Upgrading Human Learning: Perspective Shifting

tricia_wangThe changing landscape of learning is due in part to a shift in the way technology is used today. OEB keynote speaker Tricia Wang, founder of Constellate Data, says that as a researcher and consultant exploring the interaction between technology and the human experience, it’s clear that technology has changed the way that society considers and approaches learning.


By Jason Kenny,


Tricia Wang is a researcher and consultant who has advised organisations including Nokia, GE, Kickstarter, the United Nations and NASA on ways to make their learning and education systems human-centric. She suggests that one way of doing this is opening up discussion within organisations about what is worth learning, thus making training and learning iterative and responsive to the realities of staff. However, it’s not just in organisations: For the individual, technology enhances the possibility of learning by removing older systems – but with freedom comes responsibilities.


What does the OEB theme of Owning Learning mean to you in the context of your work?


Tricia Wang: When I think of owning learning, it’s really about not relying on top-down traditional systems in which access was limited to people born into a set of circumstances. It means taking accountability of what you learn, and it also means taking the responsibility to change it if it’s not working for you. It means taking ownership of finding alternative ways of learning outside the system.  It also means cultivating patience to see through change because change takes a long time; it doesn’t happen overnight.


This is all especially relevant for precisely what’s going on all over the world, where we’re seeing political shifts that also have ramifications for our education and learning systems.


I see a big loss of trust in formal learning. People are starting to see that what’s being sold to them might not be that valuable. People are starting to think that they may not need actually to pay for a formal college education and that they can seek alternative routes to getting ahead in the world.


Your work explores patterns of technology. How have you seen software influence learning?


Tricia Wang: Software now enables you to connect outside of formal systems and connect to new people. This is the social aspect of learning, which is all about learning in a networked way.


Networks aren’t top down, they are distributed. The internet is literally a physical network, and of course there are systems of hierarchy built on networks. However for the most part, I’ve seen new forms of networked learning in which people are learning from their peers, not just from certified institutions and experts. Learning now happens within communities: look at Minecraft, Kickstarter, and Tumblr. On one end you could say these are merely websites where people play games, sell stuff, and post memes, but on the other end, you could say – and be correct – that these are platforms for communities to connect and learn from each other.


What light does an ethnographic approach shed on developments in learning?


Tricia Wang: As an ethnographer, your job is to understand other people’s perspectives. It’s a practice that’s entirely about stepping outside your own shoes to understand the world as others see and experience it. Learning shouldn’t be didactic. I believe learning is all about meeting the students where they are at, and then doing everything you can to show them different perspectives of the world. To do this, teachers have to put themselves in the students’ position – and this is a step that many teachers forget. They often only teach from their own perspective, so they fail to bring the students along.


What do you see as the next big leap in learning technology?


Tricia Wang: There has been a lot of hype around for the last thirty or so years related to the never-ending dream of a pure AI-robot world. Learning and education have enveloped in this narrative: imagine if it we could only be taught by robots! You wouldn’t have to rely on a teacher – the AI system would help you figure out what you need to learn. I actually think this is a very lovely dream: The upside is that we’re talking about robots giving you individualised learning. They’re able to see an individual’s learning patterns and the machine can curate a specific type of learning for an individual. That’s pretty cool.


The reality, though, is that the people working on the cutting edge of AI are talking about humans in the loop, where the idea is having humans and robots work together. Where is the right point to insert the human in the loop? So it’s not that AI is out of the picture; it’s still the foundation of what’s going to be done. However, the discussion is going ahead thoughtfully about the correct point at which to insert the human into the experience to maximise the learning.


The other thing I’m excited about is VR. I think we have a long way to go with virtual reality being put into the classroom. It’s still the early days, but what’s exciting, I think, is that you’re able to curate these experiences.


The watch-out for VR in the class room is that without the right teacher, it can fall into some sort of empathy tourism, where it’s like, ”Let’s get to understand poor people. Let’s put on our goggles, and we’ll go to some stereotypical poor place.” The result is that people would assume they have understanding just because they have had this VR experience.


I think we’re going to have to ensure that when the technology is launched, we have educators who really know how to set up the context. This context setting can lead to what I call “perspective shifting”—the ability to see the world from another perspective and hold multiple versions of reality up at once. This is really what learning is about – shifting your perspectives and understanding that the whole world is a product of billions of perspectives. What’s the point of learning if it’s not to shift your own understanding on a topic? When a new tool is introduced, we have to ensure we don’t just introduce something without curating the context to produce a shift in perspective.


Tricia will be speaking at the #OEB16 opening plenary on “Owning Learning”. Find out more here.


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