norman notes

May 15, 2006

Informal Learning

Informal learning, that's what we call the learning that takes place out of school. I just spent a day at the Science Museum in London where the staff prided themselves on the social interaction among the museum goers. To me, the most fascinating exhibit was a simple quiz game.

People sat around a circular table, each seat having a button to push, and a dish-size disk they could spin. A computer projector was directly overhead, projecting an image on the table, displaying the game and, on top of each dish and button, whatever meaning it was meant to have at that moment.

So, not only was the technological wonderful — interacting with a computer without being stuck in front of a big screen, keyboard, and mouse, but the game was fascinating.

The table image explained some new technological concept, say the ability to embed chips in children, so that satellite systems could track them and parents would always know where their kids were. The fun began with the quiz: Is this a good idea? Should parents be allowed to do this? Would kids allow it?

You spun the plate to select the answer you wanted to give, then pushed the button. But the clever part was that everyone could see everyone else's answer, so that the participants would start discussing the issues with one another, sometimes friends against friends, sometimes one group of strangers with another, sometimes parents with their children. (Footnote: Link to London Science Museum website.)

photo of game at London Science Museum

(My photograph of the game at the London Science Museum, taken June, 2001. Only 2 people playing [my photography got in the way]. Click here or on the picture to see a larger image. The projector is above, pointing down at the table [and not visible in this picture]. The game has 8 playing positions: Note "turn" instructions centered over the rotating dish.)

So, here is a simple game, motivating, interesting. It imparts some real knowledge, and afterwards, the participants can discuss and debate it.

It uses high-technology, but intelligently. It doesn't flaunt the technology — in fact, participants don't think of it as technology, they think of it as fun, a quiz where they learn, that they enjoy, and that they recommend to their friends. Notice too that the procedure exploits social interaction. There you go: exams that teach, technology that is hidden, exploiting social interaction and discussion.

Children, we are told, have short attention spans, caused, of course, by the prevalence of games and TV and commercials in our society.

Nonsense.

Watch people at video games. You can't tear them away. More importantly, they truly are exercising their minds. They problem-solve. They take notes, read books of hints and strategy. They save the game state, try out a new course of action, and if it doesn't work, return to the saved game state. And they form social communities, sharing hints, tips, and methods. Many of you will understand, for you do it too.

Video games aren't restricted to children. Today, the average age of a game player is pretty much the average age of the population, and women play almost as often as men. Different games, perhaps, but games nonetheless.

The only problem with games is that the skills are either for make-believe worlds, often violent, or for sports: skate boarding, skiing, tennis, baseball, football, motorcycling. Nothing wrong with sports, and as the games get better and better, controlled by real skateboards, motorcycles, and so on, they can be quite effective at teaching the skills required to do the real thing. The military uses games in real training, as does the aviation industry, except they don't call them games, they call them "simulators." One person's simulator is another person's game. The important point is that they teach: effectively, efficiently, and well. And students enjoy them.

"But," you may be saying, "that's all very well for simple things, or for sports, but what about for learning the really hard stuff, subjects that take time to master and that are more abstract, such as writing, literature, history, or math?" I believe the same principles apply to almost any topic. Obviously one game does not fit all people or all topics. But any time you get this amount of interest, this amount of sustained, concentrated attention, it is worthy of study. Actually, there already are a number of examples of games that help teach literature or arithmetic, city planning or evolution, history or geography. We need a lot more sustained research and development of these ideas (and note that development is always more expensive and, in some ways much more difficult, than research).

We, as a nation, don't spend anywhere near the amount on education that we spend on games. And we don't get the same kind of energy, of commitment, and of excitement that we find on the game field.

The Lessons from Science Museums and Computer Games

Museums and video arcades exploit similar themes: meaningful activities, learning that takes place invisibly, not as the objective, but naturally, effectively. Exploiting social interaction and discussion. Participants don't think of themselves as interacting with technology, they think they are doing something interesting: discussing an interesting topic, playing basketball, riding a jet-ski, skateboarding. They exploit social interaction and cooperation. The result is high intense concentration, true learning, with people anxious to go back and do it again, paying for it out of their own money.

