In the beginning, people learned through exploration, gaming and interactions.

“How various kinds of learning take place in the human brain and body is the basic question of learning theory, as this has been developed mainly in the discipline of learning psychology, but with supplementary input from other psychological disciplines and the adjacent disciplines of sociology, pedagogy and biology, including modern brain research1”.

According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica: “The array of learned behavior includes discrimination learning (where a subject learns to respond to a limited range of sensory characteristics, such as a particular shade of coloration), habituation (the cessation of responses to repeated stimulation), concept formation (the process of sorting experiences according to related features), problem solving, perceptual learning (the effects of past experience on sensory perceptions), and psychomotor learning (the development of neuromuscular patterns in response to sensory signals). Moreover, learning theorists from the 17th through the mid-20th century attempted to develop a scientific proof of certain principles that governed all processes of learning. Rigorous, ‘objective’ methodology was attempted so that the behavior of all organisms could be comprehended under a unified system of laws modeled on those posited in the physical sciences. By the 1970s, however, flaws and gaps in these comprehensive theories led many psychologists to conclude that learning could not be represented by a single universal theory”.

In an attempt of synthesis, we can define learning as “alteration of behavior as a result of experience, acquisition of knowledge, skills, attitudes and values”. In other words, learning relies largely on education and training, being the latter an essential part of our professional development.

Beyond its instructional value, training professionals helps them discover a more reassuring and more complete image of themselves, and to play a more emancipated role in their career development within the organizations and in the society.

In a word: Empower!

One of the most empowering action is to work in teams through the so called team building techniques. Team building and therefore team learning means ‘engaging’ in a collaborative relationship toward common goals where divergence and disagreements, conflicts and competition don’t have necessarily to be considered negative barriers in the acquisition of knowledge and skills. Eventually, they generate curiosity, constructive criticism and creativity...

I started thinking on enhanced forms of team learning more than two decades ago. I was coaching on Human Resources Management, Leadership and Interpersonal Communication skills around the world and constantly noticed a need for promoting the application of collaborative training methodologies. Especially in the international medical setting, where participatory approaches in their primary education rarely happened. In the meantime, Internet was ‘crossing the Rubicon’ blasting into our professional (and social) life, paving the highway to interconnect larger and larger community for a progressive harmonisation of knowledge sharing.

Somehow, I had to increase my interest on both issues at the same time.

Moreover, I always considered myself a lifelong learner and therefore, I constantly think of training with dualistic mind: a challenge and an opportunity. As a teacher and as a student since the role really doesn’t matter.

In the years, I started reflecting and writing and teaching and learning on collaborative training, by means of innovation, attractiveness of teaching tools, virtual reality, delivery of best practices, effectiveness, efficiency, equity and accessibility, memory retention, motivation, sustainability of the learning systems, and more in general, on group dynamics towards problems solution.

Having in mind that any type of educational activity always has to deal with inevitable human and financial ‘constrains’, technological opportunities, randomize enthusiasm of the actors involved, temporal and space sovereignty, and many more.

Can training be collective, effective and enjoyable at the same time? This was the question I often had in mind. This is a goal I wanted to achieve. Hopefully, apart from the rates on evaluation reports, when I deal with students these actually happen!

I become particularly committed in experimenting interactive techniques, gaming and collective learning with international crowds, where students from different part of the world are called to analyze complex problems and to undertake plans to solve and to prevent the occurrence of problems. Across their type of performances, students proved to share different cultures, talents, knowledge, experience and dynamics to the problem solving process, offering adaptive and responsive solutions with local and global perspective at the same time.

Obviously, engaging with international crowds could results expensive and may be difficult for many reasons. And that is why I started looking with more interest at the possible advantages of applying internet based opportunities to group learning and problem based approaches (an ancestral way of saying e-learning).

I must say, I was quite skeptical at the beginning. After all, transferring interpersonal skills through the web is paradoxical!

In fact, the distance learning experiences I had in those days didn’t exceed the limit of participation in so-called ‘innovative’ projects (lately recalled by me ‘technological trials’ as I felt being a gold fish in a fishbowl). And this was not for the lack of didactic-disciplinary resources (in truth, Internet was assuring an incredible comfort in the search for knowledge than going through the thousands of papers in the dusty libraries) but for some methodological deficiencies and drawbacks, and above all because of the lack of physical contact.

In shorts, e-learning for me was ‘cool but cold’ at the same time.

During the years that followed the relationship between e-learning and traditional learning theories has been articulated differently, giving progressively more credit to technology, learning communities and virtual reality.

E-learning started to get credits as (at least) co-producers of ‘real’ knowledge.

When I was visiting lecturer at Mc Gill University in Quebec, in 2004, together with an enthusiastic group of researchers of the Desautels Faculty of Management, we started experimenting on how to combine on a new basis, Creative and Critical reasoning2, Problem-Based Learning3, and Internet advantages, in order to motivate learners in assuming responsibility for their learning while developing a valuable mix or favoring the development to what we then called ProblemBased e-Learning (PBe-L)4.

In our intention PBe-L was conceived to offer a common education forum for problem solving to large multidisciplinary and heterogenic groups, avoiding “as much as possible” prejudice bias without lessening the power of physical contact in in-class activities.

