Friday, March 02, 2007

Science of learning

I have been ruminating over this for some days, and if I don't get this post done now, it's going to eat at me for the next several days, too - days which I really need to focus my attention on something else, so here goes...

I confess that I had never heard of Itiel Dror, until I read Clive's post and Stephen's rejoinder. Perhaps this is a sign of my ignorance, since Clive’s post indicates that he is a man of significant standing in the e-learning community in the UK. Be that as it may, this is an interesting conversation, and one that needs to see more of the light of day, since my view is that the field of corporate e-learning employs a worrying number of people who have no concept of the learning process or interest in the learner experience.

There seems to be a large number of immigrants from instructor-led training or formal education. Teachers who have completed a PGCE will certainly have received some teaching on the learning process (although the validity of some of that teaching may be brought into question – particularly on the subject of learning styles). Trainers, on the other hand, are drawn from a variety of backgrounds. They have often entered their field as a consequence of subject matter expertise rather than teaching skills or an understanding of the learning process.

I remember when "computing" in business (not yet called IT) was a field in its infancy. Recruiters were pillaging maths courses at university, enticing undergrads away with the promise of a good salary and the chance to "earn while you learn". They even did the rounds of some of the better performing high schools and made offers to top maths students. The connection was made that in order to programme computers in the very late 70s, you needed to understand algorithms which were a mathematical function. Ergo, maths whizzes were the answer. Seems logical – I wonder if it proved to be an accurate assumption. My point is that the demands of the industry and the lack of historical human resources meant that people were proactively sourced from supposedly related fields and thrown in at the deep end, where they embarked on a programme of informal learning that never seemed to stabilise.

I wonder if that isn't what we're seeing here. People have been brought into learning design from hypothetically related fields. They don't necessarily come with an understanding of learning or even an interest in the experience of the learner at the end of the day.

Those who have had some teaching around the learning process often come with views similar to those that Dror seems to be expressing. There would seem to me to be a generous pinch of behaviourism and teacher-centredness in Dror’s view of the world – or at least in my understanding of Clive’s understanding of it. I’m certainly not well-versed in neuroscience, but I have read that the notion that specific parts of the brain can be reliably and consistently associated with specific tasks is being challenged (Stephen makes an excellent point when he refers to the incontinence of older people). All the points that reinforce this view strike a harsh discord with me – although I confess that I have no rational basis for saying so, other than other articles I have read which I find more believable, but which may just as easily be wrong. Also, there is increasing concern that our growing understanding of the brain brings us no nearer to understanding the mind. I posted on this a while back, strangely enough.

I would echo Stephen’s assertion that there is “a distinction between knowing how something works and knowing how best to use it”

I would humbly suggest that, in addition to the two suggested “strategies to reduce the risk of learners experiencing cognitive overload” (namely: “provide less information” or “take much more care about how this information is communicated”), there might be a third: provide the learner with a means to access the information on an ad hoc JIT basis, thereby reducing the pressure to process all the information at any one time. So instead of having an e-learning course which aims to communicate in one hit everything the learner will ever need to know about a subject, you have a searchable, interactive online resource which will provide the learner with both context for the information and access to the information itself at the point of need. Even better if you can couple that together with the facility to put learners in touch with one another (and possibly even an acknowledged expert) so that they can process the information in their own time in their own way.

I am so glad that Stephen also raised the question: “is it better for the teacher to present the material already grouped?” That was my first thought, too, when reading this part of the summary. This is something that exercises me, and I am long way from having a definitive answer. When you’re in a classroom setting, you can facilitate a session where the learners group the information themselves and compare their groupings. There is bound to be a variety, and one learner may be inspired by another’s grouping - recognising a more effective framework than their own. However, when designing an online resource, there is a bit of a fine line. An online learner is usually alone at the time of accessing the material, and will often only have (at best) asynchronous contact with other learners. Many of these will need more support than a complete lack of grouping would provide – not all learners are totally independent!

What I try to do is to build in a variety of routes in to the material: via this grouping structure, via that grouping structure, or direct access (via search) to a specific piece of information. The trick is to come up with the right groupings, since you can’t possibly cover them all. On a previous project, unwisely following the client’s instructions I created a resource structured according to given criteria. We tried to explain to the client that this would be a barrier to the user, but we presented an ineffective argument and were unsuccessful. My fault. Only when it was finished and being tested did it become plain to the client what we had been trying to say all along – even better, they now thought it was their idea. Free of charge, I spent a weekend restructuring the resource along more intuitive lines. Much better.

I like the idea of a synchronous (f2f or online) session which provides context and introduces the resource, whereafter users can interrogate the resource as they see fit.

The thing is: I work in a corporate environment. I am not bound by curriculum and exams. Usually the adoption of new policies, procedures, tools, can be handled through performance management – so much more negotiable than national curriculum with a set syllabus. How this approach would translate into a school under the current system goes beyond my ability to speculate…


Anonymous said...

Thanks for having the courage to share that Karyn. It shows that an individual's aspiration can triumph over adverse circumstances.

Anonymous said...

I suspect that this comment was actually intended for this post: but thanks anyway, Michael. Many people have had to overcome far more difficult circumstances in life, but I am a firm believer that there comes a point where you have to take ownership of the cards you hold in your hand and get one with playing the game.

One thing I didn't mention in my post was that my mother has always been an inveterate bookworm, often reading upwards of 200 books a year, and she has instilled that love in me. Whatever else her failings may have been, I harbour her no ill feeling - she has walked a tough road - and I will always be grateful to her for passing on that passion to me: it has opened many, many doors!