Monthly Archives: April 2013

Ethnographies of Gamers

I read Sherry Turkle’s essay, “Video Games and Computer Holding Power” differently from how I read other essays in the New Media Reader. This is partly because it is an ethnographic study and I can’t remember any other selections in our readings that employed ethnographic data. My own current research is in a social constructivist paradigm, and I am just starting to feel confident about what that means, and I think that made me engage in Turkle’s piece on a different level than other pieces.

I think she treated her research subjects fairly. I think she treated them more fairly than I could have, and I respect her for that. I found myself judging some of her subjects and I found myself projecting my own value system. I don’t usually do this.
Even though Myers-Briggs tests have fallen out of fashion in many circles, I still find the system to be useful in some areas. Whenever I took the test, I was kind of on the fence with E/I, N/S, and F/T. After about the age of 15, I always scored very strongly in P rather than J. I typically observe things without trying to determine if they are good or bad. I just notice that they are, but I have developed strong exceptions. In “Video Games: Computer Holding Power” David the lawyer went to a video arcade for 2 hours on his way home from work every day while his wife was pregnant to get himself in a zone where he could communicate with her. That made me feel somewhat “judgey.” That didn’t sound like a very equitable relationship. I appreciate the need for escape and a safe place to release stress. I empathize with all of research subjects, but I couldn’t help but think “What about trying x?”

I don’t think there is anything wrong with gaming per se. I recognize the value of gaming for analyzing and solving societal and scientific problems. I question the amount of time that some people devote to games. I occasionally exhibit addictive behaviors to certain games. I can relate to the feelings the research subjects described (the experience of social isolation and stress that can make a gaming environment attractive, and the feelings that the gaming environment can provide. But I cannot claim that the games actually relieved me of stress or made me a more focused person. When I move out of a game, I don’t feel more ready to focus on work of family. I feel less mentally available for those things. I feel acute signs of stress and anxiety. In extreme cases I develop a tic.

Another thing affected my view of the gamers. In late 2002 and early 2003, I was living in New York City. My laptop was clunky and having problems. I didn’t have a printer. I didn’t have money to do anything about either of those problems, and they were real problems because i was chronically under-employed at the time. I went to a pay-by-the-hour computer lab to work on my vita (for full time work as well as for printing and to apply for jobs and research graduate programs. It was about 2 blocks from my apartment, and it was filled with kids playing combat-oriented massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs). These kids were highly engaged in their games. And they were incredibly competitive with one another too. There was a great of jocularity, swearing, and yelling. I was editing my vita to the dulcet sounds of unwashed prepubescent boys screaming “I’m going to kill you [nigger/faggot]!!!” It was a non-smoking facility, but the signs were ignored. It was a deeply unpleasant environment for me, and it has colored my view of gaming. It made me not want to engage in MMOGs.

I enjoy and perceive value in games that involved puzzles, logic, and strategy. Many gamers have heightened spatial intelligence — they can mentally navigate abstract spaces, imagine and manipulate 3D objects. I appreciate games when I can easily move out of them and when I can understand how I can apply what I learned from the game to other aspects of life.

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The rules…

“Where to begin” on Turkle’s essay has yielded to “where to begin” on leaving the class discussion.   I still have lots to ponder and write about my experience of her essay – but today’s session was profound.  What was set up on the “topic” of gaming gave way to quite a deep and multilayered discussion and experience centered on the human condition, human development, learning, and interpersonal interaction.  To me this is largely the point – the opportunity – in considering gaming as a framework through which we can engage our brains and beings in a different level of consideration, exploration, potential understanding…  As one who definitely prefers a “the possibilities are endless” type of game, I was all over it.  However, again the aftermath has left me filled with wondering about how to take all of this possibility and leverage it in creating “spaces” or experiences that encourage and allow people to engage (whether fully aware of the levels or not) in a way that proves transformative to their experience.

When did you first begin questioning the rules in school?   I forget exactly how the question was phrased, but it was fascinating to consider – then to hear not only the various perspectives represented in the answers, but also how that experience wound up shaping people.  For me it was 1983 – 5th grade.  Looking back, it was the perfect intersection of context, players, and a new level of understanding.  The teacher was Mrs. Leisure.  The boy was David Cerf.  Mrs. Leisure had just been in the game too long, I think.  David Cerf was my first crush.  Mrs. Leisure had tired of giving consideration to the question, “Why?”  This seemed such a crucial imperative to me…  and I put the pieces together: the “rules of school” were often arbitrary.  And I figured out that pushing buttons was not only entertaining but in itself fascinating and engaging – and that there was a way to do it that did not explicitly break the rules, AND at the same time earned me social capital.  Kaboom – the perfect storm.

