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Are Cultural References Stupid?

eLearning - shruggingLast week, I was teaching students about introductory paragraphs—about the hook—to get readers interested in what they have to say. These are students at DeVry—students who work full time, attend classes both on site and online, and have some resemblance of a social life. I brought in an article I had recently finished—“Is Google Making Us Stupid?” by Nicholas Carr for an example of using popular culture and making the connection between a well known movie/book/star/etc. with a point you want to make. Carr uses HAL, the supercomputer from 2001: A Space Odyssey. As I read the first two paragraphs, I realized I was glancing at a sea of blank faces. They didn’t get it.

Well, actually, they got the idea about the method Carr used, but not the actual reference. Not one student had heard of or seen the movie. I was stunned.

The next day, I receive an email with Tom Kuhlman’s latest posting from his Rapid eLearning Blog. He titled his post “Is Google Making Our eLearning Stupid?” and discusses Carr’s notion that we are thinking and reading differently due to the Internet and extended it to eLearning. Kuhlman states that “If these reports are correct, and we’re developing a new way of reading (or retrieving information), then this needs to be a consideration as we design our eLearning courses.” He goes on to give five ways to accomplish this, from pulling main ideas into focus to leveraging all forms of media.

It’s this last suggestion I wonder about. I agree that we should “incorporate graphics, video, audio, interactivity, and web-based technologies” into our eLearning, but it should be for a reason—to make a connection, to illustrate a difficult concept, to make a point poignant, to add relevance—not just to get learners’ attention. We need them to process. My question is that while using these technological tools, won’t we indirectly or directly make references to business culture, films, fashion, etc.?

Does this mean that unless we can connect to our audience and know what they feel is relevant, we may lose them? I am only ten years older than my students at DeVry. But in those ten years, a reference to a supercomputer taking over was lost. It made me wonder if the courses we are building for clients also have lost references in them. Do we need to make allusions to the latest Call of Duty game or add those features in our training so learners connect?

Building courses that are more interactive and engaging is something we should strive to better. But we still have to use those forms of media we understand and are comfortable with. Ever heard an older person try to use a “hip” word? It isn’t pretty.

Maybe referencing mediums you understand when you build courses gets your point across better than something you are unfamiliar with because you explain it well enough. Don’t forget, my students understood what Carr was trying to do in his article because he did it well, and they liked it even more once they understood the reference. In fact, use it to your advantage. I did. When my students didn’t get the reference, I told them to Google it right there and then so we could all discover what they could pull up by browsing.

Can we offer a similar kind of organic environment in training?