Take an Active Role in Your Education: Play Games

The worst thing about education today is that it is a gift.  Teachers provide and students receive (usually in a lecture format).  Students rarely take an active role in their education and, if they do, it is a small role.  By active role, I don’t necessarily mean “initiative.”  What I mean is, “action.”  Homework, doing a problem in class, or debating in a class discussion are a few examples of what I mean by “active role.”

From my own experience, I have found that I must take a very active role when I am trying to process information.  Merely listening to a lecture is usually not enough.  If it isn’t stylized as a discussion or if there isn’t a problem to be solved, most of the information escapes me before the end of class.  Upon further reflection, it became clear that the best way for me to remember classroom content is to process the information and the best way for me to process  information is to have a reason to.  For example, in discussion based classes, an argument is constantly being formed.  As the teacher talks, I analyze why the teacher’s statements make sense (or don’t) and then prepare an argument for my analysis on the presented topic. By vocalizing out loud, I hear my words and can confirm (and occasionally deny) the sense and completeness of my own sentences.  In classes where there are problems to solve, a similar thing happens, I obtain information from the teacher, attempt to apply it on paper and, as the teacher goes through it, I confirm or deny my thoughts and hypothesis about the information I just received.  However, sometimes when teachers use practice problems in class, they give step by step instructions and I passively copy it down. (I would like to note, however, that traditional lectures are enough to receive an A in the course, and/or write decent papers on the topic.  The problem I am stating is, though I receive information, I am not learning much from it.  I cannot apply it, but I think it would definitely be useful for trivia night).

This may be because I am a lazy student and its my fault for not paying strict enough attention to the material coming out of the teacher’s mouth.  However, I think it has more to do with the fact that I am trying to listen so hard or taking notes so ferociously that I don’t have any time or brain space to understand the information.  In my attempts to gather all of the information presented in class, I accidentally lose it all.

However, by making information processing (which I will define as making sense of ideas through problem solving) a priority and giving information gathering a more passive role, learning will be much more natural.

This problem solving/information processing aspect is what makes games so engagingly addicting compared to school work and lecture.  Any good game is intellectually stimulating and challenging, which is one of the main reasons why it is so fun (to those who call video games brainless, read this article).  In games, there is always a reason to think.  In lecture, the primary goal is to hear and focusing on hearing, which often makes me think more about hearing and how it works, or how incredible it is that humans developed such complex and useful language skills.  Even in the most interesting lectures, I occasionally get distracted.  In games, the level of focus is extreme.

Although I would say that I am more of a gaming enthusiast than others (for me personally, I am including videogames, card games, boardgames and puzzle games), I don’t think my addiction to them is an odd phenomenon.  I think many demonstrate  symptoms for this addiction and those that don’t haven’t exposed themselves to the germ enough.

Try this: MinecraftEDU

The problem with current-generation MOOCs

MOOCs, or massively open online courses, is a platform for knowledge delivery. In their current iteration, they are lectures and videos and assignments placed online. MOOCs have been hailed as a great revolution in education. I do not agree. The MOOC certainly represents an advancement, if only because resources are available much more widely as a result.

But they are not what they could be.

So, first, why do people think that the MOOC model will revolutionize education? There are several great reasons. (1) They place courses online, where content delivery is much cheaper (a big issue with ballooning tuition prices). (2) A MOOC can be taught by the best professors in the world. The Feynmans and Lewins of the world could be the physics teacher of everyone in America! (3) you don’t need to worry about enrollment issues like too many students needing to take the class. Those definitely represent advancements over certain elements of the brick-and-mortar.

However, it is too reliant on the old model of lecture->practice->test. This is a pretty unengaging model of learning, and regardless of its method of content delivery, people miss a lot of information in this style. Because of that, I don’t see this current iteration of the MOOC replacing the classroom element.

With a few tweaks, I think the model could be improved significantly. What about, for example, a model where tests, practice, and lectures are interwoven seamlessly? Something more like the video game model (for a single topic): instruction -> test -> test -> instruction -> test -> test

Stop Worrying About National Performance on Tests

Politicians often seem to be worried over our performance. Our children are falling behind, and we are losing our edge in engineering! There are a lot of stupidities in that, and I’ll go over a few.

First, countries are ranked by their average scores. If we are worried about our engineers, we do not need to care. A countries future engineers are going to come from the top 10% or so of children on the math scores. America, for good or ill, is a country of wild variance. I find it completely plausible that we could be 30th when ranked by overall average but 1st when ranked by the average of the top 10% of scorers, but I have not looked it up (and neither have the politicians crying wolf). Now, a country with a better average math-sense and appreciation of math is probably better off, but the tests do not test for those. At best, the test results might decently correspond with math-sense, but it is doubtful that the results correspond with with math appreciation. Indeed, several of the high-performing countries have drill-and-kill heavy math instruction, which works for simple standardized tests but not for anything else.

