Digital Learning Design – You Sure You Have all the Pieces?

Digital learning is gaining momentum as technology continues to disrupt every facet of modern life. We hear of newer models, thinking, approaches, tools, platforms, devices and network based education offerings. The adult learners, who form the significant part of corporate learning and general continuing education initiative, have been at the center of many such offerings. It is very surprising that the two key parameters – interest of the learners and the impact of the interventions, do not report any major improvements. Since eLearning came to be a part of mainstream education offerings, there have been parallel reports of low completion rates, lower assessment scores and certification and lowest confidence of the academic community about its ability to deliver significant value by itself. That however, doesn’t stop the digital learning juggernaut to spew more disruptions like flipped learning, gaming and simulations and Nano-degrees. Success of digital learning platforms like TED, YouTube, Khan Academy and many more has been unprecedented, and more initiatives are coming up at an accelerated pace. In this note, I look at this dichotomy and explore possible sources of the same.

The relevance of digital learning certainly needs to be re-established at one fundamental level – can they be generalized across all learner profiles? For e.g. the cognitive stage of a learner can be looked at as an indicator of learners’ capability to learn. We know that adult learners demonstrate maturity, self-confidence, autonomy, independent decision-making, practicality, multi-tasking, sense of purpose, self-directed, experience, and less open-mindedness or receptivity to change. All these traits affect their ability and their motivations to learn.

Just as Malcolm Knowles’ (see Andragogy Core Learning Principles) thoughts on adult learning made a significant impact on the redesign of learning intervention for learners of different ages, it is prudent to create similar demarcation in the digital world too. It is not a common sight to see any digital content openly proclaiming the suitable learner age mentioned distinctly.

While we mull over the point above, let’s go further ahead and highlight the next level of distinction based on the maturity of the learner. Even though there is a clear and definitive point legally to be considered an adult, we see great number of variances in the manifestations of rights and privileges an individual enjoys as an adult (for e.g. Voting, Driving, Owning, Drinking, etc.). It is an accepted basis to think of an adult as someone who-accepts responsibility, makes independent decisions, and is financially independent. These are very overt and visible real life signals. While in the context of learning, as we established in the earlier section, one rarely gets any visible signals to take a call on the learner’s “adultness”. It therefore is valuable to consider the intermediate phase of a learner that psychologists call “emerging adulthood” or “extended adolescence”. The psychologists also posit that there is a phased transition that an individual goes through from adolescence to adulthood. It would be logical to see this as a continuum of phases of a learner and incorporate it into the digital learning design. The idea of self-efficacy (defined as personal judgments of one’s capabilities to organize and execute courses of action to attain designated goals – Bandura 1977) is possibly the closest approximation on the thought of this continuum. Self-efficacy is posited to be a key component in social cognitive theory leading to performance capabilities. Using it as a basis Rickbaugh proposed a Learning Independence Continuum (2012). The idea of “Independence continuum” fits well to elaborate “adultness” aspect of learner better.

In the conventional world, the facilitator tries to use their judgment and ongoing feedback to adjust for the learner’s position on the continuum. However, in the digital world, this won’t happen unless the session is designed and delivered to a learner fully mapped for her level of learning independence. For certain, it would be difficult to objectively establish an accurate point on the continuum. Added to this, neither do we have well defined learning approach to configure learning interventions with such details, nor would it be viable to develop such customized program. Hence the idea is largely ignored possibly making the makes digital play fall short of being the panacea in the learning space as well. It is of value to dig deeper and elaborate the contributing factors to this divide and pave the way towards bridging it.

The learner continuum could form a good basis to design better offerings for the “range of adults” as they exist in the real world. I use the key traits of adult learners established well in the existing references and draw out the implications and imperatives for improved digital learning design.

Trait 1 – Increasing need to take responsibility and strong resentment if their privilege to choose is taken away. Without the control over their learning, they will resist learning and even disrupt the learning facilitation efforts.

Implication – The learners desire to take more control over their learning is both an indicator of the position on the continuum and the basis to get the learner involved.

Digital Design Imperatives

  • Overtly include the adult in the configuration of individual learning plan
  • Build self -assessment and evaluation to establish readiness for the outcomes
  • Build an equal relationship with the learner, rather than a hierarchical one.
  • Ensure that there is greater availability of instructions so that the learner at various points of the continuum can be in control of their learning

Trait 2 – A greater reservoir of life experiences. They need to link any new learning to their prior knowledge. The validity of new ideas and concepts needs to “fit” their existing view.

