Learners as Experts

Hank recently turned me onto Kirsten Winkler’s blog, which is full of thought-provoking material for modern educators. One article I especially enjoyed recently was Leaving the Stage: Teaching and Learning in the Digital Age. It totally resonated with both my experience at ChinesePod as well as what I’m doing now at AllSet Learning.

Some choice quotes:

> The impact of digital learners on twenty-first century learning environments—including the traditional classroom—highlights the changing role of teachers who, in teaching digital natives, discover that the learners appear to have taken control of the learning process.

> In responding to these changes, what is expected of teachers? Will they simply pursue the traditional model—ignoring their learners’ overnight forays on the web—and assume that time and patience will restore the conventional roles of teacher and student? Perhaps they attempt to master the new technologies themselves, believing they can (or should) equal or even surpass their students’ expertise in navigating online learning environments. Or will teachers and learners together negotiate other possibilities for teaching learners in the digital age?

> […]

> In the past decade, however, the introduction of personal digital devices and a range of new web-based search tools and social media have woven a bold new thread into the discussion of “expertise” in the classroom: namely, the appearance of digital-native students who imagine that their ability to conduct extensive online searches, grab and store what they find, and rapidly share the information with each other qualifies them as experts, too.

At ChinesePod, we produce a lot of lessons, and at the forefront of the academic oversight is the question, “is this material appropriate for this level?” It’s a decision that never goes away, and even after 5 years, it’s not easy. After 5 years, though, experience does help a lot.

I certainly can’t deny that user input at ChinesePod has been enormously instructive in helping us shape the service. Especially when certain requests are made en masse, the way forward can be very clear. When a minority requests changes that will affect everyone, however, we have to be a lot more careful about acting or not acting on them.

Anyway, it was good seeing this article, which points out a change I’m already witnessing, and also highlights a new source of friction. Friction is good, though. Sometimes it leads to blisters, but it also leads to those smooth shiny spots.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. ChinesePOD certainly has had a very different approach right from the very beginning though.. more of a “cloud” style learning system, where there are many lessons in the cloud that can be picked and chosen from at leisure without any linear structure.

    There are downsides to that style of learning of course if the learner is undisciplined but I believe it is certainly of more benefit to the online learner than the classroom learner.

  2. Teaching/learning is a lot more complex than just having access to texts, digital or otherwise. Also the “digital native” idea is slowly eroding away, cf the average age of Twitter users. I’ll check out the blog you linked to but I’m starting out as a skeptic.

    • I’m surprised, Micah… You’ve been a very active self-learner over the years. Why couldn’t a lot of the same learner behavior also exist within a classroom environment?

      No one ever said learning was only access to texts. The point is that students now have direct access to tons of different materials which facilitate learning.

  3. Recently, I have been doing some reading on current research in foreign language vocabulary acquisition. One thing I found interesting is that no researcher seems to have heard of spaced repetition software. Recent research shows that studying word lists is a highly effective way to learn words. However, the articles I have read conclude that because it’s boring, or the words are hard to remember, or there’s no way to put the knowledge into long-term memory, that it’s no wonder studying word lists isn’t a more popular method. Really? In contrast, SRS methods are used by many learners with great effect. Ok, it still can be boring, but at least the problem of long-term memory is solved.

    I don’t know about teachers, but I would not be surprised if SRS was not familiar to many. Of those that are aware of it, I wonder how many embrace it, how many are indifferent, and how many are actually hostile to it.

    On Winkler’s description of the versatile multitasking “digital native”, I guess it does describe how I find material to study. But in the end, actual learning best takes place in a quiet environment with no distractions, and definitely with more than 10-15 minute chunks.

  4. What I like about the idea of students as experts is the same thing I like about the idea of patients as experts. That is to say you’re an active participant in directing and sculpting your own learning experience. In the end it’s not the doctor or the teacher who will live with the consequences or benefits of a particular treatment. The student who takes charge of his learning experience, choosing what to learn when, using the study tools that suit his disposition and the task at hand, will come out of it a more complete master of the skills he has learned. I think the role of the teacher in this case becomes that of a mentor and guide. The teacher already masters the skill. The teacher is most aware of the available study materials and methods (as a doctor is most aware of the available treatments), but only the student can decide what works best for him to reach his own mastery goals. It’s certainly a much more exciting time to be both a student and a teacher than the bad old days of sitting in a classroom doing worksheets as the teacher watches on.

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