Reprinted, with permission, from:

Volume 1, Issue 2
22 December 2000

One on One: Dr. Roger C. Schank

Jon Warshawsky
[email protected]

The State of (Expletive Deleted) eLearning

If eLearning can change the way in which we help people learn, how can we use these new tools to do it effectively? Cappuccino recently spoke with Dr. Roger C. Schank, whose name and work are well known, especially among consultants specializing in learning. Schank is the founder of the Institute for the Learning Sciences at Northwestern University where he is John P. Evans Professor Emeritus in Computer Science, Education and Psychology. He is also founder, chairman and chief technology officer of Cognitive Arts Corporation, which designs and develops goal-based and experiential online learning software for the education and corporate training markets.

Schank has authored more than 125 articles and publications. His books include: Tell Me A Story - A New Look at Real and Artificial Intelligence, The Connoisseur's Guide to the Mind, Engines for Education, Virtual Learning: A Revolutionary Approach to Building a Highly Skilled Workforce and most recently, Coloring Outside the Lines: Raising a Smarter Kid by Breaking All the Rules.

Most recently, Schank has been working with Columbia University on a series of interactive, online courses, including Business Writing for Entry-Level Professionals and American Business Writing Intermediate I and High Intermediate I. The first of these will be launched in January, and all carry Columbia credit. Schank has provided detailed information to your editor, which can be sent upon request. Even if you are not planning to take these courses, the design elements outlined (Hint: these are the farthest thing imaginable from page-turner WBT) are worth careful consideration.

Cappuccino: There's a huge push toward eLearning underway in corporate America, and definitely among consulting firms. Is this really an opportunity to help people learn better, or an opportunity for eLearning firms to make a lot of money?

Roger Schank: The sad thing is that these are NOT applications to help people learn better. It's as though learning is a very simple thing, you just put information in front of people and they know it. Now you have the Web so you can put information through way faster, and so isn't that great for learning. Unfortunately that's just completely wrong. So the idea that somehow the Web has helped learning is a translation for "Oh, we just found a cheaper way to do training than we have before."

The problem with that is that at an awful lot of companies we find the level of training has dropped precipitously in terms of quality, and moved up in terms of speed. So that where people used to come up to us and say, "I have $500,000 and want to do a really good job of teaching somebody something," they now say, "Well, I have $500,000 and I'd like to put 50 courses on the Web." And so the budget hasn't changed, but the information they want to put on is more. So of course you can't ever do anything right anymore. And now you're forced to go back to - if you were at (Andersen Consulting) you remember the (expletive deleted) green books (internal training manuals) they used to have, and they realized they were stupid, so now they're going back and putting them on the Web.

eLearning is pretty much a disaster area. The Web is a medium of instant gratification, which is GOOD if you're looking to find out the name of a hotel or restaurant, but of no great value to education, which turns out not to occur instantly. It's a deep, dark secret: no one cares about education.

C: If the Web CAN be used to help people learn, are there some types of eLearning solutions that are better than others?

RS: The answer is yes. There's a whole body of agreement on this from all the psychologists in the last 100 years. Learning by doing, works. Learning by telling, doesn't. It's been written down in so many ways that it's inconceivable that everyone in the world hasn't gotten it yet, but they haven't. The issue is, if you don't have experiences, you're not going to learn from them … you ask a partner in a consulting firm how he learned to be a partner - it wasn't from the courses he took.

C: It was from the green books.

RS: (Laughs) Oh, it wasn't from the green books, it turns out. And we can do this about anything that matters. For example, if we want to train fighter pilots we invent the air simulator, we don't give them multiple choice tests and books to read. Because anyone who actually has to fly with a pilot that was trained by multiple choice tests and books - well, we wouldn't get on that plane would we?

C: In the consulting business we do a lot of systems training. Isn't eLearning a more acceptable solution in that case - especially with a lot of step-by-step content?

RS: The issue is, what's the correct way to do learning. All that eLearning means to people, as far as I can tell, is putting it on the Web. You can put crap on the Web, you can put good stuff on the Web. Now you're somewhat limited in the good stuff because you can't do a lot of things you should be able to do, like high quality video and emotionally impactful experiences. But you can put some stuff on the Web that's pretty good. We built some stuff for the Harvard Business School, for example, for the pre-matriculation into the business program, into the MBA program … we built some stuff for a variety of clients on the Web that was fine. It isn't as good as the not-on-the-Web stuff, and it won't be any time soon. But that doesn't mean you can't do high quality education on the Web - it's just that the vast majority of people AREN'T doing high quality education on the web. You could do role playing, storytelling, failure - all those things I think are key.

