David Guralnick: Learning, Technology, and Design

Archive for September 2012

I’m Interactive, You’re Interactive, We’re All Interactive

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You can’t go far today in the world of corporate e-learning without hearing about “interactivity”–not that this is a new term, but it seems to be absolutely everywhere these days.  Virtually every e-learning tool vendor, custom design/development firm,  or consulting firm claims to help you “make your e-learning interactive.”  There’s a clear reason that seemingly all e-learning vendors cite when touting “interactivity”–interactivity will make your e-learning “fun” and “not boring.”

But what does “interactivity” really mean?

In my experience, interactivity isn’t something that we want to add to a boring online course much in the way we might add salt or hot sauce to flavorless food–instead, we want to start “from scratch”–that is, think about how we can provide learning environments centered around methods that are inherently interactive. Educational research (as noted in my previous post, from John Dewey all the way to the present) supports learning by doing, particularly when it comes to “transfer” of skills–that is, ensuring that the skills someone learns via a learning experience apply to their real-life situation.  When it comes to professional training, applied skills–can you do the job better?–are what really matter.

The great opportunity here is that a well-designed online learning experience can be interactive in a way that learners enjoy and will be effective learning.  Learn-by-doing simulations and appropriate game-like elements can work beautifully.  For example,  my company, Kaleidoscope Learning, created a simulation to teach apartment leasing consultants how to interact with prospective residents in order to convince them to rent an apartment.  There are all sorts of principles behind being a “good” apartment leaser–“Don’t push too hard too soon,” “State the apartment’s features in a positive way,” etc.–but just reading those doesn’t necessarily help you do the job well; the principles aren’t concrete, so it’s not always easy to know when to apply them or if you’re even applying them correctly.  In our simulated environment, the learner interacted with realistic prospects, and got to see who rented an apartment and who didn’t; plus there was a coaching component to help explain what’s going on.  This particular example wasn’t especially new and novel for us, but it worked…and was definitely “interactive” in a way that was integrated into the learning experience, not added on top.

A couple of keys to designing in successful interactivity include:

  • Create authentic tasks:   The apartment simulation works well because the actions the learners take  are realistic and are the types of actions and decisions they’ll need to take in real life.   The relevance to the job is clear, and the learning will transfer.  Sometimes, the connection between a learning experience and what’s learned isn’t quite as direct–for example, a project I was involved in years ago in which kids took simulated “road trips” online and would — through that experience–learn about geography and about the cities they “visited.”  Even then, the task itself was engaging and realistic.
  • Make sure there’s a legitimate purpose to any interactivity.  I once reviewed a course for a retail chain that had a map of the store areas, and the learner could click on each area of the store to get a 1-sentence explanation of it.  The user complaint here was that it was annoying to click–there wasn’t a lot of information, why not just show it all on-screen?  Contrast this with a different course for a different retail chain, in which the learner had to accomplish tasks, such as helping a customer, and used a map of the store to “move” around the store.  This was functional and felt natural to the learner.

In many ways, interactive learning–interacting with other people, interacting with a computer,  interacting with other materials–is generally at the root of a successful learning environment.  But it needs to be thoughtfully-design interactivity.

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Written by dguralnick

September 19, 2012 at 2:14 PM

We’re Solving the “Access to Education” Problem–But Is That the Right Problem To Solve?

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There has been a huge movement, particularly in the past year, to provide wider access to education and to educational materials.  We’ve seen the MIT’s OpenCourseware, Stanford’s immensely-popular online artificial intelligence course, and many more–all free, available to anyone, anytime.  And who could argue with “free” and “available anywhere”?  Whatever is it, if it’s free and I can get it anywhere, I’ll take two of them…why not?

As the old song asks, though,  is that all there is?  I’ll certainly agree that access to quality learning experiences is a good thing.  But are we getting carried away with focusing on easy  access at the expense of improving quality?

Educational research has long argued in favor of an active, learning-by-doing approach to learning (this approach was  first articulated by John Dewey in 1902–1902!–and later work by John Seely Brown, Allan Collins, Seymour Papert, Roger Schank (my own Ph.D. advisor, way back when) and others has continued to demonstrate the value of a “doing” approach to learning.  Yet so much of today’s online education takes a traditional, passive, classroom model of teaching (I’m hesitant to even call it a “model of learning”) and simply makes it more widely-accessible. Much of today’s corporate training follows an online “textbook” model–taking text and some graphics, and putting them online in a format in which the learner is asked to read some pages, click the Next button, and eventually take a quiz.  Companies love that their employees can access online training from anywhere, and without any travel/instructor costs for the company, but studies (and we’ve done some) show that this type of learning is seldom effective, particularly in a business context in which job performance, not information recall, is the goal.

Of course there are exceptions to the world I have described above (and I like to think that I’ve been involved myself in designing at least a few of them). There’s  more interest in immersive games for learning, which has the potential to follow sound learn-by-doing concepts. EdX, a joint venture of MIT, Harvard, and now Berkeley,  has received some good press and promises free online courses that include online laboratories and potentially other methods.  So there’s progress.  And giving widespread access to famous researchers and inspiring lecturers in video, for free, is certainly of some value.  But we cannot pretend that the “easily available, high-quality education” problem is solved.

As I write this post,  I think I could have written a lot of the same things (and did) 10 years ago.  In the past decade, we’ve seen huge  technological advances, we’ve seen free and open access to educational materials become widespread–but we haven’t seen the significant growth we need to see in terms of new online educational methods that take advantage of technology to provide better learning experiences, rather than just wider access to the types of learning experiences we’ve had for years.  It’s time to focus on changing this; I’ll write more about my ideas as to how to go about that in future posts.

Written by dguralnick

September 14, 2012 at 3:09 PM