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How the Internet Will Change How We Learn
William A. Draves - draves@lern.org

In the 21st century, online learning will constitute 50% of all learning and education. The rapid rise of learning on the Internet will occur not because it is more convenient, cheaper, or faster, but because cognitive learning on the Internet is better than learning in-person. Of the growing number of experts seeing this development, Gerald Celente, author of the popular book Trends 2000, summarizes it most succinctly: “Interactive, on-line learning will revolutionize education. The education revolution will have as profound and as far-reaching an effect upon the world as the invention of printing. Not only will it affect where we learn; it also will influence how we learn and what we learn" (Celente, 1997, p. 249). Recent research reported in the Washington Post cites studies showing that online learning is equally as effective as learning in-person. And note that we state "cognitive learning," not all learning.

It is still very early in the development of online learning. But the outlines of the potential of online learning are already emerging. The best guide to the next century lies in history, and the in examples of technological transition from the nineteenth to the twentieth century. The automobile and tractor were the driving forces for the Industrial Age. The tractor eventually was demonstrated to not only cover more acres than a horse drawn plow, but to plow deeper (read: better) and thus increase productivity .

Some sectors of society clung to the horse drawn vehicle, of course. The military still had a cavalry in 1939 to confront Hitler’s tanks before the obvious mismatch was addressed (Davis, 1993). The tractor changed education for the 20th century as well. Prior to the tractor and automobile, one room schoolhouses were placed every six miles so that a child would only have to walk at most three miles to school. The one room schoolhouse necessitated one teacher and multiple grade levels in one room. With the automobile, people moved into towns, and even rural residents could take buses to school, thus causing school consolidation and the eventual all-but-extinction of the one room schoolhouse. In the State of Washington, for example, between 1935 and 1939 almost 20% of rural one room schoolhouses were closed (Encyclopedia Britannica, 1945).

And when online learning is combined with a more interactive and facilitative in-person learning, it will easily out perform today’s outmoded one-size-fits-all traditional lecture delivery system. "Digital media and Internet communications will transform learning practices," notes Peter J. Denning of George Mason University in his How We Will Learn (1996, page 2).

Here are a few of the effects of online learning that will occur in just a few years:

But perhaps the most devastating and revolutionary change will be how the Internet will change how we learn. Because as we enter the Information Age, the era of lifelong learning, the era of online learning, distance has nothing to do with "distance education." By this I mean that even when the teacher is in close proximity to the learners, the quality of the cognitive learning and teaching will be higher when the cognitive part of the learning is conducted over the Internet. Keoko University in Japan, for example, is already establishing online learning for its on-campus students (Eisenstodt, 1997).

In this article I will outline what we already know and can forecast about how the Internet and online learning will change how we learn. We know, for example, that the economic force driving life in the 21st century will be the microchip and the Internet, just as the automobile was the economic force for change in the 20th century. And we know that business will need its workers to learn more, more quickly, and at a lower cost, to remain competitive. We will show that these market forces will create the need and desirability for online learning.

How We Learn Today

For most of history the standard educational setting has been an instructor (or teacher, leader, presenter, or speaker) standing in front of a group of people. This is the most common learning design in society, whether it be for college credit classes, noncredit courses, training in business and industry, high school instruction, or even a Sunday School class.

Basically, 90% of all education has been "information transfer," the process of transferring information and knowledge from the teacher’s head into the heads of the learners. To do that, teachers have had to talk most of the time. And right up until today that mode of delivery has been the most effective, most efficient, most desirable way to learn.

But as educators we know that the traditional lecture is not the only way to learn. We as learners learn in many different ways, at different times, and from a variety of sources (Knowles, 1973). We also know that learning is not purely a cognitive process, but that it also involves the emotions and even the spirit (Apps, 1991).

The Internet is destroying the traditional educational delivery system of an instructor speaking, lecturing or teaching in front of one or more learners.

The whole discipline of self-directed learning, variously called adult learning or adult education, has shown that the traditional delivery system is only one way to learn. The Internet represents the biggest technological aid helping people to learn in 500 years, according to many educators (Thieme, 1996).