Implication – Based on their position in the continuum, the learner would bring their experiences and it can be used as a resource in their learning efforts

Digital Design Imperatives

  • Harvest all the experiences and prior learning of the learners in the area
  • Make it convenient to link them to the new ideas
  • Engage in active and mature idea sharing activities to find the fit with the prior experiences

Trait 3 – Their learning is voluntary and they exercise personal choices to learn professional or any specific skills. Their motivation to learn is a function of the perceived fit of the choice made.

Implication: Based on the position on the continuum the learner’s level of motivation for the learning would be established

Digital Design Imperatives

  • Put higher efforts and time on facilitating the areas that the learner is motivated to pursue
  • Ignore/minimize the efforts to justify the importance of an area to learn in any way other than linking them to their personal choices

Trait 4 – They evaluate the value of any learning immediately applicable to their situation and needs. They don’t give the same value/enthusiasm to “Abstractions” and “theory” of future relevance or learning unless they develop the generalizations themselves.

Implications – “Reality orientation” is an indicator of a learner position on the continuum. The practicality of the learning needs to be established upfront.

Digital Design Imperatives

  • Understand the desired outcomes of the learners
  • Let the application needs of the learners define the core body of the program
  • Integrate self-assessment and learning alignment to ensure stickiness
  • Start with the real-world view, allow the learner to theorize and close with compelling evidence of outcomes

Trait 5 – They let the learner role and not their self-identity fix the priority for the learning. They play multiple roles and these create conflicting and competing demands on the learner limited time and energy to read or study

Implications – The primacy of self-identity as a learner in the mind of the learner is a function of their position on the continuum

Digital Design Imperatives

  • Allow flexibility in the programs
  • Ensure clear expectation setting and alerts for reading or studying efforts from them
  • Ensure that there are intermediate and quick goals and ensure that they understand the need to move ahead to accomplish their final goal
  • Design multiple efforts to get better priority from the learner
  • Leverage learner’s other roles and responsibilities to achieve the outcomes

Trait 6 – They allocate lower priority for learning, as they allocate all the energy to primary roles and often compromise on the personal commitment made to learn

Implication – Use the position on the continuum to create more aligned basis for them to see sustained value and resist procrastination in learning

Digital Design Imperatives

  • Account for counseling to establish the value and priority outside of the learning design
  • Provide guidance to help learners to be realistic about the demands of learning
  • Provide initial and intermediate time management and learning efforts suggestions.

Trait 7 – They hold negative perceptions such as eroded study skills, meager grasp, assessment apprehension, or sometimes devise more novel barriers to learn

Implications – The self-confidence in their learning skills is a function of their position on the continuum. There is a need to reassure them of their ability to learn what they find useful.

Digital Design Imperatives

  • Design approaches that reinforces confidence in the learners
  • Start by initiating the learner on some basic study skills and ways of improving comprehension
  • Use collaborative learning approaches to address anxiety
  • Continuously reassure them of the progress
  • Keep a look out to identify and address any learning breakdown or gaps

Trait 8 – They tend to be resistant to changes and feel learning is not making them any better and find the outcomes unpredictable

Implications – Position on the continuum is an indicator of the expected resistance to learning from the change perspective. Idealistic and far reaching changes are often discarded.

Digital Design Imperatives

  • Concentrate on the “why” questions in the beginning of the program
  • Do not abandon or discount their current learning to emphasise the need to change
  • Build new concepts based on older, understood, and accepted concepts
  • Design for sustained, demonstrable incremental changes through their efforts
  • Encourage exploration, self-pursued concept build up and basis to reject status quo
  • Involve the learner in designing the “how” of the changes by themselves

Trait 9 – They over compensate all the learning limitations by leveraging the learning curve and what they learn is learned at a deeper and more integrative level

Implication – Their position on the continuum is also an indicator of their ability to leverage the learning curve to make the learning efficient and engaged

Digital Design Imperatives

  • Ensure easier pace of learning in the early part of the program
  • Leverage the learning curve as the learner moves ahead in the program
  • Ensure that all the relevant background and dependencies are overtly included in the learning design
  • Use intuitive pre-session content to trigger current knowledge connections