Fifth through seventh grades were my most openly rebellious in school.  After that I learned better to play the game, and didn’t really find myself questioning the rules so much anymore… but accepting them and then looking for the ways to find infinite possibility within them.   That, after all, is part of the beauty of rules – however arbitrary or beyond our initial control – they give us the boundaries within which we have to play.  And then our own acuity, creativity, and ingenuity are free to take us just about anywhere – within the confines, yes, but the possibilities still can seem nearly endless.  Perhaps a reason why The Iowa Baseball Confederacy remains one of my all-time favorite books, and baseball is my favorite sport.

“Why not baseball?” my father would say. “Name me a more perfect game! Name me a game with more possibilities for magic, voodoo, hoodoo, enchantment, obsession, possession. There’s always time for daydreaming, time to create your own illusions at the ballpark. I bet there isn’t a magician anywhere who doesn’t love baseball. No mere mortal could have dreamed up the dimensions of a baseball field. No man could be that perfect. … The field runs to infinity,” he would shout, gesturing wildly. “You ever think of that, Gid? There’s no limit to how far a man might possibly hit a ball, and there’s no limit to how far a fleet outfielder might run to retrieve it. The foul lines run on forever, forever diverging. There’s no place in America that’s not part of a major-league ballfield.”  (W.P. Kinsella; The Iowa Baseball Confederacy)

At any rate, along this path, I learned to employ conformity at the surface: going along to get along.  Underneath and behind the scenes – exploring, pushing, experimenting…  This continued until – umm, …  This continues.  :-)

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Professor Straight & the Computational

What I like about Turkle when she’s not having anxiety attacks that we’re only Alone Together is that she asks, at some deeper than usual level that reaches the zone of psychological agency, how people use computational capacities. I suspect that even with the material in that latest book of hers, one could show an alternative response to the material that has made her move closer to the pole of “Professor Straight” than of, say, “DJ Spooky.”

But back here in the material from The Second Self (ah, but only an embryonic “Professor Straight” would be counting, right? otherwise, always already at least two)—we have a lot of interesting ideas as she works on the kinds of (stupid, really) things the Professor Straights of the world are saying about kids and computers.

Which I organize as follows to make a little more clear the implications of what she’s finding when she asks: what do the users think they’re doing? It seems to me they are using technology on themselves or (at least virtually) on the world, and that the way of using she observes bifurcates between escapism and remixing, depending upon whether a person is feeling crushed by the contradictions in the “real virtuality” (Manuel Castells) of our simworld (what Professor Straight would call simply (and perhaps fatuously) “the real world,” or, instead, that person is empowered by the possibility of becoming one with the Technium (Kevin Kelly) and therefore using it in a natively digital way as opposed to the kind of digital tourism we see in the crushed ones.

What am I talking about, that’s your question? Think of the compensatory use of digital gaming, that way of getting a sense of power or agency or potency from playing a game (you get to do online what you can’t do physically), a way of turning on your inner inadequacies and making up for them; Professor Straight worries that losing oneself in game world will be a crime against personal development. The externalization of this is what Professor Straight worries about concerning violence, that players will imitate in real life the violence they engage in online. Both anxieties may have some truth to them: measuring up to performance standards in our world can crush someone internally, just as finding some way to fend off the tyranny of inequality and social immobility can flip one out into violently redirected anger.

But Turkle, in this piece, at least, resists Professor Straight on both counts, preferring instead to foreground those who take up technology in search of a way to remix the self or the world. Remixing programs and other species of IP (intellectual property, corporatists want us to call it) contests the bland closure and stupidly simplistic content of corporate IP-as-anesthesia and remakes cultural material and the life of the mind along far more creative lines than, well, inserting disk and pressing play. And our lawyer who uses absorption in gameplay to develop not the calmness of TM samadhi, but rather the profound intensity of focus that meditators call “Concentration”—here’s a case of remixing the self so that it is not “lost” in the scattered attention and exhausted creativity with the pieces one moves according to the rules of legal machinery. How very Bill-Viola of him?

