Preconceptions and Interfaces

Many educators I talk with imagine the future of education with analogies to books.  What if instead the analogy is to cell phones, post it notes, kinect, and smart cards?  Different possibilities emerge with new types of interfaces.  Some thoughts to seed fresh starting points for brainstorming:

Pictures that emerged from a survey that asked children under 12 to draw , “What would be really interesting or fun to do on your computer or the Internet that your computer canʼt do right now?”

Microsoft Future Vision


Reimagining Virtual School

Last winter, I lead a small team in analyzing the landscape of virtual learning environments and engaging in an ideation process to reimagine what virtual learning (in public school) could look like.  The goal was to deliberately spend time examining user experience.  An important question and design principle was thinking about learning as life-long and everyone as a potential learner or expert.   If a teacher is a potential student and a student is a potential teacher, what could be ways of organizing experiences for meaningful discovery and collaborative creation?  A second important question was thinking about how to filter, mashup, and matchup the growing universe of content for learning in a way that could provide relevant opportunities for interaction and demonstration of mastery.

This is a rough interactive prototype we developed to articulate a few ideas that emerged (sketch of functions and flow in two scenarios, not the ideal visual user interface)

Click to view Wireframe Video Demo or written PDF narrative summary

This landscape is quickly changing with new entrants, however a preliminary scan revealed that a majority of existing educational platforms still mimic textbooks and classrooms, print to pixels.   The scan purposely included coverage of emerging platforms outside of education to spark conversations about what elements could be borrowed from YouTube, Wikipedia, Blogspot, XBOX Live, Meetup, and various open source initiatives.   Click to view summary of landscape research pdf

Quest to Learn: From Idea to Implementation

Its been fulfilling to see the realization of Quest to Learn and the wider audience now aware of its model and goals.  From working with the design team two years ago, its been amazing to see how the concepts and strategies iterated over weekly on paper are now being experienced by real students and teacher.

Inspired by the media-rich environment that kids are now engaged with outside of school (some data on youth and games) and the potential of games as systems and engaging problem spaces that can be rich vehicles for learning, the school was created to foster the type of education that is possible today.

It’s not a school where kids sit around playing commercial videogames, rather its a school that uses the underlying design principles of games to create highly immersive, game-like learning experiences.  As kids progress from Missions and Quests to Boss levels (synthesizing opportunities), they learn “ways of being and doing”, rather than learn “about”.  Some examples.  A key focus is on the ability of games and other forms of digital media to model the complexity of systems and the types of systems thinking and tinkering skills now required to succeed in today’s global environment.

Instead of traditional subject areas like math, science, social studies, and english, domains of knowledge were re-examined and re-framed to reflect the interdisciplinary nature of life (see above diagram + more detailed description of each Domain here).   For example, Codeworlds is about symbolic representation of meaning. One can think about Math and Language (and even computer programming) as pivoting around the encoding and decoding of symbols.  Perhaps this integration and re-framing can reduce the notion of “I’m not a math person” and facilitate the transfer of knowledge.

Quests from all Domains can utilize Smallab, a mixed reality environment for embodied learning and multimodal feedback (building on work out of Arizona State University).  The space uses motion capture cameras and wireless controllers to interact with digital objects projected onto the floor.

Geology Layer Cake

There is also a recognition of school as only one of the many nodes of learning and the need to extend and connect it to other nodes in multiple ways. One mechanism is through BeingMe, a custom social network platform, where students communicate, post work, collaborate and reflect.

More invisible but essential to the implementation of this model is the establishment of Mission Lab, where game designers and media specialists are co-located and work with teachers on professional development and curriculum projects.

This brief post does not describe in justice all the components to the model. Furthermore as it grows there will be continued iteration and lessons learned. Follow along with Q2L’s progress here.

Adapting Commerical off-the-shelf (COTS) Games?

New educational game titles (explicitly subject or curriculum focused) are constantly entering the market.  Historically, educational game titles have taken mostly drill-and-skill approaches.  In contrast, we’re now increasingly seeing a shift towards the development of games with situational and constructionist learning models.  

Another option is the adaptation of COTS games originally developed for commercial entertainment to address the needs of learners. 

Some of the challenges in using COT games include:

  • Identifying the relevance of a particular game to curriculum; alignment of game goals to learning goals
  • Amount of irrelevant content or functionality in the game which takes up lesson time
  • Lack of functions capatible for class structures; e.g. ‘save’ function to resume at prior play
  • Lack of time for teachers to familiarize themselves with the game and game mechanics
  • Lack of necessary technology power or capability to run the game title
  • Unscalable purchasing options; per copy vs. school/class license
  • Violent content or cultural representations that reinforce stereotypes
  • Difficulty of measuring the effects of using the game on learning

Some of these challenges can have design solutions — like creating support materials, mappings to curriculum standards/requirements, pre-set scenarios for teacher adaptation, built-in asessments, adjustments to interfaces. 

Absent the ability to easily manipulate the flow of COTs games, some of the best applications I’ve observed has been using COTs as an engagement hook.   Many of these entertainment games have rich digital assets that can be used to stimulate discussion, writing, and collaboration.  

Some of these games also offer the tools and “space” for players to experiment with a problem in a sandbox.  Massively multiplayer online games (MMOG) can offer a platform for multiple users, group activities, and content creation. 

