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When the rubber hits the road

This post was written by Jonathan Peacock and first appeared on the Epic blog on 5th December 2012.

driving There’s no doubt that the invention of writing was an incredible breakthrough in human history. The written word allows us to record our thoughts, send messages, share information and generally communicate in a myriad of ways that otherwise wouldn’t be possible.

But there comes a point when text alone just doesn’t do the job.

Recently, I’ve just started learning to drive again. I say ‘again’ because I mastered most of the basic skills when I was about 18, but have only recently regained the motivation to finish. Driving is a critical skill to get right; one moment’s lapse of judgement or an inability to deal with a situation can result in serious injury or death.

It’s interesting to note then, how we are generally taught to drive. Lessons are almost always done in a real-life car, on real-life roads with real-life obstacles. It doesn’t take three years of reading, essay writing, the odd PowerPoint presentation and a 2:1 in Driving Studies before you earn your stripes and have a go. You’re thrown in at the deep end, with your dual-control water wings ready to kick in whenever necessary. Unlike with other learning, being engaged is no longer quite such an issue; I’m willing to bet that no one has ever come home ‘bored’ after their first drive on a real road.

Notice as well the lack of emphasis on theory in driving lessons. You’re encouraged to read up as and when you need to based on your own progress and your own needs. These days, as well as the obligatory trawl through the highway code, there are also software programmes and smartphone apps allowing you to refine your theory knowledge away from the steering wheel.

This is where I think technology, particularly mobile, has a powerful role to play in learning: it can give you feedback on your progress, allowing you to learn in your own time and at your own pace. Often, technology is far better at doing this than a human instructor might be. The key is understanding when this is the right approach.

Short of having a full-scale set of sensors on your vehicle, a driving instructor is probably better suited to telling you whether or not you’re braking too early or late when approaching that junction. They might not, however, be so effective at recognising whether you have a thorough enough knowledge of road signs yet. So it seems that humans aren’t as good at spotting some patterns or behaviours as a machine may be, but there are others that only a human could sense.

The best part of delivering theory through mobile learning is its casual nature, which I believe is a much more suitable way of learning it. Taking lessons or a course in something usually counts as formal learning. But the boom in mobile technology is the best facilitator of informal learning around. Testing my theory knowledge in the bath? Perceiving hazards in a waiting room? That’s surely about as informal as it gets.

Too often, training can fall back on text as king. Projects cluttered with endless bullet points and paper training manuals big enough to give even the most casual environmentalist a heart attack won’t come close to giving a ‘real’ experience, combined with just-in-time theory you can carry in your pocket.

Now I certainly don’t hold up driving lessons as the pinnacle of modern pedagogy. But I do think they have their priorities right – learn by doing, and support that with portable coaching tailored to the learner. Hopefully, it’ll work for me…