The human brain is an amazing machine. It can focus and adapt, it can remember beyond imagination, and forget at convenience. It can come up with amazing new ideas and turn a blind eye to the obvious. When trying to explain computers, we sometimes make comparisons to the human brain to explain functionality. But the brain and computers work very differently - we can choose to override rules and patterns.
It may come as a surprise but we do have a lot of things in common, us, the human brains, and them, the computers, for example, we both use labels. Labels are there for our comfort and practical handling of the immense amounts of inputs from the world around us. When I first encountered computers I was in my late teens. Fortunately, I had just missed out on punch cards but for years I encountered system engineers who insisted on fields which only contained eight letters – the largest amount that punch card programming could handle – which resulted in horrible abbreviations. Some argued that information containing only 6‑8 letters made the human brain work faster. Well maybe, if the chunks of information were at all comprehensible – and WYSIWYG might be, once it’s translated and generally used. But fatsecof or OPmintrt is not (flight attendance security officer and Outpatient, minor treatment – really, you didn’t get that?).
And I’m thinking, hey, what about the labels we put on people? Never mind the printed stickers, labels are still used the same way: to identify someone, give me information or even warning on how to handle them or even advertising their usability.
Labels are so much more. Most psychological, management or marketing tests explain their results using labels as labels are excellent at explaining complex situations. But even if tests can diagnose me as an ENTJ (Myers-Briggs), a strong Motivator (Thomas-Carlson) or a Cash-cow (Boston Consulting Group) – I am also a mother, a dancer, a writer, a Dane, a woman… and an infinite amount of other things. Still, it is sometimes practical to simplify the world and sometimes you can benefit from misunderstanding labels.
By the year 2000, I had been working with e-learning for seven years: First as a publisher digitalising learning material, and then as a production manager in an e-learning company. I got tired of the wheel re‑inventing itself, people showing me another set of “matching-pairs” or “drag-and-drop” exercises that they had been working on for hours (and that the client really didn’t want to pay for). The mechanics where the same, only the design differed. And whether it was auto parts for an airplane or tools used for surgery I wasn’t even sure that the learning objective was the right one supported by that exercise. Basically, the subject matter experts where spending too much time having fun with the design.
I had a lot of ideas for the learning management system that my new employer needed (where pedagogical templates played a large part). Speaking of re-inventing the wheel, I know there are a lot of systems out there already. But back in 2000, not too many of those were actually available in Swedish, and my client needed something in local language. Although templates are standard in course building systems today, this was not the case 15 years ago.
In order to fill up on ideas (and steal from the best, like a pro) I signed up and attended a huge learning conference in the US. In an attempt to maximise my experience, I wanted to sign up for some pre-conference workshops and sure enough, I found one called “Interactivity in learning” which is just what I wanted. In the year 2000, most workshops, if they were about computers and computer tools, were about how to fizzle your PowerPoint presentations. And I’m sorry, but a presentation, no matter how much fizzle, is still a presentation. We all know about Ebbinghaus’ forgetting curve, so let’s just move on.
I arrived in Atlanta with high expectations and entered a conference room which, to my surprise, had absolutely no computers, just the teachers. And very soon, I realised that this was not about interactivity between man and computer, but teacher-student interactivity in a classroom; I was so stuck in my labels that I had not read the content description properly. Obviously I was very disappointed.
However, as I try to always let my standard approach be to make the best of every situation, I engaged with my fellow conference attendees and joined in the exercises provided; and I soon discovered that this was the good stuff! I don’t think I have ever, before or since, learned as much in one workshop, over one weekend! I have carried the principals, the learning games and the ideas from this workshop with me throughout my life and career and I still remember the guy’s name since he cleverly made a learning game out of that too, Siwasailam Thiagarajan. Even watching his videos today I still get the itch, it’s too slow and it is too obvious for my constantly speeding brain. And then I fall into his tempo, I start to reflect and wonder, how can I use this? When does this apply to my situation, and how? … And that is what it’s all about! Not telling me what to do, but to allow me to draw my own conclusions and apply them.
So take a chance and break out of your labels once in a while.