Monday, June 28, 2010

Real Learning - what is it?

I came across Charles Jennings's piece the other day titled "Real learning – let’s not confuse it with completing templated exercises." It's quite a fascinating read and I encourage all of you to read through it and think about it. This piece reminded me of my Knowledge Management days as an MBA student, and as an Instructional Design student in thinking about corporate learning. A few nights ago however this piece had relevance in the academia context as well in the form of a discussion about plagiarism/academic honesty (pick whichever term you see fit - glass half-empty/glass half-full - same thing)

Charles writes:
Firstly, let’s clear something up. We shouldn’t confuse what L&D/Training departments spend a lot of their time on with real learning.

Learning professionals spend a significant amount of their time (maybe even the majority) designing and delivering content and then evaluating completions and short-term memory outputs from structured mandatory and compliance training modules and courses.

Although this activity is a necessary and sometimes important one (even if only to keep the CEO and Chairman out of the courts and prison) it has little to do with real learning.

Compliance training is primarily about recording activity and gathering data that can be provided to regulatory or professional bodies or kept for a rainy day.


In the Academic Honesty context, there is a parallel to this. Students, both graduate and undergraduate students, may have to take some sort of 1-credit or no-credit seminar that goes over research and academic honesty. Getting that one credit (or check mark on their transcript if it's not for credit) is the same as getting certified that you've gone through the mandatory training.

Does this mean that learning has not occurred? Charles writes that it all has to do with short term memory, taking a test, and then forgetting about what you learned. While I don't disagree, I don't agree either. My take on this is holding people accountable - how does this training integrate with my day-to-day work? How does one test to make sure I am complying with what I learned in that mandatory training?

If we go back to the plagiarism prevention context, let's assume that the university does its due diligence and makes sure that all students take and pass some sort of academic honesty curriculum. What happens from there? Who makes sure that students stay on the path to academic honesty? Well the answer is quite easy: the faculty who teach courses of course! They are the people who should be diligently keeping an eye out for proper citations, lists of works cited, and keeping an eye out for blatant plagiarism (copy and paste from other sources without credit). Then it's up to a university entity (a writing center perhaps?) and the professor to see if this student was:
(1) not aware of the rules (pretty hard to prove if they passed the seminar)
(2) simply forgot to cite
(3) just didn't care and tried to get away with it.

Once one of these options is determined to be the cause action needs to be taken (remedial training in academic honesty, more help at the writing center, academic probation, whatever).

The fact of the matter is that I've never noticed a consistent application of such academic honesty rules among the faculty. As human beings we are instinctively looking for ways to cut corners (in a good way of course) - to try to get the job done faster, easier, with fewer steps. Plagiarism is certainly faster (even if it's not our own work) and if students think they can get away with it, they aren't stupid! They will try to get away with it. The system needs a way of tracking whether real learning took place, and that's visible in practice. If it's not tracked in practice, the training is useless.

Which brings me back to the original article. Charles writes:

learning is a continuous personal process that isn’t measured by any form of pre- and post-assessment, no matter how sophisticated.

It seems to me that learning CAN be measured, but not ALL learning can be measured. It seems to me that he is talking about life-long learning, something that you don't necessarily do in a class. Something that you do to improve yourself because you want to, not because someone else is telling you that you have to. Learning in a classroom for certification's sake isn't learning - BUT if you tie that learning into tangible work-area benefits and have a system of checks to make sure that the learning is integrated into the work-area, then that classroom learning CAN be real learning.
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