Expanding Our Concept of Learning

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I was talking with a coworker of mine the other day about the relationship between communication and learning. I was trying to make the argument that communication, by its very nature, is all about learning; that unless you expect the person on the receiving end of the communication to learn something (defined by changing their behavior, attitude or responding to an inquiry), the communication would be pointless.  I started by using obvious examples of communication and learning such as an interactive kiosk at a museum or a newspaper article on the week’s local events.  I then went on to expand the concept to include communicating experiences and emotion as a way of learning (for instance, showing a video of a gruesome car accident in order to teach teenagers about the dangers of drinking and driving).  As our discussion continued, I pointed to a company sales conference and a coach’s pre-game speech as another form of learning, to which my coworker said, “but most people don’t associate those things with learning.”

He was right of course.  Ask most people what they think about when they hear the word learning and the responses will center on school, homework, seminars and training, in other words very formal and prescribed.    Traditionally, learning and the application of what has been learned have been considered distinct events, usually occurring at two different times. However, advances in technology and today’s mobile devices are creating many situations where learning and applying what has been learned can happen simultaneously.

Take for instance the book Eat This, Not That, by David Zinczenko and Matt Goulding, which compares the number of calories in various food choices.  It is an Interesting book and an interesting idea.  But how often will you have that book with you when you are standing in line at McDonalds® trying to decide what to have for lunch?  Typically, you would have to remember what you had read the night, week or maybe even month before.  But, having access to this information on a mobile phone that is with us all the time and easily accessible is much more practical.  Certainly, most would consider reading a book on how to eat healthy a learning endeavor, yet would they consider accessing the same information on their smartphone learning as well?

The point is, technology is helping us make learning more contextual and at the time of need.  Zite is a new iPad app that is a personal news aggregator.  It selects news articles from around the world based on user preferences and then improves suggestions by tracking the user’s reading patterns and looking for additional content that matches those patterns.   Take this concept a step further and suggestions could be based on the time of day.  For instance, in the morning over a cup of coffee, I may want to catch up on general news (local, state, national, etc.).  Over lunch I may be more interested in reading technical publications that relate to my job and in the evening I might be more interested in entertainment news.  If I travel, the news could automatically be customized to provide key happenings in the city I am visiting.

Another form of learning is keeping people informed when time is of the essence.  Think of tsunamis or tornados; events that are devastating and that can occur very quickly, seemingly out of nowhere.  There are amber alerts to notify people of child abductions. Communicating imminent danger quickly and efficiently can save lives.

Try this exercise over the next couple of days. As you go about your daily tasks at home and work, pay attention to the information you gather and also the information you use.  How far apart are the gathering and use of a particular piece of knowledge and then consider if there is a way to close that gap.  Is there some way using today’s mobile technology to provide the necessary information more directly at the time of need?  For example, I have recently been trying different task list programs for my mobile phone.  These programs are able to sort to-dos by priority, due date or some other property and virtually all of these programs are able to signal some type of reminder based on a date or time of day.  But for me, a really valuable feature would be to prioritize my tasks or send reminders by location.  If I am in the grocery store, I don’t need to see a list of all the phone calls I need to make, but it might be nice to get a reminder that I need to pick up a prescription next door at Walgreens.

By thinking of communication and learning as more synonymous, there become many more ways to integrate learning into your company or organization, providing numerous benefits in terms of productivity, accuracy and efficiency.

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John is the Managing Partner for Float Mobile Learning. He has over 18 years of experience in helping clients change to be more successful and helping those clients navigate those changes. He works with Fortune 500 organizations to help them define and design learning strategies with a focus on mobile learning. His client list includes Caterpillar, Anheuser-Busch, Museum of Science and Industry and Pioneer Hi-Bred, a subsidiary of DuPont.

John is a member of both the E-Learning Guild and ASTD where he is active in speaking about both eLearning and mobile learning topics.

» Pedagogy and Learning » Expanding Our Concept of Learning
On March 17, 2011
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