Ed-tech: solving problems or creating problems to solve?

This week J. Michael Spector’s quote, “Tools and technology strongly influence our habits of thinking, and that should be recognized in the world of educational technology” struck me (123). Quite frequently, we think about how technology affects our behaviors: from exercising more while wearing Fitbits to feeling compelled to multitask (a myth) when we plug into multiple devices. The recent rise of audiobooks sales suggests more of us are using these services while doing other things (running, driving, laundry). We also wonder how technology affects our health: whether we spend more time indoors in front of screens, and how the constant exposure to screens affects our eyesight and sleep cycles. We care about how these changes impact the development of children, and some scholars, most notably Nicholas Carr of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, pontificate on how technology impacts our memory, reading habits, and productivity. More rarely do we really stop to think how our process of learning has changed through technology. We forget to ask how technology has impacted what it means to know and what it means to learn.

Whether the goal is to learn or to solve problems directly impacts the technological solution and how instructional designers choose instructional technology. One technology might be best for reinforcing knowledge, whereas another might relieve cognitive load by providing on-demand information, thereby sidestepping the need to think.

Also this week, we read about the field of Human Performance Improvement, performance supports, and informal learning, and it occurred to me that HPI and performance supports are at cross purposes with technology used for informal learning, especially when it comes to the underlying learning theories of both.

stirlings-job-aidsPerformance supports are just one intervention HPI practitioners can implement to provide on-the-job, just-in-time support. Both work to replace traditional training programs to save time and money and increase return of investment. Whenever I think about job aids, I think of my barista job at the university coffee shop. Since it was college, there was a high turnover rate of employees (graduation, schedule changes, changes in work-study programs), and the manager needed to ensure we all knew how to make 20+ specialty drinks, a variety of sandwiches, and how to make chicken salad from scratch. All over the counters, on storage lids, and on shelves were instructions and recipes. Eventually, we all knew frequent order by heart, and we all smelled like curried chicken salad when we came home. Those performance supports helped us crank-out drinks quickly, but they didn’t help us really learn. Only through repetition did the knowledge stick.

Informal learning, however, puts learners in problem-saturated contexts and leaves them the resources to sort it out themselves (more or less). Whether these contexts are lunchtime conversations where employees share and discuss problems or museums where a new environment holds “magical”* objects, the learner is informally introduced to problems and asked to help solve them or incorporate them into existing schema.

Both uses of technology should be seamlessly incorporated into the work environment, and both provide alternative solutions to classroom training solutions. Neither is inherently better than the other, but instructional designers should implement one or the other depending on whether the goal is to solve problems or help create problems (or maybe just raise awareness of problems) to be solved.



Screenshot from Tiki-Toki

Finally, learning is slow. We forget that because many times we want instant results. We recognized the need for knowledge, but too often don’t put in the time and effort to deeply know a topic. Since performance supports provide fast answers, they are often working against deep knowledge. In fact, that is one of the stated disadvantages: users will become dependent on them. After my time at Stirling’s Coffee House making drinks, I wouldn’t say people never learn where job aids are present. My concern is making sure these supports can fade away into the background once learners are more experienced.
Take for example, the online timeline creator Tiki-Toki’s admin guide. No matter how many entries you make, that guide pops up and becomes increasingly annoying. Instructional designers using performance supports should carefully consider Figure 15.3 from Chapter 15 “Performance Support” by Frank Nyugen in Trends and Issues in Instructional Design and Technology.


* Allison Rossett and Bob Hoffman in Chapter 17 “Informal Learning” of Trends and Issues in Instructional Design and Technology state, “Not magical in the supernatural sense, but rather as a prevalent mode of human thinking that ascribes a transfer of power or energy through proximity with celebrated people or objects” (173).

One response I was not expecting to this week’s reading was the resistance toward performance supports. As one classmate says:

They risk becoming a crutch for the user to constantly refer to. If we stick to defining learning as some sort of acquisition of knowledge that affects a change in behavior of the learner then can we really define the use of performance aids as learning? That is, if the learner isn’t actually attaining some sort of lasting understanding of the task they need the performance aids for, then are they really learning at all? From that perspective it becomes tempting to treat performance support as a sort of cheat sheet. I think the intention should be made clear when providing performance support systems to workers and learners that these systems should be used for a refresher and not as a complete guide to how to do what they need to do. They should be seen as a means to enhance understanding instead of as a means to avoid understanding altogether.

This response then raises the question of whether some knowledge is worth really learning. Performance supports should not be crutches if we ask students to ultimately stand on their own. But not all information is equal, and sometimes a performance support enables deeper thinking while relieving cognitive load.

For instance, when is the last time you purposefully learned a phone number?

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