Ramón Leon hates friction. He describes friction as the non-value-added activities that you must do in order to be able to do the value-added activities. For example, friction is driving to a gym to work out. The non-value-added activity (driving) not only increases the time needed to do the value-added activity (working out), the non-value-added activity makes you less likely to do the value-added activity.
His guiding principle in the creation of a superior educational environment is the elimination of friction for the student. For example, suppose that before students can analyze a case study they must first look for a file, then download the file, then find the data file and download it, and then paste the data into a statistical package for analysis. If you could allow the student to see the case study and the data with a single click, the time saved can be used for learning. The goal is to drive down the non-value-added time to zero.
In his quest to excite business students about business analytics, Leon draws support for his emphasis in eliminating friction from the cognitive sciences. Cognitive science teaches us that the short-term memory resources available to people when they are learning are very limited, and that the best teaching material—everything else being equal— is the one that taxes these short-term memory resources the least. His goal is to create educational resources that allow students’ short-term memory resources to be freed from non-value added activities so that they can be redeployed into value-added activities tied to learning.
“Obsessive is the only word to describe Ramon’s approach to teaching,” says Ken Gilbert, head of UT’s Department of Statistics, Operations, and Management Science. “He makes sure that all of his lecture notes, supplemental readings, career information, and all other information are readily available in one online location. Anything can be viewed with one click rather than a download.”
Leon uses data collection and the use of technology to eliminate friction. After each class, the students are given an opportunity to anonymously answer five questions that ask students what could have been done to help them learn better. The responses to these survey questions point to sources of friction. For example, in one of his classes, which had both students in the classroom and students participating online, the online students expressed concern that they could not always hear the questions being asked in the classroom. As a result, Leon worked with an electronics expert to develop a machine (pictured at right) that allowed seamless communication among the students in the class, the students online, and the professor.
Highlighting what is important is also key to a frictionless learning experience. He found that when he responded to students’ questions in class, he needed to be able to capture his responses on his lecture notes and to make those annotations available to the students. Therefore, he now uses a writing tablet with software that captures the annotations in real-time. Articles posted on his class website also feature Leon’s highlights and annotations that point students to the salient information.
Leon works with his business analytics colleagues to help them create a learning environment where the use of the teaching technology is transparent to the instructor and the students and friction is minimized. “When the instructor and students don’t have to even think about the technology being used, then teaching and learning can become the sole focus.” he explains.
However, Leon’s constant innovation in teaching involves risks. “One of my biggest failures was the Facebook fiasco,” Leon recalls. “Years ago, when social networking was relatively new, I thought it would be good to have the entire class networked on Facebook. I encouraged the students to ‘friend’ me and all of their classmates. It freaked all of them out! At the time I didn’t understand that this was an intrusion into their personal life that they did not welcome. And they were afraid that if they did not friend me it might put them at a disadvantage in the class. Needless to say, I quickly abandoned that idea. Now I hear that it is even illegal in some states for a professor to ask students to friend them! We live and learn. Especially when we collect data! ”
Leon acknowledges the important role that the Tennessee Teaching and Learning Center has played into his entry into frictionless research. “My first experiments were funded by a grant from the center. The center’s director, Dave Schuman, and his staff have been very helpful.”