"When Are We Going To Use This?" Answer This Question With eLearning
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The Usual Student Question: When Are We Going To Use This?

Distracted and disengaged students have always been a challenge in the classroom. Moving learning online and into digital environments doesn’t change that. However, getting students engaged and excited about learning isn’t always the biggest challenge educators now face. Students are dealing with unique challenges in the workplace and in their lives. They need an education that is not just relevant, but forward-thinking enough to remain so. There was a time when students asking When are we going to use this? was a sign that they didn’t see the relevance of a lesson or a skill. They might have been doubting the merits of studying math theory, when calculators would surely be accessible in any practical setting. They may have questioned whether a review of classic English literature was likely to matter much once they got employed at the local factory, or dove into a STEM discipline in college.

Students may well ask a similar question today, but the meaning and importance of the query has changed. Until now, the question was always one of relevance: “Am I likely to really need this?” or “When will I actually use this?”.

Today, the question is one more of longevity: “Will this information still be current by the time I’m likely to need it?” or “Will I even have a chance to use this before it becomes irrelevant?”.

Change is so pervasive and rapid today, that students from the very young to the professional are all likely to see old knowledge get replaced and rendered obsolete by new technologies, disruptions to the flow of their work, or discoveries that completely change what we count as foundational principles for any given area of study.

The Future Ain’t What It Used to Be

That eLearning platforms are as sophisticated and accessible as they are is a double-edged sword. On one side, it is heartening to see such new potential for education, for personalization and interactivity in support of learning. On the other side, none of this would be possible were we living in a time of less dynamic change; that we can take advantage of eLearning technology is a reflection of just how quickly new devices, platforms, and systems roll out and become the new standard.

Educators are challenged not just with adapting lessons and curricula to the new modes of instruction facilitated by eLearning technology, but with ensuring the shelf-life of their lessons is longer than the courses themselves.

This isn’t an issue unique to any single field of study or profession: Doctors and lawyers must adapt to transformational changes in medicine and law, and businesses must turn on a dime to respond to new market trends and retail technologies. There’s a whole generation entering the workforce today ready to debate the planetary status of Pluto with their older coworkers; it may not be life-changing trivia, but it is representative of how facts themselves can change.

Leadership In Education: Visionary Or Reactionary?

Leaders are either in front of the crowd, or chasing it. This is as true for politicians as it is for educators. Preparing students effectively would ideally mean teaching them in such a way that they can stay ahead of, rather than behind, the innovation curve in their daily lives. One of the best examples of the modern give-and-take between educators, practitioners, and the environment of dynamic change is data security.

There was a time when innovation in computer science, broadly speaking, previewed a delayed series of innovations in what hackers and cyber-criminals did. Each new generation of Windows, for instance, is immediately chased by a series of patches and security updates. Once the criminal class has time to probe the new software and hardware on the market, new hacks and tricks come into vogue. Developers and programmers respond by closing the known holes and repairing these weaknesses, and the cycle repeats.

No longer. Today, cyber criminals and their ilk are on the cutting edge. At the start of 2017, a ransomware program called Goldeneye went on sale in the open market. Anyone could theoretically purchase this program to lock out the users of a computer system and hold it hostage until they paid out a ransom. The thieves had the initiative, and even the FBI concedes that it was sometimes cheaper and easier to simply pay such ransoms than attempt to retake a hijacked network or computer. Users, even of sophisticated systems, are behind the learning curve compared to hackers, because the average person hasn’t been taught the skills needed to ensure security.

The conventional wisdom that a firewall and some anti-virus software would keep systems safe wasn’t just outdated, it was expensively misguided. The delays in responding to this new mode of cyber attack gave thieves time not only to deploy them, but to commoditize and sell them — a true “killer app.”

None of this means that prevention is impossible, of course. Preventing cyber attacks is imminently possible as well as important, but it takes a different set of skills, knowledge, and resilience than has become conventional in the way that firewalls and antivirus software achieved in the 1990s. Perhaps most importantly, users of vulnerable systems and devices need an upgrade not to their security infrastructure, but to their awareness of risks, best practices, and role in preserving security. The education needs to catch up with the practice.

Keeping Your Coursework Up To Date

For educators, all this amounts to a greater need for subject matter expertise. You ought to know not only the basics of whatever you aspire to teach, but also the types of new developments and disruptive changes that may be looming on the horizon. While professional development and continuing education programs have historically been focused on serving specific populations — grade school teachers at annual conferences, for example, or medical doctors receiving credit for attending a lecture — now it may be nearly as valuable to simply read the news.

Technology, economics, and the business of change are all wrapped up in one another. It pays to keep track of fashions in corporate investment as much as it does to keep a narrow focus on your particular discipline. Social media can be leveraged for trend-watching, as start-ups and nascent leaders attempt to gain visibility and push their ideas and products out into the world.

Ultimately, one of the best ways to keep your curriculum and yourself current with disruptive changes, is to let your students take over teaching duties once in awhile. Encourage your students, by way of a capstone in an online course, to seek out contrary opinions, or to anticipate how applications will change in five, ten, or more years’ time. Set a discussion topic that looks at the history of theory or development in your subject matter, and invite students to predict what further changes and developments are likely to focus on. You may even follow the example of certain confident college professors, and invite your students to Google and fact-check you as you go, and provide rewards for anyone who is able to detect a mistake or point of controversy.

Final Word

Change has become an active participant in every classroom, digital or otherwise. It is the responsibility of all teachers to decide how they will handle this disruptive element: They may try to control or ignore it, as they would a disruptive student, or embrace it, turn it into part of the experience, and leverage it for more engagement and learning opportunities.

eLearning students today are looking for ways to keep up and stay ahead. They need teachers armed with resources and methods who are actively trying to achieve that same objective.

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