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In Conclusion

History Need Not Repeat

Lessons from the digital learning space

Patrick Mullane is executive director of HBX, a division of Harvard Business School.

Around 370 B.C., Plato wrote of a story told by Socrates to Phaedrus. In that story, a god tries to give the gift of writing to the Egyptian King Thamus. The deity bragged that his “invention is a recipe for both memory and wisdom.”

You’d think that Thamus would have been grateful for this amazing gift. Instead, he replied that writers will have “the delusion that they have wide knowledge, while they are in fact … incapable of real judgment.”

So began millennia of skepticism about technology helping to improve learning.

In fairness to Thamus, in the centuries since this story was written the use of new technologies has not been very successful in moving the needle in education. Radio, television and the internet all held great promise. Promises never realized.

Those of us who are developing new technologies to extend educational opportunities around the world do our best to learn from these failures. Even so we have made our own mistakes as well. But we’ve also gleaned some important lessons from our time in the digital learning space.

The first lesson is that pedagogy matters more than technology. How something is taught is more important than how it is delivered. In my work at Harvard Business School we already have a strong guiding principle. The case method of study whereby a professor leads a discussion about a real-world situation to help students reach conclusions inductively has been the linchpin of HBS’ teaching for a hundred years.

So when we created digital tools to deliver content to people around the world, we knew that anything we did had to facilitate this way of teaching and learning. This provided focus that ensured the student was kept front and center.

The second lesson learned was the importance of something my faculty counterpart Bharat Anand calls “borrow and forget.” Borrow from the physical world the things that can work given a technology’s capability but don’t be afraid to let go of things that won’t work.

For example, recreating the case method in an asynchronous platform seems counter-intuitive. For the last 100 years, the case method has been about live interchange between students and faculty. We had to forget the idea that the case method could only be implemented with synchronous interaction, otherwise the model would not be sustainable.

Faculty couldn’t interact in real time with large numbers of online participants. Instead we had to replicate elements of the case method that could be copied in the medium, such as automated cold calls that test student knowledge when they don’t expect it and new ways to deliver the case method like having students drive discussions and answer each other’s questions.

A third lesson was born of the second. If you weren’t going to have faculty leading live case discussions how do you keep the content engaging? We used a thee-minute rule when making content for an asynchronous platform. Whenever possible, a learner would not do any one thing for more than three minutes.

Videos should be short and rich with animations to explain concepts. Text should be chopped up by polls and requests for students to write text responses to share their insights. The diligent use of the three-minute rule has led to high satisfaction. In the end, we learned that a short attention span is not a millennial thing. It’s a human thing.

A fourth lesson centers on the importance of creating a sense of community. If a short attention span is a human thing, then a need to feel connected is the human thing. From the start, students should be made to feel they are part of a community. We created a map of the world with pulsating dots denoting others who are there as well and require them to upload a picture and a profile. External social media tools are integrated into the experience. Finally, we built features to help students help each other.

There is still much to learn in the brave new world of digitally enabled education. Many still view technology as Thamus regarded writing. I am confident that, like writing, digital education will take hold despite the naysayers and change the way the world learns.

Patrick Mullane is executive director of HBX, a division of Harvard Business School. He can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.

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