Wednesday, January 29, 2014

21st Century Learning using an Ancient Model Applied to Flow Cytometry Training

There are so many things I'd love to learn.  I always imagined myself playing the guitar, or executing a no-hands backflip, or even writing a mobile application, but so far, I still cannot do any of those things. Of course, each of these things are certainly in the realm of possibilities for me.  I'm actually somewhat musically inclined, I can do many gymnastic-type flips, and I know a thing or two about the languages of the coding world, and yet, I can't amend my CV with any of these goals.  So, how might I go about learning these skills that envelope both knowledge of abstract concepts (like coding) and physical moves (like playing a guitar)?

I don't know about you, but whenever I'm trying to figure something out, I default to YouTube. YouTube is great for things like this, in that you can pretty much find a video demonstrating something on any topic you're interested in.  However, where things tend to fall apart is the one-way nature of YouTube.  The demonstrator is broadcasting out a message that I may stumble upon years after it was uploaded and there's not a great way for me to interact with the original creator.  Sure, I could leave a comment in the hopes that it'll be answered, but I'm just as likely to get an unhelpful snide remark.

In fact, many models of learning these days follow a similar strategy.  E-Learning is all the craze these days.  Popularized by online e-learning houses such as Kahn Academy or Coursera or even on a larger scale, institutions such as University of Phoenix, e-learning promises all the bang for little to no buck, all taking place in the confines of your oversized easy-chair. But, questions remain as to how effective these programs are. I know I've signed up for courses a few times only to stop going after the second or third lecture. In some ways the information is presented as little more than a canned powerpoint presentation with some voice-over description.  A step up from here is the possibility to interact, real-time with the presenter via chat or video conference.  Even, with the best implementation of these technologies, remote e-learning is difficult.

Let's flip this conversation completely on its head for a moment.  For millennia, the way in which people learned a trade or skill or gained any sort of knowledge was through a Master/Apprentice process.  The elders of the group who had the necessary experience and expertise took a young apprentice under his wing and taught him the way.  If it helps, I always conjure up images of Qui-Gon Jinn teaching his Padawan Obi-Wan Kenobi in the ways of the force.  You could imagine the education the apprentice received was really good, but the process was somewhat inefficient since a Master may only have a limited number of apprentices. Contrast this with e-learning and the dichotomy should be clear.  E-learning may provide a highly efficient means of disseminating information, but the actual learning may be inadequate whereas the Master/Apprentice model may provide for world-class learning but is inefficient in terms of disseminating information to a large group of eager learners.

To bring this conversation closer to home, how do we go about teaching the art of flow cytometry to the next generation of scientists?  I would say, up until this point, the passing on of flow cytometry knowledge has favored the Master/Apprentice model.  This is certainly the way I learned, and probably the way I would prefer to learn just about anything.  In recent years, however, many core facilities, companies, and professional organizations have tested out the e-learning model of teaching flow cytometry.  Like the e-learning trailblazers, these differ in quality from powerpoint slideshows to interactive, well-produced, and highly animated videos.  We've tossed around the idea of moving towards an e-learning model at UCFlow, and what's held us back (aside from the technical complexities involved in producing something worth putting your brand on) is a core belief that we can produce better cytometrists with the more intimate master/apprentice model.

The question then becomes, can we leverage modern communications technologies to make the master/apprentice model work more efficiently?  Well, of course the answer is yes, otherwise I wouldn't have bothered writing this post.  But, instead of describing a fictional method in overly verbose prose, I want to point you to what I think is the ultimate model of learning PERIOD.

It pairs the master/apprentice model with new technologies like video conferencing, chat, hangouts, google glass, wearable tech, etc...  It also gamifies the process to promote better engagement.  Imagine this scenario.  I know a little flow, but I'm faced with this new application.  I'd really like to start doing microparticle analysis.  I log into the cytometry masters portal, and search microparticles.  Up pops a list of microparticle experts with various specialities and levels.  For example Jane is a level 50 Endothelial MicroParticle Master, and can accept a new apprentice for the next month.  She prefers to communicate via Google+ Hangouts and is in the Pacific Time Zone.  I connect with Jane, learn all her tricks and tips, and then I can level-up in my knowledge of microparticle detection, bringing me to a level 10 master.

Would you like to see how this works?  Luckily, this has already been launched using a different, but I'd dare to say very similar, technology - photography.  The super awesome photographer, Trey Ratcliff ( launched a brand new site, The Arcanum ( that uses this exact model.  Master/Apprentice, Modern Communications Technologies, Gamification.  Watch the video below to see what it's all about.  What I love about this is that it's visual; you're learning directly from an expert of whom you can ask all the nuanced questions you like; it uses all the latest gadgetry; and the gamification of the process makes it way more engaging.

The next question I have is, Who wants to build the flow cytometry version of this with me????