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Interesting people

Amy-Jo Kim (www.naima.com) author of Community Building on the Web

Howard Rheingold (www.rheingold.com) author of The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier or read it online  

Terrific Books

Perspectives on Activity Theory: Learning in Doing Social, Cognitive and Computational Perspective, Y. Engestrom and Reijo Miettinen (eds.) 1999

Follow the Yellow Brick Road : Learning to Give, Take, and Use Instructions, R Wurman, L. Leifer, 1991.This book is one of Bernstein's all-time favorites because it helped her get interested in the domain of organizing information
for learners. It is out of print, but it's well worth looking around for.

Getting in Touch: The Guide to New Body-Centered Therapies. Christine Caldwell, Ph.D. (editor)

Like many people I am naturally curious and sometimes I even border on seeming nosy. If I’m cramped in an airplane, I often strike up a conversation with the person sitting next to me, propelled by something the person is reading, or, dare I admit, what’s visible on their laptop screen. On a recent flight, my fellow row-mate came sprinting onto the plane with seconds to spare before departure. We commiserated about flight delays, and as the conversation turned, I asked what line of work he was in. Turns out he’s an emergency room doctor who also researches medical economics issues. We had a fascinating conversation about nosocomial infections, the transmission of bacteria, and the impact of household antibacterial products, such as soaps and creams, on the efficacy of antibiotics.

How does this apply to an article about lonely learners? I wanted to illustrate how we might not even know when we will have a learning moment with another person, yet how rich the interaction can be. In this experience, I felt comfortable talking with a stranger, as do many travelers. About thirty minutes into the conversation the other person in our row heard what we were talking about asked a few questions about an antibiotic. Our simple conversation organically grew to include someone else with a similar interest. I didn’t know in advance that I’d be “learning.” I pursued my natural curiosity in a random fashion.

This kind of interaction makes me wonder if some of the current designs of elearning courses and experiences could inadvertently create a generation of “lonely learners.” By lonely learners, I mean people who go through the experience of learning largely alone, without the benefits of interacting with other people to bring a larger context to the issues at hand, to add to informal knowledge, to encourage further exploration, and to inspire and motivate.

eLearning makes learning modules available on the Internet, at the learners computer or hand-held device. We are fortunate to be evolving from eLearning modules that are glorified page turners—where a company has ported the linear content that used to reside in a book on a CD-ROM into HTML—to more thoughtful designs that allow flexible navigation through the content. But, while a learning module may have compelling audio accompaniments and sexy TV-style video clips, it does not necessarily foster involvement with the concepts in a way that stimulates further pursuit of knowledge. In other words, it’s not a truly interactive experience. Yes, the module might pose difficult questions, where you can punch in a response or change a set of variables to see a graph change. But, would you really say that interacting with the computer is like interacting with a colleague or expert or friend? Where is the human interaction that fosters further thinking that provides context and even makes learning more fun? “Single user” learning designs do not provide the learner the chance to find others who face the same problem or share the same interest. This is a shame, for the Internet is such a fantastic vehicle for connecting people to pose questions about the material and have meaningful dialogues.

Nearly 50% of universities in the United States offer at least one online course, with the number of courses growing rapidly[1]. People in these courses do have a chance to converse—through email, discussion boards, synchronous chat, and even collaborative events—with the professor or teaching assistant, and even fellow virtual classmates (real people, mind you, just logging in from the ‘virtual’ world of cyberspace). However, losing 40-50% of the initially enrolled students by the end of the course is not uncommon. This happens because 100% distance learning courses cannot build the kind of trust you can build by getting people together in the same room, and letting them see each other, read their non-verbal gestures for meaning, shake hands, go out for coffee or a drink.

I don’t devalue the convenience associated with being able to take a course over the Internet. I’d say, however, that my experiences in fully online courses have left a lot to be desired. Although I was an A student from grade school through grad school, I dropped out of all three distance education courses in which I was enrolled. When I posted challenging questions about specific issues I was facing relating to the coursework, I was disappointed when classmates did not read and respond to my online queries. Perhaps we lacked enough in common, or we didn’t know enough about one another to know what would make for a compelling posting on a discussion board, or because there were no social incentives to look out for each other. It was simply too lonely for me, and I grew to think of the experiences as glorified correspondence courses mediated on the Internet.

Building Context

Another problem with many of the Internet-delivered courses is that “help” is offered too much through the online medium, and not enough by real human beings. While I am very self-sufficient and self-motivated, I find it annoying to be relegated to FAQ links (frequently asked questions) to find answers. For example, my previous employer, a consulting firm, offered a CD-ROM program (which I’d bet, by now, is offered online) on a specific problem-solving methodology. I wanted to apply this methodology to a particular client challenge, with specific industry characteristics. The learning module offered a help function in the form of video interviews with experts in the methodology, so when a learner faced a problem or wanted to explore topic further, he could type in key words and get a list of questions addressed by the learning module. But, these were pre-determined questions, and none of those addressed the specific industry context I needed.

I didn’t like to use the learning modules at my desk, at home, or at a client site. I only really enjoyed this self-paced instruction in the learning lab, where we could temporarily escape client demands. I’d deliberately seek out a group of people who were working through the same learning module, and start a conversation about the topics. I found that through our shared stories and anecdotes, my motivation to learn and apply the concepts was much higher than if I had been learning on my own. Why? Because I had the chance to discuss it with others and self-direct what I was learning to the contexts in which it made most sense. I invite you, when faced with similar stand-alone learning resources, to seek out other people also completing the same learning sequence, and get together. Form an interest group. Raise and tackle challenging and novel issues. Have fun and enjoy the company of others.

