The best of e-learning, an example from the farm

Originally answered on Quora.

What are some good examples of simple, succinct e-learning lessons?

Here you go, an incredibly simple and effective lesson on the sexing of day-old chicks (Biederman & Shiffrar, 1987).

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In the experiment, these instructions improve novice subjects’ correlation with experts from .2 to .8, this in a field where expertise was typically coming from years of experience.

This may not be e-learning–no adaptive learning algorithms here–but it’s all you need. The key is being able to connect a developed human strength (here, shape recognition) to a new task. In one word: pedagogy. And all you need to present this pedagogy is text and static images because the task is visual recognition of a static image (assuming you can poke around a chick’s underside without squirming). (See also Are videos the best format for online course delivery?)

Ok, I hear you–maybe you just aren’t that interested in chick sexing. How can you know what else out there is effective learning? The only valid way to evaluate learning is what Biederman & Shiffrar do in this study: compare the performance to experts. Unfortunately there isn’t enough attention on that part of it to give solid recommendations among web-based options. (But see also How can I find results about learning and education from evidence-based research?)

See also

Using DEVONthink for the first time several days ago, I got a tingly sense of being in cheat mode. I imported over 700 PDFs, 800 Evernote notes, and 1500 bookmarks. As I had before with many other tools, I faced an abundant but impenetrable collection of knowledge. When I tried its “See Also” feature, I realized DEVONthink had already established an intricate network of roadways, connecting me to past encounters with ideas and information.

I checked out one of my favorite Quora answers, “What is it like to have an understanding of very advanced mathematics?” The results in the See Also column contained some of my favorite articles on mathematical thinking that I’d collected over the years: On Proof and Progress in Mathematics, Kill Math, A Mathematician’s Lament, and Learning to Think Mathematically. Though I could have pieced together most of these, the instant access that DEVONthink provides is very powerful.

DEVONthink's See Also column relates a Quora answer to articles collected over the years (as well as my collection of Wikipedia pages).

DEVONthink’s See Also column relates a Quora answer to articles collected over the years (as well as my collection of Wikipedia pages).

When I’m learning something new, I typically need to cross reference a few different sources to get it. Learning works by observing different cases of something and then extracting the generalized concept. While the latter is handled automatically by the human brain, DEVONthink is useful for assembling multiple things in a digital environment. Likewise creativity has been described as reflecting on multiple ideas and connecting them in a new way. Again, DEVONthink, brain, profit.

In short, DEVONthink’s See Also creates an environment that empowers us to use our human strengths of recognizing similarities and differences, analogies and generalizations among multiple items.

Compare this to what I attempted before: I’d probe my memory, bookmarks, and Google searches to pull up related information, interrupting the actual processing of the information in front of me. As great as bookmark tags have always seemed, they would rarely match the intention I eventually used them for. With DEVONthink I skip the manual tagging step and get better results. It isn’t another tool to collect stuff that never gets looked at again. It’s a tool for turning an idea into a brainstorm, an article into a textbook, a painting into a museum.

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