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How learning is changing—and why it matters

The pandemic will have a lasting effect on how we teach and how humans learn.

The pandemic hasn't just changed the workplace, the hospital, and the supermarket. It's also having a profound impact on the way we learn. I'm not just talking about students in classrooms; I'm talking about all of us, in particular, the way we're learning skills and training on the job.

Before spring 2020, a typical training session might have involved a multiday seminar with a room full of speakers, homework in the form of a physical workbook, and live workshop discussions among participants. Today, that training session is almost surely to be virtual, held over a video conferencing session or, increasingly, in a virtual reality space. Or perhaps it's a hybrid blend of online and offline tools, the likes of which we'll probably see for years to come.

The methods and tools we use to learn are changing, but so are the ways we as humans are learning. That's set to have a profound effect on instructors and students alike. We're changing the definition of what's possible in learning—but it comes with some caveats we need to pay attention to in order to be successful.

Changing how we teach

Virtual learning hasn't been easy for instructors, but the quality of instruction is rapidly improving among teachers, tutors, and mentors. A recent study from Pearson found that while 81 percent of parents thought teachers needed more training in online teaching, 88 percent felt those teachers were doing a good job. To keep that going in the right direction, we need to ensure everyone has access to the necessary technological tools, whether that's the right device or access to a broadband network. (Not everyone has a subscription to Adobe Creative Cloud, after all.) Getting there will also require better consistency in how these tools are used—and more trust in them.

We have to invest in the fundamentals to create a consistent digital experience for people. The good news is that we're on the right path to make that happen.

Please read: 3 steps toward a more digitally inclusive world

One of the big technologies that will be key to improving teaching over the next few years is artificial intelligence. AI was already beginning to make inroads into education before the pandemic. Now, it's becoming a key enabler in helping people learn smarter. For example, AI-powered engagement and attendance systems can help educators understand what lessons are working and what aren't, helping us uncover early on behaviors that indicate where material may not be fully understood. Routine tests can now be graded automatically through AI, giving teachers time to focus on work that has higher value and more significant benefits to the student.

As we emerge from the pandemic, AI will also be key in improving mental health, helping both schools and workplaces alike identify where students and employees are struggling with the transition. Recent research shows that people often feel more comfortable sharing how they feel with an AI than a person.

Please read: Sally Eaves on building the future with ethical tech

Changing how we learn

While we can use tools like these to improve teaching methods, the other side of the equation is on us. Because some people will understandably have difficulty adjusting to the new realities of teaching, we need to better understand our own capacity for learning and find new and improved ways to understand new material. It's an issue that will impact everyone from primary school to the enterprise, but no matter who the learner is, we need to take the focus off what to think and what to learn, moving instead to the how.

This process is called metacognition. Think of it as going to the gym but for your brain.

My strategy for this evolution of the learning process is a high-impact, low-cost approach that can best be described as the methods involved when learners make changes to their own learning behaviors, then plan, monitor, and evaluate them before a period of reflection. I'll walk through the details of each of those four steps in turn.

1. Planning

This is perhaps the most fundamental step of the process, a planning phase that encourages us to focus on understanding the goals we want to achieve while considering how best to approach the task. The shift is subtle: Before we consider the actual contents of the training manual or textbook with which we've been presented, we need to think about the best methods we might use to learn it. Ask yourself how you will use this information, for example, which may inform an ideal strategy for learning it. And remember, not every learning task is going to be unique. It's likely that strategies that have worked for you in mastering previous material may help you again the next time around. Where did you struggle with your prior learning endeavors, and what can you learn from those struggles?

2. Monitoring

Monitoring, as the term implies, is about understanding the progress you've made toward your learning goals. You've implemented the plan as outlined in the previous step; now it's time to see if those strategies are working. It's important to monitor progress during any learning experiences, so you can make changes to your strategies along the way. At regular intervals during a training session, ask whether your current learning strategy is working and whether changes could be made to improve it. If your strategy isn't working out, now's the time to change it rather than simply admitting defeat at the end of the lesson.

3. Evaluation

After your class or training session is complete, it's time to move on to the evaluation phase. This phase is crucial for any learning endeavor, and it's where you work to understand how successful your strategies were throughout the process and whether you would follow the same strategy if you were to go through the process again. During evaluation, ask what went well overall and whether things improved over time as your learning process adapted. If things didn't go well, how could a different approach help down the line? How applicable was your chosen strategy to other projects that might come up?

4. Reflection

Last is reflection. While this is closely related to evaluation, reflection works as a bookend to the plan-monitor-evaluate model to complete the learning journey. In the reflection phase, your job is to examine everything that's come before in the learning endeavor, retracing your steps to determine how you can improve the overall effectiveness of your personal learning process. The goal is to reinforce the positive outcomes of the journey while thinking about ways to mitigate negative outcomes.

We are increasingly being asked to learn new skills, take on new roles, and work in different ways, and it's clear that while the material that we are learning matters, it is the process of learning that matters the most. Metacognition is becoming a critical skill to master, whether you're an elementary school student or a veteran of industry. The more all of us can make learning an active skill rather than a passive one, the more we set ourselves up for success.

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.