Saturday, November 25, 2006

Education in the Old and New World

The pre-computer world and the post-computer world obviously need very different skills. This has meant that education itself has been split wide open, leading to much confusion and difficulty in setting and achieving goals. If the very definition of knowledge has changed, then how can we best educate someone? Do we decide what facts students should learn, teach those facts, and then test to see how we've done? Or should we help students to set their own learning goals, train them to find the information they need, and then help them demonstrate their learning? These are very, very different objectives. And yet, if you look carefully into school districts, school buildings, and even within individual classrooms you'll find a kind of schizophrenic attempt at doing bits of both of these things, with very disheartening results. When one sets off on a trip and then changes direction every 100 feet, one isn't likely to arrive at a desirable destination, or indeed travel very far at all.

Pre-computer education was built on several fallacies. First, there was an assembly-line mentality that all students are alike, that all can do the same things, that all SHOULD do the same things. This makes little sense as the world gets more and more specialized, but it is now being enforced as never before through all the standardized tests included in the No Child Left Behind laws. Another fallacy is that there is an orderly and predictable route that learning happens in. Thus "pre-reading" skills are religiously taught, regardless of the fact that millions of children (including my own) learn to read without ever having been taught them. A third fallacy is that if one simply memorizes enough things they'll succeed in the world. In reality, more people are fired from jobs for not being able to work with other people (something left out the NCLB altogether) than for not having some kind of knowledge of facts. Last but not least, there is a belief that somewhere, some collection of people knows exactly what everyone in the country should know, so there is a way to design a test that will measure if one is an "educated person". When Minnesota held hearings on the Social Studies curriculum this assumption was thoroughly tested, as the extremely long list of competencies that had been designed by the "experts" was shown to be extremely biased- and also, it had nothing in it about knowing about current political issues, how to choose candidates, or even the basic skills about how to vote! Each curriculum area is like this- there is much controversy, even among experts in different fields, about what comprise the basic knowledge in each area.

Post- computer education would be entirely different, and as such it is difficult to even imagine how it would look. For one thing, emphasizing the skills of finding information rather than memorizing it presents the possibility that students get to decide what to research. Also, since students often know more about the Internet than their teachers, there would be more of a collegial atmosphere than a dictatorial one, where teachers help pose questions or problems and then all parties do some investigation, sharing their findings equally. This goes for hardware and software too- those of us who've worked in schools already know that the techie kids are a necessary component of our school's computer department, and they often know more than the people hired to supervise them. Demonstrating learning won't be done through testing, since everyone will be learning about different topics. So instead there will be student presentations, powerpoints, essays, even books or movies that show the meaningful things (to them and hopefully to others) that they have investigated. These can be shared with others inside the school, but also to the outside community via websites or real-time presentations in person or online. Rather than going on to more generalized training such as college, more students will choose to specialize from the start, and they may either launch their own business or go to specialized schools or online classes to learn just what they need to know to take the next step in their chosen field, whether it be hair design, international negotiations, or quantum physics.

In schools today there are trends toward both worlds. The pre-computer direction is yielding standardized curricula (most textbook companies are now advertising that they are "standards based", meaning that they'll teach to the tests), and teachers, schools and districts are being let go or taken over if their students' test scores aren't high enough. This is actually leading to more "throw-away kids", because the districts don't mind if low-achieving kids drop out, since those are the very ones who lower the district's test scores. Even community colleges for hands-on training such as carpentry or cooking are requiring students to pass tests in order to get in. At the same time, some schools or teachers are asking for creativity and original research projects, assuming that this new world will require all the adaptability their students can come up with. Service learning is also a hot topic right now, requiring that students go out in the community and exhibit people skills which the schools have totally ignored up to that point. And alternatives such as charter schools are showing that parents and students really crave the more humane, individualized education that we've lost through all the years of standardization.

