Learning and the Kardashians

As I am preparing for a talk next week on the future of online learning and writing a bit in a paper about the same kind of thing, I am pleased to see another timely publication in a long line of excellent Pew reports on American life, this time focusing on lifelong learning, which is hugely relevant to what I will be speaking and writing about about. As I need to think a bit more on this topic anyway, this seems like a good opportunity for reflection.

Findings of the report

Before moving on to my reflections, there are a few things that particularly stand out for me. For instance:

  • 74% of Americans have engaged in some deliberate personal learning (as measured by the researchers) over the past year, though only 16% have taken an online course.
  • 73% consider themselves to be lifelong learners.

This makes me worry greatly about over a quarter of Americans that have done no such thing and that do not consider themselves to be lifelong learners. It is hard to understand how one could be human and not consider oneself a learner but the study’s design likely shaped the kind of answers it received. I will have more to say on that. It is also interesting that courses play such a small role. More on that later too.

I am fascinated by the motivations of the subjects of the study:

  • 80% of personal learners say they pursued knowledge in an area of personal interest because they wanted to learn something that would help them make their life more interesting and full.
  • 64% say they wanted to learn something that would allow them to help others more effectively.
  • 60% say they had some extra time on their hands to pursue their interests.
  • 36% say they wanted to turn a hobby into something that generates income.
  • 33% say they wanted to learn things that would help them keep up with the schoolwork of their children, grandchildren or other kids in their lives.

This accords better with my understanding of human beings. People love to learn, and learning has huge social value in both process and product. It is notable that far fewer of the study’s subjects have extrinsic than intrinsic motivation, and it appears that, for the vast majority, the extrinsic driver is at most a catalyst for them to do something that is intrinsically fulfilling. This is reinforced in the following graphs, that are a terrific confirmation of the predictions of self-determination theory (SDT):

the value of educational experiences to learners in the US

As we already know from SDT, the value of learning is fundamentally about achieving competence as a good thing in itself, deeply social in purpose and value, and highly concerned with being in (or gaining) control: in brief, competence, relatedness and autonomy support. This is exactly what we see here. It is noteworthy that, though advancement in occupations matters to professional learners, there is no mention of money nor of qualifications in any of this. This accords with the fact that only 16% of those in the study took courses, given that courses tend to lead to formal or less formal credentials. It is very unfortunate that institutional learning has become so much concerned with courses and credentialing that all of these very good reasons for learning are incredibly crowded out. Much of the time, people in institutions learn in order to get the qualification, not for the pleasure that is so profoundly obvious in these findings. The luckiest ones get both. Most are not so lucky. More than a few get neither fulfillment nor credentials.

Matthew Effects: the rich get richer

The survey finds very strong links between existing education, prosperity and culture, and lifelong learning. Furthermore, the digital divide is, at least by some measures, widening:

As a rule, those adults with more education, household incomes and internet-connecting technologies are more likely to be participants in today’s educational ecosystem and to use information technology to navigate the world.

This is not too surprising – it’s pretty much there in the definition – but the Matthew Effect is in full swing here:

For personal learning, 87% of those with college degrees or more (throughout this report adults with college degrees or more refers to anyone who has at least a bachelor’s degree) have done such an activity in the past year, compared with 60% for among those with high school degrees or less. For professional learning, about three quarters (72%) of employed adults with at least college degrees have engaged in some sort of job-related training in the past year, while half (49%) of employed adults with high school degrees or less have done this.

Those that have learned to learn, and to see the value in it, learn more. They probably have more time and resources for it:

Among those with a smartphone and a home broadband connection (just over half the population), 82% have done some personal learning activity in the past year. For the remaining adults (those with just one of these connection devices or neither of them), 64% have done personal learning in the past year.

It is interesting that technology appears to have quite a large effect on learning. This is causal, not just a correlation. It’s not the tools, per se, but the adjacent possible that the tools bring. Basically, the tools can support learning or not but, if you don’t have the tools, the opportunity never arises. Those that claim technology has no effect on learning are simply wrong, but what is significant here is that it is not the teachers, but the learners, that make this so. There may be some very faint and equivocal glimmer of truth in the belief that technology does not normally do much to improve teaching, but it sure does a lot to improve learning.

Being America, a land of conspicuous inequality, the report shows that there are also strong divisions along ethnic lines, with African Americans and Hispanics considerably less likely to have engaged in personal learning, and somewhat less likely to have engaged in professional learning. The report is less clear whether this is a socio-economic issue or a more broadly cultural concern. I’m guessing a bit of both. When a social system separates particular groups, for whatever reason (and ethnicity is a deeply stupid reason), then patterns of behaviour are likely to cluster. As always, diversity (and the celebration of diversity) is much to be wished for here. We are wisest when we are exposed to and open to diverse views, values and opinions.

