Category Archives: emerging technologies

Second Chance for Second Life?

thumbby Hap Aziz

Over at The Chronicle of Higher Education website, Jeffrey R. Young has an article titled, “Remember Second Life? Its Fans Hope to Bring VR Back to the Classroom.” I do remember Second Life, and I actually used in some college courses I taught about eight or nine years ago. It was primarily a tool where I could gather with students for additional lecture time outside of the classroom, and often it was a combination of socializing and course content Q&A. Fortunately, my students were comfortable with technology (the course was on the subject of digital design), otherwise I would not have been able to provide the technical support to get the students signed up, logged in, and comfortable in the environment. The technology is smoother now, but I wouldn’t recommend it for students not confident in their online computing skills.

The history of Second Life is interesting in that it began as a possible game world framework, but the development environment was so robust, SL morphed into an open-ended virtual space that really had no particular purpose. This was both its advantage and its curse, as enthusiastic users that saw potential in the technology worked at finding a purpose for the platform. Many higher education institutions acquired space in SL, and educators used it for lectures, office hours with remote students, and a variety of other activities somehow connected with learning. And while the individual users may have designed unique personal avatars, the education spaces, for the most part, were representation of real campus locations (or at least could have been real). There are a number of reasons SL was unable to sustain itself at its heyday level of engagement, and Young explores them in his article in connection with the latest tech wave of Virtual Reality innovation. Second Life, in fact, is looking to ride the new VR wave with its Project Sansar (indeed, if you go to the SL site, you’ll see that you can explore SL with the Oculus Rift, which is a step in that direction).

Will the addition of 3D VR breathe new life into Second Life? As a technology, there is no question that VR has great novelty out of the gate. But I still believe that without some sort of meta-narrative point to drive engagement, SL could go through another bubble-burst cycle. By “meta-narrative,” I mean that Second Life itself needs to have a point, rather than offer itself up as an environment where users can do anything they want. Why enter a virtually real world to “just hang out and look around” when we can much more easily accomplish that in the really real world?

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Legacy Systems and the Anchors that Work Against Change

by Hap Aziz

Back in October, 1995, a small computer company called Be, Inc. (founded by former Apple executives), released a new computer into the marketplace. This machine was called the BeBox, and from 1995 to 1997, less than 2000 of these computers were produced for developers. The BeBox had a lot of unique features going for it such as dual CPUs, built-in MIDI ports, and something called a GeekPort that allowed hardware experimenters both digital and analog access directly to the system bus. One of my personal favorite features of the BeBox was the pair of “Blinkenlight” stacks on both sides of the front bezel. Functioning like a graphic equalizer, they depicted the real-time load of each of the CPUs in the machine.

But as exciting as the hardware was to computer geeks like me, the real revolution was in the Be Operating System, or the BeOS, as it was called. Written specifically to run on the BeBox hardware, BeOS was optimized for digital media applications, and it actually took full advantage of modern computer hardware with its capabilities of symmetric multiprocessing, true preemptive multitasking, and a 64-bit journaling file system (which for practical purposes meant you could shut off power at any time without going through a shut-down process, and when you turned the machine back on, you would find that your open files were still intact).

BeOS was able to accomplish all sorts of things that Windows, the Mac OS, and Linux could not by shedding nearly all of the legacy “baggage” that the other operating systems continued to carry. The Be team was free to rethink the underlying software systems paradigm at the very deepest levels, and the results were truly astounding to those that saw the BeBox in operation.

The moral of the story is that the greatest transformation is possible when we rethink processes and technologies that have been in place for years, decades, and even generations. This is significant when we think of education, because the majority of our education systems are indeed legacy systems, designed and implemented to facilitate processes that were put into practice over a century ago. Even our “modern” Student Information Systems and Learning Management Systems are limited by the “legacy anchor,” and as a result, we see little true transformation in the teaching and learning space. Education timelines are based on year “blocks” of content, and each block is targeted to a particular age group of student (why is every student of approximately the same age grouped in the same grade?). The foundation of the classroom experience is still the lecture, and with online courses we work to “fit the lecture” into an asynchronous mode. Assessment and evaluation processes are, well, pretty much the same as they have been, only with more variation in execution. Schools and institutions of learning are hardly any different than they were in the 1700s–a group of students go to a building where they meet in a room and work with a single instructor. Even in the online environment, we build virtual analogs to the physical world: a group of students go to a URL where they meet in discussion forums and still work with a single instructor.

