mercredi 7 janvier 2015

[edX] Week 6 - Design Based Research

This week, the course (11.132x Design and Development of Educational Technology) is all about design-based research(DBR) and research of educational technologies in the "wild" as means for continuous improvement of the tool students will be promoting in the final pitch.

For instance in one of the first interviews, Barry Fishman rapidly defines what DBR is and contrasts it with design bases implementation research(DBIR). According to Fishman, DBR is about designing activities (or interventions, as we often call them in this field) and testing them in some sort of a real file setting. DBR implies that the theory or the intervention are adjusted and revised based on the results that are obtained during testing. In addition, DBIR suggests that there should also be a component of long term implementation of successful interventions into everyday practice. In essence, it is about adapting interventions developed in perfect conditions into a sustainable and scalable practice.

In my case, it was a bit boring week because I already had my share of readings about DBR and many variants including DBIR. The only thing that caught my attention were the proposed examples of activities with technology use in the classroom. Frankly, the examples and the reflection that were proposed sounded so familiar to many things I have done in my McGill class (see my posts on EDPE 640) that I felt like I'm in a Groundhog Day movie of my own.

One of the interviews that saved the day (or should Is a the week?) is the interview with Susan Yoon about Biograph project in high-school. The interview is really all about DBR implementation in the case of Biograph project. However, there are some details that are particular to this specific research. First of all, the researchers have used some teachers as resources for the second iteration of the project. These teachers have helped in preparing new "cohort" and differentiating the material. Moreover, an extensive bank of activities and resources was developed in a second phase of the research to help teachers in their every day life. I would actually say, from the description by Yoon, that the project is an example of DBIR and not DBR: the focus on sustainability and scalability seems to be at the heart of the research.

Nonetheless, I was so interested in the idea of teaching complex systems to high school students that I did not even watch the interview with Mike Murray, one of the teachers participating in the Biograph project. I just went directly to resources of the week and to Biograph website: naturally, I have immediately found some familiar elements: StarLogo Nova - a simulation tool discussed in my week 3 post. Unfortunately, the available information is rather succinct and limited to a general description. Google Scholar did not return any relevant results for searches on Biograph, project, Susan Yoon, complex systems and their combinations. Despite my great interest in the topic of complex systems and even more interest in the idea of teaching this topic to high-school students, I think I will have to wait a little or spend a lot of time searching for information.

Overall and despite my multiple complaints above, I think it was one of the most interesting weeks for me. It was exciting mostly because of the complex systems project Biograph. It intrigues me. How can you teach something to K12 students that many university students do not get? What is actually taught? What resources are used? How long does it take? What can I apply in my own programming classes? Can I adapt some ideas to Quebec high-schools and CEGEPs? I will be definitely looking into it more in depth as soon as I find some information.

[edX] Week 5 - Assessment

This week, the course (11.132x Design and Development of Educational Technology) is all about assessment. Assessments in the current form, the short term future and the "desired" future are explored through series of discussions with experts such as James Paul Gee or  Bob Mislevy. Students are invited to compare a traditional quiz to games (Radix Endeavor and Galactic Mappers), design an a assessment and improve their pitch by including progress measurement components.

Radix Endeavor

The interview with James Paul Gee introduces the idea of the future of the assessment and use of games as one of alternative assessment and learning methods. However, the interview is a relatively common discussion on engaging students, seamless continuous assessment and multimodal non linear learning. 

A game, Radix Endeavor, is also mentioned as one of the efforts in this direction. It is a browser flash based MMOG (Massive Multiplayer Online Game) specifically designed to promote learning of sciences, math and engineering. Since I have never heard of this game, I have decided to try it out and play a little. I have played around 2-3 hours and got bored. It was really extremely boring. I was not able to immediately identify the problem and it took me a few weeks to get to the root cause. 

Radix is well designed with relatively low level but still usable graphics. It has some sort of a plot, quests, maps, agents and more. On the surface, it has everything (except quality of graphics) a good game should have. However, when I have played the game it felt like: “How exciting! What is next? Flowers?...again Flowers? Now triangles…Again triangles?” There is no competition, no movement and no development of the avatar. If we compare this to a relatively popular recent game such as League of Angels, it lacks one of the major aspects: it evolves too slowly and has a very low level of complexity. The challenges are artificial and are simply plugged into the game without much consideration.  It does not feel “natural”, it feels like and looks like an exercise in math inside the game when we need to combine triangles in order to create windows in one of the quests. Or when a player is asked to measure x number of plants and use the tool y to compute the average of the plant size that you should report to Mr.Someone. Of course, there is nothing wrong in having additional challenges, such as math problems or trivia questions (like in the League of Angels) in order to gain more points, but the main plot in a quest game has to be coherent fluid and rapidly evolving at least in the beginning - it is the hook of the game. Malcolm Bauer calls such approach as "careful connections." In this game, they are barely existent.

Graphics is another completely different aspect. I do understand that the game we are talking about is educational but the avatar is too simple and does not look much like a hero (left). After all, the plot suggests that there are enemies and that the player needs to save children and save knowledge. At this time it should look like a stereotypical but nevertheless much more catching and popular avatar of contemporary games (League of Angels Russian version male warrior avatar on the right). The terrain is made of a set of villages that all look-alike with little distinctive futures and low level graphics(again). Overall the game has little to no features that could attract(hook) and retain a hardcore or even a casual gamer. Just a short look bellow demonstrates major differences between worlds of Radix and League of Angles. 

