My problem with "just-in-time" learning

"Just-in-time (JIT) learning" is the newish buzzword you hear often in association with video games and learning. It's a deceptively simple idea suggesting that learning is better when it is "on-demand." You encounter a problem, you're given the information to solve it, and you solve it then and there. No need to memorize a set of facts ahead of time that you may or may not use in the future, no need for abstract concepts that have no bearing on the immediate demands of the situation, no need for decontextualized facts and figures. As far as I know, this concept is assumed to be right and I have never seen the concept criticized before, but I'm going to go ahead and say: I have a problem with JIT learning on two levels: 1) It's overly vague and 2) It often doesn't work.

JIT is a concept that originated in the business world, specifically in operations management. It was developed to keep down inventory costs. Instead of preordering components from a supplier and holding them in your inventory, your operations management system would demand the components from a supplier only when a customer asks for it. That way, you don't need to hold components in your inventory that you might not use, hence keeping costs down. Information is given to the supplier "just-in-time" and the component is sent over.

(There are problems with JIT, even within the business world context. I've talked to people who work in inventory control. They tell me JIT often doesn't work as well as it looks in theory. It's more of an ideal, like "360 assessment" and other business world concepts. Also, JIT does not protect you from price fluctuations or sudden supply shortages.)

In video games, JIT learning is reinterpreted to describe what happens in tutorials. When a player starts a game, they spend the first 10-15 minutes figuring how how the game works, where the menus are, what the icons mean, how to walk, shoot, run, hide, communicate, and so on. Video games don't ask you to memorize all the moves before playing. Instead, it tells you what moves you can make when you need to make them. This is easier for the player because action in games are performed through abstract combinations of buttons, so you need to have that kind of situated instruction to prevent the game from becoming overwhelming.

From an educational point of view, the concept of "JIT learning" is a great piece of marketing because it borrows a phrase from the "real" business world and connects it to learning. It brings together "learning," "21st century skills," and "new economy," and it juxtaposes JIT learning with all the other forms of non-JIT learning perpetuated in schools. It's a great metaphor to use because it makes people go "Of course, JIT is great. How can it not be?" But things that make so much sense on the surface often hide underlying issues, so let's open the black box and take a peek.

Overly vague

The business world is ripe with phrases like "just-in-time" that sound "necessarily good." It's like calling something "people-centered" or "pro-society" or "learning-centered." It uses a description that seems so obviously good that it defies criticism, and that's precisely my concern about it.

When educators talk about JIT learning, they almost never elaborate on whether they are suggesting that JIT learning is just as effective or more effective as non-JIT learning, and they almost never explain "just in time for what?" Do they mean that JIT learning is the best kind of learning, and that schools should do away with non-JIT learning? Are there situations where non-JIT learning works better than JIT learning?

I can appreciate the benefits of JIT learning. It's annoying to memorize things that you might not need in the future. (Interestingly, I just found out that there's research suggesting that there are neurological benefits to learning things you don't need to use immediately because it wires your brain to be prepared for different forms of thinking. If that's true, that certainly complicates the issue for proponents of JIT learning.) At the same time, people engage in non-JIT learning all the time, such as when they read a history book for their own benefit. I don't need to use that historical information for anything beyond my own personal interest and it doesn't mean I'm not learning anything. I could just be interested in reading about the Battle of Thermopylae because it fascinates me. I might never need to use that knowledge for anything, but I'm still learning.

So, does JIT mean "just in time to solve the problem at hand" or "just in time when I'm interested?" Those are not the same question. I might have a problem at hand that I have no interest in solving. I can also be interested in something that doesn't pose a particular problem to me. If I pose to you a problem that you have little interest in solving, and give you all the JIT instruction you need, would it still be as effective? In other words: Is JIT learning in games effective simply because players are interested in playing the game and not because there's something inherently well-designed about a JIT form of instruction? I don't know the answer to this question, so someone should investigate it. For example, try putting a non-player in front of a video game and see how effective JIT learning is.

Often doesn't work

I came across the flaws of JIT learning in my own research. It's too much to explain in a blog, but this is basically what happened: a novice was asking for help on how to do something in a game, the other players provided her the instructions, but she remained confused and frustrated. The instructions were accurate, reasonably clear (to the extent that "Press A" is clear), and provided when she asked for it. But it didn't work? Why not? It was JIT!

It didn't work because JIT doesn't say anything about what form that instruction comes in, nor does it say anything about what that information is. There are times when it's easy to give someone an instruction on something. "To jump over the gap, press A" is a perfectly easy and JIT form of instruction. But learning isn't always that simple; in fact, it seldom is. Learning also isn't always just about information, it's about what you do with that information, how you relate it to other pieces of information, and how you can assess its accuracy.

The Internet is our most abundant source of JIT information. We can go on a search and find any information we want. But from my experience with students, knowing how to find information "just in time" is not the same as knowing how to assess the value of that information. In games, we trust that game designers will give us the right instruction (although wouldn't it be fun if they didn't?) so we never have to worry about accuracy. But in the real world, we need to decide for ourselves what to do with information.

As educators know, timing is important in learning. We talk about "teachable moments" when they come up, and we try to grasp those moments and use them to clarify a point. JIT focuses on two important aspects of learning (timing and information) but not on context and other big picture questions. For example, "To jump over the gap, press A" only tells me how to jump, it doesn't tell me why I have to jump, why I can't go down the gap, why is the gap so terrifying, why can't I go back, and so on. It just tells me to blindly follow the (often arbitrary) rules of a game. JIT typically does not provide answers to these larger questions, just the immediate, practical ones.

Traditional teaching methods have been getting a bad rap for presenting students with information that they don't need to use. Why do we neet to learn things like the quadratic equation, the Battle of Hastings, the periodic table, the volume of a sphere, the meaning of a metaphor, if we don't know whether we ever need it? JIT learning fixes that problem by putting students into situations when they do have to use them to solve problems. That is, no doubt, a step in the right direction. But before we get too carried away with it, let's stop for a moment and study JIT learning more deeply. Because, if you've ever played a video game in your life, I'm willing to bet that you were given an instruction that made you go "Wait, what?" Learning in games is not flawless. We can understand it better if we're willing to look at counter-examples (i.e., when JIT learning fails). We also need to teach students how to assess the JIT information because JIT learning in the real world isn't as straightforward as it is in the gaming world. We also need to stop glossing over JIT and start elaborating on it further. We'll be doing a great disservice to education if we elevate JIT to a level beyond critical investigation.