Thursday, 3 April 2014

Quantum e-Learning

So there’s a new buzz word I heard… okay, maybe I made it up, but I could have heard it and I think it’s a useful way of looking things in the e-learning world… ‘quantum e-learning’.  So some of you may not be aware that once upon a time I was actually a physics teacher so you could be forgiven for thinking I was going to get deep into quantum theory (relax, I probably can’t even remember much of it these days), but no the term quantum means (in layman’s terms at least) really really small - like sub-atomic particle small.  The reason why quantum theory and quantum physics is important is because at quantum levels we find that much of classical theory (Newtonian type rules) don’t quite work and we have to deal with a huge amount of uncertainty and probability rather than certainty.  What’s more is the role of the observer and if you take one thing out of quantum theory take this - by observing things you change them.  Have you heard of Schrodinger’s Cat?  The story goes that the hypothetical cat is locked in a sealed box with a radioactive substance that may or may not kill it dependent on unpredictable events or uncertainty.  The only way to know the fate of the cat is to open the box and then the uncertain ceases to be and you know if the cat is dead or alive… the point is not then but when does the cat die (or not)?  The quantum theory suggests that the observer has an actual effect on the outcome (unless you subscribe to 'Many-Worlds' theory which gets even more mind-bending).

Okay, that wasn’t as simple as what I wanted it to be but hopefully you’re still with me (or way ahead if you’ve done this before).  The point of this for me is actually quite simple.  Observation has an effect on outcome.  So what I’m coining as Quantum e-Learning is to try and put the recent trend towards analytics in just about everything (from sports to music and business) into a learning perspective.  We all know the value in learning in some form of assessment of knowledge and application; but what if we go further and start to analyse learning above and beyond simple assessments.  What if we start to measure more and observe more of what goes on?  Will we actually have an effect on what is learnt simply by looking at it more?  Can we determine the rate of learning simply by observing it?  Quantum theory says we can.

So how dow we apply analytics to learning and how do we know what effect we have as an observer?  There are plenty of analytics tools out there from companies like the ever-present Google to Piwik - they do much of a muchness and use embedded codes in your websites to track users activities within your site.  You can certainly do this within your LMS (most LMSs will allow you to embed a little java script token to track away) so that you can see what pages are being looked at, how long they are being looked at and what the length of time is spent on it.  Of course you could do this without an LMS just by having your material on some form of web-server, but since the majority of formal learning is held on LMSs it seems like a good starting point.  What would be great would be using those analytics tools with more and more different types of learning.  Sure you can track and watch SCORM objects (just like you can with most LMSs again!), but how long is someone looking through the forums, the background resources, which forums attract more hits and is there a pattern.  Do users surfing with Chrome spend longer or shorter than those with Firefox (you know Explorer users take longer as they wait for pages to load!)?  Observation and analysis to this degree could lead you to some quantum leaps in your learning.  What if you’re finding that a small part of your course you thought was insignificant is actually achieving far longer access times than traditional ‘resources’ and activities.  What if certain videos are being played over and over by the same users - is it because it’s good or hard to understand or optional but interesting?  By observing some elements of the ‘course’ as a whole can we actually attract learners to areas that otherwise they may not have had interest in?

Let’s take this beyond the formal slice of learning though, if we recognise that learning is pervasive then we understand that the formal learning environment only accounts for the small slice of pie.  Where does the larger slice sit and how do we access and observe what goes on there?  Truth is we can’t capture all of that, but we can certainly make some inroads into it by opening up what we give access too and applying the same principles in those areas.  I’m all for freeing up Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Blogger and networking tools in your corporate spaces as you may have read in another blog or two of mine - let’s give our learners the social tools that they should have access to; do we then try to apply some analytics to those too?  I’m not talking big brother here, quite the opposite - it’s not about controlling what goes on or correcting behaviour but about observing and learning about learning.  Because if quantum theory teaches us one thing it’s that there’s a lot of uncertainty and the very principles of pervasive learning is that the largest piece of pie occurs in a way that we can’t truly predict - learning itself is not only pervasive; it’s quantum.

If quantum e-learning asks more questions than it gives answers to, that’s okay too - quantum mechanics is pretty much the same (sure was for me at least). I know my analogy may be a little too hokey for some of you, but I’ll leave you with this to ponder over; quantum e-learning suggests you won’t really know the effect of your e-learning unless you open the box and look - just be aware that by opening the box you are actually having an effect on the effectiveness of the learning.