The secret of our success (with online learning)

In The Secret of Our Success anthropologist Joseph Henrich outlines his hot take on why humans rose to become the ecologically dominant species: our ability to learn from each other. For many of us steeped in cognitive science, this position is surprising. We would expect the reason to be that human beings are just plain smarter. After all, humans seem to be considerably better at cognitive tasks, such as learning and processing large amounts of information. Prominent thinkers such as Steven Pinker have advanced this view, holding that human brains have been well adapted to be versatile.

However, there is interesting evidence that humans are not particularly smarter than our closest genetic relatives. In a series of studies by Esther Hermann and her team, who compared the intelligence of apes and two year old humans, it was demonstrated that infants do not fare better than chimpanzees at most cognitive tasks (e.g. quantities, causality) nor at spatial reasoning (e.g. object permanence). However, infant humans demonstrated considerably better social cognition. Adult chimps did not fare better than juvenile chimps at these tasks, but adult humans excel at them. It follows that an infant’s capacity for social learning is a major factor in their ability to learn new things, such as how to perform at cognitive tests. Henrich argues that this phenomenon also explains the history of European castaways, whose survival rates were not best determined by their years of provisions and time to learn how to survive, but whether they were able to befriend and learn from local Indigenous communities.

If we accept Henrich’s argument, it follows that what makes humans so successful is their capacity for cultural learning. Humans excel at learning passively by picking up on subtle cues through established social connections, or through the cumulative lens and context of one’s society. Our societies shape us and allow us to transfer knowledge that would have been impossible to accumulate on one’s own across a lifetime. Philosophers such as Hans-Georg Gadamer and John McDowell had a similar way of describing this phenomenon as bildung or cultural learning and argued that it was through a process of lifelong learning and education that knowledge was possible. Culture can also extend beyond a nation and permeate to subcultures or organizations.

I think that this view has consequences for the way we understand information technologies in organizations. When we implement a technology, we often consider factors such as its design, its usability, user training, and effective change management during its implementation. However, we don’t often consider the culture of an organization and the implications it has for learning new technologies.

Online learning during Covid-19 was an interesting case study in cultural learning with respect to information technology. In a study that we conducted at Dalhousie University during the pandemic, we conducted a survey of students’ experience to understand the factors that led to satisfactory online learning. Prior to the pandemic, our university had taught primarily in-person, and few people in our organization had experience either teaching or learning using online tools. We ultimately found that students’ perception of the difficulty of learning online was a strong predictor of dissatisfaction, and that this dissatisfaction is explained partially by whether someone perceived that they had the necessary technical skills.

This leads me to ask whether our collective experience through the pandemic would have been better if our organization had already developed a culture of learning online? Internal surveys later revealed that students at Dalhousie University were largely dissatisfied with emergency response though also that the Faculty of Management fared better than most. In hindsight, our elevated satisfaction was possibly explained by our faculty’s prior experience with online learning through its blended learning programs, as well as its focus on implementation of teaching technologies, such as ERPsim.

The culture of an organization thus plays an important part in supporting its stakeholders when they develop new skills or capabilities. Moving forward, we should ensure that we push to make technological innovation a key part of our identity, not just in branding. It is imperative that we create cultures where individuals have resources (including time) for innovation, where failure is tolerated, and where teams can be rewarded for taking risks. In doing so, we could create organizations that are better equipped for radical circumstances.

Leaders should focus on building the right culture. They should also heed Drucker’s wise words: “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. This adage extends well beyond online learning; culture might just be the most important factor in building a successful organization.

Three tips on how to learn well during COVID-19, backed by brain science

If you are reading this, you are likely aware that most universities in Canada are transitioning to an online format for the Fall 2020 semester. This has presented many challenges for professors because teaching online is totally different! We are putting a lot of effort into learning how to teach effectively. However, in my many discussions about online learning over the past few months, we haven’t spent a lot of time taking about the challenge: how to effectively prepare students for this transition. I thought I would share three tips on how to be an effective online learner, some of which has come from my research.