Possibly, Radix graphics could be acceptable in a game with thousands of simultaneously active players large world, buildings, armies, enemies and more, as we often see in strategy based MMOG. But in Radix, there are no players?! The game is simply dead! No one in the chat and no one walks around. This means that there is no social interaction for a single player. In the unlikely scenario of an entire class playing at the same time, the interaction does not provide new sources of learning: one can talk to friends in the class online or offline, in-class or after. In short, there is no worldwide connection, no community of learning and thus no coaching and no sharing of information. 

Similarly, there is no way, to compare to others and to develop our own avatar in a tangible manner. Maybe because there are no others, but I was unable to find a way to make friends, to look at their stats, to compare with someone and to compete with someone against a computer or another player. The final nail in the coffin is that there is no incentive to come back: no leagues or associations with others, no bonuses, no developments or changes when you are not online, nothing that says to the player: “You will miss something important if you do not come back every day.”

In short, the game looks outdated, half-baked and not as nearly engaging and addictive as contemporary popular games. As a result, it loses one of the most important values: motivation. Moreover, the assessment is not as seamless as in other games and the quests seem artificial to the point of looking like traditional mathematical problems.

Radix, in my opinion, is a perfect example of what I often refer to as a "great idea subverted by education people." A concept of a quest game that was adapted to deliver traditional learning examples and assessment problems in a more attractive and nice packaging than a paper and a pen. However, It is certainly a step in a right direction. It is a perfect example of slow evolution of education that Edys Quellmalz refers to in one of the interviews of this week.

lundi 5 janvier 2015

[edX] Week 4 - Collaboration and learning communities

Finally, I got some « free » time at 10pm at night after almost 12 hours of meetings and teaching to write about week 4 of edX course 11.132x on Design and Development of Educational Technology.
This week is all about collaboration and social/collaborative learning.


On the first video, Professor Klopfer introduces the idea of social and collaborative learning with following characteristics:
  • making your thinking visible to other learners - share information
  • taking risks but value one another's contributions,
  • asking questions - inquire together and mentor one another,
  • sustained interaction, shared interests and desire to learn.

These imply that a community of practice should form around a common interest or domain with a goal to develop a shared set of tools such as experiences, stories, solutions and methods.

Example: Samba schools

One example of collaborative learning or a community of practice are Brazilian Samba schools where students of all ages are learning together and collaborating on projects they really care about. In contrast to traditional schools targeting more or less narrow common range of knowledge before and after taking a learning activity, Samba schools are live communities of experiences and novice users engaged in various ways to various degrees in social personal and multimodal learning.

After exploring this topic, I just wonder why such communities are rare in education(see my earlier post in [EDPE 640] topic). They do exist in one or another form and some are quite active at times but they are pale examples of multiple thriving communities of practice in a computer field (for example). Many programming communities go well beyond sharing solutions and applauding someone for a good idea: solutions are scrutinized, analyzed, improved, referenced and reused again in various related subdomains. Authors often receive comments with suggestions for improvement. In short, the process of learning and sharing of knowledge is truly bidirectional. The author and the readers deeply engage in improvement of a solution (product or idea) rarely seen in education field.

Example: Vanished

Another example presented this week is a game called Vanished. In reality, it looks more like a one-time project that has invited students to explore multiple scientific problems through a collaborative effort with experts and other students. While I have visited the website and have explored the bits and pieces that are left there, I was not really able to appreciate all the beauty of the activity.

However, from the explanations of Caitlin Feeley and Scot Osterweil, I think that the project was an authentic effort to:
  • reach out and share knowledge
  • stimulate learning across all age groups and invite them to go farther and learn more

From the overall description of the project and the results, I think that it was a great success because it reached all goals that where set and more! Rapidly cracking a code that a few PhD students had difficulty with is an amazing feat for many students. Of course, they had all the power of Internet at their fingertips but aggregating all this information and using it is one of the top level skills that I want my own students to learn.  

However, there is always one thing that bothers me with such projects: they present only a part of reality. For instance, many teachers like to teach and see the light in the eyes of their students when they finally understand something. However, the life of a teacher is also composed of such things as professional meetings, parent-teacher meetings, grading, course preparation and many more administrative things that many may hate. Similarly, the reality of a scientist may also be composed of a rainbow of personal likes and dislikes creating an ever changing multicolored landscape of everyday life.

In the case of Vanished, the problem is in the process, in the accountability, in the traceability and the proof. Again, the results mentioned above are amazing but could these students write a detailed report of their accomplishments with a proper introduction, methodology, theoretical references etc.? That is, can they leave a trace of their learning experience that could be explored farther? I think they could but most projects I know of, including Vanished, avoid it because it is boring… because it is not science. It is true, IT IS NOT ENTIRE SCIENCE! IT IS A PART OF A LIFE OF A SCIENTIST, ENGINEER and any other professional required to maintain a minimal level of accountability and collaboration. The process in the commonly accepted format, the standards and methodology have to be presented on the same level as the other part of the science we commonly promote in education. 

A balance between formalism in communication and a creative process itself should be found if we want to avoid future frustration: professionals that are unable and are unwilling to engage in a formal community of practice bound by more rigid rules than those that are found in Vanished. IF we do not find an appropriate balance, we risk to see specialists that often use inappropriate level of formal language and are unable to adapt their written and spoken discourse. Specialists that are unable to leave a reusable trace of their findings following a standard implemented at their work. Specialists that are simply unwilling to make an effort and communicate their solutions to those that are not experts and do not have time to go into details and read thousands of small notes and ideas (forum like format). In short, we should teach flexibility of thought and practice through a common acceptance of work, sometimes boring work, as means of personal growth and evolution of communities.

Ideas are not everything: they still need to be shared and implemented.

Additional Readings

A more detailed introduction into the concept of communities of practice can be found here: .
More on Samba schools