Essential Skills – Learning in a digital, interfaced world

I have talked a number of times now about the concept of Interfaced Learning and as part of the discussions about this concept with a number of my greatly appreciated comment providers, one of the prime discussions has been around the concept of essential skills.  One of the reasons why I like thought experiments around the future of learning is that often they tend to give us quite deep insight into the issues facing us today.  So if we consider the world that I have posited on several occasions now, a world where skills and knowledge can for the most part simply plugged in, utilised and then discarded the concept of what basic skills would be essential for me to possess in order not only to be able to utilise technology like this but to utilise it well.  We can also place these ideas more firmly in the now by thinking about the learning through watching YouTube experience I have also mentioned previously, what skills did I need to have to be able to effectively utilise the skills I acquired through the process of interfaced learning.

Now if we take the example of undertaking some home renovation and picking up required skills along the way through watching YouTube.  It is clear that there are some obvious skills which are required in order to be able to do this, things such as;

  • manual dexterity
  • language and comprehension
  • numeracy and mathematics

But what else do we need, what other skills are essential to our ability to rapidly acquire and utilise new skills and knowledge.   What about skills (which are often thought of as being higher level skills) such as critical reasoning, the ability to evaluate options, the ability to extrapolate information (specific to general and general to specific).  We sometimes criticise the outcomes of learning programs without necessarily considering whether or not these higher level skills are present.  To give you an example I am currently working with a group of youths who are disengaged from the general school environment.  While for the most part they have quite good language, literacy and mathematics skills, one of the things I noticed they were missing very early on was the ability to take skills and knowledge from one environment and utilise them in another environment.  It was almost if they had to relearn skills that they actually had, but were unable to transfer to a new problem or task.  This meant that we actually had to spend a fair amount of time early on trying to teach them how to achieve this transference of information but in the long run it made the learning process much easier on them and us.

 

So I would love to hear everyone’s thoughts on  what you think the essential skills are that people need in order to be able to effectively learn.

 

Acquire – Utilise – Disacquire; The essence of Interfaced Learning

“The illiterates of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn”- Alvin Toffler

 

I was reminded recently of Toffler’s quote by a reader of one of my previous posts  and it, as it had done previously struck a chord with me, both at an individual and organisational level, particularly given the subject matter that I have been toying with over the last few posts I have made, that of Interfaced Learning.  While I think Toffler is to a large extent right, what I think we are beginning to see, with more and more how to videos, learning snippets, user-created content, or as Ryan Tracey suggested to me, technologically enabled distributed learning is that his quote maybe does not go even far enough.

I say this because when we look at a definition of learning say  the act of acquiring new, or modifying and reinforcing, existing knowledge, behaviours, skills, values, or preferences and may involve synthesizing different types of information.  I would suggest as I have elsewhere that this is, at least in a significant number of cases not what is going on with a lot of Interfaced Learning.  What is in fact happening is we are acquiring a new skill or knowledge, utilising that skill or knowledge and then either actively or passively disacquiring it.  For me whether we are actually learning something, in a traditional sense of learning is really up for debate.  Of course Toffler may in fact have quite a loose definition of learning in mind when he says this which works quite nicely if that is the case, however I think, while probably inherent in the thinking behind the quote, it is the ability to utilise the skills and knowledge acquired that is particularly interesting, particularly for organisations.

This is because, as I have spoken about previously, there are a number of areas where organisations are even now actively encouraging staff not to retain certain types of information and to simply access them when necessary.  An example of this is policy and procedure documents, where, rather than have staff print out these documents or attempt to commit the information contained in them to memory, the organisation’s preference is for the staff member to check the document (held in some form of online repository) to ensure that they have the correct and most up to date information on had.  Inherent in this concept then is of course the idea that the staff member will disacquire the information (I hesitate to use the word unlearn here because I don’t think there is any intentional learning going on here simply the acquisition of information), so that when they have to undertake that task again they will again check the information repository.