It is established that adult learners (in contrast to younger aged learners) need a different approach but if we see closely at the traits demonstrated by them, there is an equal diversity that exists between them too. eLearning blindly followed the “one size fits all” policy of conventional learning. This will not work if we are looking to leverage the power of digital innovations in the learning space. As the technology becomes more intelligent and intuitive, the design and use of technology needs to follow the suit. There have been many innovative products and services that have made significant impact on learning, but it might not be wrong to say that we are still scratching the surface. At the most fundamental level, we still follow linear and organic growth models. While technology will maintain the exponential development pace independent of the endorsements by the users, it would need efforts to concentrate on cultural change, learner focus, and factual analysis if the value of digital innovation is to be realized by learners. As we breach the frontiers of our understanding of the universe, learning remains the prime mover at the apex of all human endeavor. The critical question to ask is – would we keep the progress linear or do we have the conviction to opt for exponential digital disruption?

 

 

Learning as a Facilitator

Learning is a very delicate idea and helping someone else to learn adds a few new dimensions of challenges to it. To start with, we all assume that we know how to learn. It might be possible for us to pick some of the simple intuitive actions and ideas by just aping our environment, but we need a through grounding to learn with explicit progress. A true adult learner should have three simple capability – to come up with an original idea, connect it with reality and see through its implications.

Let’s test the three aspects with the idea of learning. Can you come up with an original view of the same? Let’s say you do, that would itself place you in an elite group. Connecting it to reality might seem simple as in all likeliness, you reached this idea by processing the “real world facts” you hold. But herein lies a small catch – you might be working on perceptions, alternative facts, or even plain hoax. Much far away from fact – a piece of information “presented” as having objective reality. Finally, looking at implications, we are now treading in the realm of fiction, speculation, conjectures, and comparatives. Future rarely follows the mandated outcomes of the present and past premises. This would possibly get you thinking how challenging the process of facilitation, i.e. helping others to learn, could be.

Why should I be using a less used term like “facilitation” as against the more popular one like teaching? I intend to kick start our own learning process though this. Teaching as a word has a few inherent challenges. Probably more because it is associated with the idea of responsibility, authority, expertise, unidirectionality and to some extent unquestionability (more because of first two points) which undermines the idea of learning. Some of the other words like lecturing, training, professing, and many words associated with the education profession follow the same trend. Facilitation instantly orients the act more effectively with the learner’s interest, capability, ownership, and goals. However, there is a need to elaborate the idea of facilitation and the role a facilitator plays. But before we debate teaching versus facilitation, let’s look at the complexities around the act of learning itself.

Learning as a Facilitator Thought Point 1: Understand that Learning is a counter-intuitive

Let’s start at a seemingly counter-intuitive aspect of learning. Is learning logical? I have seen most natural response to be – of course. But if we look at the idea a bit deeper, you might begin to doubt your intuition. Learning is a paradox. The famous Meno’s paradox given by Plato explains this beautifully. Simply put it says “you can’t learn anything that you don’t already know”. If this is true, then is the idea of facilitation futile? On the contrary the sooner a learning facilitator recognises this anomaly, more effective are her efforts to help learners. Why so? Because you now have a necessary precondition – start from what is known, to be able to deliver the intended outcomes.

The learning paradox is not the only illogical aspect of learning. It’s an accepted fact that to be the fittest and survive, one needs to evolve, i.e., learn and change continuously. If learning is a continuous process, what motivations can one really hold to learn? Not everyone would get excited like Socrates with an idea like “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing”. If one needs to run just to stay at a place, why get on the treadmill at all? Right from the Greek philosophers’ dialogs to modern thinkers like Eckhart Tolle, many have delved into this question. We all know multiple answers to this question; but as a facilitator be ready to face this challenge. Offering the act of learning as a “progressively futile exercise” is not an easy sale.

