Digital Education as Parenting

A few months ago one of my son’s college teachers asked me what parenting tips I had that she could use to make her son as intellectually curiosity, polite, hardworking and engaging as mine.  I quipped “Be careful what you wish for!” The truth is I’m not sure what we did that made him turn out the way he did.  Ninety percent of it comes from him.  The impetus to explore the world, respect people and have some personal and social concern for others is not something we explicitly taught although I would like to believe that he saw it practiced in our lives. This is not an argument for “nature or nurture” but only one that the drive to develop things like curiosity, respect and social concern needs to come from the individual. However in thinking back we did do some things to explicitly create opportunities for him to practice those things.  As much as our financial resources permitted we did try to provide opportunities for him to explore things he was curious about. Our basement was littered with things he tried, pursued for a while and then lost interest. We rented a clarinet and later a snare drum when he wanted to develop skills on them.  We gave him piano lessons and even took in a stray piano that friends wanted to get rid of. The weaving loom in the corner, the gerbil cage and run, the fish tank and even the dog we had for a while were projects undertaken because of his initial interest.  We did not criticize when he lost interest in something and we did not push (alright maybe a little bit with the piano lessons) beyond his interest in a topic. Do not get the idea that he was spoiled and could have anything he wished for.  He had to demonstrate  a serious interest before we went down a road and there were some roads we did not go down for financial reasons.  However I think it was important that there were no negative consequences for trying something and then losing interest in it. In addition to “things” we also provided encouragement, patience and travel to locations like museums, bookstores and libraries.

I bring all this up not to pat ourselves on the back for our parenting skills but rather to ask “shouldn’t we create e learning that provides some of these things to learners?”  Our e learning should demonstrate the behavior we want our learners to undertake.  It should foster curiosity and provide occasion or opportunity to explore it. It should remove negative consequences for exploring that curiosity even if it wants to promote a “right” way of doing things.  It should have “virtual” travel to a real world location to exercise that curiosity. We should incorporate patience and encouragement into it.  Finally we need to realize that as much as we do the final success of the e learning experience is dependent on the learner.  A poorly motivated learner, irresponsible and with poor work habits is not going to seriously engage or complete an e learning course no matter how good it is.  This is not a “blame the victim” comment; a poorly designed and executed course will turn off even the best learner.  We still have an obligation to provide the best e learning we can. It is rather a recognition of the agency that lies with the learner. A learner has to have a serious interest in the topic, dedication to the work involved in an e learning course and a clear idea of what they want or will get out of the course.

We must not wait for the perfect learner to come along however. Many more imperfect learners will take our courses than perfect ones. People with limited time; people forced to take our courses although they may have little interest in them beyond just getting through; people without the skills or prior knowledge to best take advantage of our courses; all of these are our “target audience” too. The course designers themselves need to realize this and design ways to attract people, maintain their interest and provide exercises that develop the skills they will need to be successful. This of course just adds to the burden we must try to achieve usually within a tight deadline.  These are of course ideals and things we should strive for even if we don’t achieve them. No one is a perfect parent and no one said parenting or e learning design would be easy.

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