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Take a Course in Unlearning

Posted in Analogy, Business, Creativity, Culture, Education, General, Innovation, Jump the Curve, Neuroscience, Publishing, Stories, Unlearn Strategy

At the end of yesterday's post on learning to unlearning, I posed the following question: How does one learn a Unlearn_banner new gestalt? To begin a person must start by unlearning some things. But what things do we unlearn? For our purposes, a good place to start might be to imagine what a course on unlearning what might look like.


One place to start is to imagine where the course would take place. Initially it will be—and already is—online. In 2007 the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced that it was putting all of its courses online for free—for anyone in the world to access.


And let’s remember, the online, virtual classroom of the future is only going to get better. The Internet of the future will be streaming incredible amounts of data-rich information anywhere in the world, students will be capable of wirelessly downloading the latest information from flexible electronic books that display both the written word and video files, and new software programs will be capable of translating text from Mandarin Chinese, French, or Farsi into English—and vice versa. (See "The Future of Reading.")


Another place a course on unlearning might gravitate toward is 3-D virtual-reality environments such as Linden Labs’ Second Life—a site where anyone can create a personal avatar of himself, meet other virtual avatars, and engage in online training sessions. As of this writing IBM, Dell, Intel, Circuit City, and Sears have all created a virtual presence in Second Life.


Interestingly, one of the initial motives of this move was not to create a stronger presence on the Internet (although that is certainly a factor), it was to achieve cost savings on employee education.


What is more interesting from the perspective of unlearning is how Second Life and other virtual-reality sites can be exploited to provide people with different perspectives. In a virtual environment, people can take on any appearance they want. While some people will undoubtedly use it for escapist fantasies, it could also be a powerful tool to help people unlearn certain habits. Imagine, for example, customer service representatives or managers being required to act as customers in one of their own online stores. The experience could provide a unique and refreshing perspective. (And, as I recently wrote, we could all benefit on occasion from unlearning everything from our perspective of color to that person across the street.)


Longer term, the classroom of unlearning will likely become even more immersive. Perhaps Second Life will morph into Third Life. Among the technologies this environment are likely to incorporate will be enhanced visual, auditory, voice and speech recognition, and haptic technologies. Doctors and service technicians could use these tools to practice operations and repairs in silico before being allowed to ply their trade in the real world.



These tools will also be a boon for learning, unlearning, and relearning. People are often classified into one of three broad categories of learning: visual, auditory, or kinesthetic. Visual people learn by seeing or reading something, auditory learners by hearing it, and kinesthetic learners learn by doing it with their hands and muscles. (It is not quite this simple. Many people use a combination of different techniques for different things, but in general, most people tend to favor one of the three methods over the other two.)


A course on unlearning could exploit these natural tendencies and help people absorb new ways of doing things. For instance, instead of just reading about how a new drug works on a cancer patient, doctors could watch how it interacts with and disables a cancer cell. Other businesses could use such immersive technology to gain a deeper appreciation of what an elderly person experiences and create products that better address their needs. (See "Unlearning Your Age.")


Many courses on unlearning won’t have a teacher. They will rather be open source in nature, and the content will not be provided by a single “expert” but rather it will be continually added to and improved upon by a vast collection of people. To this end, a relatively new wiki called Curriki has recently been created. Its goal is to support the development and free distribution of world-class educational material to anyone who needs it—anywhere in the world.


But far from being a shoddy collection of disjointed or inferior ideas, the result of these wikis will be vastly superior to anything a single expert could pull together. In the case of business wikis, they will contain advice and insights from employees, suppliers, and customers.


Among the adjustments this will require is that managers will need to unlearn their own reliance on experts. People will need to unlearn the idea that money and quality are synonymous. In the future, many of the best products will be the creation of open-source methods and wikis.


Another thing people will have to unlearn is that there isn’t always an answer. This is because so many fields are constantly evolving. An admission of one’s own ignorance may well be the first step most people will need to take upon entering the unlearning classroom of the future. Exponential executives may even have to go a step farther and accept that ignorance will be the largest element in their future educational needs.

2 thoughts on “Take a Course in Unlearning”

  1. Lonny Eachus says:

    Unfortunately, much of the MIT coursework that is currently online lacks essential materials, such as exams, exam answers (exams are not much good if they can’t be scored), and many still require the purchase of an expensive textbook, if you can even find it. There are a few notable exceptions, however.
    (I am aware that the presence of exams is somewhat controversial, but some colleges and universities allow the use of previous exams in study.)
    I admit that my brief survey of coursework was limited to such areas as physics and mathematics. This situation may not be true of other fields of study.

  2. Jack Uldrich says:

    As always, an excellent point. It’ll be interesting to see how all of this plays out. I think one of the changes that we’ll see is that rather than educational institutions using exams as a means of accreditation, employers will begin figuring out how to test people’s skills and acknowledge.
    Therefore, in the future, it will be less important that you attend MIT (for example) and more important that you can demonstrate what you learned from its online courses.

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