Microsoft Holodeck 1.0 Almost Here (BYO 360° Treadmill)

Microsoft has patented a projection system that provides an “immersive display experience”. The system would use a traditional LCD or Plasma display in front and supplement this with a 360° projection system to throw images on the walls to the sides and rear. Imagine the learning games and simulations possible when this technology matures. Ars Technica says the patent hints at Kinect-style depth sensing cameras and the ability to actually look behind you to see your enemies”behind” you in the game. I’m imagining a science student “visiting” different biomes such as the tundra, a temperate rainforest, or even a newly-blasted volcanic landscape on another planet. Many possibilities.


Classrealm is an idea for a learning management system (LMS) unlike any I have seen. It’s a struggling idea (failed its kickstart fundraiser), but worth thinking about.  The LMS itself will be nothing new. But layered over the LMS nuts and bolts will be a Tolkienesque fantasy world. Students have a hero persona that advances a la video game style as the student completes assignments. The fantasy component is meant to motivate students to learn the standard state/local curriculum. Gamification, as Classrealm’s creator suggests, is a way to motivate students to complete otherwise unappealing tasks.

My take is that Classrealm is more of a different way of grading than a different way of learning. Instead of a grade point average, you have a hero persona with health a la a video game. Assignments are linked to quests and so on. My first impression is that Classrealm will only function as a crutch to help a curriculum that students do not find interesting. Nevertheless, it may very well find success in reaching students who would otherwise fall behind their classmates.

I see great potential in using games for learning and development in every part of society, but they have to be designed from the ground up. I think that the real sea change in using games to teach will occur when professional game designers with a serious budget (think Sony or Nintendo) are presented with the task of creating games to teach the content.

Sept 30 update: I started a Gamification course created by Keven Werbach at UPenn delivered through Coursera. Apparently, the field is moving more quickly than I thought. I found two up and running gamification services: Bunchball and Chore Wars, but there are more out there. Very similar to ClassRealm, both reward users for tasks completed outside the game. Chorewars is free/cheap and aimed at home users or cubicle workers who are tired of cleaning up others’ break room messes while Bunchball looks like a more serious business venture for more serious subscription rates. Personally, I would like to see some webisodes of a show about heavy users of Chore Wars in the same vein of humor as The Guild or The Office.


Differentiation! An agreement with David Brooks op/ed

In a recent op/ed in the NY Times, David Brooks’ makes a claim that schools are failing to provide ways for rowdy, competitive boys to find success in school. Brooks’ claim is that many typical behaviors are not supported by the environment. As a result, this subset of boys must either change or fail out of school, he says. He cites falling numbers of high school and college graduation as evidence that many are failing out.

I agree with Brooks. I think his point is supported by the cry for differentiation that has been echoing for decades. Differentiation theory calls for multiple paths to success. Paths can still be rigorous but they need to be available. And I think that schools are too often structured in the wrong ways and not structured enough in the right ways.

Wrong structures, in my opinion, are those that suppress behaviors that are, according to psychologists, both developmentally normal and necessary for adulthood. This includes setting ones’ own schedule and choosing ones’ own tasks (see executive function). Typically, I would argue, the teacher is setting schedules and choosing tasks. Executive function, according to psychologists, develops from preK through high school and into the 20s (see auto insurance rates for men under 25; their deficient ability to assess risk as a group will be apparent). Schools may either help or hinder this development in each of the many types of students present in each classroom. I think the rigid schedules and task lists inhibit development of executive function in students who have a strong impulse to set their own agendas.

Another wrong structure is the tragic application of only 1/3 of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning Domains. Bloom’s taxonomy is one of the most widely applied theories on learning in the K12 world. I challenge anyone to find a school in the U.S. where the teachers have not heard of it. Benjamin Bloom (1956) theorized that there are three parts to learning: cognitive, affective, and psychomotor. Standards typically focus only on the cognitive functions while affective and psychomotor domains are often ignored. Sure, there’s PE class and sometimes teacher’s ask an obviously upset student, “What’s wrong?”, but affect and motor development typically fall by the wayside. Arguments we find for applying only 1/3 of Bloom’s are simply a defense of the status quo and not a defense of what children need to develop into whole adults.

So if the development of executive function and affect are largely ignored by schools, what should change?

I think a right way to structure schools is to diversify the setting such that rowdy movement, impulse, and friendly competition (some of the traits that Brooks argues are inhibited) are a viable path to success in school. I will add that the quiet, nervous boys should also have a way to succeed. I think the boys who like collaboration should be challenged to succeed. It’s not that the current environment is wrong, it’s just too narrow. I think Brook’s would agree here.

Before you think I mean to say that all behaviors emerging from developing boys be encouraged, I do not say that. Schools do need rules. A school cannot be chaotic. I do not propose that kids do whatever they please. There must be structure. But I do think there should be room, often literally, for children to run and explore and build, to define problems, to formulate solutions, and then to follow through to completion. As children grow into young adults, these activities should increase in sophistication.