There you go. When you think of TV as simple spectacle imposing itself on couch potatoes, you miss out on the answers you get when you ask people what use are you making of your TV watching? Professor Straight made tenure writing about how we’re all in a stupor from watching the Dick Van Dyke show; more likely, we’re in a stupor from the deadening routines of work-in-America (if you can still get it); now Professor Straight is making full Professor writing about how kids are losing their agency to escapist fantasy and the world of human interaction to violent exterminations of their world (and themselves). But, as Turkle notes, you get different answers when you ask people what use they’re making of digital technology.

Time for Professor Straight to retire on a buy-out of the deadwood.

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Perfect Mirrors

Mirror Neurons

Mirror Neurons

“Perfect Mirrors” are what Sherry Turkle calls video games in which the players achieve a sense of control, and of perfection if they work hard enough, because of the altered state the games put them in. “The game itself is perfect in its consistent response,” she says, which gives the players the chance to “see how long they can be perfect,” to be “uncompromising in his or her concentration on the game.”

This article was written in 1984, when players had to go to arcades. Nowadays, I assume they are on every mobile device, and available to infants, or at least to children who can push buttons with their thumbs. I am one of those mean mothers who did not buy video games for her children, so I have no first hand experience on how the culture might be changing via video games. Societal fears are different now than they were in my childhood. It is not only in Blacksburg that school lockdowns for loose gunmen are more common than tornado drills or air raid sirens. Can we draw a line between screen time exposure to desensitization and therefore to increased violence? And if we could, how could we preserve what is good about social media? As Tony puts so well, the message of social media is:

I matter!

and that matters to extroverts and introverts, social butterflies and geeks. And Alma’s post was so positive and healthy and I liked the references to running, swimming, and bouldering so much that I am reluctant to say that I disagree with Sherry Turkle about benefits of video gaming, if indeed that is what she is saying, but I don’t think any game or online experience can replace interactions with real live humans in an environment that must obey the laws of physics.

And what about mirror neurons? Humans have developed the ability to read each other over the last 100,000 years, and it may be this ability that has allowed us to store food, build shelter, and defend against or even dominate predators. Are we in danger of losing this ability? Or have we found a suitable substitute for our fellow humans who were lacking it?   Sherry Turkle’s gamers were able to immerse themselves in a world more satisfying than the real world because they could push themselves, test themselves, perhaps become a better version of themselves.  Do those of us who prefer to push ourselves by running, bouldering, asking a new person out for coffee have an obligation to support the people who prefer virtual reality?

I don’t know the answer to that, but I know I’d prefer to discuss it face to face in real time.

 

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Turkle has exploded my mind

I was absolutely blown away by Sherry Turkle’s “Video Games and Computer Holding Power.” As someone who hasn’t seriously played video games in 25 + years, I knew that I had friends who are addicted to gaming (one almost failed out of college during his freshman year), but none of them has ever articulated why…Turkle’s interviews opened up a new world for me.

Jarish was perhaps my favorite; an adolescent searching for meaning in real life can create his own through gaming. He wants to use the “boring physics” he’s learning in school to develop his own program. Frustrated by manufactures sealing the game in a cartridge, he envisions a world where he would have access to the program so he could modify it and make it his own, a world which would be governed by rules, but he would be the designer of those rules.

There were also stories of both youth and adults looking for a sense of control, finding an almost meditative state through gaming, focusing so hard on the task at hand that they can’t be distracted by life, combining conscious problem-solving with the muscle memory of athletics. All of these things reminded me of why I love (and some might say addicted to) physical activity.

I find that meditative state through long runs or bike rides. During swim practices, I’m too busy calculating intervals to think about anything other than swimming. Rock climbing is so addictive because you’re faced with a problem (bouldering routes are actually called problems)and it’s that combination of thinking through how you can solve a problem and building muscle memory so that you can do it smoothly. Just like Jarish, I think about how I can use physics (though I would never say it’s boring) to my advantage…I finally get it. Just like I need physical activity to center myself, to know I’m in control, to release the stress of the day, gamers have their outlets in fantastical worlds.

Of course, Turkle also realizes that sometimes, gamers prefer the simulated worlds over the others and if kids are substituting gaming for traditional role play (you play teacher, I’ll play student), they may be missing out on opportunities to develop empathy.

Could this be solved with games which encourages kids to play together? Games where the script is loose? Where shy kids can have a chance to build a community?

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The New Digital Age

Who says that watching TV is not educational or a good use of time?*!

While watching the Colbert Report, I saw a spot on The New Digital Agea new book written by top Google Execs.  Fascinating and much to do with the types of things our group of faculty has been discussing!  You should check it out!

They pose an interesting idea->”The internet is one of the few things that humans have built that they do not completely understand.”  Why?

