Rethinking online education

Technology should be used to redesign learning experiences based on cognitive research, not to replicate offline experiences online

January 22, 2022 05:37 pm | Updated January 27, 2022 07:35 pm IST

The real reason education fails in its purpose is that its practice today is not based on cognitive research.

The real reason education fails in its purpose is that its practice today is not based on cognitive research.

Why have we been mostly unsuccessful in helping children meet learning outcomes? A common theory is that it is due to a lack of money. If we offer more money and attract more talented people to teaching, will we be done? While some countries like India don’t spend enough on education, even big spenders do not see meaningful improvements. The real reason education fails in its purpose is that education practice today is not based on cognitive research.

Over the past decades, learning Science has taught us about how the brain learns. What teachers think causes learning and what students feel causes learning often is not true. Our education practice is not learning science-based; it still relies on obsolete practices such as lectures to “transmit” information and a carrot-and-stick policy to motivate children. Trying to improve education without addressing this root problem means that we are investing in scaling an architecture that is fundamentally wrong and therefore creating even more inertia to moving towards a learning science-based education model.

Impact on education

Here are three ways in which learning science can impact education:

Spiralling curriculum: Today’s curricula are mostly linear like checklists. Each topic is done and then we move to the next. When exams come, students don’t remember important ideas because they’ve been done just once. But learning science shows that, when we revisit important ideas multiple times, children understand and remember them much better. This is called spiralling curriculum and implements “spaced repetition” of key ideas. By using technology to redesign the curriculum, we can now integrate more such models quickly and track their impact.

Mastery learning model: Today, we budget a fixed amount of time for a topic and move on to the next, whether learning has been accomplished or not. This is a timetable-based approach. But the reality is that students will have gaps in their understanding that accumulate and lead to loss of interest in later classes as they move to more advanced topics. Learning science offers the mastery learning model, which allows the teacher to understand the accumulating gaps and put in place a structure to help fill them. One way is by having separate online spaces for synchronous and asynchronous learning. The coach becomes more like a facilitator who observes the child in both the spaces, identifies the gaps and spends time with each to bridge those.

Teaching to learn: Today, we tell students that their job is to learn but we don’t teach them how learning works. For example, most people don’t know that reading a storybook requires a different techniques from reading a textbook. They don’t know how the muscle of long-term memory is built or how to improve concentration over time. This lack of understanding is why many children tend to cram, practise rote learning and fail to apply concepts in the real world.

Over the last decade, online education has mainly tried to package self-study content for the same old school syllabus or tried to provide foundation test-prep content for competitive exams. But, in the coming decade, we will be using technology not to replicate offline experiences online but to redesign learning experiences from the first principles of cognitive research and provide up-to-date knowledge, social skills, and learning mindsets. If we succeed, in the next 10 years, we will build an education system that the next generation can truly be grateful for.

The writer is the Founder and CEO, StayQrious.

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