Online Learning: Some Advice from the Alumni

NL has a long history of success with k-12 online learning. Much has been learned along the way. We are not starting from scratch. With that in mind some of the “CDLI Online Learning Alumni” gathered virtually and put together a few words of advice to our colleagues who are working hard to adapt.

The Armour Goes in Unexpected Places

It would have been in most respects a normal day for an online distance education teacher in the early nineties. I settled in to my spot in the studio and made sure everything was working. First the mikes—all OK. Next the Telewriter: I picked up the pen and wrote on the screen and then remotely loaded the first ‘slide’ for the day’s lesson. Again everything was fine. As always the first thing to do would be to greet the students by name and just chat for a few minutes. Besides ensuring that the audio and graphics capabilities were working it had the much more important function of getting the students to open up, to come out of their schools, defined as they were by the walls of the classroom, and now enter into the online one defined only by who was present that day.

Today I had a new student. I was a bit surprised as it was several months into the school year. I asked her name but she did not reply. Eventually another student at that school answered for her, telling me her name and letting me know she was shy.

Over the next few weeks I did my best to get my new student—let’s call her Angela—involved, but all to no avail. She would not respond when asked a question and would not ever write on the electronic whiteboard when asked to contribute to the day’s work. Her first written work assignment was comprised of mostly blank sheets and so, I decided it was time to contact the school. I called the principal and then learned the awful truth.


In a previous job, around 14 years ago, my designation was Program Implementation Specialist and one of my initial tasks was to put together a team of online teachers who would lead the changeover from the distance education system used in my province since 1988—the one described in part above, and may be described in more detail here if you are interested. Together, the Program Development Specialist and I devised a recruitment strategy that involved an online application system that would be used to provide a short-list of candidates. Those candidates would then be interviewed by a panel of three and would be subject to a reference check. All components were scored and the scores were used to rank the potential candidates, who would then be seconded.

This system was used by me and my colleagues for seven years and provided me with a significant experience in selecting those would be well suited to online learning. Through constant use I came to anticipate the response to one particular question as it tended to give an almost instant measure of whether the interviewee was or was not a suitable candidate. The question? “What would be your response if you noticed that a particular student was not doing well in the course? That is, if you noticed that a student was not engaged, not submitting work on time or doing work that was of sub-par quality?” Typical answers included: putting on extra classes, creating tutorials, providing “worksheets” and maybe even involving disciplinary measures. None of those, however, were the one I sought. I wanted something else.


Oftentimes the truth or the best course of action is not the one that seems obvious. Take my own academic discipline—physics—for example. There’s nothing commonsensical about the majority of what is typically found in the high school physics curriculum despite the protestations of inexperienced (or just plain ignorant) instructors who claim they can “make it easy.” Newton’s first law (objects tend to remain at rest or in constant motion unless acted on by an unbalanced force) is about as counter-intuitive as it gets. Objects remain at rest—no they don’t! Just YOU try sliding a book across a floor; it comes to a stop in no time! No! Newton’s first law is the product of sheer genius; a fantastic off-the-charts insight made by a most unusual individual. Seeing or maybe creating ‘friction’ as a new construct but one that merely presents itself as a new unbalanced force—pure brilliance!

Physics is not something that is not easily absorbed; something that is only understood after a skillfully-constructed instructional framework that involves bringing students right up against their existing world understanding, clearly pointing out the deficiencies and ensuring that the student acknowledges those deficiencies and then carefully rebuilding the worldview in a different way. Not simple at all and certainly not something that happens in a day.

And so it goes with everything. To do better work you have to work hard to get beyond the obvious and, as just pointed out, this involves going up against your “comfort zone” then breaking through it with a whole new worldview. This involves breaking common sense.


Allied Bomber Command faced just such a situation in World War II.

Let me digress for a moment here. I am not one given to glorifying war. While I acknowledge that it is a reality and something that often cannot  be avoided I also want to point out that there is generally no “right” and “wrong” side but instead two opposing groups who have found themselves with no alternative but to act with extreme aggression. It is a reality. Ordinary people like you and I never wish to find ourselves in it but, alas, from time to time it happens and we are faced with no choice but to do what we must.  Under the extreme conditions faced by the various sides oftentimes comes the need to dig down deep and to utilize every and any opportunity that affect the balance of power. Frequently, then, wartime becomes a time of extreme innovation borne of necessity. I wish to consider one case here as it is illustrative of a point I wish to make and not for any other reason.

Bombers, with their heavy deadly loads, are slow lumbering beasts and, as such, are easy targets for fighters who desperately seek to prevent them from achieving their missions. In WW2 many that set out did not return but were instead shot down by the fighter planes they encountered along the way. Those that returned were typically bullet riddled but still able to limp back to base for repair and refitting.

One of the responses to this loss of planes was to install armour that would protect the aircraft from the projectiles from the fighters. Armour, though, is heavy and reduces the load capacity and thus the military effectiveness of the aircraft. The solution, therefore, is to place the armour only where it is absolutely necessary. Bomber command subsequently engaged in a constant, careful study of its in-service aircraft. Each time an aircraft would return from a mission it would be inspected and the location of bullet holes obtained in that flight would be recorded. Typical returning aircraft resembled the drawing below. Notice where the bullet holes are; namely on the wings, tail and fuselage. Based on that it would make sense to place the armour there since, after all, that’s where the hits were occurring, right?

A Lancaster Bomber after a run. The red dots indicate the position of bullet holes.
A Lancaster Bomber after a run. The red dots indicate the position of bullet holes.

Wrong. The reasoning is unsound; fundamentally flawed, in fact.

Fortunately so, too, thought the Allied Bomber Command, thanks to the insight of mathematician Abraham Wald. He assumed that the bullets were not specifically aimed at any one part of the aircraft. Aerial firefighting was much too chaotic an activity to allow for precision aiming. Fighter pilots instead aimed in the general direction of the aircraft and hoped that the bullets/cannon shells would have some negative effect. One would expect, therefore that in an ideal situation, the placement of bullet holes would be more-or-less uniform.

The placement wasn’t uniform, of course as you already noticed from the image. Wald, however went one step further by reasoning—correctly—that hits to vulnerable areas would result in downed aircraft, ones that would not make it back. Since the sample used in the study consisted of aircraft that made it back it would be logical to conclude that they tended NOT to have hits to the vulnerable areas.

Take another look at the diagram. Where are there very few bullet holes? The engine and forward cockpit. Of course! A relatively small number of hits to the engines would render them inoperable. Likewise, hits to the cockpit could result in casualties to the flight crew. In either case the plane would be lost.

Simply put, instead of looking for where the bullets were you should look for where they were not. Those are the parts that need armour, and not the bullet-riddled parts.


So what does this have to do with eLearning? It turns out that in my previous career a significant part of my efforts were dedicated to the improvement of the quality of our instructional efforts. I approached this is various ways: reading about things done differently elsewhere, researching new devices and attendant methods, conferring with teachers and interviewing successful students. These tended, at first, to be my main starting points. Over time, though, I slowly moved away from all of these somewhat.

It started in a somewhat unexpected fashion. Each year I would address all of the intermediate-secondary student teachers at Memorial University in order to explain to them how the province’s distance education program worked. As part of the presentation I would those in the audience who has received part of their high school program from the program to identify themselves and would ask them to offer up their perspectives on the experience.

Of course, in all honesty, I was, in part, “selling” the program. I was part of that same system and certainly took great pride in it and in my contribution to it. While I was making it look like I was seeking an unbiased assessment I know—now—that in the initial stages I was really seeking affirmation; an ‘independent’ external source that validated the program as being worthwhile.

To my great surprise that’s not exactly what I got. Yes, many of the students were quite positive about the experience they’d had in the distance education program, but not all of them were. Numerous students indicated that they’d not found it great or that they much preferred the more traditional face-to-face approach.

