1. Microlearning - delivering learning one small bit at a time

The typical modern learner is a very busy person with not much time for training. Deloitte's research shows that most modern learners can only devote 1% of a typical work week to training and development. This means that out every 40 hours worked, only 24 minutes is focused on talent and knowledge development and skill growth. Given those limitations, the modern learner needs microlearning.

With microlearning, eLearning providers develop learning in short "chunks", so that learners spend no longer than 5 minutes on a particular learning activity. Learning content developed in this manner delivers just-in-time learning that's easy to access and even easier to make time for.

This does not mean that you have to toss your learning content and start over. Converting that content into microlearning is easier than it appears and the benefits for organizations are worth the time investment. Development and delivery of microlearning produces cost-effective training that has a shorter development cycle, is easy to update, and is well-received by learners with limited time for learning.

2. Mobile learning - matching learning delivery to the digital learner's lifestyle

Modern learners want on-demand learning, and that means it has to be mobile. We spend so much time with our phones, tablets, laptops and other digital devices that mobile learning has become a must for eLearning providers.

Mobile learning simply allows learners greater accessibility to learning at locations and times of their choosing. It also provides a perfect delivery method for those microlearning info-chunks I spoke of earlier!

3. Social learning - a networking experience

The infographic shown earlier in this article indicates that the modern learner is a collaborative person who develops and accesses personal and professional networks to obtain information about their industries and their professions. This is why social learning has great value for these learners. They can share what they've learned or discuss it by posting on online forums, in chatrooms, or just by texting their colleagues. Using the 70:20:10 rule, it's said that 20% of workplace learning is achieved through social learning - interaction with colleagues. So why not take advantage of it?

The challenge for eLearning providers is ensuring that their learning management systems have all the must-have features needed to deliver and manage social learning. However, the benefits of social learning make meeting those challenges worth it.

4. Learner engagement - keep them coming back for more

Successful microlearning, mobile learning and social learning have more in common than being important components of eLearning - they are also all high in learner engagement value!

Engaging learners and keeping them engaged has always been a challenge in eLearning where, unlike the classroom learner, they can skip ahead or simply turn off the lesson if they lose interest. As eLearning providers, it's up to us to use the tools at our disposal to make the most of the learning experience.

Using appropriate graphics, embedding video and incorporating gamification are proven methods that make learning come alive. You can increase engagement by adding a little competition to the mix with Open Badges and certificates as recognition for achievements. Forums and discussion groups promote social learning and further enhance the eLearning experience. Emerging virtual reality and augmented reality technologies will also up the ante in the learner engagement game. It's really up to us to keep the digital learner engaged digitally!


The modern learner is a digital learner who lives in a digital community. They expect and receive instant information and gratification from their electronic devices. And they expect the same when learning.

Textbooks, handouts and PowerPoint presentations are joining chalkboards and hand-held slates in the closet of educational antiquities. Today's learner has been shaped by the wireless world, and eLearning providers need to embrace that world and help shape it as it shapes the way in which we teach. Staying current and keeping an open mind will be the keys to eLearning success, for the learner and for the provider.

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Sarah Flesher

Sarah, our President, graduated from Concordia University in Montreal with a BA and an MA in Public Policy and Public Administration and completed her doctorate in Educational Technology. Sarah brings over 15 years of operational and management experience to her role as President at Base Corp. She works collaboratively with organizations to develop strategic learning plans, determine training requirements. When she doesn't have her nose in a book you can find her at the gym, on the ice, on the ski hill, drinking wine or in a coffee shop … with her nose in a book.