Monday, 29 July 2013

WHAT IS HAPPENING IN LEARNING?



This is the first in a series of posts intended to help people in the business world who have little knowledge of the changes in learning brought about by the internet - and to help them realise the significance of them

"Over the last 20 years the world has experienced one of its most fundamental changes since man learned to talk." That is the view of Prof Pierre Levy . He is commenting on the arrival of the Internet that has completely changed our view of communication, privacy and our concept of who is in our "circle".

Just over a hundred years ago our only means of communicating directly with someone out of earshot was to write a letter. In that hundred years telegraph, telephone, telegram, fax and others have all contributed to a process that has now reached maturity. We are now, through the Internet, able to communicate with just as many people as we wish, at any time, from almost wherever we are because we have mobile devices and social media, the new world in which we all live.

Lord Robert Winston (Emeritus Professor, Imperial College, London), agrees with Levy and concurs with him that the very nature of our brains is changing as our physiology and psychology adapts to open, constant, public communication. This is evolution on steroids as the changes are visible within a decade or less.

Just as SoMe have changed our lives, so has the explosion of technology. Whether it is the countless apps available on our Smart phones or the software that enables immensely complex simulations, games, models and the like, or the huge data gathering, storage, curation and analytical power of computers, we live in a world undreamed about a generation ago.

That very computer power has fuelled research that has catapulted forward what we now know about how, as humans, we learn. Educational theorists, psychologists, teachers and learning practitioners have been enabled to come together, share experience and data and to understand much more fully what motivates us and empowers us to learn.

One of the most fundamental new insights - which was subsumed in history during the Renaissance and the Age of Reason - is that we do not learn effectively through sermon, lecture, or textbook. While it is undisputed that the printing press made an earlier fundamental change to our world, it has also been suggested that the availability of written language to all held back our learning for centuries. Why could that be true? Certainly printed material, increasingly universal literacy, authorship and the growth of literature allowed the development of cognitive skills as never before.

However, that very growth created two important and related trends. It is necessary to step back at this point and recall how people learned before the printed word and even written language. It all happened through oral tradition and by life experience. Being in and amongst a family, community and later a larger tribe or society meant that throughout our lives we watched, listened, questioned, practised and in the end told others about how to survive and succeed, how to perform a craft, run a relationship, raise a family, influence those around us - and to be innovative to make our lives better.

So what did the printed and distributed word actually do? It caused us to become more inwardly focused. We reduced our questioning and observation of others as we sought knowledge from learned books. We talked to one another less. Secondly the printed word gave a huge lift to the academic world. Increasing literacy and books provided a brilliant platform for what became known as teaching and school. The one with the knowledge talked to those without who read, took notes, conducted exercises and tests and emerged with allegedly improved minds and skills.  All of that is true but while the printed word enabled it, the lack of accompanying suitable technologies to support and accelerate our ability to practice skill, combined with the puritanical rigours of the schoolroom which were designed to eliminate interaction, all combined to push into the background our inbred learning methodology of watching, asking and of offering experience to others.

To return to 2013 - all of those downsides are potentially swept away, but our whole education and training system is still stuck in a paradigm of classes, timetables, lecturers and teachers, books, exams, chalkboards, payment for knowledge and the like. We cling to methods that were established over 200 years ago - innovative at the time but now obsolete and out of touch with the world they are supposed to support

Our understanding of learning has recognised again that 90% of it happens outside of those old paradigms. We now have the platforms and technologies to enable us to re-engage with our humanity and its way of learning with power and reach beyond anything previously conceived.


Acknowledgement: Charles Jennings

The first step is to recognise the 90% reality and to respond to it with open minds and with imagination. People born since the emergence of the Internet and particularly since the arrival of Social Media and the Smart phone live in a world that has different constructs from their parents and grandparents. Knowledge comes from searching and asking - but not in books, rather from Google, Wikipedia, Twitter, WhatsApp, and all the tools that enable communities and communication.  Teachers, lecturers, Subject Matter Experts, formal classes and training courses are just some of the choices available and in the Internet age we go to the place where we find most help.

The requirement is for instant access to relevant information, expertise and help. Restrictions of rules, timetables, teacher and lecturer access, books, cost of information, unnecessary firewalls and the like are ruthlessly rejected. In this modern world there are plenty of ways of finding out what you need to know - and the digital literate is very skilled at using them.

What does it all mean? It means that we have to entirely re-think the whole of or education and workplace learning philosophies, structures and practices. Concepts like the paid-for degree, journal subscriptions, for profit training organisations, campuses need to be re-thought. Embracing the new will result in something radically different. Failure to do so will consign our existing learning structures to irrelevance and extinction

For the workplace the opportunities are huge in making learning relevant, exciting and a powerful lever for business success, while at the same time making it more cost-effective, and with a vastly extended reach.

Just one example. Much time on our current, expensive formal courses is spent passing factual content. Technology and platforms now allow for all of that to be done so that it is assumed (and may even be tested) before a community of learners ever meets with the "expert" - who is then able to add value by discussing implications, application and to help solve real problems.  And of course, webinars, virtual classrooms and the like question whether meeting together is actually necessary at all! Current opinion is that face to face contact in learning does have a place - there is something else in our humanity at play here, the human bond which fuels the development of understanding and trust between people which in turn oils the wheels of communication and learning.


We have to approach the future of workplace learning with openness, innovation, and an embracing mindset. It will be different,unpredictable and disruptive because the needs will be expressed by the individual in relation to their own requirements. Agility and responsiveness are the orders of the day.

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