New Frontiers of Learning and Old Ways of Thinking

When I was in college, I asked if I could take a class online because my wife was a flight attendant at the time and I only saw her once or twice a week. They placed me in the online learning class and it was the silliest thing I had ever experienced. Basically, we watched (or were supposed to) a video of the lecture and then answer some multiple choice questions afterwards. I soon found out that the questions after the video were extremely simple and could be found from a quick reading of the textbook which for me at least was better than sitting through a 90 minute video.

Contrast this with my experience as an Electrician in the US Navy's Nuclear Power program. After taking classes for a year or so, we are transfered to the "Prototype", a permanently moored (docked) submarine where we can learn and apply our knowledge before going out to the fleet. This involved spending about one-third of your time reading the T-manuals aka textbooks, one-third in the boat finding the equipment and learning on it, and one third in front of a computer being assessed on your knowledge. Meanwhile you also met with a mentor who would actually sign you off on your knowledge and test you as he/she felt necessary.

Blended learning, hybrid learning, or whatever else people are calling it, claim that organizing learning in this matter will change education. Here are some questions that one should ask when designing this type of environment:

1) Are you trying to teach the old stuff in a new way? This could work but it requires student motivation or it will have the same problems that you encountered when you did it the old way. Some tech advocates (salesmen), have been saying for the last 30 years that if you add a computer, students will do better. This is blatantly stated in some of their pitches but it is wrong. Boring is still boring. Technology has never been nor will it be the magic bullet or panacea for education's problems.

The Nuclear Navy has not updated their curriculum much in decades, but because we were all hand picked for our program and wanted to be there, we didn't care how old the boat or the textbooks were. This would apply to any program, think of your classrooms and how every time there are those few students who you wish you could clone. This is usually the difference between a college gen-ed class where everyone needs to be there and an upper division degree specific course.

2) If you are going to make your class online or at least assess it online, are your assessment questions able to be found by reading the book or Googling the answer? Are you ok with that possibility? I have the impression that my professor in college wanted me to watch the video, but if that was the case then they should have made the questions require more thought than just fill in the blank or put something into the lecture that was worth my time.

Many of you may have encountered annoyances with online learning. Yet, this is no more an indictment of online learning than sitting through a bad lecture is of direct instruction. This is not a technology problem as our Navy technology was outdated and the graphics looked about 20 years old, this is a pedagogy problem. If your class would be boring and ineffective in person, it will be even more so online because the human engagement is lost.

3) How can I best use the technology I have to enhance learning? I always say, that learning should be able to happen in a field in the woods or on a mountain. Technology is not needed to make learning occur. What technology is best at doing is automating or offloading repetitive or annoying tasks and facilitate fast retrieval or information or communication.

In my Navy Prototype Training, computers and books were our primary sources of learning. There were no lectures but we would form discussions with other students and train ourselves using good old whiteboards. When we had a question, instructors were there to clarify or deepen our understanding but we always had to come with a question. They were too busy for us to come up and say, "what are you going to teach us today". In the boat, we could learn via hands on one-on-one demonstration/application.

When we felt ready to be assessed, the computer would check for our basic level of understanding and then we could go to our advisor. They would have some more questions that could not be found directly in the book but had to demonstrate our understanding (e.g. what happens when this valve is open and you try and speed up the pumps?) The conversations were always frustrating because they would enjoy trying to stump us but we loved it nonetheless because it was a game.

4) Why do we need to know this? I know the arguments for a Liberal Arts education and yet I feel like our learning is so broad that students graduate with no mastery of anything. What job could a student get out of high school, or as Quinn puts it, "What survival value does high school have?" You might say, "Well that is why they need to go to college" but with the amount of learning available online, I bet we could do a lot more efficient job of learning with mentors helping clarify and support online learning.

There is no replacement for human interaction/discussion when learning, it's how we culturally evolved. The question is what role will humans play in learning with all of this information readily available for free? This is not a new question it is a rediscovery of old ways of thinking. Ancient peoples did not have school houses with lectures and curriculum, learning happened through exploration. Far from thinking that as a quaint or savage mode of learning, I think it is the key to unlocking our human potential for creating and innovating.

This does not replace teachers, it just changes our job description.

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