The point they make is interesting.  The internet’s properties and where it takes us all are based on humans, what they do and what they need.  Humans are unpredictable and, as a result, we cannot really predict the potential of the internet or the real impacts it will have.  Could this be the reason why our predecessors in the ’70s until now have not successfully predicted the potential of the internet, either overshooting or undershooting it?  Is this why the internet is greater than the sum of it’s parts?

Biology, brain science in particular, has long since held this principle–the organism or the brain is greater than the sum of its parts.  The collective leads to emergent properties that we wouldn’t have predicted.  Rather, we look at the outcome and try to figure out how we got more complexity from a series of less complex parts.

Robots and related technology still cannot perform at the level of a human.  Motions are not fluid and processing requires every step to be followed and integrated. In other words, the element of “machine” still exists.  Recently, a Virginia Tech undergraduate researcher tried to explain to me why this is the case and how he is trying to program the machine to operate more like a human. Let me see if I can articulate what he shared.

If our brain stored every piece of information we encounter for recovery the next time we need it, the space (memory) would quickly fill. Perhaps our brain is only capable of storing a few gigabytes of information, significantly less than powerful computers but yet we are able to do things and make connections the computer can not.  Our brain “looks” for things that are new, creates and stores memories by association. This means that the first assessment is always, “is this thing or experience similar to something I have encountered before”. The elements of similarity are connected to something already stored and only the new information results in a new connection or memory.  Right now, most computers operate by storing ALL of the information and then trying to make the connections or patterns from that, recalling the requested information or task.  In other words, every piece of information is new or has been predicted based on a formula, limiting the capacity of the digital entity and requiring huge amounts of memory.

It seems then, that one of the holy grails of the digital age is making a computer or computer system that operates like the human brain or like a biological system.  In some ways, it seems that the internet has done this but it is because its emergent properties are determined by the PEOPLE who use it…Does this make the internet more human that we would like to admit?

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Changing the Message: Grading vs Reviewing (Part 4 of 4)

Continuing the saga....


Rigid Grading Structures

OK, I recognize that this is a touchy subject, so I'll tread lightly (for now). The heck with that, let's get dirty!

"You, my friend, are going towards turbulent flows."
An Anonymous Friend
Today, after telling him about what I'm writing 

We follow rigid grading rubrics hoping to be "fair" to everyone. The problem is that these grading structures put us "fairly" off base.

"Grades tend to diminish students' interest in whatever they're learning. A "grading orientation" and a "learning orientation" have been shown to be inversely proportional...
Grades create a preference for the easiest possible task. Impress upon students that what they're doing will count towards their grade, and their response will likely be to avoid taking any unnecessary intellectual risks...
Grades tend to reduce the quality of students' thinking. They may skim books for what they'll "need to know." They're less likely to wonder, say, "How can we be sure that's true?" than to ask "Is this going to be on the test?"
Alfie Kohn, 2011 

What do we value?

Rate of Learning?
Imagine the situation in which a student learns the material at a slower pace than others in the class. The student earns a poor score on the first exam. This feedback inspires the student to try a different approach to learning and (s)he grasps the material in time for the final exam. Following the rigid rubric, this student's grade will be lower than another who learned the material faster, even though both may be leaving the course with the same understanding.

What is the message here? What do we really value? The rate at which a student learns? Rate of production is a crucial concept to efficient manufacturing.

Get it "Right" the first time?
Students are penalized for making mistakes. The result is that students are afraid to try anything unorthodox, or explore.

"I just want to know what formula to use to solve the problem the right way."
There is a high level of pressure on students to get things "right" the first time. Our RED PEN feedback system helps drive this home. If a student misses a question, points are lost and final course grades are affected. GPA drops and that homework problem or test problem just influenced the rest of my life. (OK, that's a bit extreme, but its the logical end to the thought).

The Root of the Problem

We have a need in education to determine how a student is doing. Students need feedback so that they may improve upon problem areas. Educators need to see how their students are doing so that they may assess the effectiveness of their teaching.

There is a long list of other reasons typically thrown up in the case for grades, but I think they are rubbish. One of the big ones is that "if we don't grade it, students won't do it." Yes, let's hold our students hostage with threats against their future success rather than providing true motivation.

Had I the heavens' embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet,
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams
W. B. Yeats

I think we may have started, long ago, with these two goals in mind. However, our "factory model" education system has polluted those goals, mainly due to the fact that we are trying to educate so many people. Call the EPA (Educational Protection Agency)!

