Share and discuss this blog

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Learning Hasn’t Changed; social learning and facebook don't really add much

A few years ago I was asked for my annual prediction my e-learning magazine and I predicted the death of m-learning. I was attacked by everyone. Funny we don’t hear so much about m-learning any more.
Learning is a field that is very trendy.  There is always the latest greatest that everyone must do. Today this is “social learning” and “on the job learning.”

There is one problem with this. None of this stuff is ever new in any way. Learning hasn't changed in a million years. Did I say a million? Too conservative. How do chimp babies learn? Socially? Of course. They copy what their mothers do and what their playmates do. (Amazingly they do this without Facebook.) 

Do they learn on the job? Apart from the fact that chimps don’t actually have jobs, that is the only way they learn. In the process of doing something they either fail and try again or someone helps them out.

Mentoring. Another learning innovation, Except there has always been mentoring, Parents,  big brothers, helpful neighbors, all there to help you when you are in trouble. None of this is new.

But suddenly big companies have discovered it. Good for them. Better than classrooms and books (which are very new, if you think about it, cavemen didn’t have either.)

I play softball regularly. When I first started playing in this league I noticed a guy who was the best hitter I ever saw. I asked him questions. He gave me tips. I asked for criticism. He gave it to me. The other day I was hitting really well. I was congratulated by my team. I told them I owed it all to him. They didn’t know what I meant. I said I had appointed him my personal coach ten years ago.

What confuses me is why this has to be institutionalized in big companies. It is not that complicated. Tell everyone they need to spend an hour a week mentoring and an hour a week being mentored. Let them say officially whom they have chosen. Create a culture where mentoring is the norm. It is the norm in sports. My mentor has never has asked for anything back. I am sure people mentored him over the years.

On the job learning is more complicated. Why? Because the right tools might not be available to do it. What are the right tools:

  1. someone to ask who can give just in time help
  2. a short course that one can take just in time and that one is allowed to take when it is needed
  3. a group that is available for discussion

I will explain each.

Just in time help has always been available to most of us. It is called mom or dad. Even today I get “help” calls from my grown children. They know I will stop my day and help them. I always have. 

How do we institutionalize this in the modern world? By recording all the help type stories that an expert has and making them available to anyone just in time. It sounds complicated and it is. We have built such a system. It is called EXTRA (experts telling relevant advice.) Every organization needs one. Experts move on and their expertise goes with them. Capture it and learn how to deliver it just in time in short bits that last less than 2 minutes.

Stories from experts matter. Not in the form of long lectures but in the form of a conversation that happens when there is an interest in hearing the story.

To put this another way, mentoring is not driven by the mentor. As a professor of PhD students for 35 years I served the role of mentor to a lot of people. They showed up in my office once a week because I told them they had to. After that I told them nothing. Instead I listened. Maybe I asked a few questions to get them to talk if they were shy. But learning happens when someone wants to learn not when someone wants to teach.

I did the same when I taught classes. I set up questions and listened. I encouraged students to argue with each other. I chimed in at the end when they were ready to listen.

Apprenticeship is the other side of mentoring. An apprentice takes on jobs assigned to him. A good mentor lets the apprentice drive every now and then. Surgeons let interns make the first cut after they have watched the process many times.  

In the end there is always a story. In the modern era we can deliver stories when a someone needs one. (When they ask or search or we simply know what they are doing and what would help them do it.) But, the old method still works. Talking.

The problem with big companies is that they set up training sessions that last for a week instead of mentoring sessions that last for an hour. Once a week everyone should meet with their mentor for an hour and talk. Just talk. Maybe a beer would help.

And what do they talk about? A good mentor knows that the mentee drives the conversation. Maybe the mentor saw the mentee make a mistake and could comment on it, but younger people know when they are struggling and are always ready to learn if they respect the person who is helping them.

Formal training really has never been a good idea. The army does it for new recruits but they do it because they are trying to create soldiers who don’t think and just follow orders. At the higher level of army training, at the Army War College for example, officers sit around and talk.

There do not have to be mentors in such situations. People who work together should have the opportunity to exchange “war stories.” This should just happen late at night in bars. It is the most important training there is. But there has to be time made for it. And no it doesn’t require Twitter or Facebook. Social learning has always been how we learn. It is in fashion again and that is nice but it is nothing new. The elders have always gathered around the campfire to discuss the day’s events.

Do we need to teach people how to mentor and how to discuss? Yes and no. Excessive talking, lecturing and such, has never been a good idea and is never tolerated in societies that are truly cooperative. The key is learning to listen. 