Second, test scores improve when countries focus on improving test scores. Makes sense. However, what happens to instruction to math instruction when countries try to focus on test scores? It typically becomes full of drill-and-kill practice and rote memorization replacing understanding and exploring. In that regard, we might consider running the other way. Let’s instead focus on trying to solve big, fun problems. You know, the type of problems that are great to learn from but impossible to put on standardized tests.

Something like the Russians launching Sputnik makes much more sense in terms of worrying over falling behind. Sputnik was a real, impressive achievement that demonstrated an engineering capacity to create something that exceeded our own. If a rival of ours were to create a net-output fusion reactor, for example, then we might have cause for worry. Right now, I do not see much reason to fret.

The classroom will disappear

One of the most obvious features of college is also, in my opinion, one of the least useful. Classroom are not where real learning takes place: an average student in a lecture demonstrates about as much brain activity as they do when watching TV. In other words, a lecture can be interpreted as boring entertainment. On the other hand, the brain is much more engaged when playing video games because they are interactive, just as it would be easy to stay focused when a zombie is trying to eat your brains. They require an immediate response.

So, why did I title the post as I did? I think that the classroom is eventually going to be replaced by a new model enabled by better technology.

MOOCs, or massively open online courses, have given a brief glimpse of the new direction, but they are only the smallest step in this new direction. Video games are a better model here. So imagining we can provide content to each student individually which is already possible in MOOCs, what elements needs to be included to make this work?

(1) Something visual. Remember text-based adventure games? There’s a reason why everyone went to “video” games. They are more engrossing. Life is visual, so we probably need a visual element. What would that look like? For military history, you could easily create a historically accurate real-time or turn-based strategy game. For engineering, you could create a visual solver geared towards education (several of which already exist with some limited functionality). It may be a little tougher for certain other genres, like literature, but you could potentially do some adventure game. This part is conceptually easier, even if tough to execute.

(2) The ability to tailor content to a person’s skills. This should be possible through a big data approach similar to how Amazon suggests new products. Other people who viewed the same things as you viewed this other thing as well, so you probably will too. In an educational context, this would be: others who got this problem wrong got similar problems right after being shown some other problem, therefore you will get that other problem next. Using this approach, you could probably do all learning via problems, with no need for lectures at all. Skeptical? Video games use that strategy to teach some pretty complex concepts. I think it could be done here too.

(3) A way to generate a massive amount of content. In order to use the big data approach, you would need an enormous bank of problems for any given topic. There is no way that a small team could generate enough problems to make this work, so we probably need some mechanism for user-generated problems.

(4) An error-finding tool or algorithm if we use user-generated content. There are generally a lot of errors in user-generated content, but certain techniques like level editors (in this case problem editors) in video games or the user review process used by Wikipedia can be used to iron those out.

(5) Immediate feedback. There is nothing more immediate than falling into a pit and getting a game over when you misjudge the jump, and so video games are excellent models for this. A huge problem that currently limits the usefulness of homework is the 1-2 week delay between doing the work and getting the feedback.

(6) Some obvious measure of advancement, like badges or levels or achievements. This is another reason why video games are so addictive. People put an enormous amount of time into incredibly frustrating tasks in order to get a badge. Think: like every game ever. It is sometimes incredibly frustrating to master a new concept, and this is an effective way to keep people invested.

The wonderful thing is that none of these elements are new. Everything has been done before, albeit in non-educational contexts. Therefore, there should be no reason why it couldn’t be implemented in education. Now all that remains is to do it (although that part will, as always, be a thorny problem).

Learning Without Obligation

I am currently in a very enjoyable class. There are no tests and no papers. We are not evaluated in any way for the knowledge that is presented in class. Where do we get our grades from? We are responsible for three presentations in front of the rest of the class: the first is on a chapter in the book, the second is on a research paper related to one of the chapters in the book, and the third is a group project based on a chapter in the book.

Despite having no obligation or responsibility over the material, I have never paid stricter attention than in this class. So, in terms of educational gains, I am learning a lot.

How could this be? Shouldn’t I be relieved and proceed to space out? There are a couple of factors that prevent this:

1. Technology use is forbidden: I can’t play computer games.
2. We have to evaluate our peers’ presentations: there is a minimum amount we need to pay attention to (alternatively, we could just make up our evaluations without penalty, but I don’t and I doubt my classmates do either).
3. There is discussion in the second half of class: there’s a possibility of sounding stupid during this part.

The above factors are not very strong but subtle enough to get the most important factor going:

As it turns out, this class is interesting

Without the obligation of needing to “learn” (or shall I say, “memorize”) terms, when they fit, when they don’t, when its used in a tricky way, or other ways it might be tested, I spend less time taking notes and straining to catch every word and more time relaxing, listening, and making eye contact with the speaker. The amount of effort used to stressfully “learn” is enough to tire anyone to just retreat, chat online instead, and cram later (at least you only have to do it once, instead of multiple times a week).

We run into some problems of course. How can we assess whether a student has learned anything? According to the current syllabus, it is obvious whether or not a student has learned their designated chapters according to their presentations. There is also some evidence that a student has learned according to their participation in the discussion. The second, however, is not guaranteed factual learning like a test might be.

