Iron Man, Ultron, and the Future of Ed-Tech

A few years ago, I sat on a panel discussion with a few colleagues in my doctoral program to discuss our research and perspectives on educational technology. I have to confess that at the time, I had not done nearly enough work to understand the long and sometimes troubling history of digital technologies in schools. To this day, I’ve only started to scratch the surface.

I was also still somewhat wide-eyed about the promises of new media technologies for improving education. Nevertheless, I found myself making an offhand analogy about teaching and tech that seemed to resonate with others in the audience. I don’t know if I’m the first to come up with it, but since it hasn’t shown up on the first page of my Google search results, I wanted to get the idea on paper, if only for my own clarity.

Discussing, in particular, the recent trends in ed-tech, the analogy that came to my mind at the time was inspired by Marvel’s 2015 Avengers: Age of Ultron film (spoilers follow). Outside of the general message about the dangers of advanced technology going unhinged, I found the superhero Iron Man and his creation-gone-wild-turned-antagonist Ultron to be interesting symbols for two approaches to educational technology.

Tony Stark and his rogue AI square off. Image still from Kjra Gaming on YouTube

For me, an Ultron-inspired approach to educational technology can be seen in trends around what Audrey Watters has called teaching machines – developments in educational technology that seem designed to automate education and ultimately replace the efforts of human teachers. Skipping, for now, the history of these efforts, more contemporary trends such as intelligent tutoring systems and AI-driven “personalized learning” might be recognized as broadly fitting into this category. In the same way that the rogue AI in the film ultimately concluded that humans were the biggest impediment to peace on earth, so too do some of our contemporary approaches to digital ed tech seem to be founded on the premise that it’s people (or at least some bad apples) that are the problem in education. Now where have we heard that rhetoric before?

“How much of an improvement is the right image over the left image? Image courtesy of Mary Jo Madda’s amazing TED Talk on this topic.

In contrast to this (or so I’d like to believe) is another approach to ed-tech, namely one inspired by the character Tony Stark’s use of his own Iron Man suit to augment his abilities in the fight for justice (or so he’d like to believe). In the Iron Man-inspired approach to ed-tech, digital technologies are used to augment the already amazing superpowers of our teachers – resourcefulness, empathy, fueling curiosity, anticipating misconceptions, and using our weekends and holidays to grade and plan. In the video below, you can catch a glimpse of an early-career Dan Meyer’s own Iron Man transformation.

Importantly, the tech that Dan showcases and continues to advocate for isn’t fancy – digital projectors, camera phones, and media that gets students wondering.

And maybe this is the direction we should be advocating for in schools. Digital tools that are built around the practices of teaching and learning – not the other way around. Approaches that support how people learn, rather than how tech companies want us to. These approaches might not give us the superpowers of the Avengers. But they might just help us better understand the superpowers our teachers and students already have.

Learning the Right Lessons from Video Games

Screenshot from Lara Croft Go (iOS)

The idea of using games to improve education isn’t new. But over the past decade and change, it seems that interest in things like “gamification,” “game-based learning,” and related terms has been spreading, both in and outside of education. Take a look at these Google search trends to get a taste.

"Gamification" search trends since 2004.

“Gamification” search trends since 2004.

As Dan Meyer rightly points out, though, most attempts to “gamify” education are taking the wrong lessons from video games. In math education in particular, Dan points out some of these well-intentioned, but ultimately misguided attempts:

They import leaderboards, badges, customized avatars, timed competitions, points, and many other stylistic elements from video games.

Now, don’t get me wrong. These elements certainly might provide a sense of entertainment, competition, or urgency in contexts where these feelings typically feel absent. But for some of us who study games and learning, these attempts at surface-level gamification fall short of what Dan calls the more substantial elements of games. In a recent post, Dan hits on a big one – the idea of a (well-designed) game interpreting and responding to player’s actions. And at a talk in 2014, he highlighted a few other big ideas.

A few years before the gamification craze really started taking off, James Paul Gee outlined a number of key principles (36 to be exact) that videogames can teach us about learning in general, and literacy learning in particular. Full disclosure: this was the book that inspired me to apply for doc school, and Jim eventually served on my diss committee.