Listening, oddly enough, does need to be taught, Most people don’t really know how to do it. They learn the hard way that listening works as they get older. Should we teach it? Yes. How?

We need to put people in situations where listening is demanded of them and where they are likely to fail to do it. (Training is one such place where people tune out. That is why that is why there are tests, but tests usually don’t test anything important.)

Having to perform is the best test.

Summarizing: Short courses delivered just in time are better than training sessions. Gathering a company’s expertise and delivering it via tools like EXTRA matters a great deal. 

But most of all, learning to listen and advise well is what separates winning teams from from losing ones. To listen and advise an organization must formally make time for it, otherwise it won’t happen. Do it on twitter if you like.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Why are universities so afraid of on line education?

A climate of fear is enveloping our major universities. One after the other they are signing up for being part of well capitalized venture financed operations that are offering free on line courses. The companies are paying the universities so, of course, the universities are taking the money. What do they have to lose?

New offerers appear regularly, the latest being one that wants students to attend classes remotely and pay full tuition for the privilege of doing this.

Something important is going on, but it is not quite obvious what. Well, it is to me.

The universities are desperately afraid. Of what?

The university that started all this was MIT when it announced over a decade ago that they would put all their course materials on line, free for all to use. The press made quite a fuss about this, but I said at the time that they just wanted to appear to be doing something, when MIT well knew that the course materials that professors prepare constitute a very unimportant part of what it means to receive an MIT education. (What is important at MIT? Working with faculty and students to create new ideas and new projects.)

I was asked if I wanted to head up that operation and told MIT that I would make real course offerings to create a world wide MIT on line delivery system. I was never called back.

I built a series of on line masters degrees for Carnegie Mellon University a decade ago and was not only not praised for doing this but was immediately fired.

I was explicitly told that Carnegie Mellon didn’t want to sully its brand by having too many Carnegie Mellon degrees out there. They want to be an elite brand name, as do all the major universities.

But, suddenly it seems the game had changed. Every university wants to go on line. But, this is not really the case.

To understand this, you have to think for a moment about courses and what they are all about. Most students take four or five courses at a time as full time students at a university. While they are doing this they play football or work for the student newspaper, or maybe even hold down a real job. Plus there a great many social events to attend, in addition to the constant action of dormitory life.

In the life of your average college student, a lecture course is something to be barely paid attention to at best, or slept through at worst. The fact that a friend can make a video recording of them for you means you can skip them all together.

And this, of course, is the origin of on line courses. As long as someone is making his recording of the lecture available to his friends why shouldn't the university do that and say that that was they wanted to do in the first place. Add a quiz or two, and no one ever has to show up. Voila! Coursera!

But why do the universities agree to this? The answer, as always, seems to be money.

But really the answer is fear. The issue is understanding what they are afraid of exactly.

Here are four things universities are deathly afraid of:

  1. What if the model that “everyone must go to college” stops being pushed by employers and governments?
  2. What if they simply can no longer charge large tuition fees to students?
  3. What if professors, who at top universities are primarily researchers, were actually made to have teaching be their primary activity?
  4. What if the students stop showing up on campus?

The money issue is a big one. Tuition amounts have risen way ahead of inflation supported by readily available student loan programs and by the belief that anyone who doesn’t go to college is more or less useless. We fail to observe how many successful people have never graduated college, including Bill Gates, who never stops promoting school standards, teacher evaluations, and now on line courses. Mr Obama wants to everyone to go college as do the authorities in the U.K. Why exactly? Because the universities are afraid and are lobbying hard for this. When you need a PhD to work in McDonalds however, the model will fall apart, and we are headed in that direction.

All that tuition revenue, and donations from alumni who fondly remember the great football teams and parties, help sustain what is actually an absurd model and every university knows and fears the downfall of that model.

The model is what I like to call the “superstar system.” Top universities compete for superstars in the same way that baseball teams and movie producers do. There are only so many big names and the university that has the most wins. If Harvard has more Nobel Prize winners than Yale, Yale is thinking about this all the time. (I say this as someone who was on the Yale faculty for fifteen years.)

Research universities want to sustain the model that has made them great places to live and work. I loved working at them for 35 years. But the students were, and are, being cheated. Some professors care about the undergraduates at an Ivy League school I am sure. I certainly didn’t.

I was once yelled at by an undergraduate who said he paid big tuition to Yale and I should meet with him at times other then my few and far between office hours. Of course he was right. But the incentives at the research universities are all about publishing and international fame, not about happy undergraduates. 

(I did meet with him by the way and he eventually became a researcher at a major university where the undergraduates find him to be very hard to find.) 