The first few times this happened I responded by downplaying the responses, merely assuming that they were just the voices of the disgruntled few who had not enjoyed success probably through their own efforts or, more accurately, lack thereof. In time, though, I came around. Rather than dismissing those voices or, worse, glossing over what they’d said I began showing active interest in their points of view. I would not just let their comments sit unacknowledged; unchallenged. Instead, I slowly came around to a practice whereby I would probe deeper whenever I got the somewhat negative responses, attempting to determine just exactly had led to what I’d found.

It was enlightening, to say the least. Space does not permit a detailed exposition of what I found but, in general, here were a couple of items that were frequently encountered:

  • The choice to enrol in a particular course, which also happened to be a distance education offering, was not made by the student but, rather, by the parents or, even more frequently, the school administrator or the school district office.
  • The instructor had not made a concerted effort to reach out to the student but seemed, rather to either just teach to nobody in particular, seldom involving anyone in the class or, instead, appeared to play favourites.
  • Technical issues had resulted in significant ‘down time.

Now, lest you get the impression that this post is a mean-spirited barb at my former employer, let me assure you that nothing could be further from the truth. The pride I felt, and continue to feel in that program, is built on more than just emotion. It is, rather, something that is rooted in significant evidence that indicates its overall efficacy. The numbers don’t lie and they indicate that the students tend to do well. Just not all of them.

My point, rather, is to point out that in the later part of my career I found much more use in finding out why students did not find success than I did in identifying those factors that were associated with success.

Like Wald, I found it useful to consider the planes that did not return.


As for that telling response to the question, “What would you do if a student is not having success in your course?”

The desired response: “I would find out what was wrong.” That’s a lesson I earned through long and often painful experience.

Never mind the extra classes, the tutorials and the varied approaches, just figure out why the student is not doing well and do what can be done.


But there’s still ‘Angela,’ the student I found in my class, the one who unexpectedly dropped in and who was not finding any success. Yes, I did seek to get to the bottom of it all.

And I did.

I learned that she had just returned to her home community, after living away for several years. Her mom was a single parent but had found a new boyfriend so she’d moved away to be with him, taking her daughter with her. It became an abusive relationship and one night, in a drunken rage, the boyfriend had murdered Angela’s mom while she was present there in the apartment. She’d returned to her home community and was placed in foster care and that’s why she’d been dropped unexpectedly in my grade eleven physics class.

I tried as best I could to make things work for Angela. Unfortunately I did not succeed. I did not end up giving her a passing grade and she was not in my online physics class the following year. I do not know how she fared in life after that but do think of her often, especially when I need a good dose of humility. Sometimes, even with hard work, skill and insight you still cannot get the success you hope for. Yes, you generally do, with effort and teamwork, but not always.

Angela did not have a good experience in my Physics class. It continues to be a humbling truth.

Theoretical Case: Designing & Developing a Typical Course for Online Delivery


Suppose that you wish to put an advanced mathematics class online. Let’s stay out of the very common ones such as first-year Math, or any of the sciences. They have issues that will be dealt with later on. Let’s suppose that your faculty has developed a course in solving ordinary differential equations (ODIs for short). This is a course that needs to be taken by math, physics and chemistry majors as well as by engineers, generally in the second or third year of the program. The course is somewhat universal but not really, is somewhat popular, but not really. This means it is in most regards a typical course; a good case-study.

The course design is straightforward. Students will be presented with 12 methods by which to solve differential equations. The 12 methods will comprise 12 lessons. Each lesson will consist of these components:

  • Presentation of the theory behind the method.
  • Three worked examples, in increasing order of complexity.
  • Exercises for the student, which shall be submitted for grading.
  • Three exams.

The student will receive a grade out if a possible 100 points. Each of the three quizzes shall be graded out of 30 points and each lesson assignment shall be graded out of 10 points. The final grade will be the sum of: the average of the lesson assignments plus the total from the three quizzes.

Let’s assume that the course has been run in a face-to-face mode for many years but is now to be run as an online course. A previous attempt which consisted of class notes posted online and an evaluation based on two 50 point exams which were taken at several regional centres, did not work out. The students did not access the class notes frequently and said that it was next to impossible to get answers through the course email system. They also noted that it was extremely inconvenient driving to the regional centres to write the exam.

Let’s redesign it. We don’t have to redesign the curriculum. The twelve methods for solving ODIs remains the basis of the course.


Start with the evaluation methodology since this will have an impact on how the rest of the course is delivered. We know how important it is for the students to complete work assignments so we have allocated some grade points to them. It must also be convenient for students to get feedback on them. For simplicity’s sake then we will construct, for each lesson, a five-question assignment. To ensure that each student does not get exactly the same assignment, for each of the five questions we will put in 3 versions. For each student, then, question 1 will be randomly chosen from the 3 available, question 2 will be randomly chosen from the 3 available and so on. These will be presented as a series of multiple choice and with 10 possible answers. The students will get three attempts at each question. After either the successful entry or after the third unsuccessful attempt the solution will be displayed. This continues until all five questions are done. In this way, the student gets a reasonable chance at getting t the answer themselves but, if necessary, they will get the full response.

Of course any student could just “game” this and ask others for help. This may happen but, in the end, it is the student who will lose out since the development of facility with the solution methods is contingent on trying the practice exercises. To keep possible cheating from heavily skewing the grades, overall, we are limiting the weight to ten percent of the total—enough so that people should take it seriously but not enough to render the scheme invalid should cheating occur.

A different tack will be taken for the exams. These will no longer need to be taken at a regional centre because we will purchase into one of several available online exam proctoring services. To take the exam the student logs in from their local PC and its webcam is turned on to pan the room and ensure that only the student is taking the exam. The screen is then “locked down” to only display the exam and the student takes the exam, in view of the camera using pencil and paper. When finished the student scans the exam using an ordinary scanner, as a PDF file. This file is then placed in the exam drop box that is also on the locked-down screen. With this done the screen is released.

The instructor will then either print off the exam as normal or open it onscreen using Adobe Acrobat and mark it onscreen using a Wacom pen. The marked up exam is then (rescanned if marked old-school and) placed back in the exam drop box.

Content Design and Preparation

Recall that a previous effort based on placing class notes online had not worked out. This is to be expected for several reasons:

  • Instructors’ own class notes tend to be somewhat cryptic. They are the distilled version of the instruction, generally minus the many prompts and explanations that are given live. The instructor has crafted these to be part of the delivery system, not all of it.
  • Notes are often idiosyncratic, based on one particular view and often with unspoken assumptions that are not at all evident to the outside reader.
  • At best, mathematics is hard work to read so most students tend to procrastinate and not read texts or notes unless forced to.
  • Instruction goes better when students are challenged; encouraged to predict what should happen next. This is most of what makes live classes so effective when done well. You cannot do this effectively through notes.

We could videotape the instructor. In fact this is routinely done in university campuses everywhere through “lecture capture” technology. Let’s be frank, though: it amounts to boring, badly produced TV. Instructors are not paid performers and, as such, make frequent missteps, often have distracting habits (such as excessive pacing about, saying “ah” often and such). While this is perfectly acceptable in a live classroom, for recorded media it falls far short.

You could, of course, train an actor to deliver the course but, practically speaking, given the nature of the subject, the budget is just not there.

We shall do a cost effective compromise. We will begin with the course notes. Since the course has been offered for many years live we know we have access to a perfectly valid set. They are hand-written so we will enlist a senior math student, nominated by the math department, to redo them as PowerPoint slides. An Instructional designer (ID) will work with the draft slides to clean them up somewhat. In particular an effort will be made to make them far less busy and only display onscreen what is necessary.