So what would be an example of what I am talking about? Schools need to facilitate solving the types of problems which students would like to solve. For upper elementary grades with classes of 11-15 students (student/teacher ratio being issue close to my heart), schools might add the following options: building a wooden fort and the accompanying applied geometry called carpentry. Damming a stream (one of my favorite childhood activities) in order to learn about watersheds, materials technology, and even some basic physics if a teacher is there to explain it.  Having student run competing newspapers that cover school events and select news from mainstream papers. Having students run competitive gaming leagues of whatever type they like DURING school hours. Brooks mentions learning to deal with both wins and losses. Schools should provide these opportunities. Failure is just as valuable a learning tool as success. However, the failures that are a part of the learning process should not be defined as academic failures. Similarly, the characteristics that emerge from a subset of healthy children should also not mean academic failure. Remember that boys have been boys for tens of thousands of years, while compulsory schooling has only been around for about a hundred. We’re still working out the kinks when it comes to formal education.

Simulated Field Experiences

Getting out of the classroom is almost always a relief for students. Teachers typically enjoy it as well, albeit less so if the students are coming along. I’m kidding! I always loved field trips with students. I do recall that the administrative burden was irritating and legal burden of leaving school grounds with students was worrisome.  Those practical considerations aside, just about any contemporary theory of learning and development will argue that field experiences should happen as often as can possibly be facilitated. I think this is supported by the fact that while I regret a few of my lectures or activities that bored or confounded students, I do not regret a single trip, as they all provided memorable, fun learning experiences.

Simulated field experiences can be either a second-best option or can offer good pre and post trip activities. Gigapan allows users to upload and view very large pictures. The images are so large, they allow a level of zoom that feels to the viewer like “traveling” through the image.  They are typically so detail rich, one image alone could be the topic of a lecture or an assignment. A teacher can throw with a digital projector onto big screen to support a short lecture or class discussion. An instructor could also use an image as a source material for an assignment requiring individuals or small groups to explore the images, both at a wide-angle view and in close detail.

Special cameras are used to capture many of the following images, but you may be surprised by the resolution of some older technologies. Be sure to use the zoom feature and wait for the image to clarify if you have a slower connection.

mLearning: Education on a Wireless Plan

The term mobile learning, or mLearning, refers to the use of mobile devices as part of a structured learning experience. Although learning in the field is not a new idea, using technology to asynchronously link teachers and students outside of the classroom is.  Recent mobile technologies are impacting mLearning in substantial ways.

  • map/navigation software on mobile devices
  • GPS (longitude/latitude/altitude) function of mobile devices
  • QR codes – can link a mobile user to a physical location or a location to a website viewed on mobile
  • Instant wireless upload capability of mobiles to Web 2.o tools
  • Augmented reality – by taking advantage of a mobile devices camera, accelerometer, and GPS, users can view their surroundings through their phone. Similar to the heads-up displays in modern aircraft.
  • podcasting – an instance of “flipping” the classroom
One of the hurdles that schools face is making content relevant to students’ social and professional lives. Many bored or frustrated students ask, “Why am I learning this?” mLearning methods allows teachers to respond to this question by blurring the line between academia and experience. These methods have the potential to mix “book smart” and “street smart”. Ideally, learning and life become one holistic entity. Looking across human history, we see our “traditional” classroom as an aberration, with most learning happening in genuine contexts. mLearning allows teachers to “Cry Havoc and let slip the dogs of war [or lore!]”.
I have an exhibit in Artomatic 2012 that demonstrates a few simple instances of how QR codes can be used for mLearning. It’s an unusual venue to present a topic in education but a very good location for mLearning experiences.  The QR codes link to materials that support different types of mobile learning experiences. Viewable on the ninth floor, my space is on north side past the double glass doors.  (Spoiler: The answer to question 2 in my exhibit is “The type of rock in the lobby is granite. The lighter color is caused by the predominance of orthoclase feldspar and quartz. The key is finding the rock that is a mix of several minerals as shown in the table, one of which looks like the orthoclase feldspar in the image”.)
Another example of mLearning could be a Facebook group created for a Spanish class. Students would turn the language setting on their Facebook accounts to Spanish and leave it there for the year. Homework assignments could be given through Facebook each week. Students would upload topical photos or videos and caption them in Spanish. Other students could also respond in Spanish. Learning experiences should be  relevant to students’ lives and mLearning is one way to facilitate this.
A third example is this Google Map of Presidential Memorials. High school or college students could use this as a basis for a walking tour. A teacher could provide writing or talking prompts to which students could respond by uploading captioned photos to Picasa or videos to Youtube. Took me about ten minutes to make and will give students a two-hour field experience to be completed at their convenience.

Flipping the Classroom

The “flip” refers to where students first see the content and where they try to apply what they have learned. The traditional model has lecture in class and assignments done primarily outside of class. Homework and assignments are typically done in isolation from the teacher and other students. Any problems had to be solved (or skipped) by the student until the next class. In a flipped classroom, the polished lectures or videos are available online for students to view at home. In class, students apply what they learned outside of class in groups with the teacher available to help.

