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.



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.

Automating Teachers

Hey, speaking of English teachers, Udacity co-founder Sebastian Thrun has some interesting things to say about how grading is done for online coursework:

A grader for a computer program is called a compiler. It’s either right or wrong and there are computer programs that can help you. And even there it’s not completely trivial. If you want to prove a theorem, it’s not entirely obvious how to assess a theorem, but by and large it’s easy. Compare this to critical dialogue in philosophy, discourse in philosophy. There, it’s really the subtlety of their language that makes all the difference and more—it’s not just about assessment, it’s not about grading, it’s also about feedback. When someone writes an essay, you want to give meaningful feedback so they can improve. I’ve seen good progress on the assessment of essays; I’ve seen almost no progress on qualified feedback. And that’s where you have a very simple opinion—you just have people do it. Our classes right now require essay writing, and those essays are being graded by people and it’s just fine, in my opinion. Why not? There are a lot of unemployed people in this country. I don’t think it has to be all computerized.

So while the MOOC environment replaces the teacher and classroom environment, sometimes you still need a flesh-and-blood teacher to do the grading.  A compiler can “grade” the composition of computer code, but you wouldn’t want something like Microsoft’s grammar checker to grade English compositions.

It’s interesting that the more highly valued STEM courses are easier to fully automate than liberal arts courses. So English teachers will be among the last to be automated out of a job. Of course, the requirement for a human in the loop will only make liberals arts courseware relatively more difficult and expensive to provide, meaning that there will be fewer such offerings, and that they will be more expensive.

Advantage: STEM courses

[Photo by Jiuguang Wang.]