Scaling Issues

With a large class, the task of providing feedback is not trivial. Graders must streamline the process by providing the least amount of feedback possible. They look over the work, think about what the student did, and try to scribble something down to let them know where mistakes were made. If only the student could hear the grader's thoughts! (In light of what I'm about to say, I think they call this foreshadowing)

Very rarely is any positive feedback given. For the most part, graders write down just enough to justify the score on the assignment. I don't fault them for this, they simply don't have the time to give meaningful, content-rich responses to each student's work.

The problem is that, from the students' perspective, this type of feedback is more a slap in the face than constructive criticism. Rather than a teachable moment, we offer up judgement and discouragement.

I have not failed. I've just found 1000 ways that won't work.
Thomas Edison 

Let's change the message.

Learner-Centered Feedback
(Stop Grading and Start Reviewing)

With tablets and pen inputs for computers we have the ability to record ourselves as we mark up a document. Imagine marking up a student's electronic homework submission. The grader no longer needs to write a detailed response to help the student learn from issues. The grader can record his/her thoughts in audio format while marking up the work.

Rather than grade the work we can review the work and provide meaningful feedback (audio) to the learner. I think if we did this right, it would actually save time for grader. Most people can speak much faster than they can write or type.

We could add "content area" tags to individual homework problems. Over time, the student's aggregated results would point out sticking points in a particular course and focus the student's study/improvement efforts. If a visual representation of this were available to the grader small bits of encouragement could emerge: "I see that the First Law is starting to click for you, good job!"

I can see clearly now....

Synced with the interactive Degree Path Sheet, a student would have a much better view of where they are. With our current approach most students can't see what's going on. All they see are a few "red x's" that leave them feeling less intelligent, or that "I just don't understand Thermodynamics." Truth is that's usually not the case. Maybe the real issue is a small part of it that creeps up in most problems.

OK, enough words...

Let me show you an example of what I am picturing, from an engineers perspective (sorry, I haven't graded anything else!):



If you kept track, I spent about 2 minutes providing feedback on this problem. In a class of 60 students, with an average of 10 homework problems per assignment, this translates to 20 hours of grading work. Interestingly enough, that's the exact amount of time that my grader logs while providing RED PEN feedback right now.

A few things to work out:

First, I'm laughing at myself for using a RED PEN while making this video. I imagine a better system in which I can use "cursor points" or a "focus bubble" to show what I'm looking at.

Second, the "tags" idea isn't a worksheet, but I'm not Java programmer. The check-mark image was supposed to represent clicking on tags.

Third, I DO use a red pen while grading currently. This idea is new for me this week, and I hope to implement a refined version of this system next time I teach a course.

Fourth, I DO collect the homework for a grade. I'll explain...

Some other things you might have seen:

Did you notice that the numerical answers were provided with the problem statement? This is a trick I use to maximize the self-learning for my students. With the answers to homework problems available, students know whether they've got it or not long before they turn it in. Assuming they start the work early enough, they can find the help they need before turning in the assignment.

Did you notice that I showed two submissions from the same student? I actually do this as well. In my course I try very hard to encourage my students to make mistakes and learn from them. This learning business is messy and most of what sticks in our minds comes from getting things wrong at first.

I allow my students to re-submit the work as many times as it takes, and they can earn full credit on every problem even if they don't get it until the last day of the semester. Effort and engagement is encouraged and rewarded. Based on their feedback, this is working as I hoped it would!

Closing: The Message

Once again, the "Medium is the Message." I hope that by taking advantage of the digital media tools available to us, we can shift the message that we send learners. Let's send the message that experimenting is a good thing. Let's send the message that mistakes are a good thing. Let's send the message that our students deserve more than some messy red pen graffiti all over their work.

At the risk of starting a riot:
STUDENTS: Like what you see? Are you tired of getting RED PEN all over your work? Demand more from your teachers!

Try turning your homework in written completely in RED PEN.

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Changing the Message: Grading vs Reviewing (Part 4 of 4)

Continuing the saga....


Rigid Grading Structures

OK, I recognize that this is a touchy subject, so I'll tread lightly (for now). The heck with that, let's get dirty!

"You, my friend, are going towards turbulent flows."
An Anonymous Friend
Today, after telling him about what I'm writing 

We follow rigid grading rubrics hoping to be "fair" to everyone. The problem is that these grading structures put us "fairly" off base.

