Sunday, July 12, 2015

Googling our way through life

In order to really see something, you have to be able to see its edges.

The most common mistakes in  learning today stem from not being able to see beyond learning - learning's 'horizon' if you will.

I am indebted to Craig Taylor and Alistair Cockroft for prompting this post - Craig pointed out this flawed definition of performance support : 'anything used for learning that is accessible and applicable at the moment of need.’ (in actual fact the source MASIE definition is better) which makes a familiar error: presuming that the aim of performance support is to aid learning, not to reduce or mitigate it.

So how did we - learning professionals - find ourselves in the business of learning elimination? In what sense are we 'learning eliminators'?

I’ve tried to make the point by way of a diagram. I’ve spoken before about Robert Kelley’s research, showing that people are tending to hold less of the knowledge that they need to do their jobs in their heads. Put simply - people are shifting from learning to referencing. We are ‘Googling our way through life’.

In every case I can think of, the trajectory of learning looks something like the one in the diagram: learning is handed from people to systems. Learning is externalised.

I’ve given a navigational example: when we use a map, learning is externalised. The map is a form of performance support, but importantly it prevents us from having to learn. There may be people who memorise pages from the A-Z, but they are not normal. Further along the trajectory comes SatNav. Note that if you follow SatNav along a route repeatedly you may eventually learn that route - but you learn it far more slowly than if you were forced to find your way unaided. SatNav does not aid learning - it aids performance. And it does so by reducing your need to learn - by externalising learning - by handing the learning process to a system. Now we see where this ends. We still need to learn how to drive a car. So the logical conclusion is to build a self-driving vehicle.

The mission for the learning profession today is as follows: Tell it to me like I’m twelve. Why? Because the pace of change necessitates that deep capability reside with systems, because now systems learn better than people, because people change jobs too quickly for anything but simple instruction, because technology is absorbing the burden of learning, because individual capability fast becomes an obstacle to organisational capability (think of Taxi driving). SatNav tells it to me like I’m twelve: ‘take the next left… take the third exit’.

It’s important to understand that the amount of learning overall has not changed - it is just that instead of trying to force the learning on people, we are engaged in building it into systems.

In case this sounds as though I am asking learning professionals to become machine learning specialists, I am not (although it would be a good career move): a checklist is a simple piece of guidance which incorporates lessons learned. There are lots of ways within our grasp to build guidance systems. But please - build the learning into the resource, or into the system - stop trying to cram it into people. We’re done with that.

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