Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Why almost everything we think about online learning may be wrong and what to do about it…

One thing that research in cognitive psychology has gifted to us over the last decade or so, is clear evidence that learners are delusional when it comes to judgements about their own learning. The big name in the field is Bjork, along with many other high quality researchers, who say that learning is “quite misunderstood (by learners)…. we have a flawed model of how we learn and remember”. There’s often a negative correlation between people’s judgements of their learning, what they think they have learnt and how they think they learn best - and what they’ve actually learnt and the way they can actually optimise their learning. In short, our own perceptions of learning are seriously wrong. This is why engagement, fun, learner surveys and happy sheets are such bad measures of what is actually learnt and the enemy of optimal learning strategies.
Desirable difficulty
Most learning is illusory, as it is too easy. Learning requires Desirable (accomplishable) and difficult learning that requires real effort for high-retention to take place. This is why so much online learning fails. To simply click on faces and see speech bubbles of text, drag and drop labels, choose true or false, even multiple-choice questions, rarely constitutes desirable difficulty. This is click-through learning.
The solution is to provide effortful, retrieval. This means moving beyond the traditional model of text/graphics punctuated by multiple-choice, towards cognitive effort, namely retrieval through open input. This effortful learning gives significant increases in long-term retention and recall. Online learning needs to adopt these techniques if it is to remain credible.
Retrieve and recall what you need to know Bjork (1975) results in much higher levels of retention. Rather than read, re-read and underline, look away and try to retrieve and recall what you need to know. Rather than click on True or False or an option in a short list (MCQ), look away, think, generate, recall and come up with the answer. The key point here is that research has shown that retrieval is a memory modifier and makes your memory more recallable. Counter-intuitively, retrieval is much more powerful than being presented with the information. In other words it is more powerful than the original ‘teaching’ event.
Take a learning experience that you have probably been through many, many times – the airline safety demonstration. Try to think through what you have to do in the right order – find life jacket, put over head, then what….. not easy is it? Ah yes… inflate it through the blow tube… then there’s the whistle. No. Many choose the ‘inflate’ option but to inflate it inside the aircraft is a BIG no, no... and, in fact, you pull a toggle to inflate. In fact, airlines should set up a spot in the airport, where you actually sit down then have to DO the whole thing. Next time you sit there, watch, then afterwards, close your eyes and retrieve the process, step by step – that also works.
Roediger and Karpicke (2006) researched studying v retrieval testing (without feedback). One week later the retrieval tested group did much better. They also asked them how much you are likely to remember in one week’s time for each method – oddly, the majority of learners got it completely wrong.
Making errors is also a critical component of successful learning. According to Kornell, Hayes and Bjork (2009), generating the wrong thing, then getting it right, leads to stronger learning. The reason is that you are activating the brain’s semantic network. Retrieval testing does better than reading or watching, as it potentiates recall.
So are unsuccessful tests better than presentations? The work by Kornell (2009) shows that even unsuccessful testing is better. Retrieval testing gives you better internal feedback and works even when you get few or no correct answers. Testing, even before you have access to the material, as a learning experience, also helps learning. Once again, almost bizarrely, Heustler and Metcalfe (2012) asked learners what worked best and they were largely wrong.
From Gates (1917) who compared reading and re-reading with retrieval, to Sptzer (1939) who halted forgetting over 2 months with retrieval in 3000 learners, to Roediger (2011) who got a full grade increases with retrieval techniques and McDaniel (2011) who increased attainment in science, the evidence is clear. For a clear summary of this, and detail on the research, this excellent talk by Bjork is pretty good.
Online learning
In online learning the mechanics of this have also been researched. Duchaster and Nungester (1982) showed that although MCQs help you answer MCQs, they are poor in actual retention and recall. Kang (2007) showed that retrieval is superior to MCQs. At the really practical level, Jacoby (1978) showed that typing in retrieved learning was superior, as did MacDaniel (1986) and Hirsham and Bjork (1988) who showed that even typing in some missing letters sufficed. Richland (2005) did real world experiments that also proved efficacy.
We have the tools in Natural Language Processing and AI to do this, so technology has at last caught up with pedagogy. Let's not plough the same furrow we've plowed for the last 35 years. Time to move on.
I wrote, in a rather tongue in cheek manner (25 ways you which your e-learning sucks), about why I think most current e-learning is click-through and therefore low retention eye candy. This research shows that our methods of online learning are sub-optimal. The problem we face is that immediate success often means long-term failure. More focus should be given to retrieval, NOT presentation or clicking on items and multiple-choice. We need to be presented with desirable difficulties, through partial or complete open input. This is exactly what we’ve spent the last two years building with WildFire.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Do we really need all of this 'mentoring' malarkey’?