People learn many things, if only they care about the topic. People are hungry for learning, as long as it isn't called education. Hence book groups, discussion groups, and clubs of all sorts.

The future of education is outside of education. It is in the everyday life. In business, in the world. In life long learning. But the principles can be applied inside of formal education as well. They require a change in thinking, to move toward problem-centered, meaningful activities in the classroom. To exploit people's interests and subvert them to lead to natural, inspired learning activities. To exploit group interactions and social themes. To change teachers into guides and mentors. And to recognize that education should take place over a lifetime, not just in the formal classrooms of the first few decades of life.

You already know all that, right? That's exactly what you have just been taught. The hard part is making it happen, and that's where you will need all the skills you have learned: social change, social policy, human psychology, and human development. It is not going to be easy.

Wonderful! Nothing like important challenges to get you going, eh?

The Ever-Increasing Pace of Change

Once upon a time it was possible for everyone to learn the topics of a culture. After all, things changed slowly, at a human pace. During maturity, children learned of what had gone before, and from then on, they could keep up with changes. The technology changed slowly. Moreover, it was mechanical, which meant it was visible. Children could explore it. Teenagers could disassemble it. Young adults could hope to improve it.

Once upon a time technological evolution proceeded at a human pace. Crafts and sports evolved over a lifetime. Even though the results could be complex, the reason behind the complexity could usually be seen, examined, and talked about. The technology could be lived and experienced. As a result, it could be learned.

Today, this is no longer possible. The slow evolutionary pace of life is no longer up to the scale and pace of technological change. The accumulation of knowledge is enormous, for it increases with every passing year. Once upon a time, a few years of schooling — or even informal learning — was sufficient. Today, formal schooling is required, and the demands upon it continually increase. The number of different topics that must be mastered, from history and language to science and technology to practical knowledge and skills is ever-increasing. Once a grade-school education would suffice for most people. Then high-school was required. Then college, post-graduate education, and even further education after that. Today, no amount of education is sufficient.

Scientists no longer are able to keep up with advances even within their own field, let alone in all of science. As a result, we are in the age of specialization, where it is all one person can do to keep up with the pace in some restricted domain of endeavor. But with nothing but specialists, how can we bridge the gaps?

The new technologies can no longer be learned on their own. Today, the technology tends to be electronic, which means that its operation is invisible, for it takes place inside of semi-conductor circuits through the invisible transfer of voltages, currents and electromagnetic fields, all of which are invisible to the eye. A single computer chip may have ten million components, and chips with 100 million components are in the planning stage: who could learn such things by disassembly, even were disassembly possible? So too with computer programs: a program with hundreds of thousands of lines of instructions is commonplace. Those with millions of instructions are not infrequent.

Worst, the new technology can often be arbitrary, inconsistent, complex, and unnecessary. It is all up to the whim of the designer. In the past, physical structures posed their own natural constraints upon the design and the resulting complexity. But with information technologies, the result can be as simple or complex as the designer wills it to be, and far too few designers have any appreciation of the requirements of the people who must use their designs.

Even when a designer is considerate of the users of the technology, there may be no natural relationship between one set of designs and another. In the physical world, the natural constraints of physical objects meant that similar tools worked in similar ways. Not so in the world of information: Very similar tools may work in completely different — perhaps even contradictory — ways.

We human beings are a complex mixture of motives and mechanisms. We are sense-making animals, always trying to understand and give explanations for the things we encounter. We are social animals, seeking company, working well in small groups. Sometimes this is for emotional support, sometimes for assistance, sometimes for selfish reasons, so we have someone to feel superior to, to show off to, to tell our problems to. We are narcissistic and hedonistic, but also altruistic. We are lots of things, sometimes competing, conflicting things. And we are also animals, with complex biological drives that strongly affect behavior: emotional drives, sexual drives, hunger drives. Strong fears, strong desires, strong phobias, and strong attractions.

This is exactly the approach that should be taken in response to human error: redesign the system to fit the people who must use it. This means to avoid the incompatibilities between human and machine that generate error, to make it so that errors can be rapidly detected and corrected, and to be tolerant of error. To "blame and train" does not solve the problem.

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