Highlight of a few examples for inspiration:

  • Consolarium was established to explore the world of computer games and their potential impact on teaching and learning in Scottish schools.   Interestingly, their initial pilots focused on bringing familiar platforms like the wii, Nintendo DSs, and SonyPSPs to teachers.   Their site hosts several videos and case studies sharing their experiences, such as this project using Myst to enhance children’s writing.  Over on its associated blog there are also comments on more current work like this teacher building off of Wii game Endless Ocean.
  • Global Kids  has done some amazing work with kids in Second Life.   Related to classroom learning, I’ve had the chance to observe the pilot Science and Sustainability course they developed at a high school in Brooklyn (short videos below).   No kids were skipping classes where they could design hybrid cars. 


Living and Learning with New Media

A white paper summarizing the results of a three-year ethnographic study, funded by the MacArthur Foundation, of participation in the new media ecology by U.S. youth was released today.  From interviewing and observing young people on social networks, video-sharing sites, gaming sites, cell phones, and ipod-like gadgets, the researchers unpacked behaviors and learning in every day activities that run contrary to common adult perceptions about what is a waste of time.

Some highlights I found worth digesting for improvement of program/product designs:

  • Drivers of self-motivated learning coming not from institutionalized “authorities” but from peer networks.
  • Different sets of hierarchies and politics in the online world creating opportunities for youth to exercise adult-like agency and leadership.  Ownership of their own self-presentation, learning, and evaluation of others.
  • Recognition, reputation, and sense of appreciative community as motivating forces for participants.  Underlying everything, there is a social context for sharing knowledge/interests.
  • The networked and public nature of these new media making the “lessons” about social life more consequential and persistent.  Friendship, social status, and informal forms of social evaluation are more explicit and visible in new ways.
  • Emergence of interest driven passions that require more far-flung networks of affiliation and expertise. At the same time, new media being integrated within everyday hangout practices that provide ways for young people to extend and enhance those networks across space and time.
  • Taking a serious look at “Hanging Out”, “Messing Around”, and “Geeking Out” as degrees of commitment to media engagement. 

There is also an online version of an associated book incorporating the insights from 800 youth and young adults and over 5000 hours of online observations.

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Teachers Social Networking

As an adult, I’ve learned a secret, teachers (at least in NYC) are among the most out-of-the-box people.  Perhaps its no surprise that many have gone renegade online to connect, learn, and share outside of their school institutions.  

Curious about how many informal teacher social networks have formed, I found a pretty staggering list.  Platforms like Ning, Elgg, and Wetpaint have allowed these decentralization digital communities to form, independent from physically defined school geographies and authorities. 

A comprehensive analysis of the topics, activities, and types of participants on these networks would likely be very useful for educational leaders.  A rough scan of the 300+ education related networks on Ning alone suggests a pattern of joining mostly around common geography (state or country/region), interest in integrating technology, particular content areas (especially language), and for inter-school classroom collaborations.  

Some large private players, like Microsoft with Innovative Teachers Network, have also created social network platforms for teachers (which has the double benefit of helping the company better understand the education market). 

Some additional questions to ponder:  Will school systems catch up and sign on to these kinds of social networking tools?  Do they need to catch up?  Does a forrest of home grown, teacher-generated networks stimulate more creativity and professional community than institutionally-tied social networks (and/or negate the need for them)?  For the education field, what are the tradeoffs in network effects?

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Rethinking Assessment

How does the ability to track stock points affect the incentives and behaviors of companies?   The common phenomenon of focus on short term profits suggests in a narrow and significant way.

Services like SchoolMAX and Edulink allow students and parents to follow the ups and downs of grades like stock tickers.  On the one hand, these portals create improved connections to review grades, download homework assignments, and text chat with teachers.  On the other hand, they motivate the question about whether we are tracking and focusing on the right things (or perpetuating outdated indicators of achievement).

In the adult world, we aren’t graded on each email we write.  What matters is did we (usually as part of a team) accomplish/solve the end goal — did we sell the product, heal the patient, win the case, build the application, complete the compelling creative.  The changing nature of work and required skills has caused the need to rethink traditional assessment – what aside from attendence, the completion of assignments, and exam performance can be captured and tracked to motivate and improve learning in progress?

There is energy around the idea that games do not seperate learning and assessment – the potential to get “just in time”, constant feedback on one’s learning curve.  Professor James Gee has a knack for explaining in layman’s terms the potential for games as part of the solution to understanding “knowledge not just as facts, but knowledge as something you produce” and for transforming assessment from a stick to a carrot (watch a video interview here).

A more academic summary of “what we know about assessment in games” via UCLA CRESST here (with a helpful list of research papers in its end References section).  Baker and Delacruz advocate that games must be integrated into curriculum/training at the outset of design rather than as an add-on, so that the assessment is embedded in the transaction of the game and underlying game engine.  Current typical approaches to game-based assessment such as scoring mechanisms (e.g. number of obstacles conquered against time) and wrap around assessments (added tasks or questions) are compared to embedded assessments that could use process data to help explain learning outcomes (e.g. student online clickstream behavior to support inferences about student understanding).  The difference between motivation measures versus measurement of cognitive or procedural skills is also emphasized.

Finally, the development of Teachable Agents (tools for learning by teaching) will be interesting to watch over the next few years.  Some research papers available at The Teachable Agents Group.

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