Action Implications: When you acknowledge, the logical dilemma associated with the learning you are trying to facilitate you would:

  1. Appreciate the illogical thoughts and actions of the learner
  2. The resistance and disinterest you might face from the learner
  3. Look deeper than just transferring the thought or idea
  4. Keep the focus on learning process as much as the learning outcomes
  5. Reaffirm the transient nature of learning

Learning as a Facilitator Thought Point 2: Recognize that Learning is to change

If that made sense, we are ready to move to an abstract level. Have you thought of a metaphor for learning? Some of the common ones include a light bulb, a flame or even a flash of light. They usually represent the visibility associated with the knowledge that learning gives. Another way to understand learning is to think of learning as a metaphor. Why so? because, here we look at learning as an outcome itself rather than it being an intermediary leading to another (possibly more important) outcome. As a learning facilitator, your role is limited to delivering the first outcome. It’s important to realise our own scope of control and the true promise we can make to a learner. So, if we look at learning as a metaphor, what do you think this metaphor represents? There could be multiple answers to this question and some I can offer are evolution, destruction, progress and possibly the simplest one – change. Change is the most fundamental and necessary precursor to learning and hence a powerful idea that learning could be a metaphor for.

One of the biggest proponent of learning being change is – Dr. Michael Merzenich, professor emeritus of neuroscience, of University of California, San Francisco. He says “To learn is to change how you think”. He is an authority on brain study and its ability to actively re-wire itself. Before him many philosophers and thinkers have associated learning to change. As a facilitator, it is important to understand and embrace this idea for two critical preconditions – a basis to help a learner assess if learning happened and more importantly to acknowledge that you are working against a belief that needs to change.

Action Implications: When you acknowledge, the change associated with the learning outcome you are trying to facilitate you would:

  1. Recognise the current idea held by the learner that you need to change
  2. Build a logic for the learner to accept the change
  3. Design actions that learner needs to undertake for the learning (change) to happen
  4. Help the learner understand the learning outcome achieved
  5. Establish the transient nature of learning

Learning as a Facilitator Thought Point 3: Recognize that Learning is caused by and causes Questions

The preceding two thoughts aligns one to the idea of facilitation in contrast to teaching. If you are still wearing the teaching hat, you might want to ask yourself one simple question – Do I really have all the answers? Or, more importantly, is it enough to just have answers addressing the current needs? If we know the question, post fact we most certainly know the correct answers. However, if we start with an answer, how certain are we that we will know the question. If you remember Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, you know 42 doesn’t reveal much. Now ask this question to yourself as a facilitator – To learn, is it more effective to help a learner ask right questions to unravel the future thus enabling each question to lead to a more powerful question digging deeper or just giving them a simple answer of how you see the future to be? This brings us to the next challenge a facilitator needs to overcome – Do I give the answers or build the capability to ask questions?

The idea of learning as a skill is greatly supported by the idea that questions help one learn. While an answer could be right or wrong, it carries the ego of the person giving the answer, it is contextual and laden with assumptions, and most critically it comes with an expiry date. Answers are not poor or unimportant or even marginal in value, just that questions help learners to learn better. As a facilitator, it is important that you make learners dig deep into their own realm of knowledge and understanding and ask questions. Noel Burch of Gordon Training International (GTI) gave us a very powerful framework to understand our learning process – four stages for learning any new skill as depicted in the figure. It is an important idea to recognise that facilitation is primarily a play between levels 2 and 3 – the idea that learning is triggered by getting conscious of an incompetence as a vulnerability. It is also an equally important realization that awareness precedes learning. Embedded in this realization is the fact that, awareness leads to questions.

Action Implications: When you acknowledge, the importance of questions in the process of learning you would:

  1. Encourage more questions from your learner
  2. Give the learner the confidence to be vulnerable and identify their triggers
  3. Free yourself from the burden of being the possessor of all answers
  4. Help a learner to dig deeper into their understanding to address their vulnerability
  5. Keep the focus on continuous evolution of learning outcomes for the learners

Learning as a Facilitator Thought Point 4: Recognize that when a facilitator doesn’t learn, no one else does

You are a learning facilitator and not an expert who is expected to know it all. You don’t help a learner to learn by giving precious pearls of wisdom from your all-encompassing knowledgebase. In the modern context, there are many sources right from google to AI assistants and so on which can act as the knowledge repository with more currency and ease. So, is the age of teaching dead? In the adult learning space, it has been dead for a while now. Our attempts to flog this dead horse has been giving us horrible results in terms of little or no relevancy of the graduates to the modern tasks, roles, and career paths. Unemployable graduates are a hard reality hitting the global job market for a long time now. Being a facilitator is possibly the new avatar every teacher need to transition into. The natural realization of this act would be that no one’s learning is ever complete.