What the Internet is doing is to explode the traditional method of teaching into two parts-- cognitive learning, which can be accomplished better with online learning; and affective learning, which can be accomplished better in a small group discussion setting.

Why cognitive learning can be done better on the Internet

Cognitive learning includes facts, data, knowledge, mental skills-- what you can test. And information transfer and cognitive learning can be achieved faster, cheaper and better online.

There are several ways that online learning can be better than classroom learning, such as:

Learners will acquire the data and facts faster using the Internet. Officials at University Online Publishing, which has been involved in online learning more than most organizations, say that a typical 16-week college course, for example, can be cut to 8 weeks because students learn more quickly online.

Finally, technology has consistently proven to drive down costs. Recent reports indicate that education costs are growing at over 5% for 1998, well above the 3% average for all other sectors of the economy. With education costs in the traditional system soaring, technological innovations promise the ability to deliver an education more cheaply.

Downward pressure is already being exerted on prices by online courses. Officials at Regents College in Albany, NY, which collects data on 8,000 distance learning courses, say that prices are dropping already. One community college in Arizona, for example, offers online courses at just $32/credit hour for in-state residents, and $67/credit hour for out-of-state learners.

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More Interaction Occurs with Online Learning

The heart and soul of an online course will not be the lecture, the delivery, the audio or video. Rather, it will be the interaction between the participants and the teacher, as well as the interaction among the participants themselves. This daily interaction among participants, for example, will form what John Hagel, author of Net Gain (1997), calls a "Virtual Community."

The next time you are in a class, count the number of questions asked of the teacher during a one-hour time period. Because of the instructor’s need to convey information, the time able to be devoted to questions is very short. In an online course, everyone can ask questions, as many questions as each learner wants or needs.

There is more discussion. In an online course, there is more discussion. If there is a group discussion with thirty people and six to eight people make comments, that is a successful discussion that will take up almost a whole hour. And almost everyone in the group will agree it was a lively. Now if you go into an asynchronous discussion forum on the Internet, and thirty people are there, and six to eight are making comments, you will conclude that the discussion is lagging.

The same number of comments on the Internet do not appear to be as lively a discussion as when delivered in person because the capability and capacity of the Internet is that every person can make comments—at the same time. A transcript of a typical online discussion would take hours to give verbally. Online, we can participate in discussions easily, absorbing more information in a much shorter time and engaging in more interaction, not less.

How the Internet Will Change In-person Learning

Because the Internet can deliver information more quickly, at a lower cost, whenever a learner wants, as often as a learner wants, and with more interaction and dialogue, the Internet will replace the traditional in-person classroom delivery system as the dominant mode of delivery for education and delivery. But the Internet will not replace in-person learning.

While we will spend 50% of our time learning online, we will spend the other 50% of our time learning in person. But in-person learning will also be radically different from what is most common today.

There will be almost no need for the traditional lecture. However, there will be a tremendous need for teachers to become facilitators of learning, understanding how we learn, and able to work with learners as individuals. "The sage on the stage will become the guide on the side" has already been coined.

Though part of learning is centered around content, we as educators know that more of learning is dependent on the learner as an individual, a person. Learning is not just cognitive; it also involves the emotions and the spirit. It involves "unlearning." It involves what educator Jerold Apps calls "grieving the loss of old ideas."

The likely format for this kind of learning will be chairs in a circle, with a facilitator leading discussions, dialogues, role plays and more. And it is this kind of teaching and learning that we actually know very little about, because we as instructors have had so little time to engage in it.

The Internet certainly did not create facilitative learning. This kind of learning has been around for a long time and its value well established. But it’s use will grow exponentially because the Internet allows the cognitive information to be delivered faster, cheaper, better, thus allowing more time and resources to be devoted to facilitative in-person learning.

For now, the elementary school teacher comes closest to being the model for this new kind of in-person teaching. As a parent, I have experienced my son’s teachers being able to sit down and talk with me for thirty minutes or more about my son as a learner. Not about the class, not about content, but about my son’s learning. This is where the focus of in-person learning will be very shortly.

