If you want to use what you learn, and even improve on it, play may be the best way to learn.
From the fall of 2010 to spring 2012, I coordinated a study of an after-school program where 1st to 5th graders learned to play computer games with visiting university undergraduates. In the beginning they played an “educational” game designed to lead players toward some of the standard goals of the school curriculum in math, science, and literacy. But after a long day at school, these kids were more interested in playing than learning, and so they taught us a thing or two about what learning looks like when you put play first.
The original game we all played together was Quest Atlantis, which is a very thoughtfully designed educational game that includes elements of fantasy worlds and moral choices as well as quests and missions oriented to school knowledge. It worked well enough in the beginning, but most of our kids were younger than it was designed for. The undergraduates helped them with reading beyond their level, but soon enough the kids were teaching them how to play the game – the fun way! Which meant a lot more exploration of the game’s rich fantasy worlds, and playing chase and hide-and-seek in them, and a lot less completing of the official missions.
Seeing that the kids wanted more freedom to create and play on their own terms, we had the game designers add an empty world, just grass and distant mountains, that the kids proceeded to fill up with their fantasy houses, buildings, people, and stories. They learned a lot about creating a virtual world, but the real point of the world was (1) it was theirs, and (2) it was a place to play.
By the start of the second year, we knew the kids wanted to play a wider range of games, and we allowed a screened selection of commercial games that also had good opportunities for learning along the way. In World of Goo, Minecraft, Portal, and Flight Simulator the kids again put play first, but also couldn’t help learning about structural engineering, strategy and defense, three-dimensional orientation in space, and the basics of flight. Gameplay was an extension of playing with their friends, old and new, younger and older. Kids taught kids the tricks of the games, and kids taught newly arriving undergraduates as well. They had a chance to be the leaders and teachers, but it was always about the fun of playing together.
What it is about play that Nature has discovered with kittens and puppies, monkeys and people? Why do we enjoy it so much? What benefit is so important that Nature builds play into our make-up through the feeling of enjoyment and pleasure we take in it? Play is not just about the fun we have. It’s also about the freedom to explore possibilities, to break rules and make new ones, to try things out in different ways. Learning something is of no use if you can’t figure out how to apply it flexibly in new situations. Playful learning makes sure that everything you learn is learned along with a range of variations and alternative possibilities, and with a desire to feel free to try out new ones. Playful learning is the foundation for practical use and for innovation and creative re-use of everything we learn through play. It’s not popular with the people who want to tell us exactly what we should learn because that’s the one right answer. But it sure is popular with kids, and maybe we should all learn the lesson they’re teaching us.
A more detailed discussion of this project and the role of emotions and play in learning is written up here.
MOOCs or Massively Open Online Courses are threatening, or promising, radical change in higher education. They need to be seen as one component of a new higher education ecology: a diverse system of complementary kinds of learning experiences.
What MOOCs offer are effective content delivery and global scale: well-designed lecture courses and assignments in place of mediocre ones, and tens or hundreds of thousands of simultaneous students instead of “merely” hundreds. They will also inevitably be available for free.
Universities are falling all over themselves and each other to be the first to put great MOOCs online and capture whatever brand-enhancement doing so will bring. New start-ups with different business models are offering online platforms for the new MOOCs, e.g. Coursera.org, EdX.org, and Udacity.com .
But all academics (perhaps those in the humanities moreso than those in the sciences) recognize that access to knowledge (think libraries) is not enough to enable education. Very bright and well-prepared students can go a long way by learning on their own, but most students need to interact with peers and mentors to get beyond the basics. All students benefit from discussions of ideas that raise critical perspectives and weigh alternative approaches to a topic. All students need some apprenticeship into the ways of thinking and feeling that characterize the great intellectual traditions of the natural and social sciences and the humanities. The higher goals of higher education require more than what MOOCs alone can provide.
What we need to know is this: What aspects of advanced learning can be readily scaled up for massive online audiences, and how? What more, in addition to MOOCs, is needed to make higher education work?
