A Controversial View of Meta-Learning

Imagine you are the Chief Learning Officer of a successful high-tech firm in SIlicon Valley. You hear about a new eLearning title, "Mavis Beacon Teaches Reading." It takes four hours to complete. It's self-instructional. It's delivered via the web. A learner can take it in small chunks. It guarantees to improve anyone's reading speed by 20%. It costs $39/person. Would you post this course on your corporate eLearning menu?

Of nearly fifty eLearning professionals presented with this question, not a one would put Mavis into their curriculum. Why? Some did not want to insult employees with something so basic. Others were 100% focused on improving business and customer service skills. Reading skills seem trivial in the grand scheme of things; there's so much everyone already has to learn.

Why wouldn't every CLO jump at an opportunity like this? I blame short-term thinking. If my time-horizon is only a week, investing four hours learning in order to save two hours is a losing deal. It's certainly not worth taking the risk that someone up top might brand me as expendable.

Expand the time-horizon to a year, and the economics become compelling. Today's knowledge worker spends at least two hours of every workday pouring over emails, memos, web pages, newspapers, brochures, journals, notes, presentations, and bulletins. That's five hundred hours a year! The reading course guarantees to save a hundred of those hours. At $40/hour per worker, fully loaded, that's $4,000 saved in the first year alone. A 100:1 payback!

Longer term, the value of improving a process becomes apparent. Process improvement is a gift that keeps on giving. But some people simply do not think this way. One person's process is another person's content. To envision a world of processes requires taking a broader perspective. It doesn't come naturally.

Chris Argyris has preached the benefits of "double-loop learning," i.e. improving the learning process, for decades. John Seely Brown told me he is investigating why double-loop learning has never caught on.

Doug Engelbart has dedicated half a century to augmenting human intelligence through process improvement and its derivatives. When I asked Doug what organization best exemplified his philosophy, he replied "None."

I blame schooling for discouraging systems thinking. Questioning the system is not in schooling's DNA. After all, schooling started with rabbis and priests explaining the word of God to illiterate believers. Critical thinking was blasphemy. Shut up and listen; this is God talking.

Two separate groups of college students were given a paper on urban sociology. The first group was told, "Read this. You'll be tested." The second group was told, "Read this. You'll be tested. And by the way, some of this material is quite controversial." The second group scored higher on the test. Why? Because uncertainty engages the mind.

School classes and corporate training would be more effective were learners initially told "This is our best thinking. It might be wrong. How do you see it?" That's a meta-learning tactic that would improve results without adding costs. You could preface all eLearning with a reminder that learners should look for ways to improve the content, drop thoughts in the electronic suggestion box, and that they organization is always on the lookout for ways to improve its service. Positioning a learning event as inquiry instead a recounting of someone else's truth puts a touch of humanity back into eLearning that's often sterile.

Getting the concept of meta-learning to take hold requires acceptance that nothing is set in stone. There are no givens. The world is uncertain. Everything is relative. People can learn to learn better by taking a long term view in which learning answers the inevitable query of "What's in it for me?"

Hungry for more of this? Check out the Meta-Learning Lab

Posted by Jay Cross at October 28, 2003 04:02 PM | TrackBack

The idea of the metadata repository isn't new. It's been around forever. Customer(students) feed back has been around forever. If you have worked retail or any other medial job you'll notice there is a box looking for your feedback. Usually these are often laughed over in the lunch room by the low level janitorial staff. Unfortunately, the upper management and people who actually care about their store want these things like they want to sell warranties on dishwasher. Direct feedback is invaluable. The trick is how to get people to actually give the feedback, and make sure that feedback is valid. There is only one answer for that in my mind. Make your customer trust and need the product. If they have those two thing I think you will find your feedback coming back in trump suits.

Posted by: Bret at October 28, 2003 08:45 PM

not bad

Posted by: free paris hilton xxx at June 28, 2004 11:40 PM

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