However, what do we want out of a class?

Ask any student and they will tell you that for most tests, they cram hard and almost instantly forget everything they just “learned” once the test is over. Rather than memorizing the facts, perhaps it is more important to learn how to think in context with the subject. How do we solve problems in this field? How can we think about this? What are some strategies to tackle these problems in this subject? In order to answer these questions, facts are naturally needed and learned along the way (and it may encourage individual and extra research from the student). Although, a student may not be able to reproduce every single detail of the class, but is that really important?

Projects are the best way to demonstrate and practice thinking within a subject. Whether it’s an engineering design project, writing a short story, performing a literature review, or conducting a presentation, a student must have a grasp of the knowledge of the class and must know how to use it (which is arguably the important part) in order to produce a good product. Projects that are shared with peers often encourage even better results as their is an added responsibility for students to represent themselves well.

Bonus about projects: it allows a student room to go above and beyond the class’ expectations.

Publishers take ownership of research papers, instead of authors

Research, an essential part of a university and its faculty, could be at odds with legality. In a presentation at The Conference on Higher Education Pedagogy at Virginia Tech (2013), Robert Turner, a Librarian at Radford University, and Scott Turner, an associate professor of Computer Science at UNC Pembroke, brought to light the issue that many professors are probably illegally distributing and using content in their classrooms according to copyright laws on accident.


When a paper is published to a peer-reviewed journal, depending on the agreement that a researcher signed, that paper could be owned, 100%, by the publisher. This means that if a colleague was interested in your work, you might not be legally entitled to email him a copy of the PDF. However, the publisher may be kind enough to offer the author 20 or so copies to share with his peers. When teaching a class, a professor might not be able to even upload his own paper to Blackboard, Scholar, or whatever other online organizational medium his institution uses, which leads to the first tip to avoid trouble:

TIP #1

Use a direct link from the online journal instead of a PDF from your computer.

This works because it gives control of the distribution to the publisher. Of course, this comes with all sorts of inconveniences, such as: your colleague or students do not have access to the journal.

But this seems like a big Catch-22: to legitimize research, the author needs to submit it for peer review and then publish. However, once published, the author can’t even truly access their own paper because they no longer really own it. Credit is given to them, but they can’t distribute it if they wanted to. This is strange when, one of the major reasons to publish research in the first place is to improve upon previous research and suggest where new research should be conducted–essentially, we need to read each others work. So what can you do? Universities spend hundreds of thousands of dollars for access to all of these journals when their employees, the professors and creators of these research papers, are not getting reconciled for their work. (Actually, review board members don’t really get paid either). The only people who get paid are the publishers. As most things are online already (and many people prefer them to be online), there is little to no cost for them “publishing” the work. So, here comes tip number 2:

FORGET THE OTHER TIP, JUST USE THIS ONE: THE TIP

Forget “publishing,” share your work freely with peer-reviewed open source publications, such as PLOS ONE.

Publishing it to a paying journal doesn’t make it any more legitimized and hides research papers making them inaccessible or inconvenient for the people who need it. We might be repeating a lot of work and wasting time. Information, is more powerful and important than the money (which really only goes to the middle-man anyway).

A list of other open source, peer reviewed journals: http://www.firstmonday.org/htbin/cgiwrap/bin/ojs/index.php/index

A successful strategy to avoid the “Why?”

Parents often hate answering the question “why?” when their children suddenly become obsessed with that word around the age of 4 (when they’ve gained enough vocabulary to understand and to express themselves fairly well).  Parents usually find it annoying: children ask that question constantly–to even the littlest things–AND it lasts forever:

“Why is the game over when the Jenga tower is knocked down?”
“Because it’s the object of the game.”
“Why?”
“Because it says so on the box.”
“Why?”
“Because its hard to pull out pieces.”
“Why?”
“because…don’t you have something else to do?

Over the summer, I visited my cousin’s family where they have a 4-year-old son.  There I learned the magical wisdom of

how to avoid it:

“Why is the game over when the Jenga tower is knocked down?”
“Why do you think, Johnny?”
“Because when it is knocked over you can’t play anymore?”
“Yes, Johnny! That’s exactly right!”

The important difference here is to ask the question back.  Chances are, the child either already knows the answer (or at least knows something very close to the answer) or can figure it out.  In learning, it is important to clarify the answers that the child provides to his own question.  This can be done by asking bonus questions:

“Johnny, why do you think the Jenga tower would get knocked down?”
“Because its hard to pull out the pieces without it falling over?”
“Yes, Johnny! Why might it be hard?”
“Because when you pull one from this side, the other side gets tipped over?”
“That’s right! It gets tipped over because the tower is out of balance. See? Its uneven.”
“Why is it uneven?”
“Why do you think?
“There are less on this side than that side?
“That’s absolutely right! Great job, Johnny!”

Bonus questions = bonus points for parenthood: Now the child has some knowledge of basic mechanics.