A live class, based on the notes, is then videotaped. The same math student then transcribes the class lecture and the ID goes through the transcript to clean it up. Only that which is necessary remains. We are then left with a script that matches the PowerPoints, slide by slide.

The course instructor is then enlisted to read the script in a sound booth. This leaves us with a clean vocal track for each slide.

The PowerPoint slides are loaded into Adobe Captivate. The audio track for each slide is then layered in. The result is then produced as HTML5 and SWF which can be viewed on a desktop, notebook or mobile device.

For each lesson, then 5 multimedia files are produced.

  • A audiovisual presentation of theory that ends with three multiple choice questions for understanding.
  • Two audiovisual presentations. One for each of the first two worked examples.
  • Two interactive audiovisual presentations. These will be like the first two but at each step the student will be asked what should happen next and will need to choose correctly before proceeding.

Course Delivery

All of this is loaded into an LMS such as Desire2Learn. Students can log in at any time. The LMS will track and document their progress. In theory the course can be run on an as-needed basis but we will offer ours on a schedule. Why? So we can assign an instructor who can maintain the course pace, offer extra insight and respond to student questions.

So what does this mean for the instructor? Does it mean that we can build a system in which instructors are no longer necessary?

Let’s get real, shall we…

First let’s not forget for a second that learning is as much a social activity as it is an intellectual one. Most (yes, not all but still most) students want to feel as if they are a part of something; that their actions are noticed, even rewarded. If we leave the class instructorless it will not work; it’s like leaving a ship “captainless.” Sure it will float but it will get nowhere. In time, some students may finish but most will not, eventually choosing to just bail out.

The course will have an instructor. The duties we be these:

  • Respond promptly to student questions.
  • Post periodically to ensure that the pace is maintained.
  • Provide feedback in the form of grades and comments.
  • Continue to improve on the course content: develop better examples, provide more examples for students who need them, or, do the existing examples several times, using different language; different prompts, convert some of the presentation examples to interactive ones, update the assessment sets. The list is endless.


There. One case sort of closed. Not perfect, but then again not meant to be. It was, rather, meant to be serviceable and affordable. As such this was by no means the only way in which it could have been done. Alternatives include:

  • Making parts of the assignment such that they were scanned and submitted like the tests.
  • Making parts of the test objective using multiple choice items if valid items were found to exist (frankly I can’t really see that being the case for this course).
  • Using produced video instead of the method described.
  • Writing simulations in which the students interactively solve the equations. Mind you, this would be a major project and a significant cost item but maybe a worthwhile one if the budget permitted.
  • Adding some “gamified” elements to reward success or the completion of extra exercises or to enable group completion of items.
  • Adding a live tutorial component using synchronous tools such as Blackboard Collaborate.

With the last bullet stated it should also me noted that there’s really nothing stopping the math department from making a complete switch from using the lecture hall to, instead, moving the instructor to a Blackboard collaborate environment. Instead of going to the lecture theatre, students and instructors would just log in to Blackboard Collaborate and the instructor would do what (s)he has always done, as would the students.

All of this kind of makes you wonder why this is not already the case, doesn’t it? Let’s address that. Here are a few reasons:

  • Existing methods work very well and faculties do not have the resources to make wholesale shifts in short periods of time.
  • Not all faculty and students wish to do this. Not only is “Live” instruction something many, many students and instructors thrive on but also, the converse is very true: for those same individuals the quiet confines of the office or home is anathema to effective learning.
  • Audiovisual presentations can place a distance between the student and instructor, making both reluctant to interact with one another, even when absolutely necessary.

That said, think of the advantages: Students get more freedom regarding when they take classes. They also get to redo the examples when necessary. Finally, instructional quality is assured through a deliberate process. Instructors are also freed from the “routine” instruction tasks and are freer to deal with individual issues and, maybe, even have a bit more time for research.

ELTM10: The View from the Silo

Those of us involved in the eLearning world often have good reason to feel that we are sometimes marginalized. It makes little sense at one level—after all eLearning is supposed to be about finding innovative means for connecting people, isn’t it?

Well, sort of. It depends on just who you work with. For many, “belonging” is another way of saying “controlling” and this is just as true in education as it is anywhere else. For many of us, once we become part of an organization we soon find that it views us, as property; a resource to be exploited for its own ends.

Worse again, it may be the case that the organization views us as its exclusive property: we exist to serve it and it alone. “Nobody gets to talk to me without getting permission from ____ first” “No, I’m not allowed to attend the conference in ___. Only people classified as ____ or higher ever get to go. Besides, you need permission from ___ to get your trip request document signed and that’s not likely to happen.” “We have to save money and professional development is only important when we can afford it and when there’s lots of time to spare.”  Sound familiar? Just a bit, maybe?

Small wonder then that over time it feels more and more like we’re all working away in not just silos—no that wouldn’t be too bad; after all you can get radio inside the walls of a silo or a prison—no, worse than that. We fell like we are surrounded by some sort of ethereal Faraday Cage; one that blocks all signals from the outside world. Alone in our little hovels and surrounded by mountains of work, far too high to climb any time in the near future, we continue to toil away as best we can, basically unsupported and effectively alone. How ironic.

Hyperbols is a wonderful thing. Sometimes it takes stretching an impression way past the point of common sense to reveal its inaccuracy. The fact is that learning professionals are no more locked in silos than are, say, hockey players. Think about it, Hockey players could easily moan, “This is so depressing! Day after day all we do is play hockey. It seems that every working minute is spent either playing a game, preparing for or travelling to the next one. It’s as if my employers think that the most important thing for me to do is to play hockey. I need to spend some extra time in expanding my horizons, thinking about the future of the whole enterprise.

See—silly, right?

We can swing from one extreme to the other but, as is often the case, the truth is somewhere in between. Of course, like any other professional, those involved in eLearning sometimes feel a little boxed in! But is it really so bad? Perhaps it would be useful to take a more detailed look at some of the causes and possible solutions.

Let’s revisit the essential questions raised here: Why should professionals feel isolated just because their workloads and organization’s travel policies prevent them from meeting face-to-face with colleagues? Doesn’t that suggest that eLearning doesn’t work? If eLearning professionals can’t use the online tools to create a sense of community then isn’t it hypocritical to suggest that anyone else can?

Well, no, not exactly. Let’s have a look.

1. It’s hard to get past the useless “perky” crap. A lot of what passes for online professional communities of practice is, in reality, sponsored activity put off by developers and vendors, and specifically intended as part of their overall strategy for corralling clients. Online users’ conferences are particularly annoying. Led by a combination of company reps and some over-exuberant evangelical users the overall atmosphere is decidedly creepy; cult-like to those who wish to tackle real problems while keeping an open mind about the real limitations that exist for the product in question.

It’s easy to become cynical, expecting every found opportunity for growth and professional development to be, in the end, just a cleverly sales pitch. In truth, though, there are numerous online organizations and resources available for those who wish to participate and grow professionally. While I do not wish to endorse any particular group I can tell you that if you do a web search using either “associations for eLearning” or “associations for technology in education” you will find, besides the junk and ads, some truly useful hits, including the already-mentioned AECT.

2. Sometimes you need to know you’re off the record. Tackling real problems requires a high degree of frankness. The issues and constraints need to be accurately represented; not glossed over. Sometimes what needs to be said is not “nice” and people not intended to hear it—because it involves something they are emotionally attached to, even though they have no business dealing with the matter in question—may feel offended if they do. Those same people may then interfere in matters they have no business dealing with. People therefore need some assurance that what they say will not be repeated, inaccurately or out of context elsewhere. The online environment virtually guarantees the opposite.

