Monday, September 28, 2015

Learning to learn

Serendipity is a powerful tool of nature. Disciples of Artificial Intelligence (AI) will recognise it as perturbation, random stuff chucked in to deviate us from some set path that would ensure we saw only what was visible from that pathway, potentially missing better opportunities. For the rest of us it’s called feeling lucky. You’ll recognise the link here between the Google search engine, its early interface “I’m feeling lucky" and the (then) ground breaking algorithm under the hood.

I like to read. So, from time to time I cast around on Amazon trying out different search strings to see what comes up. Fascinated by the hard life, I typed in "Russian trawler”. I was rewarded with a book entitled Hair of the Dog by Barbara Oakland. I bought the book and it duly arrived and was a great read. The author, as a young woman in the 1980s, had worked as a translator aboard a Russian factory ship engaged in a Russian-American joint venture. Her anecdotes were raw, pithy, and funny. Deeply impressed by her (she was tough, rude, lacked empathy, and could drink vodka with the best of them) I searched for more titles by the same author. This is where the serendipity cut in.

Listed was Barbara Oakland, Ph.D. A Mind for Numbers, How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra). A companion to COURSERA’s popular online course Learning How to Learn. Was this the same author? Not only was this woman into fishing in a rather big way, she was also a learning designer! I had clearly struck gold.

So now I have the book and I’m all signed up and ready to roll on the MOOC. I’m surveying myself to see what I hope to get from this course. What does success look like for me? Another certificate? Er, no. I think what I’m after are some strong underpinnings about what learning really really is and how to achieve it. I suspect it could be the two Rs and the one S. Repetition, Recall, and Synthesis. Repeat it again, and again, and again. Wait a day and repeat it again. Practice recalling it. Use flash cards and carry them around in your pocket. Once a few ideas are thoroughly internalized in this way start joining the dots, linking this idea to that. You know, old fashioned learning was hard, back in the day.

"Thinking is the hardest work there is, which is probably the reason why so few engage in it.” Henry Ford.

What has triggered this rant? I have recently heard the expression "Space Cadet" and "Ed Tech" used in the same sentence. I am suddenly seriously worried that I am a dedicated follower of fashion, a trend-surfer, an environmental scanner, a tatty moth to a lamp. Am I really serving the next generation if I tell them that learning is easy, learning is everywhere, learning is fun? No, maybe not. Ed Tech is fine, just fine, only so long as it is underpinned with GOFL. GOFL? Good old fashioned learning. They tried GOLF, but it really doesn’t work. So now, I’m hangin’ with the learning hackers, the people who actually know how the brain works.

“Do a little work every day,  gradually allowing yourself to grow a neural scaffold to hang your thinking on.” Barbara Oakley

Dr Barbara Oakley and Dr Terrence Sejnowski run one of the most popular courses on the planet. Is it called Learning How to Learn: Handy tips and tricks to turn tough subjects into a breeze? No. It’s called Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects. And I think we have to listen, and watch, and learn, because a course that is so popular (since it started last year 325,000 students have signed up) is like a big piece of market research. Go back and read the title one more time. Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects. That’s what the next generation of learners are signing up for. They don’t want easy, they’ll soon get bored. They want tough and escalating challenges. And they want recognition: from their peers, their tutors, and their whanau. To them, Ed Tech is simply a given, a delivery channel.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Situational awareness

It seems a long time ago since I heard Marc Prensky speak at E-Fest in Wellington. My mind was a bit shut off to him because of his work with the Department of Defense, which really isn't my bag, but he talked about "twitch speed" and that clicked for me. Recently I've been thinking about him again, and about the things he does and says.

And I've been observing my daughter and her friends — postgrads and entrepreneurs — and noting how they think and act very fast. They process information very quickly, and make often good decisions without hesitation. When they make bad decisions they generally pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and immediately get back in the fray. They have opinions on political and environmental issues, and they feel they can play an active part on a global scale. They intend to influence the future. They dream of saving the planet.

Now I am just postulating here, I have not yet gathered any evidence, but I think they learned this behaviour playing computer games.

Freaks me how fast my daughter drives the car. Well, not like fast so much as in a smooth progressive keep moving forward towards her goal kind of way. Has she seen that pedestrian? Yes she saw the pedestrian three seconds ago leaving a shop doorway and assessed that particular situation and was planning a lane change before I had even registered the zebra crossing or the opportunity opening up ahead. What she has is heightened situational awareness. I note it as being another example of something she may have acquired from playing first person shooter games.

The lesson here for learning designers — be the learning in the classroom, online, or on mobile devices in the real world — is that we need to run the learning at a blistering pace, and that we need to introduce layer upon layer of complexity. If we fail to do this, if we dumb it down to make it easy, or we tell learners how to do rather than what to do, we're going to lose them out of sheer unadulterated boredom. We also have to give it real purpose, like slowing global warming, defeating terrorism, or relieving world poverty. And we have to do it at twitch speed.

So now when I'm working on my own designs for learning I've started using the language of games designers: economies; the third axis 'z'; the fourth dimension of time; I think in terms of sources, pools, drains, converters, gates, triggers, and randomness.