In the same vein a significant number of employers are now providing their staff with just in time style learning snippets; small, task specific e-learning modules, delivered through a range of devices to the staff who can access them prior to undertaking a task to refresh their memory on how the task is supposed to be completed.  This process even in this form again encourages and reinforces the Acquire – Utilise – Disacquire mindset of Interfaced Learning.  It is true that at least in most cases the staff in question have already received more formal or traditional training in the task, however due to the infrequency of the task or other factors a quick refresher is useful in assisting them to complete the task successfully.  Let us think about it for a moment though.  How far away are we from not providing specific training in the task in question and simply providing generic skills training over which and interfaced Learning program can be layered to provide the specific skills need to achieve the task at hand at the time they are needed.

On of the complaints often raised against traditional training is that of retention of learning.  As we are all aware if a staff member attends a course or does an online program and then does not have cause to utilise the skills and knowledge they learnt then they will quickly forget them.  This of course then creates a range of situations when however many months down the track from their initial learning of the skill the staff member is called upon to use it.  Perhaps it may be more efficient and cost-effective to ensure that staff members have the underlying skills and knowledge to allow them to rapidly Acquire – Utilise – Disacquire skills through some form of Interfaced Learning, than to try to ensure that they retain the skills and knowledge over and extended period of time.

 

Learning in a digital ‘cyberpunk’ world #LRN2024

A lot of you have probably come across the concept of a brain/computer (wetware/hardware) interface which allows people learn new skills, obtain knowledge and interface directly with other systems through science fiction movies and novels (William Gibson’s work for example)  and recently there was a paper published which seems to show the first documented brain to brain interface.  After my recent post for #lrn2024 and  question from a friend of mine Eric, I started to think about the effects on this kind of process on learning and the acquisition on knowledge and skills.

Let me set the scene for you first and then we can begin to discuss what impacts these ideas may have.

Think about a world where the need to learn skills and obtain knowledge in a traditional manner is no longer necessary, rather when one needs a particular set of skills or knowledge one simply ‘installs’ in much like installing a new piece of software on a computer or perhaps more like running portable apps on a computer rather than installing anything, but both ideas tend to work in the same way though as we may see there may be more permanence in case than the other.  We might call this kind of learning, if we decide that it is in fact learning and not something else, Interface Learning, that is where skills or knowledge are acquired through the utilisation of some for of interface. So if we take something simple (though in true actually quite complex) like driving a car.  I have learnt to drive an automatic vehicle, however in a particular instance I need to drive a manual  vehicle, so I simply ‘chip’ the skills and knowledge into by brain through some kind of wetware/hardware interface (think a USB port just behind my ear) and I am able to drive the manual vehicle with the skill and precision of a formula one racing driver.  So what then happens when I no longer need to driver the vehicle?  Well there would seem to be two options;

  1. I could simply remove the ‘chip’ removing the skills and knowledge from my brain much like disconnecting a usb drive running portable apps, or
  2. The skills are installed in brain by the process and thus left there, much like installing software on to a computer

both of these options would, it seems, have advantages, so lets look quickly at the two options and then we can look at what I think the real problem that exists behind this sort of technology might be.  The advantages to the first option are simple and really the same as the disadvantages, I never actually need to know very much at all, I just need to have a sufficiently large cache of ‘chips’ to provide me with the skills and knowledge that I need for particular circumstances, perhaps even being able to ‘chip’ multiple sets of skills and knowledge at once to accomplish complex tasks or tasks requiring a wide range of skills and knowledge.  The advantage would be that I could spend my time occupying my brain with whatever I chose to do with it and not need to spend multiple years learning skills and obtaining knowledge.  Of course the disadvantage is that if there is a problem with ‘chip’ then there is a severe problem with my ability to do the things that I would need to do.   So maybe this is really an augmenting technology where skills that I don’t require often, or high specialised or complex are those that I would ‘chip’ in while more basic skills were learnt in a more traditional manner.