As a facilitator one needs to continuously learn, more so, when they are facilitating others to learn. In my view if the facilitator is not learning, no one in the session is. A simple self-check to assess your own performance as a facilitator is to ask yourself – did I learn in the session today? A 20th century American physicist, Frank Oppenheimer was a true visionary to have recognised that “The best way to learn is to teach (to help others learn).” This way you have more people searching their understanding and asking questions that could trigger your own learning process. The facilitator also needs to keep her own interest and excitement with the context, content, and concepts in a learning session at the highest level, regardless of repetitions. This is possible only if the facilitator actively interacts with the happenings and learns along. The critical need is to pay attention to the questions being asked in the session – by you as well as by the learners. Be more attentive to the questions that make you vulnerable. Once you start experiencing the gaps in your own knowledge and understanding, the energy of your interaction would also rise. The excitement of learning is critical to propel learning and if the facilitator is not herself learning, maintaining the energy is a difficult act. This also gives a facilitator an exit from their worst nightmare – being asked a question in the class that they don’t know the answer of. Instead of trying to find a smart exit or just plead ignorance, celebrate your success in taking the learning of a class beyond themselves. More readily you realise that your key role is to help the learners to learn, the faster you are liberated from the burden of knowing it all and opening your mind to learning.

Action Implications: When you acknowledge the value of learning yourself as a precursor to your learners’ learning, you would:

  1. Recognise yourself as a learner before claiming your place on the learned pedestal
  2. Interact with and shape your ideas and thought as you share them in a session
  3. Have the confidence to challenge your own comfort zone and go beyond your conscious limits
  4. Free yourself from the burden of being the repository of knowledge
  5. Help a learner to be comfortable in exposing and challenging their vulnerability

Learning as a Facilitator Thought Point 5: Recognize that the eventual goal of facilitation is to enable a learner to facilitate

It is not just that our learning is transient, even our need to learn anything specific is. The only enduring aspect is our motivation to keep learning. For this to happen, it is important that we develop our own basis, synthesis, inferences, and the resulting conviction. YouTube has a piece of a pub scene from the 1997 Gus Van Sant movie “Good Will Hunting”. The dramatization of a poor unsuspecting undergraduate being taken to task by Will Hunting, an MIT janitor, is very entertaining. Will ridicules him for his lack of having original ideas and the victim accepts his limitation. Likely, any A+ ivy league student will have a developed sense of smartness to face such situations more deftly. However, as a facilitator, one needs to wonder whether we prepare the learner to answer such questions? Have we even ventured around making a learner reach such notions and outcomes of learning? This makes learning facilitation a more meaningful place to be.

The Frank Oppenheimer quote, from above, is a very apt way to look at your responsibility to the learner. Our aim is to help a learner to learn and the best way to learn is to help others learn. By logic, we should keep our end goal as enabling the learners to be facilitators themselves. This would be an apt way to not just appreciate the 5 thought points in this note, but to exemplify them in your facilitation style. Take the necessary steps to help a learner develop their own basis, synthesis, inferences, and the resulting conviction. Help them go beyond you and ensure that the learning doesn’t stop for anyone when the session, the course, or the program ends but endures and the learner learns the art of lifelong learning.

Action Implications: When you acknowledge, your role as an enabler who prepares a learner to facilitate you would:

  1. Help a learner go beyond the stated outcomes of a session
  2. Enable a learner to synthesise the session and develop their own original ideas
  3. Recognise a facilitator in every one around you
  4. Evaluate your own facilitation effectiveness and keep improving it
  5. Help a learner to be comfortable with the idea of lifelong learning

Take a closer look at the stages of the learning here, the facilitator essentially needs to bring some very basic thoughts to help you learn as a learner. This includes:

  1. Understand that Learning is a counter-intuitive à Going beyond obvious and looking at learning less intuitively
  2. Recognize that Learning is to change à Keeping an open mind to learning and accepting the change
  3. Recognize that Learning is caused by and causes Questions à Looking within your known space and searching for more questions while learning
  4. Recognize that when a facilitator doesn’t learn, no one else does à Accepting and enjoying “not knowing” or your vulnerabilities, and
  5. Recognize that the eventual goal of facilitation is to enable a learner to facilitate à Looking at learning as a lifelong process

Looking at the 5 Learning as a Facilitator Thought Points, you might have recognised a virtuous learning cycle that it creates. You start by recognising learning to be a counter-intuitive. You can only learn things you already know. And you do this by bringing a change, thus be open to giving up what you already know. This is learning to start with. Change is an outcome of recognising vulnerability and asking questions to address it. The more questions you ask the more you learn. When you learn, you can help others to learn. And the cycle repeats infinitely. I call this the “Spiral of learning as a facilitator.”