I’ve never had a mentor. I don’t want a mentor. I don’t much like mentoring. I know this is swimming against the tide of liberal orthodoxy but I value liberal values more than I value fads, groupthink or orthodoxy. Don't mind people doing it but there are many reasons why I’m suspicious of mentoring.
1. Fictional constructs
Mentor was a character in Homer’s The Odyssey and it is often assumed that his role was one of a guiding, experienced guide for his son and family. This is wrong. Mentor was simply an old acquaintance, ill-qualified to play a protective role to his family, and worse, turned out to be a patsy for a hidden force, the God Athena. A similar tale has unfolded in recent times, with mentoring being revived on the back of late 19thcentury psychoanalytic theory, where the original theory has been abandoned but the practice upon which it is based survives.
There is another later work of fiction that resurrected the classical model as a source for the word ‘mentor’ in education, Fenelon’s Les Adventures de Telemaque(1699). This is a tale about limiting the excesses of a king and reinforced the presence of the word ‘mentor’ in both French, then English. Yet Mentor, in this ponderous novel, is prone to didactic speeches about how a king should rule (aided by the aristocracy), hardly the egalitarian text one would expect to spark a revolution in education. Interestingly, it pops up again as one of two books given to Emile in the novel of the same name, by Rousseau.
2. Psychoanalytic veneer
Mentoring came out of the psychoanalytic movement in education, through Freud and Rogers. Nothing survives of Freud’s theories on the mind, education, dreams, humour or anything else for that matter. But Rogers is different. His legacy is more pernicious, as his work has resulted in institutional practice that has hung around many decades after the core theories have been abandoned. We need to learn how to abandon practice when the theories are defunct.
3. Mentoring is a one person trap
As Homer actually showed, one person is not enough. To limit your path in work or life to one person is to be feeble when it comes to probability. Why choose one person (often that person is chosen for you) when there are lots of good people out there? It stands to reason that a range of advice on a range of diverse topics (surely work and life are diverse) needs a range of expertise. Spread your network, speak to a range and variety of people. Don’t get caught in one person’s spider’s web. Mentoring is this sense is a singular trap.
4.  People, social media, books etc. are better
You don’t need a single person, you need advice and expertise. That is also to be found in a range of resources. Sure, a range of people can do the job and the best write books. Books are cheap, so buy some of the best and get reading. You can do it where and when you want and they’re written by the world’s best, not just the person who happens to be chosen in your organisation or a local life coach. And if you yearn for that human face, try video – TED and YouTube – they’re free! I’d take a portion of the training budget and allow people to buy from a wide reading list, rather than institute expensive mentoring programmes. Then there's social media, a rich source of advice and guidance provided daily. This makes people more self-reliant, rather than being infantalised. Twitter also has strong benefits in CPD.
5. Absence of proof
Little (1990) warned us, on mentoring, that, “relative to the amount of pragmatic activity, the volume of empirical enquiry is small [and]... that rhetoric and action have outpaced both conceptual development and empirical warrant.”  This, I fear, is not unusual in the learning world. Where such research is conducted, the results are disappointing. Mentors are often seen as important learning resources in teacher education and in HE teaching development. Empirical research shows, however, that the potential is rarely realized, see Edwards and Protheroe (2003) and Boice (1992). The results often reveal low level "training" that simply instruct novices on the "correct" way to teach Handal and Lauvas (1988), Hart-Landsberg et al., (1992). Indeed, much mentoring has been found to be rather shallow and ineffective Edwards, (1998).
6. Fossilised practice
Practice gets amplified and proliferates through second-rate train the trainer and teacher training courses, pushing orthodoxies long after their sell-by, even retirement, date. Mentoring has sometimes become a lazy option and alternative for hard work, effort, real learning and reflection. By all means strive to acquire knowledge, skills and competences, but don’t imagine that any of this will come through mentoring in any efficient manner.
7. Over-formalised
Mentoring is what parents, grandparents and older members of the community used to do, and well. I’m all for the passing down of learning and wisdom, but when it gets formalized into specific people, with supposedly strong ‘mentoring’ skills, I have my doubts. By all means encourage people to share, especially those with experience but don’t kill the human side of this with an over-formalised process.
Conclusion: get a life, not a coach
I know that many of you will feel uncomforted by these arguments but work and life are not playthings. It is your life and career, so don’t for one minute imagine that the HR department has the solutions you need. Human resources is there to protect organisations from their employees, rarely either human or resourceful. Stay away from this stuff if you really want to remain an independent thinker.
English translation of Les Adventures de Telemaque
Boice (1992)Lessons learned about mentoring
Edwards and Protheroe (2003)Learning to See in Classrooms: What are student teachers learning about teaching and learning while learning to teach in schools? British Educational research Journal.
Handal and Lauvas (1988) Promoting Reflective Teaching
Little, J.W. (1990) ‘The Mentor Phenomenon and the Social Organisation of Teaching’, in: Review of Research in Education. Washington D.C: American Educational Research Association.
Warhurst R (2003) Learning to lecture Paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Annual Conference, Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Why is learning so hard? Hyperbolic discounting – what is it and what to do about it