So lets look at the second option, where I install the skills and knowledge as I need them but they remain there like programs on a computer hard drive.  There seems to be less problems with this sort of option as, as with software I would simple need to ‘click’ on it and the skills would be available to be again, or once installed they would ‘run in the background’ much as skills and knowledge tend to do now.  Think about however, what happens with computers, and we could well say already happens with our brains currently, hard drives get full and we have to delete things (we forget or lose access to our memories), software and hardware are no longer compatible, files and systems get corrupted and no long work in way they originally did, if at all, and all of the programs running in the background fill up our available ram and all of our processes slow down or blue screen.

There is however to my mind another issue with all of these ideas and that is what happens to our skills and knowledge over time and where do new skills and knowledge come from.  If I no longer have to practice a skill or utilise my knowledge then it is liable I think to stagnate.  Take again the example of driving a car I have been driving a car for nearly 30 years, and my driving has changed substantially over that time, I am a far more competent driver now in a wider range of vehicles than I was when I was 18, and I have learnt things about driving in particular areas or circumstances which are particular to that area or circumstance.  If however, all I had ever done when I needed to drive a car was to chip the skills and knowledge, drive the car and then turn the knowledge off when I was finished, my knowledge of driving a car may be the same for the most part every time I drove, year after year, particularly if I only drive on limited occasions.  I am also faced with the issue of skills upgrades what if I want to drive better, drive a truck as well as a car, or a wide range of cars, with changing configurations, will the chip that I have be able to cope with all of these permutations, or will I need and upgrade as the years pass by to cope with the changing world.  There in also lies the other issue, if this ‘chipped’ learning becomes the predominant means of obtaining the skills to achieve tasks, then where will these skill upgrade come from, will there be artisans who specialise in developing skill sets in more traditional ways, so that this skill and knowledge can be copied and transferred to others.

I would be really interested in hearing your thoughts on this as it has started some deeper thinking for me on this idea of interface learning and skill acquisition.

 

VET vs University – A continuing Divide.

As some of you who have been reading my blog for a while will be aware I have always been troubled by the seeming divide which exists between VET and University education in this country.  This came up again recently when the very articulate Lauren Hollows  asked this wonderful question on Linkedin; “Why does it have to be VET or HE?”.  Quite early on in the life of this particular iteration of this blog, I presented a similar thought.  Lauren’s post and the ensuing discussion prompted me to think a little more about this problem and why it is that there seems to be a divide between Vocational Training and University Education.

Lets jump in the time machine and go back to the dim past when I was in the final years of high school and looking at what I was going to do with myself post secondary school.  The choices were pretty clear-cut back then, you left at year 10 and got a trade, you went on to year 12 and University or you just went and got a job. somewhere and to a large extent what we know now as the VET sector now was still a few years away.  This I think is still some of the problem today, a lot of people not involved in the industry, who are now parents etc saw this divide, you went to  TAFE to do a trade or you went to university and of course the unspoken thought was that the reason you left at year 10 and went and got a trade was that you weren’t going to get good enough results in 11 and 12 to get accepted into University.  Now whether or not that was ever true, the mindset was there and still is, people still view VET as a choice you make when you can’t get into university.

Let’s fast forward to today though, this is not the case anymore and hasn’t been the case for some time now, sure VET education can be seen as an alternative education pathway, but it is also a supplementary or complimentary pathway.  As a lot of the respondents to Lauren’s post said, myself included, a lot of people now have qualifications from both sectors, all of which provide them with different learnings and different skills and knowledge.  So why then do we still hear comments like “I have a degree why would I was my time getting a Certificate IV/diploma?”  We hear them because I think we have failed, all of us, the Government, the peak bodies, the providers to truly explain the post secondary education system in this country to people, and to explain it to people in such a way that makes sense to them and shows them the value of education regardless of what ‘sector’ that education comes from.

We have a single framework in this country for qualifications and we have had it since 1995.  The Australian Qualifications Framework outlines who the whole system works and what each level from Level 1 (Certificate I) to Level 10 (Doctoral Degrees) work and what the skills and knowledge at each level is.  I would hazard a guess however that very very few parents and student and probably not a lot of teachers and guidance officers were terribly aware of the content of the AQF and even fewer would understand how the system works and what all of it means and there in lies the problem.

