“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…

The Entrepreneurial Classroom

We recently  looked at an app that lets kids create their own games.

The founder of the Incubator School, which opened last week in Los Angeles, wants to take it up a notch from there. Already on the record telling kids to make games rather than just play them, with her new school Sujata Bhatt wants kids to build a startup around the games they create — or any other sound business idea:

Students at the Incubator School will spend the first two years (sixth and seventh grades) learning the principles of entrepreneurship before actually launching businesses in the eighth grade. It’s too early to predict what kinds of ventures the students will launch, but Bhatt exudes confidence that many students already have a natural disposition for entrepreneurship.

Teaching kids to build a business may sound exotic and cutting edge, but the truth is that our economy is rapidly changing, and nothing is evolving faster than the nature of employment.  As I was just observing earlier today, encouraging technology startups may be the key to improving the employment picture. Or to put it in more stark terms, the only job that may be available in the future is the one that the student (graduate / job-seeker) creates for him- or herself.

If students do have a natural disposition for entrepreneurship — and I suspect that more do than we would realize — we need to look carefully at the environment that we are putting most kids in and ask whether it is doing anything to encourage that vital skill? My guess is that this story is more or less typical:

In elementary school, my friends and I would re-sell snacks that we purchased from Costco at a lower price than what the vending machines and lunch lady charged. Profit margins were low, but hey, making any money at that age was quite exciting.

Unfortunately, the school didn’t appreciate such “disruptive” activity. We were (partially) shut down and left with a bitter aftertaste of the school system.

The Incubator School is looking to create a different kind of environment, one where that kind of activity would be encouraged and, presumably, rewarded. Perusing their Digital Sandbox (I like that name), I observed that they are looking at gaming development systems, augmented reality, maker spaces — all the kinds of things we have been describing here as potential components of an overall shared creative space.

So there may be an interesting convergence here. In the near future, all schools might need to emulate some aspects of Incubator School, if they are going to help students develop vital life skills around creating and managing their own opportunities. To be effective in helping kids develop these skills, providing shared creative spaces may be of paramount importance.


Let Your Freak Flag Fly

Shelley Carson, in a piece written a while back at Scientific American, explores the link between eccentricity and creativity:

Albert Einstein picked up cigarette butts off the street to get tobacco for his pipe; Howard Hughes spent entire days on a chair in the middle of the supposedly germ-free zone of his Beverly Hills Hotel suite; the composer Robert Schumann believed that his musical compositions were dictated to him by Beethoven and other deceased luminaries from their tombs; and Charles Dickens is said to have fended off imaginary urchins with his umbrella as he walked the streets of London. More recently, we have seen Michael Jackson’s preoccupation with rhinoplasty, Salvador Dalí’s affection for dangerous pets and the Icelandic singer Björk dressed for the Oscars as a swan.

It isn’t just average Joes who perceive highly creative individuals as eccentric. These individuals often see themselves as different and unable to fit in. The latest findings in brain imaging, creativity research and molecular biology suggest that these perceptions are not just based on a few anecdotal accounts of “weird” scientists and artists. In fact, creativity and eccentricity often go hand in hand, and researchers now believe that both traits may be a result of how the brain filters incoming information. Even in the business world, there is a growing appreciation of the link between creative thinking and unconventional behavior, with increased acceptance of the latter.

If eccentricity is so vitally linked with creativity, then it’s likely that efforts to rein in the one will have a dampening effect on the other. Traditionally, schools have not been noted as particularly welcoming environments for eccentrics. Part of the blame there can be assigned to teachers and administrators, who need to create some kind of orderly environment and who end up enforcing a good many social norms without ever giving the matter much thought. But a large share of the blame must also be apportioned to the students themselves, who are tireless enforcers of social norms and who can be tremendously intolerant of departures therefrom.

Obviously there has been a good deal of progress in these areas over the past few years, and there is no question that schools today are more tolerant of differences, even some very odd differences,  than they were a decade or three ago. And partly through efforts such as the various anti-bullying campaigns, but also due in part, I think, to a generational tendency towards a more live-and-let-live approach to to the world, students are a significantly less hostile to the Weird Kid than they were in the past.

This is all to the good if we want our schools to provide an environment where creativity can flourish. And as Carson sees it, that is probably something we should want very much:

The good news is that the plight of square pegs may be improving. The ascendancy of innovative technology as a key factor in economic growth has elevated creativity from merely a positive trait to a highly sought-after commodity in the global market. Many leading corporations—such as Coca Cola, DuPont, Citigroup and Humana—now have chief innovation officers on their leadership teams. Prestigious business schools—such as Harvard, Stanford, Columbia and Yale—have added courses on creativity to their curricula. And Fortune 500 companies, including PepsiCo, Bristol-Meyers Squibb, Aetna and Marriott, now routinely put employees through creativity training programs. Trainers in these classes use a variety of tools and techniques to help noneccentrics open their minds to “out of the box” thoughts and stimuli that might otherwise be ignored or suppressed.

It makes sense that the economic value of creativity would drive us towards greater tolerance of eccentricity. But technology may have a greater role to play than just that of an economic driver. Over the past couple of weeks, we have been looking at the role that technology can play in enhancing student creativity. A whole new literacy is evolving, powered by computer technology, which enables students to combine verbal expression with more visual forms in ways that were never before possible; shared social spaces are providing  motivation for students to improve the quality of their work (even the choice of computer hardware is being evaluated from the standpoint of how it will contribute to such spaces). Meanwhile, a focus on learning outcomes rather than adherence to traditional classrooms on the one hand, or the gee-whiz aspects of technology on the other, is allowing for some truly innovative educational options, particularly where creativity is involved.

It has been established that one of the key benefits of effective educational technology is its ability to individualize the learning experience, to make it specific to a particular student’s learning style. These shared social spaces will have to do that one better. Accommodating individual learning needs and preferences is a great start, but what we ultimately need are social spaces that accommodate individuals, period. The social learning space must be one where eccentricity can flourish as it never has before, a place that says, “Come on in. And let your freak flag fly.”

How’s That Online Education Working Out

Related to my piece from last week on online teachers, this site introduces five students and shares their perspectives on online education — secondary, in this case. Some of the students are traditional and some are online full-time so it’s a good mix of perspectives.

One of the students, Jennifer, makes this observation:

I think future college students who are considering pursuing a degree online should know that it might be a more difficult endeavor than attending a traditional school. It can be really easy to fall behind if you aren’t used to structuring your own schedule and making sure you study.

That sounds like it should be obvious, but maybe it’s not as obvious as it should be. When San Jose State University partnered with Udacity earlier this year the hype was that it was the beginning of a whole new era in higher education. Now, a little over six months into the program, it is being suspended because about half of the online students failed their final exams.

Because online courses offer much greater freedom and flexibility, there may be a tendency to think of them as “easier.” More likely, the opposite is true. As Jennifer points out, above, the structure the school provides for traditional courses has to come from somewhere else when the class is presented online — namely, the student. Effective time management, and maybe more importantly effective self-management, are not skills that a lot of students (or post-students) have exactly mastered. But for something like online education to work, they’re going to have to find a way to do so.