Teaching What to Learn and Learning How to Teach

thumbby Hap Aziz

In his article “The Top 5 Faculty Morale Killers” published in The Chronicle of Higher Education online (April 25th, 2016), Rob Jenkins discusses several of the ways in which middle managers at academic institutions might influence faculty members’ experiences, for good or bad. Considering full-time faculty (rather than adjuncts), he discusses topics of micromanagement, trust issues, hogging the spotlight, the blame game, and blatant careerism; and for the most part, I find myself in agreement with his management observations and commentary. However, there is one area on which Jenkins touches that is problematic and often a subject of (sometimes heated) discussion at many of the institutions I’ve encountered over the past couple of decades. Under the heading of “micromanagement,” Jenkins writes,

“If, as an academic middle manager, you wish to destroy morale in your department, you can start by dictating to your faculty members exactly what to teach, how to teach it, which materials to use, and how to evaluate students.”

In this sentence, Jenkins links four related yet separate points, which he earlier categorized as being issues of academic freedom. I don’t believe the blanket application of the concept of academic freedom applies equally to all of these points, specifically as a protection against the potential administrative requirement to meet a certain standard of professional competency regarding learning outcomes. This discussion has only broadened as faculty and students both have become more involved with online and technology-mediated learning models, and some of those online learning concerns and considerations may be instructive in this context. Let’s examine Jenkins’ statement point by point.

  • what to teach

When it comes to making decisions regarding the subject matter being taught, there has been little disagreement with the idea that the full-time faculty member is the ultimate decision-making authority; that is, within generally accepted content parameters established largely through professional consensus, and as agreed upon by academic departments as to what content should be covered within courses. There are some dissenting viewpoints, often related to more politicized or controversial content as highlighted in this Huffington Post article. However, there is not enough cause to argue this point with Jenkins, and I see little downside in letting the subject matter expert (especially in contrast with the opposite approach) determine the subject matter being taught.

  • which materials to use

As with the point of what to teach, the selection of materials may largely be left to the faculty member. Certain decisions regarding text-book adoption, inclusion of supplementary materials, etc. may be subject to moderation by the appropriate academic department, but even so, the departments themselves include the teaching faculty. The remaining two points are where the conversation may be considered contentious.

  • how to teach it

When online courses and programs began to gain traction and popularity as an option for students in the late 1990s and early 2000s,  student outcomes lagged comparatively for the online alternatives. Eventually, it became obvious to institutions that basic faculty teaching and technology skills were not enough to replicate the on-ground classroom experience. In the 2004 study, “Online, On-Ground: What’s the Difference,” Ury and Ury found that “the online  student mean grade (80%) what significantly lower than the mean grade of the students enrolled in traditional sections of the same course (85%).” Drop-out rates continue to be problematic for online programs due to a number of variables, many of which are differentiators between online and on-ground instruction, as observed by Keith Tyler-Smith in his 2006 Journal of Online learning and Teaching article, “Early Attrition among First Time eLearners: A Review of Factors that Contribute to Drop-out, Withdrawal and Non-completion Rates of Adult Learners undertaking eLearning Programmes.”

The preponderance of research has demonstrated that building a successful online course is not simply a matter of selecting the appropriate content (or translating and transferring content from an on-ground format to an online format–whatever that might be). As the pressure for accountability grew (for a number of reasons), the notion also grew that faculty, by virtue of their subject matter expertise were not also necessarily well-qualified to develop effective online courses. Interestingly, this was by no means a new assessment or understanding. The instructional design community has understood this for quite some time, but without the mechanism for providing a comparative illustration–which online courses provided–faculty design of courses and how to teach them–was standard practice.

It does not necessarily follow that having subject matter expertise means that faculty also have teaching methods expertise. This is true for online courses, certainly, but it is also true for on-ground courses. Institutions serious about service to their learning populations must decide how they will equip their faculty for success, whether that is through ongoing professional development, the provision of support resources such as instructional design staff, or any combination of methods. But that will mean some form of “micromanagement” as institutions get a handle on assessing the performance of their academic programs and measuring the success of their students.

I remember reading an interview with Isaac Asimov in which he talked about his writing. In his life, he authored over 500 books along with countless essays, short stories, and articles. He was asked how he did what he did, and what advice he might give to aspiring authors. With perhaps uncharacteristic humility, Asimov admitted that as much as he wrote, he really had no idea how to explain how to do it. Writing was something he did prolifically, yet that did not qualify him to teach writing to others. Not coincidentally, he also expressed that he would make a poor editor, which brings me to the final point.