As online courses grow and change how we learn, some courses will involve almost all in-person learning and teaching. And some courses will involve almost all online learning. And probably the majority of courses will involve both online learning and in-person learning.

What an Online Course Will Look Like

A typical online course, or the online portion of course, will look like this.

The Forces Driving Online Learning

There are several forces that will turn this scenario for online learning into reality, and turn it into reality very quickly. They include:

Business. Business will be the biggest force. Business now understands that in order to remain competitive and profitable, it will need employees who are learning constantly. The only cost effective way for this to happen is with online learning.

So business will require its people to learn online, and it will look to recruit college graduates who can learn online. Colleges and universities will quickly adopt online learning because business will demand that capability from their graduates.

Youth. My children have never taken a computer course. And they never will. Because they are not just computer literate, they grew up in a digital culture. Young people want to learn online. They understand the future, because it is the world in which they must work and compete. Young students will choose online learning.

Competition. Just one college offering online courses at a low cost and recruiting high volume will force other educational institutions to do the same. In fact, many colleges are involved in online learning, and the cost of courses is declining steadily, according to an official at Regents College, which keeps a database of over 8,000 distance learning courses.


Online learning is rapidly becoming recognized as a valid learning delivery system. The number of part time students in higher education, to name just one educational system, now outnumbers full time students. The number of colleges offering online courses last year soared to over 1,000, and the number is growing. Online graduate programs and certificate programs have doubled over one year ago. Online learning has grown exponentially in the business sector, according to Elliot Masie of Saratoga Springs, NY, one of the foremost experts on online training in the workforce. Surveys by the American Society for Training and Development (ASTD) see online training replacing much of on-site training in the near future.

Online learning will do for society what the tractor did for food. A century ago food was expensive, in limited supply, and with very little variety. Today food is relatively cheap, in great supply in our society, and with tremendous variety. The Internet will do the same for education. More people will be able to learn more, for much less cost, and with a tremendous variety in choice of topics and subjects. It is something that societies of the past could only dream about. And it will come true for us in a very short time.


1. Celente, Gerald (1997). Trends 2000. New York: Warner Books, page 249. 2. Goldberg, Debbie (1998, April 5). Teaching Online. The Washington Post, page R04. 3. Davis, Kenneth S. (1993). FDR: Into the Storm 1937-1940. New York: Random House, page 372. 4. Denning, Peter (1996). How We Will Learn. Fairfax, VA: George Mason University, page 2. 5. Eisenstodt, Gale (1997, February:March). Japan Shuts Down Its Education Assembly Line. Fast Company, pp. 40-42. 6. Knowles, Malcolm (1973). The Adult Learner: A Neglected Species. Houston: Gulf Publishing Company, page 42. 7. Apps, Jerold W. (1991). Mastering the Teaching of Adults. Malabar, FL: Krieger Publishing Company, page 1. 8. Thieme, Richard (1996), in a presentation at the Metcom conference, Chicago, IL. 9. Hagel, John III, and Armstrong, Arthur G. (1997). Net.Gain. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Further Reading

1. Celente, Gerald (1997). Trends 2000. New York: Warner Books. 2. Draves, William (1998). Marketing Online Courses, Seminars and Conferences. Manhattan, KS: Learning Resources Network. 3. Draves, William (1997). How to Teach Adults. Manhattan, KS: Learning Resources Network. 4. Hagel, John III, and Armstrong, Arthur G. (1997). Net.Gain. Boston: Harvard Business School Press. 5. Martin, James (1996). Cybercorp. New York: Amacom.

About the Author

The author is President of the Learning Resources Network (LERN), the largest lifelong learning association in the world, with more than 4,000 members in 8 countries. He does consulting, writing, and speaking on online learning and marketing online programs. His comments were printed in the New York Times (September 9, 1997) . Other articles include “Cyberlearning: Fast Forward to the Future” in Executive Update magazine. He also writes a monthly column for “Marketing Programs Online.” He has offices in River Falls, Wisconsin, and more information on Mr. Draves is available on LERN’s web site at www.lern.org (under LERN Offices).