Getting Started

Technology for Learning

While completing a PhD in physics and post doctoral study in physical chemistry, I became convinced that computers could be useful indeed in enhancing learning.  And while I worked with computers in various ways for the next thirty years in the telecommunications industry, I never really got (or took?) the opportunity to explore this issue.  When I decided to teach full time in a university business curriculum, that interest still lingered.  So early on, I resolved to spend time exploring how to use the computer more effectively in supporting learning.  By this point in time, we had and taught very convincing examples of how computers expedited business—one would have had to be living under a rock to not notice those.  But we were (are) stumbling along in applying them effectively in education, at least from my perspective.

I know there are lots of examples of effective uses of technology in learning.  One in particular I got good exposure to was Confidence Based Learning. Two friends started with a computer and the idea that there must be a way to use it to improve learning. They implemented theory from James Bruno, then at USC, in a very clever way which combined left brain (logical) thinking with right brain (emotional) activity to make learning stick. Their initial results created immediate interest from training directors in large enterprises: from 40 hours in the classroom to attain on average 55% correct learning with confidence to 8 hours of online programmed learning which produced 95% correct learning with confidence. And the confidence is very important in the business world. In the academic environment, one can often guess with no downside consequences. In the world of world, if money or lives are riding on the outcome and I am not confident in my knowledge, I’ll delay the decision until I can get a better grasp, potentially costing the company significant dollars. We were unable to sell this approach to my colleagues in academia; they loved the demonstration, but then proceeded to tell us why it was good for training but couldn’t work for learning.

Today there are more demonstrations like the Confidence Based Learning system, but what we haven’t addressed, or at least I haven’t seen convincing evidence that we have, is what fundamentally the computer brings to learning.  We are learning a lot about how we as humans learn, and much of what we are learning is not what historically we have thought.  Behavioral economics was first to disrupt our secure images of who we are and how we operate.  The tendency, I think, is to confuse human capability with the capabilities we build into our technology.   Technology is dispassionate, logical, controllable and built to standards for interchangeable parts.   Humans are just the opposite: passionate, can be rational but are also emotional, sentient, capable of observation, aware of self and intentional.  That means we need to think and do differently with people than we do with technology–which runs counter to much of my experience in our education system.

So now that I’ve danced around the periphery of this issue for most of my career—the last 50 years or so, I want to spend more time exploring it more directly.  That means catching up on what others have invented, discovered, created, or whatever expressly in the field of learning—and I do mean learning, not education, not schooling, not teaching; those are related but different.  My hope is that I can contribute some insights that might move us as humans a little further along the path of evolution to a more enlightened, productive and satisfied species.

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