This does not mean that it’s impossible, though. It’s just a bit harder. Overall it is probably best to remember that one should never regard any exchange as being completely off the record and, therefore, speak, and act responsibly at all times. While frankness is generally an admirable trait, so too, is sensitivity. In particular, regardless of the communications medium, if something potentially damaging needs to be said it is best to ensure that  it is done in a way that ensures that the conversation is based in fact and sticks solely to the issue at hand.

3. Trust is essential and it’s hard to have it in a world ruled by anonymity. In keeping with what was just noted, an effective community of practice requires a high degree of trust and it takes a lot of time to create this. One can hardly expect the more-or-less anonymous crowd that attends online events (whether synchronously or asynchronously) to just assume that everyone else can be trusted. That would be stupid! “Don’t be foolish,” you say, “The same is true of the face-to-face environment!” No. First, with face to face you get to use all of the senses to help guide your actions whereas online it’s often limited to what you can read and perhaps hear. “But what about Videoconference?” you ask, “Haven’t you heard of it you old fogey. We’re modern. We use Skype!” Well, yes, I have; been using it—and better systems than Skype—for almost 25 years. Yes, video does bring in some of the body language. It’s certainly much better than telephone. That said, consumer-level video is still a bit sketchy since no QOS (quality of service) measures are put on the data packets. As a result, video is often of poor quality, marked by poor frame rates, jittery motion and frequently dropped/interrupted audio streams. The so-called “webcams” still leave a lot to be desired too, especially when the video needs to show more than a talking head.

Of course commercial grade videoconference is still great if you can afford it and it has to be said that things are improving lately. Microsoft’s Lync 2013, for example, is particularly nice.

Regardless of the technology, in the end, trust is something that needs to be earned and if any ongoing process demands it then all participants need to be cognizant of the fact that the allotted time may need to be revised so as to ensure that the participants have the opportunity to develop it to the required degree. While, yes, the face to face environment is such that shortcuts are often possible the fact remains that most processes are not necessarily urgent and, so rather than concentrating the exchange into a risky (as far as trust is concerned) 2 to 3 day face to face affair, one can instead spread the process over much more time, but divided into many bits sized chunks handled online, thus allowing all parties the opportunity to suitably examine each chunk on its own terms.

4. When you’re online you’re still “on the clock.” It’s virtually impossible to focus on anything other than your immediate, urgent work when you are at work! One of the issues related to being an eLearning professional is the incredible number of ways that colleagues and work in general, can still get to you. When you’re at your desk you can be emailed, IM’d in a million ways, Skyped (or any of the alternatives) and, of course, people can drop by unannounced. That’s on top of the fact that you also are in the middle of numerous self-directed workflows anyway. How can you be expected to concentrate on an online session?

OK, let’s be realistic. You can, of course, focus attention on the online session. You budget the time the same as you do with everything else that’s important. That said, as a long-time attendee of these sessions, both as presenter and recipient I can assure you, though, that the majority of the participants are only half-paying attention. They’re doing a million other things while “participating!” Online activities tend to be dealt to the bottom of the importance deck and one if left with the realization that if you instead attended short a session face to face you could leave all the distractions behind.

But wait—what about all those annoying people who bring their mobiles to face-to-face sessions? They’re not hard to spot—they are the ones who seem to spend the whole time staring down at their crotches, thinking nobody else notices that they’re out of it. In truth, they are no more engaged face to face then they would have been if the session were online.

So what can be done about this? Perhaps the best advice is to choose wisely what online events you wish to attend. Face it: if you can’t adequately focus your attention on the event then you should consider the alternatives, unless you really do have piles of time to waste. Do you really need to attend at all? Can you ask someone else to do it? Can you reschedule? If the answer to these is “no” then the course of action is quite clear.

5. What you need to work on may not be on the organization’s overt agenda. Participation in professional communities, whether virtual or face to face, is very much at your employer’s discretion. Sure, a lot of the events are held in asynchronous time and you can participate during your own time but a lot of the events are also synchronous, and held during work time. As such, you need your employer’s cooperation in order to attend, even if it’s to move your lunch hour. Getting this permission may not necessarily be all that easy, especially if the topics are not obviously in line with the overall short term plan for your organization, even if they do contribute to long term goals.

If this is the case then there are two clear alternatives. You could discuss the matter internally and explain how you feel there is an indirect benefit to be obtained from your attendance and participation. If this fails or for, for any other reason, is not a good idea then you generally have the ability of making this work something that you do in your own time, after all.

Next: There are so many things—let’s call them “considerations” for lack of a better term—that we must face, day after day. Let’s consider a few starting with exploring who’s really at the reins.

ELTM9: Causes for Encouragement & a Clarification

In two previous posts it was noted that what is marketed as Educational Technology is not necessarily useful. Some technology is marketed before either it or the system is ready and some products are just not of much use anyway.

To say, though, that technology has no place in classrooms is to completely misunderstand the term, perhaps limiting it to something simple and mysterious as, “that computer over there.” It’s a shame, really, because technology transcends the electronic gadgets that have become so ubiquitous today. Some examples:

  • Writing on paper, using devices such as charcoal, pens or pencils.
  • Displaying information for many to see, using devices such as chaulk/whiteboards and overhead transparencies and, of course, interactive whiteboards.
  • Encouraging flexible learning environments through the use of furniture that can be used in individual or group settings.

See—it’s not just about running software on desktop personal computers. The whole idea of technology in the classroom is much broader than many people realize.

All warnings aside, then, the number of types of useful technology that exist is nothing short of astounding. The image below shows just a snippet. Have a peek and see how many you can identify.

Some examples of useful Educational Technologies.

Notice, on second look, the images can be classified into three types (and, yes, many of the images belong in more than one of the classes).

  • Devices: For example, PC’s, mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets, Interactive Whiteboards (IWBs), simulation dummies, laboratory interfaces, graphing calculators & computer algebra systems, computer numerical control (CNC) machines and classroom PA’s.
  • Ideas: For example, office applications such as word processors & spreadsheets, audio and video creation, simulations, graphical and numerical analysis, games and online testing.
  • Paradigms: For example, presenting ideas through multimedia, gaming, digital design and fabrication, interfacing and exploration of concepts through simulation.

Education technology, then, exists in many forms. But there’s more to it than just that; much more.

How often do we toss words around, just assuming that others will instinctively glean the same meaning and intent as we do? Too bad that’s often not the case. Words may have one meaning for one individual and another for someone else. Sometimes this can be funny—but in a way that is somewhat irritating. Examples might include the casual use of these words, especially when you are trying to be a bit serious: control, confidence, power, recent, sensitivity and significant. Think about it for a second—each one of these words has two different meanings and picking the wrong one can totally wreck the message you might be trying to send!

So, too, with “technology.” It is a word that is at once familiar, yet also somewhat vague in that it can have no less than three separate, related, but still distinct interpretations

So what is technology? Most people offhandedly associate the word with Personal Computers. Not too long ago (at least it seems that way—it was in fact almost two decades ago) I was involved in a mathematics project in which the phrase “the use of technology” was spread all through the associated curriculum documentation. The authors were trying to be a bit inclusive and therefore combined scientific calculators, graphing calculators and personal computers into one phrase. I therefore chuckled quite a lot when my friend Alex explained to me one day that “Art Technology” was not just the use of things like Photoshop software for retouching photos, as many are led to believe. It also included the use of such things as brushes, paints, charcoals, papers, canvas, and photographic equipment of all kinds and so on. The thought of me having to explain that technology in mathematics education also truly includes the use of paper and pencil as well as chaulk on a board (and, yes, it really does; why not!) to some young whippersnappers still makes me smile.

But I digress.

When you think about it, it’s very limiting to just associate “technology” with PCs. After all, not so long ago, Internal Combustion Engines and Hydraulic Systems were considered the epitome of technology! Before that, devices based on steam were the kings. Before that, wind and animal power ruled. Before even that the use of tools made of iron, bronze, bone and stone was the thing. Al of it, in its time was technology!

