Friday, July 31, 2015

Are Your Learners as Intelligent as They Can Be? - Tip #52

Research by Daniel M. Wegner and Adrian F. Ward featured in Scientific American asked people to rate how smart they felt (cognitive self-esteem) while using Google. The Googlers felt they were smarter (more intelligent) because they had access to the Internet.

"Some people feel more intelligent than others because they access the Internet for information."

Wegner and Ward says that "We are starting to know less but think we know more." They suggest that we are seeing people now who include Google as part of their cognitive tool set, even to the point they can't distinguish Googling something from actually knowing something. On the other hand, research has shown that using Google does not necessarily make us dumber, which we might think, but in fact smarter. Furthermore, intelligence is becoming less about memory and more about knowing how to access and connect external information.

The research of Wegner and Adrian, as well as the studies of Dr. Gary Small from University of California Los Angeles, Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, made me ponder what impact their findings have on the way we design and deliver learning.

Intelligence - memorization, recall and application

We can define intelligence in many different ways, but our current definitions revolve around people's abilities to store, learn and apply information and knowledge. It appears that the focus is on people's capacities and less on the tools they use. There is a presumption that we only use tools to do work. And, yet, it is a common experience to see people do tasks better, faster and with higher quality because of the tools they use.

Are people more intelligent because they have memorized how a word is spelled, or if they know how to find the word's definition in (or even ask someone), or is it both?

Internet as brain's external drive; all knowing brain

We create tools, and tools recreate us, states John Seely Brown. Betsy Sparrow says, "We think of the Internet first when faced with a difficult problem." And Wegner says, "The Internet has become the external drive for our memories."

In most of our learning, training and elearning design and delivery, we focus on the efficiencies (lots of content) and scale (rapid and fast delivery) of retention and memory, and application of the knowledge acquired. I suspect, however, that we have missed helping learners to be "smarter" (extending intelligence) by not expanding their skills and knowledge for using the Internet or in-house networks and tools to find additional, supplementary, current, updated or other knowledge related to the learning topic. While these may be related to the subject, we are unable to include them in our design. If we are missing this opportunity, what do we do?

I must mention here that there are researchers, such as Val Hooper and Channa Herath,Sherry Turkle and others, who raise concerns about the impact of the Internet on our ability to concentrate, and that we may be losing meaningful relationships. Additionally, thought leaders Jane Bozarth, Clark Quinn, George Siemens  and many others have been espousing open and networked learning environments.

Extending intelligence of learners and workers

For most of us in the trenches, there are incremental, as well as big and bold steps we can take to extend the hard drives of learners' brains. 

1. Unique Content VS. Open Content
Review the nature and scope of your content. What content do you have to provide because your lesson is the only source of that knowledge? Separate this from the content that is available through other sources. For example: If you are explaining a technical setting of a valve specific to your particular conditions, this might be content so unique you must develop and present it. On the other hand, other related content might be available from suppliers, reference guides and documentation, reported cases, experiences, etc. It might be best for learners to discover and acquire this content through your internal networks or on the Internet. Simply point them to where it's already available.

A similar situation is possible in compliance learning. You need to develop your own lessons around the unique requirements of your policies and procedures. However, references to policies and procedures are usually published on HR websites. Legal rulings and legislative guidelines are provided on government agencies' websites. Why duplicate it? 

 2. Frictionless Learning and Work Environment 
Helping learners to expand their brains' hard drives also requires that our learning environment be frictionless. This means we don't put up barriers or speed bumps to quick learning and finding answers while doing work. These barriers may take the form of a forced sequence of lessons, big lessons (more than 3 minutes), inter-dependent lessons, one-time sitting learning, knowledge checks and testing. Many argue that these traditional tasks are necessary for effective learning. Moreover, training departments feel they need a way of controlling the learning process. These very notions are often the cause of friction, slowness and the unresponsiveness of many learning programs. Furthermore, these are also the key causes of boredom, disengagement and low completion rate of lessons.

How do we remove the friction? Create small bites and micro-learning. Make it so small that even if you add a knowledge check, it is painless. Make the small bites learning independent units so they are fluid, like water, and can flow between work and learning and around the lives of the learner/worker.

3. Bringing Back Experience (Brain's Hard Drive)
In the typical lesson-learning mode, learners learn concepts or knowledge away from the real world. With open learning that searches, discovers, finds and connects with others online, we increase learners' ability to gain experience surrounding the knowledge. Connecting outward accelerates their understanding of the lessons. To expand the brain's hard drive even further, we ask learners to document, journal, share and post their discoveries back to the lessons. Incorporate the consistent practice of asking learners to post, comment and share their experiences.

The Learners Still Control the Brain

Finally, although our reference to the brain's hard drive might seem to be located out on the Internet, the learning process is actually right inside the learner's brain. The learner is still in control of what to learn, discover, apply and to use for success on the job. The hard drive is only a storage device, and until that storage can do the thinking for the learner, let's keep doing better in our design to adapt to these new tools.

Make your design and delivery even more an environment for learners to be smarter.

Let's help them to be smarter. And if using the Internet makes them smarter, let's incorporate it! 


Here are some studies in recent years that discuss how the Internet (represented by Google) is changing the way people think:

Nicholas Carr, 2008 : Is Google making us stupid? The use of Google affects how we think, making us reliant on synthetic information rather than on our own concentration and critical thinking

UCLA Study, 2008: Google (and by extension of the Internet) activates more brain areas in people who are comfortable with computer use. Compared to straightforward reading (as with books or magazines) reading through the Internet requires decision-making and judgment (for example when choosing among search results for relevance)

Sparrow, Loi, Wegner, 2011: "1) We think of the Internet first when faced with a difficult problem 2) we are less likely to remember something if we believe we can look it up online later, but 3) we are more likely to remember where to find the information (but not the information itself) if we believe it is saved somewhere." The latter is called transactive memory and considers the Internet as an extension of a person's knowledge

Wegner 2013: Knowing where to find information is becoming more important than actually knowing it. We think we know more when in reality, we know less

Hooper and Herath, 2014: Reliance on online sources has negative effects on concentration, comprehension, absorption and recall

Ray Jimenez, PhD
Vignettes Learning
"Helping Learners Learn Their Way"

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