"Grades tend to diminish students' interest in whatever they're learning. A "grading orientation" and a "learning orientation" have been shown to be inversely proportional...
Grades create a preference for the easiest possible task. Impress upon students that what they're doing will count towards their grade, and their response will likely be to avoid taking any unnecessary intellectual risks...
Grades tend to reduce the quality of students' thinking. They may skim books for what they'll "need to know." They're less likely to wonder, say, "How can we be sure that's true?" than to ask "Is this going to be on the test?"
Alfie Kohn, 2011 

What do we value?

Rate of Learning?
Imagine the situation in which a student learns the material at a slower pace than others in the class. The student earns a poor score on the first exam. This feedback inspires the student to try a different approach to learning and (s)he grasps the material in time for the final exam. Following the rigid rubric, this student's grade will be lower than another who learned the material faster, even though both may be leaving the course with the same understanding.

What is the message here? What do we really value? The rate at which a student learns? Rate of production is a crucial concept to efficient manufacturing.

Get it "Right" the first time?
Students are penalized for making mistakes. The result is that students are afraid to try anything unorthodox, or explore.

"I just want to know what formula to use to solve the problem the right way."
There is a high level of pressure on students to get things "right" the first time. Our RED PEN feedback system helps drive this home. If a student misses a question, points are lost and final course grades are affected. GPA drops and that homework problem or test problem just influenced the rest of my life. (OK, that's a bit extreme, but its the logical end to the thought).

The Root of the Problem

We have a need in education to determine how a student is doing. Students need feedback so that they may improve upon problem areas. Educators need to see how their students are doing so that they may assess the effectiveness of their teaching.

There is a long list of other reasons typically thrown up in the case for grades, but I think they are rubbish. One of the big ones is that "if we don't grade it, students won't do it." Yes, let's hold our students hostage with threats against their future success rather than providing true motivation.

Had I the heavens' embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet,
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams
W. B. Yeats

I think we may have started, long ago, with these two goals in mind. However, our "factory model" education system has polluted those goals, mainly due to the fact that we are trying to educate so many people. Call the EPA (Educational Protection Agency)!

Scaling Issues

With a large class, the task of providing feedback is not trivial. Graders must streamline the process by providing the least amount of feedback possible. They look over the work, think about what the student did, and try to scribble something down to let them know where mistakes were made. If only the student could hear the grader's thoughts! (In light of what I'm about to say, I think they call this foreshadowing)

Very rarely is any positive feedback given. For the most part, graders write down just enough to justify the score on the assignment. I don't fault them for this, they simply don't have the time to give meaningful, content-rich responses to each student's work.

The problem is that, from the students' perspective, this type of feedback is more a slap in the face than constructive criticism. Rather than a teachable moment, we offer up judgement and discouragement.

I have not failed. I've just found 1000 ways that won't work.
Thomas Edison 

Let's change the message.

Learner-Centered Feedback
(Stop Grading and Start Reviewing)

With tablets and pen inputs for computers we have the ability to record ourselves as we mark up a document. Imagine marking up a student's electronic homework submission. The grader no longer needs to write a detailed response to help the student learn from issues. The grader can record his/her thoughts in audio format while marking up the work.

Rather than grade the work we can review the work and provide meaningful feedback (audio) to the learner. I think if we did this right, it would actually save time for grader. Most people can speak much faster than they can write or type.

We could add "content area" tags to individual homework problems. Over time, the student's aggregated results would point out sticking points in a particular course and focus the student's study/improvement efforts. If a visual representation of this were available to the grader small bits of encouragement could emerge: "I see that the First Law is starting to click for you, good job!"

I can see clearly now....

Synced with the interactive Degree Path Sheet, a student would have a much better view of where they are. With our current approach most students can't see what's going on. All they see are a few "red x's" that leave them feeling less intelligent, or that "I just don't understand Thermodynamics." Truth is that's usually not the case. Maybe the real issue is a small part of it that creeps up in most problems.

OK, enough words...

Let me show you an example of what I am picturing, from an engineers perspective (sorry, I haven't graded anything else!):



If you kept track, I spent about 2 minutes providing feedback on this problem. In a class of 60 students, with an average of 10 homework problems per assignment, this translates to 20 hours of grading work. Interestingly enough, that's the exact amount of time that my grader logs while providing RED PEN feedback right now.

A few things to work out:

First, I'm laughing at myself for using a RED PEN while making this video. I imagine a better system in which I can use "cursor points" or a "focus bubble" to show what I'm looking at.

Second, the "tags" idea isn't a worksheet, but I'm not Java programmer. The check-mark image was supposed to represent clicking on tags.

