Last month, I finished my last course to earn a Master of Science in Education degree from Purdue University. For 19 months, I did what most students do: I attended class, I wrote papers, I offered comments and replied to my peers during class discussion, I asked questions of my professors. I made great friends. But, not once did I set foot inside a classroom. In fact, the first time I saw Purdue’s campus was on the day I received my diploma.
While "attending" Purdue and working as a consultant, I have advised businesses and schools about online education, and I have designed learning environments in virtual space. During this time, here is what I have learned:
1. Learning is distributed.
In one of my earliest projects, I had to work with a partner to create a presentation about a particular learning theory. My partner, Shamila, born in India, was living in Dubai at the time. I would work on our project and go to bed. She would work on our project and go to bed. I’d wake up to find out how she had improved our presentation. Because we lived half a world apart, we built this project on nearly a 24 hour cycle, but more importantly, she offered a perspective I did not have. Knowledge does not reside in any one place.
2. Learning is personal.
In our classes, we often discussed how in order to learn new knowledge or a new skill, a student must see its relevance to his or her life. How many times have we endured a certain class in high school or college, or a training session or seminar at work, where we thought: “When am I ever going to use this?” Without relevance, it’s nearly impossible for a learner to apply knowledge, and by applying knowledge repeatedly to our personal lives or work, we lodge it in our long-term memory. The material to be learned must matter.
3. Learning is a shared experience.
Numerous theorists and researchers explain how learning occurs when shared among people, but you need not be an academic or scientist to understand this principle. Observe children in a group. Give them an iPad, or a puzzle, or marbles, or sticks. You will see the essence of learning: it passes from one person to another. Watch adults in your workplace who really care about their teams: older ones mentoring newer employees or younger ones sharing new ideas and creating new solutions. During our class discussions, many of the instructors and students were actively practicing the craft of instructional design and helped one another to understand the challenges and solutions to real problems. Experience plus knowledge equals wisdom, made more useful when shared.
4. Learning is asynchronous.
Learning happens 24 hours a day. Yes, even when we sleep, as our brains rest and engage in the mysteries of dreaming, we learn. More specifically, humans do not learn when they sit down in a classroom any more than they do when tinkering with a new gadget at home or thinking while on the move. During my Purdue course work, I read when I could. I worked on projects when I could. I wrote papers when I could. And most importantly, I engaged in class discussion when I could, and my classmates in San Francisco, Seoul, and South London had the same opportunity to exchange ideas, on their own time.
Education in the United States will change dramatically in the coming years, but not only in K-12 schools and college. As companies and entire industries change, the marketplace will demand new knowledge and new skills. Because of technology and proper instructional design, your children now are learning in ways not possible in the past, and in the near or distant future, so will you.
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Photo: author’s own- entering the graduation ceremony at Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN.
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