And notice the phrase, “the use of,” instead of just naming the tool. Already we see a diversion here in meaning: is it objects (tools) or is it the associate practice?

So there’s even more to consider. We also know but don’t consciously realize that the term technology extends far beyond the physical artifacts to include both the ideas they represent and the body of practice that deals with their production and use. So what will we do: pick one or two or try to come up with something that includes all three components?

Fortunately we don’t have to reach too far to find a suitable definition for the word “technology” as it is used in the educational sense. The Association for Educational and Communications technology (AECT) has done the work for us:

“Educational technology is the study and ethical practice of facilitating learning and improving performance by creating, using, and managing appropriate technological processes and resources.”
–AECT definition (Januszewski & Molenda, 2008)

Notice how this concise definition includes the what (study/practice creation/use process/equipment) and the why (better achievement).

Too often the focus is only on the equipment itself. That’s fair enough when you realize that physical objects are easy to understand and procure—assuming you secure the budgets—and have the added benefit of easily leading to quantifiable defenses of improvements that can be made. Unfortunately, though, mere access to equipment—assuming it is useful—is no guarantee of any meaningful change for the better.

Next: We will explore that a bit later on. Let’s move now to see the view from inside the silo.

ELTM8: It’s Not All Good; Be Careful

“This new technology is going to revolutionize education. Recent research has shown that classrooms in which out shiny gizmo was deployed significantly outperform those in the rest of their district. So, don’t settle for mediocrity. Join the legions of progressive administrators who insist that the district acquire gizmos for all of the classrooms. After all this is about the future of our children.”

Right. Guess who paid for that research. Notice that “significant” is neither quantified nor defined. Do you suppose that the school in question was a high performing one anyway? Are you really foolish enough to join the bandwagon…just because? Oh, and it’s not about the future of the children but, rather, about the fortunes of the stockholders, isn’t it?

Let’s be blunt: Educational technologies have had many failures. Hordes of items have come and gone. Some have been total wastes of time, products foisted upon a somewhat naive audience by cunning, aggressive and well-connected sales organizations; products that came with great promise of improvement but which left little by way of returns other than disillusioned users, cynical publics and depleted budgets.

Still others failed for reasons that were much more complex. Perhaps the concept was sound but hardware speeds were not sufficient and the result was sluggish, hard-to-use, and unreliable. Perhaps insufficient training was given and, so, users never got the opportunity to fully realize the benefits.

Perhaps, as is sometimes the case, the world was just not ready.

Take a look at the image below and see how many “things” you recognize. Look closely, though, at the image map. The items have several things in common, including the fact that all were carefully designed and were introduced to their various markets with a sense that they would have a significant impact. You will probably recognize many of them but if not, go ahead and hover (if you are using a PC; it won’t work for a ‘phone or tablet) to get the name or click on any image to obtain some background info. (As an aside here, heartfelt thanks go out to the developers of the image map HTML generator housed over on mobilefish; getting it done on WordPress would have been wretchedly complicated.) 

click map

Apple Newton Skinner's Teaching Machine Betamax Microsoft Bob IBM PC Jr. OS/2 QR Code Laser Disc Apple Lisa Pressey Machine

Here’s the big thing they all have in common: they were economic and educational failures. Despite good–in some cases brilliant–designs and well-organized marketing strategies none of them proved to be successful in the marketplace. Of course many of them—most notably Apple’s Lisa and Newton—ultimately proved to be the inspiration for hugely successful and useful products (the Mac and tablets, respectively) but that’s not the point right now.

What, exactly is the point? This: Corporations know that education comprises a huge market and they therefore expend enormous resources in marketing what they term “Educational Technology” in the forms of products and services to all facets of the education market. While many of the products are truly useful it’s important to be wary of the fact that many of the items are based on two flawed strategies:

  • Technologies intended for one purpose can be modified and can be shown to be of some benefit elsewhere. Examples: (good) word processors intended for business can be shown to be effective as classroom writing tools too (questionable) classroom audio systems intended for use with hard-of-hearing students, or for teachers with relevant health issues, are marketed to all classrooms because it ‘saves the teacher’s voice.’ There’s also just plain dumb. Remember “thin client” computers for the classroom, at a time when networks just could not handle the load?
  • Invented Applications. For example, commercial classroom TV that includes targeted ads is supposed to be, at least according to its vendors, a “must have,” else students won’t have access to quality video. Yeah, right. Ever hear of the Internet?

To the casual observer this may seem laughable, ludicrous even. The humour is lost, however on those of us who have had to suffer the consequences of it. Not only are bad decisions regarding educational technology wasteful but also they are frustrating to the users. Worse again, the time spent mucking around trying to make them work has a deleterious effect on morale and on achievement. How ironic.

So what’s the solution? For once the answer is fairly straightforward and in two parts:

First, remember it’s never about the technology. It is, rather, about the learning outcomes. Always focus on those and the right equipment and methods are much easier to spot.

Second, follow transparency guidelines. DO NOT allow the decision making and purchasing power to rest more or less in secret with a single individual or even with a small, closed group. Encourage discussion and debate prior to decision making.  Ensure that proper requests for proposals or tenders are used to procure equipment. In this way, enough voices (especially the dissenting ones who often ask the right questions) will be heard to ensure that the best possible choices are made.

You’ll get more on this later in the series.

Next: Hey, this series, while striving for balance and truth, is predicated on the notion that Educational Technology is generally a positive thing. Now that you’ve been warned, again, that it’s not all good (you were warned before), let’s move on to more positive things.

ELTM7: Applying Kuhn to Technology Adoption

In a previous post it was noted that technological innovation is often welcome. Despite the existence of supportive evidence the profession, as a whole, is frequently reluctant to embrace in a meaningful way new ideas; new methods

What sense can be made from this? If understanding is one goal, take some comfort in the fact that it all seems to play out in a manner described, over fifty years ago, by Thomas Kuhn in his small but influential book, “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.” Science, it seems, is not really the logical, rational march in search of truth and reality that you may have been led to believe. In the book Kuhn (among a great many others things) describes two sorts of science: Normal Science in which the practitioners flesh out the existing body of knowledge under a well understood set of practices or paradigm and revolutionary science in which a whole-new set of practices and assumptions is adopted.

Kuhn points out that, despite the public image of logic and reason that science tends to have, the process is also home to all of the distinctly human traits that mark most of society’s endeavours. Perhaps, for our purposes here one of the most distinct features to consider is the extreme tenacity with which people hold to their established beliefs and patterns of behavior. In science, during periods of upheaval, the “old guard,” with a lifetime invested in it, tends to stubbornly defend the previous paradigm (a word that is generally taken to mean the accepted way of getting things done) and it is generally only when a sufficient number of younger practitioners—adherents to the new paradigm—become respected and established that widespread acceptance is acknowledged. Of course not everyone buys in. It is often the case that the more vocal disciples of the old paradigm have to die off before the voices of dissent are muted.

As teachers, and in particular teachers of science, we see this too. Students come to us armed with so-called “commonsense,” and generally flawed, world-views. Easily dealt with, you say? Just show them “the truth” and it will be self-evident! Not so! The work of many, including the late Rosalind Driver during the 1980s, made it clear that merely demonstrating and presenting better concepts and world views tends not to effect meaningful change. In fact, even demonstrating the inconsistencies and flaws of the everyday conceptions tends not to work because people merely adopt a “two worlds” attitude. They, in effect, learn to see things through two different “lenses” as the situation warrants. One world view, the one they came to school with, is the one they continue to use interacting with the world outside of the classroom while the one we work so hard to develop in the classroom remains rooted firmly there, never put into play in any meaningful way.

