Online Learning Takes a Page From a Two Thousand Year Old Teaching Method

08/29/2016 07:00 pm ET

Barry Kayton, co-founder of edtech company Cognician, was always the facilitator everyone liked when he led a seminar at University of Cape Town. His popularity had nothing to do with modern methods, casual settings, or adding a social media component to the course. Rather, his popularity came from a two-thousand year old instructional model used by the likes of Socrates and Aristotle: the master-sage relationship.

Learning, whether it’s an intimate seminar with a handful of students, or an e-learning environment with hundreds spread across the country, should be based on three principles, says Kayton. Those are to start out with what the student already knows, to focus on what they are passionate about, and to provide them with questions that change how they think about the subject.

Educators can take a lesson from the ancients and realize that you will impart more wisdom by asking questions than you will by answering them. That’s why, in Kayton’s view, today’s more common information-centric approach to education, and in e-learning in particular, has become woefully outdated.

Changing expectations

It’s easy for an e-learning system to provide information, but can it truly engage the students? Can it ask them questions to help them think about a problem in a new way?

The very first e-learning environments were purely information-based, and little more than electronic textbooks with question-and-answer sections. Students quickly demanded more, as they became accustomed to things like Siri and Alexa that make the computer more human. Today, students don’t just want e-learning systems to provide them with information, they want the system to truly engage with them.

It’s not yet possible to scan a literature professor’s brain and encapsulate it into software, but we can have the next best thing. And remarkably, the technology is not that difficult. Combining three essential elements for success – inspiration, guidance, and follow-through – Kayton’s team has created a system that promises to dramatically change the face of corporate and academic learning. “Those three elements are a formula for change,” says Kayton. “We can provide inspiration through video, with powerful speakers and short videos that inspire people to change. We can provide guidance through coaching questions which ask users to think about the projects they’re working on, the teams they are working with, and the goals they are trying to achieve. That raises the level of awareness and consciousness that they are bringing to their work. And then, we cask them to commit to a behavior change, and follow that up with an email reminder a week later.”

Artful Intelligence, not Artificial Intelligence

We have become accustomed to, and expect, new levels of personalization from our computers. We can ask Siri, “Hey Siri, find me a good movie close to home,” and Siri will answer in a friendly voice and tell you what’s playing. And although it may seem a little like artificial intelligence, it’s nothing more than voice recognition and scripted responses. It works, because it approximates human interaction. 

Kayton’s approach with Cognician adds the wisdom of the ages to modern e-learning, with a similar type of scripted intelligence he calls “artful intelligence.” Kayton gives an example, saying “It’s artful in the sense that we have worked with business coaches for example, who have been through conflict management sessions and have recognized that there are certain patterns that come up. We extracted the types of questions they ask, and made those available as a script that people can work through.” The system doesn’t just provide information – it asks questions that are designed to make the student think.

When the educational system asks questions, it relies on those patterns for realism. “Often what we’ll find are clients who want to ask a very academic question, like ‘describe this,’ or ‘name that.’ Our litmus test is, would you ask that question if you were sitting at a coffee shop across from your friend? And we ask the question in that way. We call it the coffee shop style.”

“What you really want is learners to figure things out for themselves. The problem with software that does it for you, is that it doesn’t raise your maturity level. If software is doing stuff for you, you’re not going to learn to do it for yourself.” Kayton uses a conflict management module as an example. “When users are going through the module, they are learning to ask the right questions. One of the questions you would need to ask yourself, is how does the other person view the conflict? An immature leader will not do that. Once our system has asked you that question two or three times, it becomes part of your makeup. We call this the master-apprentice relationship. That’s the way learning happened before Gutenberg invented books. Learning was primarily a master-apprentice relationship where you would learn from the master, who would have unique questions that he or she would ask, and you learn to absorb the questions from an accomplished expert. And those become the questions you ask, and you stand on the shoulders of giants and figure out new questions that take you in new directions. Then you pass those onto your apprentices. That’s the way it used to happen, and that’s the way our software works.”

It’s not likely that college professors and corporate instructors will become obsolete any time soon, but with e-learning systems that go beyond basic information conveyance to truly engage students and make them think, the possibilities for expanding meaningful education to a broader audience are endless.

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