Taking the idea ahead, one could look at learning as a facilitator as a precursor to making learning a self-facilitated act. The modern era of digital learning rests heavily on the premise of self-learning – that is we can learn by ourselves as methodically as we learn by being taught by others. We see the reports on the promising potential of digital learning. There are parallel reports about its ineffectiveness and low completion rates. Is the failure of digital learning with the current limitations another point against the relevance of traditional regulated teaching, specifically for adults? As we proceed in the VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) world, limiting learning to such regulated and directed approach would be inadequate. Digital learning could ride the “spiral of learning as a facilitator” to find the next orbit of maturity more effectively. While we claim that we are moving at the speed of thought into “the age of learning”, we seem to be ignoring the idea of learning itself. Can we imagine an industrial age without understanding the idea of industrialization? Possibly we are guilty of doing this as the green activists keep pointing to the perils of industrialization. It is then prudent that we learn from such oversights in the past and ensure that when it comes to learning, we learn to learn before we begin to teach.

Learning Quarters

Learning is probably most seminal aspect of any life. If one believes in the evolution theory, you can attribute the emergence of Homo sapiens entirely largely to the process of learning. The question that one can ask is – if learning is built into our very genes, why this hullabaloo about education? As the most evolved being (even if by our own admission!) there is a need to bring the finer aspects of this process to the fore of our consciousness. One such aspect is the continuously evolving cycle of learning. To understand this an old Sanskrit subhashita (unconfirmed source: Udyoga Parva of Mahabharata) gives us a great insight into the process.

AchAryAt pAdamAdatte, pAdam shiShyaH swamedhayA |

sa-brahmachAribhyaH pAdam, pAdam kAlakrameNa cha ||

A quarter from the teacher, a quarter from learner’s own intelligence

A quarter from the co-learners, and a quarter from the passage of time…

To truly appreciate the value of this subhashita, one needs to delve a bit deeper and a more bit wider for a complete understanding, most critical of that being the cycle of learning.

A teacher being the initiator of learning is an indisputable truth, the first teachers could be one’s parents, siblings, social connects or the formal school teacher one had at the start our life. This also signifies that learning is first a process of absorbing. Science is just beginning to understand the impact of early learning in our build up to a mature adult. During this part of learning, we develop the medium, the context and the structure for learning. Bear that this goes on to provide the foundation of all learning in the future. If we were not fortunate enough to be born in an intellectually and economically endowed family, the chances are that our learning process is constantly playing a catching up game with those who had this fortune. One of the reason why we see the need to advocate for “affirmative action” or class based quota and offer a privilege of access to people who were not fortunate enough to compensate for the foundational learning component.

As one absorbs the foundation to learning the path for synthesizing future learning develops. The learner’s intelligence that evolves with the first quarter of learning is the backbone or the complete support mechanism for additional learning. It is built upon a learners’ foundations of context and structure intertwined with one’s awareness (to take notice of opportunities to learn), inquisitiveness (ask questions and fill our learning gaps) and ability to interconnect (linking them to the existing learning to make new learning relevant and accessible). This is what gives one the label of being an expert (master of a field) or a novice (a beginner).

As one matures, the learner begins to appreciate the pervasiveness of learning. She can learn from her peers who are all equally initiated into their own pursuit of knowledge. She would learn to respect this pursuit of others and learn to live in a society where multiple points of views co-exists. She gains respect and learns to respect others, their perspectives, likes & dislikes. The harmonious co-existence of differing (sometimes contrary) views builds the critical acceptance of plurality. This learning is also the layer of revalidation and acceptance.

However any learning can never be complete nor can it cease to evolve. In the cycle of time a learner begins to expand their knowledge, understands its relevance, general applicability and learns to question one’s own thinking. By definition learning is about changing and therefore a dynamic concept. The need to improve, pursue perfection and persevere the quest to challenge the unknown continuously keeps the learner involved in timeless pursuit of learning. This is the layer of continuous development of learning.

