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Online Learning, Part II: Designing Experiences

Wednesday, June 20th, 2012 | Posted by Jon Kolko

I wrote about my hesitations with online learning, and received an extremely thorough response from Frederick van Amstel. In it, he describes the creation of a new learning tool called Corais. At the same time, Anya Kamenetz pointed me towards two alternative tools, p2pu and udacity. We got into a discussion here at AC4D, and Ruby Ku – of HourSchool – pointed out the development of evr.st. I’m also familiar with weteachme and skilio.

There are lots and lots of new companies that are attempting to change the way we learn, and I applaud every single one of them for their intent. At the same time, I have a nuanced and academic critique of nearly all of them, and to get to the critique, I need to take a slight detour to talk about experience, and to quote heavily from someone smarter than myself, John Dewey. If you’ve never read Experience & Education (pdf link), you might go do it now; it’s a short read, although not an easy one. I’ve read it six or seven times and I’m still not sure I’ve absorbed it all. In it, Dewey responds to the idea of “progressive education” – education that rejects traditional norms, such as sitting in desks, learning from books, moving through a rigid and linear history, and preparing for university. Instead, the progressive education movement focused on experiential learning and critical thinking.

A lesser known text by Dewey, Schools of To-morrow, examines some of these progressive attempts. He critiques Montessori for being too constraining – offering an illusion of freedom – while recognizing that unconstrained play leads to an imitation of existing norms, where children act out existing social activities and reinforce social patterns. In all of the progressive techniques, learning occurs by experiencing things – by taking an active role in activities and interactions, and reflecting on that active role.

And so we turn, today, to self-declared “experience designers”, to create “user experiences” that are of a high quality: implicit in many conversations of “disruptive education” via the internet is the idea that a designer will create the ideal learning experience.

There’s a sense of history repeating itself. The rhetoric around online learning tends to emphasize the same things that Dewey embraced only with a sense of hesitancy. He championed alternative forms of learning, but with a major caveat, described in his “experiential continuum.”

I see Dewey offering three critical points for educational reform through this experiential continuum.

First, experiences change people. A person is not the same person after the experience, as they were when they started. “From this point of view, the principle of continuity of experience means that every experience both takes up something from those which have gone before and modifies in some way the quality of those which come after.” Additionally, having an experience “influences in some degree the objective conditions under which further experiences are had.” As we experience, we learn, and as we learn, we view subsequent experiences through a different lens. An educational system needs to adapt to these changes.

Next, experiences are not equal. As he describes, “The belief that genuine education comes about through experience does not mean that all experiences are genuinely or equally educative. Experience and education cannot be directly equated to each other. For some experiences are miseducative.” Dewey then points out that traditional education is made up of experiences, too, and that most progressive education decries these as being “of the wrong kind.” And so it is not the necessity of experiencing things that is relevant for progressive education. “Every- thing depends upon the quality of the experience, which is had… Hence the central problem of an education based upon experience is to select the kind of present experiences that live fruitfully and creatively in subsequent experiences.”

Finally, viewing experience as if it were something that goes in only in ones’ body and mind is reductive and wrong, ignoring ” what has been done and transmitted from previous human activities… It ought not to be necessary to say that experience does not occur in a vacuum. There are sources outside an individual which give rise to experience.” An experience is rich, unique, and multi-faceted, because it depends on the entire social and cultural history of the person doing the experiencing. “The conceptions of situation and of interaction are inseparable from each other. An experience is always what it is because of a transaction taking place between an individual and what, at the time, constitutes his environment.” Education needs to understand and contextualize content within that social and cultural history of the learner.

Given these three points, the role of the teacher is one of interaction curation through individualized focus: the teacher needs to offer opportunities for students to experience things on their own, but they need to create appropriate boundaries around these interactions and activities to encourage a certain type of desired outcome. I say “opportunities for students to experience things”, and “encourage”, because the experience will always be personal: it will always be different and unique, depending on the social and cultural background of the learner.

And so, I return to think about the new online paradigms emerging – those that reject the common, and awful, approach to simply duplicating seats in desks, multiple-choice quizzes, and other obviously flawed ways of teaching and learning. Many of these new paradigms fall under the unfortunate acronym MOOC: Massive Open Online Course. What these platforms are attempting has extremely positive goals: to offer a democratized view of education, where content is available freely and students can mix and remix content together to form their own curriculum.

The problem I see in many of these new tools is one of experience. Having a learning experience is not automatically positive. Watching a video online is not necessarily good. Building my own curriculum is not necessarily good. Listening to a lecture is not necessarily good. These things are always contextual. You can’t design a learning experience for someone else to consume, and then abdicate the responsibility of the subsequent changes that occur. Put another way, you can’t “experience design” your way to learning, online or off. You can urge, cajole, shepherd, scaffold, or influence students, and that’s precisely the role of the human teacher: to help the learner structure the right conditions for their experiences to occur, individually. And then, the teacher has an ethical responsibility and a moral imperative to respond, once those experiences have changed the learner. And to continue to respond, and change the learning activities and interactions, over a sustained period of time. A good teacher changes the way learning happens every single time they interact with a single student. This is why Big Picture Learning works, why Dennis Littky can boast graduation rates of ninety percent. It’s why traditional apprenticeships are so effective. And it’s why I’m so hesitant to embrace an online platform, no matter how new and different the learning paradigm – no matter how “unique the experiences.”

I realize that my critique is not a practical one, although it has practical (and hard) implications. But if we’re going to claim to be educating people, we need to consider how education works. This is theoretical, as is all educational pedagogy. Education needs to be grounded in theory, and Dewey’s writings from a hundred years ago are the best educational theory I’ve read, yet. I hope the founders of each of these companies has an opinion on Dewey’s work, and I hope they can find a way to humanize their technological platforms in order to recognize this adaptive and ongoing dialogue that has to happen between a student and a teacher. That’s the future of education. It’s not easy, quick, or cheap. The internet will play a fundamental role, no doubt. But so will people: teachers are still critical.

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