  • how to evaluate students

In the past decade, institutions have become quite serious about measuring student success, expending significant resources to determine what is affecting student engagement, retention, and persistence. The Spellings report (2006) emphasized accountability as one of the four key areas requiring attention in U. S. higher education. There are now, at many institutions, a variety of data-mining tools that allow academic leadership as well as faculty to assess student performance across a wide range of metrics. While a faculty member may be the best person to determine the quality of a student essay based on an articulated mastery of the content area, there are a host of other reporting metrics that address student performance issues and success that are not directly related to content mastery. Today’s reality is that student evaluation is most effective as a collaborative activity in which faculty play a key but partial role along with others in the institution.

So, yes, Rob Jenkins has identified several potential morale killers that institutional management might inflict upon teaching faculty. But to no small degree, some of what Jenkins identifies as morale killers is what I’d identify as entrenched attitudes that will lead to pain if they are not willingly let go. Of course I’m not saying that all faculty are in this situation, and I’m not even saying that there are no faculty at all that are able to teach well or effectively evaluate student performance. However, these two points are tied to an older way of thinking of the teaching and learning enterprise, in which the faculty member is the sole connection point to the student learning experience. With all the tools and resources available to faculty members in the technology-mediated classroom environment, it’s that older way of thinking that’s the true morale killer.

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Filed under education, accountability, online education, education technology, higher education, face-to-face instruction, instructional design, teaching, faculty

The Quality of Learning

thumbby Hap Aziz

I find that in the never-ceasing stream-of-consciousness that represents my current and evolving thoughts on technology-enabled education, the theme of quality is a constant. In all sectors of the education enterprise, there seems to be a consensus that quality (whatever that might represent) must be an essential component of learning content and experiential process. Even before I thought to quantify the characteristics of quality in education, I had a strong sense that there were indeed characteristics to be measured. But as Hamlet might say, “aye, there’s the rub!” The challenge is in determining what those characteristics are before we can begin to consider how to measure them.

Which brings me to my second Shakespearean reference in as many paragraphs. In Act IV, Scene 1 of his play The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare wrote the following lines:

“The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes”

Yes, there are two definitions to the term quality. The first, which I used in the context of learning, is the idea that quality is a measure of how good or bad something is. The second definition as used in The Merchant of Venice is that quality is an attribute of something, and in this case, Bill is describing an attribute of mercy. Reread the passage above, substituting the one instance of the word “mercy” with the word “learning.” Now consider the line “it blesseth him that gives and him that takes.” It doesn’t take a great shift in mental perspective to think of quality not as a measure of the learning experience, but rather as an intrinsic attribute that blesses both the teacher and student alike. All we need to do is optimize conditions for this attribute to be revealed.

There are several components to learning that may function as a blessing–or as a curse if poorly executed, and the following are just a few:

  • The facilitation of the relationship between teacher and student
  • The manner in which content is organized and made available
  • The kind of support provided to teacher or student when technical difficulties arise
  • The ability to leverage additional tools that may enhance the learning experience

What level of resources or commitment of effort does it take to optimize these conditions in any particular learning environment? I probably needn’t point out that there has been much relevant research performed. But it is important to remember that we can lose sight of the big picture when we dive into the weeds of data, and that it is always a good idea to revisit key principles on a regular basis. Probably the biggest of the big picture views is the concept that the entire institution must be aligned from top to bottom and side to side on the core mission of learning. In fact, the institution should commit itself to the ideal of being learning-centered. (While I won’t explore the implications of terminology here, I will point out that there is a significant different between being learning centered as opposed to being learner or student centered. See the work of Terry O’Banion with the League for Innovation in the Community College.)

Quality as an attribute provides a basis for agreement on a common philosophy regarding the learning experience; “it blesseth him that gives and him that takes.” Once this is understood and adopted as a foundation construct, then we may begin to articulate the idea of quality as a measure of the learning experience. This is where we enter the world or metrics and assessments with the intent to execute an effective feedback and improvement cycle. Fortunately there are tools that may assist us in this process:

While these tools are extremely valuable on their own, I would never recommend adoption as an excuse to breathe a sigh of relief as though the quality question has been answered. These tools may be integrated in whole or in part into the overall governance and strategic planning process that subsequently drives day-to-day decisions regarding how learning activities are conducted. Human intelligence in the learning enterprise is still the prerequisite to data-driven decision making. Or at least it should be.

One of the reasons that it’s difficult to answer the “quality question” is that quality can be categorized in multiple ways, each with multiple considerations. The following diagram depicts a possible model.

Quality of Online (or Technology-mediated) Learning

diagram Copyright (c) 2016 by Hap Aziz

The four columns represent the categories in which we might assess quality attributes.

