Clark Quinn's Learnings about Learning
(The Official Quinnovation blog)

27 February 2013

Games do teach

Clark @ 6:17 AM

I think Ruth Clark’s provides a great service in presenting what the research says on elearning, starting with her highly recommended book eLearning and the Science of Instruction.  So it’s hard to want to quibble, but she put out what I think is a somewhat irresponsible post on games with the provocative title “Why Games Don’t Teach“.  So it’s only fair that I raise my objections, though the comments do a great job also of pointing out the problem.

As many have pointed out, the title is needlessly confrontational.  It’s patently obvious games teach, simply by trying a popular game yourself and realizing quickly that there’s no way you’re going to achieve a competitive level of play without substantial practice.  As Raph Koster’s fun and valuable book A Theory of Fun for Game Design aptly points out, the reason games succeed is that they do require learning.

So the real point Ruth is making is that research doesn’t show the value of games for learning, and that there are no guidelines from research for design.  And yet she continues to be wrong.  As Karl Kapp (author of Gamification) points out in his thoughtful and comprehensive comment, there are quite a few studies demonstrating this (and further elaborates on a study Ruth cites, countering her point).  As far back as the 80’s, frankly, Lepper and Cordova had a study demonstrating improvement from a game version of a math practice application.  The evidence is there.

What’s more insidious, as Koreen Olbrish points out in her comment, is that the definition of learning is open.  Unfortunately, what Ruth’s talking about seems to be rote memorization, by and large.  And we do know that tarting up drill and kill makes it more palatable (although we need to be quite certain that the information does have to be ‘in the head’ rather than able to be ‘in the world’).  But I maintain that rote fact remembering isn’t what’s going to make an organizational successful, it’s making better decisions, and that’s where games will shine.

Games, properly used, are powerful tools for meaningful practice.  They’re not complete learning experiences, but next to mentored live practice, they’re the best bet going.  And principles for design?  Going further, I believe that there are sound principles for design (heck, I wrote a book about it). It starts with a laser focus on the objectives, and the important ways people go wrong, and then creating environments where exercising those skills, making just those decisions that learners need to be able to make, are made in a meaningful context.

Yes, it requires good design. And, essentially the same basics of good learning design as anywhere else, and more, not other.  The problem with research, and I welcome more and a taxonomy, is that research tries to whittle things down into minute elements, and games are inherently complex, as are the decisions they’re training.  There are long-term projects to design environments and conduct the small elements of research, but we’ve good principles now, and can and should use a design-based research approach.

Overall, I think that it’s safe to say that:

  • games can and do teach
  • we have good principles on how to design them
  • and that more research wouldn’t be bad

However, I think the article really only makes the latter point, and I think that’s a disservice.  Your mileage may vary.

26 February 2013

iPads do make sense for schools

Clark @ 6:20 AM

Donald Clark (the UK one) generally writes great posts: insightful and irreverent, and consequently fun. I like that he is willing to counter the prevailing wisdom with good research. I hope to someday meet him. However, his recent post against iPads in the classroom seemed to me to miss a couple of points.  Not that I fully disagree with him, but that I think that some elaboration might shed some light.  Note: I’m starting by focusing on K-6, not middle school or higher ed. He does acknowledge the potential value for young kids, so we’re not quibbling too much, but I still want to make a few points.

He first claims that they don’t support writing.  Yes, that’s true, the touchscreen isn’t the same as a keyboard.  However, my colleague Scott Marvel has filmed lots of kids with iPads and he tells me they don’t have much trouble using the touchscreen (they’re not highly capable with regular keyboards at young ages), they use speech to text as well, and also take freehand notes too.  So writing isn’t horribly impeded on iPads for younger kids.  Further, writing shouldn’t necessarily be done in the classroom anyway. Learning to type, and heavy writing should be done offline, and shared for feedback in class.  It’s a waste of valuable teacher time, when they could be facilitating meaningful engagement.

