Logs, lectures, and learning

In a discussion on LinkedIn, someone asked what the “killer app” for elearning would be.  My response:

Maybe it’s an application that automatically crashes if you have ten page-turner screens followed by five multiple-guess questions. Or if you even think of including a Jeopardy-style game.

While I understand the desire for a killer app, I think that it’s almost impossible to see beforehand.  To reach way back to 1979, no one anticipated that the thing to pry personal computers out of the hands of engineers and hobbyists would be VisiCalc, the great-grandparent of spreadsheets.

What made VisiCalc a killer app was a goal essentially outside the world of computer engineers and programmers: an ordinary business person who had something of value to accomplish could do that without having to know anything (much) about creating hardware or software.

Another comment in that discussion on LinkedIn says that “one of the Greek philosophers” defined the art of learning as “what takes place when a very young man sits on one end of a log, listening to a very old man on the other end.”

I’m pretty doubtful.  Aristotle may have been a killer philosopher, but as Bertrand Russell said, Aristotle also believed that women have fewer teeth than men do.  “Although he was twice married,” Russell noted, “it never occurred to him to verify this statement by examining his wives’ mouths.”

More seriously, I think some learning can begin in that mythic setting, but only if what the old man says sparks activity in the brain of the young man.  Otherwise, you’ve got log-based lecture, not necessarily the most fertile ground for learning.

If you moved from Greek philosophers to Benjamin Bloom, you’d be talking about something like the receiving level of the affective domain (passively paying attention) or the knowledge level of the cognitive domain (knowledge of facts, terms, and so on).

I’m not fulminating about lecture per se; there are plenty of situations in which a non-interactive vehicle like a book, a podcast, or a video can foster learning.  Almost always, I think, that’s in combination with things like deliberate reflection, trial-and-error, support in the form of models or cognitive strategies, guidance in the form of procedures–

In other words, a range of approaches and tools appropriate to the learner, to the knowledge and skills, and to the context in which the learner wants to apply them.  For me, “killer application” isn’t a synonym for “cool software;” what it really means is “putting learning to work and getting learning to work.”

3 thoughts on “Logs, lectures, and learning

  1. let us not forget that we are talking about “killer APPS”, which means APPLICATIONS. Comes from the word “apply”, which infers that we don’t care as much about the tool – or an idea, or the facts or a new skill – but how that tool/idea/fact/skill tool is used in practice. Those that change the way we get things done are killer.

    If you stop and think about it, lectures themselves were a killer app, in their day – they extended the sitting on the log model of mentor and student to (point to point) to teacher and students (point to multipoint).

    thanks for raising the question

  2. Ellen, when I worked on a huge client project to train 2,500 salespeople, one of the goals was to train them in standard office software (word processing, spreadsheets, etc.).

    My mantra was, “They’re applications. Apply them.” That means not wasting the learner’s time with useless field trips (this is the name field, this is the address field, this is the phone number field). Instead we aimed to have people do things that looked like useful work to them–with the software.

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