Building Informal Knowledge & Encouraging Further Exploration

Another thing that irks me about much of the elearning I’m seeing is its focus on completion. By completion, I mean two things. First, completion means that the learning has defined end points. It’s rather like saying “OK, you’ve finished three modules, now, you’re done. No more learning needed.” Let’s say that you hear a great speaker—say Peter Drucker—at a convention. When his talk concludes, you seek out the person three rows ahead of you who posed an intriguing question. You invite her for coffee and talk over the themes of the presentation. The conversation steers through many interesting tangents, and soon, you’ve gained an insight that helps you solve a major problem at work. If you had viewed the same content, all by yourself, on the Internet, you would probably have missed the random conversation that was provoked by serendipity. Very few learning designs would have allowed you to reach the same beneficial outcome. Yet, even with something as simple as a discussion board dedicated to those conventioneers who heard Drucker, and a moderator, the learning could continue for everyone, as the Internet allows them to connect and converse virtually.

The second problem with learning designs that force completion is their over-emphasis on testing. When you complete a module, a test pops up to check your learning. Maybe it’s a multiple-choice test, where you click the correct answer to demonstrate your knowledge of a set of definitions. For that snapshot of a moment, you might know the information. But…so what? Does demonstrating your recall ability at that point in time really determine whether you will grow, stretch, try out new ideas, or do something differently as a result of your learning? Naturally, most companies want to know that their investments in education are paying off, so they attempt to track whether people have learned. This in itself is inherently difficult to do.

I suggest that we need new metrics that assess what new connections have been built between people within a organization discussing a topic, and that these are tracked continuously, not just in single-point observations, like tests. We could look at what new discussion threads are popping up on discussion boards, who is having those discussions, and what value that adds to the organization. I’d like to see organizations move towards metrics that encourage behaviors such as sharing information, mentoring others, and contributing new perspectives. If you’re with me on this, please start considering and promoting these metrics now. Let’s not wait until they are codified and published and the consulting firms are selling them as methodologies. We have the chance to influence collaborative learning, beginning now.

Rather than go on about my fears about creating lonely learners, I’d like to share a few more suggestions on how to connect real live learners to each other.

Build Trust

To encourage sharing between people, it’s vital that they trust one another. To the extent possible, we ought to encourage learning designs that gather people together physically, in addition to virtually. In the ideal world, we’d start learning experiences with face-to-face events. People mix, mingle, and begin to feel comfortable with one another. After the live event, they can continue the conversations online, and branch off in new and interesting ways. Blair Sheppard, President and CEO of Duke Corporate Education, describes this live and online blend as Place and Space education, something the Fuqua School of Business has done successfully with their Global Executive MBA program and their new MBA Cross-Continent program.

Help People with Common Interests Find One Another

If the learning design for the elearning you currently have is really a stand-alone, do-it-yourself, experience, you can still prevent learners from becoming lonely. Set up an explicit way for people taking an online course within your organization to meet each other. You could create lots of ways for people to find each other – from sign-up sheets in the company break room at the low end, to specific online discussion boards where people can post background information about themselves, the skills or knowledge they need to build, and the expertise they’d like to share.

You can also invite alumni of online classes to mentor people currently taking the class, and share their ideas for how to get the most out of it, and how to contextualize what they are learning to their job or to the organization. While I might not know that others in my company are taking the same online course, if someone lets me know who they are and how to reach them, I can extend my learning beyond my own keyboard, screen, and modem. In addition to the teacher or subject matter expert highlighted in this online learning experience, I now have the chance to learn from others much closer to my own situation.

Explicitly Design Interactions for Multiple People

I’d like to encourage designers of online learning, and those who buy and use it, to explicitly design interactions for multiple people, with online and offline components. A great example of this would be multi-player simulations. People can experience a similar online environment, where they change variables and outcomes shift, and then discuss what has happened, and how that translates to their own work. One company in particular, Strategic Management Group, offers teams the chance to make online decisions within a mock eBusiness, and see the results of their choices. The group then works with a professional facilitator to debrief the experience, and this helps them to solidify what they have learned and think about how to apply it back on the job.

As I’ve been investigating ways to prevent loneliness in learning, I stumbled across a perspective I’d encourage you to investigate—activity theory. According to Professor Richard Beach, Department of Curriculum and Instruction at the Center for Teaching and Learning at University of Minnesota, activity theory posits that by actively engaging in joint activities, students learn social genres or systematic ways of acting or thinking associated with becoming certain kinds of thinkers. A whole body of information exists about the importance of getting people together to learn, and how much more powerful it can be than leaving a learner to the solo perspective.

If you agree with my concerns, and want to ensure that elearning helps us connect more, not less, with others, please join me in building an informal network of like-minded people who want to develop knowledge about blending live and online learning. We can explore with one another, and be cheered on by fellow learners. Consider this a launching point for a group exchange of ideas and issues. This is your personal invitation to find and be introduced to others who share your passion about blending the live and virtual worlds of learning. We can meet at conferences, when we travel, and even in our own offices and home towns. Or, on airplanes.

By the way, a nosocomial infection is a hospital-acquired infection. The good doctor I just happened to meet in the friendly skies told me so.

[1] Campus Computing Project Survey (1999). Encino, CA. www.campuscomputing.net (May 2000).

Susan Bernstein, M.B.A., wrote this article while working as a marketing manager with an elearning company. She is currently coaching professionals in transition through her own venture, Tune In and Turn On and pursuing a PhD in Somatic Psychology at Santa Barbara Graduate Institute. Somatic psychology brings together the mind and body for performance enhancement and healing, including helping people to overcome loneliness. You can contact Susan at susanlbernstein@hotmail.com.

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