I also note that he says they don’t work for creative work, and that they should be creating, not consuming. I generally agree on the creation aspect (while noting that flipping the classroom and getting reading and tutorials done at home isn’t bad and the latter isn’t passive consumption), but note that he’s missed one of the big content creation aspects that smaller devices support: taking pictures and filming videos.  It may be that iPod Touches are even better for K-6, but running around and filming with a tablet (particularly an iPad mini, which may be optimal for K-6) is better than a laptop.  And I’ll bet that the video and photo editing tools on tablets are just the simple tools that kids really need; they just need basic capabilities.

I note that I didn’t buy my iPad for content consumption: when it was announced I wrote it off for just that reason. However, between the time it was announced and became available, I saw how I would use it to be more productive: creating not consuming.  And I bought one the first day it came out for that reason.

Let me also elaborate on the size point.  Elliot Soloway many years ago made the point that laptops were the wrong form-factor for young kids, and he started using Palm Pilots.  I think it’s still the case that a laptop isn’t right for kids, and that touch screens make much more sense than keyboards and touch pads or mice.  There are plenty of people noticing how 2 year olds are able to use iPads!

Donald also talks about coding, and it is a shame that there isn’t a HyperCard equivalent for the iPad (though Infinite Canvas may be such, tho’ it’d need educational pricing).  However, something like Scratch for the iPad would be a real opportunity (precluded by Apple, unfortunately, I wonder if there’s an Android version).  And coding K-6 other than scratch doesn’t make a lot of sense.

He says that iPads are problems for teachers, and I’m somewhat sympathetic. However, too often I’ve seen instances where teachers weren’t properly prepared.  For instance, something like GoClass (caveat: partner), while still a bit instructivist, could scaffold teachers initially until they began to see the opportunities.  And there needs to be mobile management software to deal with the issues. However, I’m hard pressed to believe iPads are any  more fragile than laptops.

Now, for higher grades, I take the point.  My lad and lass both have MacBook Pros, though they each also have an iPod touch (lad’s is my old iPhone without a sim card) that they use.  Note that they do not take the laptops to school in most cases.  I think that a nice augment for mobile work, getting out of the classroom (please!) is much better facilitated with a tablet or pocketable (smartphone/PDA) than a laptop.  And even for collaborative group work, sharing a tablet is better than hovering around a laptop.  If necessary, they could be using a bluetooth keyboard when needed.  So while I know this is hard to justify on a cost basis, I’d probably argue for an iPad or pocketable for class, and a desktop or laptop for home.

Less related, he makes the side claim that employees don’t use iPads. I’m amazed at the number that turn up at workplace learning conferences, and in meetings.  They seem pretty ubiquitous, so I don’t buy this claim.  Yes, they may be older, and some folks are using netbooks or MacBook Airs, but I see plenty of folks with iPads equipped with keyboard cases. I keep a bluetooth keyboard for when I’m cranking (e.g. writing on an airplane), but frankly just for quick notes the touchscreen keyboard works good enough for meetings, and that ‘all day’ battery really makes a difference.

And I’ll add on one other benefit for mobile devices: the ability to do contextual work. These devices can be context aware, and do things because of where you are.  This is yet to be really capitalized on, but provides a real opportunity.

I think tablets are only going to get more capable, and already make more sense in the classroom than laptops.  Teachers should be seeing how to use them, even at higher levels, and save the high-powered writing and editing out of the classroom.  Laptops make sense for learners, but not in the classroom. In the classroom, smaller and more versatile devices make more sense.

18 February 2013

Norman’s Design of Future Things

Clark @ 5:32 AM

Donald Norman’s book, The Design of Everyday Things is a must-read for anyone who creates artifacts or interfaces for humans.  This one goes forward in the same vein, but talking about how new tech in the roughly 20 years since that book came out, and the implications.  There are some interesting thoughts, though few hints for learning.

In the book, Don talks about how new technologies are increasingly smart, e.g. cars are almost self-driving (and since the book was published back in 2007, they’re now already on the cusp).  As a consequence, we have to start thinking deeply about when and where to automate, having technologies make decisions, versus when we’re in the loop.  And, in the latter case, when and how we’re kept alert (pilots lose attention trying to monitor an auto-pilot, even falling asleep).