So far, I think we know this: In addition to online lectures and other resources, even modestly interactive ones, students need to participate in online discussions in mixed groups that include some minimum percentage of more able peers and mentors. No one knows what that critical percentage may be for various populations and learning domains. Current MOOCs are highly self-selective: those who enroll are often people who already have a college degree and students who find the going rough tend to drop out. To achieve the promise of global access to higher education, we need to know how to support the less well-prepared mass of potential students.
Once MOOCs are available that are superior at what they do to the average college lecture-style course, students will want and deserve credit for learning by MOOC. That will leave colleges and universities to provide, on campus, the other elements of a good education – those that come from thoughtful interaction with faculty and peers. So called hybrid or blended models mix learning from MOOCs with face-to-face learning, as we have always mixed learning from textbooks or lectures with smaller discussion classes. But universities will now have to do this without the revenue that has traditionally come from tuition paid for lecture courses and the credits they confer.
In this brave new world, the already over-priced 4-year degree will probably not survive. The American principle that students spend 2 years getting “well-rounded” and 2 years learning a major subject in depth makes much less sense when you can continue to get a broad general education throughout your life via MOOCs. General introductory lecture courses will be replaced by MOOCs in all fields. Students on campus will be expected to come into advanced courses already well prepared by MOOCs. This will play out differently in different fields, with scientific and technical fields giving up the most to MOOCs, and discussion-centered humanities courses or writing-improvement courses the least.
All of this is also going to put pressure on secondary education. MOOCs will erase the distinction between later secondary education and what is currently counted as early university education. Secondary schools are better equipped to do more of the small-scale preparatory work than they now do: teaching better reading and writing skills, initiating students into the art of productive discussion, supporting supervised hands-on and out-of-school experiences. Some MOOCs will be populated by a diverse mix of ages, from early teens to senior netizens. The role and structure of secondary education will change just as much as that of higher education, but in different ways.
I believe the key to making MOOCs work is to embed them in a broader learning ecosystem. MOOCs already include provision for online discussion groups, but these will only work if we find ways to scale-up the numbers of participating mentors and better-prepared peers and maintain optimal ratios. In addition to online experience, students will also need, especially early in their encounters with new disciplinary ways of thinking, face-to-face, hands-on, and real-world experiences and support for integrating these with what they are learning online.
I want to believe that MOOCs will drive higher education uphill toward the higher goals for which it was originally envisioned.
For more thoughts on related issues, see my blog entry “Re-Engineering Higher Education” below and these short essay drafts.
We need Spaces where we can envision better futures together, and new kinds of ChangeMedia to share our visions and help make them real.
Following on from my previous post here about Innovation Research, I want to present two ideas I have been developing together with Dr. Caspar van Helden in Amsterdam. Inspired by YouTube's creation of two new open-access video-production Spaces in Los Angeles and London, and his own research on engagement with popular culture and social networking, he's developing a broader concept of Envisioning Spaces, where young people and community members can come together with each other and with researchers, designers and design students, artists and others to create concrete presentations of their visions for better futures.
At the same time, Gabe Harp (@ Institute for the Future) pointed us to two videos that do present visions of the near-term future. One is a thoughtful animation about changes in how people can educate themselves for a career, the other is a slick professional video about near-future technologies:
http://youtu.be/8btSVA-3SsE (SocialStructing Higher Education, Institute for the Future, 2011)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a6cNdhOKwi0 (Productivity Future Vision, Microsoft, 2011)
But they are both missing something: links to resources that people can use to take concrete steps toward realizing these visions in practice. This is what I mean by ChangeMedia -- both a concrete vision for a better near-term future AND embedded connections to resources for achieving it.
Those resources might include research and evidence about the need for change, to help persuade others; examples of concrete actions we can take to promote change toward this future; alternative, similar visions from different stakeholder viewpoints, etc. They might also include more detailed blueprints for change which lay out the interrelations between various elements of relevant complex systems, indications of the order in which steps toward change would need to be taken, likely obstacles, and sources of further relevant information.
