Learning in the Digital Age

A look at the ‘Digital Learner’ - a new breed of learner. 

We are pleased to welcome Kerryn Kohl as guest writer for this special Knowledge Bank article.


We have plunged into the Digital Age.

There are many of us that would have preferred to dip a toe in first, however with the pace of technological advancement change no longer happens gradually then suddenly. These days there is only one speed of change… breakneck!

The only way to keep pace is to become Accelerated Digital Learners.

Digital learning technologies enable learners…

  • To grasp concepts faster and gain deeper understanding,
  • Connect theory and application more adeptly, and
  • Engage in learning more readily.

It also improves instructional techniques, enables better usage of instructor time, and facilitates the widespread sharing of knowledge. (https://odl.mit.edu/value-digital-learning)

When Organisations digitise learning they allow employees to become proactive and engaged learners who become partners in the learning process. Thus giving rise to a new breed of learner, ‘The Digital Learner.’


The Digital Learner

This new breed of learner is always connected, seeking information from many sources. They are highly visual, preferring to process pictures, sounds, and video rather than text.

Digital learners are experiential, social learners. They like to interact with the content and other learners to explore and discuss information, and draw their own conclusions.  This trend will be further fuelled with the increase in technologies such as Virtual Reality (VR) and the highly anticipated Hololens which will allow learners to fully immersive themselves in the learning experience.

In addition to this the digital learner can also be characterised as:

  • Needing immediate feedback, responsiveness, and ideas from others, as they are used to instant gratification and instant feedback.
  • Independent learners, who are able to teach themselves with guidance…think YouTube at present…VR in future. They don’t need sets of instructions, they expect learning technology to be intuitive, making the use thereof easy. Just like most of us figured out how to use our smart phones.
  • Preferring to construct their own learning. They are comfortable entering into learning from any point in the process and often construct learning journeys that go back and forth in complexity of information. This stands in contrast to current organisational reality in which traditional sequential learning programs with prescribed content dominate. And which of course do not take the individual learner, their prior experience, current interests or their point of need into account.


This description of the digital learner sounds like were describing millennials doesn’t it? But we need to start shifting our perspectives away from generational theory.  Instead of seeing learning or learners from a generational perspective, we need to look at learning, and the digital learner from what Dan Pontefract terms the ‘Digital Learning Quadrant’ point of view.

Pontefract’s Digital Learning Quadrant Model cuts across multiple generations, encompassing all ages and taking into account situational realities regarding access and participation levels. 


The Digital Learning Quadrants

According to Dan Pontefract, one impact of the world going digital is that digitisation has levelled the generational playing field.

Yes, there are still many ways in which generational theory still applies, however the lines get a bit blurred especially when it comes to learning. There are just too many anomalies when it comes to ‘being digital’ for generational theory to hold true. For example there are many really tech savvy boomers, with many Gen X and some Millennials that are completely behind the adoption curve.

Therefore within the digital landscape it becomes preferable to move towards using the ‘Digital Learning Quadrant’ model to explain the differences in digital learner behaviour. This is mainly due to this quadrant model being underpinned by practicalities such as availability of technology, affordability of data, and of course the individual’s ‘digital quotient’.

In using this model, as shown in the diagram below, it becomes easier to explain learner behaviour regardless of age or situation.  In addition it also helps us make sense of the irregularities we see in trying to classify learners as Digital Natives vs immigrants as per the Prensky and Tapscott Net Generation model.


Digital Learning Quadrant Source:


Defining the Quadrants

The four quadrant classifications are based on the learner’s willingness to participate in the digital world and the degree to which they choose or are able to access and use the digital environment.

Let’s look at what defines participation in each of these quadrants:


1. Disconnected Nomad

This type of learner has very little exposure to and use of technology. The reasons for this are mainly socio-economic related. However there is the underlying assumption here that if this learner were to gain access they would embrace its use and quickly move through to one of the other quadrants.

2. Connected Lurker

The connected lurker can be likened to a ‘Voyeur’ in a manner of speaking. It defines that group of digital learners that has access to technology and exposure to the digital world but chooses to limit themselves to being consumers of information as opposed to contributors.

3. Willing Participant

This type of learner is only constrained by time and tools. As a willing participant they possess the enthusiasm to actively be a part of the learning process as often and as best as they can. However their enthusiasm is hampered by their accessibility.

4. Collaborative Learner

The Collaborative learner has access through one or many devices. They are connected all the time.  Access for them is whenever, wherever and fully participative. They see technology and connectivity as essential components of the learning process itself, and utilize the ‘collaboration cycle’ as a means in which to achieve success in their learning (Source: http://www.danpontefract.com/introducing-the-digital-learning-quadrants/)

When it comes to learning in the digital age, we need to acknowledge that different Generations will ultimately respond differently to technology enabled learning. However the purpose of a Digital learning environment is to create equal opportunity for learning regardless of age cohort.

Now, the only thing left is to create equality in the opportunity to access and participate in the digital world… not too much to ask, is it?


Kerryn Kohl is based in Australia and is the founder of The Coaching House. She is currently actively involved in the introduction of the Fourth Talent AI analytics tool which can be used to scientifically assess and determine knowledge gaps in order to deliver a truly personalised learning experience.

Kerryn can be contacted at: The Coaching House


Posted On: 15 Mar 2018