It’s been almost 20 years since I completed my BA in History at the University of Utah. The experience was outstanding, and I would definitely recommend the U (yes, a shameless plug for my alma mater). But why was it such an outstanding experience? I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately, trying to unpack the experience that led me to where I am today. To this point, I’m going to loosely reference some educational psychology professionals because there is a lot of research that has gone into education as a whole. That is the way folks learn, the value of learning, and what makes learning valuable.
First, there’s how folks learn, or more to the point how adults learn. The brain will take in information from our senses, and process that information using previous experience as a reference. That previous experience can be biased (which really is where our biases exist), but they also help the brain process and make sense of new information. The more that information is repeated, the more likely neurons create a permanent connection, which moves the information from short-term memory to long-term memory. It’s an oversimplification to be sure, but I wanted to point out some things with this process:
- The brain is processing information from all senses, not just a given one. Some may find it easier to process by listening, some by doing, or some by seeing it being done, but this is a preference. The brain processes everything coming in. To this point, I can still recall a lecture from paleoanthropology given by a visiting professor discussing the Neanderthal mastoid process because of the musty smell of the old Mathematics building. All senses are valuable, even those we may not expect.
- What is processed is information, regardless of source. That source can be a book, lecture, video, quiz, exam, research paper, or casual conversation on a walk across campus.
- What’s interesting is that the source itself doesn’t matter. It could be college, high school, trade school, University, post-grad work, graduate degree, or just reading in a library. The brain can learn as long as there’s information to be processed.
- Bias has a huge impact on our ability to learn and gain new skills. Whether it’s a pre-existing bias against the content being taught, challenges to existing knowledge, or experiences that are at odds with the information being processed, biases will tend to filter, influence or down-right negate the information being taught.
If the brain doesn’t care where its information is coming from, why do I cherish my University days so much? It all comes down to the experience. I was a commuter student, much like the majority of those at the University of Utah (not many stay in dorms). I would go to school during the day, spend time in the library studying alone or in groups, walk and discuss questions with other students as we went from one class to another, and continue the learning journey until the evening when I would go to my full-time job to pay tuition. The experience went beyond the classroom and continued into related classrooms. As I took paleoanthropology, a senior seminar on Roman Britain, and followed that up with classes in Latin and Ancient Greek, I got perspectives that I could share with my fellow students, who would share some of the same if not all of the same, classes with me. We formed a loose cohort that remained together as we progressed together. This was, essentially, an ecosystem of experience that we all shared.
Experience ecosystems fascinates me. Apple and Google both have built powerful ecosystems around their platforms for Mobile devices that generate loyalty because of the experience. They tie tools that everyone uses together, such as email, browser, documents, multimedia, etc. within a single experience by making it easier to use together. As a user, you have a solid platform from which you can do what you need or want, and do it much faster and easier than before. This is because Apple, Google, and others look to the full experience from search to purchase to use and find ways to make that process easier.
The current experience in learning is one of two: Liberal Arts, or Certification. Within the Liberal Arts education, you get a wide range of training and experience that can map to multiple career paths, with guidance to a more targeted discipline. Certification takes a targeted and focused approach, be it technical or Graduate-based, by focusing on a single certification at the end of the journey. In either method, a single goal remains: show you have knowledge as certified by a trusted learning institution or industry standard. What happens thereafter is left entirely to the student. The experience of getting to that point is rewarding, but what now? What’s the next step?
Suppose for a minute that a learning experience ecosystem could be developed. An experience in learning that would take someone from where they are (baseline) to where they would like to be and map out the process to get there. I’m not just talking next stage in a career either, I’m talking full map to the final goal(s). This would be a process of mapping out skills for every persona or discipline that someone has or would like to have, and then mapping out the skills necessary to get there. As the skills are mapped and found to overlap, multiple possibilities can be presented based on existing and desired skills and experience. Whole careers could be suggested based on current preferences, or as preferences evolve. Learning now takes an active role in career development, which engages the learner. Now they are learning with a purpose because they know what their career could map out to be if they continue.
There are a lot of pieces that could be plugged into this model, but the framework should be pretty sound. It would be a fascinating project for anyone looking to build a successful engagement for their learners. As far as I’m aware, no one has yet put together a learning experience ecosystem (if anyone can provide an example, please let me know!). So until then, it remains a thought.