On-Demand Learning

An issue in the business training world, but a non-issue in HE.

Why not?

On-demand learning is where learning and support is available when a student needs to do or know something rather than when an administrator, course team/leader, module organiser or teacher decides it is to be taught. 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 statistical technique makes sense when a student’s data has been collected and there is a need to carry out an analysis. We don’t really target our teaching in this way. More traditionally, we teach students how to carry out the statistical test required somewhere in the middle of the programme and then tell the students we have already taught them this and they should have already learned it.

On-demand learning is already available, in some ways, through the use of  computer help systems. When you are not sure what to do, click on the help icon and hope the system can help you understand what you need to know.

However, in the theoretical sphere, on-demand learning doesn’t really play a part. I think 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 questions in a survey as a measure of 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 questions when I am actually working with a questionnaire. This is important for the long term recall and contextualisation of knowledge.

Given how memories are formed and stored, this is important in order to establish the right connections in the brain. We know that the immense (possibly 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 the building of connections and bridges between parts of the brain, either at the level of a neurone, 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 I first learn something, it might be stored as a tidbit of information that I need to pass a test. Later, that tidbit becomes contextualised when I have to use it in practise. This means more connections are made that tie the tidbit with something else.

As we increase the number of connections, our understanding of any concept is enriched and changed. The knowledge becomes contextualised 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 vital to developing understanding. Unfortunately, we usually rely on recall to enrich understand, and miss out on the opportunity to embed on-demand systems in our teaching.


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