I heard a great quote attributed to Jer Thorp recently, “Design is figuring out how people walk across a bridge, engineering is figuring out how to build the bridge itself.”
Spending so much time in learning technology, this really rings true. So many in this field spend their time trying constructing yet another ultimate system to store “all of the information” and track “all of the knowledge.” There are more engineers than we can handle. We have so few actual designers in learning technology that it’s painful.
Not specifically user interface designer. Not even just user experience designers, though UX has the closest skill set to match what’s needed in learning technology today. I spend a ton of time staring at mediocre interfaces and trying to think of ways for them to better serve humans — humans seeking a bit of information in the moment need, primed to convert the information into knowledge. Then I remember such humans tend to end up in a ‘learning’ application when they aren’t explicitly curious to figure something out, or answer answer a burning question. They’re often planted there by someone with authority over them.
This problem is not just in P-20 education or corporate learning, it’s both. This problem is nothing short of a systematic disregard for the innate drive within all people to learn (and yes, I have a hard time maintaining my respect for that natural drive while watching a social feed fill up with talk about Miley Cyrus or Paul Walker. Shush, admit it. You know exactly what I’m talking about too).
Distress and Ignorance.
There’s a book from 1991 titled Information and Information Systems by Michael Buckland. I’ve been dragging it around for years. That’s because his explanation of inquiry is so spot on that I haven’t been able to let it go, let alone disprove it. Every learning technology or systemic learning challenge I encounter, I hold up against Buckland’s arguments.
Whether I was designing an eLearning platform for teaching doctors medical spanish to working with Tin Can (xAPI), Buckland’s point is that when a person becomes aware of their ignorance to a particular topic or item (attempting to solve a problem, make sense of an event, find their way from one place to another) and that ignorance reaches a level that becomes distressing, a person is fully motivated to inquire about information that addresses that gap and to convert that information into knowledge.
We are all enormously ignorant in the sense that there is a great deal that we do not know. Some things we are unacquainted with. Some things we do not understand. One only has to look at a computer tape [reminder, old.], peruse an encyclopedia, contemplate a library, or watch a crowd… to realize how little of human knowledge each of us possesses. Yet each example represents only a very small selection from the totality of human knowledge known or recorded… In a very important sense, this colossal individual ignorance does not matter. People can and do live pleasant, happy, satisfying lives unaware of the characteristics of the moons that circle Jupiter… The assumption that ignorance is bliss is less dependable than the certainty that everyone is more or less in ignorance whether or not in a state of bliss. Ignorance becomes important only to the extent to which it becomes distressing or harmful. We use the term distressing to denote occasions when an individual is not only conscious of ignorance and, thereby, the distress. Such ignorance may be a gap in personal knowledge.
That doesn’t mean that every gap in personal knowledge must be filled through the malpractice of attempting to stuff heads with information.
My point is… this is the driver behind curiosity. This recognition of the gap, where mild distress is felt, is the best intrinsic motivator we can work with as designers in learning technology.
We’re not totally helpless, but we’ve all been talking to the wrong people this whole time: the teachers and the managers who have no idea where the actual users feel ignorance and are inspired into learning. They can guess, surely. They probably have a general sense of the motivations for coming to class or work, but personal improvement and meaningful knowledge acquisition are deeper.
If we bring this back to Jer (who does amazing data visualizations that have inspired a lot of my own personal curiosity), we need to stop thinking about how to get information into technology and start thinking about the reasons a person comes to the technology in the first place.