The Role of the Internet in Enhancing Learning and Performance

Progressive organizations consistently look for the most effective ways of learning to drive individual and team performance. Traditional learning methods have centred on the written word, with aural, visual and practical learning also key.

With the omnipresence of the Web these days, what effect does using the Internet have on our brains? How does this affect how organizations may use the Internet in developing their people and enhancing performance?

Internet Everywhere

With more of us being “knowledge workers” these days, we access the Internet on our desktop PCs, tablets, notebooks and smartphones – at work as well as at play. The Internet is literally everywhere we go.

Of course organizations have had to face the challenges of balancing the freedoms of their teams to access information with the restrictions to reduce the temptation of it being used for personal means rather than business.

But there is evidence to suggest that organizations could be using the Internet more as an effective training resource, especially for older team members.

A Study from the UCLA

A study performed at the UCLA and presented to the 2009 meeting of the Society for Neuroscience suggested that decision making and complex reasoning in older adults can be improved by as little as a week’s access to the Internet.

Using fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) the changes in blood-flow and brain activity were recorded amongst study participants who had little Internet experience.

Scans showed brain activity in areas of the brain controlling language, reading, memory and visual abilities, as well as in regions important in working memory and decision-making.

It is thought that neural activation patterns are stimulated by even a short exposure to Internet activity, potentially enhancing brain function and cognition.

As the brain ages it goes through structural changes and it may be affected by atrophy and reduced cell activity, reducing brain function. The potential is there to use the Internet to slow these negative effects of ageing.

One of the study’s authors, Dr Gary Small, said:

“We found that for older people with minimal experience, performing Internet searches for even a relatively short period of time can change brain activity patterns and enhance function.”

More Potential

But it’s not just older people that benefit from brain stimulation and the “exercise” it receives from searching for information on the Internet.

Most young people use the Internet anyway these days, but there is potential to be using it more for training everyone in organizations. As another of the study’s authors says:

“When performing an Internet search, the ability to hold important information in working memory and to extract the important points from competing graphics and words is essential.”

This could be an important training resource for team members across the board. It may be that the Internet actually activates our brains more than just reading through printed training manuals.

Of course online training programs are nothing new. Some large corporates have been actively using them for many years; but given the incredible importance of the Internet in all aspects of modern life, it’s surprising that it is not applied more to learning and training in all types of businesses.

The Downside

The downside to the Internet is over-use. There is the danger that over-using the Internet can impact another important ingredient for healthy human life and, in a work sense, high performance: that’s social interaction.

Even people who prefer working alone need social interaction; failure to disconnect from the endless flow of information that the Internet provides is a concern.

It can become like an addiction, which researchers have found can potentially reduce the value of real-life experiences and hamper social skills.

So, at the same time as seeing the possible learning potential, it’s important for organizations to help their employees create a balance whereby they can also use their social skills as well as their computer skills.

The technology needs to serve us rather than the other way around – and we need to remember that the greatest computer of them all is the human brain.