The Future (and History) of Learning, in 3 Minutes a Day

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You have probably heard of the socratic method, yes?

Just in case you have not, here is a quick history lesson. Famous Greek philosopher, Plato, was fond of using his equally famous mentor, Socrates, as the star character in many of his writings. Plato would address a particular philosophical topic indirectly, by relating a supposed story of Socrates discussing the topic either with his students or with other important people of the time. In many of these stories, Socrates teaches his students not by lecture or presentation, but instead by asking questions – questions carefully constructed to encourage the student to truly ponder the topic and to spark ongoing dialogue.

This method of learning by engagement with questions has come down to us through time as the 'socratic method.'

Why do I bring this up?;

Because today I has the pleasure of seeing an amazing new learning technology solution based on this age-old method of learning. In the course of being an analyst, I talk to many solution providers – including providers of learning management systems, content development tools, social software, custom content developers, and host of different learning-related professional services. In short, I often see cool stuff. (BTW – to our members reading this entry, if you have not checked out our new Solution Providers Library, go now. It is THE best way to find learning or talent management related solution provider.)

However, what I saw today from SpacedEd (short for spaced education) is one of the more groundbreaking things I have seen in awhile. Now, mind you, on the surface both the concept and the technology involved are fairly simple, bare bones even. But it is often the simple things that are the most extraordinary.

Here is the basic idea:

  • Take any learning content and rethink it as a series of carefully crafted questions.
  • Keep the questions relatively short and simple.
  • Make the questions available in as many different methods and modalities as possible – including email, IM, Twitter, and mobile device.
  • Stream the questions to a learner on a set schedule via whatever the preferred method might be.
  • Provide the learner with instant feedback and additional educational material as each question is answered.
  • Using a special algorithm, gradually adapt the stream of questions sent to the learner based on their demonstrated mastery of the material.

An example SpacedEd course might follow this pattern:

  • Each learner receives 2 questions every day via email.
  • If a question is answered incorrectly, it will be repeated 1 week later.
  • If a question is answered correctly, it will be repeated 3 weeks later.
  • If a question is answered correctly two times in a row, the item is retired from the course and is no longer repeated.
  • The learner completes the course when all of the questions are retired (answered correctly twice in a row).

There is a social element to the platform as well.

  • When learners see feedback for questions, they also see cumulative stats for all other learners on that question – giving the activity a game-like quality.
  • Learners can jump directly to 'answer blogs' where other learners have posted comments on the course and the question.
  • Learners can rate and comment on whole courses as well.

SpacedEd offers a fully SaaS platform for creating, delivering, tracking, and reporting on these courses-by-question. The SpacedEd method and technology platform are the product of work done by a professor at Harvard Medical School. Harvard also holds the related patents and is a major backer of the company. The technology has been the subject of intensive scientific research at Harvard, including 12 large randomized trials completed to date.  Evidence shows that this method has been found to

  • Improve knowledge acquisition,
  • Increase long-term knowledge retention (out to 2 years),
  • Change behavior,
  • Boost learners' abilities to accurately self-assess their knowledge.

In fact, the data showed that learners had fun, the learning experience itself became addictive.

SpacedEd is in the process of launching a consumer focused version. It is in public beta right now. All current courses are available for free through September. Part of the technology platform is a tool for creating new courses. SpacedEd intends for the consumer site to be an electronic marketplace through which content creators can distribute their content to any and all learners – either for free or for fee. It will cost nothing to create and give away courses. If you want to change a fee, then SpacedEd will manage the entire transaction and take a percentage of the sale as a fee-for-service.

SpacedEd is also working on an enterprise offering using the same technology, allowing companies to have their own branded SpacedEd environments. I should be able to share more about that effort soon.

In the meantime, go check out their site and sign up for a course. Please share your feedback in the comments here.

As their motto states, you could learn most anything is 3 minutes a day.

Dani Johnson

Dani Johnson, Vice President, Learning & Development Research, writes about the evolving L&D function. Specifically, she focuses on the necessary changes in how L&D approaches its responsibilities and allocates its resources (people, time, and money) to have a lasting effect on both organizations and individuals.

One thought on “The Future (and History) of Learning, in 3 Minutes a Day

  1. David,

    FASCINATING! It’s amazing how many applications this type of teaching and reinforcement methodology could have besides just in academic institutions. My mind is racing. I’m sure yours is as well. Thanks for writing about SpacedEd. I hope they are successful.

    Alex Kos

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