The important feature that design brings is this bridge between the science and the arts. And I don’t think many people understand the power of design to put these two things together.
Learning is emergent, a lifelong pursuit, not relegated to the brick walls of an institution or to a narrow window of time during life; it has no specific end point. The artificial divisions of work, play and education cease to be relevant in the 21st century. Learning begins on a playground and continues perpetually in other playgrounds, individual and shared workspaces, communities and more. Learning can be assessed but doesn’t aim itself exclusively toward assessment.
Even if its [Udacity’s] courses may seem cheaper or more accessible, offering a more viable entree into post-secondary education, they do so by (a) privatizing such an activity among an organization purpose-built to convert the needs of the many into the benefit of the very few and (b) by reframing the social challenges inherent in underserved educational populations as simple problems of content delivery.
“Inequality in American Education Will Not Be Solved Online” by Ian Bogost
A good response to the TechCrunch article on how MOOCs will end college as we know it.
We see school as one node in a broader network of learning available to young people, and believe we can call on the untapped capacity in more informal and interest-driven arenas to build more learning supports and opportunities. In an era when our existing educational pathways serve fewer young people, it is critical that we build capacity, opportunity, and new models of success, rather than orient our efforts solely on optimizing the playing field of existing opportunities.
The report notes that colleges will have to rely on more strategic leaders who address these challenges through better use of technology to cut costs, create efficiency in their operations, demonstrate value, reach new markets, and prioritize programs. Many of those efforts could be grounds for disputes with faculty members or other institutional constituents unless leaders can get the collective buy-in that has long been the staple of higher education governance.
I just installed Thoughtback, an app that allows users to enter ideas that the app will send back to you at random at a later date. At first, my interest was personal. For me, it’s a fun way to capture thoughts on having a new baby, who will undoubtedly be different each time I get a “thought back” on him. But there are potential interesting uses for learning and professional development.
Imagine if students recorded quotes, images, or insights from classroom lectures in Thoughtback. Using the app in this way creates a nice opportunity for students to recall key reflections from past courses and to measure how much they’ve learned or changed since the time of that first thought.
It can be used much the same way for professional development – to capture reflections, insights, and new ideas. It would enable all the creativity and energy from conferences to inspire at later points throughout the year, for example. And it’s a good tool to measure how you change (or not) in relationship to emerging trends in learning and technology. Imagine if we all had a timeline of our thoughts on MOOCs, for example. It would be interesting to see if getting your thought back would be haunting, or not.
A collaborative, startup mentality is being adopted by workers and organizations that allows for new ways to learn. Multidisciplinary teams made up of people with diverse experiences are allowing participants to teach each other and learn at the same time.
In the US, an undergraduate education used to be an option, one way to get into the middle class. Now it’s a hostage situation, required to avoid falling out of it. And if some of the hostages having trouble coming up with the ransom conclude that our current system is a completely terrible idea, then learning will come unbundled from the pursuit of a degree just as as songs came unbundled from CDs.
“Games are not fun because they are games, but fun when they are well-designed.”
It’s hard to digest all that I learned attending the Games, Learning, and Society Conference last week in Madison. It was a great experience attending a niche conference, particularly one that is out of my area of expertise. I learned a lot from the focused sessions and the rich discussions among a group with shared interests. And ultimately, those designing games for learning encounter many of the same design challenges that all learning designers do.
There’s not an easy or cohesive way to summarize the depth and breadth of the sessions I attended, but I walked away with some interesting ideas and questions to consider, particularly related to design of instruction and the contexts in which we deliver instruction. Some key thoughts:
- From Reed Stevens Keynote: Does the learning happen between the player and the game, or between player and other people and cultural forms in the room? Does learning happen because of game elements, or because the learner is freed from typical instructional environment?
- Also from Stevens keynote, but echoed in a few sessions: Players feel a sense of mastery in games that they do not in traditional instruction. Students feel they don’t know how to learn, and that hard work doesn’t lead to success in school. But they do feel that they can learn and work hard to master games.
- There’s an inherent tension between formal assessment and game-based assessment. Formal assessment requires uniformity and fixed measurement of knowledge at a particular point in time, while a game is dynamic and learning can happen in the moment.
- In a study of master teachers, Sean Dikkers found that expert teachers still worried about trying new tools and approaches, but they took risks anyways. When asked what type of training impacted their teaching practice, Institutional professional development was not rated as relevant, whereas personal development efforts (whether training or hobbies) were relevant and meaningful to their teaching.
- Sebastian Deterding challenged the community in the closing keynote to broaden the scope of thinking about game interventions deployed within systems to a gameful restructuring of the systems.
