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.



To Google or Not to Google?

That is the question.

At Edutopia, Beth Holland is taking a hard stance against students citing Google as a research source (which makes sense) and against using it to find things (which doesn’t make all that much sense.)

The part that makes sense is helping students to understand that Google is not a source of information per se, and that it must never be cited as such. Students need to understand whether what they are looking for is a definition of a term, an overview of a topic such as might be found in an encyclopedia, or more in-depth information such as might be found in a book on the particular subject. When you type a search term into Google, it will bring back an unfiltered combination of those things.

So what to do? Well, the obvious answer is to eschew Google.

Holland tells this story:

While on my Google tirade, I happened into a kindergarten class. In the midst of exploring dinosaurs, one little girl asked a question that the teacher didn’t know. “Let’s Google it,” the teacher suggested to the student. Unable to contain myself, I jumped in and showed the student how to access World Book Kids ­- which not only had information at a lower reading level, but also included text­-to­-speech.

That’s great! But I can’t help but wonder — where would the harm have been if the kindergarten teacher had been allowed to go ahead and use Google and had entered a somewhat more refined search than just, say “dinosaurs,” something more along the lines of dinosaur information for kids.

Of course, citing Google as a source makes no sense. It would be like citing the card catalog as a source. And kids need to understand the differences between the various sources of information they are accessing. Still, whatever those sources are — Google is a great way of getting to them…if you use it properly. Strategic use of search engines is an important life skill (much less educational or research skill) for kids these days. Do we really want to put artificial constraints around how they go about finding information so that things will be more like they were in years gone by?

Search engines get us to the sources of information in a very different way than the research tools of the past. But this is as much a feature as it is a bug. Let’s work on a developing a new set of skills to make the best use of resources available. Google can be an extremely able research assistant if given the right instructions.