Accessing Technology

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I had the opportunity to remix a conversation with a “think tank” guy this week. I first met him about a decade ago.  He’s always been out “there” (wherever that may be) going to conferences, examining new online tools, listening to podcasts of innovators and creators, etc.  But he is actually paid just to think and strategize.  (Not a bad gig if you can get it, huh?)  Just like the first time I talked with him, we spent several hours talking about where education and technology have crossed, are combined, and will intersect in the future. It may have been mental gymnastics at its best, but it was a pretty fun conversation all the same.  But I wanted to share an interesting insight from this Brit with you.  (At least I thought it was interesting...)

When this man and I first talked years ago, he told me of a longitudinal study from England where “they” (I hate having no referent, don’t you?) surveyed students to see how eLearning was accessed.  "They" have continued the study this past year, finding an even greater variety of answers.  While many companies (notably computer manufacturers) were disappointed by the findings, this turned out to be a study that could filed under the category “duh” by anyone who knows a millennial. Students access educational elements using…well, just about everything possible. They use cell phones, computers, and tablets. They use social networking sites, LMS sites, email, and on and on.  The search Google, Google Scholar, Bing, Yahoo News, Twitter, Facebook, and Snapchat so as to find sources and citations.  (Note - this is not a survey of online students, but of ALL students...)

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The problem? No two students seem to access digital content the same way. It seems dependent on dozens of variables. Finances, micro-culture, disposition, learning style preference, and availability are just a few of the reasons students choose one method over another as they access digital content and information. Again, I’m not sure why this surprised people (think of how YOU access digital content…I’m guessing it’s even different than your spouse, kids, roommates, etc.) although I do see why it concerned vendors. When students choose not to use one modality, it makes it hard to sell a solution around that modality!  Most companies don't sell solutions that cross the boundaries we have created in departments, schools, and colleges.  It's too hard to convince multiple "buyers" of any one solution in higher ed, despite this being a norm in almost every other facet of business.  So, students end up finding clever hacks, work-arounds, and personalized ways by which to circumvent short-sighted systems.  

Think about a portal.  In my opinion, this is one of the most under-utilized (and therefore under-valued) pieces of digital real estate at a University.  And you can tell.  The typical portal at a college is the equivalent of a trailer park for links, notifications, and assets.  So what do users do?  They bookmark the few links they actually find useful and access them directly.  Of course that also means they never see the notifications, announcements, or new links over time.  

So just like varied way people acquire knowledge without technology, digital content modalities are also highly varied and extensive. But the key takeaway for me here is around the idea of digital content or eLearning. See, learning takes place for almost every human being, almost every day. And at this point in our technological evolution, digital learning takes place for most people too. Dozens of schools or global educators are on the cusp of 100% mobile classes to teach, train, and otherwise educate peoples who until recently had been almost unreachable. The possibilities in Africa alone are astounding.  But even in the USA, just about everyone these days uses technology to create meaning, to access information, or to share ideas. This is true in all educational settings. Formal (school or training), informal (professional development or continuing education), and non-formal (watching tv or talking with your co-worker) are all types of learning. And technology can (and should) play a role in all of them.

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So what does this mean for you? Diversity is king! Creating content, learning objects, digital assets, trainings, curriculum, etc., needs to be done using a broad brush-stroke. Students (of all ages) need varied modalities just like they need varied teaching and learning options. And note that this isn't an age thing.  This is a human thing.  

EVERYONE has preferences. For some that digital content needs to be printed off onto that stuff…you know the material…what’s it called? Oh yeah, paper. A pretty tried and true medium for a couple thousand years is a great solution for specific people and in specific contexts. Other people will find much more value in wiki material or by shortening it to Twitter length. For some, a web page, bookmarked by the company is a great way to ingest information while some people would rather see a YouTube tutorial.

Look, trainers, teachers, and marketers really need to know two things: how people learn and how people might access technology. Of course, this intersects with the best delivery method(s) for any learning asset. There are times that a paper-based flyer is all it is going to take! But, there are other times that training should be multi-modal to speak to different individuals appropriately. To ignore this is to purposely block access from various people who don’t contextualize the world as you do. And if we’re all life-long learners, shouldn’t everyone strive to make both learning and access as easy as possible?

Good luck and good learning.