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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

On Demand Learning

Why On Demand Learning?

One of my winter "chores" to tackle before spring was re-taping the handlebars on my road bike (LeMond Reno for those who care). As the weather got nicer I knew time was running out. The last time I needed to re-tape I cheated and had the guy at the shop do it, along with some other maintenance. This time, it was my turn. Several riders with more experience than I told me the same thing: watch some videos on YouTube and you'll be fine.

So, the afternoon before I planned to do the work I viewed four or five videos and read a few blog posts on the topic. I made sure to read the post from local legend Sheldon Brown. The videos had some contradictory thoughts, but the basics were the same. When in doubt, I'd go with Sheldon's way, I decided. The good news is: mission accomplished! My bike is set for its maiden ride of 2012, which should be any day now.

I want to contrast this "on demand" learning from typical classroom learning. I had a job to do that had to get done. I was motivated. And, as I'm finding more and more, the educational tools I needed were right at my finger tips. I just needed to find the authoritative ones and pick my way through the contradictions. In school, or in a GIS class, that kind of motivation is rarely available. Mostly, students are learning to do fractions so they can do fractions. In a GIS course students learn to create a buffer, to, well, create a buffer.

This is a great time in the evolution of education to embrace, at least in part, some amount of "On Demand Learning." I say that for a few reasons. First off, the concept of project-based or experiential learning is widely accepted and second, the learning resources are out there. Thirdly, and most important for the long term, learning how to learn with tools available (Web, library, fellow students, etc.) is a skill of life long learners.

Examples of On Demand Learning in Geography/Geospatial Education

Below are three examples of how an educator might include "on demand" learning within a geography or GIS course.

1) Project-based work - As individuals or teams tackle their chosen course or capstone project, there are multiple opportunities to learn new pieces of software, new programming languages or techniques or work with new data types. One aspect of the project may be to not only document that new software, a new language or new data was used but also to detail how the student/team learned of it and how to use it.

In one lesson I taught, the first assignment was "teach yourself this piece of software." The second one was "explain in 250 words how you did that and reflect on if it was successful." This assignment was as much about seeking out videos, tutorials and authoritative sources as it was about assessing one's own learning preferences.

2) Flipped classroom - If tomorrow's GIS lab is about linear referenced (dynamic segmentation), have the students learn on their own what it is, how it works, and the key vocabulary. Instead of assigning specific sections of a textbook or a well-known video, have them seek them out. The next day a quick quiz can assess what they learned and a discussion of which resources were most valuable might ensue, before tackling the lab itself.

3) Create the learning resource - There's no better way to master a concept then to teach it to someone else. Pair up students in the class and if they get stuck on a concept or procedure, have them ask their partner for help. The partner then must create a learning resource for their partner that is also a graded assignment for the course. (It might not be completed in real time, but over a week or longer.) It might be a video, a workflow diagram, or a short article. These can be collected for use by the current class, future classes and other students around the world.


In these times students need to be great users of on demand learning and the next generation of creators of future resources. By the way, I also used YouTube and other online learning resources in recent months to learn to snowshoe and make homemade yoghurt. I used it to diagnose a problem with my clarient. I was most proud to tell my repairman exactly which spring was broken, something I usually depend on him to both find and fix.