Sunday, January 31, 2021

Lifelong learning is a conceit. Life is not a course. To live is to learn

Every year we get a slew of reports full of platitudes about ‘Lifelong Learning’, usually, of course, by people who make a living from selling paper qualifictions. 'Lifelong Learning' trips off the tongue (beware of alliteration) but it’s a glib, confused, if not misleading, phrase. No real person describes themselves as a ‘Lifelong Learner’ – it would sound pompous, even ridiculous. To be honest, I’ve come to believe that Lifelong Learning is NOT a 'thing', just the rhetoric one sees in reports and PowerPoints. It has become a tired old phrase, a construct only used by educators. But it is an educational conceit. Educational institutions have no intention of letting their models go which is why they play little role in real Lifelong Learning. That’s because Lifelong learning has little to do with ‘lifelong schooling’ or ‘lifelong formal learning’.

Myth of reskilling

The myth is that we will be reskilling as we change careers every few years. No we don’t and no we won’t. Know that quote “65% of children starting primary school today will enter into jobs that don’t currently exist” That was made up, a complete fiction. Even if true, the idea that Universities are the solution to this need is ridiculous. Few adults go back into formal education. 

Extended schooling

In truth, most of us, after being put through the wringer of intense schooling, can’t wait to see the back of it. Even those who extend schooling for another three or four degree years are often weary of the endless diet of formal learning and exams. If Lifelong Learning means more and more qualifications, forget it. Lots of people are now being prompted and pushed into being academic, when they’re not, prolonging their schooling, when the evidence suggest that it neither raises their productivity nor enriches their lives. Lifelong learning, so far, has meant extending schooling. Of course, the answer to bad schooling is always more schooling. We may even want less learning. More people are getting ‘schooled’ for longer and longer. But to what end? Signalling. Credential inflation is the wasteful result.

Reframe learning

We need to reframe lifelong learning and recognise that very few return to years of formal schooling. Lifelong learning needs to recognise that you have had a heavy dose of formal learning at school, possibly college or University, then go on to gain the skills to be a more autonomous, self-directed learner. As Winston Churchill observed ‘I am always ready to learn although I do not always like being taught’.

Few grown-ups yearn for the student experience and those that do would do better doing it online. Adults do not want to be infantilised by this sort of jargon. They’re adults not learners. The older you get the less inclined you are to want to cram and sit exams, as you know you’ve forgotten most of what you previously learnt. I’m all for recommending that people remain curious throughout their lives but life is not a course.

In my lifetime, I‘ve seen the Lifelong Learning lobby dismantle vocational learning in favour of University for all – well not really all, as they killed off support for adult learners (which is what Lifelong Learning was supposed to be about). They talk the talk but at the end of the day – the focus has been on 18 year-old undergraduates. That’s a shame. For all the rhetoric they default back to their own little world.

Life is for living, not learning 

Lifelong Learning is a shallow phrase as it assumes that we need something we don’t. For many, the book group or film club is formal enough, a group that encourages you to read something new and different. Life, for most, is for living, not learning. We learn to lean without formal structures, following our interests and curiosity. To present lifelong learning as a return to college and formal qualifications is largely credentialism. Most adults become more autonomous as learners. The Long Tail of lifelong learning for most is to learn within the workplace or turn to the web and free resources to learn through tools like Google, YouTube, Wikipedia and the available and growing abundance of free resources and services. 

Lifelong learning, for most, is the Long Tail of informal learning through work, self-development and interests. Technology will continue to increase opportunities to learn for the curious. To live is to learn.

Friday, January 29, 2021

10 powerful online feedback (should be called feedforward) techniques

Most of the frustration experienced by learners is poor, slow or inadequate feedback; the embarrassment of being asked questions in a classroom in front of others, even one-to-one by a human tutor, the fear of asking questions in a classroom or in a Zoom session, as you’d feel stupid, the lack of opportunity to ask for clarification or ask questions in a Zoom lesson, classroom or lecture, the email reply that takes days to come back, that solitary mark A-D and brief comment on a piece of work or general and non-specific comments like ‘needs more clarification’.

The solution is good feedback. Feedback is the lubricating oil of teaching and learning. Feedback accelerates learning. It can therefore reduce the amount of time spent teaching. It motivates and propels learners forward. You need to work hard to keep learners on task, feedback is the spark and stimulus that gets them to the next stage. 

Technology can use feedback to propel online learning. We spend so much of our technology time to present linear, media ‘experiences’ that we forget about the locomotive power of feedback. Creating videos, graphics and screeds of text is easy, feedback is personal and hard. Yet there are methods that have emerged from recent technology that make it much easier. We need more focus on technology to deliver feedback as well as media.

There are many forms of feedback; confirmatory, explanatory, consequential, real-time, semantic, media specific, peer-to-peer, reflective, calls to action. It is a powerful aid to learning and should be used to power learners forward.

1. Confirmatory

Right, Correct, Yes, Wrong, Incorrect, No Try again. This feedback simply confirms whether you have succeeded or not.