Taken together, a lot of these ideas point at the weaknesses in traditional institutions of learning, and how ill-structured they are to nurture the natural ability and desire humans have to learn. I come away with a renewed focus on the agency of the learner and the varying contexts for learning.
I remember when Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows came out in June. My blogroll teemed with posts from those in higher ed debating the book’s premise that the internet is changing the way we think. More specifically, Carr suggests that the internet is compromising our ability to think deeply and focus extensively.
I’ve heard versions of this argument (or warning, as some may interpret it) since grad school, and have experienced first-hand the compulsive Facebooking, headline-skimming, and multi-tasking it portends. Sometimes reading an article leads down a rabbit hole of endless links; other times it takes as long as hitting “Ctrl + T” to forget what to do next.
But I have not lost all hope. There are plenty of activities that I engage in that I can’t be distracted from. I don’t tweet while running; I don’t email while cooking; I don’t text while sharing a meal with friends; I don’t skip around chapters while reading a good book. These activities, meaningful and engaging to me, still encourage presence, focus, and creativity, and I gladly put down my smart phone long enough to participate.
My anec-data (sample size: me) suggests the internet hasn’t changed how we think, but how we think while we do certain tasks. My level of engagement with an activity determines how distractable I am, not my internet-addled brain. If a task is appropriately interesting and challenging, I tend to not check my phone or email or Facebook. But if a task isn’t the right mix of that cocktail, then my mind does indeed wander. Further, I would bet that my mind wanders no more than it did before the prevalence of the internet (otherwise known as my college internship years); my wanderlust simply has an easy outlet now.
I propose that most activities can be mapped on axes of easy to challenging and boring to interesting, and that those in the sweet spot of challenging and interesting are immune to “the shallows.” Here’s how I’d map a few personal tasks on a graph:
- Easy & Interesting: This quadrant is truly “the shallows” for me. It doesn’t require a lot of effort, but has my attention. In this space, I watch TV while Facebooking while following links until I OD on multitasking.
- Easy & Boring: The easy and boring quadrant holds many of those tasks that should be easy to complete, but lack of focus makes them time- and energy-consuming. I’m always trying to figure out how to talk on the phone or listen to music while cleaning, so it takes extra long to get it done, but requires minimal thought.
- Challenging & Boring: The boring but challenging quadrant is where I do a LOT of procrastinating. I will do anything before tackling the tasks in this space. The easy and boring tasks are downright sexy compared to these (yes, cleaning is my favorite procrastinating activity).
- Challenging & Interesting: The interesting and challenging space is comprised of tasks that require thought, creativity, and offer enough challenge so I don’t look for input elsewhere. I bet Vygotsky would love this zone.
Students in the Shallows?
For those in higher ed who are frustrated with students “in the shallows”, perhaps it’s worth evaluating what you are asking students to do, and if it really is worth their attention away from Facebook. If I were a student today, these common instructional activities would map out like this for me:
- Discussion forums: Online discussions can be fruitful, but they can also very quickly be reduced to “how many times do I have to post to get credit?” Thought-provoking questions and good facilitation can help, but expect that the forum thread isn’t the only discussion the student will be participating in at one time.
- Multiple-choice quizzes: Multiple-choice quizzes rarely do more than serve as a reading check for the instructor, which may have a role in the course. But when you consider how challenging it is to write good, fair quiz questions, and how easy it is for students to hit a radial button, no matter their mastery of the content, you have to consider how much weight quizzes should have in assessing learning.
- Writing essays. I say this with regret, as a former English teacher – students don’t like writing essays. And many are not good at it, despite years of “practice” with the five-paragraph essay. There’s unquestionably a need to teach and assess student communication skills, but the formal academic essay is only one tool to achieve that end, arguably one that lacks relevance in the real world.
- Making videos. Video, like the essay, is simply another communication tool, but one that encourages students to communicate more naturally (speaking) and to think creatively. To make a good video, one has to make use of a range of skills (technical, communication, organizational and design skills, to name a few), which creates more opportunity for diverse students to excel.
If we are indeed living in the shallows of information more and more, there are still ways to get to the deep end through meaningful engagement. Educators have the chance (and the responsibility) to be the safe vessels that carry students into deeper waters, but the old way of doing things is not going to get them there. Perhaps educators, too, need a life vest before jumping off the safe ledge of lectures and exams into the murkier depths of collaborative and project-based learning, but dive we must. Otherwise, this kiddie pool will get overcrowded, and we won’t remember how to swim.