Julie Dirkson knows a thing or two about learning. Well versed in the research, she is especially good at bringing ‘behavioural psychology’ to the foreground. Understand learners and you understand why it is so difficult to get them to learn. So it was a pleasure seeing her speak and speak with her afterwards. 
Her starting point is the metaphor of the elephant and its rider, the rider the conscious, verbal, thinking brain; the elephant the automatic, emotional visceral brain. Academically this is Kahneman’s two systems, fast and slow explained in his book Thinking Fast and Slow (An alternative is the very readable story in The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis.) 

Hyperbolic discounting
One cognitive bias that is hits learning hard is that of hyperbolic discounting, a well researched feature in behavioural economics. Take two similar rewards, humans prefer the one that arrives sooner rather than later. We are therefore said to discount the value of the later reward and this discount increases with the length of the delay.
If the consequences of our learning are distant, we are likely to take it less seriously. Smokers don’t stop smoking just because you tell them it’s dangerous, and there’s no greater danger than death! In practice, smokers see the consequence as being some time off, so they don’t stop smoking just because you warn them of dying several decades down the line. So it is with learning. Rewards feel distant in learning, which is why students tend to leave study and cram just prior to exams, or write essays on the last night. They are not committed when it is likely that they won’t use their newly acquired knowledge and skills for some time, if at all. No one watches printer problem videos until they have a printer problem. So how do we get the learner to be a rider and not be stopped by the elephant?

Autonomous control
Give people control over their learning as personal agency acts as an accelerant. If I feel that things are not imposed upon me, but that I have chosen to take action, then intrinsic motivation will, on the whole, work better than extrinsic motivation. Giving people the choice over what and when they learn is therefore useful.

