Don't let technology master the learning experience

The conversation about technology means we lose sight on what we are using it for in the first place. At Attic our focus is on the learner and the content based experience.


In the brave new world of digital learning the machine stands proud. We are now at a point where AI algorithms are claiming they can automatically generate content, with a promise of ever cheaper learning production costs. We stand back in awe at technology and anyone who questions their relentless rise is labelled a Luddite.

Jargon and technical terminology dominate conversations about digital learning. Courses have become highly templatised. The very notion of ‘a course’ has itself become a technical term - a series of SCORM objects or whatever new jargon the learning management system world has invented. Digital learning has its own plethora of technical formats and if things don’t fit into those formats it’s not seen as learning.

Yet in many ways it feels the conversation about the technology means we lose sight on what we are using it for in the first place.

As a social animal, we thrive on human interaction. We learn constantly from those around us. When books came along we were able to learn from others without them needing to be present. But since books are passive they always rely on additional human involvement. The book and other recorded mediums bring to the fore the ‘teacher’, the person who adds that interaction lost in the recording.

Then the computer brought with it ‘interaction’ and suddenly the promise of a teacherless medium is on the scene. Digital interactions are presented as if they can have a human equivalence.

But the reality is that even the average offline course was much more personalised and interactive than anything digital has managed to offer. Digital interactions are built from a limited set of rules. A drag-and-drop, a quiz, a fill-in-the-blanks, etc. Even when we use the term ‘gamification’ we are still looking at a tiny subset of interactions, paling into significance when compared to person-to-person interaction.

Whilst people-based interaction can be endlessly varied, rule-based interaction – games included – are entirely limited and pre-set in what they can deliver. The more we end up with a library of templatised interactions and rapid authoring environments promoting pre-set ways of learning, the more we distance learners from the richness and variety of human interaction. When eLearning sees these ‘interactions’ as the building blocks of learning it becomes fossilised and starts dying.

We have allowed ourselves to become slaves to the technology rather than its master. We have allowed our awe of the ‘interaction’ and the ‘format’ to pigeonhole digital learning into a small set of acceptable approaches. And in doing that we have killed the true interaction that drives learning, which is empowering people-to-people interaction. It’s no wonder that the term eLearning can so often provoke a look of disdain, particularly from employees!

This is not to say I believe we should give up on technology. It means I believe we should be the masters, not slaves, of technology. The interaction in a digital learning course is just another way of codifying human experience, just another way of delivering a recorded experience. And as with any recorded experience we have to make sure people, particularly the teacher, is core to the experience.

To become the master of technology we need to bring the human back into the heart of the experience. We have to see digital learning as a support for interaction, not a replacement. And in this approach, any digital format might be useful support. Just as human interaction knows no pre-set limits, nor are there limits to what can support it. Support may be complex simulations, a YouTube video or may be simple PDFs - there are no preset answers and no preset formats. It should be whatever can be used to supplement the interaction and help bring it to life.

It is surely ironic that to be truly masters of technology we must, above all else, understand not technology but human interaction. And that understanding is plentiful in the traditional role of the teacher and the trainer.

The first wave of the digital revolution was one of content distribution. The second wave was the socialising of that experience, the rise of social media. Learning is still very much stuck in the first wave. It’s time to change that, to rise to the challenge and break the norms so easily slipped into, and remember that despite our technology obsessed world, we are just people learning from other people.

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