The exceedingly popular ‘Ask Me Anything’ format on the user generated content platform Reddit has become a popular places to spruik, investigate, question and comment on the work of a variety of individuals. Some interesting AMA’s (as ‘Redditors’ refer to them) include President Barack Obama, controversial rapper Snoop Dogg, lauded astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, actor Bill Murray, astronaut Chris Hadfield and comedian Jerry Seinfeld to name a small few. The aim of these forums, which traditionally last for an hour, is for fans, critics and even detractors to ask almost any question of the subject at hand. It is an exciting and authentic way for individuals to make contact with professionals and icons alike.
Eric answered a number of questions during the hour which attracted further comment from other users who wanted to know more from this edtech extraordinaire. Below you will find a selection of the questions presented to Eric, as well as his response.
Q: Can you bust some myths about educational technology that people have in mind?
Eric: I think the biggest myth is that technology itself can solve the problem. In fact it is really important to think about professional development, administrative support, time, software, changing of practices and culture, etc. And too often these other aspects are either ignored or undervalued.
Q: Can technology replace teachers?
Eric: I don’t think that technology can/should replace teachers. The best technologies are the ones that get integrated thoughtfully into social environments. Teachers need to be able to help students make sense of their experiences with technology, abstract them and apply them. Peers are needed to help develop ideas. They might displace some teaching practices, but I think that frees up teachers to do other important activities.
Q: The goal of creating an exploratory learning environment where students are unafraid to fail, and the goal of assessing student performance objectively through standardised testing where mistakes are seen as failures, seem to be incompatible. Do you feel it is possible to create an educational system where the two can co-exist?
Eric: You are right that these are often in conflict with each other. But we think about this in our game designs sometimes where there are areas to explore and learn (often through failure) but there may be “boss levels” (culminating tasks) where the stakes are somewhat higher. I think the ‘all or nothing’, ‘one time only’ high stakes tests are a big challenge. But if technology can help those assessments become smaller, more manageable and more iterative, the conflict may be diminished.
Q: Author Neal Stephenson presents a view of technology that adapts to the pace and ability of the learner. Are there any technology products or approaches that you have seen that are getting closer realising this vision?
Eric: There is a lot of discussion now about “personalized learning” the idea that technology can really support each individual in a deeply customised way. Intelligent tutors are one component of that. Big Data is another element of that. The contrast some try to draw is to a single teacher teaching the same exact thing to the whole class. But we know that good teachers can differentiate their instruction.
More importantly, I think there are big risks in trying to hyper-optimise instruction for individuals, because learning is social. I think it is the case that that peer collaboration and social elements are critical for learning, and shouldn’t come at the cost of the individualised learning.
Q: Can technology nurture soft skills (such as building public speaking skills, leadership skills, goal setting, etc) in children?
Eric: I think that technology can help support the development of these skills, but it relies heavily upon supporting that technology with effective implementation. Think about something like collaboration. We have good tools that help support this – everything from Google Docs to forums to Reddit. But using these effectively in an instructional setting requires effective facilitation and support. Same goes for things like Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPGs). These (e.g. World of Warcraft) have sometimes been cited on resumes for the leadership roles that they have taken on in their groups. I think some of those people will know how to take on such leadership, but in other cases the game becomes a place for experience, which an instructor can use to help build those skills.
Q: There is a lot of success in motivating kids to learn through the use of a rewards system, and this especially holds true in a digital learning environment. How important is that reward system? Have you seen any examples of programs that are intrinsically rewarding?
Eric: I think the success that we get from simple rewards systems is ephemeral. We reward learners for particular behaviors, and they will persist as long as the rewards do, but once the rewards disappear the behavior is eventually extinguished (this is a well studied psychological phenomenon of behaviorism).
Intrinsic motivations are much more effective. These come from learners being invested in outcomes – whether this is because they already cared about those outcomes or because you made them care. The latter is what we do sometimes with games. We create worlds in which learners become invested.
Q: How do we deal with administrators that ‘ding’ teachers when they see students playing “games”? For example, if a game motivated the student to do mental math and stop counting on their fingers. The principal may think it is a waste of time.
Eric: Let me dissect this question into two parts. I think there are often outside pressures from administrators or the community to take learning “seriously”, which means not using games. But games can be really effective in helping students learn. However, in the particular case you have outlined here, I’m not sure that games are being put to their best use. Here the game is a reward for learning. Students do need to develop an appreciation for the math itself if you want them to persist beyond the game. There are games that situate the math problems, (which definitely brings this up on Blooms Taxonomy) and also turn this into a situation something where the game is the reward, to where the game is a context and experience that prepares them for learning. Still, I think it is important to explore technologies and figure out what works for your students and context.
Q: What practical steps can educators take to reconcile the ideals of a constructivist approach to learning with the the need to maintain pace through a curriculum and meet ever more demanding targets?
Eric: Wow. Good question. And this is one we are often faced with designing and implementing technologies that we are developing. Teachers will tell us that “This deep constructivist learning sounds wonderful, but I don’t have the time to cover that topic in depth. With so much to cover I only spend half a class period on it.”
In Science (where we do a lot of work), the standards are changing. The new standards in the US (known as The Next Generation Science Standards) cover a lot less material and instead focus on science practices. This is a step in the right direction, and I see other disciplines doing things similarly (the US-based “Common Core” standards have some of this as well). But the tests that accompany these also have to change…
Q: Do you think that we’re moving into a place where our children will do more learning using technology than not?
Eric: I think that technology will certainly become more pervasive in learning environments. But I think the way that this will happen is by technology becoming more integrated into classes, not as a standalone. We see this in some classes – teachers using Google Docs for collaborative writing. But it isn’t as utilised in other areas like science, math and history. Partially this is because many schools seem to want domain independent technologies. I hope this changes and see signs of that happening, which will in turn foster the development and widen the availability of good subject-specific technologies.
For those interested in reading the entire AMA discussion, visit this link.
Please note that some questions have been modified to improve readability. Some answers have been edited for relevancy.