Science of Learning: On Demand Learning

On-demand learning is where learning and support are available when a student needs to do or know something rather than when an administrator, course team/leader, module organizer, teacher, or professor (or whatever you call yourself) decides it is to be taught. Often used in institutional settings, on-demand learning is currently more relevant to skills (how to do something) than theory (why it is this way). I wonder if we aren’t really missing a trick.

In the skills world, providing support and resources for knowing how to work through a complex problem, on-demand learning, is often available and students are encouraged to use it. For example, learning and mastering a statistical technique makes sense to a student when a student when his or her data has been collected and there is a need to carry out an analysis. We don’t really target our teaching in this way. Keeping with statistics in psychology (something I am intimately familiar with) the traditionally common approach that we take is we teach students how to carry out every imaginable statistical test that might possibly be required somewhere in the middle of their degree program. Once the students collect their data and need to analyze it, we tell the students we have already taught them this and they should know what to do. Why do we think this is the proper order. In psychology, statistical methods is a tool to use, not a subject to study. However, because every professor in the world who has ever done a psychology degree had to do statistics (and hated it), so do the students today!

On-demand learning is already a familiar concept, like when we use computer help systems. Nobody expects anyone to know everything there is to know about every piece of software that might be used. When we are not sure what to do, click on the help icon and hope (like really hope) the system can help you understand what you need to know. Simple on-demand learning.

However, in the theoretical/applied sphere, on-demand learning doesn’t really play a part. It should. I don’t think it should be the only type of learning available, but it should augment what the learner has already learned. As an example, I might learn about the need to reverse order question responses in a survey as a measure of participant non-engagement when I take a research methods class that covers survey design. However, I should also be reminded of why I reverse some of the question orders when I am actually working on a questionnaire. This is important for the long-term recall and contextualization of knowledge.

Given how memories are formed and stored, it is important in order to establish the right connections in the brain. We know that the hypothetically infinite capacity for memory is because of the way memories are formed and stored. Too often faulty analogies such as computers or tape recorders are used to describe memory formation and storage. In reality, memories are formed by building connections and bridges between parts of the brain, either at the level of a neuron, a system, or an area. There appears to be no upper limit on the number of connections that can be made, and therefore, no limit to memory.

However, making the connections to the right places is critical for the development of useful knowledge and understanding. When students first learn something, it might be stored as a tidbit of information that is needed to pass a test. If that tidbit can be remembered, it can become contextualized when a student has to use it in practice. This means more connections are made that tie the tidbit of information with something that is already there. And, the more connections that can be made, the more useful and available that piece of knowledge becomes.

As we increase the number of connections, our understanding of any concept is enriched and changed. The knowledge becomes contextualized and embedded and leads to a greater understanding of how the world fits together. Reminding students of theoretical tidbits throughout the learning process allows them to make connections that otherwise might be missed. In this way, on-demand learning is, really, vital to developing understanding. Unfortunately, we usually rely on recall from some previously given lecture to enrich understanding and miss out on the opportunity to embed on-demand systems in our teaching.

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