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The Evolution of Learning: "Please don't eat the glowing Torenia!"

The Evolution of Learning: "Please don't eat the glowing Torenia!"

Posted on 06/19/2014

Mimeographs, avocado green refrigerators, wooden tennis rackets, record players, ADDIE, Bloom, ILT... In the words of Bob Dylan, Times they are a-changin'. I have vague memories of mimeographs and avocado green refrigerators. Both seem to have vanished into the history books. Wooden tennis rackets are now collectors’ items. How many of us still have record players?

Digital technology and mobile devices are changing the field of learning and development (L&D). Learning is becoming more learner centric. Learners are defining their needs and using new technology to achieve their goals and objectives. GPS coordinates are used to help find locations or participate in discovery activities (e.g., National Park Service Adventure Activity Book). Learners can even use the iTunes Sky Map to learn about what they see up in the sky. They can ask all sorts of questions on social media sites such as LinkedIn. As organizations focus on continuous learning there is some talk that the role of L&D specialists is actually turning into a coach or facilitator of learning. Even ASTD has decided to rebrand after acknowledging the changing scope of the field of training and development. Maybe we don’t need trainers any more? Is what we used to call “training” and learning objectives starting to fade into the history books? How do we know learners are learning what organizations need them to learn? Does technology augment memory or replace it?

Technology provides the opportunity to have instant access to information. We no longer have to wait for the next class to be scheduled or the next book to be published. Information is pushed out to us without us having to ask for it. If we need to find content oftentimes all we have to do is “google it.” If that doesn’t work, social media continues to highlight the value of social interaction and how we can learn from each other in real time. We can post on discussion boards to get answers to questions that will help our work advance. We can review Internet sites to learn the most current developments in our field. A colleague once asked me “do you want to be on the leading edge or the bleeding edge?” I want to be on the bleeding edge of knowledge. I want to go to conferences to learn something new and read “news” that’s actually new now! Not what was new last year! When I search for information I use the information to help me achieve a goal. So, I end up acting on the information in some way. I’m learning it for a purpose and that purpose is not just to know where it is or to pass an exam. It’s to integrate the information in something I’m doing.

I often wonder if having immediate access to digital information and carrying around our technology gadgets is a good thing. Is the technology helping us to learn more or just to learn how to find more information? Is the technology influencing the way we process information? What kind of effect is technology having on what we really learn if we do not have a need to use the information?

In 2010 the New York Times published a series of articles called “Your Brain on Computers”. (It brings back memories of the “Your Brain on Drugs” campaign from the late 80s.) Articles in the series also address “your brain off computers” and how the deluge of data can affect how people think and behave. Authors cite studies focused on how technology is taking our brain processes to places evolution wasn’t planning on taking them. In 2011 they published an article about how the Internet affects memory. In 2012 they published an article about how technology affects attention span of children and their engagement in learning activities. If we just need to “find” information (e.g., to pass a test) do we ever process the information? Are we learning any more than just how to find information (without actually learning the information we find)? What do we lose when we don't interact with the content? Isn’t it important to not only do things but think about what we are doing and understand the context within which the information is important? Is active learning really important? Is imaginative learning important?

I had a college professor who started the semester by tearing pages out of a text book and giving each student one page. He told us to find an interesting fact on that page and teach it to as many of our fellow students as we could during that class period. What an unusual way to start the class! I once went to a conference presentation where the presenter only completed part of each bullet on his PowerPoint slides. He gave everybody a full sized copy of the slides so they could fill in the rest of the bullets themselves and have a full version of the presentation. Why would my professor or the conference presenter do something so unusual if engaging with the content was not important? Maybe they were just “cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs”?

Miranda Lambert’s new song, Automatic, has some lyrics worth thinking about:

“…when everything is handed to you
It's only worth as much as the time put in
It all just seems so good the way we had it
Back before everything became automatic.”

If everything is handed to you is it worth any more than the time put in? Is our easy access to digital information lessening the value of knowledge? Times are changing and we need to figure out what’s really important. Is it simply having access to the information or is it learning the information? If we don’t think about and interact with information are we learning it? If we don’t learn it, but just know where to find it by using our gadgets, what happens if we lose our digital gadgets? We don’t want to lose our digital gadgets and our minds all at the same time. We can use technology for more than just finding information. We can use it to interact with our colleagues around the world as we share and discuss new information and learn how to process things we may not have otherwise known. When we stop actively getting involved with new information the evolution of learning will slow to a standstill.

As an instructional designer I know adults learn by being able to link new knowledge to something familiar. Let’s be honest. Why did you decide to read this blog? Was it to bring back memories of avocado green refrigerators, wooden tennis rackets, or record players? Or, if you didn’t live through that era why are you interested? Have you heard your parents talking about those things? Have you seen pictures? Were you curious to find out the meaning of the word “Torenia” and why I would use such a word in the title? If I don’t tell you what Torenia means, how will you figure it out? Will you google it? Will you use your imagination? If you’re old enough to remember the television show “Please Don't Eat the Daisies" you might appreciate my reference to “Please don’t eat the glowing Torenia”. Maybe that brought back memories. The times, they are a changing. Perhaps the glowing Torenia will be tomorrow’s daisies.

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