What was the last thing you learned online? In recent years, navigators of the digital world have found online courses from the best universities in the world. We discover inspiring talks in which the greatest global leaders share questions, dilemmas and discoveries.
We find documentaries in which entertainment and education are combined in an amalgamation of edutainment (a combination of the English words education and entertainment) that makes us forget to look at the clock.
We explore platforms that help develop our professional skills to stay current in our work. We work remotely, collaborating with others. And we can learn through video tutorials on the most diverse issues, from growing an organic garden on our terrace to advanced mathematics.
Online learning has been combined in many cases with face-to-face instances, generating hybrid or blended modalities that enhance the best of both worlds: the flexibility that digital offers with the necessary emotional support that face-to-face contact with others gives us.
The pandemic, driver of change
In the context of the global pandemic, many of us have realized how irreplaceable is that physical encounter provided by schools, universities and other spaces that we miss so much in times of confinement. But, at the same time, we explore like never before the potential offered by remote education, which opens the doors to a world full of treasures to be found.
In the current complex and changing context in which lifelong learning is one of the keys to personal and professional success, it seems that we are facing a panacea never seen before. It is a phenomenon that had already been developing strongly, but which put its foot on the accelerator in the COVID-19 pandemic in which the digital education ecosystem has expanded in record time.
In this new digital Alexandria we are all apprentices, yes, but also teachers. Today, teachers from all disciplines are teaching us what they know online, from kung-fu classes to visual arts workshops.
Even people with a vocation to teach and help have begun to dare to do so, from amateur cooks to young people who explain how to use the computer to do bank paperwork to older adults, to mothers and fathers who share the games with their children to inspire others.
Perhaps more than ever, we are learning in community. A global community that brings us together, in a two- way path , with those who have our same needs and interests. An expanded tribe that allows us to learn and teach in a continuum where we are protagonists and users of the generation of collective knowledge.
Learn to learn
However, not all that glitters is gold. For the dream of ubiquitous learning to become a reality, as in the magic wand that transforms the pumpkin into a royal carriage, it is necessary to solve at least two great previous challenges.
The first is to universalize access to the digital world, a social debt that has not yet been resolved in many regions of the world. According to the United Nations, at the end of 2019, 54% of the global population had access to the internet, with huge differences between continents. Connectivity for all is a goal that is being achieved more slowly than we would like. Many already speak of internet access as a new human right.
But there is a second challenge, perhaps less visible and of tremendous importance. To harness the potential of ubiquitous learning it is not enough to have global knowledge at your fingertips. Nor is it enough that there are quality educational proposals available. Something more is necessary: we must learn to learn. A habit that, like all, is learned. And that provides us with a launch pad for the rest of life.
Learning to learn has two fundamental ingredients. I’m going to call them spark and autonomy. The spark is that desire that moves us to discover something new and the intrinsic motivation that leads us to set goals for ourselves, not for others, without expecting rewards or fearing punishment. It requires finding that flame that, in many cases, traditional education has extinguished over the years and that is key to rediscovering to start and sustain any learning process.
Curiosity as a motor
To ignite –or rekindle– that spark, the key is to cultivate our curiosity, exploring what interests or intrigues us. It also helps to identify those pending accounts: those topics or skills that we always wanted to know or have but never found when – or how, or where, or with whom – to learn them. For some, it will be Mandarin Chinese; for others, confectionery or Eastern philosophy.
Making a list of what we would like to learn and having it visible (on the refrigerator, desk or nightstand) can be a strategy to put our curiosity on the agenda and not forget that the world is a fascinating place of learning.
It also helps to learn with others. Learning with our sons and daughters , something that many of us have done during confinement by accompanying them in their homework, can be a starting point to search for that spark together, starting from school topics. We can take advantage of these topics as pretexts to learn and enjoy that knowledge that we learned poorly and forced during our own schooling, but that we suspect is interesting if we approach it from curiosity. Or look for common interests to explore together and share the adventure of learning as a family.
Because it is not about teaching, but about spreading the love of learning. And for that it is not so necessary to know, but to be emotionally available to investigate together. That loving bond with the knowledge that is woven from childhood is probably the greatest legacy that we can leave to the new generations. Only with the desire to know and always learn, they will be able to solve the challenges, both individually and collectively, in an increasingly uncertain world.
Autonomy, another key factor
The second key ingredient in learning to learn is autonomy. The same flexibility offered by online education demands from those who learn a series of skills that the Swiss pedagogue Philippe Perrenoud baptized as the “student trade”.
We talk about fundamental skills to learn anything. From the ability to organize our times, establish work routines and plan how to approach a new task. To learn to focus and develop perseverance. To understand the slogans, process what we learn, establishing connections with what we know before and with our own lives. And to reflect on what we have learned and evaluate ourselves.
Decades of research show that good performance –or failure– in school or any learning instance is usually due not so much to understanding or not the contents but, precisely, to having developed –or not– this capacity for self-regulation.
To take advantage of the educational potential of the digital world, this is even more necessary, because the reins of the process are held by the learner. And it is not always so easy to self-manage. To cite just one example, an analysis of research on MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), one of the most interesting offers of professional updating that exist today, reveals that these self-administered courses tend to have high rates dropout rates and that students drop out after a few classes.
Learning at a distance requires, much more than other modalities, the ability to plan and sustain the effort. The good news is that this autonomy can be learned. It is not a quality of our personality, but a capacity that is strengthened as long as we dedicate time to it and realize that it is the cornerstone of any learning process. Sometimes we can do it alone. Others, most of us, need others to encourage us, help us and challenge us to move forward.
Learning throughout life helps us feel current, young, up-to-date. It gives us new energy to undertake daily activities and keeps us on a permanent outward journey. The world of ubiquitous learning is full of treasures to discover. Perhaps more than ever, today education is a two-way street in which we can all be, simultaneously, learners and teachers.