Friday, September 23, 2005

The Lessons Only Experience Can Teach

I remember the first time my young son enthusiastically got on his bike. Training wheels in place, he roared off not fully understanding the physics of acceleration or momentum. This lasted about 10 seconds until he realized that in his eagerness to “ride his bike” he had neglected to properly prepare for unavoidable moment of actually stopping his bike. It had never occurred to him he would actually want to stop – until the bushes that is. As he came sniffling out of the bushes with his ego more bruised than his body he said, “How do I stop?”

The next few minutes of hands-on learning were priceless. He was not only motivated to learn but he was able to apply what I said directly to something that was meaningful to him. He has never forgotten that experience and neither have I.

From an instructional perspective we had created what I believe to be the ideal learning environment. Although I had explained to him the basics of riding his bike and he had passed my oral assessment of his understanding, he was not able to translate a conceptual understanding into practical, useful skills. In this case and many others, there are simply lessons that only experience can teach.

One of my favorite Spanish proverbs states that “you cannot learn to swim in a field”. I think this can be applied to nearly every education subject. Without hands-on application the theory is largely meaningless. An argument can be made for the need for theory or knowledge-based education as a foundation. But when too much attention is paid to rote memorization and not application of that knowledge in practical situations the learning is often perceived as meaningless. I would even go so far as to say that in those circumstances real learning has not occurred.

This dilemma of book-smart v. street-smart is very pronounced in IT education. It is one thing to “know a lot about computers” and to be able to “do a lot with computers”. This is common sense really. Would you want to fly in a plane with a pilot who did not have flight experience? How about a surgeon who had never dissected a cadaver? With networks its very similar. I may know a lot about networks – I might even be able to pass an industry recognized certification exam – but I may have never touched a network in my life. Scared? You should be.

The problem is not that we do not realize that hands-on learning is important. The problem is that it is so challenging and often expensive to provide hands-on experiences in a learning environment.

Take the classic computer lab. Sure it has the “real” hardware and software but the technology is expensive to keep up to date. Then with that technology, the instructor has to configure each machine to replicate the learning environment and then evaluate the students performance. This is time consuming and laborious. This has to be done for each task. Quite a challenge, but there are viable alternatives.

I think we should take a page out of the NASA program training book. Before they trusted the astronauts with multi-million dollar space crafts they put them through hundreds if not thousands of hours of training in simulators. These simulators were designed to recreate, down to the tiniest detail, what it would be like in the real space craft. Their simulators allowed the astronauts to be presented with every imaginable situation that they might encounter in space.

The use of this type of simulator has been deployed further into the aerospace industry, military and recently into the technical area. With the advent of the internet and affordable simulations, IT students are now beginning to reap the benefits of hands-on learning, in wide variety situations from anywhere they have an internet connection.

The future is here today. Simulators are used in distance learning and traditional classroom alike. They not only provide hands-on learning but decrease the cost of maintaining computer labs. When you add the benefit of tracking progress and instant evaluation and feedback you have a learning situation that is superior to the “real thing.”
However it is accomplished, there are some lessons that only experience can teach. If you don’t believe me just ask my son.

Simulations anyone?

Although I have been in the technology industry for over a decade even us old dogs can learn new tricks. I think that is the point. Always pushing the envelope, challenging our assumptions and trying new things. So this is my first official post. In the near future I will be posting my thoughts on simulations in educational settings and I welcome your input.

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