Once we go through this understanding we reach a deeper understanding of the virtuous cycle of learning. We become a teacher for the future generations. Most importantly we learn that we learn the most when we teach. It is then just a cycle that learning quarters are, probably the bases of the baseball where you play different roles depending on which base you are on. The critical realization hidden in this metaphor is the fact that soon enough the two players would be exchanging roles when the innings switches!

Thanks JK (Unimity) for reminding me of this timeless piece!

Eklavya – the unfortunate reality of modern learning

Long time ago, there was a Guru of far reaching fame and unparalleled accomplishments. His pupil could learn from him just by thinking of him and practicing the basics again and again… He came to know about one such pupil and was really surprised to find that a pupil he had once rejected on the grounds that there was no room for him among his more illustrious students (Pandavas & Kauravas) who he felt had a higher potential to reap benefits from Drona’s efforts. This pupil had taken rejection as a challenge and just by his dedication and unwavering resolve mastered the art by himself. His only failing, he dedicated his learning to this one man – Drona. The Guru feels cheated; he after all felt that he had an unconditional and exclusive right to all the knowledge that existed in that field – archery. He wanted his returns (vengeance?) – he got that by incapacitating this brilliant pupil – Eklavya, from ever practicing archery again!

How can one justify such an act? After all teaching has been defined as a selfless service. How can the idea of guru dakshina (meaning – alms to your teacher; interpreted as an equivalent to genie’s all-encompassing wish) be held together with the concept of vidya daan (meaning donating knowledge; equivalent to the toughest promise of performance). The age old belief of Guru being the highest form of relationship (even higher than the Almighty himself) one possesses is founded on the importance learning has been given in our legacy. In the same thinking is held a belief that the teacher is a sea of wisdom and answers to all the questions that a fertile students mind is capable and willing to soak. It is humanly impossible for any teacher in the current information age to accomplish such a feat.

Modern learning has unfortunately not seen much progress from that mindset at least in India. The other day I was sitting in a key note address given by a renowned and veteran teacher who compared a teacher to a tree. Like a tree, a teacher should unconditionally spread the fruits, wood, shade and other valuables to all the seekers. Teacher should expect nothing in return as teaching is a noble profession. Wonder, why no one stood up and raised the question – why should the charity begin and stop with the teacher?

Being a teacher once myself, I can accept that there is a Drona lurking behind each one of us. Any amount of cover up to make the profession noble and all giving just doesn’t cut ice. After all who is not looking for a return for the investment they make? How can one find their motivation to continue the process of transferring the learning if you don’t get the returns? Modern teachers do make a packet today if they are capable and catering to the needs of value conscious learners.

The conundrum seems to be resolving itself (for me at least) when I try and understand learning in its truest form – mutual, expansive, evolving and transformational. At any point in time when I reflect back on my teaching experiences I can easily remember the classes where I felt happy. I can relate to them on all the four counts mentioned here. I was mutual because I learnt something in that class too. It was expansive as I did not rule out the natural connections the class (including myself) made as we progressed. It was evolving because I had new experiences to share even when I was running the same course for a new batch and it was transformational because both me and the class felt that we went through a noticeable change either in our awareness (or expertise), behavior (overt or implied) or just the way we looked at ourselves (most difficult one to achieve).

After all wasn’t the objective of my class to learn? The course outline I shared with my class clearly mentioned something to the effect that “at the end of the session a participant would learn to…”. Did it not apply to me too? I feel really sorry when I meet a “professor” (quotes restressed) who seek applause because their course material did not change decade after decade. I only wonder, if they did not learn anything from their own course in decades, who could have possibly learnt any thing by being taken  through it just once?

That brings us to a new paradigm critical in modern learning. An age where content is free and readily available for anyone, an age where you can create a one-to-one learning relationship with each of your student using technology, an age where memory no longer establishes you to be a higher intellect, and most of all the age where learning is so evolved that the returns have to be visible for everyone.

Today it is implicit that the teacher plays more of a role of learning facilitator. To my mind that was always the case, only that today it has become more explicit. Please remember, learning is a very personal act, a teacher can only lead a learner to the water, but the act of soaking it is entirely the call of the learner. The effectiveness of a teacher is measured by her ability to facilitate the process of efficient (input/output) learning. This I contend can only happen, when unlike Drona, we seek our Dakshina in the mutual, expansive, evolved and transformational learning we acquire after each session we conduct.

It would hold equally true even in the eLearning context. All the comments that you leave for me after you read this post is my learning…