2. Hints

Hints give snippets of information to nudge learners forward in a task. They are useful in making the learner think deeper about the problem. (Lavbic, Matek & Zrnec, 2017).

3. Explanatory

Go one step further and explain WHY you got something right or wrong. Note that even when it is right, reinforcing with different wording and extra information and explanations can be useful.  A Clark and Mayer (2016) meta-study shows that this is superior to no or corrective feedback.

4. Consequential

Feedback can lead to consequences in branched and other forms of simulations. Here you provide remedial or fast-track routing, depending on the response. This can be very sophisticated in adaptive learning where personalisation, through data and AI. uses these techniques.

5. Realtime

Feedback in real time is common in VR and real-time simulations and games, where consequences of decisions and actions are immediate as they would be in real life.

6. Semantic

You use AI to semantically interpret responses and act upon the meaning. Sentiment analysis has also been used to determine the subjective feelings of the learners to deliver feedback.

7. Media specific

You can choose to provide positive feedback in a specific confirmatory medium, like audio or video, using text or other forms of feedback for negative responses. This strengthens the memory of the positive act and avoids memories of negative responses.

8. Peer-to-peer

One way to scale feedback is to get one learners to peer review each other. In pairs or groups. There are systems that provide this functionality.

9. Reflective

Leaners can be asked to reflect mentally or write a reflective piece, as a forms of self-referential feedback. 

10. Call to action

Learner is asked to do something in the real world as a result of their online response. This can be a nudge towards practice and transfer. It may trigger an action in a spaced or retrieval practice system.

Thanks to Connie Malamoud who inspired me to write this blog.

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Empathy… “sounds wonderful but the search for empathy is simply misled” Donald Norman

I was looking at design methodologies and kept seeing the word ‘EMPATHY’ pop up. It puzzled me. I’ve read my Hume and thought, yes, empathy is a subjective feeling. If I have empathy with someone, it means I feel for them. Then I realised they were not using the word in this sense. They meant, literally putting yourself in their shoes or minds. That I find odd. How would a 25 year old graduate designer put themselves into the mind of someone who fits gas boilers? What they actually meant was, think about where they work, what they have to do to for the job and how they access learning and what they need to learn that fits their background. This actually comes down to analysis. But this is a bait and switch.

Donald Norman says, of this call for empathy in design, that “the concept is impossible, and even if possible, wrong”. I was seeing empathy used in pieces that actually mentioned Norman as one of their heroes! Yet here he was saying it was wrong-headed. He is absolutely right. There is no way you can put yourself into the heads of the hundreds, thousands, even tens and hundreds of thousands of learners. As Norman says “It sounds wonderful but the search for empathy is simply misled.” Not only is it not possible to understand individuals in this way, it is just not that useful.

It is not empathy but data you need. Who are these people, what do they need to actually do and how can we help them. As people they will be hugely variable but what they need to know and do, in order to achieve a goal, is relatively stable. This has little to do with empathy and a lot to do with understanding and reason.

Sure, the emotional side of learning is important and people like Norman, have written and researched the subject extensively. Positive emotions help people learn (Um et al., 2012). Even negative emotions (D’Mello et al., 2014) can help people learn, stimulating attention and motivation, including mild stress (Vogel and Schwabe, 2016). Although excessive stress can be detrimental to learning and memory. We know that emotions induce attention (Vuilleumier, 2005) and motivation that can be described as curiosity, where the novel or surprising can stimulate active interest (Oudeyer et al., 2016). In short, emotional events are remembered longer, more clearly and accurately than neutral events.

But trying to induce emotion in the design process is just not that relevant. We are in such a rush to include ‘emotion’ in design that we confuse emotion in learning process with emotion in the designer. It also seems like lazy signalling, for not doing the hard analysis up front, defaulting to the loose language of concern and sympathy.

All too often we latch on to a noun in the learning world without thinking much about what it actually means, what experts in the field say about it and bandy it about as though it were a certain truth. This is the opposite of showing empathy. It is the rather empty use of language.


Norman, D.A., 2004. Emotional design: Why we love (or hate) everyday things. Basic Civitas Books.

Norman, D., 2019. Why I Don't Believe in Empathic Design.

Um, E., Plass, J.L., Hayward, E.O. and Homer, B.D., 2012. Emotional design in multimedia learning. Journal of educational psychology104(2), p.485.

D’Mello, S., Lehman, B., Pekrun, R. and Graesser, A., 2014. Confusion can be beneficial for learning. Learning and Instruction29, pp.153-170.

Vogel, S. and Schwabe, L., 2016. Learning and memory under stress: implications for the classroom. npj Science of Learning1(1), pp.1-10.

Vuilleumier, P., 2005. How brains beware: neural mechanisms of emotional attention. Trends in cognitive sciences9(12), pp.585-594.

Oudeyer, P.Y., Gottlieb, J. and Lopes, M., 2016. Intrinsic motivation, curiosity, and learning: Theory and applications in educational technologies. Progress in brain research229, pp.257-284.