We need to begin discussing these conflicting aims, trying to come up with some understanding about how the 2 worlds can cooperate with each other, both for the sake of the children, but also for the sake of the world we're launching them into. Instead of retreating into our separate corners, let's talk about how we can create forums and find some common goals. I'll work on this in coming months.

What are symptoms you see of these splits? Have you seen these cross-era forums happening? If so, where and how?


Dave Burta said...

Borrowing from the YouTube Playbook for Training

By: Dave Burta, Senior Consultant, Latitude Consulting Group

It is no trade secret that the half-life of formal learning is measurable in barely more than clock time. And the holy grail of trainers and learners is how to expand that half-life in meaningful ways (i.e., how to make learning “Stickier”). A part of the answer to “stickiness” may lie in borrowing a play or two from the YouTube playbook.

YouTube has enjoyed mass acceptance and adoption rarely seen around the globe and across many subject areas. What is it about this approach to communications that has caused its amazing reception and “stickiness”, and how can that be applied to training and learning?

I would suggest that it is some combination of the following YouTube attributes:
• Ease-of-use and access
• Sound bite-level learning of low density content
• Variability of content
• Informality of media and messages

The last attribute, the informality of the YouTube, perhaps has the greatest impact on what makes YouTube so habit forming. These attributes make a YouTube-like environment a remarkable candidate to help the learning community extend the half-lives of learning events and delivery technologies. These same attributes applied to learning would make it far more inviting to the learner and thus have them readily returning for more.
Ease of Use and Access
Learning management systems (LMSs) all face the same challenge. They trade off simplicity and ease-of-use for functionality (or vice versa). The more substantial the content and the enterprise requirements for administration and delivery of learning, the more inherently complex the LMS environment must be to accommodate those requirements. This often adds layer upon layer of rules, criteria, and complex pathways of learning. These complexities are an inherent turn-off to students, so who can blame them for looking for more comforting content and ease of use and access?
YouTube is the “fast food of content” and the beauty of it for users is that it provides instant access to limitless, “comfort content” with the user having to do nothing more than virtually point, click and use. Removing any administrative, technical, and pedagogical burdens from e-learning content delivery may just be one of the insights gleaned from the YouTube experience.
Learning Bites and Low Density Content
How many trainers have witnessed (when training was instructor lead) students nodding off? We aren’t quite able to witness the same ‘nodding off’ outcome when training is E-delivered. Even if distance learning students are not nodding off, there are many other distractions that can disrupt longer lessons. When unobserved, students may feel free to multitask with only peripheral attention to an e-learning lesson.

To maintain attention and enhance retention, many trainers have learned (if they are successful) to deliver messages in bite-sized portions, hitting students with many variations of the same theme, instead of beleaguering them with long boring sermons on a single subject. Political campaigners have learned the same thing. Sound bites “stick” while dry, lengthy diatribes and pontifications are rarely absorbed for long if at all.
YouTube has mastered the art of video sound bites as the basis for producing and delivering content. Short, low-density snippets attract YouTube users. Low density means content is highly focused on a single thread. Similarly, learning bites could be repeated in multiple variations. Such low density content is all it takes to find and keep someone’s attention and have them remember what they saw or learned.
Variability and Many Options to Choose From
Each YouTube experience varies significantly, even in the same subjects and venues that users frequently browse. This occurs because content is drawn from a large, diverse population. This diversity allows one to see many things from many vantage points, and, frankly, is the perfect prescription for short attention spans. As trainers—and even students—know from the most primitive rules of learning, repetition works; it works so much better when it is not boring and adds new perspective with each iteration.
When users get bored with a piece of content on YouTube, they have the ability to instantly move on and choose from many other options. Providing avenues of escape might not seem to serve the objectives of training professionals in their quest for stickiness, but students weaving in and out of a training program should be preferable to students completely tuning out content.