Inspired by Jim and Dan, as well as the work many other amazing folks in the field, I wanted to share a quick take on lessons from videogames that might help us improve our teaching. Echoing a caveat of Jim’s, it’s important to remember that videogames are not the only places these lessons can be found; they are often just very good examples of them. I first discussed these ideas with a group of high school students visiting our university last week for a local conference. What follows is a version of that talk.

1. Design for good learning, then get out of the way.

Starting screen of Super Mario Bros. (NES)

The starting screen of Super Mario Bros. (NES) Where is the tutorial text?

The first lesson we talked about was the power of good design as part of good teaching. And the example we drew from was the level design of the original Super Mario Bros. for the Nintendo Entertainment System. Anyone who plays video games today might note the complete lack of guiding text, walk-through, or video tutorials on starting the game up. And yet, by virtue of the game’s design, we as players can figure out our own answers to questions like “What can I do?” “Where do I go next?” “What happens if I touch that block?” “What’s with these things with the angry faces?” New elements are introduced over time, and any many new wonderings that come up are pretty quickly answered.

This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t be trying to help our students when they run into difficulties in the classroom. Nor is it to say that learning is an automatic, magical state of being that only we, as teachers, can lure students into. The important point is that the more time and effort we can put into really aligning what we want students to get out of a lesson or experiences, the ways we might interpret how they’re doing, and the resources they might draw on for support, the less we’ll have to explicitly hand-hold them through our lessons. In other words, the better we design, the less helpful we need to be. Will we have to explain things sometimes? Absolutely. But we might want to re-think when students need the whole walk-through, or just a nudge in the right direction.

2. Provide feedback that moves learners forward.

Screen from the original Angry Birds game.

Feedback loops in Angry Birds don’t just say “Do better” but actually give us the opportunity to try again and again.

Again, not a lesson unique to videogames, but one that is clearly illustrated in games like Angry Birds, as Dan has pointed out in the past. Like the stars and points in Angry Birds, school grades or test scores provide some feedback about progress. Comments from teachers on essays and projects might even provide more granular levels of feedback.

But what often sets games like Angry Birds apart from most assessment systems in education is the option to apply that feedback immediately and try for success no matter how many misses we might rack up. Players in Angry Birds can experience what went right or wrong, as part of this assessment loop. They get a rating that helps them fine-tune their understanding of these experiences, at least from the game’s perspective. And, most importantly, they get the chance to try again. Now, what might we do to put our students in a similar position?

3. Use simplicity to push toward complexity.

Screenshot from Lara Croft Go (iOS)

Lara Croft Go (iOS) starts of deceptively simple, but just a few levels later…

After probably way too much time spent geeking out on the virtues of Lara Croft Go (iOS), the students and I finally sat down for a playthrough to learn our final lesson of the day. Of course, there are tons of different ways to talk about helping learners move from the simple to the complex. For Ido Portal, it’s the “chemistry model” of breaking down the “atoms” of a physical skill, then building more complex “molecules” of movement patterns and skills. For Jim, it’s the principles of “simplified subset” and “incremental generalization.” Whatever we call it, good teaching comes down to really figuring out the basic fundamental “building blocks” of our domain, be it Algebra, essay writing, or historical analysis, and supporting students understanding how those fundamental understandings can be applied in more complex situations.

In the world of Lara Croft Go, we can see this in the increasing complexity of the level design, which starts with just a few simple elements – movement tracks, switches, and pitfalls – and soon leads to head-scratching puzzles and the deep satisfaction of solving them. In the educational world of content standards, textbooks, and pre-packaged programs, it can be tougher to help students find the signal in the noise. But the closer to we get as teachers to separating core understandings from peripheral trivia in our domains, the closer we get helping students do the same – even as things deepen in complexity. The social and intellectual worlds beyond the classroom are incredibly complex spaces. Why not give students a taste of that complexity in a safe and supportive environment?

Leveling-Up Our Teaching

As students in my sessions pointed out, there are a lot more lessons to be learned here. But the more I study this stuff and apply it my pedagogy, the more I realize that game-inspired teaching really isn’t about the bells and whistles, the carrots or the sticks. What it comes down to, I think, is finding ways to make our students’ experiences as meaningful, challenging, and impactful as experiences they might have in the worlds beyond – virtual or otherwise.

