Sunday, February 18, 2018

Tyranny of time – why learning often wastes time...

Our learning world, at all levels, in schools, HE and the workplace, including offline and online learning, suffer from one obsession that leads to massive waste and low productivity – an obsession with time. In here Covid times, we would be well advised not to carry over our bad timetabling habits into the online world.

The metrics almost universally cost ‘teaching and learning’ like sausages…. by the pound/kilo - face time, contact time, fixed length courses, and hour of learner time in online learning. All are metrics that work against efficient delivery. The tyranny time is the disease that disables the learning world and by altering how we see 'learning time, a lot of time, money and wasted effort by teachers and learners could be saved.

Higher Education
The one hour lecture, that pedagogic staple in HE, is an hour long simply because the Sumerians had a base-60 number system - hence the ‘hour’. It bears no relation to the psychology of attention or efficient pedagogy. It is quite simply the slavish adherence to a fossilised method of delivery that is easy for faculty to timetable. Even then, attendance is often appalling (40% don't turn up even at Harvard), and often not recorded, rendering even rudimentary attempts at measurement meaningless. University terms still adhere to a mixture of old professional timetables (primarily the Law profession), religious festivals and an 18th century agricultural calendar, with long holidays, that are periods of forgetting. Fixed three and four year length degree courses with only one start date per year, take no account of actual needs. Oh, and lets build and market ‘Masters’ Degrees to that we can add yet another year. Nowhere is the tyranny of time more crude and obvious than in Higher Education.

Similarly in schools, that mimic Universities, as they must be kept in sych. This is another form of tyranny as schools are now their feeders, despite the fact that the majority of young people do not take that route. The ‘period’ in schools mimics the ‘lecture’ where millions of young people pack up, stand up and shuffle through crowded corridors to another identical room where they have to unpack, sit down and settle again. This waste of time is immense. Imagine running a company where all employees have to rise on the hour and move somewhere else? Can't teacher's walk? And again the tyranny of an ancient calendar, where unhealthy doses of forgetting punctuate the year, determine the rhythm of learning, which should be steady... not full on, nothing, full on, nothing…..

An obsession with padded out ‘courses’ from compliance to whatever fad arises (Emotional Intelligence, NLP. Mindfulness and so on) means days of wasted time doing courses that have little or no effect on performance. Get people to travel from all over, then batch people through, in dull rooms with round tables, bowls of mints, coloured pens and some half-baked attempt at collaboration, where you throw out a vague question, discuss at the table, feedback on flipchart paper, which gets pinned on the wall, then the promise that the results will be sent to you – they never are. These courses are always delivered by the half-day, full day, or worse, days on end and when it comes to impact the adherence to a ridiculous mode of evaluation (Kirkpatrick) means very little is meaningfully measured.

Online learning
Just as bad is online learning, bought and sold by the ‘learner hour’, mimicking the University and school model. Rather then focus on value and the idea that this really can save time, it encourages vendors to over-deliver so that they can charge more. The net result is overdesigned content, with oodles of meaningless, illustrative graphics, thinly punctuated by multiple-choice questions, and maybe some Pavlovian gamification (so that a premium price can be paid). Even MOOCs were foolishly deigned to match University semesters, with a drip feed of content over up to 10 weeks – and they wonder why people fell to the wayside?

What to do?
So the tyranny of time comes in many guises, the lecture, period, semester, term, course, clickthrough online learning and degree. Some make it worse by recommending lifelong learning, in the form of going back to college – life as one long course. No thanks. Life is far too short for that nonsense. By and large all of these take too long as they suffer from the following flaws:

1. Fixed form of delivery
Most ‘teaching and learning’ is shaped by pre-existing, fixed modes of delivery, the lecture, period, term, module, course and so on. This ‘ass before elbow’ mode of delivery should be shaped by the type of learning, needs of learners and resources, not mode of delivery. The solution is to imagine that the learning experience doesn’t exist, take it back to a blank slate, now re-design. Match modes of delivery to the typology of learning, learning needs and resources. Look to make everything shorter and more efficient for the learner. Some call this Blended Learning - that doesn’t mean a bit of online bolted on to a bit of classroom, let’s call that Velcro Learning, and don’t confuse Blended ‘Learning’ with Blended ‘Teaching’, where you simply slice and dice a bit of your old and new delivery methods and call it a ‘Blend’. Escape the tyranny of time and focus on value.