  • Framework – Here we consider the quality of technology infrastructure and support across an institution. How well equipped, for example, is the academic technology group in order to provide exemplary levels of service to the various end users?
  • Content – The quality of course design process has a direct impact on the actual materials and media that both educators and learners will interact with during the duration of a particular course. You might think of the difference between a well-curated academic journal and a tabloid pseudo-news publication.
  • Experience – When we think of the quality of faculty and student end-user experience, we need to consider both the end-to-end experience as a service as well as a product. What will students say after they have taken the course? The answer often comes back to how they felt about what they experienced throughout.
  • Design – Program design quality includes components of the three other quality measures, but it is also an overarching theme that spans an entire program of study rather than individual courses. This means that individual course quality measures “interact” in the learner’s mind–so a single poor experience might negatively impact the whole program experience.

The horizontal themes are representative of characteristics that are common across all the quality attributes.

  • Ethics involves topics from intellectual property policies and considerations to online harassment and bullying.
  • Resources addresses the way in which institutions provision their online operations, hopefully positioning themselves for success.
  • Constituents is all about audience: who is participating, and what is important to them.
  • Measurement is the ever-present need to understand how well we are executing to our goals at every level of the institution from leadership to department to individual instructor.

It’s at the intersection of each column and row that we might explore some questions regarding quality, such as what the ethical issues around the use of particular course content might be, or how we might go about measuring the user experience. Some of the questions might point to best practices that could be applied to most institutions under most circumstances, while others might be very specific to individual institutions, programs, or courses. I’ll be facilitating this discussion, in fact, at the Online Learning Consortium Collaborate regional conference in Las Vegas on June 10th this year, and the result should be a list of questions and considerations around those points of intersection in the diagram. I’ll follow up with a subsequent blog entry, so watch this space!

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Filed under effective practices, Hap Aziz, higher education, instructional design, learning, online education, Online Learning Consortium, online quality, standards, technology

What Do We Really Need to Know?

thumbby Hap Aziz

For much of my life, I’ve been fascinated by the process of learning; how people come to know what they know, why some people are able to learn some things more easily than others, and what might influence people to want to learn or not want to learn about particular topics. This fascination is what motivated me to study Artificial Intelligence through the lens of Marvin Minsky’s own reflections regarding the human mind, and how we might understand how the mind works by examining machine models. Ultimately, I came to the field of higher education where I would be able to consider the mysteries of learning as part of my daily work and life’s passion.

It seems ironic to me that when students choose to continue their academic journeys past high school is the question, “Why are we learning this?” so often expressed. Formal education after high school graduation is pretty much a voluntary decision (certainly in the United States), yet there is so much push back against the curriculum that students themselves decided to take. Of course, I can understand much of this push back in the context of the outcomes expected by many of today’s students. Marketable skills leading to good jobs is often the end goal, and with that destination in mind it becomes easier to see why students might hold up different pieces of their curriculum and wonder how, precisely, those pieces move them closer to where they want to be. And that thinking is not unique to students themselves; with the cost of education becoming such a concern, even the Federal government has weighed in and added concepts such as “gainful employment” to the conversation.

In any event, there are a number of apparent reasons for students to be so focused on particular outcomes that they question the wisdom of what has been part of the traditional liberal arts education process. Students continue to ask why they need to learn things that they do not see as relevant to their acquisition of skills, and educators look for ways to convince students to buy into the broader theme of education. Socrates told us that the unexamined life is not worth living, yet how can we even begin to examine our lives without broad knowledge of the human condition as a basis for comparison?

With every generation of students transitioning into higher education, the question continues to come up, and educators continue articulate the value of a liberal arts education. Richard Muller, Professor of Physics at UC Berkeley addresses the issue in a post on Quora, specifically talking about what students could (or should) be learning by studying both Shakespeare and Geometry:

In my mind, Shakespeare and Geometry teach the most essential lessons needed for a productive and successful life. Properly taught, they teach you to think, to take in the evidence, to analyze, and to deduce.

While I agree with Prof. Muller in principle regarding the value inherent to Shakespeare and Geometry instruction, there are two points of exception I’d take with his premise.

  1. Shakespeare and Geometry are too narrow. To suggest that there are particular subject matter areas that serve as keys to unlocking the mind does a disservice to the idea that learners are individuals that enter the teaching and learning environment with their own strong preferences. Prof. Muller isn’t explicitly stating that Shakespeare and Geometry are the only paths for students, but his argument does imply that it would be wise to route students through particular subject matter areas, if not these in particular. Why not Heinlein instead of Shakespeare? Why not Computer Science instead of Geometry? That leads to my second point:
  2. Shakespeare and Geometry are too late. By the time students have the requisite background education and cognitive maturity to contextualize Shakespeare and Geometry, they are old enough that their learning preferences have already been formed and quite likely solidified… which means they’re already going down the path of deciding what subjects have relevance in their lives. The love for learning needs to be kindled much earlier, and the lesson that all things are relevant needs to learned in a non-academic framework.

