Tag Archives: The New Yorker

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

Society or Student: What Should Education Serve?

Hap Azizby Hap Aziz

As educators, politicians, employers, technology futurists, and others debate the challenges facing education in the United States, the very basic question of what an education should provide is not often a key component of that debate. When the discussion turns to “common core” or “competency-based learning,” the terminology exposes the bias that there are subject areas or skill sets that are important for our students to master… and that, of course, implies that there are facets of human endeavor that are less important, at least from a public policy and funding standpoint.

At the Learning Impact 2013 conference in San Diego, this was one of the themes woven throughout Dr. Yong Zhao’s keynote address. His comments were provocative but very compelling along this line of reasoning: The greater specificity in education content (exercised through design control from some central, external entity accountable to societal demands), the less likely that students will be able to navigate a creative, entrepreneurial path in life. It is this premise that Dr. Zhao used to buttress his premise that the United States, despite having students that often score near the bottom in world-wide academic performance, produces inventors and innovators and entrepreneurs in much greater proportion than do countries with top test-performing students such as China, for example. While many people in the U.S. have high regard for the Chinese education system, it is instructive to know how non-Americans assess China:

“China must have entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs.”
– Wen Jiabao, Former State Premier

and

“The next Apple or Google will appear, but not in China unless it abolishes its education.”
– Kai-fu Lee, Founding President of Google China

Part of this is a cultural mindset, and in October of 2010, a Gallup poll found the entrepreneurial mindset to be much more prevalent in the U.S. than in China (or even the European Union).

The question on entrepreneurship and culture, Zhao argues, is very much related to the success-or failure-of an education system to squash creativity and independent thought. The reason our workforce is more entrepreneurial is due, at least in part, to the fact that the American education system does such a poor job of educating students in those categories that our society most values.

This is what Steve Wozniak comments about the top-ranked Singapore education system:

“Apple couldn’t emerge in societies like Singapore where ‘bad behavior is not tolerated’ and people are not taught to think for themselves.”

Author and CNN Travel contributor Alexis Ong remarks:

“Wozniak’s comments are really a scathing indictment of the Singapore education system, its strictly regimented curriculum and by-rote study techniques that sustain the city’s “formal culture.”

Consider that Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Michael Dell, and Larry Ellison all dropped out of college. If we accept the metric that college completion equals education success, then these tech giants are failures by the established education standard. Certainly I’m not arguing that students cast off the repressive chains of education to have a successful and fulfilling life. However, it is extremely important that we as a society understand what we want our education system to accomplish, and if we consider the system to be broken that we understand the actual problem in order to fix the system rather than further remove the ability of creative thought from our students.

I’m not confident that we are paying adequate attention to actual challenge in our seemingly singular pursuit to improve learning outcomes at all levels of the education process. In an article titled “Laptop U” published in The New Yorker, Nathan Heller writes extensively on the topic of MOOCs (massive open online courses), and how many educators as well as legislators see MOOCs as a solution to several types of education challenges. While he acknowledges there is controversy surrounding the use of MOOCs, Heller provides the reasoning of supporters that MOOCs “are designed to insure that students are keeping up, by peppering them with comprehension and discussion tasks,” and they will have high production values (apparently to better engage students).

Yet there is discouraging data. A study cited by Inside Higher Ed concludes that the “average completion rate for massive open online courses is less than seven percent” (strongly suggesting that students are not, in fact keeping up). Early data from Coursera indicates an overall completion rate of seven to nine percent (although Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller argues that this is misleading, as most students enrolled in MOOCs have no intent to complete). Regardless of statistics, it appears that the MOOC strategy is to funnel more students through massively standardized model (whether through implementing common core curriculum or creating large-scale technology-mediated courses). Voices for customizing the education experience to fit individual students and cultivate unique talents and characteristics is a very faint part of the discussion.

The current “crisis” in American education shouldn’t come as a surprise, as Zhao points out that students in the U.S. have scored below the students of other countries over decades. This is not a new phenomenon. However, government spending on education has increased dramatically year over year since the 1960s (some data charts here), and people are demanding accountability for these expenditures. He who pays the piper calls the tune, after all. It is likely that as long as funding dollars continue to be poured into education with little evident or immediate improvement, those in charge of administering the funds will determine what the funds will buy in terms of technology, policy, and curriculum design.

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Filed under accountability, common core, cost of education, education, education course content, education technology, government funding, Hap Aziz, MOOCs, online education, standards

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