Pbe-L is in fact “a student-oriented off-line/on-line inductive learning process which places emphasis on group dynamics using the web technologies and individual creativity [...] where there is a strong urge to include a full understanding of human learning dynamics when the architecture of the web is planned, prior to the design of a course. From Forming the group to Performing solutions one of the main goals is overcoming the distance between teacher and student not only in its geographical definition but also as ‘social distance’ and ‘emotional distance’ [...] and as you move along the behaviorist-cognitivist-constructivist continuum, the teacher withdraws to the background leaving space to the student’s active application of “solutions to problems” [...] (Rosi and Schneider, 2004).

One of the pilot studies we done was therefore built around a course where classroom meetings were combined with online discussion. This fact offered the opportunity to study the interaction in both cases and identify possible differences in quantity, quality and functionality of interaction under the PBL environment. All synchronous discussions were recorded by the server. Recordings of in-classroom discussions were carried out in the respective groups. Measurements such as the total number of inputs, inputs per minute, and inputs per person were carried out both for the virtual as well as the in-classroom discussions. One of the first findings was that interaction in the PBe-L meetings was happening more than interaction in the in-classroom PBL meetings.

The set of resources offered through Internet proved to be, in the words of the students under observation “a better mix of people, books and toys I usually have around the [physical] classroom” and the open source environment “...maximize the interaction between attendants, ensuring intellectual pluralism, without neglecting the opportunity and challenge to research from sources at group and individual level... somewhere else”.

Even in asynchronous modality everyone felt always “ready to be performing in and for the team”. Teachers (who eventually were experts and facilitators) included!

In alignment with traditional PBL, PBe-L has been conceived ‘student oriented’, so that the learning goals are determined by the students themselves in alignment with a pre-structured set of learning achievements determined by the faculty before the learning experience starts.

It is an inductive methodology and for those who have less confidence Aristotle would explain that we can transfer knowledge starting from universal knowledge and go to the particular (deductive reasoning) or by having a first sensitive knowledge of the particular and from this move to the universal (inductive reasoning).

Since I still wonder which of the two served Aristotle to inspire Alexander to become “The Great” (maybe both?!), I put considerable attention to the use of inductive and deductive principles in planning the forum for knowledge transfer, through andragogical and pedagogical perspectives5 and taking into account the big set of different variables that occurs in the application of the two e. g. time, context, number and type of students, age of the learners, quantity and quality of the resources available, etc.

Metaphorically, we can say that: “With PBe-L the faculty determine where you are, the village you need to reach, gives you some tools to facilitate the reaching of it, but let you build your own map. The students become responsible not only for their individual journey, but for the pleasure or displeasure of the other travelers as well6”. The learning community is therefore a core pillar in PBe-L.

Forming the community must include serious consideration on what ACCESSIBILITY means: not simply a technological asset but a necessity of easy-to-use and non-frustrating functions such as quick load times, clear layouts, and the ability to access content across multiple devices.

This today is a small problem since new ways of broadcasting, devices, information processing make possible to realize even those training projects that yesterday seemed like science-fiction. Attending a future PBe-L course 2.0 should be like living in the ‘Ideal - Virtual – City’7 where students and teachers will find themselves in a compendium of art, science and philosophy, with Minds and Nature8 perfectly integrated in a virtual environment (not necessarily for financial or geographical needs), and resources (not exclusively humans) are always hands-ready […]

So now, if you plan a course, if you teach in a class, if you attend a training session with this in mind:
1. Always set high goals; 2. Do it if you really need it; 3. Enjoy it.

1 Extract from Illeris K., An overview of the history of learning theory, Eur J Educ. 2018;53:86–101.
2 For the readers, Critical thinking is a sequential, possibly disciplined process of rationalizing, analyzing, evaluating, and interpreting information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication to make judgments and/or to assess the validity of something that already exists. Creative thinking moves to something new.
3 One of the most common definition for PBL is: “[…] instructional system that simultaneously develops both problem solving strategies and disciplinary knowledge bases and skills by placing a group of students in the active role of problem solvers confronted with an ill – structured problem that mirrors real – world problems” (Finkle and Torp, 1995).
4 Rosi L., Schneider P., Mazzaccara A., How to teach Medicine and Management@distance, ISS- McGill, 2004.
5 Pedagogy is the child-focused teaching approach, whereas Andragogy is the adult-focused teaching approach.
6 From Rosi L., Mazzaccara A., Innovative Guidelines for training the trainers on PBe-L based on the Italian and Canadian Experience, ISS, 2006.
7 I refer to the painting La Città Ideale (trad. The Ideal City) one of the most fascinating enigmas of the Italian late Renaissance. Why it was painted? Not known. Who is the author? Not known. It is actually not important. We may consider it as a symbolic compendium of Renaissance ideals of perfect planning, respect and the mastery of unique perspective.
8 An inspiration from Gregory Bateson classic work Mind and Nature- A necessary Unit that summarizes (Bateson's) thinking on the subject of the patterns that connect living beings to each other and to their environment.

Suggested readings

Bateson G., Mind and Nature – A necessary Unit, original Ed. E. P. Dutton, NY 1979
Kapp K., The Gamification of Learning and Instruction: Game-based Methods and Strategies for Training and Education, ASTD 2011
Jerald J., The VR Book: Human-Centered Design for Virtual Reality, ACM books, 2015
Vai M., Sosulski K., Essentials of Online Course Design: A Standards-Based Guide, Routledge,2011
Weber S., The Success of Open Source, Harvard University Press, 2015