When I first started teaching undergraduates in the mid-1990s, I had the opportunity to conduct a seminar on the creative process for the incoming students. I shared with the students that the essence of the creative process was in taking seemingly unrelated ideas and bringing them together in new combinations. It was the combination of those ideas that marked eureka moment and invention took place. And in order to have those opportunities to combine ideas, the creative individual had to have a deep repository of ideas to begin with–which meant learning a lot about as many things as possible.

That line of reasoning appealed to many of the students, but I wanted to break it down into something perhaps easier to understand, and that’s when I hit upon a justification that would make sense even to–or perhaps especially to–younger learners. I talked about the structure of comedy, and how it was all about juxtaposing ideas that seemed to have no relation with each other. The joke often was a set up that introduced the component ideas, and the punchline was the mechanism that connected those ideas. Therein lies the humor, and that resonated with the students. It’s not difficult to see younger learners have a natural grasp of the essence of humor–even if they haven’t mastered the mechanics. Listen to a 4-year-old tell a knock-knock joke:

Child: Knock, knock.
Adult: Who’s there?
Child: Elephant.
Adult: Elephant who?
Child: Elephant with an umbrella! Hahahahaha!

There you have it: elephant and umbrella, two unrelated items combined in an unexpected way. Hilarity ensues, at least from a child’s point of view. But it is the essence of humor, even if it’s not that humorous to those of us old enough to tie our own shoes. The argument for learning things you think you don’t need to know becomes fairly straightforward, then, and it doesn’t depend on making a case for particular subject matter areas in order to understand logic or the human condition. It really comes down to fact that the more you know, the more likely you are to get the joke–no matter what that joke might be. No one wants to be the person who doesn’t get the joke, after all. And to be able to go through life seeing humor everywhere is one of the keys to examining life. I’d be willing to bet that Socrates was probably a pretty funny guy.

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Filed under artificial intelligence, gainful employment, Hap Aziz, higher education, humor, Socrates

The Power of Pretend

thumbby Hap Aziz

My daughter is a pretty typical 8th grade student. She has her friends, and her interests range from anime to archery; from Tom Sawyer to Twenty One Pilots. Her mother and I consider ourselves to be fairly active in her academic life, and education is a strong family value in our home. Her grades are good as she earns mostly A’s with the occasional B every now and then. Like most students, she has her most favorite subject areas and her least favorite. While she usually brings home A’s on her report card and is a good student in both, her favorite class is History and her least favorite is Math.

“In History you can pretend to be anybody,” my daughter says, explaining her preference. “Who wants to pretend to be a plus sign?”

I like to use this anecdote when I discuss the importance of narrative as an essential element of engagement for learners. People aren’t computers, and telling stories is much more effective than performing a data download.

In my last blog post, I wrote about approaching higher education website implementation in different ways, and I made the assertion that an institution’s website should be another tool used for student engagement. Interestingly, the folks over at Usabila have linked the topics of storytelling and website engagement together in a brief article titled, “Storytelling for a Better User Experience.” I especially like this statement from the article:

Stories unify and clarify often complex ideas into something tangible and universally understood because they appeal to something more than just intellect, they appeal to our emotions. Building a real human connection is the best way to engage your users and is the strongest motivation for action.

Considering that in my last post I wrote about a different model of institutional website management, why not explore a different model of institutional website design and implementation? Currently the websites are built according to a rather common format. There is information to be offered to an audience. With a (hopefully) sensible architecture and interface, visitors to the website should be able to find the information they need and move on. Not the most exciting activity, but this is information access based on a transactional paradigm.

How might a website operate if it were designed to interact with users from a storytelling perspective? I might imagine a very simplified interface to begin:

HapSchool
It’s really very simple. The user needs or wants some information, and the website is able to make a query, letting the system do all the work. We already have some indication how such a system might work in the real world: Siri, Google Now, and Cortana. There are some obvious challenges with this design approach, most notably that this doesn’t do a great job of providing information to users other than what they specifically request. Sometimes we don’t know what we should know, and as a result, we don’t know how to ask for it. Bottom line, while this is an interesting approach, website exploration becomes somewhat of a chore. Okay, it becomes more of a chore than it already is. Which brings us back to the idea storytelling and game development as a possible way forward.