Two years ago I reviewed Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology by Allan Collins and Richard Halverson  in another blog*. The concept of flipping reminded me of one of the authors’ points: technology can efficiently deliver polished lectures/readings/videos to students. When teachers are relieved of this task, they can concentrate on helping individual students or small groups. For a teacher seeing 150 students a day, this is an invaluable efficiency. Flipping the classroom promises exactly this. Students watch lecture or read a chapter outside class via the school’s learning management system, then apply it inside class where the teacher’s expertise or elements such as a laboratory are immediately available.

I am certain that there are teachers who have been doing this for a while. Flipping is not a new concept, but it is reinforced by the affordances of the Internet and the increasing access students have to streaming content.

*update: my old company “rebooted” the blog. i will try to find a copy and post it.

TED-Ed: Adding Animation to Great Lessons

I have mentioned TED talks in previous posts. TED-Ed is an initiative to have professional graphics developers animate selected teachers’ best lessons for web distribution. The TED-Ed introduction video is only two minutes long and shows what TED-Ed envisions better than I can write. The video itself is the case in point! Better to show and tell than just tell. Top comment on the video as of my viewing was “I hope this turns out to be something like an animated Khanacademy 😀 [sic]”.

3/19 update: TedTalks available for streaming on Netflix. Still available free on YouTube.

SCORM and the Value of Metadata to eLearning

What is SCORM? Not the bad guy in a sci-fi film, but a standard for sharing digital content. Developed by Advanced Distributed Learning (ADL), the Sharable Content Object Reference Model (SCORM) was written to simplify inclusion of learning objects in a learning management system (LMS). SCORM is a set of technical specifications that allows SCORM-compliant products to be loaded quickly into an LMS for students to access. Although SCORM was created for the Department of Defense, it is used outside of DOD by many organizations because it is one of the only standards for sharing digital learning content.

SCORM does not currently include metadata tagging for categories like learning activity type, teaching method, differentiation category, or many other pedagogical considerations. So while SCORM is ‘smart’ about IT issues, it is “dumb” when it comes to issues teachers and instructors face when developming courses. For example, I have  often found myself searching the Internet blindly for a well-packaged teaching activity that I know is out there, is better than what I can create in one afternoon, but not sure what search terms to use to find it. Learning Object Metadata (LOM) is a standard that would solve this problem, but it is not used very widely. LOM tags would make it simple to locate an activity that is, for example,

  • in English with Spanish/Vietnamese supplements for English Language Learners
  • falls under relevant state or Common Core Standards
  • is constructionist in theory and student-centered in method
  • about soil erosion and watersheds
  • includes short video with pre and post-quizzes
  • list of materials for hands-on, small group, 20 minute classroom activity
  • relevant to a particular school district’s watershed (e.g. Chesapeake Bay, the Ogallala aquifer, or the Rio Grande)

The state of LOM and metadata is still in limbo. Researchers at MIT report that “The Metadata Unit has found that even with all the forward thinking and cutting edge tech…it is the traditional cataloger’s sensibilities regarding good descriptions and access…that is most valuable in discovering access to the library’s new class of electronic objects”. <sigh> The problem is the same: search terms on the Internet are analogous to the terms chosen by the archivist in any metadata system. Here in the Information Age, awash in information, we struggle to catalogue it all so that we can use actually use and share it efficiently.

Using Serious Games to Teach Math

I had a revelation this morning.  This  occurred while I was copy editing a dry math lesson on graphing systems of inequalities.  The important facts I had in mind at the time of this revelation were:

1) the line or area indicated by an inequality can be graphed using Cartesian coordinates

2) games involve learning and applying of rules

3) people like games

My revelation is as follows: What if the game Battleship, which uses a coordinate grid, was slightly modified to use Cartesian coordinates? What if the learner used equations and inequalities to find and sink the enemy battleships? Unfortunately for me, I wasn’t the first person to think of this, as I discovered via Google search. Fortunately for the world, the ball is already rolling on this issue. A maths tutor in UK did a basic version of my idea here: Battleship. In this game, the player enters Cartesian coordinates to bomb enemy ships. This simple program demonstrates how a math skill can be used inside a game.

Gaming theory says that player motivation stems from a desire to do well in the game. Why can’t a player also be a learner? The game provides the player/learner with motivation to learn the rules of the game, in this case, the rules of the Cartesian coordinate system. I found another game that uses the application of linear algebra as well as the rules of Cartesian coordinates, found here: Asteroid Defense. In this game, the player must use equations to guide missiles to destroy an asteroid headed towards Earth.

If we want to make kids in the U.S. interested in math, we need more and better serious games. Personally, I would prefer they did not all involve blowing things up, but I’ll take what I can get in this regard. Sony, Microsoft-start producing games on your amazing, powerful gaming platforms that teach the skills students needs to be successful academically. Get crackin’!