Home » Why e-Learning is Killing Education: Aaron Barth (Transcript)

Why e-Learning is Killing Education: Aaron Barth (Transcript)

Aaron Barth at TEDxKitchenerED

Full text of thought-leader Aaron Barth’s talk: Why e-Learning Is Killing Education at TEDxKitchenerED conference.

Listen to the MP3 Audio here:


Aaron Barth – President of Dialectic

When I started teaching as a university professor, I did what we all do when we start out as educators. I relied on my intuitions about what good education looks like.

And I’ll let everyone in on a little secret: my intuitions were really really bad. They were based on my experience in the lecture model of education. That’s where we talk at people for really long periods of time, gives them some text books to read, and then give them a test. That’s what I did.

I talked at people, kind of like right now. That was my original sin, but I didn’t stop there.

Years later when I was working as an education consultant, I was asked to design some e-learning, and I hadn’t done that before. And you’ll never guess how I went about it.

By injecting all the same terrible intuitions into it… and it looks something like this. Virtual instructor in front of a virtual whiteboard, delivering virtual bullet-points. I’m pretty sure when we thought of using virtual reality in education, this isn’t what we had in mind.

Unfortunately, this is what e-learning looks like today. And no one’s learning anything from it. Think about how absurd that is.

So how did we get here?

Well, I talked about intuition, but let’s actually go a little bit deeper. Our earliest instincts around education are actually based on storytelling. We know this from archeological data. People telling other people stories. People teaching other people using human stories. It’s how we learned and it’s how we communicated.

Fast-forward 40,000 years… we now have beautiful scalable mobile-enabled e-Learning that we can use to teach people on opposite ends of the world the same thing at the same time.

But somewhere between the caves and the clicking, we got so focused on building this technology, that we forgot about the one and only thing that matters in education: the people.

eLearning can be used to teach everyone, everywhere, good hygiene practices to stop the spread of disease. eLearning can be used to teach everyone everywhere sustainable living practices to combat the climate crisis. These are global problems; they require global solutions.

And eLearning should be making a contribution to them, but it isn’t. It isn’t, because we’ve forgotten about the people. We’ve forgotten about the way people actually learn.

If there’s one thing that everyone in this room can do to start refocusing your efforts on people and to start doing e-learning that works, it’s this: start telling stories again, not because it’s what we used to do, but because the science says it actually works.

We know that scenario and story-based learning can accelerate our time to expertise on a given task. It does that, because stories simulate the way we learn through experience.

We know that scenario or story-based learning is more engaging than click than quiz eLearning. The reason why is that, stories create empathy. Empathy in turn creates personal meaning. And it’s personal meaning, not clicking, that drives engagement.

And finally, we know that scenario or story-based learning is the best way to teach complex skills, like problem-solving, collaboration, and creativity. Precisely the skills that the workforces of today and tomorrow need to solve our biggest problems.

Let me show you how this works.

Stephen and his 12-year old granddaughter Rose are going to the bank to open up her first bank account. She just made a traveling basketball team and he wants to be able to send her money while she’s on the road; they’re super excited. They booked a meeting way in advance and it’s a big moment for their family.

When they get to the bank and start filling out the paperwork, things start to go sideways. The bank employee is immediately suspicious of them both. She thinks there’s a discrepancy in their bank accounts. But more importantly, she thinks that the identification that they provided is fraudulent. Grabs the ID, abruptly leaves the room and escalates it to her superiors.

Shortly after that, the cops roll in. They handcuff Stephen. They handcuff 12-year-old Rose. Bring them out to the police cruiser and arrest them.

So I know you might be thinking, I mean maybe this is just a big misunderstanding, or maybe the ID actually is fraudulent. But let’s add some color to the story.

The truth is that Stephen and Rose are indigenous Canadians. And the ID that the bank employee thinks is fraudulent is actually their official government-issued status card. This is a true story happened a few months ago in Vancouver.

Now for argument’s sake, let’s imagine that some time prior to the incident, the bank employee passed with flying colors their e-learning module on unconscious bias. They listen to the virtual instructor in front of the virtual whiteboard, deliver virtual bullet points. They crushed the drag-and-drop activities.

And after 12 tries, they got perfect on the quiz.

Do any of us think that this kind of e-learning experience would actually prepare the bank employee to deal with this situation properly? We shouldn’t.

We know that 20 minutes after a traditional classroom style experience, you’ve already forgotten 60% of the content. Now I want you to compare that to how you feel after having heard Stephen and Rose’s story. I guarantee that everyone in this room will remember twelve-year-old Rose handcuffed and you’ll remember it in a way that will actually change your behavior.

So what if the e-learning experience was simply a simulation of this story? What if this story and others like it form the core of the e-learning that bank employees had?

Well, if we did it that way, we’d be simulating a real-world experience and therefore accelerating expertise. We’d be creating empathy for the lived experience of intersectionality and therefore deepening engagement.

And we’d be exposing them to the nuances of unconscious bias and therefore improving their collaboration skills. When we compare this story-based approach to a clicky module, it’s no contest which one is more likely to change our behavior. It’s the one based on the human story.

We need to start telling these human stories again. It’s not going to be easy. It means you can’t keep cutting and pasting content into an e-learning module. It means giving up the avatars, giving up the drag-and-drops, giving up the quizzes, but it’ll be worth it.

It’ll be worth it because if we can get back to telling these human stories again, we can get back to why we all got into education in the first place. We can get back to empowering people.

Let’s start telling stories again.

Thank you.

Resources for Further Reading:

The Super Mario Effect – Tricking Your Brain into Learning More: Mark Rober (Transcript)

Douglas Barton: What Do Top Students Do Differently? at TEDxYouth@Tallinn (Transcript)

The Secret to Student Success: Arel Moodie (Transcript)

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