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The Differences in Learning Information and Learning Skills with eLearning

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While they both involve learning, skill acquisition and information retention need to be approached in subtly different ways that take into account their specific differences.  Let’s look at three basic learning tools and how they are applied differently whether the subject matter is information or skills: repetition, discourse, and context.

First, repetition.  Repetition is usually what we think of when we think of learning.  After all, “practice makes perfect” and you can’t practice without repetition.  Think about memorizing vocabulary or important dates in history.  You need to say the information to yourself over and over again to get it to stick in your mind.  Without repetition, information quickly leaks out of our heads.

With skills, the situation is analogous but subtly different.  Without repetition information will disappear, but without repetition skills will rust.  There’s a reason people say, “it’s just like riding a bicycle.”  Once you’ve gone through enough repetitions to get the bicycle moving, you’ll never really forget how to do it.  If you don’t go riding for a year you won’t be as good as you used to be, but you’ll still be able to ride.  For skills, “practice makes permanent” so it’s extra important to practice skills correctly rather than just practice for the sake of practicing.

Second, let’s go over discourse.  Now discourse is how most of us will learn as adults.  We’ll listen to a lecture, read an article or book, or watch a video.  Discourse just means we’re having something explained to us and that’s often the first step in learning just about anything.  

While discourse may be the starting point, skills can actually be learned without it.  You can learn to dance a foxtrot just through watching and imitating.  Discourse can help accelerate the process of learning the skill, but it is not strictly necessary.  More importantly, trying to learn a skill through only discourse is usually a recipe for disaster.  Imagine trying to learn how to swim by reading a book, or just having a friend explain it to you.  When it comes to learning skills discourse should be part of the mix, but it cannot be the whole dish.

Learning information on the other hand relies almost entirely on discourse.  Take a second and try to think of a way to help someone learn the principles behind integral calculus that don’t involve discourse.  Can’t really do it can you?  Unless you’re going to try to recreate Newton’s moment of inspiration on this subject, someone can only learn about it through an explanation.  This reliance on discourse is one of the reasons why learning abstract information is often so difficult.  Discourse can easily become boring when there is too much of it, or when it is poorly done, and so while it is necessary for learning information, that discourse needs to be broken up in order to keep people engaged.

Third, context.  Context is incredibly important for learning as it links what we learn to what we already know, thereby allowing us to more easily remember information and apply the skills we learn.  Quick, what’s the atomic number of Carbon?  Unless you happen to be a chemist, or just have a really good brain for random facts, you probably don’t remember that it’s 6.  However, if you have the appropriate context about valence electrons and know that having a half empty outer valence electron shell allows a single carbon atom to easily bond to 2 other carbon atoms (sharing 2 electrons apiece), and that this ability to form long chains is part of the reason carbon is the basic building block of life on earth, well with all that context the atomic number suddenly becomes a lot easier to remember.

Skills by contrast don’t require context as a memory aid, but rather as a decision making aid.  If you’re a police officer confronted with a potentially life threatening situation, you need to take into account the context before deciding if it’s appropriate to use some level of force to diffuse the situation or whether to try some other method.  Of course you’ve been trained in each of the the skills needed to resolve the situation safely, but knowing which skill to use requires a knowledge of the context as well as good judgement.  

When it comes to learning skills and information they both require the same tools, just used slightly differently.  This is of course a boon to eLearning because it means there’s nothing that prevents eLearning from being a medium from which to learn either skills or information.  However, because of the subtle differences it would be best practices to keep any single eLearning course as focused as possible on either a set of skills or some information so as not to confuse the learner or muddle the scope of the course.