Learning science and technology … just remember to put the human first


This week I started my Learning Science and Technology programme at the University of Sydney. It seems that the course has attracted some 25 new starters this year, up from 15 in previous years, and this may well be a sign of the increasing interest not only in the “science of learning”, but in the need to develop a more mindful, deliberate and mature approach to the use of technologies to assist that learning.

As I wrote of my MOOC experience I think that our use of technologies, in particular digital, is in its very early phases, and we have a very long way to go in terms of understanding the inter-relationship between digital technologies and learning. Just as the impact of reading and the printing press took decades to fully infuse into society, so digital will take time to mature, but what is most important is not the tools and platforms themselves, but the more general approach to learning science and the ability to infer how digital and data will both support and impact upon this.

A fundamental issue here is how “techies”, those who come from an ICT and engineering background, approach the learning itself. From what I have experienced thus far the focus seems to be all too often on the technology at the expense of the focus on the human, and this happened yet again at our very first session for “Learning Science and Technology” this week. In my opinion the cardinal rules of facilitation were broken by the facilitators doing two things.

Firstly, the evening was scheduled as a three hour, relatively intense and, in reality, unbroken, introductory session. I have always been reminded of the fact that people tire after an hour and a half (and in these days of attention deficit it may be even less!) and I felt this not only in myself, but in others around me, as soon as this period of time was exceeded. Regardless of the content minds begin to wander and people need a break, and this was obvious towards the end when our teacher actually commented on people looking tired.

Secondly, the focus from the outset was the technical stuff, with initial introductions undertaken via an online meeting utilising Adobe Connect, even though most of the participants (bar one of the academics) were physically in the room. Whilst I understand that the course is about technology and learning, and we needed to learn to use the tools, I would question whether this was the best way to do it. What was instructive was to gauge the difference in energy level between the initial session, with its online introductions, and the “getting to know you” exercise in the Design Lab held at the end. As soon as people were given the ability to interact their energy levels rose, regardless of the fact that this came after two hours and people were tired.

Whilst this might have been the intention of the facilitators from the outset, and I’m sure they have done this many times, in my humble opinion these exercises should have been reversed with the initial focus being on the “people stuff” which would have created the initial group dynamic, and then carried the group energy generated from the face-to-face through the entire session. It also would have created a more positive momentum for the technical exercise and facilitated more interaction and engagement.

Call me old fashioned, but regardless of the medium I believe that the art of facilitation is a rare skill, and one that needs to be truly mastered in order to teach in a way that makes a difference to those who wish to learn. Many of the readings we are ploughing through talk about the “science of learning” and I will be interested to see how much also relates to the “magic of teaching”.

For me the real “aha” moment came when Peter Thompson and I were designing one of our workshops and Peter kept asking “but what are we trying to teach?”

What I saw in a flash is that I can stand up in front of a group and deliver lots of information, seem highly knowledgeable about my subject, and convey my passion and enthusiasm with both confidence and integrity. But, what I am trying to teach and what do my audience and students want to learn?

My aim in doing this course is to more ably answer this question, and to bring together the traditional discipline of teaching with the emerging tools and techniques of the digital world.

The successful integration of the “learning sciences” with, and through, technologies will be that of managing different learning spaces in different environments, through different media, for different human mindsets and psychodynamics.  

This is at the very heart of Web Science, and touches on a conversation that I increasingly find myself having with anyone touched by technology and questioning its role in human society. It affects us all and what is most important is that regardless of the outcome we make conscious choices which are informed and considered, rather than lurching towards a future that we may not want.