What would true transformation look like, given the technologies that are available now? How would we write a new, legacy-free education operating system for the 21st century? Those are two very big questions that could spawn a series of lengthy discussions (and, frankly, I need to write a book about it), but I have a few principles that I would offer up:

  • Education should be non-linear from the perspective of time spent on task. That is to say, a concept such as “4th Grade Mathematics” where all 9 year old children are expected to learn the same content over the same amount of time should go away. Little Julie may master fractions and long division in three months while little Stanley may take half a year. At the same time, little Stanley might be happily absorbing 18th century American literature, while little Julie is still working on more basic reading comprehension skills.
  • Places of education should be built to meet specific learner needs rather than be built around the same specifications of classroom space, administration space, cafeterias, gymnasiums, and so on. Why does every elementary school look like every other elementary school, and not just across stretches of geography, but across time as well? The elementary school I attended in the 1960s would function with little modification for my daughter who is in elementary school now. Surely learners (at any age group) are not a monolithic group with singular needs, yet we build places of education as though they are.
  • Education should offer multiple pathways forward rather than a single path that results in matriculation to the “next grade” or failure and repetition of the previous grade. In the world of computer game design, multiple pathways forward is commonplace, allowing players with various skills to progress according to his or her particular strengths–and in making progress, the player is often able to “circle back” and solve particular challenges that he or she was unable to complete earlier in the game. In the same way, a learner may bypass a particularly challenging content area, yet come back with greater skills acquired in a different “track” better able to solve the original challenge.
  • In fact, the idea of “grade levels” is in many respects antithetical to the concept of the lifelong learner. Why measure start points and end points as set dates on a calendar? Rather, education milestones should be set and achieved on a skills-mastery framework, and this process is ongoing for the true lifelong learner. The ramifications of this would be profound on a social level (the singular graduation moment may no longer exist), but from the perspective of personal growth and fulfillment, the benefits could be tremendous, and there will certainly be just as many–if not more–opportunities for celebrations of achievement.

Ultimately, bringing significant transformative change to the education-industrial complex will require rethinking of almost every segment of the teaching and learning process, including the manner in which we engage technologies to support that process. Being willing to discard our legacy baggage will be extremely difficult for many. Yet doing so will be the only way in which we might remix our 21st century technologies of smart devices, mobile connectivity, social media, the Internet, and more into an educational system that meets the diverse needs of our 21st century learners.

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Game Developers’ Conference 2012

by Hap Aziz

The Game Developers’ Conference is taking place in San Francisco this week, and I’ll be in attendance from Wednesday through Friday. I’ve been a regular attendee since the late 1990s when I served on the board of the Computer Game Developers’ Association. Back then, David Weinstein of Red Storm Entertainment (who served on the board of the International Game Developers’ Network) and I were charged with merging the CGDA and IGDN. We did, and that’s how the International Game Developers’ Association was born. Attending the GDC is a homecoming of sorts, where I get to connect with some of the wonderful folks I’ve met since I started developing software for the Amiga computer many years ago.

My interests now aren’t purely about game design, but I value the opportunity to apply game development techniques to the teaching and learning experience. I expect I’ll learn quite a few things this year, and I hope to bring back some great news and information to share in this blog. For those of you that plan to be at the conference, let me know, and perhaps we can meet and swap notes. And for those of you unable to attend but interested in something in particular, shoot me a note and let me know; I’ll be happy to do some research for you!