In her book Reality is Broken, Jane McGonigal talks about an online game called Chore Wars that turns doing household chores into a competition in which people can earn experience points and ultimately be motivated into doing more chores. McGonigal writes about Chore Wars:

Individual success is always more rewarding when it happens in a multiplayer context, and this is part of Chore Wars’ successful design as well. The game connects all of my individual activities to a larger social experience… I can see how I measure up to others and compare avatar strengths to learn more about what makes me unique. Meanwhile, as I’m working, I’m thinking about the positive social feedback I’ll get in the comments on my adventure, whether it’s friendly taunts from a rival or OMGs of amazement for getting such a herculean task done.

Can interacting with an institutional website become a competitive task that in which you can compare your browsing and information-gathering experience with other visitors? I don’t see why not (and I also don’t see why elements of the traditional web paradigm can’t be provided alongside). There’s a story in there; a quest, perhaps. Some narrative scenario that sets up the user’s interaction with the website. The narrative may drive the user’s actions or it may simply provide a colorful context for exploration. In either case, it allows us to pretend that we’re doing something bigger or more exciting than figuring out how to sign up for the new semester or where to go for parking passes. That’s gotta be worth at least a few XP, right?

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Filed under Android, colleges and universities, Cortana, experience, games, gamification, Google Now, Hap Aziz, higher education, higher education institutions, narrative, play, Siri, storytelling, website

A Different Approach for Higher Education Websites

thumbby Hap Aziz

Having worked extensively in the corporate sector as well as in higher education, I often find myself comparing how certain tasks are accomplished, which particular business practices are similar or dissimilar, or what criteria influences strategic decisions at the leadership level between the two functional verticals. While many of the operational components are common across the corporate sector and higher education, the operational practices are often 180 degrees apart in terms of management and strategic decision making. Coming from a strictly corporate perspective, the differences may seem antithetical to success. All too often, institutions struggle with their web strategies, and the result is that their internal communities do not realize any of the benefits of a modern web implementation, or worse, the communities suffer from an unacceptably poor implementation.

My particular interest in this topic is that an institution’s website should be yet another tool to foster student engagement–with the institution, of course, but (through integration in the learning ecosystem) with content areas of interest as well. Yes, the website should be an extended instrument of learning, technology, and play! First, however, institutions need to get the basics in order (and perhaps in a subsequent blog entry I’ll address the utilization of websites for teaching and learning). It only takes a moderate amount of experience in higher education to see that there are considerations having to do with decentralized decision-mailing that require a complex collaborative model to push institutional initiatives forward. And in the long run, that’s almost 100 percent irrelevant to building a successful web presence in the higher education space and to winning a battle for student mindshare being played out in virtual space.

In the corporate sector, effective websites are usually built and managed by a single functional area specifically tasked with website development and ownership, often within the context of marketing leadership. In any event, the key components of effective website development are all handled by the single functional area:

  • Content
  • Visual (and Audio) Presentation
  • Functionality
  • Architecture and Usability
  • Search Engine Optimization and Digital Reach

In a higher education institutional setting, rather than group these components together and “hand the keys over” to a single group, the responsibility can be divided across functional areas, with some overlap and collaboration where appropriate. For example:

  • Content – may be handled by a publications office in collaboration with the specific departments contributing content for their respective web areas. Content is primarily textual information along with graphic images, photographs, or video segments that meet particular criteria.
  • Visual (and Audio) Presentation – could be the responsibility of institutional marketing, making sure the maintain brand fidelity. Content elements provided by publications or individual departments must adhere to established presentation standards.
  • Functionality – should facilitated by IT, though IT should not define and impose functional constraints on the website. All other groups may desire particular functionality in service of area goals (for example, publications may desire a particular content-approval workflow, in which case IT should be able to identify and implement the most suitable content management system to meet the need).
  • Architecture and Usability – is a design concern that goes beyond typical marketing functionality, and the expertise may be located in any of a number of areas within an institution such as a design department or computer science department in which usabilit and human-computer-interface issues are considered. Architecture and Usability will provide acceptable parameters within which website presentation exist.
  • SEO and Digital Reach – can be directed out of a business program in which digital marketing is a component of the curriculum, or the institution’s marketing group may manage this component provided the specific skill set is represented on staff. There will be communication between this group and publications in order to ensure that website content is optimized for search engine performance.

The benefit to establishing this decentralized model (and this is just one example) of website management is that the separate areas will be able to go about their business independently (for the most part), only having to coordinate at certain points in the website implementation and management lifecycle. Additionally, all groups do not need to participate in all meetings, which tends to reduce frustration with the overall process and friction with each other.