Sometimes an initial concrete vision for change comes from a single individual, sometimes from a group or organization, but effective ChangeMedia need to show how visions for change also vary across stakeholders and people who have different relations to the kind of future envisioned. For a complex social system to change from within, there need to be contributions from people in many roles and re-alignments of alliances and commitments. ChangeMedia need to help people interested in change understand the kinds of processes that lead to change, as specifically as possible for the particular cluster of future visions being presented. This is why Caspar's concept for Envisioning Spaces provides just the right site for creating ChangeMedia.
Leading Design Schools are already working toward approaches to Social Design (of better services, better neighborhoods) and to applying the methods of Design Research and Design Education to helping us make our lives better.
ChangeMedia ultimately need to be open to additions and new perspectives, as well as questions, challenges, doubts, concerns, and further alternatives. They need to be improvable policy artifacts: tools for an evolving process of change. In their beginnings, however, it is most important that they offer a vision that is concrete enough and desirable enough to inspire people to both work towards it and work towards improving it.
The YouTube Space in London presents a video introduction that can be viewed as a step towards creating an Envisioning Space, but research needs to be done to learn how to support the creation of effective ChangeMedia and follow through to see genuine change happen.
Traditional Research seeks to understand how things are, but we also need research that explores how things might be, and especially how things might be better: Innovation Research.
The theoretical and experimental natural sciences search for fundamental, unvarying, universal principles and relationships, and where they exist all future possibilities are already included in generalizations from the way things are now. But when the social and applied sciences take on this natural science paradigm they too easily focus only on understanding what is and fail to pursue research into how things could be.
Literature, art, design, and engineering more naturally seek to go beyond the actual and construct visions and prototypes of the possible. Their constructions depend on deep knowledge of the actual, both what has been historically and what currently is. But they much more often point us toward what could be and in fact take steps toward bringing new possibilities into being.
In the image above, we see a "convivium" at an outdoor local produce market, part of a design of the Nutrire Milano (Feeding Milan) project of a group of Italian social service designers. They imagined, designed, and prototyped a better future (see their design planning image below).
It may not be true that whatever we can imagine we can eventually do, but it is certainly the case that we are not likely to produce better futures that we have not first imagined. Imagination, conceptualization, envisioning, and design are the first steps. Beyond that we need to build prototypes and experimental systems and explore their workings in real contexts of use, because the complexity of our interactions with anything does not allow adequate purely theoretical prediction of all the entailments of our innovations.
The relatively new field of Design Research has been exploring these issues for some time now (e.g. Koskinen et al., Design Research through Practice, 2011), bringing together insights from the natural sciences and engineering, industrial and interaction design, and the arts. A key contribution has been the development and refinement of tools for Innovation Research, and I believe that the further development of such tools, including the use of video and multimedia, sketches and narratives, computer and role-play simulations, virtual worlds and scenario gaming, and the construction and deployment of prototypes not only of artifacts, but of systems and activities, can be the foundation of productive Innovation Research.
Contemporary society is producing new technologies at an unprecedented rate, but our ageing social institutions, from schools and universities to governments and corporations are rapidly becoming obsolete, unable to perform the functions we expect of them. Innovation Research needs to address such critical problems as alternative modes of learning and education beyond the old-fashioned classroom and lecture-hall models; more effective ways of apportioning decision-making among different levels of government; more flexible networks of small-scale enterprises to replace behemoth global mega-corporations. Our healthcare systems are not becoming more effective in promoting positive health, they are just becoming bigger and more expensive. Our schools and universities are not helping students learn to think and create, they are just mass-producing more and more credentials that mean less and less. Our governments are centralizing power in larger and more numerous bureaucracies which are unable to perceive much less help solve the everyday problems that actually matter to people’s lives. Global corporations are producing unprecedented concentrations of wealth in fewer and fewer hands while offering us gaudy beads and trinkets and deceptive investments instead of goods and services that would really make our lives better.
Yes, there is innovation already, but there is no systematic enterprise of innovation research for the betterment of life that addresses the need to re-design basic social institutions as well as add new technologies to our collection of social tools.
Traditional research will continue to help us understand how things are and how they have been in the past, and innovative engineering makes great contributions to the techniques of getting us from here to there.
What we need is systematic and creative Innovation Research to help us answer the more basic question: From here to Where?
And there is no incentive in the system to make things any better.