Finally, an opportunity for distance institutions like Athabasca University. Some of the notable preference for face to face learning (81% to 54%) is almost certainly down to lack of awareness of digital learning methods:

Noteworthy majorities of Americans say they are “not too” or “not at all” aware of these things:

  • Distance learning – 61% of adults have little or no awareness of this concept.
  • The Khan Academy, which provides video lessons for students on key concepts in things such as math, science, the humanities and languages – 79% of adults do not have much awareness of it
  • Massive open online courses (MOOCs) that are now being offered by universities and companies – 80% of adults do not have much awareness of these.
  • Digital badges that can certify if someone has mastered an idea or a skill – 83% of adults do not have much awareness of these.


It seems we have not been particularly smart about getting the message out! That’s a huge and untapped population of people who do not even know our methods of teaching exist, let alone of our own existence. At least some of those appear to be educated people with a thirst for knowledge.

Learning and the Kardashians

A lot of the inequalities demonstrated in the Pew report are deeply worrying and endemic. It seems to me that, as well as trying to address that imbalance directly, we in education should give a bit more thought to how we might embed productive learning more deeply into all our interactions, rather than just concentrating on making courses and tutorials in educational systems. While some of this embedding can be addressed with deliberate intent – popular channels, celebrity scientists and artists, accessible and appealing museums and galleries, subsidies for Internet access, libraries, etc – a lot of this is about system design. It’s about building tools and environments where critical and reflective engagement is part of the fabric of the system.

With that in mind, I think it is important to note a strong methodological bias in these findings. Significantly, they rely on self-reporting of deliberate learning activities that are largely defined by the researchers. There’s a strong bias towards things like courses, tutorials, guides, workshops, conferences and clubs that are explicitly designed to support learning. It is worth observing that most learning is not designed and not intentional (including in formal education). Almost every act of communication involves at least a hint of learning and, especially for interactive media such as Internet or Mobile technologies, the percentage of time spent learning in the process is normally significant. Almost all reading, watching and dialogue involves learning. We might not recognize it as such, but every time we learn of Bieber’s latest exploits, or Trump’s latest vileness, or our friend’s new puppy, we are deeply engaged in acts of learning. It is not just (and rarely most importantly) about the content of what is learned, but the ways of being that such learning engenders. Our values, beliefs and attitudes are deeply dependent on our interactions with others, mediated or not, and what we perceive of the world around us (especially the people and their creations within it). What we choose to observe or communicate changes us. Often, we engage critically with what we read or watch or talk about. Even simple learning from observation is not just about copying but about interpreting and constructing. Internet technologies, in particular, have massively increased the quantity and breadth of such observation and communication. Most of what we know is not learned deliberately but emerges through our interactions with other people and the world around us. Most of what even traditional teachers teach is not the content of what they teach but the ways of being and thinking that go along with it.

To suggest or imply, therefore, that lack of deliberate learning through conventional channels means that no learning is happening is deeply mistaken, and somewhat dangerous, because it ignores all but the visible tip of the iceberg. By far the biggest opportunities for education lie not in the stuff that we educators currently do for a job, but in embedding learning in the everyday; in designing pedagogies that are not pedagogies; in creating architectures where learning can thrive rather than in deliberately leading people in directions we think they should go. It is possibly sad but definitely true that the Kardashians are far better teachers with far greater reach than most professional teachers, apart from (maybe) celebrities like David Attenborough, Randall Munroe, David Suzuki or Neil Degrasse Tyson. What the Kardashians teach might seem to have little value and, arguably, might have negative value, but it should not be discounted as irrelevant learning. Nor, for that matter, should what we learn (directly and indirectly) from politicians, musicians and sports stars. The shapers of our emerging global society are many and varied, and I would be hesitant to suggest, snobbishly, that the reflective, critical, synthetic, analytic and creative skills that professional teachers try to support should have a monopoly over the emotional, social, value-forming ways of thinking that other contributors to society provide in greater measure.

Boundaries and education

Personally, I think the things we try to formally teach (not so much the content as the reflective, critical, synthetic, analytic and creative skills) matter a great deal. Taught well, they directly and demonstrably lead to better, healthier, richer, more creative, more caring, more productive societies, where people can look more critically on the likes of Trump and the Kardashians, with greater perspicacity, with greater creativity, and with more kindness to and understanding of those that think differently. But they also lead to a lot of things that are not so healthy, especially in their institutionalized control-freakery and cataleptic attitudes to change. Educational institutions have done and continue to do a lot of good but, if we really want to bring about a better, more educated world, there is a very good chance that they are no longer the ideal platform for it, and definitely far from the only one.