While the model is fairly straightforward in print, the groundwork and internal institutional communications required to ensure that it is and will remain sustainable can be significant. This is where institutional governance comes in, and there must be buy-in and commitment to the outcomes produced during a collaborative planning phase.

Having worked directly for a number of institutions over the years, I understand that this is not a simple process, and individual ideas regarding website ownership can run deep. The conversations need to be open, and the process to settle upon a model needs to be transparent. Don’t hesitate to call in a trusted advisor, but do resolve to set a reasonable timeframe for discussions. Taking too much time can be a costly mistake, because the “competition” continues to move forward. It is important to recognize that your students are often the quickest to identify your competition, and students can be the most unforgiving critics if they perceive other institutions to be meeting needs that their own institution is not. You only get to lose that mindshare battle once.

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Filed under colleges and universities, communication, Hap Aziz, higher education, higher education institutions, Internet, strategic planning, website

The Seduction of the Senses

thumbBack in October of 2011, I wrote an almost tweet-length blog entry on the transformation of education through an accident of technology (read it here). While I didn’t provide any details regarding that particular technology, if you have heard me speak on the topic, you know that I’m referring to the invention of  the alphabet.

My basic premise is this: human beings evolved to learn a particular way, which is through the use of all our senses in combination with lived experiences and traditions passed down from generation to generation, usually in one-to-one (or one-to-few) relationships. There were natural limitations to that education paradigm regarding the storage of information, the ability to pass on information without personal presence, and the facilitation of one-to-many teaching and learning relationships. The invention of the alphabet (first hieroglyphic and then later phonetic) essentially removed those limitations over time; however, at the expense of introducing an entirely new barrier to learning content: the requirement to learn how to code and decode symbolic information–the requirement to learn how to read and write before learning actual content.

The invention of the alphabet changed the way in which humans learn, and our model of education reflects the necessary prerequisite of literacy before learning: the first years of schooling is focused on teaching our children how to code and decode the alphabet in order to unlock content stored and conveyed primarily through text. Ultimately, the way in which our civilization has set up the learning enterprise is not the way we humans are built to learn; yet here we are at a point in history where a convergence of modern technologies is dangling the promise of another possible transformation to education. The digital technologies that appeal to our dominant senses of sight and sound have become sophisticated enough to meaningfully engage and (apparently) facilitate learning without the need to code and decode the alphabet. Hand some iPads to a room full of three-year-olds and watch what they learn to do without having to read a word.

This phenomenon hasn’t been lost on educators. There are studies on the use of video games to enhance the education experience (“Effect of Computer-Based Video Games on Children: An Experimental Study” and “Digital Game-Based Learning in high school Computer Science education: Impact on educational effectiveness and student motivation“); there are books and articles published on the subject (What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy and “4 Innovative Ways to Teach with Video Games: Educators from around the Country Share Their Best Practices for Using Educational and Consumer Games to Improve Students’ Engagement and Performance“); organizations have been created and conferences are held to share the latest best practices and even how to secure grant and investment funding for new and innovative learning video games (Higher Education Video Game Alliance and GDC Education Summit); and there are even education games being produced by Nobel Laureates (Nobelprize.org). Intuitively this seems to make sense, and I’m not going to present or argue data here. At the very least there are the educators who feel it might be beneficial to have learners as engaged in course content as players are in their game content.

Several questions come to mind when we consider the use of video games in education. How do we align gameplay with course learning objectives? What technology is required to play games, and how to we ensure access across the digital divide? What is the time commitment necessary to play the game to the point of content relevancy? Perhaps one of the most important questions to answer relates to the cost of game production. The new generation of computer games that is so attractive to so many educators and education policy makers is very expensive to produce in terms of time, development personnel, and funding. Everone seems to want to build the AAA game title in order to excite students about the history of English literature, but who can realistically hire dozens of developers and pay millions of dollars over the course of a year or more to produce that game? How did we get to the point where this is a serious question?

This is all a result of the seduction of our senses when it comes to modern video games. Everyone loves the breathtakingly realistic game visuals and film-like quality. And just like a blockbuster motion picture, the soundtrack and voice talent can tremendously enhance the experience. Make no mistake: these are characteristics that draw in game players, and educators see these as the same characteristics that will draw in learners. However, these characteristics aren’t what make games effective for either entertainment or education.

When imagination is combined with the power of abstraction, the artifact used to engage players (or learners) is a secondary consideration. That’s why a person is able to get as much enjoyment out of reading The Lord of the Rings trilogy as from seeing the films. Or why the same person can play either Call of Duty or chess and enjoy them both as games of war. The power of abstraction is amazingly effective when it comes to experiential engagement.

