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Learning is Still the Same

By Roger C. Schank / January 2010

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Comments (5) Instapaper

People get confused by technology especially when that technology is applied to learning.

I am planning a new kind of first grade these days and was asked recently if what I was planning to do relied on new technology in an important way. I responded that Plato suggested building what I will be building, more or less. What has technology to do with learning?

The Edge Annual Question this year asked, "How the internet changing the way you think?" I answered that people haven't changed how they think in 50,000 years.

Additionally, there have been a few pugnacious comments and tweets about my suggestion on this web site that perhaps mobile phones aren't a great place to deliver year-long courses.

So let me be clear: Learning is learning and technology is technology. The two are related if and only if the technology makes it possible to learn something that can be learned in no other way.

Distance learning was around a long time before e-learning used the technology of printing and the U.S. Postal Service. It was a watered down version of school. E-learning is quite often also a watered down version of school. Whether it relies on computers, mobile devices, or any other technology the question is, "Is it any better than what it replaced?"

"Better" ought not be defined by ease of access, or speed of transmission, or by the possibility of being in the jungle while taking a course. There's only one question about the things we design that are supposed to enable learning, namely, are they any good?

Learning hasn't changed and it won't change any time soon. This is what learning is:

1. You have a goal.
2. You try to accomplish that goal.
3. You have some difficulty.
4. Through some means—introspection, intervention by another, access to information, whatever—you figure out how to rectify what you were doing wrong.
5. You accomplish the goal.
6. The next time you don't make the same mistake.

That's it. That's all there ever was to learning.

Note that, in my definition, classrooms have nothing to do with learning at all. And, courses have very little to do with learning either. Technology only comes into play when it can facilitate step 4.

People in e-learning who care about learning, as opposed to caring about satisfying the requirements of a client who is pretending to do education or training, need to ask the following question:

How can technology facilitate step 4?

To put this more clearly:

How can technology facilitate access to information or expertise at just the moment when a learner, frustrated by his failure to attain a goal, needs help?

This would include access to a mentor who might not actually answer the learner's question, but just might help him think the issue out better. And, it might include access to other learners who could do the same. It is the possibility of access to information just in time that is what's exciting about e-learning.

Now I hear the mobile learning people saying that that is what's exciting about mobile learning and my response is that they have missed the point.

The way in which technology can change the world of education does not lie in its ability to ease access of information. It does that to be sure. But our education system has never had much to do with learning. The steps that I described above relate in no way to how school actually functions and they have little to do with training as well. The real role of technology in education is to change the playing field for real learning.

How does a learning goal get set in the first place? If it gets set by a school system that demands so many credits in so many courses, it's clear that learning goal-driven learning has been thrown out the window. Technology allows us to change that state of affairs. We can set up situations that cause students to have goals that they become interested in achieving. These goals should be something more significant than pleasing the teacher or getting a good test score. Goals need to relate to things that people really do want to learn how to do. Goals are about accomplishment. You don't need technology to do that.

We need technology to change the face of education because what is there now is so bad and so unchangeable. Really, we could create a fine education system without any technology at all. We simply have the means to do better stuff now because people are more willing to accept new ideas if they are on a computer, and the ideas can spread more easily on a computer.

People are less willing to accept new ideas in education if they make teachers in classrooms behave differently. In the age of endless test scores and dull as dust e-learning courses, the e-learning community needs to learn to fight back. It can fight back by building stuff that helps people learn how to do things that they really want to learn how to do, and by not getting confused about what the technology really enables.

Let's think about learning more and cool technologies less.


  • Thu, 22 Jul 2010
    Post by Darla

    I have been researching various instructional technology programs and discovered that each school offers a different curriculum. Which courses are best when determining a graduate school for instructional design, educational technology, etc. I really need to know because I'm planning to start my Masters program next year and do not wish to waste my time or money pursuing a valueless degree.


  • Thu, 13 May 2010
    Post by Frank Crawford

    "Let's think about learning more and cool technologies less." Could not agree more, Roger. When presenting I often ask audiences (principals, education administrators, teachers, ed techies ...) what their core business is. We get round to agreeing it is learning. Then ask them to tell the person next to them what learning is. The pregnant pause is deafening.

  • Tue, 02 Feb 2010
    Post by Peyton Williams

    Thank you for this insightful piece. I have spent the last ten years in the field of education: my first three years teaching history and English at a boarding school in VA and then 7 years working with public schools in NYC. I am now in my 2nd year at the Boston University School of Management and am exploring different options for using my new skill set to improve the field of education. I really enjoyed the book Disrupting Class by Clayton Christensen and am interested in exploring opportunities that combine education and technology. Your piece does a great job of framing some of the important issues.

  • Tue, 02 Feb 2010
    Post by Richard Oppenheimer


    Of course my Comment Title is meant to be funny, but we are clearly on the same page and have been ever since I created the first generally-available interactive course for a large computer company in the mid-1980's when their technology was invented by some very talented people. We had been using the video disc for several years to train our service techs, and it was a fine way to do that as these employees came out of the field and were clearly visual learners. The use of these discs in their lab work was invaluable as it provided them unlimited opportunities to repeat the required procedures for as long as it took them to learn the material. I had been teaching a task analysis class every week for a few years and was very tired of the expensive travel and the constant repetition, so, with some major help, we transformed the class into the first interactive course for our employees. While the technology changed very quickly, with authoring tools and LMS environments coming online almost monthly in those days, my most important lesson in this project was what you have so clearly stated in this article. As I constantly tell my various "bosses" in my work, NOTHING HAS CHANGED. Learning is learning, and the good news is that ongoing research into areas such as learning and teaching styles has offered us some new ways to approach course and curriculum design. Technology, when properly employed, does offer learners the opportunity to learn at their own pace and using their preferred methodology for a given learning event, but the basics have not changed at all. Sometimes these bosses, and even my peers, regard me as not having "caught on" to the e Learning movement. I assure them that I "caught on" in long before there was any technology available. But, after using the technology for the past 25 years or so, I haven't changed my mind at all. I hope those who read your article will not be overwhelmed by the technology, grasp the obvious, and not loose sight of the basic tenants of learning and design.



  • Tue, 02 Feb 2010
    Post by Jason Wilkes

    An excellent article. Technolgy is merely an enabler to facilitate learning and lets face it, everyone thought the Wii was the next best thing - turns out doing house cleaning uses more calories than Wii Fit!