So it is, then, with practitioners of all kinds. It is a small wonder, then,  that professionals will willingly attend product demonstrations and workshops but remain unaffected. They will come in, participate, learn, for example the ways in which to use, say Interactive Whiteboards (IWBs) but walk away unfazed; unchanged, secure in the knowledge that their existing methods are effective enough; that the effort required to adopt and adapt is just not worth the extra bother.

And it turns out that, while experience has shown that they are often completely, tragically wrong, they are often right. As surely as extra caution often kept our ancestors from being lunch to some hungry predator on the ancient Savannah, a sense of trepidation often pays off. That’s next.

ELTM6B: Displays for Large Classrooms

Note: This was not intended as a separate post but, rather, as a response to a comment on the previous one. As usual, I rambled and decided to just put it as a post instead of as a comment.

Regarding displays, you’you’ve got me thinking, now, especially the ones needed in large, post-secondary classrooms. Here’s my perspective:

The first 18 years of my teaching career my mainstay was the chaulkboard. All of the classrooms in my school had them right across the front. Around 20 feet wide and set around 3’ above the floor, then around 5.5 feet high or so, reaching pretty much as high as anyone could. I taught around 10-11 courses per year and used the board for each one. For its time it was effective but it was also very, very messy. Each evening I’d be so full of chaulk dust I could not even run a comb through my hair! Chaulk does not like hair! What’s more all my clothes would be completely dusty. If anyone patted my back, a huge  white cloud would rise! Besides, the yellowish-white chaulk did not make a good contrast with the green board and, as such, was often hard to read at any distance.

Then there were the overheads. I used them from time to time but didn’t really like it. I much preferred the broad expanse of the chaulkboard for much the same reasons as you mentioned but also because it kept me moving. I could, of course, prepare my overheads in advance but the students did not really like that—more in THAT in just a bit.

Ordinary whiteboards—the ones with the markers—were just coming on stream when I got seconded to the Department of Education. I didn’t use them much but did not like them anyway. First, they were far too stinky for most students. In any class I had there would be a student who found the smell a problem—allergies or asthma meant that using them was irresponsible. Second, though they were—and are—bloody hard to wipe. In k-12 you have to clean your own and, let me tell you, it’s very hard to do well. Then, of course, along came the water-based markers but they were still stinky and just as hard to clean. Oh, and then there’s that foul substance marketed as whiteboard cleaner. It’s nasty.

Now, in the midst of all of this I got seconded to the DOE to be one of the first two DE online teachers of physics. That was 1992 and, despite not having Internet, we still had a digital telewriter and audioconference. I wrote on my electronic tablet in St. Johns and my writing appeared on all of the 20” CRT displays in all of our remote sites. It worked. First I used to just write freehand but I that first year O took the time to prepare slides using a paint program (that was before PowerPoint) and we installed the on the hard drives of all of the remote computers. I thought it was going to be brilliant but, alas, the students thought otherwise. All of those students who had me the previous year asked me to go back to doing it the old way. The pre-done screens were too intimidating; too boring. I settled back and redid them all, meeting the students part way. The  new slides had diagrams (or partial diagrams if they were complex) and I would write in the solutions an derivations live. That worked well and, in fact, we continue to do much the same today. But that’s the online, virtual class and cannot be done in the large classrooms.

So, for those we still have chaulkboards and ordinary whiteboards.

But we also have most classrooms with projectors, screens and computers with PowerPoint. Instructors can show very nicely prepared slides to the students and they can follow along (or hop online). It’s okay but t suffers from the same issues my students warned me about back in 1993 when I tried it using slides done with paint software. They are boring and intimidating. I really don’t like them for anything but a formal “lecture.” For class I really don’t like this.

Then there’s Interactive Whiteboards (IWBs) such as Smartboards. They are clean, easy to use and erase. What’s more there are great simulations online, when needed. The software that ships with them is much better suited to classroom use than is PowerPoint. Besides, students love interacting with them. Unfortunately, they, too suffer from several major flaws. First, they are extremely expensive. A typical classroom setup will set you back around $7000 when you count in the board, computer and installation. Unbelievable! Let me do some quick math: $1200 for s decent ultra-short throw projector, $600 for a PC, $450 for installation (assuming 2 people, each for a half-day labour). The boards are mostly based on simple, resistive technology and, in truth, cost around $500 to make. Now, let’s add it up…let’s see, I get less than $3000 any way I look at it. You know, Dave, that means someone is pocketing around $4000 profit from each installation. Good Gravy!

But that’s not the only issue, the large ones around 8’ wide by 4’ high. That’s great for a HS classroom but minuscule by lecture theatre standards. No good for classes bigger than 40 if everyone is expected to actually view it. Now, that said, there’s another issue. IWBs work better when you let the students use them so we really need several in a classroom to make it work. There’s no way any educational institution can afford that.

I should note that I am coming at this from the perspective of HS and Post-Secondary. Let me also say this: any classroom below grade 9 that does not have at least one IWB can consider itself deprived. I should also admit that I would not want to teach in a HS classroom without one either.

As for large lecture theatres, though: forget it; too small.

OK then there’s the interactive Podium style of machines. These are large touchscreens that face the prof and which are mirrored on a MUCH larger display at the front of the room. They’re sort of like an IWB that uses a stylus. At my former work I had the chance to borrow one from the guys down in the shop for a few weeks as it was lying around for a while before they could get to install it. I spent quite a few hours experimenting with it and found it not bad. I could not get used to writing on the vertical screen bot found it tolerable when mounted more-or-less horizontally. There was one BIG problem, though, that I just could not get past.

In a class, when you are leading, students will tend to look where you are. You can have some real fun with this. Next time you are in a large class, just take 5 seconds to look intently at either one of the walls on the side or at the ceiling. Out of the corner of your eye, observe the class. You will find that the ones who are not shopping online or doing Facebook will be looking at exactly the spot on the wall or the ceiling that you are looking at. So this is fine with whiteboards, chaulkboards and such. Obviously you are looking at what you write and so are the students. With the stylus and touchscreen, though, you are looking at one place and expect the students to look at the big screen. This creates a permanent disconnect between you and your students that is very hard to get around.

Then, of course, there’s one more thing that does not really exist very well yet (yes, it can be done but it’s clumsy and hardly worth the bother at this point)—an IWB that automatically mirrors to tablets and laptops in the room. Yes, it can be made to work but, think about it (a) it suffers from the same problem as does the podium just discussed and (b) besides if you really wanted to run a class this way, why not make it a distance class, go get a license to use the very excellent Blackboard Collaborate software and just tell everyone to participate from home.

So there it is. Here we are, well into the 21st century and, at least in my opinion, there still does not exist an excellent display device that is well-suited for larger classrooms and lecture theatres.

ELTM6: A (Past) Career, Rife with Experiments

Most would say that, in the end, all that matters is what you did. The words you said, the promises you made, the intentions you had: all are irrelevant if there was no net change in the end-result; no improvement to validate your life’s efforts.

I am not one of those people. Yes, actions do matter but in the absence of explanation, of motive and, most importantly, of a clear sense of what’s desired; a collective vision, then how do we even know the desired destination? How are we to see what’s been done? How can we judge its effectiveness; its value? How can we possibly expect any system wide strides forward?

On August 30, 2013 I retired from 30 years of service to the public education system of this province and if I learned only one single lesson along the way, it is this: if the pursuit of education is to be truly successful then it cannot be the product of a collection of skillful individuals, each toiling away and bound by the administrative structures—whether real or imagined—within which they live. It needs, rather, to be a group effort; a cooperative venture fuelled by the right motivators and carried out by teams of highly skilled professionals, each lending their particular expertise in support of a mission that is greater than all of us. Yes, it requires putting our egos aside, rendering our selfish needs as secondary to those of others and venturing way out past our areas of comfort.