And it’s that power of abstraction that may allow us to “dial back” on the need for the AAA educational game with the AAA development requirements. As much as I welcome the digital media revolution that is poised to re-engage all of our senses in learning, I would suggest a more technologically humble approach to educational game design that would leverage less resource-hungry production models and recommit to the process of coding and decoding symbolic information: the old-school text adventure game from the genre of Interactive Fiction computer games.

What makes Interactive Fiction (IF) so appealing in the context of education are the same things that are problematic in using more multisensory intense simulation-like games. IF games are less difficult, resource intensive, and costly to develop. As a result, they can be customized for specific learning scenarios, and it is conceivable that micro-teams of instructors and storytellers might build IF game scenarios for individual assignments, tightly aligned with course learning objectives. There is existing research that addresses the learning efficacy of IF games (much of it dated from the mid- to late-1980s mainly because that was when IF games peaked in popularity), and the findings are largely positive regarding learner engagement.

While the traditional IF game was truly a text-only experience, the genre has expanded to include simple illustrations that supplement the narrative experience. In this way, a visual component is added, and the development effort remains low. The result is something that might be more akin to an Interactive Graphic Novel (IGN) rather than the traditional IF game. Consider the IF game 80 Days, designed by Inkle Studios. In a field of games dominated by 3D simulations and fast-paced shooters and RPGs, 80 Days is a testament to the power of abstraction and solid narrative. In a review of the game published in PC Gamer magazine, the reviewer (Andy Kelly) wrote the following:

80 Days can be funny, poignant, and bittersweet. It can be sad, scary, exciting, and sentimental. It all depends on the path you take and the choices you make. The story deals with issues like racism and colonialism far more intelligently than most games manage. Every trip is a whirlwind of emotions, and by the end you feel like you’ve gone on a personal, as well as a physical, journey.

And because there are so many branching paths, it’s extremely replayable. I’ve gone around the world seven times now, and every journey has felt like a new experience. Every time you complete a circumnavigation, additional stories and events unlock, giving you even more incentive to try again. It’s also brilliantly accessible and easy to play, making it the perfect game to share with someone who never, or rarely, plays them.

In other words, this IF game is exactly what we look for in an engaging game experience. What’s interesting to note is that the game was widely praised and recognized for the quality of gameplay. The New Yorker magazine listed it as one of The Best Video Games of 2014. Not only did 80 Days make Time magazine’s Top 10 list, but it it was ranked as the number 1 game for 2014. The fact that 80 Days garnered so many awards and accolades is a strong indicator that the IF genre doesn’t need to take a backseat to AAA titles.

I am not advocating an abandonment of the use of AAA games in education. Rather, it’s important that we use development resources wisely, matching gameplay to learning outcomes. It may make complete sense to pair robust multimedia experiences with particular capstone courses, for example, or in classroom settings that ultimately touch a large number of students. And as the cost in time and development declines while the capability of the production technology improves, we’ll no doubt see more opportunities to integrate AAA games into curriculum. In the meantime, graphically-enhanced Interactive Fiction is a tool that can help educators provide engaging and pedagogically relevant gameplay learning experiences to their students in relatively short order at relatively low cost.

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Filed under computer games, digital divide, education, education course content, education funding, education technology, future technology, games, gamification, government funding, grant funding, Hap Aziz, higher education, instructional design, Interactive Fiction, Interactive Graphic Novels, learning, learning outcomes, narrative, play, simulation, text adventure, Text Adventure Development System, text adventure games, Uncategorized, video games

The Significance of Experiencing Learning

thumbIn a previous blog entry, I wrote about the future of education as depicted in Science Fiction, realizing even that genre does not often share a vision of the learning enterprise. And when it does, the teaching and learning endeavor is protrayed most often as rather unchanged from the present day approach. Yes, there are exceptions such as the direct-to-brain information downloading technique utilized for skills training in The Matrix, but that’s rare. (Hogwarts from the fantasy world of the Harry Potter stories is an absolute disaster as an education model.)

If we’re going to imagine the future, it is the direct-to-brain (d2b) downloading process that seems to be most interesting as a truly new education paradigm. Not only would it effectively address learning outcomes achievement, it would dramatically reduce the time required to acquire knowledge and master skills (at least as the fictional process is defined). To be sure, there are obvious technology hurdles to be overcome: creating the brain-machine interface and determining how to encode information so that it can be accessed through the standard memory recollection process are two of the more obvious challenges. But let’s say we crack the technology. Could people actually learn that way and ultimately retain what they learned?