Third, I DO use a red pen while grading currently. This idea is new for me this week, and I hope to implement a refined version of this system next time I teach a course.

Fourth, I DO collect the homework for a grade. I'll explain...

Some other things you might have seen:

Did you notice that the numerical answers were provided with the problem statement? This is a trick I use to maximize the self-learning for my students. With the answers to homework problems available, students know whether they've got it or not long before they turn it in. Assuming they start the work early enough, they can find the help they need before turning in the assignment.

Did you notice that I showed two submissions from the same student? I actually do this as well. In my course I try very hard to encourage my students to make mistakes and learn from them. This learning business is messy and most of what sticks in our minds comes from getting things wrong at first.

I allow my students to re-submit the work as many times as it takes, and they can earn full credit on every problem even if they don't get it until the last day of the semester. Effort and engagement is encouraged and rewarded. Based on their feedback, this is working as I hoped it would!

Closing: The Message

Once again, the "Medium is the Message." I hope that by taking advantage of the digital media tools available to us, we can shift the message that we send learners. Let's send the message that experimenting is a good thing. Let's send the message that mistakes are a good thing. Let's send the message that our students deserve more than some messy red pen graffiti all over their work.

At the risk of starting a riot:
STUDENTS: Like what you see? Are you tired of getting RED PEN all over your work? Demand more from your teachers!

Try turning your homework in written completely in RED PEN.

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Changing the Message: Degree-Level View (Part 3 of 4)

Continuing the discussion on changing educational media to change the message we send.


Degree Path Sheets

ME Department

The degree path sheet is a very helpful tool for students. This single page summarizes all of the courses that they need to take to complete the degree, including links (connecting lines) to pre- and co-requisites. As I pursued my undergraduate degree I referred to this page very often. (Side note: In my day the form was in black and white! I've always wanted to say that...)

I think we can take advantage of the digital medium and do better.

Add more information 
(information that's already available elsewhere)

Couldn't this be an interactive web app? Imagine being able to click each course and find useful information. Linked to the scheduling system, times that the course is offered could be displayed, along with the number of open seats. Click the one you want to instantly add it to your schedule. The entire app could sync with the student's transcript, showing completed courses and grades. Courses could be "clickable" only if the pre/co-requisites are satisfied. Selecting a course could automatically select co-requisite courses.

Professor bios could be linked displayed, allowing students to pick their teacher based on research interests and examples used in class. We could add lecture previews, student reviews, links to course materials, and publications by the professor. Previous class projects could be linked, letting prospective students see what those who have come before learned.

As a student progresses, the system could "learn" her/his preferences and recommend certain elective courses or professors that align with the student's interests and learning styles.

The learning management system (even though I don't like the current one much) could be linked in, allowing the student to use this page as a launch to current classes. Information such as current grade and how much of a course grade remains could be available. GPA (which I also don't like) scenarios could also be computed.

If we got to a point where students could truly customize their education, a % Complete bar could indicate how much of the course they have completed based on the learning modules they have selected. The division between subjects and the need for completing a course in a certain semester could be eliminated. Imagine this entire sheet broken into smaller chunks of concepts that add up to form a uniquely-designed curriculum.

How ready am I for this course?

A preparedness index could be fashioned based on a student's past performance in prerequisite courses. Suggestions for important background material that the student found challenging in the past could be offered as study aids over breaks, before the course begins. If we changed the way we grade (see next post) the system could point out specific areas that the student should work on. Example: the introductory course I teach uses first-order ordinary differential equations, but that's about it from the "Differential Equations" course that is listed as a prerequisite. If a student struggled with that part of Differential Equations we could flag it for them.

Perhaps over time this is an answer to a challenge facing almost ALL courses: we spend the first 1/3 of the semester reviewing concepts from previous courses.

A Liberal Education

If you take a close look at the degree path sheet, you'll see classes marked "Area 1" and "Area 2" etc. As part of a liberal education, we have 7 Core Areas that students must engage with to complete a degree. As a student, I never took the time to read the description of these Areas (take a look at the link). The truth is that the idea behind each is beautiful and very exciting. Why can't these show up on the interactive degree path sheet as well? I wish I had seen the inspiring ideas behind these requirements, rather than just "toughing it out" through some required "useless" courses. They get at the heart of the difference between education and job training. The available courses that satisfy an "Area" during any given semester could also be suggested/shown.

My Story is Different!

