Technology should focus on the things it can do better than humans – and leave the rest. If we are not careful, technology can make bad teaching worse – rather than support good teaching.

This is what Carl Wieman, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2005, told me in the first episode of Adventures in eLearning. Carl Wieman’s main qualification for saying so is not actually his Nobel Prize but his role as a Professor of Graduate Education at Stanford and as a pioneer of ‘active learning’ – something for which he was awarded the Yidan Prize in Education Research in 2020.

To be clear, Carl Wieman isn’t saying that technology is bad – but that the first question for any educator, and by extension anyone involved in eLearning – should be ‘what is best for the student?’ rather than be obsessed with technology.

Technology shows the old ways of working are so blatantly, obviously bad.

Carl Wieman

Carl Wieman’s answer to the question: ‘what is best for the student?’ is emphatically: ‘active learning’.

So, what is active learning and how to apply it to eLearning?

Here’s a summary:

  • Start with the key skill you want the learner to learn – the ‘learning objective’
  • Break that down into bite-size chunks that can be taught and practised.
  • Focus on delivering these chunks, then getting students to practise these chunks and – here’s the key – provide feedback.
  • Technology should be used only when it supports this fundamental approach.
    • Technology is best used to deliver the chunks and scale the delivery. Think of videos or written material that can be delivered online to many people at once.
    • Technology can also be used to enable the practising of these chunks, with Zoom breakout rooms for example, to allow students to practise in groups.
    • Technology can also be used to provide feedback, for example in a multiple-choice question that gives prompts when a student gets the answer wrong.
    • BUT Carl Wieman argues that humans are still best placed to provide the practice and the feedback.

Another way of looking at ‘active learning’ is as ‘deliberate practice’ – a phrase coined by Swedish psychologist Anders Ericsson in his book Peak, among others. It’s the way athletes learn and improve their golf swing or a tennis serve. Or how musicians learn to play piano. Or how everyone learns to walk and talk. They break it down into bite size chunks, they practise and they have a coach/teacher/parent to give feedback. Carl Wieman told me that deliberate practice is the “overall guiding principle of active learning”. For Carl Wieman, the skill in question isn’t a golf swing, but learning to think in a certain way.

Carl Wieman is the first interview in a series Adventures in eLearning – a series for people who design and deliver eLearning. Why did we bother with this series? Well, there is a boom in eLearning – a quick Google will give some eye-watering statistics on the money flowing in – and that has only sped up with the global pandemic. And, as with any boom, there is a lot of noise, a lot of wasted money – and perhaps more importantly, a lot of wasted time. In this series we speak to leaders in the field in the hope of cutting through the hype. Carl and I had met a few years back when we made a short documentary about active learning for Nature Magazine at the annual meeting of Nobel Laureates at Lindau – and so I knew he’d set some things straight in my mind.

He didn’t disappoint. It’s all about good teaching, first and foremost. As Carl Wieman says: technology can make bad teaching even worse, but used right it can make good teaching even better.

In the next episode, we speak to Daphne Koller, co-founder of Coursera about her journey to set up a new eLearning start up in response to her teenage daughters being taught, badly, during the pandemic.