Educators are united by a common goal: the betterment of educational practice through the skillful utilization of the appropriate set of tools and methods. In some ways we live in a time of plenty. We certainly live in a time of great change. Over the past few decades we have seen the introduction of wondrous devices well adapted to the fields of communication and data management. Applications of that know-how to our field of education are many. What’s more, as the body of knowledge grows it transforms whole fields of practice. The view on the horizon is ever changing.

We also live in a time of great trepidation. There have been many false starts; many failures. What’s more, the risks and time investments associated with change are so great that many are seemingly unwilling to make even the first steps forward.

We have all witnessed it, many times.

In 1991 I was privileged to be able to attend one of the week-long workshops sponsored by the provincial DOE, under the direction of Wilbert Boone and facilitated by Frank Shapleigh. During a one-week period, at Gander, that summer I along with about 20 others was immersed in te practice of using digital interfacing technologies in the high school science lab. Our cohort assembled, from scratch, photogates and connection boxes then went on to use them to perform all sorts of mechanics labs such as studies of uniform and accelerated motion as well as to investigate things like Newton’s second Law of motion and the Impulse Momentum theorem. We also used store bought sensors to work with light, sound, temperature and pH.

To say the least, on a personal level, it was transformative. I returned to my school and immediately took steps to change my ways. That year I purchased and assembled five photogate kits and, in addition, led a fundraising drive which also purchased a multipurpose lab interface along with probes for motion, light, sound and temperature. In just one year my physics class was transformed forever, as was my math class due to the fact that I was also able to get my hands on a whole bunch of TI graphing calculators, but that’s another story.

Not only did the labs give great results and enable students to do things they could not even dream of doing otherwise but they were also enjoyable as they gave you the opportunity to get god data and to further investigate what-ifs. While I enjoyed the labs on motion and on Newton’s Laws, I particularly enjoyed the one in which we measured the speed of sound.

It worked like this: You got some plastic pipe between 1.5 m and 2 metres long and closed off one end. You put a microphone at the open end and set the interface to display the sound waves it picked up onscreen. It looked like the picture below.

Apparatus for measuring the speed of sound. Note the microphone mounted on the lab stand, located just left of the plastic pipe.
Apparatus for measuring the speed of sound. Note the microphone mounted on the lab stand, located just left of the plastic pipe.

You set the system to only take one sweep and also set it so it would only start—be triggered—by a loud noise. You then put your hand by the mike and snapped your fingers. The snap triggered the system; turned it on. The computer would then display the wave form that was your finger-snap on the screen. It also displayed, just a short time later, the sound of the echo of your snap from the closed-off end of the pipe. It looked like the picture below.

The resulting graph. Note the three sets of bumps. The first is the snap, the second is the echo from the back of the pipe. The third is a secondary echo from one of the walls in the room.

You then took two measurements: the time difference from any part on the waveform for the snap and the corresponding part on the reflected waveform. This was the time needed for the sound to travel from the mike to the back of the pipe and back again. You then carefully measured the distance from the mike to the back of the pipe. Twice this distance—the round trip—was the distance covered. Since the speed of sound equals the distance divided by the time you could then calculate, accurately, the speed of sound.

For the apparatus and the images shown, from my own notes, I got 325 m/s on a day when the room temperature was 25 degrees C. That’s quite a good figure!

It never stopped. In my subsequent service in distance education I was able to continue using the interfacing technology in the physics labs. Even today the CDLI, the organization from which I recently retired, continues to use that technology in its ongoing support of labs in physics, chemistry and biology.

But it was not the case for everyone who attended. I recall in particular overhearing two colleagues from a different institution discussing this new technology. It’s nice, they agreed, but they wouldn’t be integrating it into their classes. They judged it important that students still use stopwatches and ticker timers and continue to construct graphs and tables using pencil and paper.

They were also wrong. It took over a decade but, in time, as those colleagues departed their replacements did whole-heartedly adopt and champion the new methodology.

It’s not easy, though and people can’t be expected to do it unless (1) they are encouraged and supported and (2) they do it for the right reasons. Even then there are no guarantees.

Next: Making Sense of this

ELTM5C: Games-Fixing Reality

In Part 3 of “Reality is Broken” Jane Mcgonigal describes games in which large groups of people are working collaboratively to solve some of the world’s largest problems. Another four fixes are outlined.

11. Build a sustainable engagement economy The ordinary work of getting on with society requires the existence of a large number of collaborative organizations, most of which rely on the services of volunteers. Competition for person hours is fierce. There are a lot of organizations chasing after volunteers. People are busy though and requests for assistance are not welcome. Playing the “guilt” or “duty” cards is ineffective. How, then, to get the work done?

Compensation? It’s just not effective for encouraging people to sustain work for which pay is not normally expected. Once pay is given that becomes the norm; it’s then expected as a matter of course, regardless of how appropriate this may be. The fact remains that there are many tasks in society for which pay is not normally given—and furthermore that’s probably the way it should be. The challenge, then, is to find ways to get people to participate anyway.

So, how about introducing elements of gaming into the picture?

Here’s an example: The Newspaper “The Guardian” obtained access to hundreds of thousands of filed expense claims and found itself unable to make sense of them in the time required. As a response it devised a gamified, crowd-sourced procedure in which citizens were able to assist in the required analysis. A significant number of irregularities were uncovered.

Consider Wikipedia as a participatory game: It is successful for several reasons: It has a Good (a) game world; Large and many sided (b) game mechanics system (c) Feedback and rewards (d) game community (e) Interaction and conflict resolution. Due, possibly, to all of this the Wikipedia project has been massively successful. It is enormous in size and, as time goes on, the credibility of its information is growing.

Now consider the online game World of Warcraft (WOW), an online game played—often obsessively—by millions of players. Potentially Wikipedia could have been built by the WOW community in 3-4 days if the players had been able to direct their energies to it.

After all, if gamers are so anxious to be engaged them why not channel their efforts to real-world projects?

There are already some examples of this, albeit at a smaller scale. For example, in the project Folding at Home, the participants share the effort required to investigate complex protein shapes.

One wonders though, about the validity of this line of reasoning. After all, much of the work that is required in this world does not lend itself to a gamified environment. Take the case of elected school (or health care) boards. To them is entrusted the proper governance of a whole school district. How acceptable would it be to add game elements to the processes of setting school priorities, deciding which schools to close and debating educational policy? Somehow the word ‘game’ just plain trivializes a deadly serious pursuit.

Additionally, it seems trite to say that WOW gamers could have built Wikipedia. Take a glance through several articles. It is not hard to see the care and dedication with which most of the articles were prepared. Contrary to what some think, the articles are of generally good quality—and getting better. I’d be lost without it. To just assume that a group of people, with nothing more in common than a love of online entertainment, would actively take an interest in this is to seriously misunderstand humanity. We all have our interests. For many, yes, it is in working at intellectual/professional pursuits for the betterment of society. For many, though, just everyday survival is about all that can be managed and a welcome, relaxing release of frustration might be all that separates them from despair.

I brought son#1 to work at 7am, after folding a load of laundry and washing a load of towels. Went to work where, in addition to working on numerical analysis of this year’s various performance indicators I helped untangle a developing HR situation, responded to several public requests for information, visited the Registrar’s office for forms for son#2, did a job for OH during lunch, met with several colleagues, picked up sons 1 and 2 after work, prepared supper and, of course, cleaned up afterwards then folded that load of wash from earlier this morning. I figure I’ve done my share. I have nothing to give now and am just writing a bit; my therapy. Heading out to pick up OH from work at 10. Save the world? Not today.

