The 4 axes of online learning

As the world moves to more and more online work and learning, a colleague of mine triggered some thoughts in me – can everyone learn the same way online? Do our standard theories of learning work in the online world?

Of course, there are three kinds of teachers – those who dread online teaching (they believe that they will have no control over the students’ behaviours); those who are cautious (they believe that we can do somethings online, but not others); and those who are willing to experiment and adapt (they either believe that they can deliver as they are confident of their content that the medium does not matter). This discussion is for another day. Right now, let’s focus on the learners and their learning styles.

I believe that there are eight styles of learning in the online world. Of course, I do not claim to have scientific evidence that these are mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive – possibly a research study is in order. These are anecdotal based on my own experiences of teaching face-to-face, purely online, as well as hybrid (some students face-to-face and some others online). There may be a range of other such classifications as well, from the classic Kolb’s learning styles inventory to more detailed studies.

The list, first

  1. Visual (spatial)
  2. Aural (auditory-musical)
  3. Verbal (linguistic)
  4. Physical (kinaesthetic)
  5. Solitary (intra-personal)
  6. Social (interpersonal)
  7. Logical (mathematical)
  8. Emotional (action-response)

These styles are not mutually exclusive, and learners prefer combinations of these. These are just pure types. The combinations define one’s learning style.

The elaboration

  • Visual/ spatial: learning through pictures, images, maps, and animations; sense of colour, direction, and sequences; flow-diagrams and colour-coded links preferred.
  • Aural/ auditory-musical: learning through hearing sounds and music; rhyme and patterns define memory and moods; learning through repeated hearing and vocal repetition is preferred.
  • Verbal/ linguistic: power of the (most often) written word; specific words and phrases hold attention and provoke meaning; negotiations, debates, and orations are preferred.
  • Physical/ kinaesthetic: sensing and feeling through touch and feel of objects; being in the right place can create thoughts and evoke memory; role plays and active experimentation are preferred.
  • Solitary/ intra-personal: being alone provides for reflection and reliving the patterns of the past; self-awareness through meditative techniques; independent self-study and reflective writing (diaries and journals) preferred.
  • Social/ interpersonal: learning happens in groups (rather than alone) through a process of sharing key assertions and seeking feedback on the same from others; need for conformity and assurance as bases for learning; group discussions and work groups preferred.
  • Logical/ mathematical: building on the power of logic, reasoning and cause-effect relationships; developing and testing propositions and hypotheses; build a pattern/ storyline through logical workflows of arguments/ relationships; focus on the individual parts of a system; lists and specific action plans are preferred.
  • Emotional/ action orientation: building on the power of emotions, arising out of loyalty, commitment, and a larger sense of purpose; being able to align a set of actions to a compelling vision of the future, following directions of a leader; focus on the gestalt and not on the specifics; energy and large-scale transformations are preferred.

The four axes

Axes of learning

Let us look for examples/ instances where each of these styles would work the best. Visual would work best when the inter-relationships are complex and can be represented through visual cues (or simulated cues), whereas physical world work best when the relationships could not be represented, but need to be experienced as a whole. How would like to take a virtual tour of the Pyramids of Giza?

Auditory style of learning works best when the brain remembers patterns, and rhyme precedes reason. Whereas, verbal style is most suited when reason is preferred over anything else. In other words, when specific words and phrases (like catchy acronyms and slogans) capture the imagination of the learner, verbal is best suited. Imagine trying to learn Vedic hymns purely through printed textbooks!

Solitary learning works best when one can reflect effectively by shutting out external cues; whereas social learning depends on feedback and reinforcement from others for learning to take shape. Imagine learning public speaking in social isolation, or seeking social confirmation and feedback in the process of poetry writing!

Logical learning style works best when the relationships could be detailed and represented as a series of cause-effect relationships. However when such relationships cannot be established, we learn through emotions. Imagine the calls for action in the play, Julius Caesar – “Friends, Romans, and Countrymen!” I would think the crowd responded more to emotional appeals than reason!

Architecting the online class

As learners and teachers in the online world, one needs to be cognisant of their own preferred styles across these four (continuums) axes. For instance, a class on machine learning would tend to be highly visual, verbal, solitary, and logical; whereas a music class is likely to be more physical, auditory, interpersonal and emotional. 

The learning context has to be chosen appropriately suiting the styles – of both the content and the learners. The technology has to suit the same. Imagine for instance, a group of 400 learners tuning into a class on brand management through an online medium like Zoom. The instructor has pretty much little choice other than delivering a lecture, with text chat from the class as real-time feedback, and thence the basis for interactivity. On the other hand, if the class size was smaller, say around 40, may be the instructor could use case analysis as well. As a case teacher, I have managed to interact (two-way) with as much as 30 students (from a group of 44 active participants) in a single 90 minute class. I taught a case-based session on digital transformation imperatives online to a class of 50-odd students. I used a combination of visual and interpersonal styles, without compromising on the logical arguments as well as pre-defined frameworks. I used two separate devices – an iPad with an Apple Pencil as a substitute for my whiteboard, and my desktop screen sharing as a projector substitute. I was able to cold-call as well! That way, my class was visual, logical, verbal, and interpersonal.

Axes of learning1

To the same cohort, I taught another session on implementing a digital transformation project, using another short case-let. This session in contrast, was more visual – the framework was largely on the whiteboard than on the slides; less verbal, a lot emotional and logical, and less interpersonal (more reflective observations about what would work in their own firms).

Axes of learning2

What works best is also driven what are the learning goals. Of course, these learning styles should be the same for synchronous (live classes), asynchronous sessions (MOOCs), as well as blended formats.

In summary, the architecture of an online session should include elements of the learning styles (driven by the learners and instructors strengths, as well as the content being delivered). Apart from the learning styles, the architecture should include three other components – the form of interaction, the immediacy of feedback loops, and the nature of interaction networks. The interactivity could be both audio-video or text; the feedback loops between the learners and the instructors could be immediate or phased; and the peer-to-peer interactions may or may not be required/ enabled.

I look forward to your comments, feedback, and experiences.


(c) 2020. Srinivasan, R.