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The Horizon Report: Digital Media Literacy Challenges in Higher Education

by Martin LaGrow

The Horizon Report 2012 Higher Education Edition has been released, and it describes emerging technologies likely to have an impact over the next five years in higher education (Johnson, L., Adams, S., and Cummins, M. (2012).The NMC Horizon Report: 2012 Higher Education Edition. Austin, Texas:The New Media Consortium). The report describes in detail dizzying prospects for the incorporation of everything from mobile apps to the Internet of Things, a development of networking made possible by the emergence of IPv6 for virtually unlimited connections that just wasn’t possible with the address space of IPv4. However, in addition to the exciting new opportunities that emerging technologies provide, new challenges arise for higher education as well. The Horizon Report outlines five of them. Institutions of higher learning would do well to evaluate their readiness for the inevitable approach of new learning models based on these challenges! The focus of this article is addressing one of these identified challenges, namely “Digital media literacy continues in its rise in importance as a key skill in every discipline and profession.”

But what is digital media literacy, and why is it important? According to Laura Gurak, it is “…the ability to locate, organize, understand, evaluate, and analyze information using digital technology. It involves a working knowledge of current high-technology, and an understanding of how it can be used. Further, digital literacy involves a consciousness of the technological forces that affect culture and human behavior” (Gurak, Laura (2001). Cyberliteracy. New Haven: Yale University Press). In other words, the Horizon Report is telling us that all professionals must not only be able to apply digital technology and data to their profession, they must also be aware of the implications of using that technology and data in their particular context.

For students coming out of high school and entering higher education, most are already winning half of the battle. It seems that either the current generation of youth was designed for the technology revolution, or vice versa. For most students, it will not be a challenge for them to adapt to mobile apps, incorporate tablets into their learning, or even to embrace kinesthetic tools and gaming platforms utilized in academic environments. They practically demand it! Ease of adoption for the current generation is not an issue. For these students, collaborative learning and continuous interaction with peers is already a strength. So what’s the problem? What challenges impede digital media literacy in higher education? The answer is threefold.

Firstly, the student who has already learned to embrace digital media as a venue for communication has not necessarily learned discernment. University libraries, onetime bastions of peer reviewed, thoroughly researched papers are left by the wayside in favor of readily accessible Internet sources, some of questionable veracity. The peer review has been replaced by anonymous user reviews and “thumbs up” while credibility takes a backseat to convenience.  Rules of appropriateness in what constitutes good data seemingly stands on shifting ground when there is no monitoring of online content submitted. Higher education can embrace the challenge by doubling efforts both to provide access to scholarly content and training students to recognize acceptable material.

Secondly, the “nontraditional” returning students will find themselves in a world that may be foreign to them, as they find themselves on the wrong side of the digital divide. The average student age in the U.S. has been climbing steadily in recent years. At both Harvard and Notre Dame the average age as of 2009 was 27. The University of Phoenix, which offers both online and traditional degree programs, has an average student age of 35-37. On a larger scale, 38% of all college students are now 25 or older, according to a recent U.S Census Bureau report (http://blog.edvisors.com/online-education/the-average-age-of-students-is-on-the-upswing/). Many of these students are returning to college because they recognize the world has changed and they feel left behind. Already behind the curve, they are insecure about their limited proficiency and intimidated by a younger generation that has already embraced it. Just as with English and math skills, institutions of higher learning must develop a plan to identify those with emergent (or nonexistent) digital media literacy and bring them up to speed. Opportunities to develop and expand those skills should be identified and built into curricular areas.

Finally, instructors themselves must embrace the responsibility to lead their students (not follow them) into the digital age, whether they are teaching World History or Web Design.  Institutionally, this can be addressed proactively through hiring policies and retroactively through professional development. The Horizon Report speaks to the pervasiveness and infusion of digital media into all professions. The classroom environment must reflect this reality to adequately prepare students for their chosen vocation. Higher education knows a new kind of learner is entering the classroom. You may be surprised just how immersed this student is (take PBS’s quiz for an eye-opening look:  http://www.pbs.org/teachers/digital-media-literacy/quiz-yourself/). While colleges prepare for the contingent of students bringing digital media savvy to the classroom, greater attention should be placed on the digital media outcomes for all students leaving the classroom and entering a highly connected workforce.