In my talk next week I will be exploring the ways that physical boundaries, notably of time and place, have deeply influenced how we go about the process of education. Almost all of our pedagogies are predicated on the assumption that a number of people need to gather in a particular place at a particular time, with associated structures, rules and processes to support that. Teachers are a scarce resource, classrooms are rival goods, and schedules matter. So we invented classes, courses, timetables, and methods of managing them. This in turn inevitably demands that people learn things they don’t need to learn, that they may be unable or unwilling to learn, at times that may not suit them, under conditions that greatly restrict their autonomy. All in all, despite good support for relatedness, this is terrible for motivation, and it crowds out almost all the great benefits that are reported on in the Pew study. One-to-one learning works much better because it largely avoids those constraints but is, for all but a few, economically unviable. Voluntary attendance to learning activities when needed (much of what is reported on in the study) is also good, but not well catered for in our educational systems that need to adopt tight schedules and lack much flexibility. Thus, much of our pedagogical practice and almost all of our educational system is designed to overcome or reduce the demotivating side-effects of simple physics. All too often, and all too often institutionalized, the solution is to fall back on primitive behaviourist models of motivation that do a great deal more harm than good. Such physics seldom if ever applies online, where boundaries are inherently fuzzy, metaphorical, fluid and malleable. However, most of us still adopt substantially the same pedagogies and we pointlessly (or worse) attempt to fit our teaching into systems that were designed for and with different boundaries. We even build tools like learning management systems that embody them, saving them from exinction and perhaps even magnifying them (it’s often easier to see what is going on in a live classroom than within the confines of an LMS). And, having done so, we cement the demotivational effects by controlling learners through grades and certificates, rewarding and punishing with Skinnerian efficiency. It’s no surprise that, when you take such things away, MOOC completion rates, though improving thanks mainly to better self-selection and increasing use of real reward and punishment through more recognized credentials (often becoming significantly less open in the process), average no more than 15%

Shifting boundaries and open spaces

Though online boundaries are different, there are lessons to be drawn from the built environment. I am incredibly lucky to live in Vancouver, where public art, information and hey-wow architecture and design is everywhere to be seen. It is hard to look anywhere without being informed, delighted or provoked in useful ways, from the shapes of leaves immortalized on the sidewalks to street art and poetry on the walls. Our cognition is fundamentally distributed, and the richness of the spaces around us, virtual or physical, contributes considerably to how and what we know, as well as our values and behaviours. Even simple separation of space can make a huge difference. It took a while after coming here to realize what was the main difference between schools here and in the UK: fences. In the UK, a school is normally enclosed by tall fences that both keep people out and keep children in. Around the school along the sea wall from me there are no such barriers, and children play at break-time in the parks and playgrounds outside. It’s still very safe – many eyes see to that, as well as a culture of trust – but it makes all the difference in the world to the meaning of the space, especially to the children but also to the community around them. Such little things make big differences. Part of the value of that is, again, diversity: being exposed to different stimuli and people is always a good thing, and another of Vancouver’s immense strengths. The area around the school is a wonderful mix of expensive luxury waterfront property and cheap but attractive and well cared-for community housing: unless you happen to know that red roofs signify community housing, you would be very unlikely to spot the difference. Messing with boundaries and celebrating diversity is, of course, a big part of the thinking behind the Landing. It’s a space where boundaries are deliberately softened, where learning can be visible and shared, but which is still safe and where everyone is accountable. Simply opening up the space is enough to bring about greater and different learning, and a different attitude towards it. 

Openness alone is not enough, though. Far too many public forums and comment areas (e.g. most newspaper sites) that are quite open are filled with vitriol, inanity and stupidity. Sure, a lot of learning happens, but mostly not in a productive or useful way, at least from my biased perspective and that of a lot of people that are turned off by it. I am guessing that this might well be what would happen if fences around UK schools were torn down without considering the surrounding community and environment. Community makes a huge difference: though I am sure they have to indulge in a bit of judicious pruning and moderation, when I read blogs by people like, say, Stephen Downes, George Siemens , Terry Anderson, or David Wiley, I see almost nothing but intelligent dialogue from those that comment, because those with an interest in the area have shared concerns and contested but concordant values. Well, perhaps the dialogue is not always intelligent, but at least it is always a learning dialogue. The downside of that is, of course, a relative lack of diversity in the communities that read their work.