Push to engage
Technology allows us to push motivating messages and opportunities to learners. We can nudge them into learning. Nudge theory has been used in everything from insects in urinals to reduce splashes to serious behavioural change. Stream is a LXP that raises learner engagement by nudging and pushing learners forward through timely reminders. We know that learners are lazy and leave things to the last minute, so why not nudge them into correcting that behaviour. Woebot is a counselling chatbot that simply pops up in the morning on Facebook Messenger. You can choose to ignore or re-schedule. It has that drip-feed effect and, as the content is good and useful, you get used to doing just a few minutes every morning. 

Place in workflow
Just in time training, performance support and workflow are all terms for delivering learning when it is needed. This closes the gap between need and execution, thereby eliminating hyperbolic discounting, as there is no delay. Pushes and pulls can sit in Slack, Messenger, Microsoft teams of whatever social or workflow system your organisation uses.

Use events as catalysts
A sense of immediacy can be created by events – a merger, reorganisation, new product, new leader. All of these can engender a sense of imminence. Or manufacture your own mini-event. Several companies have implemented ‘phishing’ training by sending fake phishing emails, seeing how people react and delivering the training on the back of that event.

Almost everything you do online – Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Amazon and Netflix, use recommendation engines to personalise what the system thinks you need next. Yet this is rarely used in learning, except in adaptive systems, where AI acts like a teacher, keeping you personally on course. 

Visual nudges
Online learning needs to pick up on contemporary UX design and use slight movement, colour changes, positioning and layout to push people into action. In WildFire we use AI to create extra links during the learning experience. These appear as you work through an idea or concept, and are highlighted of the system thinks you didn’t really get it first time. But there’s lots of things you can do to nudge people forward in learning.

Calls to action
A neat combination of events as catalysts, nudge learning and calls to action, used widely in marketing, was a project by Standard Life. They used a merger with another large organisation as the catalyst, short 90 second videos as nudges and challenges (calls to action) to do something in their own teams. Use was tracked and produced great results. Calls to action are foundational in marketing, especially online marketing, where you are encouraged to contact, registered, inquire or buy through a call or button. Have a look at Amazon, perhaps the most successful company in the world, built on the idea of calling to action through their one-click buying button.

Get social
Reframe learning into a more social experience, online or offline, so that learners have their peer group to compare with. If you see tat others are doing things on time, you are more likely to follow than be presented with some distant consequence. Future promises of promotion, even money, have less effect that near experiences of being part of a group doing things together or being encouraged, even peer reviewed, as encouragement and feedback engenders action.

Habitual learning is difficult to embed, but once adopted is a powerful motivator. Good learners are in the habit of taking notes, always having a book in their bags, reading before going to sleep and so on. Choose your habit and force yourself to do it until it becomes natural, almost unthinking. In Kahneman language you must make sure that your System 2 has some of the features of what were once System 1. Or your elephant starts to get places on its own without the rider urging it along.

Learning is one thing, getting people to learn is another. Psychologically, we’re hard-wired to delay, procrastinate, not take learning seriously and see the rewards as far too far down the line to matter. We have to fight these traits and do what we can to encourage authentic and effortful learning, Make it seems as though it really does matter through all sorts of nudges; social, autonomy, push, place in workflow, events as catalysts, recommendations, visual nudges, recommendations, calls to action and habits.

Lewis, M. (2017) The Undoing Project. Penguin
Kahneman, D. (2011) Thinking fast and Slow.Penguin
Roediger, H. McDaniel M. (2013) Make It Stick. Harvard University Press

Friday, November 02, 2018

World’s first hologram lecture (not really) but are they necessary?

Imperial College, London, claimed to have held the World’s first hologram lecture. What they haven’t mastered is the art of being honest or doing a modicum of research.  There have been hologram lectures before, most notably, by Stephen Hawking. But let’s put to one side the usual hyperbole by ‘Women in Tech’ and look at this critically.