What we need to do in this country is to embark on an education process, a process designed to explain to people simply and easily how the system works.  If we ever as a country truly want to have an engaged workforce built on ideals of lifelong learning, then we need to do this we need to this, we need to explain to people the choices that they have and how they fit together.  If we don’t there will always be a divide between the various educational sectors in this country and that would be a crying shame.

Technology – Helping or hindering learning?

Mobile Learning is the next big thing!

We need to gamify that content to engage the learners!

Stunning bite sized e-learning will promote just in time learning on the job!

 

Sometimes these days when I listen to all of the chatter at conferences, online and at meeting and events etc  about the world of Learning and Development I can’t help but wonder if we aren’t perhaps just sounding a little bit like the new song by Weird Al

 

Weird Al Yankovic – Mission Statement

 

and I have to admit it worries me.  It sometimes feels to me like the direction of our thinking is being push or nudged in certain directions by the needs and wants of vendors, both of content and systems, rather than being driven by the needs and wants of learners.  This should not be taken to be a criticism of vendors in general (what is it they say ‘some of my best friends are vendors’) , it is their job to promote their products and services as much as they can and to be fair L&D folk seem to love new technology, new ways of connecting and new things to explore, I know I do.  However isn’t in the long run the outcome for the learner and in a lot of cases the organisations they work in what is important.  I see lots of stuff about how new technologies help learners in Higher education, school etc and this seems to be used as evidence that the same things will work in organisations or in other types of learning environments and as I have said before I am not quite so sure that is the case.

I am happy to accept that there are instances of organisations fully implementing these new technologies and having fantastic results, there seems to be a number of ‘case studies’ and ‘anecdotal evidence’ to suggest that it can be successful.  However there also seems to be quite a range of stories out there about it not working for one reason or another, usually because user engagement was an issue, or to paraphrase that statement – staff didn’t want to do organisationally required learning in their own time,  they wanted to do the training in a face to face environment, or they wanted something really hands on, not simulated.

I guess what I am saying here is that flipped learning might be great in K-12, MOOC’s might work for universities, gamification might engage GenY learners, but do these things actually work or work as well in organisational settings, or are the expectations, needs, wants and outcomes of the people we train and the organisations work with, not a great match for some of these things despite what the ‘research’ might say.  After all how unbiased is an article or paper on the virtues of gamificiation if it is written or sponsored by a gamification vendor.

Sure it is great to explore all of the new and wonderful ways in which we can engage learners and provide truly outstanding outcomes for our clients, but in the long run shouldn’t how we deliver learning be based (at least in part) on who the learners want to learn.

 

 

 

Learning Spaces or Spaces to Learn – What can we learn from delivering training to the homeless.

The concept of where and how learning programs are delivered has been on my mind a little bit lately, particularly since a particularly good presentation I attended recently on the interface between homeless persons and training delivery.  One of the key points which was bought up during the presentation and subsequent conversations was the fact that if we take a group of people like those who either homeless or at risk of homelessness, we will tend to find that there are a raft of other issues that sit with and around the issue of homelessness and all of these issues will have a significant impact on the delivery of training programs to people within these groups.  These impacts are things like;

  • a mindset of failure particularly around academic/scholastic pursuits
  • uncomfortableness in traditional learning environments (classrooms)
  • limited ability to travel to get to training venues
  • limited support network
  • possibility of having to move a significant distance from where training is conducted to secure accommodation
  • limited financial means

These issues and a range of others mean that it is difficult if not impossible to deliver training within what could be considered traditional environments.  This means that learning programs need to be adapted and delivered in different ways such as;

  • within the environment where the person already is and is comfortable
  • shorter sessions to allow participants to take care of their other priorities (it is difficult to concentrate from 9-5, but imagine how much more difficult it would be if you were worried about finding a bed for the night)
  • a wide range of learning activities to engage participants in a variety of ways
  • changing assessment models to ensure that all participants are able to display in competence in ways that are most effective for them

The thing is when I started to think about developing and delivering learning programs, particularly workplace programs it struck me that most of the adjustments that I was considering were things that we should be doing anyway.   We spend large sums of money on creating physical spaces for people to learn in, or online platforms delivering state of the art gamified elearning, when in reality the participants are probably going to learn more from a 2 hour session held in the staff room, coupled with solid support tools to allow them implement the things they have learnt.

