Giving Learners Control over Control

Topic: Training
Publication: International Journal of Training and Development
Article: Trainee reactions to learner control: An important link in the e-learning equation
Authors: S.L. Fisher, M.E. Wasserman, and K.A. Orvis
Reviewed By: Benjamin Granger


One of the most unique characteristics of e-learning is that it typically places trainees in the driver’s seat of their own learning by giving them control over important aspects of the training environment (e.g., the pace at which they progress, sequence of course materials).This key characteristic is known as learner control and there is a rich research literature comparing training programs that offer high degrees of learner control with training programs that offer less or no learner control (e.g., instructor-led classroom courses). To date, there is no definitive answer to the question of which approach is best (high learner control v. low learner control).

What is clear, however, is that some trainees benefit from high degrees of control in e-learning and some do not.

In a special issue on e-learning in the International Journal of Training and Development, Fisher et al. (2010) report on a study that explores the importance of considering learners’ preferences for engaging in learner-controlled training. This study acknowledges that trainees have different preferences when it comes to online training and their preferences might be important for determining how effective e-learning is for them.

In their study, Fisher et al. assigned one group of business management students to engage in a short learner-controlled leadership training course.

A second group of students were given the choice to participate in the same course either with or without learner control. The vast majority of participants in this latter group (93%) chose to learner-controlled version of the course. The authors removed those participants who chose not to have control from their analyses.

Interestingly, even though all of the data included in Fisher et al.’s analyses came from trainees who received the exact same training course with the exact same level of learner control, those trainees who were given of whether or not to engage in a learner-controlled course, reacted more positively to and learned more from the course than trainees who were not given this choice (forced to take the learner-controlled training course).

Since the amount of control trainees receive in online training is indeed a hot topic in practice and research, the BIG question is whether or not trainees’ preferences for learner control should determine how much control they actually receive in online training. Although Fisher et al.’s results provide support for giving trainees a choice in whether they participate in a learner-controlled training or not, the authors argue that this conclusion is premature. In fact, Fisher et al. suggest that other characteristics of trainees may more appropriately guide how much learner control is afforded to certain employees in e-learning.

Fisher, S.L., Wasserman, M.E., & Orvis, K.A. (2010). Trainee reactions to learner
control: An important link in the e-learning equation. International Journal of
Training and Development, 14(3), 198-208.