The issue, he proposes, is that tenuous relationship between an aware partner and the human.  He uses the relationship between a horse and rider as an example, talking about loose-rein control and close-rein control. Again, there are times the rider can be asleep (I recall a gent in an Irish pub bemoaning the passing of the days when “the horse knew the way home”).

He covers a range of data points from existing circumstances as well as experiments in new approaches.  This ranges from noise to crowd behavior.  For noise, he looks at how the way mechanical things made noises were clues to their state and operation, and that we’re losing those clues as we increasingly make things quiet. Engineers are even building in noise as a feature when it’s disappeared via technical sophistication.  For crowd behavior, one example is how the removal of street signs in a couple of cities have reduced accidents.

At the end, he comes up with a set of design principles:

  1. Provide rich, complex, and natural signals
  2. Be predictable
  3. Provide a good conceptual model
  4. Make the output understandable
  5. Provide continual awareness, without annoyance
  6. Exploit natural mapping to make interaction understandable and effective

For learning, he talks about how robots that teach are one place in which such animated and embodied avatars make sense, whereas in may situations they’re more challenging.  He talks about how they don’t need much mobility, can speak, and can be endearing. Not to replace teachers, but to supplement them. Certainly we have the software capability, but we have to wonder what sort of system makes sense to invest in the actual embodiment versus speaking from a mobile device or computer.

As an exercise, I looked at his design principles to see what might transfer over to the design of learning experiences.  The main issue is that in learning, we want the learner facing problems, focusing on the task of creating a solution with overt cognitive awareness, as opposed to an elegant, almost unconscious, accomplishment of a goal.  This suggests that rule 2, ‘be predictable’, might be good in non-critical areas of focus, but not in the main area.  The rest seem appropriate for learning experiences as well.

This is a thoughtful book, weaving a number of elements together to capture a notion, not hammer home critical outcomes.  As such, it is not for the casual designer, but for those looking to take their design to the ‘next level’, or consider the directions that will be coming, and how we might prepare people for them. Just as Don proposed that the interface design folks should be part of the product design team in The Invisible Computer, so too should the product support specialists, sales training team, and customer training designers be part of the design team going forward, as the considerations of what people will have to learn to use new systems are increasingly a concern in the design of systems, not just products.

11 February 2013

Performance support-ing learning

Clark @ 5:11 AM

In a post last week, I mentioned how Gloria Gery’s original vision of performance support not only was supposed to help you in the moment, it was also – at least in principle – of developing you over time. And yet I have yet to see it. So what am I talking about?

Let’s use an example. I think of the typical GPS as one of the purest models of performance support: it knows where you’re trying to go (since you tell it), and it helps you every step of the way. It can even adapt if you make a mistake. It will get you there.

However, the GPS will tell you nothing about the rationale it’s using to choose your route, which can seem different than one you might have chosen on your own. Even if it offers you alternatives, or you specify preferences like ‘no toll roads’, the underlying reasoning isn’t clear. Yet this might be an opportunity for navigational learning (e.g. “this route has more lights, so we prefer the slightly longer one with fewer opportunities for stopping”).

Nor does it help you learn anything along the way: geography, political boundaries, even geology, although it could do any of these with only a thin veneer of extra work: “as we cross the river, we are also crossing the boundary between X county and Y; in 1643 the pressure between the two cities of X1 and Y1 jockeying for power led to this settlement that shared the water resource.”

It could go further, using this as an example of a greater phenomena: “geographic features often serve as political boundaries, including mountains and rivers as well as oceans”. This latter would, in a sensible approach, only be used a few times (as the message,nonce known, could become annoying. And, ideally, you could choose what you wanted to learn about.

This isn’t limited to GPS, this could be used in any instance of guided performance. Sometimes you might not care (e.g. I suspect most users of Turbo Tax don’t want to know about the nuances of the tax, they just want it done!), but if you want people to understand the reasoning as a boost to more expert performance, e.g. so they can then start using that model to infer how to deal with things that fall outside of the range of performance support, this is a missed opportunity.