Why I’m Giving the LMS Another Chance

First of class tomorrow at the uni, which means I’m probably not getting much sleep tonight. Since I started teaching high school ten years ago, this pattern has yet to change. Part of me hopes that it never does.

On the brighter side, the syllabus is up, and I’ve made first contact with my new students teacher-candidates. And, contrary to my prior claims, I’ve decided to give the Canvas Learning Management System (LMS) a try.

So, what exactly is it that is making me go back on this recent burst of tech contrarianism? The short answer is, as always, “it’s complicated.” But there are at least three big things on my mind right now.

1. I’m genuinely curious.

After years spent Blackboarding my students to death, I’ve been building an understanding of some of more prominent critiques of LMS culture. I’ve also been searching for alternative approaches, and continue to be intrigued by the Domain of One’s Own movement – especially for teacher education.

A student's complaints about online classes.

Will Canvas help me to avoid this? Probably not without sound pedagogy to go along with it.

Recently, however, I’ve been drilling down into what exactly makes Canvas different. And as some of this work is from the perspective of critical ed-tech colleagues that I deeply respect, I must admit that I’m genuinely curious about the potentials of this platform. In particular, I’m intrigued by Canvas’ ability to interface with the rest of the internet, something I’ve been desperately searching for in my prior online and blended teaching experiences.

I’m maintaining (and teaching my candidates to maintain) a skeptical approach this semester, to be sure. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t excited to see my iframed NowComment test doc spring to life inside my course shell. And the ability to just open up aspects of my course design for public comment and critique? Intriguing, indeed.

2. I’m in this for the students.

I totally get that sometimes, the best learning happens at just the edge of our comfort zones – call it what you will. And I recognize that for many students, LMS-inspired, consumption-driven modules can become a stale lifesuck that crushes the potential of meaningful learning in a digital age.

However, for many of us, getting into that discomfort zone sometimes requires our teachers, coaches, and mentors to start from a place of familiarity. Consider the popularity of analogies in teaching, the effectiveness of external cues in coaching, and the many approaches to starting small in behavioral or organizational change.

For my teacher-candidates this semester, I’m making a conscious choice to begin the semester in a potential comfort zone – the LMS environment – with the goal of nudging them out of it to consider deeper issues of online participation, digital representation, social media censorship, data ownership, and the like. Like our adopted textbook, Canvas isn’t just a tool for teaching. It is also a cultural artifact for us to examine, analyze, question, critique, hack, remix, and reflect on.

Screenshot of my Canvas homepage.

What does this interface communicate to us as learners? What’s happening to our data behind the screen? Who owns content that lives here? Just a few of the questions we’ll be unpacking as a class this semester.

3. I’m confident in my pedagogy.

While I wouldn’t suggest that I’m an expert teacher by any means – that’s for my students to decide – and re-decide every semester – I can claim that I am confident in the ways I engage students. In their 2012 article, “Hacking the Screwdriver,” Sean Michael Morris and Jesse Stommel  argue:

“The LMS is dangerous for good teachers that aren’t also good pedagogues. It determines too much in advance by presenting an interface that asks the user to approach it in very particular ways. What’s on the upper left when you enter an LMS determines what you do first, what you do second, and what you don’t do.”

As someone who’s been trained as a teacher, learning scientist, and arguably, the biggest critic of my own teaching practice, I can say that I’ve had some experience in resisting the “siren’s allure” of all-in-one ed-tech products like Canvas. And as Bruce taught us, I’m taking what is useful, and discarding the rest. As I told a colleague the other day, teaching doesn’t necessarily come “easier” for me as a result of my field of expertise. It’s more that my experience as a teacher, teacher-educator, and education researcher have given me a different lens through which to approach – and embrace – the beautiful struggle of teaching.

Good teaching and learning happen by design – ours, rather than the LMS

Am I going to mess up this semester? On occasion – no doubt. Are my teacher-candidates going to question and critique my activities, assessments, and philosophy of teaching? I sure hope so. Because all of this is part of the practice. Sometimes the most interesting part. But it won’t be because I handed over my power (and responsibility) as an educator to an LMS – well designed or no. My successes and failures as a teacher will be my own. The products of a shared experience called a “course” that my teacher-candidates and I will build together. And the seeds for learning and improvement the next time around.