“Fun” Education and Wagging the Dog

Edudive has a run-down on 6 offbeat MOOCs that merge education with fun. I don’t mean to come off as Buzz Killington swaddled in a big, cold, wet blanket but…

Come on. Seriously? A course based on The Walking Dead that “calls for examining the role of public health in a pandemic and the science of hope?”  Would I take that class? Heck, yeah. I love that show. Does that mean that it’s a good idea to offer college credit for this froth?

There’s a very simple test that we can apply to any educational experience described as “fun.” Come to think of it, it’s a valid test to apply to any educational experience, period. It’s a two-parter:

  1. What are we trying to teach?
  2. Would this knowledge / skillset be worth pursuing independent of this exercise? 

For most people, the role of public health in a pandemic is, at best, an interesting magazine article or TV news piece. Everybody who signs up for a class based on The Walking Dead who would have had no use for a class called “The Role of Public Health in a Pandemic” is probably wasting his or her time. Likewise, how much useful science or cooking knowledge is really going to be conveyed in a class that visits the kitchens of great chefs to examine “how their recipes work?”

I’ve got nothing against exploring the artistic or literary merits of comic books, teaching students to write commercial science fiction and fantasy, coming at linguistics from the standpoint of swear words, or teaching what we can about music by studying the works of the Beatles. These all kind of sound like fun. But if I want to have fun, geeking out and reading comic books is more fun than listening to somebody tell me how “important” they are. Ditto listening to the Beatles.

Likewise, if I want to learn something, you don’t have to patronize me. I don’t have to pretend that I’m watching my favorite TV show in order to force myself to learn something that I’m genuinely interested in. Just recently we looked at how much fun there is to be had in doing basic science. Learning something new, demonstrating the knowledge, accomplishing something — these are all highly pleasurable experiences in and of themselves.

Obviously, there is nothing wrong with juicing up course content with material that is likely to attract the learner’s attention. But creating a “fun” experience that brings along a little learning for the ride — especially when the learning is of questionable value — is the tail wagging the dog.

The real fun should come from what’s being learned. And what’s being learned should be worth learning.

junglerun Photo by Barry Lewis

Fear, Subordination, and Games

I’ve just finished a couple of posts at Transparency Revolution and the Speculist exploring the relationship between technology and a culture of subordination in the current (apparent) dismantling of employment as we have known it. The basic premise is that technology is always going to be better at being subordinate than human beings so it only makes sense that businesses — which have fostered a culture of subordination — will jump at opportunities to automate. This leaves a workforce with fewer and fewer jobs to go around who have already had much of the creative / entrepreneurial spirit pounded out of them. Not a good combination.

So it was with this scenario in mind that I read these very interesting thoughts from Google visionary Sebastian Thrun:

Google Glass creator says ‘fear-based’ testing regimes block technology

The biggest principle is to go at your own speed – eliminate this very strong synchronicity. It is the main obstacle for technology, to overcome the belief that a teacher and group of students have to go through the same thing at the same time,” he said. Education should learn from the positive side of gaming – reward, accomplishment and fun. An online environment would be able to use data about students’ performance to more scientifically assess their progress, and how successfully a certain course is engaging students.

Here’s an interesting dichotomy. In the corporate setting, technology in the form of automation supports the entrenched culture of subordination and conformity. In education, it can be the means by which classrooms are liberated from those paradigms.  But what can take the place of fear and rigid conformity? Thrun has some thoughts on that, as well:

The way the system administers tests is fundamentally wrong. [It is done] more in a summative way, and we ask the question ‘has the student done the correct thing’ and we do it more in a fear inspiring way, forcing a student to submit to a date irrespective of how long it takes them to learn. It should be more like a feedback mechanism to help them understand how much progress they have made, with pervasive challenges repeated privately and as often as they want until they feel confident.

Hey, wait a minute. That kind of thinking sounds familiar. It reminds me a bit of this:

Lee Sheldon, co-director of the game design program at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (No. 370), starts each semester by telling his class the same thing: “Congratulations, you have an F.” While the students wrap their heads around their predicament, he quickly adds, “But you can level up.”

Sheldon writes and designs video games, but right now he’s most famous for how he teaches his students: like they’re playing a massive multiplayer online role-playing game. He divides the class into small groups called “guilds,” which complete quests such as taking tests and making presentations to earn points and then advance to a new level. At the end of the course, he determines the grade by points and skill level. Ever since he turned education into a game, he says, “the average letter grade in the class went from a C to a B, and attendance is almost perfect.

Actually, the connection between the two is not terribly surprising. Thrun is a founder of Udacity, which is developing a model of delivering online courseware inspired in part by the online role-playing games. Shared creative spaces, social tools, games — these all seem like positive steps forward for delivering educational content.

And excellent alternatives to conformity and fear.


Online Schools Failing?

Here’s an interesting analysis of how online educational options are evolving in Massachusetts. Even as the state’s one existing virtual school is producing some pretty sub-standard results, the state is preparing to allow for a number of additional online schools to be started. (Here’s a similar analysis from Colorado a while back with more data points around the failure of the online schools.)

In Massachusetts, the goal is to provide online education as an option for “students who have been expelled from conventional schools, as well as kids who are chronically ill, teen parents, actors, Olympic athletes and bullying victims.” I think this is an excellent start, but I think we have to be very careful comparing test results for this mixed demographic with the overall student population. I would say the same holds true for Colorado and anywhere else where online alternatives for secondary students are being made available.

Who are the students signing up for these programs, and why? Until we know more about that — specifically, how well these kids were doing in the traditional environment — it’s pretty hard to assess the success rate of the online program.

The effectiveness of online tools and learning within the classroom environment is taken pretty much as given. And the effectiveness of such tools as a supplement to a traditional classroom setting is also easy to demonstrate. (Check out the Khan Academy success stories.) There is also abundant evidence that online tools contribute significantly to homeschool success.

It’s only when online education is offered as a straight-up alternative to a traditional classroom that we see these negative results. Is this a problem with implementation? Is it a lack of structure? Is it the deomgraphic mix of the students who participate? It could be a combination of these.

Also, you can’t rule out the possibility that competition for funding could be playing a role. If school districts and school boards are not particularly inclined to see funds diverted to these efforts in the first place — and both the Colorado and Massachusetts stories linked above make it clear that often they are not — how successful are these bodies likely to find these programs?

On the other hand, if pure online programs really don’t work as an alternative to the traditional classroom, this once again makes for an interesting contrast between between secondary and higher education. As we noted a while back, in a classroom setting, secondary schools are far ahead of colleges and universities in their adoption of technology. Paradoxically, the online alternative to college is emerging as an increasingly viable option.

Will the kinks eventually be worked out for secondary online education? Stay tuned…