Monday, February 09, 2009

Can ‘skills’ be learnt online?

Google, Wikipedia and other services are great for learning ‘knowledge’, but skills are different. A useful starting point is to replace the crude knowledge/skills distinction with a more sophisticated view of performance, based on types of memory.

Declarative – conscious recall

Semantic – non contextual knowledge

Episodic – contextualised by time and place

Procedural - skills

Prospective – remembering to remember

When the ‘knowledge/skills’ debate is unpacked like this, in terms of actual encoding and recall, it’s more complex, so this is a much better way of answering our initial question, as the web and technology is useful in all of these forms of learning. In practice skills acquisition involved knowledge acquisition.

Declarative – semantic

Semantic – non contextual knowledge

The web and technology have allowed us to develop simple skills around searching, bookmarking and retrieval, which allow us to rely less on the conscious remembering of factual knowledge. Google, Wikipedia and other more detailed and specific services, such as Google Scholar, Google Books and Amazon’s search within a book feature, all help us outsource and lessen the need for declarative, semantic memory. In this sense we have developed a set of skills – search, bookmark etc – that have replaced the need for detailed encoding and recall from long-term memory. However, knowledge still needs to be acquired. Blogging gives both bloggers and readers the reinforcement of semantic knowledge, improving their ability to learn and recall by committing their knowledge and observations to print. Facebook and other social networking increases the social contacts and encounters, strengthening one’s knowledge and recall of knowledge exchanged with friends and contacts. There’s also evidence that all of this online activity and games playing holds off dementia and other features of mental decline. . We write more, look things up more, read more and learn more, so I’d say that declarative, semantic memory has been hugely amplified, improved and enhanced since the appearance of the web and technology.

Declarative - episodic

Learning and recall, contextualised by time and place, has been similarly enhanced by the web and technology. First we capture much more of our autobiographical past through digital photographs, video and audio. Even if we don’t do it ourselves, others may be recording our talks as podcasts and so on. The tools that allow us to store these episodic memories, allow us to retrieve, alter, enhance and distribute such episodes, all the while reinforcing them in our own memories. My travel blog and photographs has greatly enhanced my ability to recall and use the things I’ve learnt from my travels. We now know that our brains have a specific module for remembering faces. This, I believe, has been enhanced through the use of social networking. Putting faces to names is something I can do much better, since I’ve become a frequent social networker, as I’m being constantly exposed to those faces, linked to their names. Visual memories are being reinforced all the time on the web as we see so many relevant visual images online, of people, places, things and events. YouTube has given me almost instant access to short pieces from opinion leaders (TED), politicians, talks, speeches and so on. I can recall dozens of useful things from theses short, episodic videos. Similarly with podcasts. They are much more memorable that TV because I’ve sought them out and they’ve had my full attention.

Procedural - skills

But this is the big one, as it’s the one most relevant to the ‘skills’ debate. The distinction between ‘knowing that’ and knowing how’ has been around since the Greeks, and recently we’ve seen the rise of the ‘How to...’ sites. These differ from the ‘Knowing that’ sites, such as Wikipedia, in that they show you how to DO things. ‘How to’ is the most commonly asked question on the web and ‘How to’ searches account for around 3% of all searches in the US. So skills acquisition has become an entire genre on the web.

An analysis of these ‘How to’ by Bill Tancer, in his book Click, show seasonal variations in the questions asked with a peak during summer and decline in winter. There’s also considerable national and cultural differences. What’s the No 1 ‘How to’ question in the US? It’s held its position for four years now; ‘How to tie a tie’. American kids don’t usually wear uniforms and ties at school, so rarely pick up the skill until they go to work. In some countries the top spot is ‘How to vote’ or ‘How to write a CV’. There’s then lots of ‘How to’ searches by teens around ‘How to kiss/have sex/make out etc’. There’s also ‘How do I find a girlfriend/flirt’ and other anatomical questions. These may sound shocking or trivial, but they’re not to a 13 year old. A whopping 17.3% of ‘How to’ searches are in this category.

YouTube and other sites are packed with skills videos on IT and software. This is increasingly shown, not as text help, but in video form, so that you can store, stop, repeat and learn. Want to know how to do something in Photoshop or make a video or podcast, there’s a video somewhere showing you how. In fact, when you explore the topic of skills, two things strike you; first the sheer range of skills, secondly their practicality. People have lots of skills deficits and need help there and then. One could call these ‘Life Skills’. This is something that education and training are notoriously bad at. Courses are often wide of the mark because they’re too knowledge-based, long-winded, inconvenient, expensive, out of date or simply irrelevant. Another feature of online skills, is the enormous scale of the direct help provided by altruistic people who have these skills to people who need help. The web is awash with willing experts on almost every subject.