And to be honest I think the problem might be us, it is far more challenging to deliver training in a staff room, a homeless shelter or a skate park where there are a range of other things happening in the background, than it is to deliver the same training in our lovely state of the art training room.  Walking though an instruction manual or workbook with a participant is far less fun for us than creating sexy video content or gamifiying our learning programs, but does it make the participant more comfortable and able to learn better.

We need to be able to create spaces for people to learn, that fit with what they need, not with what makes us comfortable.

Competency based, Time based or something in between?

I have been involved in a number of conversations recently about training (what a shock), but in particular about how long it takes to train some one.  The easiest answer here seems to be well as long as it takes, different people will learn at different rates so the amount of time it might take me to learn something may be radically different from the amount of time it takes you to learn the same thing.  Now essentially that is the right answer, particularly where we are talking about skills based training, if I am able to demonstrate that I can perform a skill to whatever criteria are necessary then surely I have demonstrated that I am competent and shouldn’t need to spend additional time on ‘learning’ that skill simply because it should take say 5 days to learn that skill.

I have a question though, lets take the example of making a cup of coffee.  I attend an online training course called making a cup of coffee, the course is delivered in a state of the art simulated coffee-making environment, includes a range of videos from the worlds best coffee makers and lots of reading questions to think about. Oh and there is  a ‘skills assessment’ at the end of the course where I have to make a cup of coffee in the simulated environment.  I answer a range of questions about making coffee and do a project on how coffee makers work, well to be fair my project is about how the simulated coffee maker works and my answers are largely regurgitated from the videos and printed materials and it takes me less than a day to complete.  These questions are assessed and found to be satisfactory.  I then undertake the ‘make a coffee skills assessment’ and pass with flying colours.  Am I competent?

Some people would clearly argue yes, of course I am competent I have done all that is required to show my competence in making a coffee, however what happens when I go out into the workforce with my making a coffee qualification, get  job, and find myself confronted with a coffee machine that is utterly unlike the one I have used on every previous occasion (in the simulated environment) and my consumers are much more demanding about their java than my simulated customers ever where, and struggle to manage to make a cup of coffee.  Am I still competent?

Would the situation have been any different if there was a requirement that the course took a minimum of 6 months and 100 hours of placement to complete or are we going to get exactly the same result.  Am I more likely over this extended period of time to encounter situations and equipment and people who stretch my skills then I would have been with entirely online or face to face training plus a practical skills assessment.

When we add to this the added dimension that in most cases I am not undertaking this training alone, but rather as part of a group, a group which has both widely ranging skills and abilities, including how fast they learn, how does that affect not only my competent but the competence of the other members of the group.

 

The first thing to say here is that I am not bashing online training, I like online learning and find it really useful for what it is.

What my focus here is is the question that if we are truly serious about competency based training then  surely we need to recognise that there is for the most part actually a minimum amount of time that it takes someone to become competent in a particular skill.  Now for me whether that time comes from work experience before entering training or through work placement or on the job training is unimportant, what is important for me is that there is minimum amount of time and that that minimum should be part of the recognition of competency.  If you have only ever done 40 hours of work in an aged care facility in your entire life and that was a training placement, then no matter how good the training is you have received I am going to really, really doubtful that you are actually competent across any real range of situations and environments.  There is simply not enough time for you to have experienced enough variety of situations to be able to be competent, even if you have done hours of simulated, intensive, innovatively delivered training to go along side this.  (To caveat this, of course there may be a very small range of people who after this type of training are competent, but in my opinion and experience not many)

 

We need to have a system that ensures that when someone is given a qualification that they are actually competent and one step towards achieving this seems to me to be the concept of mandating at least the level of placement hours that various qualifications need.

That’s what I think anyway.

 

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