People Come Before Things: A Learning Strategy For A Digital World

Learning Strategy Digital World

by Jacob Hallman

The way students learn is changing in a world of constant connectivity, but that doesn’t mean standards for learning should follow suit. Critical thinking ability, 1:1 investment in students, and time management skills should continue to be the keys for success in education. What we learn should change with the times. How we learn should change with new technology. Our learning habits should never change as they will forever be rooted in discipline, adequate rest, healthy food, and social support. 150 years ago, Harvard founder Charles Eliot realized that US students needed training to act as considerate observers, explore changes happening in the world, and embrace quick decision making to fill new positions in previously undefined careers. This attitude of openness is the key to how humans learn, and Eliot built a new system for a new age rocked by the Industrial Revolution. As for Aristotle, he was a guide on the side helping students apply reason, develop skills in logic, and communicate convincing arguments. Those values still matter today, 100%. Part of the challenge for educating the next generation lies in how to cultivate those sensibilities at scale with new technology. Before technology, the key to success in future educational systems will start with embracing the standards of the past in preparation for the unknown. Comprehension comes before performance on any test score, every day. This is true across industries as well. In music, Grammy award winning producer Quincy Jones wants to work with producers aware of historical context, but standards are devolving:

“…producers now are ignoring all the musical principles of the previous generations. It’s a joke. That’s not the way it works: You’re supposed to use everything from the past. If you know where you come from, it’s easier to get where you’re going.”

If we want to innovate in science, mathematics, engineering, or any other subject, we must learn the best practices of those who came before us. Entrepreneur Mark Cuban had it right when he publicly commented in 2017 about a world where education in the liberal arts will be the preferred field of study in a volatile job market. Students of liberal arts critically examine the past. Pundits, scholars, and think tanks can theorize on the future all they want, but just like in Eliot’s time, young people will have new positions to fill in previously undefined careers. To embrace the future, we must remain committed to classical development and study of acquired knowledge, especially since technical abilities developed today will become obsolete tomorrow. We have an unprecedented array of tools with the emergence of the Internet, and it is critical that students learn how to use them. Strong online learning habits will precede knowledge. The parents and teachers of successful students will stand on the front lines for communicating these values:

Students will learn how to think for themselves.

Critical thinking skills are compulsory. On the Internet, information and misinformation will continue to coexist on the same channels. Students must learn how to evaluate incoming information, consider the origin of the report, and filter out erroneous or fallacious material regardless of whether the insight is convenient or not. Otherwise, learning devolves into a race to the bottom where the loudest voice and most compelling story becomes the truth.

Students will apply discipline in their time online.

Life on the Internet is incessant click bait. Ads and entertainment are synonymously packaged through social media and video content, which are addictive. To learn, students should engage the Internet to learn new languages, to enroll in online courses, to access books, movies, and music, and to conduct research to see what scholars have to say on subjects of study. When engaged in these activities, parents and teachers must train students to stay focused. This starts with avoiding rapid shifts in attention as much as possible.

Students will identify where they spend most of their time.

Ability starts with cultivating a strong sense of self-awareness in young people. Only afterwards can students build on skill sets through Internet connectivity. Furthermore, career choices aren’t a question of passion and following dreams. Teachers and parents owe it to the next generation to help students define and build on what they are good at before giving them resources and access to experts that will stimulate growth. Otherwise, Internet access will provide little guidance to the undirected mind.   These three ingredients form the foundation for meaningful learning. Once complete, solutions to build on a clean and clear mind are in place. Fortunately, there’s plenty of help available! CEO Patrick Brothers leads Navitas on a mission to accelerate innovation in education. He suggests that ‘one size fits one’ as the new way to learn and that this is a distinct shift from the current education system emboldened by Charles Eliot in the 19th century. Eliot would disagree. He saw a world where:

“The natural bent and peculiar quality of every [child’s] mind should be sacredly regarded in [their] education”.

Eliot sensed the power of a child’s unique outlook as something to build on. He was the one who invented the undergraduate major and minor to fit individual learning interests. He just didn’t have the tools to make personalization exist at scale via 1:1 learning. 1:1 learning is the future, and Eliot looked at student development as a matter of faith and God-given ability. The knowledge economy championed by Brothers looks at student development as a market opportunity. Regardless of the point of view, both Eliot and Brothers could recognize the cultivating of the individual mind as an individual process.

The upper class has always invested heavily in the education of their children, but the market opportunity of 1:1 learning combined with the cost savings of scale will make this service available to increasingly large sectors of the population. 1:1 learning will be especially important as families trend toward dual-income middle-class homes with little time to drive their child to the nearest tutoring center. 1:1 learning will be especially important as digital natives grow up in a world of constant connectivity. Getting caring and competent adults as a service for 1:1 learning has been traditionally hard to scale, but prices are coming down quickly. 1:1 learning can affordably accelerate personalization, and there are tremendous advantages to finding a tutor on the Internet.

As technology continues to improve with the eventual arrival of singularity, there will always be an added benefit to working with a teacher tangibly invested in a student’s learning process. Even if an entire human being was successfully replicated and digitized, the difference between a computer and a person will always have an emotional distinction. A human cares about my learning progress. A bot tweets my milestone on my MOOC. Secondly, learning requires that a student fundamentally admits that they have not mastered the content. The embarrassment of that admission can be reduced by finding a tutor online, an individual disconnected from the social stigma of someone in real life that a student might feel judged by. Besides reducing travel time, a third reason for online learning is that it increases efficiency by adding focus to learning sessions via a medium where tutors are literally on the clock. The tutor’s future work opportunity depends on their ability to provide timely input and avoid unrelated tangents. Finally, students can use online learning sessions to freely connect remotely with classmates who can empathize with their learning challenge and help explain subject material directly.

The bottom line is that 1:1 learning with teachers and classmates offers a pragmatic and effective 1-2 punch available within clicks. Having worked in education for 10 years, I see a world where the quality of learning is diminishing because of digital solutions that separate humans from each other and simplify the complex to the point of irrelevancy. This is accented by an ineffective test-bound system teaching a generation of students that the answer matters more than the process of getting to that answer and appreciating the meaning of that answer. As a result, the quantity of knowledge students bring to established college programs is diminishing on an annual basis.

The systems of higher education aren’t changing, but our ability to think independently, stay focused, and increase self-awareness is trending down. It is time for that to change. It is time to make technology a part of the solution by efficiently connecting students with talented tutors. At home, students need adults that can help build effective learning habits. Online, students do not need scalable learning management systems and multimedia interactive curriculums. This is a recipe for diluted learning because knowledge starts with engagement with people first, not technology. Ultimately, successful learning is impossible without the core needs of a student being taken care of in their home.

From the Carter to the Trump administrations, politicians have been sensitive to these changes in society. There is a general sense that it is harder to provide adequate sleep, good food, discipline, and social support to children than it used to be. Some single-parent homes might pull it off with the help of extended family, but there is enough racial and social inequality that not every family could effectively overcome these basic needs for learning. Tomorrow’s leaders need support and development opportunities. They benefit when we provide a strong foundation for them to build on. No matter what learning tools are in place, only when we learn how to take care of our young people can they truly embrace the opportunities around them to excel.

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