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Filed under colleges and universities, digital media literacy, education, education technology, emerging technologies, higher education, Internet, Martin LaGrow

BlackBerry and the Lifecycle of Education Technologies

by Hap Aziz

In today’s issue of The New Yorker online, James Surowiecki has an article titled, “BlackBerry Season,” that is a very interesting take on the decline of the Research In Motion smartphone that dominated the marketplace–before the arrival of the iPhone and then Android phones in the consumer marketplace. Surowiecki writes:

“The easy explanation for what happened to R.I.M. is that, like so many other companies, it got run over by Apple. But the real problem is that the technology world changed, and R.I.M. didn’t. The BlackBerry was designed for businesses. Its true customers weren’t its users but the people who run corporate information-technology departments. The BlackBerry gave them what they wanted most: reliability and security. It was a closed system, running on its own network. The phone’s settings couldn’t easily be tinkered with by ordinary users. So businesses loved it, and R.I.M.’s assumption was that, once companies embraced the technology, consumers would, too.”

I have made similar statements regarding education technology in various entries in this blog (such as Prediction: Commercial Applications Will Drive Education Use… Yet Again), and based on Surowiecki’s article, the sentiment that consumers can drive what was widely considered to be enterprise software systems spans across industry verticals. Let’s parse the above passage from the context of education technology solutions, such as the learning management system, and note the situational similarities:

  • The BlackBerry was designed for business.
  • The learning management system was designed for education.
  • Its true customers weren’t its users but the people who run corporate information-technology departments.
  • Its true customers weren’t students but the faculty and administrators who run higher education institutions.
  • The BlackBerry gave them what they wanted most: reliability and security.
  • The learning management system gave them what they wanted most: control over the institution-student interaction.
  • It was a closed system running on its own network.
  • It was a closed system running on its own network.
  • The phone’s settings couldn’t easily be tinkered with by ordinary users.
  • The learning management system’s layout and configuration couldn’t easily be tinkered with by students.
  • So businesses loved it, and R.I.M.’s assumption was that, once companies embraced the technology, consumers would, too.
  • So education institutions loved it, and the learning management system’s developers assumption was that, once institutions embraced the technology, students would too.

Does anyone else see what I’m seeing? The point I’m making is that so many of the tools that pass for technological innovation within the higher education landscape (and not just learning management systems) are simply solutions developed for the wrong customer. Ultimately, the technology adopted and used effectively in higher education will be the innovations that students bring with them from their own personal lives and empower them to take control of their own education. Clickers, for example, have no place in the classroom when students can easily find clicker apps for their smartphones. Technology only has the power to transform if it is actually embraced–and not forced upon the user for reasons of convenience of management.

Surowiecki concludes his article in this way:

“Companies have quickly come to love consumerization, too: a recent study by the consulting firm Avanade found that executives like the way it keeps workers plugged in all day long. And since workers often end up paying for their own devices, it can also help businesses cut costs. One way or another, consumers are going to have more and more say over what technologies businesses adopt. It’s a brave new world. It’s just not the one that the BlackBerry was built for.”

Breaking this passage down, we understand that higher education institutions should come to love the consumerization of technology in the teaching and learning space, as educators will like the way it keeps students plugged in all day long. And if students end up paying for their own devices, we could see reductions in the cost of resources and materials that institutions need to purchase. It’s clear that students are going to have more say in what technologies higher education institutions adopt. The question is, what companies are built to take advantage of this dynamic?

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Filed under colleges and universities, cost of education, education, education technology, emerging technologies, future technology, Hap Aziz, higher education, Learning Management Systems, smartphones, technology

Video Games: a New Frontier in 21st Century Learning

by Lauren Gosnell

Lauren is currently working with Datatel+SGHE as an intern on the Academic Services team. She has been conducting research on the current trends and concerns within higher education on topics ranging from remediation strategies to the integration of computer game technologies in the education environment.  Lauren feels her experience will give her the background and knowledge to help her grow in her passion around teaching and learning issues within higher education. This article represents some of her recent research, and it is a valuable contribution to the broader discussion around gaming and student engagement. Lauren recently graduated from the University of Colorado at Boulder with a degree in Psychology.