The point is to have even our programs to be ‘thinking out loud‘, both to help us learn, and to serve as a check on validity. Sure, it should be able to be shut off or customized, but the processing going on provides an opportunity for learning to happen in new and meaningful ways. The more we can couple the concept to the context, the more we can create learning that will really stick. And that is, or should be, the real goal.

7 February 2013

Roger Schank #eli3 Keynote Mindmap

Clark @ 1:35 AM

Roger Schank gave a passionate, inciteful and insightful talk about how learning really works and how he’s building businesses on those principles. He raced along and jumped around, making mapping challenging, but his message was apt.


6 February 2013

Brandon Hall #eli3 Keynote Mindmap

Clark @ 11:00 PM

Brandon Hall used the proposition that changes in the US are subsequently reflected in the rest of the world to examine coming changes in Higher Ed. He proposed that big change is coming and that the way to cope is to move to more vocational alignment and a project-based pedagogy.


5 February 2013

Michael Moore #eli3 Keynote Mindmap

Clark @ 1:32 AM

Professor Moore gave a carefully detailed argument about why educational institutions (particularly higher ed) had to change, given the changes in society. He then argued some of the changes needed, and suggested some new institutional structure models that might provide guidance.


4 February 2013

Steve Wozniak #eli3 Keynote Mindmap

Clark @ 10:49 PM

The legendary Steve “The Woz” Wozniak was the opening keynote at the 3rd International Conference of e-Learning and Distance Learning. In a wide-ranging, engaging, and personal speech, Steve made a powerful plea for the value of the thoughtful learner and intrinsic motivation, project-based learning, social, and self-paced learning.


Real mLearning

Clark @ 5:01 AM

Too many times, at conference expos and advertisements, it appears that folks are trying to say that courses on a tablet (or phone) are mlearning. On the contrary, I’ll suggest that courses on a phone or a tablet are elearning. Then, what is mlearning?

My argument is pretty simple: just because courses are on a different device, if they’re a traditional course – page turning with knowledge test, a virtual classroom, or even a simulation – if it’s only made touch-enabled, it’s still just elearning. Even if you strip it down to work on a phone, minimizing text, how is it really, qualitatively different?

Now, if you start breaking it up into chunks, and distributing it over time, we’re in a bit of a grey area, but really, isn’t that just what we should be doing in elearning, too?  Learning needs to be distributed, but this is still just a greater degree of convenience than doing the same on a laptop.  It’s a quantitative shift, not tapping into the inherent nature of mobile.

So, when is it really mlearning? I want to suggest that mlearning – and here I’m talking about courses, not mobile performance support, mobile social, etc, which also could and should be considered mlearning or at least mperformance – is when you’re using the local context to support learning. That could be restated as when you are turning a performance situation into a learning situation, wrapping the performance context with resources and support to take a performance experience and turn it into a learning experience.

Most of our formal learning involves what IBM termed ‘work-apart’ learning, something that happens away from your regular job.  And most training and online learning are just that, separated from work. We artificially create contexts that mimic the workplace in most of our learning.  And there are occasionally good reasons to do that, like handling multiple people and when failure can be costly or expensive.

Now, however, when we can bring digital technology wherever we are, we can use our real work to be the base of the learning experience. We don’t need an external context, we’re in one!  We can provide concepts, examples, and feedback around real contextualized practice. Or, we can add a layer to performance support that educates, not just supports, as Gloria Gery had proposed (but is still to be seen).

And, if the work context is using the desktop, then mobile isn’t necessarily a sensible solution. However, on those increasing circumstances when we’re on a site visit, meeting, at an event, and generally away from our desks, mlearning as I’m construing it here makes sense.

I don’t want to discount the value of elearning on mobile devices, particularly on tablets (where I have argued that the intimacy may have uniquely beneficial impacts), but I do think we shouldn’t consider context-free courses on a small device as anything other than just elearning. So, the question I’m wrestling with is whether mlearning includes mobile performance support, informal, etc, or do we want a separate term for that? But I kinda do want to keep mlearning from not meaning ‘courses on a phone (or tablet)’. What say you?

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