Before doubting the power of variability and options, consider how many exist in automobile driving lessons and the modes in which they’re taught. If driver education simply resorted to lectures or just placed kids in a driver’s seat and said “drive”, it would give them a very limited perspective and understanding of what is involved and what they need to learn and understand. Also, think of a driver cutting off other drivers, weaving in and out of traffic at top speeds, and then imagine that a student’s orientation to driving was provided exclusively by that driver.

Creating diversity of options for both the content and modality of delivery (text, video, blended instruction, etc.) for learning provides far greater stickiness than more traditional monolithic methods.
There is a quality of immediate familiarity with most YouTube segments. This familiarity exists, because content providers offer a semi-intimate slice of their own lives, perspectives or even a moment of personal creativity that they wish to share with the world. Such intimacy and familiarity is due largely to the informality of both the content and the ease-of-use and access environment provided by YouTube.

Content on YouTube comes from virtually anyone and anywhere on almost any subject. The “authors” only don’t always put great effort into their productions, and yet most of the material is highly informal and generally feels good. On YouTube we peer into someone else’s life or perspective at will and most of us enjoy it immensely because it is intimate, familiar, and informal.

The appeal of this electronic version of informality and learning intimacy is little different from the college experience, as students go from formal lectures with hundreds of students to small seminars and even workshops where everyone is on a first name basis. These small, intimate, informal learning forums are the ones that have a long term impact and stick with someone decades later. Psych 101, Eco 101, PolySci 101, and other lectures with over a thousand other students tend to be a blur. So why wouldn’t the same informal conditions help someone e-learn what someone else has to e-teach?
Some training websites have embraced many of these YouTube attributes:

LatitudeU ( Free, open public exchange of diverse content and knowledge.
CWERTY ( Inexpensive Executive Presentations from top business execs.
Google’s KNOL ( )
Apple’s I-Pod e-learning ( )
E-Learning for Kids ( Free content and training materials for kids, educators and parents.
Ehow ( is a great example of free “how to” content for consumers.
Achieving Stickiness
The YouTube phenomenon and the attributes described are not new. They have existed in various forms of public communications from radio to TV to the advent of cable and satellite TV, where users can pick from hundreds of content options. While academicians can argue about the pedagogical virtues of these media as constructive learning environments, there is no argument that their appeal is potent. The YouTube model applied to training and learning is simply the next generation of electronic media being the glue for achieving effective transfer and acceptance of knowledge.
Perhaps a powerful bit of evidence that a YouTube-type model works is the recent Democratic Debate “powered by” YouTube. The debate forum reflected the public’s YouTube expressed desires to be educated by the candidates about themselves and the issues they (the public) care about most.
This article does not suggest in any way that all systems that support training and learning should push content through a YouTube model. Not all subject matter is applicable to such a model. (Who would want their cardiologist to have studied at YouTubeU?) What it does suggest is that training professionals all keep one eye on the YouTube playbook as they provide content, learning systems, and training services and embrace these YouTube attributes wherever applicable. Each of us has a lot to learn, many have things to teach and all can learn from the YouTube model how to improve teaching and learning in many areas and make it stick.

Dave Burta is a senior consultant for Latitude Consulting Group, a Michigan-based e-business consultancy. Burta is also the project manager for – Latitude’s peer-to-peer e-learning portal. Prior to joining Latitude Burta served for 12 years as president of ProVent associates, a business consulting and training organization for information technology services companies. Over that span Burta coached and trained more than 5,000 consulting and information technology professionals.

Kristen Nicole said...

Wow, interesting ideas. One issue I think is important to consider is that of general vs. specialized education. As a college student, I highly value general knowledge in math, science, English, music, etc. because I think that it adds value to life. It seems dangerous to allow specialization from as early as elementary school simply because children may never learn basic algebra or the fundamentals of biology. How can we function, then, in a college setting, with such a diverse array of talents and knowledge (and so many blatantly lacking)?

Jesse Jones said...

Really very informative blog.
Thanks for sharing this blog.
Top Journalism university in UP