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.

Technology Can Change Everything about the Business of Higher Ed (for the Better)

This post was originally featured in the Dalhousie Business Review on December 3rd, 2019. You can find the link to the original article here.

In 2012, an article in The American Interest made waves heralding the “End of the University as We Know It”. In this article, the author predicted that half of the colleges and universities in the United States would disappear within the next decade, because schools such as MIT or Harvard were poised to acquire millions of students by offering their courses for free over the internet. The technology behind this change would later be known as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). With university students paying ever-increasing amounts in tuition, many predicted that no-to-low cost MOOCs would disrupt the traditional university business model.

However, as time passed it became increasingly clear that this technology would not succeed at disrupting traditional education as envisioned. The following year, a study of MOOC courses offered by The University of Pennsylvania found that fewer than five percent of MOOC participants actually finished the course they enrolled in, and more worryingly, that MOOC success was best predicted by whether a student already had a university degree. Other studies soon supported this finding and the initial optimism about MOOCs wavered. It seems that the MOOC experience is very different from the traditional university; with the benefit of hindsight in 2019, nobody is surprised by this discovery.

There are many reasons why MOOCs and other online education experiences are different from in-person classrooms. One likely factor (which backed by significant evidence) is social presence, the ability to perceive others in a learning experience. Another factor is the design of a learning experience, which needs to be designed in a way that is appropriately difficulty and in a way that inhibits mind wandering, similarly to how a good instructor would deliver their lecture.  The evidence is clear: there are parts of a learning experience where a human element is critical to success.

Yet, the underlying financial challenge to the higher education business model remains, and universities are under ever-increasing pressure to reduce costs. This often translates to pressure to increase classroom size, downsize library collections, or to simply ask professors to teach more. If we agree that the human element is the secret sauce to quality teaching, how can colleges and universities adapt to face these pressures without compromising the very thing that makes higher education work?

Many sectors have already undergone (and continue to undergo) digital transformations, which have changed nearly everything about how they work. In the 1980s and 90s, for example, Ford underwent radical digital restructuring which not only dramatically improved efficiency, but completely changed the structure of their accounts payable department and its processes. In this classic case, Ford used the gains in early internet technology to completely re-engineer how their company operates, largely by automating manual business processes. In 2019, companies, and to lesser extents public institutions, continue to transform themselves with digital technology, which allows them to do more with the same number of human resources.

Higher education professionals are often perceived to be resistant to digital transformation, and often for good reasons. For instance, in The Slow Professor Canadian professors Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber critique the increasingly administrative nature of academic work and the merits of traditional education. They call on professors to actively resist the corporatization of academia and to force academic institutions to make time for slow, creative thought. Rather than spending time writing emails or publishing results as quickly as possible, they argue that professors (as well as other higher ed professionals) should instead take the time to cultivate scholarly value. At face value, it would seem that this sentiment resists the trend in digital transformation, which often requires workers to leverage new technologies to increase productivity, often at the expense of our work life balance.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Though Ford ultimately used their efficiency gains to reduce the number of accounts payable employees by 75%, universities (as non-profit institutions) do not have to follow suit. We have a tremendous opportunity to use digital transformation to automate administrative work and free up time for what matters.

For instance, with proper e-learning capabilities, educators could create flipped classrooms complete with pre-recorded lecture components and (partially) automated evaluation, so that faculty can spend more time guiding hands-on experiences with smaller in-person tutorials. Such a digitally enhanced classroom would automate the boring stuff and free up time to do the things that matter: providing meaningful mentorship and formative experiences for students. Digital technologies can similarly be used to reduce the number of forms that need to be filled out, efficiently document information that would otherwise be repeatedly sent in dozens of emails, or to give data-driven insights into emerging problems before they arise.

Digital transformation is not new. Colleges and universities simply need to embrace a culture where digital transformation is possible. They must also avoid the trap of providing watered-down MOOCs and instead focus their information strategy on maximizing the qualities that defined the university experience in the first place. By doing this, colleges and universities can enhance the best qualities of higher education in a time that seems faced with insurmountable challenges. The transformation would be painful, but it would also be worth it.