So eLearning is kind of not the point. I'm just scared by the term, because it tends to mean to people something that it isn't. Of course, technical training can be done that way - one could build very high quality stuff on the Web.

C: In building high quality educational experiences, how would you recommend using the Web?

RS: What I showed in Denver (Columbia University Developmental Psychology course shown at the Online Learning 2000 Conference) was not to be delivered on the Web until the Web gets better at delivering video. But the issue is to put people into situations that seem realistic to them, and to have them solve problems, and possibly fail in bad ways, and have someone help them out - that's the model. That model can be implemented on the Web as well as anywhere else.

For example, the courses you saw were high-powered video stuff. We also have some courses we're about to launch in January, some of which may be relevant for Deloitte. In fact we have a few courses in business writing for non-native speakers of English, which will be followed by business writing for native speakers of English. These courses are, again, the same (concept) - rather than giving you the 14 principles of writing and having you memorize them, we put you in business-like situations and then you have to write something. So, the value of the Web is that the stuff you're reading doesn't have to be located near you, and that the instruction can be one-on-one. These courses are coming out under Columbia's name, and they're the equals of the Columbia courses you might have to fly into New York to take. The best way to learn how to write is to write, and the web DOES offer tremendous advantages.

C: In the communication and correspondence aspects of it…

RS: That, and your work will be evaluated by somebody. You can be put in a simulated situation on the Web. It may not be as emotionally impactful as the ones with the video with people yelling at you, but we still can produce some pretty good stuff.

C: If eLearning is self-directed, is it less effective than interacting with another person?

RS: Interacting with people is what life's all about. It's all there is to learning and education. All you ever want to know in the world is how to get along with other people, how to sell to people, how to convince people. The trick to computer programming is to make that feel real in the computer program. We did a program for an insurance company, and apparently they are still talking about one of the characters in the program. It was like a real person to them…

C: What do you think of online, collaborative classrooms?

RS: Well - in 1910, someone invented the camera and they thought, "(Expletive deleted), we can make movies." And the next thing is they went to the theatre and the filmed the (expletive deleted) play and for the next 10 or 20 years in moviemaking that's what movies looked like. And eventually they didn't look like plays anymore - today they don't even come close to plays. Now it's, "Gee, I've got an idea, let's build the classroom on the Web." Guess what? CLASSROOMS SUCK. They are around for one and only one reason - the economics of having only one teacher and 30 to 500 kids. So as a result you create a classroom. When you educate your child do you put him in a classroom to learn to speak English? No, you sit there one on one with him. You let him experience it in real life. You don't sit him in a chair, even - you let him go about his business and learn while he's doing stuff. This idea that we're going to do a simulated classroom on the Web assumes classrooms were a good idea in the first place.

C: Circling back to the realities of consulting, where project budgets are the basis for our existence - we don't usually have $1 million to build a course. Should we even be considering self-directed courseware?

RS: You're not going to fool yourself by thinking you've created a course by putting a lot of text on screens and reading it. That's what you're seeing today in eLearning - let's put lots of text on the screen and have a quiz, and that's not education. Can you put decent quality education on the Web for cheap? Yeah, it's the design that's hard. To rework the thing into a goal-based scenario, something that seems like a goal someone has, you're helping them accomplish it - that's thinking.

C: A lot of people don't want to learn online, even if economics dictate that eLearning is the only choice based on economics. How do we get people past the fear of educating themselves using online media?

RS: I don't know about that, I've never heard anyone say sitting in lectures is a better experience. We're sitting here in a world where everyone understands that lectures suck, including the people that give them. And now we're saying this is something different and it's better. Now I'm not saying it's better than a full seminar with a brilliant researcher. So you have to ask yourself, what's the best way of doing what you're trying to do. If you're trying to get a million people around the world to go over something at the same time it might be a good idea to broadcast it, but it also might be a good idea to invent some software if you're going to replicate it more than once. Deloitte's a client of ours and sometimes with something important they spend the money, but a lot of times we'd look at their training and see that it's not worth doing. They'd stand up there and probably fly people to the Sheraton in Florida and give them three days of PowerPoint presentations and think they're accomplishing something. A lot of times it's for reasons of, you know, let's all get together and hang out, which is not a bad reason, but why should you have to bore everyone in the meantime?