2. Sheep dip
Most teaching is a one-off event. It is ridiculous not to record lectures, even if you think it’s a poor form of pedagogy (which I do). Denying learners a second and third bite of the cherry is ridiculous – they may be ill, miss points, not understand at first pass, have trouble note taking, have the language of teaching as a second language. Above all the psychology of learning shows that repeated access for reinforcement and retrieval through revision is necessary for efficient learning. There is a strong argument for doing the same in schools. I’ve seen this work magnificently in an Italian school, yet few have ever thought about doing it.

3. Forgetting
Let’s not forget that single, fixed timetabled events ignore a well known principle in learning – that the brain forgets almost everything it’s taught. Ebbinghaus showed us this in 1885 and the learning world has studiously ignored the principle that learners need, not repetition but retrieval and deliberate practice. Learning needs to be repeatedly accessible, say through recorded lectures right through to spaced practice techniques such as top and tailing, note taking, repeated testing, up to algorithmically determined, personalised deliberate practice. Deliberate, effortful, spaced-practice frees learners from the tyranny of single event, sheep-dip learning.

4. Batching
Courses tend to batch learners who have to go through the linear course at the same pace. In any group you will have a distribution curve, where you only hit those in the middle. There will be tails of learners who find the experience too slow or too fast. Personalised delivery, now possible through adaptive, online learning, allows you to deliver learning to an individual, informed by their progress and aggregated data from all who took the course before. This results in increased attainment and lower dropout.

5. Less is more
In designing learning experiences, the ‘Garbage-In Garbage-Out’ rule is not taken seriously enough. I’ve seen far too many long compliance documents and over-engineered courses throw far too much detail at learners. Lecturers pad out lectures to fit their ‘hour’. Course designers fill out a timetable with unnecessary content and activities. The net result is actually lower learning, retention and recall. Cognitive overload results in less, not more, being retained. Research from large data sets has shown that video in learning tends to fall of a cliff at around 6 minutes. The consequence being that video should be that length or shorter.

The psychology of learning screams ‘less is more’ at us. Cut down documents until they bleed then cut them down again, so that the content is learning ready. There are few courses I’ve seen that can’t have up to 25-30% cut out – all the padding. There is no doubt that lecturers pad out to the hour, the same with classroom teachers and organisational trainers. Rather than plan to fill the time, like an empty vessel that needs to be topped up, look at making the learning experience as short as possible. Think about what learners ‘must’ learn, not generally what they ‘could’ learn. Of all the techniques to free learners from the tyranny of time this one is by far the most productive. This is precisely what we've been doing with WildFire - using AI to cut down on content creation time and learner time with crisp, open-input, online learning.

6. Failure to chunk
Chunking is a pretty basic pie of learning theory – that our working memory is limited and that throwing overlong learning experiences at the learner is counter productive. It happens all the time. We teach people to write essays by repeatedly getting them to ‘write essays’ rather than breaking that task down into its constituent parts. Whole word teaching was an almost perfect example of this approach to teaching that resulted in catastrophic failure in reading in UK schools. Learning experiences have to have focus.

7. Digital by default
Rethinking learning around, not existing modes of delivery and fixed timetables, but more flexible methods of delivery that suit the type of learning, learners and resources is badly needed. More often than not this means more 365/24/7 availability by being online. Being digital by default, wherever is practical, turns time-tabled learning experiences into anytime learning. Asynchronous often makes more sense than synchronous, even of its recorded lectures and resources. Switch away from a dependence on courses to an on-demand model.


In practice, as you get older and become a more self-sufficient learner, you realise that freedom from the tyranny of time is the real trick to learning. You literally ‘learn’ how to learn by being measured, having focus, rehearsal, retrieval – by avoiding the waste of time that are courses and degrees. That’s lifelong learning. Life is short, it's made even shorter by wasting so much time learning and not living.


shackletonjones said...

Yes. When we shifted from courses to resources I was perplexed by this question: 'how long does it take to complete?'. How long does it take to complete Google? It's an odd thing to ask, when you have created something designed to be used at the point of need. I think it's another hang-up from the conventional learning era where we would sit, captive, and be subjected to an information dump.

Brian Mulligan said...

I glad you left just a tiny bit in there for those of us who agree with you on where we need to get to, but work in institutions that we can only change incrementally.