So, environment matters too, and often helps to shape the community. For instance, I am still much smitten, after nearly two decades, by the model of SlashDot, which shapes learning dialogues through a combination of smart algorithms and, most importantly, the actions and interactions of people using the system. The best of these dialogues is more than a match for any textbook or classroom, and the worst are not too bad: anything else evolves away. The algorithms are complex and it takes skill to get the most out of them, so it is way too geeky to be of general use, but it shows the general methods and principles that might underlie a system that makes knowledge grow and learning happen simply by shaping the space of interaction, giving individuals the tools to filter and form the space, and providing a space to gather. Less sophisticated/effective but more generally usable tools of this nature include Reddit and StackExchange, which combine ratings and karma information to allow the community to shape what the community sees. While both are flawed and neither is infallible, the combination of human organization and machine filtering generally makes both quite useful for a wide range of topics.  I am also much encouraged by how Wikipedia has evolved: its more deliberate structuring and guidance of the flow means it involves higher maintenance than more obviously collectively guided tools but it is incredibly successful at supporting and spreading useful knowledge (including about the Kardashians). The approach of each of these systems to diversity is a little like that of the Vancouver City planners: to design for it. There are places where communities meet and interact but there is also parcellation, with signals of their boundaries but no significant barriers, that supports the growth of a supportive culture (at least in places – there are, of course, some areas that thrive on dischord), and that makes trust visible.

There are potential opportunities for analytics tools, collaborative filters, and similar forms of data-driven algorithmic approaches here too. Such methods come with enormous risks, mostly due to the insatiable desire of programmers to control what other people do: to erect new boundaries. Even when done with good intentions, they can have harmful effects. Almost the last thing we need in such spaces is filter bubbles and echo chambers, but such approaches can embed and reinforce patterns and attitudes simply by doing their job, building boundaries that are all the more dangerous because they are invisible and unmentioned. The absolute last thing we need is machines to make decisions for us based on what a programmer has decided is best for us or, just as bad, using criteria over which we have no say. There are huge risks of designing new boundaries that are just as controlling and just as demotivating as the ones they replace. I don’t resent Amazon’s recommendations of what I might like to read next at all, for example, especially when it tells me why it is making those recommendations, because it does nothing to enforce those recommendations and learns when I disagree. I do resent Netflix limiting what it shows me that I might want to watch, though: this reduces my autonomy. I greatly dislike learning analytics tools that tell me how well I am meeting someone else’s goals, but I approve of those that help me to define and reach my own. I am happy for Google Search to suggest relevant sites I might want to visit, as long as it continues to show me those it is less impressed with, but I am deeply unhappy that Facebook shows me a tiny percentage of posts I might like to see. I love that clicking a word or phrase in an e-book will give me a definition and a link to Wikipedia or Google Search. I hate that clicking a help link will tell me what someone else thinks I need to know (especially when the nugget I need is hidden in a lengthy video that gives me no clues about where to find it). What all of this boils down to is support for the fundamental drivers found in the Pew report: autonomy, relatedness and competence. Take away any one of those, and you take away the love of learning. But, with care, scrutability, and attention to supporting human needs, such systems can be expansive and liberating.

In conclusion

For now, most of the new systems we use to replace the formal process of teaching show promise but most have numerous weaknesses, most of which formal teaching overcomes: concerns about reliability, trust, safety, efficiency, and the effects of deliberate malice are well founded, and there are big issues of control and autonomy to overcome. But it seems to me that, as we start to dismantle the boundaries of traditional educational practice, the opportunities to extend and improve learning through reinvention of our learning spaces online are (virtually!) limitless, while we reached a state of near stasis in physically located learning many hundreds of years ago. Sure, there have been incremental improvements here and there but they have been uneven at best, and it is possible to see examples of great pedagogies being used thousands of years ago that are barely, if at all, improved today. It’s all down to physics. 

Footnote

I wouldn’t know a Kardashian if one kicked me in the face and, until just now, I had little idea about what they were apart from being a family that is known across the Internet for nothing more substantial than their own celebrity. For quite a long time I actually thought the headlines and post titles about them were about a fictitious race from Star Trek. What’s quite interesting about that is that I had learned what little I knew on the subject without, until just now, any intention of doing so. I found out a bit more just now by way of fact checking, through Wikipedia, but it seems that what I already knew was pretty much accurate. Education happens whether we seek it or not. It would be good if that education were more valuable more of the time.

I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology and teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems, of which I am the Chair. I am married, with two grown-up children, and live in beautiful Vancouver.

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