Just-in-time learning

About a year ago, Dave Lee at Learning Circuits Blog wrote on why the Help Desk and Customer Service in a company are the best at helping employees or customers learn. His reasons included:

  • generally don't teach courses
  • answer the questions their "learners" have at the time they are in greatest need
  • assess each situation and determine the best course of action to answer the learner's need
  • provide the learner with only the answers they need to overcome the current problems
  • have a database of answers to questions that have been asked before and will likely be asked again
  • have a mechanism for escalating the response when the learner's need is of greater breath than can be resolved immediately.
  • track very specific metrics regarding performance and learner response.
  • often have a follow-up mechanism to determine whether their solution to the learner's need is still working several weeks later and to gain feedback from the learner regarding their experience with the group
  • feed overall questions and needs back to the stakeholder groups who can take action regarding the issue to mitigate the same problem in the future.
  • gather feedback from their stakeholders regarding their effectiveness.
  • push as much of the process and answers pro-actively to their learners in the form of knowledge bases and FAQ as well as anticipatory actions like alerts and job aides.

Quite a few people disagreed with him, saying that many help desks weren't all that good. Even so, note that most of his reasons are associated directly, or indirectly, with feedback: answering questions, tracking performance and responses, follow-up mechanisms, stakeholder feedback (two-way). As noted in "Flow, Games, and Learning", feedback, especially when immediate, is a crucial element of obtaining a state of flow, of intrinsic motivation, especially when that feedback is immediate, or just in time.

Note also that the learners are actively participating in a meaningful process: asking questions, reading knowledge bases, using the information toward their immediate goals.

We could continue analyzing this list and seeing learning "best practices". Isn't it interesting that parts of a company can come up with "best practices" of learning without having studied educational theory? Might it be that business survival pressures can lead to learning systems that work? And when educational systems don't work, might it be that they don't have enough pressure to change. I'm not suggesting that schools should become businesses. Our purposes are different. Still, perhaps we can learn from business "best practices."

With respect to pressure, one difference between businesses and schools is that both the help desk and the customers have a more pressing need to learn than students do, and they have reasons for learning answers to specific questions that students don't have. Take introductory biology, for example. Have you ever used the Krebs electron cycle once in your daily life? At Work? Learning in school is not just-in-time necessary learning: It's learning for possibly (or probably not) necessary future endeavors.

The structure of school "learning" works against facilitating intrinsic motivation. Although re-structuring traditional schools is unlikely, one approach would follow Roger Shank's story-tellling curriculum:

The idea behind the Story-Centered Curriculum (SCC) is that a good curriculum should consist of a story in which students play a key role (for example, VP of Information Security at a financial services company). These roles are selected to be ones that the graduate of such a program might actually do in real life or might need to know about (because he or she will manage or collaborate with someone who performs that role). Students, working in groups, are given detailed information about the simulated company they are working for together with detailed and authentic projects. Supporting materials and resources are available and experts and online mentors are available to answer questions and point students in the right direction on an as-needed basis.

The effect of the SCC model is that as students work through the story to achieve the missions the story puts forth, they learn the critical skills they need to successfully accomplish their tasks. The SCC implements true learning-by-doing, integrating all aspects of real-world tasks, as opposed to teaching skills independently, without context.

Shank gives examples of how the SCC curriculum would work for an MBA program and even for high school:

The SCC is about the elimination of courses in favor of curricula that tell a meaningful story that the student is likely to engage in again after graduation. Now, many high school students are simply preparing for college, and thus one could argue that they take trigonometry in order to take college math. The fact that this isn't really true may not matter in this case. What is important is that we identify some stories that the student might want to live in high school because they may come up again. Here are some examples: running a small business, working on a political campaign, building a house, designing a city, running an organization, being a parent, creating an invention, making a discovery, convincing an organization to do things differently. Now, these are not normally thought of as courses in high school. However, looked at closely, they would entail calculating, planning, reasoning, dealing with societal issues, basic psychology, basic economics, dealing with historical issues, communicating in written and oral fashion, teamwork, research and nearly every other subject normally taught in high school (and quite a few that are not.)

Unlike traditional curricula, such a curriculum can have clear goals that give immediate and contextualized feedback on one's learning. To read more on the story-centered curriculum, see Shank's white paper Every curriculum tells a story (pdf).

So now I'm wondering how the SCC curriculum might be adapted for first-year composition. The problem is that the SCC curriculum is for programs not individual courses and Shank notes that not even all programs fit into an SCC curriculum because they don't have well-defined career goals. Generally speaking, first-year composition doesn't have career goals because it's a general education course designed to prepare students to write in more advanced classes and eventually in their widely disparate careers. So, I need to think about this a bit. If you have any ideas about turning composition courses into stories based on career goals, email me.