12. More epic wins. Our world is facing many large-scale issues including: hunger, climate change, economic crises. These require equally large scale action for which mission support is vital. Social participation games such as Groundcrew and Lost Joules are examples of how this can be done. Assuming that people are willing to put the time in, some of this just might work. But who does the work?

13. Ten Thousand Hours Collaborating Perhaps you’ve read “Outliers?”  In that bestselling work, author Malcolm Gladwell did a lot to make popular the idea, based in large part on work by Anders Ericsson, that mastery of skills generally comes after significant (ten-thousand hours is a popular way of saying it) practice. Young gamers spend huge periods of time; certainly enough to qualify most them as masters at…something besides twiddling thumbs and fingers on game controllers. Because modern games are collaborative it’s to be expected that today’s young people can be especially good collaborators, likely having spent those magical 10,000 hours at it by age 21.

Of course, the skeptic can’t help but present a few pertinent items:

  • Is it valid to state that “collaboration” is a skill in the same sense as is, say, playing a musical instrument or playing a particular position in hockey?
  • Data set of one: I suck at softball and I am pretty sure I have spent my 10,000 hours at it. At least it feels like it. Just kidding—sort of.

Besides the time spent by the participants, today’s games offer an excellent platform for collaboration. Consider Little Big Planet where players join with up to four others and get to explore the world, virtually, together.

Still, one wonders, if this will translate. Just because you play well with others in a gaming environment it’s not necessarily the case they you’ll play nicely elsewhere, is it?

“Emergensight” is the ability to thrive in a chaotic environment. Effective collaborators apparently have this in droves, adept, as they are, in complex fast-moving environments. That said, as far as I can see there’s no telling whether there is a causal connection and, if so, in which directions(s) the effect works.

Much of rationale behind what’s stated in the book is based on the findings of Positive Psychology.  Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterson, for example, in “Character Strengths and Virtues” delineated 24 categories down into six categories:

  • Wisdom & knowledge
  • Courage
  • Humanity
  • Justice
  • Temperance
  • Transcendence

Several well-designed games including Lost Ring take advantage of this by building in characters that exemplify each of these categories.

I have to admit to having something of an overriding bias toward what I shall term “Classical Psychology”—you know, the one most people refer to when they drop the term “Psychology.” Think about it for a minute: classical psychology is somewhat “negative” in nature, tending to dwell on and study those traits that are generally unwanted or the absence of desired characteristics. By contrast, Positive Psychology strives to do more-or-less the opposite; to study strengths and desired characteristics.

It’s just…well…

At this stage the field of Positive Psychology is not developed well enough to satisfy the huge skeptic that lurks within me. Yes, it’s true that many bright, skilled people have devoted significant amounts of time researching the field; fleshing it out. Classical psychology, though, for all its flaws has at least a 100 year head start. As such it’s easier to find platforms on which people more-or-less agree, all wrapped up there in DSM4 and DSM5. Positive psychology is not there just yet.

Please do not misunderstand; this not, in any way, an attempt to slight that emerging field. It is, though, an effort to remind…myself, if nobody else…that positive psychology has a way to go before it can produce so trustworthy a document as the Diagnosis and Statistical Manual. Yes, THEY are pretty controversial documents; it’s been fun following the proceedings that led to DS5. Here’s a fascinating glimpse into that. It’s just that we know or at least can access the debate and data that left us with them. As for Positive Psychology—while there’s no doubt (at least in my mind) that it contains quite a large amount of value, I’m pretty much equally sure that it’s still in need of lot more refinement.

14. Massively Multiplayer foresight is something that happens when a sufficient number of good people turn their attention to a problem.

World Without Oil was a massive online thought experiment/game in which contributors supplied “what if’s” as they considered our future in the absence of easily available petro-energy. The game was played by around 9000 individuals over 32 days, representing 32 weeks of progress through that scenario. It was found that, at first, many of the contributions were rather dark in nature but as the game wore on, the players shifted and instead began supplying potential solutions to the problems that had been uncovered.

They became SEHI’s (Super Empowered Hopeful Individuals); players on a more global playing-out of gaming environments.

The term Superstruct was coined to represent the act of extending on existing structures, not to enlarge them, but instead to take them off in new directions. This requites individuals who are empowered to collaborate at more extreme scales. The Institute for the Future produces annual ten-year forecasts. The first superstruct was built to help produce one of its ten-year forecasts. Players were expected to move in new, novel directions while still having a clear goal in mind. Players were tasked with tackling these five “super threats;”

  • Disease and other threats to health
  • Hunger
  • Moving to sustainable energy
  • Security, both personal and organizational
  • The need for government dedicated to a sustainable way of life

Overall, approximately 9000 participants contributed ideas and information in an effort to “Vanquish” these threats for the year 2019.

From this, other superstructs have emerged including ones dedicated to:

  • Producing wearable energy producing devices.
  • Providing people with low cost access to seeds
  • Organizing humanitarian efforts in places difficult to service.

Evoke, a new game to assist young people in mobilizing to positively changing the world, was designed to be played on just about any type of electronic equipment, including low-powered, low-bandwidth devices that are often all that are available in third-world regions. Early results seem to be encouraging. Visit the site–it’s intriguing, to say the least.

I’m tired.

Reading “Reality is Broken” was a stimulating exploration of how the things that make games great could potentially also make our world a better place. It was not just thoughtful; it was well-written. The author is a gifted storyteller who skillfully weaves interesting, relevant exemplars all through the main ideas. What’s more the ideas and the terms are fresh—at least to me; a breath of clean air wafting through my poor dusty mind.

But, yes, I’m tired. After making my way through this worthwhile read I’m still left somewhat unmoved. Yes, games are fun, powerful and most importantly effective in getting people to act.

But they’re still games.

And life is not always a game.

Not to me, at least.

Think about it—there’s a line between “applying principles of psychology to influence others to perform necessary tasks efficiently and well” and “manipulating others so that they do what you want them to do.” The most important point of distinction between the two is the issue of deciding just what it is we want others to do. We don’t need to just get clever and sly at manipulating people.

In developed countries governments, of all types, rely on the messy process of advanced democracy to help with the decision making: committees, public debates, white papers—that sort of thing. Larger corporations utilize much of this but usually have to layer in an added focus on profits. Individuals and smaller enterprises? Well, they essentially follow their own rules. Sometimes the actions are informed by a well-developed structure of ethics and responsibility. Sometimes not.

The thing, then, is to keep a close eye on what we do. “Making a game out of it” can be a very positive thing for all who decide to participate but the experience must be appropriate. Care should be taken that choice is always available. Game dynamics are certainly powerful for many, but not all. They’re also insidious. It could easily become the case that the game becomes the thing and attention comes off that which the game was supposed to accomplish.

I’ll freely admit to perhaps being too old for much of this. Games don’t have the effect on me that they have on today’s typical electronic gamer (who’s more likely a 20 or 30 something. I’m nowhere there.) I’ll also admit to preferring other things (music, reading, writing, being a generally non-gaming geek yes that’s possible) to games—and that’s just a personal thing. But, I don’t dislike games. I play all types in moderation. I do other things too.

My teaching specialties are mathematics and physics. They’re generally hard to teach and hard to learn. Please don’t believe the total bullshit from those who would like you to believe they are easy. If, after all, they were easy then there’d be no need for people like me. Those who insist otherwise are either just “touching the tops of the trees” or are outright lying to you. Come on!

Hard yes, but I don’t HAVE to use game-based tools and strategies to build learning activities  to get them done. I don’t have to, but sometimes I will. Maybe even ‘frequently.’ Like all educators I have a full toolbox. Just as you don’t just use a hammer to build a house, you also don’t try to teach with just one method. You bring in the right tool to do the job. Sometimes you even get to choose between several.

And at those times, learning situations infused with game-based elements might be just the thing.