It has become clear that the way we educate children needs to change.   The National Science Foundation found that in 2002 the U.S. ranked 73 out of 91 countries in the percentage on college students obtaining a bachelor’s degree in science or engineering.  This is not a problem created by universities alone, but rather one that begins in early education.  A 2003 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study and Program for International Student Assessment test found that U.S. 4th graders are 12th in the world in math and 24th by the 12th grade.  This trend continues across all subjects.  Traditional teaching methods are failing these struggling students and new frontiers must be sought before U.S. students are left behind in the dust.  A promising new frontier lies in the implementation of video games in learning.  Video games are currently being used for educational purposes across age groups and in a variety of ways that are proving more successful than traditional teaching methods of the past.

Kurt Squire’s article, “Changing the Game: What Happens When Video Games Enter the Classroom?” reveals a case study on Civilization III, a game which packs in 6000 years of history to be explored.  This study of two groups of middle school students found mixed results on this game in particular.  In one test group, 25% of the students found the game to be too difficult, but most promising was the game playing effect on typically unmotivated students.  The students receiving the poorest grades and who showed the lowest class participation were the ones most captivated and outspoken while playing the game.  In a similar study in “Games for Science and Engineering Education,” Merrilea Mayo describes a different group a middle school students and their results playing an electrostatics game called Supercharged.  Students who played this game along with receiving the typical lecture increased their test scores by 28% while students who received the lecture alone only increased their test score by 15%.  Some students do fine in the typical lecture based classes, but many students crave a more interactive approach and these games satisfy that need.  Students learn in a variety of ways and the way we teach should better reflect that.

Video games are not only useful for children.  Mayo also discusses a Northern Illinois University numerical methods course that used a race car game as homework.  This game lead to students being willing to spend twice as much time on homework and resulted in 80% of these students taking the next advanced course.  In Digital Game Based Learning: Educational Video Games, the author discusses North Carolina State University’s new interactive games designed to enhance geology and biology courses.  A widely acclaimed game called Foldit is discussed by Greg Toppo in “White House Office Studies Benefits of Video Games.”  This game was designed by the University of Washington and teaches players about the shapes of proteins.  Using this game, players were able to analyze monkey HIV protein in 10 days that had eluded researchers for 15 years.  This game is thought to be potentially beneficial in Alzheimer’s, AIDS, and cancer research.  These colleges are recognizing the importance of creating new avenues for learning and embracing the potential of 21st century video games in doing so.

Video games are also being used in a new generation of surgeons.  In “The Impact of Video Games on Training Surgeons in the 21st Century,” Rosser et. al detail a game called Top Gun which when played for 3 hours a week was shown to decrease surgery errors by 37% and increase surgery speeds by 27%.  Video games could be used more and more in the future as a practical teaching tool in training better, more efficient surgeons.  These games have allowed video games to take the broad leap from fun time-waster to a life saving tool.

High school students looking to get into the best colleges are receiving increasing pressure to achieve the highest SAT and ACT scores.  These scores can determine the college they get in to, the classes they are allowed to take, and ultimately their careers.  Students seeking to gain an edge over their peers are constantly looking for better study models and this has served as a vehicle for the introduction of video games in the college prepatory market.  One such game is Zero Hour Threat, an interactive game where each correct answer leads the player one step closer to stopping international criminals. Two other games, discussed by Barbara Ortutay in “SAT Prep Services Get Into Video Games,” currently on the market are “futureU”, designed with Kaplan Inc., and the Princeton Review’s My SAT Coach.  These games are easily marketable to students by making them available in a variety of forms from Nintendo DS to iPhones. Further studies need to be done to determine their effectiveness. Based off of what researchers, such as Squire, have already found though about interactive learning and its increase in the complexity and depth of what is learned, these interactive video games could be only the beginning of a continuing trend.

For years, students have been silently pleading for better ways to learn.  Traditional lecture format classes are not engaging many students and they are falling behind their peers, both here and worldwide.  Mayo’s article states that the average student spends 6.8 hours a week playing video games and up to 5-8 hours on homework (for college bound students).  If game makers and educators could combine these two activities, students could be spending more time than ever learning and doing so in a more engaging complex way.  Better games need to be designed to fit this emerging market that better combine the games students already love with the information they need to know.  By doing this, students who have struggled in the past may have finally found their niche in 21st century learning.

