Making Adult Education Attractive

As adults we have so many things competing for our time – kids, work or school, significant others, hobbies, extended families, and friends. So even though there's an enormous amount of online learning material and educational opportunities the challenge is finding the time in our busy lives to take advantage of it all. And even if we make a decision to take a class, we might not maintain that commitment if the class does not meet our level of expectations. In order to keep us interested and carry us to a successful completion, a class needs to grab and maintain our attention, add value and meaning to our lives, and leave us with a sense of accomplishment.

Therfore, those who prepare classes for professionals in public works, engineering, or government need to:

Create classes that capture professional interest. Topics should be relevant to work-related challenges and tasks. I'd probably sign up for "Design and Construction of PVC Water Mains," but I am not going to sign up for "Preventing Blood Incompatibility Errors."

Sustain interest by designing class resources and course work to match the skills and learning type and ability level of professionals interested in that topic. A class for engineers about designing and constructing water main might offer a few modules that introduce and explain engineering formulas and theory for strength and hydraulics. The content and work required for this topic would meet the expectations and abilities of engineers. But these modules most likely would not interest a non-engineer who is tasked only with the installation of water main. That type of student probably would not be interested in reading or listening to engineering theory behind water main design and would not want to perform engineering calculations.

Provide a meaningful and personally relevant experience. Someone taking the time to go through a class will want to have a sense of accomplishment or achievement upon its completion. A course that walks an apprentice operator through the function and controls of a backhoe should prepare that person so upon its completion the operator can successfully understand and perform the functions taught in the class. If the class leaves them confused and unable to act upon or understand anything taught, the operator will perceive his time as wasted.

Course Design Requirements

So how can we use this information to improve our learning experiences? When we consider training for ourselves or for our staff, we can check to make sure the classes meet these three requirements. If it is not obvious from the course description, we can also ask past attendees or students if they felt a specific class held and sustained their interest and left them with a sense of accomplishment. And if we are delivering or creating classes in our field, we should be asking ourselves these questions throughout the process. In evaluations we can also ask students questions like: what could be changed to make the class more interesting and relevant? and what other activities or approaches might better hold your interest?





Failure: The Key Ingredient to Learning

There's been a lot of talk lately about acceptance of failure. Probably because people are pushing for innovation, and it's difficult to innovate if you're afraid to fail. Thus the numerous posts of encouragement across the Internet assuring all of us that failure is ok. Of course as engineers, failure is not something we want to experience. In some cases, an engineering failure can result in loss of life or property damage. So engineers are very careful about eliminating failure as an option. But I suppose, we could consider acceptance of failure in areas of our lives not involving an engineering design. In other words, we should look for those pockets of opportunity throughout our day where innovation with a risk of failure could be an option.

Of course, our conservative and analytical approach requires us to ask, why? Why should we do this when our carefully planned and well calculated approach to life works just fine? To answer this, let's take a look at how others fail and the impacts they experience due to that failure.

Baby Learning to Crawl and WalkIf you have children, it will be very easy to think of how they fail. And it seems that the younger they are, the more they fail. Children are born with few skills and knowledge, but from the time they begin life on their own, they start to search out and learn as much as they can. But this learning process rarely goes smoothly – how many times does a baby fall before he learns to confidently walk? Some parents stand back allowing a certain amount of failure – these are the parents who will say, "let him go; he needs to learn." Other parents hover over their children waiting to rescue them at the hint of trouble. And this approach continues on until they turn into an adult and perhaps for some parents even later. Although I am not sure the same parent takes the same approach every year of their child's life. The one thing I am sure about is we cannot do everything for our child all the time jumping in before the point of imminent failure and save the day then think at age 18 they magically know everything and can go off merrily on their own. They need to learn, and like it or not, they learn through failure. Or they never become fully independent adults.

Now, the lesson is not to let your kid go off doing everything without resriction and hope they survive thinking that is the only way they will learn. After all some risks must be avoided, and as parents, we need to monitor the risks we allow our children to take. But not allowing risk at all not only removes their chance of learning life skills, it also conditions their adult behavior. Which kind of makes you wonder if engineers with their ultra conservative approach to life were raised by parents who minimized risks. I don't know – that's for the psychologists to figure out.

Now, let's look at what our risk aversion has done to our profession. Yes, it allowed us to continually improve our designs allowing for a much safer and more environmentally friendly world. And that is not something to dismiss – it's an amazing achievement for our society. But could we have done more if we better understood failure and risk and were able to distinguish the "ok to fail" opportunities. We explored the results of not innovating with the rest of the world in the "Does Civil Engineering Have a Next Paradigm?" and in "The Rise and Fall (and Rise Again?) of Engineering Consulting Firms."

3D Plant in Virtual World of Second LifePerhaps this is why I have been so intrigued by games and 3D environments. I don't want to take risks with what I do at work, so while I create successful projects with this approach, I perhaps miss out on insights provided by failures. But what I have quickly learned using games and spending time in virtual worlds is I can fail there all I want, and no one gets hurt including myself. And by doing so, I learn amazing things. We can never tell engineers working on an actual project to just go ahead and try any pipe size just to see what will happen. But we can in a game or in a 3D virtual world. Having a water system or plant set up in a game or virtual world where we could switch out pipe sizes,  or pumps, or fittings and watch what happens to the system would provide a great learning opportunity. How much better and faster a hydraulics or fluids lesson would sink in if we could calculate the result then actually try it out in an environment designed to safely allow for failure.