Just the other day, Northwestern University where I ran the Institute for the Learning Sciences for many years announced proudly that they would let people attend classes remotely if they met admission standards and paid full tuition. They should be ashamed of themselves. There are still plenty of people at Northwestern who know how to do on line education correctly. We pretty much invented it there.

But, what we invented was using the computer as a learn by doing device, eliminating lectures and classrooms, and replacing them by projects one could do on the computer with the help of faculty and other students.

I am slowly finding universities who want to use this model on line but the faculty always object to it. No lectures? No theories? Just learning by doing? Oh, the horror. The faculty might have to teach.

So, don’t be too impressed by MOOCs non-MOOCs and any other nonsense that keeps courses with a teacher talking still the staple of university education. Students put up with that because they get degrees they can brag about, not because of all the wonderful stuff they learned. It is not any more wonderful if you are at home in your pajamas.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Dear Mr Obama: please change your education policies

Dear Mr Obama:

I realize there is no point in writing to you about education. Your mind is made up. Evaluate teachers; everyone should go to college; school is a big competition and there have to be winners; the 1892 curriculum cannot be changed in any way because Bill Gates and all the book publishers want it that way. 

But I will ask anyway. Please do the following.

  1. fire Arne Duncan
  2. abandon Common Core standards
  3. let teachers teach and by that I do not mean test prep and I do not mean lecturing
  4. let students learn what it interests them to learn
  5. build thousands of on line curricula, so that anyone can learn whatever they want to learn
  6. make sure that these on line students are learning to do something and not to memorize and pass tests
  7. allow students the option to get out of all the mandated standards
  8. stop pushing college, which as any professor knows is simply a four year party for most students
  9. get rid of courses (including MOOCs); replace them by experiences in which real skills are learned
  10. re-train teachers to be mentors, to help students achieve their own goals, not ones that the school has established for them

Yes, I know its hopeless. But I thought I’d ask. 

Just as a suggestion, take a look at the new computer science short courses we are now offering. Open to anyone, but not free (we spent a lot of money building them, something the government should be doing.


Roger Schank

Emeritus Professor

Sunday, November 4, 2012

practical education for everyone; enough with MOOCs and enough with college

Sometimes, I despair that anyone really cares about educating students apart from the people who actually need them to be educated. Colleges simply have never cared about educating students. I was reminded of this yet again when I received this in an email referring to the problems software companies are having when they hire recent college graduates:

What the guy is saying is that they (and others) hire a bunch of bright young CS and ECE graduates whose educations have left them completely unprepared for real-world professional software development. Helping graduates through the school to work transition is a critical problem. (Some people have said that new grads aren't useful to a company for the first year.) 

Really? No Computer Science graduate is prepared to go to work? Isn’t software one of the few thriving businesses we have left in this country? How could this be?

That is an easy question to answer for a former Computer Science professor and really for any professor. Professors do not consider it their job to prepare students for work. They like teaching theories and their latest research.

What is interesting in this context is all the noise about MOOCs. These are just lectures on line interrupted by quizzes and discussion groups for the most part. There are no actual teachers and there is no one to help you get better at something. (A lot like an actual college course, in fact.)

Students taking MOOCs (apart from those who are really just trying to seeing what these things are) have eschewed the notion of education as a credential, which is actually an important change whose time is coming. But, and this is the big unspoken “but,” the real issue is that the companies offering these MOOCs see themselves as a kind of employment agency. They will give the names of successful students to possible employers and make money in that way. But what will the students know how to do? Not much, or at least not much more than you could ever learn from lectures and exercises. So, for computer science at least, not much will have changed with the exception that employers in the US can now find the names of people in other countries who will work cheaply.

Actually educating students to do something that will get them to be useful in the real world is still an odd notion to professors and school systems.

In the meantime, my team and I have been building practical computer science masters degree programs that are being piloted now and will launch in January.

Of course not everyone needs a degree. Some people just need how to learn how to do something useful. They may already have a degree or two or they may have none. They might just want to learn. To that end my company is also about to offer a series of short courses, all learn by doing, all experiential, and all on line, with mentors, in the following broad areas:

  1. New graduate to software professional
  2. Experienced developer to technical lead
  3. Senior developer to architect
  4. Senior developer to manager
  5. Various job roles to product manager

In addition we will be offering short courses in data analytics, search engine optimization, requirements analysis, user experience, mobile development, big data essentials, web and network security, web page authoring and many others.

We will be launching some of these in the next weeks. It is time to change education from a meaningless credential to a practical experience. Enough with the domination of theories and research.

Anyone interested in any of these can simply write to me for more information.