C: Back to consulting and work plans. How many hours would you estimate that it takes to build an A+ hour of courseware - courseware you would consider first rate?

RS: To build one hour of courseware tends to cost us about $50,000. It's hard to say how many hours of work that is.

C: We spend a lot of time educating adults about business process changes and new software. Can someone who's over 40 and computer-shy learn as effectively online as a 20-year old whose PC is part of his inner circle of friends?

RS: Oh, probably not. I mean, let's be realistic, some people are comfortable with a computer and some people aren't, but I think if you build good software there shouldn't be that much work on the computer. The kind of stuff we're building here, it should be transparent what you have to do.

C: Objective questions - multiple choice, true/false, etc. - are a staple of online courses. Do these test anything? How do we reconcile the technical practicality of objective questions with the realism required for effective learning?

RS: The whole idea that objective questions mean something - objective questions are the most meaningless things in the entire world. I mean, what is the Smoot-Hawley Tariff: A, B, C or D? And the question you might want to ask is, who the (expletive deleted) cares? In general, your average objective question is the problem in education, and the fact that there ARE people who think objective questions are meaningful. I remember working for a restaurant company on one assignment where their training device for managers included the question, "How often should the restrooms be checked? Every 20 minutes, every 25 minutes, every 30 minutes, every 35 minutes, every 40 minutes? That's an objective question because someone actually decided the number was 30, or whatever it was, but I mean … how stupid can you be? It's a matter of pretending to educate. How many car lengths should you keep ahead of you? We've all learned. I mean, for every car length, it equals 10 miles per hour. Is someone going to go out and measure car lengths while they're driving? That's the wrong question.

C: What was your worst experience with online learning?

RS: My worst experience online was with a company I can't tell you, to put their knowledge about financials up, online, free to the public, and they were very excited about it and they called us and said: "Can you fix it because we don't think it's that good." And so I went to look at it, and what it was - they had taken some pages out of their fact book (laughs), put them on the computer and at the end they asked you a question and if you got it right it said "congratulations." It was so moronic. And they asked us what to do, so I told them and we didn't get the contract. When I asked why they said they were going to farm it out to their branch in India to do this.

C: And the best?

RS: The courses we're launching for Columbia (University) in January are superb. We built these online courses for the American Language Program at Columbia, and they're so good that the professors in the program looked at them and said, "Oh my God, they're better than the real thing." Now, that to me is as high a compliment as you can possibly receive. They're teaching business writing for non-native English speakers, followed by English for native speakers, and they're so good - it's phenomenal in depth. They (students) write emails and memos simulating this consulting firm they're working in, project plans, business plans, cases, and you're getting into grammar, vocabulary … aspects of American culture are being taught, ethics of the business world. It's a very all-encompassing experience. We piloted the course we're launching in January and the people who took it loved it. I am convinced we have done a first-rate job. We also have the Java, C++ and HTML courses coming out, and they also carry Columbia certification. Little by little, I think you're going to see the very best places like Columbia putting out some really high quality stuff.

C: So, your stuff is the best?

RS: I think so (laughs). January 8th it launches. Sign up and take the course for the price of Columbia tuition.

C: That's almost free, isn't it?

RS: (Laughs) Yeah.

C: Tell me about Cognitive Arts.

RS: Cognitive Arts launched as an offshoot of Northwestern (University in Illinois) where we have the ILS (Institute of Learning Sciences) and we had worked for years building software for a variety of folks, certainly for Andersen. Basically, it's been in the computer training business for five years, and Deloitte's one of our clients. We've worked typically with big companies, like Merrill Lynch, GE, IBM, State Farm - we build these glitzy, glorified learning pieces of software. Now we've moved heavily to this deal with Columbia, Harvard and other universities. The idea basically is can we take the IDEA of a course - not the courses they have, because we don't think the lecture courses they have are very good can we take the idea and these very intelligent people who deliver them and make them into partners in the design of a whole new learning experience. We will be launching courses in macroeconomics, microeconomics and psychology - a bunch of things of the type you saw. We're excited about remaking the nature of the university, which is pretty much in this country about getting a degree. In the future, we'd also like to see changes in high schools and in the workplace, because we now have the opportunity to deliver these courses to Deloitte, for instance. Instead of buying Joe Cockamamie's writing course you can actually get the Columbia course.




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