I'll stick my neck out a bit further and postulate that

Emergent Complexity / Time = Engagement

So, thank you Marc, for telling us that ten years ago. I just hope we were all listening.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Reality hacking

By role playing highly effective people, participants might learn effective strategies, feel at first hand the knack of being effective, and actually become effective in their real daily lives. I think this encapsulates my thinking behind the ARGEF (Alternate Reality Games in Education Framework). I was blown away when I found Jane McGonigal articulating exactly this. Mobile is the enabling technology for reality hacking. You may want to watch Jane McGonigal talking about alternate reality gaming (19 minutes). If you'd like to experience a simple reality hack for yourself, here is one you can try any time: Breathe low down, from your diaphragm; focus on your breathing for a moment;  start smiling on exhalation; sense the change of mood that flows through you.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Integrated Media Experience

It's only semantics, but I like "Integrated Media Experience" better than "Transmedia". An Integrated Media Experience sounds like it could one day translate into some kind of learning design: it fits with ideas of five dimensional learning... x, y, z, time, and annotation; it tastes like some new flavour of universal design for learning. I'm currently engaging with James Frey and Nils Johnson-Shelton's Endgame The Calling — the book, the blogs, the puzzles, the social media, and the film. It's a fascinating journey. I mean, a month ago I was still worrying about badges as undesirable extrinsic motivators, and now James Frey and his backers have gone and stumped up $0.5 million in gold coin. Be first to find the key, and it's all yours. All you have to be is thirteen years of age (or more), and have an agile mind. Google's Niantic Labs is a whole other facet to this, an internal startup at Google. It's giving me lots of new stuff to think about. Lots and lots.

Thursday, October 23, 2014


Do you know that feeling when an article or book seemingly falls into your hands at just the right moment in time? I expect it can be explained by science, but seen subjectively it's an amazing sensation.

In the’s early days, a group of us were sitting around debating our scaling philosophies. The conversation heated up after Michael Dearing, a faculty mem­ber and venture capitalist, asked a brilliant question. It went some­thing like: “What is our goal? Is it more like Catholicism, where the aim is to replicate preordained design beliefs and practices? Or is it more like Buddhism, where an underlying mindset guides why people do certain things—but the specifics of what they do can vary wildly from person to person and place to place?” [source: Huggy Rao, Michael Dearing]

Working on the design and development of a programme of (tertiary) study — my colleague and myself are working on three concurrently — always invokes the templates vs freedom-of-expression debate. I am clear in my own mind that one size does not fit all, and that there is no one right way to teach or learn online. However, I do concede that some consistency of approach helps the student get oriented.

I have a preference. I know what I would do if it was me. But it's not me. A whole programme of study is made up from a catalogue of courses, each with their own subject matter experts, each of whom have their own ideas of how their subject should be taught. It isn't really for me to tell them they are wrong. That would be like being down the C end. So I think I place myself more towards B, loose but guided by an underlying mindset.  

That's the balance I'm trying to find. And the article by Huggy Rao and Michael Dearing hasn't really given me any answers, it's just brought the question to the fore. Perhaps I should read their book.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Playing with the parameters

I'm trying to find a way to make what I feel is an important point about online course design. First up, as I've used the word "parameter" in the title, it might be useful to define it.

1. A numerical or other measurable factor forming one of a set that defines a system or sets the conditions of its operation.
2. A limit or boundary which defines the scope of a particular process or activity.
Synonyms include: framework, variable, limit, boundary, limiting factor, configuration, specification, criterion, guideline.

Especially but not exclusively, boys learn by testing the boundaries.

Back in the day we built box carts and raced them down the hill. Social conditions prevailing at the time facilitated this: playing in the street was the norm; bobbies were on foot and basically friendly; the occasional broken collar bone was not interpreted as parental neglect.

Onset of speed wobble, the velocity at which the friction brake became ineffective, and the point at which the unsprung vehicle became airborne over bumps marked the safe operational envelope of the box cart. Optimising the design and build of the box cart (combined with fearlessness) won races. Later we graduated to motorbikes. Our grown up heroes were racing drivers and test pilots.

All very amusing, but how does it apply to online course design?


Test each idea you have for an online course design using the following...
  1. Does the student have a project (or model)?
  2. Does the student have access to the project (or model) controls?
  3. Does the student have access to peer reviewers?
This idea that learners (kids or adults) can learn by their mistakes in a supportive community of learners goes by many names: social constructionism; social learning; learning by doing; learner agency; locus of control. Whatever we call it, it's a good thing and it's the way to go. Without exception.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Ed Catmull

I don't know about you, but I've always found it hard to get my head around stuff like


As a boy, I'd chew my pencil and stare out of the window and wish I was playing with my kite or riding my bicycle. With dreams of being a navigator I would need not just to pass maths, I'd need an A. Easty (we called him that because his brain had gone west) failed to capture my imagination. The chalk squeaked on the blackboard and some days tears would well up as I tried to get to grips with it all. Mr Kirkwood's class was a slight improvement, we plotted parabolas on graph paper. We weren't sure what parabolas were for, but at least there was a physical manifestation, a drawing on a piece of paper.

Not until I was 17 and attending sea school did it all start to make some sense, because now there was a globe, and angles subtended at the centre of the earth, and arcs described on the surface of the earth. Arcs along which you could steam a ship.

But now, in second childhood, I am happy playing on my Chromebook...

Read the full post on the CORE Eduction blog