The Revolution is Not Entirely Digitised

January 23, 2012

What this post is about

A simple reflection on the importance of “book learning” and more traditional teaching modes, within a world where highly interactive and engaging learning content is becoming more widespread.
What this post is not about

This is not a detailed discussion on technical capabilities or creative development.
Here is a summary

This post is part 1 of a 2-part posting about Apple’s iBooks. I had intended to write solely about iBooks (under the title “Textbooks and eBooks and iBooks, Oh My!). However, I got quite far down the page without even mentioning iBooks. So I have left this first part as a reflection on the importance of some more traditional modes of study.

For most – perhaps all – instructional designers, Apple’s iBooks appears to be a welcome step forward in the development of interactive educational content.  However, for me, a key question arises: are we all getting too familiar with – or dependent on – highly interactive content? Is there not still a place for the discipline of traditional book learning? And if you agree that there is, how do we maintain this discipline in an age of Google (search for anything), iBooks (easy reference and education) and the ever-greater need to create on-demand content?

Here Begins the Post

A long time ago –  a good few years ago – a colleague and I declared that we had entered the age where “Education was no longer about memory. It is purely about application.” Please accept my apologies – I did not have a blog at the time, and so could not send out the memo.

I think at the time, we had got ourselves some killer 2GB USB sticks.  I felt you needed to remember nothing. Just store everything, then look it up. Google’s search technology meant that your digital content could be chucked anywhere and retrieved with nothing more than a keyword.

I can’t remember exactly the chronology, but around this time Gmail arrived, as did iPods, (then) podcasting, Wikipedia, a huge range of online resource sites – like OED,, and various others (including the idea that companies would host their own knowledge-retention systems).

Memory was handled by technology – it was no more than storage. I had decided at the time that no one really needed to remember much – they had to learn the skills required to find information. In my innocence, I also believed that learning skills were all about knowing the course of action to take and the information required to undertake that action.  Book learning – I thought – was on its last legs.

How wrong I was.

The landscape of eLearning has changed dramatically in this time. Many  previous certainties have fallen by the wayside. Flash content wanes, as on-demand content (e.g. reference material, podcasts, vodcasts, etc.) have all increased in popularity. Learning is considered to be everywhere.

With the rise of rapid eLearning (still quite dependent on Flash – because of the form-based authoring that made it so popular – but not as much as it used to be), we have developed ever more inventive ways to get people to engage with content – focus their attention, interact with information – in order to better “internalise” (I hate this word, but accept it) and use it.

The instructional designer is often faced with quite exciting choices for any new project they begin. What kind of media is available? How can this be deployed? How can we make it so that learners can explore this information – so that rather than “going through the motions”, they are creating their own path – and therefore engaging more and more deeply with the content? Furthermore, how can we organise this information so that learners can access what is required – but what is most important for them?

Why was I wrong?

Because everyday, I go into work and what concerns me most about any and all aspects of development – whether we are planning, scripting, testing or evaluating – are learning objectives.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the tech stuff. I hope to explore it a little more in the next post.

But my fundamental concern in developing learning is: What should learners be able to do when they have done whatever we create? Furthermore, what is it that we should create? What is it that will enable learners to do these things that we (or someone) has decided they should be able to do?

While engaging learning is certainly the way to go for higher-level concepts (working with information –  taking actions, making decisions, considering options, etc.), sometimes the basics are best learned by rote. An unpopular view, but I still remember my multiplication tables, rules of grammar (even if I don’t always adhere to them) and much of the poetry I learned in school. Ironically, a lot of the good poetry that I loved in university is missing words, phrases, often lines. Sometimes, I can remember a snippet and Google can help me to find the rest. Other poems that I worked with in university, I learned by rote. By reading them over and over until they were welded to my brain (a curious phrase I have adopted recently).  I should mention here that learning by rote still had some more engaging aspects – my father used to help us with multiplication and alphabet by using a distinct rhythm; this rhythm certainly helped the drilling of the information.

I am not saying this kind of information could not be learned through more exploratory means – it most certainly can. But would it be learned as quickly? Furthermore – by knowing multiplication tables, I believe my understanding of multiplication (when properly explained to me in terms of sets, how multiplication can be used, squaring and cubing numbers, etc.), as I had to hand all the examples I needed – whether I wanted to use 2×2 or 12×12 to apply to these concepts I was learning.

These examples of ‘basics’ are somewhat extreme – as far as ‘basics’ go. Basics might also include content that lawyers, doctors, accountants and IT professionals might need to have – solid knowledge, not at their fingertips, but within their mind.

As very simple (perhaps over simple) examples, consider:

If you went to a lawyer, explained a complaint you might have against someone and the lawyer – suitably outraged – explained to you that this was wrong and they would set it right; only to later tell you that there is nothing that can be done through the legal system – how would you feel about that lawyer?

While we are all very aware of the marvellous alchemy of accountants in the past decade, what if you were to go to an accountant who didn’t  know whether the purchase of a new piece of kit was an asset to your business or a liability?

What if you had a fall and hurt your arm, so went to the doctor. If the doctor consulted a book (or website) about pains in the arm and suspected a heart attack might be in the offing, how much confidence would you have in that doctor?

In all these cases, there is missing a fundamental level of knowledge that hard study is probably best suited to remedying (I’m using these as I know what these people do. I would venture that for almost any professional – builders, plumbers, web designers, web developers, etc. there is a foundation of knowledge that is required to work competently – and upon which they can build to develop their own knowledge, experience and career).

While interactive content can easily deal with broad stroke concepts and decisions that need to be made, there are often a wide range of situations that have occurred before. Knowing how these have been approached, and the outcome from the approach(es) taken can help someone make better decisions, more quickly.

Also required is a teacher/trainer/mentor who can test the knowledge gained from these books – both the type of knowledge gained and its application – by asking random, real-life and highly complex questions (perhaps that lead to further questions based on the specific answer provided by the learner).

While we would love to cater for this in eLearning, it might never be possible to develop something that worked as efficiently as one-on-one Socratic questioning.

I am an instructional designer. I make my money and have dedicated over ten years of my life in the development of learning content for a range of professionals and purposes. I am not arguing that eLearning is useless, or only partially useful. I am arguing that there are certain situations in which older-style “book learning” and “teaching” is best suited to developing and testing knowledge.

This will be further developed and applied in the next post – on the iBook and its applications (in a few days or perhaps next week); but for now, I shall say thank you for reading.


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