Sunday, 15 February 2015

Educational nuggets

Quite a while back I attended an MIT Task Force Retreat on Digital Learning. Numerous talks and discussions were given (by various internal MIT groups and committees) about the future of online education and the issues surrounding it. One concept that stood out to me was that of "educational nuggets". I think this is very suitable (and sticky) terminology to describe the bite-sized educational modules - like the 5-10 minute lectures - that have become a popular medium for online courseware and educational websites such as Khan Academy.

The idea of bite-sized lectures comes from educational research showing that a student's attention span does not extend much, past about 10 minutes. A sad truth. That is not to say, however, that a student can not internalize concepts past 10 minutes (if that was really the case, then school systems would not work at all). Rather, efficiency of learning goes down, and more mental effort needs to be expended to stay attentive - instead of, say, all that mental effort being channelled to learning the concepts.

So, it seems to be most effective to present material to students for about 10 minutes at a time, and then break up the stream by giving students some time to think about the concepts, asking students questions (or asking for their questions), providing a quiz module, initiating a discussion (if applicable), etc. This allows students to more actively internalize the material, apply the concepts, and check that they have understood the past 10 minutes worth of content.

The additional advantage of splitting educational material into nuggets is to break up a course into little, self-encapsulated, independent units. To go back to the previous post, this provides a means for customization: both for the individual student, and for the individual course. Imagine the course of the future: you are a biologist looking to brush up on statistics. Instead of pointing you to a full course offered by the statistics department, or instead of having to specifically design a course on statistics in the biology department, you could be given a set of "nuggets" to complete. These nuggets could come from different places - from the statistics department, from the math department, from the biology department - such that when they all come together, they give you - the biologist - the statistics knowledge you need, in the right context, with maximal relevance.

The concept of educational nuggets naturally raises some questions: is everything really nugget-izable? what about basic courses like calculus that need to be taken in full? who will decide what goes into a nugget? can many small nuggets really be equivalent to a course?
I think if we become more accepting of this form of education and the benefits that we can glean from it, then the answers to these questions will start to emerge through discussions.

The bigger philosophical question is whether we are changing too much, as a human species, and becoming too ADD with all the bite-sized facts, bite-sized tweets, bite-sized news, and potentially bite-sized education thrown at us. Like many things, this is a two-edged sword -- and like the related notion of multitasking, can either make or break productivity and long-term memories and understanding. The related benefits/downsides of multitasking will be left for a future post...

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