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The Deceptive Attraction of Emerging Education Technologies

by Hap Aziz

In his recent EmergingEdTech blog post “When It Comes to Education Technology, Video Won’t Kill the Radio Star,” Andrew Clark* paints a compelling picture of emerging education technologies being used by teachers in boldly innovative ways, empowering them with new tools and techniques to improve learning outcomes. Like many that have presented the potential for positive disruption, he begins with an exciting illustration:

“Imagine a class of 50 students preparing for a biology exam on a digital learning platform. Patterns emerge from the students’ annotations in the cloud: perhaps more students are highlighting and discussing sections in the book related to Mendel’s Model of Inheritance than any other topic. From course analytics, the instructor can see which discussions are more likely to lead to an improvement on the exam, and which ones are correlated with discussions and exam outcomes in other subject matter. The result: the instructor can tailor his or her course curricula, and student understanding of Mendelian inheritance improves.”

How likely is such a scenario, given what we know of the prevalent culture within higher education? Do our colleges and universities have the resources and infrastructure in place that are required for this kind of forward movement? Walsh provides examples to make his point regarding the kinds of initiatives and benefits that are being realized; for example, the measurement of online activity to predict student performance with a relatively high degree of accuracy. However, as practicing educators, we all know the more common situations and stories: the struggles of moving course content into a learning management system (and when it gets there, it looks like a text-heavy website from 1998); the lack of an institutional strategy to develop online courses other than to hire a couple of instructional designers who are then tasked with running Blackboard or Moodle workshops for faculty; the institutional purchase of hardware and software without a clear vision of how or why the tools should be implemented in the teaching and learning environment. While there are some pockets of exemplary work being done at a relatively few number of institutions, the broader landscape reality is much more chaotic and confused, with significant progress coming almost accidentally and certainly much more slowly.

So while I agree with Clark’s overall premise, let me mention three institutional characteristics that tend to get in the way of any real, systematic progress regarding the use of emerging tech in education.

  1. Lack of incentive – What are the incentives for faculty to develop more interactive online environments for their students? Whether there are contractual performance clauses or professional development opportunities that provide clear benefits (along with institutional commitment for that support), there is little reason for faculty at most institutions to do much more than place syllabi online (if teaching residential courses) or to do more than place a lot of course notes in the LMS shell and respond to some discussion posts (if teaching online).
  2. Lack of support – If the incentive piece is addressed (or an institution is fortunate enough to have innovative and enthusiastic faculty), how will the use of emergent technologies be facilitated and ultimately supported? So much of online instruction at institutions has relied on having faculty with technology outside of their areas of subject matter expertise. But for those faculty that are willing to incorporate serious gaming techniques into their courses, there is little, if any, support to make it happen. And even at institutions that have instructional designers available for course development, the majority of those instructional designers may be familiar with navigating through the complexities of a learning management system, but they are not prepared to develop interactive software that leverages social media, video games,  and other robust methods of engagement.
  3. Overabundance of inertia – Finally, even if the first two characteristics are adequately addressed, there is still inertia across an entire institution that can restrict the process of innovation before any changes are made. This type of inertia is comprised of several factors including inconsistent communications between academic and technology constituents on a campus, fear of negative budget impact, weak academic leadership, poorly framed and articulated mission regarding the role of academic technology, and an ambiguous governance structure when it comes to making technology decisions that will have an impact within the teaching and learning environment.

Where does all of this leave the future of education technologies? Clearly people outside of the institutional environment are greatly enamored by the promise of what the future might hold in education. But this is the deception of that compelling attraction to emergent education technologies–this group of people is unaware of the challenging realities. Still, there are people inside the institutional environment as well, and they are aware that such potential exists. However, because of the characteristics listed above, it is much easier to maintain the status quo or move forward taking tiny steps, while letting the innovators elsewhere take the giant-leap risks. Is this mechanism that we as educators can accept? Perhaps a good way to answer that question is to take a look at how the state of education technology has changed over the past 50 years or so, and consider whether or not the transformation that was promised was the transformation that was realized.

*This updated post corrects the cited author of “When It Comes to Education Technology, Video Won’t Kill the Radio Star” as being Andrew Clark, and not Kelly Walsh as originally named.

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