To run through this thought experiment, it would be helpful to use a fictional model that defines the process and provides a framework for our assumptions. While the concept of digital compression of information fed into the brain has been used several times in Science Fiction (Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series, Whedon’s Dollhouse, the Wachowskis’ Matrix trilogy), it is the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “The Inner Light” that is based on the central theme of the digital information transfer and what actually takes place in the “learner’s” mind during the process.

Written by Morgan Gendel, “The Inner Light” is about remembering the experiences of a lifetime without having to live through that life in real time. Briefly, the technical scenario within the plot is this: an alien probe finds Captain Picard and creates a wireless link to his brain. Through the link, the probe downloads an entire lifetime’s worth of experiences into Picard’s brain. From his perspective, it is all completely real, and he thinks he is living that life: having children, learning to play the flute, suffering the death of his best friend, having grandchildren, and watching his wife grow old and eventually die). In real-time, however, only 25 minutes has elapsed. When the download is complete and the link is broken, Picard discovers the entire life he lived was just an interactive simulation of experiences placed in his memory… and that he now knows how to play the flute as he learned it in his simulated life.

What interests me about this particular concept of d2b downloading is that it addresses the context of experience in memory. Whatever a person learns, whether it is the alphabet, discrete facts such as names or dates, complex lines of reasoning, or sequenced physical skills like playing the flute, the act of learning is wrapped in a broader experience of what the person was doing during the learning activity. How important is this, especially when it comes to having the learning “stick”?

In 1890, Williams James noted that human consciousness appeared to be continuous. John Dewey observed much the same thing, and in 1932 wrote:

As an individual passes from one situation to another, his world, his environment, expands or contracts. He does not find himself living in another world but in a different part or aspect of one in the same world. What he has learned in the way of knowlege and skill in one situation becomes an instrument of understanding and dealing effectively with the situations which follow. The process goes on as long as life and learning continue.

Dewey is telling us that learning is a continuum, and lessons learned (formal or not) become the foundation for lessons yet to be learned. Certainly this makes sense to us intuitively, and there is research indicating pre-established schema expedites more rapid memory consolidation in the brain. Which is a way of saying that we learn things more quickly if we already have a context for understanding what we’re learning.

But what are the implications for d2b learning as Picard experienced? What Picard experienced, while not logically flowing from his past life (he was, after all, just “dropped” into a new life story), was a narrative built upon the concepts which he already understood: marriage, friendship, birth, death, and so on. And when he learned a particular skill–playing the flute–it made sense to him in that he already knew what a flute was, what playing a flute involved, and so on. There was not anything going on so “alien” that it would not fit into the pre-existing schema he had been constructing since his own birth.

Perhaps more significant is that the skills that Picard learned had a subjective real-time element even though the simulation was digitally compressed. In Picard’s mind, he learned to play the flute because he actually practiced playing the flute, over years in subjective time. Therefore, when he picked up the flute in the real world, he was drawing on the memories of his experience of practice. It wasn’t that he just woke up with a new skill that came out of nowhere.

Interestingly, there is evidence that mental practice can improve real-world performance at some activities such as sports or music. One study had participants mentally practice a sequence on an imaginary piano for some time daily, and the participants displayed the same neurological changes as those who practiced physically instead. It’s possible that mental practice and physical practice both activate the same brain regions involved in skills learning.

Experience, though, is multifaceted, and it is not simply a dispassionate sequence of events, recorded and played back in some documentary style. In learning, there is the idea of how engaged the learner is with the subject matter at hand, and again it doesn’t matter if the topic is the Pythagorean Theorem or Lord Byron’s poem “She Walks in Beauty.” Jennifer Fredricks talks about three types of engagement that may influence learning: cognitive engagement: what we are thinking about our learning; behavioral engagement: what we are doing while we’re learning; and emotional engagement: what our feelings are about our learning. It seems difficult to imagine that a simple d2b data dump would involve all three of those categories, unless the d2b transfer allowed a person to live what was being learned.

Admittedly, this is all conjecture over a Science Fiction idea, and for now, there is no way to run any actual tests. The potential for d2b learning is intriguing in that it may provide a solution for many of today’s education challenges, provided the technology is even possible. At the same time, it presents many questions regarding the true nature of the learning process. We are analog beings that make use of our senses in real-time to learn from the world around us. If we somehow could bypass our senses and compress years of experience into minutes of transfer time, how would we interpret the experience? How would we remember what we learned, and what would those memories feel like to us? Based on what we know today, I’d say that learning is not possible without experience. Whether it is real or virtual may not matter, but without an experiential framework, transfered information is just noise without meaning.

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Filed under consciousness, direct-to-brain, education, experience, future technology, Hap Aziz, learning, narrative, neuroscience, Science Fiction, simulation, Star Trek, technology, virtual identity, virtual worlds