• Skills: The last frontier for digital learning

    Posted by Admin in Artist News on January 21, 2018

    I’ll cut straight to the point. To most learners and most learning professionals, digital learning is a way to meet requirements for knowledge. Even in its most contemporary forms – responsive, massive, open, mobile, point-of-need, video-based and gamified – the priority is still knowledge, whether that is of facts, concepts, principles, processes, rules, procedures or spatial positioning.

    There is nothing wrong with knowledge per se – we all need a certain amount of it just to get by as human beings. We particularly need it – however temporarily – to pass examinations and thereby gain entry into colleges and our first careers. Beyond that, knowledge is useful in that it provides us with perspectives on the modern world and helps us to understand how it all ticks.

    But knowledge is less important than it once was. Beyond the basics – vocabulary, times tables and the like – the knowledge we really need is what helps us to make sensible use of information. And information is what just about everyone with access to technology now gets as and when they need it from computers, particularly those in their pockets.

    Ignoring this reality, far too many of our formal courses – digital, face-to-face or blended – are still weighed down with knowledge objectives when most of these objectives would be better met with reference materials. Reducing the knowledge burden would allow us to concentrate on the real purpose of training in the workplace – developing skills.

    Skills define us. They are what make us useful and productive. They are the foundation of our achievements. On our death bed, it is our skills that we will reflect on with pride. These could be psychomotor skills – our ability to knit jumpers, drive vehicles, perform gymnastics, play the violin, cook tasty food, swim or make beautiful furniture. They could be social – our ability to make good conversation, present to an audience, flirt with the opposite sex, negotiate deals or handle customer complaints. Or they could be cognitive – our ability to write poetry, perform mental arithmetic, fix faulty equipment, solve crossword puzzles or program computers. Yes, skills are what make us what we are.

    As everyone knows, skills do not come easily. They do require some foundational knowledge, but most of all they depend on deliberate practice over a prolonged period, based on a clear idea of what good looks like and supported by regular, informed feedback. A good face-to-face course will provide many of these features but for nowhere near long enough for the skill to become embedded and for the learner to gain the confidence required to learn independently. With digital courses, we have the potential to prolong the experience, but more often than not we don’t even try.

    There are notable exceptions: simulators allow for repetitive skills practice in highly specialised areas such as surgery or flying a plane; apps such as Duolingo allow for daily rehearsal of language skills; sites such as the Khan Academy allow you to practise maths; Code Academy does the same for programming. But these are sophisticated applications requiring a great deal of bespoke development. Perhaps because of this, most corporate digital learning does not even venture in this direction.
    Yes, it would be nice to be able to invest millions on skills development software but for many of us that will be out of reach. But that should not put you off because there is so much you can do to support skills practice without the benefit of sophisticated simulators and artificial intelligence-driven coaches.

    First off, increase the number of practice activities that you provide as part of your formal courses. Instead of one scenario, offer many, distributed over time and of increasing difficulty.

    If you can, use your interactive software to provide helpful feedback to the learner which will enable them to do better next time. If that is not possible, because the skill cannot be practised on a computer or it is not possible for the computer to provide meaningful feedback, provide a means for learners to get feedback from a coach or from peers. This could happen face-to-face but online we can really open up the opportunities. How about live practice on Skype? Or have the learner video their skills practice and upload it for review.

    One of the reason I’m so passionate about blends is because they allow us to support the learner along their entire skills journey, formally and informally, digitally and face-to-face. OK, so this is harder than putting together a stand-alone classroom or e-learning course but the results are worth it. What’s more important – a vain attempt at cramming knowledge, or a sustained programme of skills development resulting in a transformed human being? I know what I would go for.

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