David Guralnick: Learning, Technology, and Design

Posts Tagged ‘education

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