Tip 1: Take micro-breaks regularly

I recently re-analyzed some of my PhD thesis data and found something interesting. In my PhD thesis, I described studies of people’s brains patterns as they attended long lecture videos. The software I created also asked them questions periodically throughout the video. When asked at the 15 minute mark, participants reported being largely on task, though at the 30 minute mark they reported a significantly higher degree of mind wandering. I also found that the degree of reported mind wandering significantly impacted how well students learned from the lecture. Long lectures are hard to learn from! This isn’t news.

What I recently discovered is that there are some brain patterns that predict mind wandering pretty accurately. The brain patterns were significantly higher levels of delta waves (which are associated with sleepiness) and alpha waves (which are associated with meditation and self-directed thoughts). Clearly, the longer you focus on a lecture video, the more likely your brain will veg out and focus on other things. Though this does not prove that taking breaks would improve learning, the pattern is clear, and disrupting this pattern may result in better learning. The picture below illustrates the degree of these waves when in states of being “completely on task” versus “completely mind wandering”.

Regular breaks every 20 minutes or so may prevent your mind from wandering. When your mind is focused, you learn better. 

Figure: Differences in delta (sleepy waves) and alpha (meditation waves) when your mind is wandering. Minds are more likely to wander as a lecture progresses.

Tip 2: Use multimedia that is most effective for you

Some people like learning from books while others love YouTube videos (I am guilty!). However, for a serious online learner, it is usually best to have a combination of tools at your disposal. Education scientist Richard Mayer spent most of his career explaining how and why this works. In Multimedia Learning he argued that “humans possess separate information-processing channels for visually represented material and auditorily represented material.” In other words it is better to learn from a combination of pictures and words is better than either pictures alone or words alone.

Our brains are organized in a series of networks that conduct and compute various sensory and processing tasks. Many of these networks have common features (e.g. audio and visual attention networks), but ultimately use different tools to do their job. If you push one network too hard, it is difficult to effectively abstract information into knowledge. However, by distributing the workload, your brain can more effectively abstract experiences and information to learn. Different people have different capacities, which may be one of the factors influencing preferred learning styles.

Sometimes however, online learning is hampered by language barriers, or perhaps by a poorly delivered lesson. When this happens, a lesson generates what John Sweller called extraneous cognitive load. Though we need a bit of challenge to effectively learn, it can seem impossible difficult material is delivered in a hard-to-understand format. When this happens, it is extra-important to find other resources which can supplement a lesson. If you are lucky, these resources would be  in a format that works for you. Fortunately, in a world of YouTube and Coursera, we have no shortage of content to choose from.

If you find it hard to learn from a video, crack open your textbook. If you can’t find answers, don’t hesitate to search for other outside resources or reach out to your teaching team for help.

Tip 3: Be intentional about socializing online

Finally, one of the great challenges presented by the COVID-19 situation in Canada is that we will not be able to hold in-person social activities. In some ways, it almost feels like we live on spaceships, alone-yet-together; what YouTube creator C.G.P. Grey called “Spaceship You”. For many students, “Spaceship You” is challenging because good learning experiences are shaped in large part by your community of learning.

E-learning scholars have noticed that “social presence” is a critical component of e-learning success. In a classic paper by Johnson et al. (2008) it was demonstrated that satisfactory e-learning environments were identified as 1) personal, 2) sociable, 3) sensitive, 4) warm and 5) active. A more recent meta-analysis on the role of social presence in online learning has supported this finding and it is clear that social presence is important for learning online.

The challenge with social presence is that though instructors play a critical part in facilitating it, students must also take initiative to create such an environment. At Dalhousie, we have plans to implement some pretty new technology to help with this (which will be announced later this summer). However, technology is only good if it is actually used. It will be critically important for both students and instructors to be actively engaged on technology platforms.

University is a social experience. Be active on your course chat and other online community platforms. 

The fall semester will certainly be different than any of the others that have come before. Though there are challenges, there may also be unique opportunities for personal and professional growth. We don’t have all of the answers, but we are working hard to create a good learning experience. I am looking forward with an open mind; with any luck, 2020 will be remembered as year of unprecedented internet innovation, not just disruption.