If you look at the skills one can learn online, here’s 10 main categories:

1. Specific tasks

How to tie a tie

How to solve a Rubik’s Cube

How to draw

2. Sexual

How to kiss

How to have sex

How to flirt

3. Health

How to lose weight

How to deal with allergies

How to get fit/do a sport

4. Wealth

How to make money

How to get bargains

How to manage debt

5. Computer skills

How to get rid of a virus

How to remove software

How to use software

6. Careers

How to get a job

How to get promotion

How to careers advice

7. Education

How to pass a test

How to choose a course

How to teach

8. Food and drink

How to cook

How to buy wine

How to entertain

9. Home & garden

How to fix things

How to grow things

How to build things

10. Complex skills

How to write a book

How to manage a team

How to get a divorce

Prospective – remembering to remember

You need to remember to pick up your charging mobile phone before you leave tomorrow morning or take that pill. This is not remembering the past, it’s remembering to remember in the future, an amazing cognitive ability. It is tempting to see memory wholly in terms of the past, but we all have to remember to do things in the future. Learning works when it is applied. To do this our brains need cues to remind us. This is terribly important in the application of learning, where what we have learnt has to be applied in the real world. The curious thing about such ‘memories’ is that they seem to just ‘pop’ into your mind. One school of thought (attention is necessary) claims that we need to be attentive, constantly monitoring to recall the intention. Another school (multiprocess) claims that attention and monitoring is not necessary. Whatever the mechanism, an understanding of what we need to do to encourage prospective memory is important in learning. We need to know how to store learning experiences so that prospective memory is used to best effect. It would seem that deliberately designed ‘representations’ to aide prospective memory really do work and that these need to be part of the learning process.

The web and technology gives us useful tools or aide memoires to help us practically. Outlook, Google Calendar, alerts, project plans, to do lists, intelligent suggestions in Amazon, birthday reminders in Facebook, and so on. This is convincing enough in itself, but is it a skill that can be improved through the use of the web and technology. I think so. These tools promote an approach to future planning that encourage future recall by having always on cues. If I don’t actually remember, then I have the skill and access to tools that do the job for me. I know (in the sense of having a skill) to look at my calendar etc.


Those who claim that skills can’t be leant from the web need to look at the evidence. This avalanche of skills activity wouldn’t exist if it didn’t work. Millions now increase their skills through ‘How to’ queries, and many others seem more than willing to help. All of this is completely outside of the formal education and training system. Maybe it’s about time it was brought into the fold.


Anonymous said...

Hello Donald Clark,

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Anonymous said...

Hello Donald Clark,

Thanks for your useful post. I have recently launched a Web site for e-learning professionals. Through one of the section titled ‘Planet’s Pick’, I select my favourite bloggers and blog posts on a weekly basis. Its my pleasure to select you as my favourite blogger of the previous week. Please find additional details in the following URl:

Have a good day. Expecting more innovative and useful information in your blog…..

E-Learning Tyro

Anonymous said...

I like the depth in your analysis. One thought that occurred to me is that some "skills" are actually complexes of skills. To acquire some of these complexes at at least the apprentice level requires practice in a highly realistic setting, as well as feedback.

So, for example, I can use online resources to learn about how to behave in an employment interview. At some point, though, I need to engage with another person in a reasonably unstructured way, both so I get asked different kinds of questions and so I can make different kinds of responses.

If I could do this via live webchat, it seems to me that'd be pretty much like career coaching, but I don't think such online coaching is yet widely available.

That's not to say it won't or shouldn't be -- just to suggest additional considerations.

Donald Clark said...

Hi Dave
There are certainly complex sets of skills, but this does not preclude them being learned online. For example, flight simulators deal with complex skills around take off, emergencies and landings. They push pilots to the limits of their competence. Large scale war games do a similar job in the military.

I have some interesting experience in interview simulation. These simulations can be extremely complex. The one I built had hundreds of video recored answers and the skills were well tested. In many ways the careful design and construction of such performance simulators can be superior to the 'trainer-driven' experience. Simulators like these can contain many more variations on interviewees/interviewers and are ultimately cheap to replicate and scale. Human coaching is notoriously expensive.

This is not to say that practice is not necessary - but that is generally true in learning, a fact that is simply wholly ignored in training 'courses'. The joy of online simulations/games is that they can be used over and over again over time.

.paranoid said...

Mr. Hanley I’d like to thank you for such interesting post.
It was very interesting to read your point of view about skills can be learnt online. And I agree with you that people who said that skills can’t be leant online need to look at the evidence for example effectiveness of e-learning in companies, government organizations and etc. I’m working in Russian company called “eLearning Center” providing e-learning to the companies, government organizations and universities. And I have to tell you, it’s sadly to acknowledge but there is a great number of people with such skeptical point of view on e-learning… I hope with time situation will be changing.

Donald Clark said...

Good question Mary. I have interviewed and worked with rather a lot of sales people. The good ones are in love with life. They have to be as they get knocked back so often. The good ones enjoyed the company of others and never minded getting out and about, even if it did mean staying overnight or getting back late. I suppose they saw work was an extension of their social lives.