From Collectors to Learners
Two years ago I sat grappling with a personal dilemma. I was trying to learn a glacier-sized piece of technology in the bits of free time in my daily routine. The situation wasn’t hopeless, but somewhat daunting. I had to admit to myself that in spite of a career as a “learning technologist,” I was personally a terrible learner (somewhere between Scout and Tenderfoot). The reason was simple: I have the attention span of a housefly. For me the act of reading anything more complex than a post-it note is an event that starts with idle speculation and escalates to flights of fancy or failed attempts to revamp Western philosophy.
Now, to be fair to myself, the by-products of all this have been some decent ideas: a software app that expanded into a business that supported a small family, some new learning system concepts, and over a hundred bits of speculative fiction that I’m really going to polish up someday. Honest. But these were happy distractions, and the problem remains.
The good news for me is that there is a condition in which I do learn better: that is when I’m creating—building something. The creative act seems to focus my mental energies productively. That fact alone propelled me into the “constructionist” camp long ago, that branch of learning theory that seems to support the attention-challenged. The first two sentences from the Wikipedia definition:
“Constructionist learning is inspired by the constructivist theory that individual learners construct mental models to understand the world around them. However, constructionism holds that learning can happen most effectively when people are also active in making tangible objects in the real world. In this sense, constructionism is connected with experiential learning, and builds on Jean Piaget’s epistemological theory of constructivism.”
I’ll go with that. Especially the “tangible objects in the real world” part. It’s exactly what works for me. So, reflecting again on the problem of how I was going to make myself a better learner, I decided the obvious answer was to create something that would help everyone become a better learner. A bit ambitious, but I had some history in the application development arena.
I turned to the Internet to see what was out there. A cursory exploration found a variety of what I’ll call “aggregators”–applications that enabled the user to find images, text, videos …anything findable, and assemble these objects in ways that could be organized and retrieved easily. Of course the aggregator industry is alive and well today. Driven by social media, anyone can share thoughts, videos, photos, and so on. And some learning applications capitalize on these processes. Nonetheless, it seemed clear that the collection and sharing of learning objects was a good start—but only that.
What was the process through which one would transform a collection into deeper learning? And how could that process be supported and enhanced?
I needed a model. I spent several days sketching, drawing circles and lines, labeling, and revising. I wanted some kind of acronym, however arbitrary, if only to help me remember the processes represented. Eventually, I came up with A.D.O.B.E. (not the wall clay or software company). It breaks down this way:
Assemble means collect, the place where the aggregators begin.
Decode means “make this thing make sense to me.” It would include defining terms, breaking difficult concepts into simpler ones, creating analogies, illustrations, and so on, until the idea was clear.
Organize means develop a structure with clear distinctions among the parts.
Build means add new content, new flesh to the skeleton over time. In short, “keep it alive.”
Expand means deepen. Not necessarily new content, but the addition of clarity and precision to the content already present, with focus on application to real world problems. In learning terminology, elaborative rehearsal: “thinking about the meaning of a term or concept.” Yes, this could mean a revisiting of the “decoding” compartment.
In practice, this is an iterative process, not a linear one. A learner might focus on any element independently and with varying emphasis.
This of course isn’t a general model of learning. It’s an attempt to create a model for the enhanced support of learning in the constructionist mode. And it naturally lends itself to connected and collaborative learning.
Now, model in hand, the next step was to generate a list of features that would support it in some way. The original list was nearly 100 and, today, there are at least that many more in the “wish list.” I found partners; we found a software engineering crew, and following an estimated $1M in development, we arrived at a product called iPedago EVOLUTION.
At heart is the foundational belief that all of us learn best by building and creating—especially when our goal is to help others. Today the world is connected in ways we barely imagined even a few decades ago. Putting these two observations together, one sees that teaching ourselves and teaching others can be a single, integrated enterprise.