One of the big drawbacks to the rigid degree path sheet is that very few people follow it. We all have extenuating circumstances (drop a class, change majors, take a co-op) that put us "off schedule". In a year of teaching, I've met very few students who are actually "on track."

This sheet serves as a constant reminder that students are off track, or that they are somehow "doing it wrong".

 Why not make each class "draggable"? Students could slide the courses around, and maybe even add a "solve my schedule" function that charts a path to degree completion based on current standing and course availability.

The New Message

The point here is that with some application of fairly standard web design, the message we send is completely changed:

"We recognize that you are a unique individual with a unique story, and we want to meet you where you are at and help guide you along. You don't have to fit our mold, because there is no mold to fit. Your education is important to us, and you are in the driver's seat."
ME Department (modified)

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Filed under Uncategorized

Changing the Message: Degree-Level View (Part 3 of 4)

Continuing the discussion on changing educational media to change the message we send.


Degree Path Sheets

ME Department

The degree path sheet is a very helpful tool for students. This single page summarizes all of the courses that they need to take to complete the degree, including links (connecting lines) to pre- and co-requisites. As I pursued my undergraduate degree I referred to this page very often. (Side note: In my day the form was in black and white! I've always wanted to say that...)

I think we can take advantage of the digital medium and do better.

Add more information 
(information that's already available elsewhere)

Couldn't this be an interactive web app? Imagine being able to click each course and find useful information. Linked to the scheduling system, times that the course is offered could be displayed, along with the number of open seats. Click the one you want to instantly add it to your schedule. The entire app could sync with the student's transcript, showing completed courses and grades. Courses could be "clickable" only if the pre/co-requisites are satisfied. Selecting a course could automatically select co-requisite courses.

Professor bios could be linked displayed, allowing students to pick their teacher based on research interests and examples used in class. We could add lecture previews, student reviews, links to course materials, and publications by the professor. Previous class projects could be linked, letting prospective students see what those who have come before learned.

As a student progresses, the system could "learn" her/his preferences and recommend certain elective courses or professors that align with the student's interests and learning styles.

The learning management system (even though I don't like the current one much) could be linked in, allowing the student to use this page as a launch to current classes. Information such as current grade and how much of a course grade remains could be available. GPA (which I also don't like) scenarios could also be computed.

If we got to a point where students could truly customize their education, a % Complete bar could indicate how much of the course they have completed based on the learning modules they have selected. The division between subjects and the need for completing a course in a certain semester could be eliminated. Imagine this entire sheet broken into smaller chunks of concepts that add up to form a uniquely-designed curriculum.

How ready am I for this course?

A preparedness index could be fashioned based on a student's past performance in prerequisite courses. Suggestions for important background material that the student found challenging in the past could be offered as study aids over breaks, before the course begins. If we changed the way we grade (see next post) the system could point out specific areas that the student should work on. Example: the introductory course I teach uses first-order ordinary differential equations, but that's about it from the "Differential Equations" course that is listed as a prerequisite. If a student struggled with that part of Differential Equations we could flag it for them.

Perhaps over time this is an answer to a challenge facing almost ALL courses: we spend the first 1/3 of the semester reviewing concepts from previous courses.

A Liberal Education

If you take a close look at the degree path sheet, you'll see classes marked "Area 1" and "Area 2" etc. As part of a liberal education, we have 7 Core Areas that students must engage with to complete a degree. As a student, I never took the time to read the description of these Areas (take a look at the link). The truth is that the idea behind each is beautiful and very exciting. Why can't these show up on the interactive degree path sheet as well? I wish I had seen the inspiring ideas behind these requirements, rather than just "toughing it out" through some required "useless" courses. They get at the heart of the difference between education and job training. The available courses that satisfy an "Area" during any given semester could also be suggested/shown.

My Story is Different!

One of the big drawbacks to the rigid degree path sheet is that very few people follow it. We all have extenuating circumstances (drop a class, change majors, take a co-op) that put us "off schedule". In a year of teaching, I've met very few students who are actually "on track."

This sheet serves as a constant reminder that students are off track, or that they are somehow "doing it wrong".

 Why not make each class "draggable"? Students could slide the courses around, and maybe even add a "solve my schedule" function that charts a path to degree completion based on current standing and course availability.

The New Message

The point here is that with some application of fairly standard web design, the message we send is completely changed:

"We recognize that you are a unique individual with a unique story, and we want to meet you where you are at and help guide you along. You don't have to fit our mold, because there is no mold to fit. Your education is important to us, and you are in the driver's seat."
ME Department (modified)

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Filed under Uncategorized