Friday, October 21, 2005

A rant about learning in the digital age...

George Siemens published an article called Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age in elearnspace. I have to confess that I paid it scant attention until Stephen Downes referenced it in his article on eLearning 2.0.
I have always looked on learning theories as being reactions to the "original" three: behaviourism, cognitivism and constructivism. However, Siemens makes a valid point: learners have a different attitude and different requirements nowadays. They also have a greater measure of control.

Certainly in my grandparents' day, the learner was a recipient of knowledge which was dispensed according to the wisdom (or otherwise) of the teacher. Things had changed a little (but not much) by the time I went to school, but between my school days and those of my children, we have seen the advent of eLearning, technology-based games, mobile phones, iPods. I simply have to watch my sons with the remote control for the telly - every ad break results in a channel switch. They often watch two programmes simultaneously, see-sawing between them every few minutes or so. It drives me nuts, but it's how they do things these days. When we're watching one of "my" prgrammes, I have to confiscate the remote to put myself in the driver's seat, so that I can make my linear little journey from the start of the programme to the end without deviation, hesitation or repetition (heaven help me when we finally break down and get digital!).

Things are that much more immediate now. My kids are not interested in seeing something unfold - serialisation leaves them cold. Sound-bites are what they want. Cut to the chase. Give me the gist. Dice it and distil it and give me the bottom line. Whether we like it or not, this is reality. Trying to foist the behaviourist teaching of my grandmother's day onto my kids is going to fail. Teaching has to meet the needs of the learner as he/she is, not as he/she "should be" according to who-knows-which self-important authority.(Note: the he/she thing is clumsy and I refuse to use "they" since it's ungrammatical, so, because my children are male, I'm going to settle for he - but it's meant generically in the same way that "mankind" includes both genders)

The learner now has the tools to drive the learning process. Learning materials have to compete with everything else for his attention.

Have you ever wondered why ADD is so fashionable these days? Someone has to explain why kids can't focus on dull-as-dishwater activities for longer than a few minutes. It has to be something we can classify as a disorder so we can put the onus on the parents to feed kids on a special diet or, even better, so that we can drug them into submission.

One of my sons was diagnosed with ADD at the age of 5. Aghast, I read everything I could find on the subject and drank it all in. In the intervening years I have decided that there is nothing wrong with the child's attention span. He is capable of playing drawn out games of chess, of reading tomes that would scare most adults, of watching 3 hour movies without even so much as a "bathroom break". Attention deficit, my eye! When he is engaged, this child has the attention-tenacity of a bull terrier. This is the new generation, and teachers simply have to learn how to keep these kids engaged. The methods that worked with my grandfather (who would be caned for stepping out of line) just are not going to work in this day and age where the teacher has been largely disempowered and the learner holds all the cards.

And enough time has passed that this generation is now a growing part of the workforce. As learning professionals, we have to address their needs. A customer who has received poor service chooses not to spend any more money in that store. The learner who is not engaged will simply seek an alternative provider... and there are a lot of them out there!

Learning materials need to be broken down into discrete units that can be threaded together by the learner to build towards the learning objectives of his choice. "Truth" changes so fast these days, that it must be possible for sections of material to be updated in an ad hoc fashion - much like changing a tyre (or several tyres) on a car without needing to replace or even retune the whole car.

Perhaps some post-apocalyptical day, learning will revert to the way it was in my grandparents' day, but I'm not holding my breath. In the meantime, we have to be governed by the same rules that hold sway in the high street - find out what the client wants and supply it!

Okay, I'll put my soapbox back under the desk now!

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