Seeing Is Not Only Believing—It’s About Learning

Technology has dramatically changed the way humans communicate and work, but it is still a slave to the same DNA which connects us as a species to the mountain gorillas of Central Africa.

Computers, smart phones, and high-speed networks have all evolved in the last 50 years—a blink of an eye compared to the 55,000 years of human development, but it begs the question, why haven’t we more efficiently adapted how we learn with those digital tools?

The answer is we’ve got the equation backwards. It’s not us who need to adapt our learning processes to the technology; we need to adapt the technology to the way we acquire knowledge.

What Can We Learn From Gorillas About Learning?

Learning is at the core of our species because it drives us to adapt which in turn is the engine of evolution. What we learn triggers change and creates the next generation of things.

As I said, it is embedded in our DNA, which is really a hard copy of everything we’ve learned and adapted to as a species. If you want to see it in its raw form, there’s no better example than the mountain gorillas.

I know this because back in 1989 I traveled to Zaire (now the DRC) to observe these magnificent creatures, and there were several survival tips we had to learn before we took those first steps on the trail.

First, while in the presence of an alpha male, you must communicate your subservient position by dropping your head to avoid eye contact, rounding your shoulders so as not to bare your chest and appear challenging, and you must make repeated soft grunting sounds to communicate your submission.

These exaggerated postures are life savers when dealing with 400-pound gorillas, but we still see a muted form of that body language in our modern lives. In fact, only about seven percent of our human communication is verbal.

The rest is non-verbal and on par with messages I had to send to those gorillas: 55 percent of all communication is physical, being able to see the other person’s posture and body language while 38 per cent is about the tone and inflection of our voices.

If you’ve ever had a text or email misinterpreted, the latter component of communication physiology is what tripped you up.

One of the big differences in physical communications with humans is our 44 facial muscles which can convey as many as 10,000 discrete expressions.

We know instantly whether someone is serious or sarcastic by the look on their face. Further, what separates human learning from that of other species is our language. It has allowed us to learn rapidly and to pass on what we’ve learned just as quickly.

It’s that combination of the physical and the spoken word that works most efficiently. Simply standing in a room and talking isn’t a best practice for either teaching or learning. Engagement is essential. Eye contact, facial expressions, body language, and dynamic movement are all part of an effective teacher’s toolbox.

Beyond Another Brick in The Wall: Let’s Get Phygital

In traditional bricks and mortar classrooms, there’s an instructor and an audience. The instructor can tell at a glance, who is there, who is engaged, and who is distracted by their smartphone.

The instructor’s skill in managing the audience and engaging them is critical to the learning process. Put a barrier—a computer screen with no live webcam—between the instructor and the audience, and it’s like talking to a brick wall. You’ve lost the substance of communication and irreparably damaged learning capacity.

The challenge of virtual learning has been to recreate the classroom environment with all its human characteristics. Many have tried and many have failed, because it’s not enough just to broadcast the instructor’s video in a one-way stream. The teacher has no idea who is engaged, who is sleeping, and who is even present at their computer.

The convergence of the virtual with the physical is a concept that is manifesting itself as the age of the Internet of Things (also called the Internet of Everything) evolves. It’s a mash-up of the digital and the physical, called phygital. We’re starting to see it in retailing where bricks and mortar stores have created digital portals that allow shoppers to browse the racks, even to see what items might look like if they were trying them on.

For many Millenials and their successor cohort Generation Next, the virtual world of Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and the like are just as real to them as the here and now.

The fact is, they’re able to slip back and forth between the real and virtual because they are comfortable with getting phygital and fully immersing themselves.

However, most online training platforms do not support the use of live video for more than a small handful of users and it kills the phygital experience.

The majority, such as WebEx and Skype, can only handle up to 10 cameras in two-way interaction and must cater to the connection with the lowest bandwidth.

Adobe Connect can handle an unlimited number in theory but in practice, the sweet spot is 10 to 12, the issue being the scarce amount of space on a screen left to see the content as well as the constraints of bandwidth.

By the way, make no mistake about the importance of being seen.

The Harvard Business School Experience is a stunning example of what can be done if you have a huge Endowment Fund. Harvard built a virtual learning project, with a TV studio and large numbers of staff to create a highly realistic virtual classroom. But it’s expensive and certainly not mobile though it is stunningly phygital.

Refined Data has worked with other prestigious institutions like the Haas School of Business at U.C. Berkeley, the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia, John’s Hopkins University, Georgetown University and a few others and what we’ve developed is a much more practical concept which gives the instructor a seamless replication of an in-person classroom and which can be set up in any space, even the basement of a home.

You don’t even have to be technically proficient in using it. Simply stand and deliver. The system lets you see who is present, who might be answering emails or otherwise distracted and even has motion detection so that if a learner walks away, it will flag that they’ve stepped out.

In the learner feedback, which achieved a 97 percent approval rating, one of the student comments was incredibly insightful: “I felt that uncomfortable feeling in the pit of my stomach that I could get called on at any moment to answer a question. It was just like being in a real classroom.”

That’s about as real as it gets. It really is phygital.

This interactive virtual learning platform isn’t just about delivering training or education. Since it also captures an immense amount of data about engagement, presence, punctuality, early leavers, and responsiveness, it’s a powerful analytical and predictive tool.

Using this Big Data, we can determine whether virtual students behave similarly in all classes or just specific lectures. Are they always late? Do they always leave early?

What does punctuality tell us about learning outcomes? Which students are more likely to fail—or excel based on their machine-observed behaviours?

For those of us in the business of learning, this is a major fork in the road; this next generation of interactive platforms—harnessing the best of technology and designed to engage in a quintessentially human way—is an opportunity we at Refined Data are obviously excited about. We hope you will be too.

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