Monthly Archives: January 2016

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.


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:

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