For years, we all studied in the same way: a desk, some paper, a pen, and a book or stack of books. That process changed with the computer. In most universities, for example, the library will include desk after desk of computer or laptop, energy drink, water, snack, mobile phone, headphones, and notepad. But all that has really changed with technology is that information is displayed differently. We are consuming it in the same way.

In his book “How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens,” Benedict Carey argues that a change of environment can help us retain information – a crucial component of learning. He cites an experiment by psychologists who asked two teams of people to learn 40 words in two 10-minute sessions. The first group completed both sessions in a dimly lit, busy desk space. The other group completed the first session in the same dimly lit space and the second session in a brighter, cleaner space. The first group recalled 16 words, and the second recalled 24, a striking difference in performance.

Since the turn of the 21st century, our desks have been dominated by computers, and the learning sector has taken traditional formats, such as radio and books, and turned them into podcasts and e-books. Now, most people are very used to e-learning. But how do we improve it? If we change our environment, according to the study Carey cites, we should be able to retain more information, thereby improving our learning efficiency. Does this mean leaving our computer behind? Yes and no.

One way to improve our learning may be to step away from our desk, pick up that trusty book, and read on a park bench, on the sofa or on public transport. This change should enable us to retain more information, improving our learning. However, because of technology, we could change our environment and read a book on our computers. Learning platforms can collate a variety of mediums so that our environment can change instantaneously. For example, employees can go from reading an e-book to listening to a podcast to watching a video without leaving their desk. Furthermore, they can learn remotely on their smartphone, changing their environment both physically and virtually.

When varied technological content formats flooded the market, we expected that the humble book would die. In terms of learning and our habits, the position of the book has changed. Its contents are a discussion for a different time, but as a tool, the book is not nearing its death but being used in a new and different way. If anything, we should be excited by the new place that the book has in our lives and learning process.

Training leaders must be responsive to these changes, knowing that flexible learning can, in fact, be more productive. We have seen the benefits of flexibility in processes such as agile working, and we may have to reassess our traditional classroom approach for the good of the learner and the organization. One way to start may be to eliminate arbitrary deadlines and to provide flexible reading lists. Of course, this approach brings challenges to the monitoring of learning, but it will lead to greater engagement, better outcomes and more productive learners.

Is the book dead? Far from it. But the role it plays in learning has changed dramatically, and it is up to us, as training professionals, to ensure that our learners are making the most of the evolution of learning.

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