The late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have produced outstanding technological advances that have opened new doors for teaching and learning. Reasonably priced, intuitive and relatively easy to use, these technologies offer endless possibilities for everyone to produce and globally distribute presentations, courses and learning modules. With these tools you can reach far beyond the traditional twenty or thirty people in a classroom or even the three-hundred to one-thousand in an auditorium. These new technologies allow you to reach around the globe—twenty-four seven—from Australia to Siberia. And one thing you can be assured of is that the technology will continue to get better. While it may take a step or two backward and then move forward again, for the most part the tools just keep improving. And because these technological advances have opened doors for training and learning, the power is now in the hands of the people.
All the knowledge in the world is worthless, however, unless it can be used to make things better. And most people don’t know how to use these tools to help people learn and therefore do not use even a fraction of the technological power available to them. Let’s take your cell phone for example: do you use all the features available to you? What percentage of the features and functions do you use regularly?
If you are like most people, not only are you not taking advantage of the new learning technologies, but you do not understand much about how people learn. While this is unfortunate, it is not your fault. After all, most of us are a product of a system that is broken. The system confuses the act of presenting information with instruction; it confuses telling with teaching. When you create instructional presentations, you are merely imitating what you have experienced.
In engineering sales or product distribution, for example, the subject matter experts are put in charge of training. While the subject matter expert is an expert in the content area, he or she is not an expert in teaching and learning. Unless you are a subject matter expert who has also studied instructional technology or pedagogy, you probably have a limited idea about how to turn these wonderful technologies into learning opportunities.
Learning with technologies is not about pushing buttons or knowing when to click. Most vendors have classes on the features and functions of the tools they are selling, and since there are many families of tools to choose from, vendors obviously put a great deal of time and energy into the comparison of features and functions of one tool versus another. If, however, the same amount of effort were invested into teaching how to create quality instruction, I can pretty much guarantee outstanding results. My theory is you use what you have. It is very possible to create a quality course using only emails if that course is well designed. Fortunately, there are wonderful synchronous and asynchronous tools that allow you many more affordances than email has to offer, and these new tools are getting better all the time. Now that you have these tools at your disposal, it is your responsibility to learn to use them wisely.
Your ability to connect is amazing. You have the Internet, web sites, multimedia, simulations, games, videos, virtual worlds and digital animations. You have the traditional methods of television, print and audio CDs and DVDs. You have social software, social networks and the new clouds and waves. You can connect using computers, laptops, pods, pads and mobile devices. This is nothing short of revolutionary and miraculous. Digital connectivity impacts all forms of communication including texts, images, videos, animations, sounds and spatial representations, and these new media are available to help you expand your vision of training and learning into new dimensions. New methods of training are developing around these technologies, and this in turn impacts everything.
This new media is a bottom-up experiment in social responsibility, a collaborative exchange of ideas and trust unlike any the world has ever known. Because the rules for using all this power are being written now, the impact is yet virtually unknown (Manovich, 2001). Since this responsibility is overwhelming, it helps to break it down into simple elements.
Visuals are a good and inexpensive place to start because visual images have power. Neurocience can track the exact path of visual stimuli through the brain, focusing on the interplay between the optic nerve and the cortex and explaining how chemicals are stimulated in emotional connections as well as how memories are stored and retrieved by the hippocampus. The brain responds both cognitively and emotionally to visual stimuli, and because of these strong cognitive and emotional responses, visual images have a powerful impact on consciousness and learning.
Visuals have the power to attract and keep a learner’s attention focused on the intended content. My understanding of this was enhanced last year when I had the privilege of hearing Daniel Pink, author of “A Whole New Mind” speak at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. He said that when someone asked the head of neuroscience at Yale University to describe how the brain works in five words or less, he said, “Your brain works in patterns.”
Where the scientific explanation begins to break down is in regard to the impact all this has on the individual. How do you internalize these stimuli? How do they affect you? Where does the brain end and the mind of the individual begin? While there are many theories of consciousness and learning, the two go hand in hand.