For the Imperial event, 3D figures were beamed in live from the US. They are projected on to a glass screen, with a backdrop giving the illusion of depth of field and interact with other panellists and the audience. Nice idea but will it fly?
Before I start, I’m no fan of slabbing out academic lectures as a method of teaching and learning and would much rather institutions either, recorded lectures, or made sure that the people who deliver them receive some training on teaching and presentation. The number of students who simply don’t turn up is evidence enough that they are a failure. Only 60% turn up, even at Harvard. The very words ‘Lecture’ or ‘Lecturers’ says everything about the appalling state of pedagogy in Higher Education.
One of the saddest learning stories I’ve ever heard was from the actress Tilda Swinton. She was the only student who turned up to a lecture at Oxford by Raymond Williams where he read out his lecture, from notes, from behind the lectern, and neither of them even acknowledged each other. How sad is that? Almost every University has even worse tales of lectures where not one student turned up.

Samuel Johnson saw the folly of it all:
‘Lectures were once useful; but now, when all can read, and books are so numerous, lectures are unnecessary. If your attention fails, and you miss a part of a lecture, it is lost; you cannot go back as you do upon a book... People have nowadays got a strange opinion that everything should be taught by lectures. Now, I cannot see that lectures can do as much good as reading the books from which the lectures are taken. I know nothing that can be best taught by lectures, except where experiments are to be shown. You may teach chymistry by lectures. You might teach making shoes by lectures!’

As David Hume, observed, it is the content, not the person who matters:
‘ you know there is nothing to be learnt from a Professor, which is not to be met with in books, and there is nothing to be required in order to reap all possible advantages from them, but an order and choice in reading them...I see no reason why we should either go to a University, more than to any other place, or ever trouble ourselves about the learning or capacity of the professor.’

On the other hand I have no problem with talks by experts (not adjuncts and/or PhD students) who command respect and give students a feel for what it is to be a physicist or psychologist. Lectures as inspirational and motivational events I have no problem with, where world class speakers and teachers do their thing – but few have that presence or possess those skills. The problem with a focus on just the technology here, is that a hologram of a bad lecturer won’t solve the problem.
This idea is interesting in terms of getting World Class experts and teachers to talk and teach in institutions around the world. If, as the evidence suggests, it increases presence, that’s great, especially if you feel as though they are really there. But I’m not convinced that hologram lectures are much more than a gimmick. They’re technically difficult to organise, expensive and try too hard to mimic what is, essentially, a flawed pedagogic technique. It perpetuates the traditional lecture format, rather than moving things on. It’s taking something that’s not that good in the real world and mirroring it virtually.

Skype or Zoom
On the other hand, we have to probe this a little? Wouldn’t it be easier and simpler to use video, either Skype or Zoom? These have tools that supplement the experience. For example, Skype translator can translate voice, in real-time, in 10 languages. Its text translator works in 60 languages. For global transmission, this makes sense.

Webinar software
Lectures as webinars make even more sense, as the supplementary tools allow for as much interaction as you wish and it is scalable. It is rather odd that educational institutions don’t make more use of this form of delivery. Questions, chat, polls, links and many other features are available in this type of software. It talks some skill to do this but it is a skill worth learning as it results in better teaching and more importantly, better learning.

Full immersion gives the advantage of full immersion and full attention. One of the most compelling features of VR is the fact that you really are in that environment and the brain finds it difficult to jump out or be distracted. We know that attention is a necessary condition for learning, so this could be the optimal solution. One problem is the difficulty of taking notes, although speech dictation would be possible.

All technologies have their affordances. We need to identify what we want, then use the best technology available. Holograms seem like overreach. If students aren’t even turning up, let’s reflect on that first. If we’re not recording lectures, despite the overwhelming evidence that they are good for students being taught in their second language or those who are absent due to illness. In addition, learners can stop and rewind if they miss something, want to find something out or want to take more detailed notes. But the biggest argument is that they can be used for learning through repeated use and revision.