Sunday, July 14, 2013

Strategies for the Gamification of Education

"Strategies for the Gamification of Education: On Creating a Flexible Constellation of Praxes for Evolving-Yet-Enduring Systems of Public-Private Educational Settings, Accreditations and Digital Networks."

"Now Lyceum you don't"

As a follow-up to my presentation last April to the Broadcast Education Association, and as part of the 'Web-work' that I am doing for an online seminar, this essay will explore ideas for how to evolve systems secondary education (the last two years of high school in the US) and the first two years of higher education (the first two years of college or
Associates Degree in the US)  It's worth noting that this roughly corresponds to the "Abitur" in Germany and the "A Levels" in the United Kingdom, although these names for both are also evolving.
Two precedents have set my theories of self-directed education into motion: the Montessori method and the curriculum design at the Bauhaus of Weimar-era Germany.  There are plenty of resources on both, and I highly suggest the first few chapters of each.  Neil Postman's book "Building a Bridge to the 18th Century" also had a large impact on my thinking about this phase of education. Because it puts education in a longer historical perspective, and removes the 'privilege of the present'.  In other words, the people of the 22nd century may well want to know many of the same things that people wanted to know in the 18th century.  We shouldn't let our present situation (at the twilight of the modern era and the dawn of digital networked culture) blind us to the fact that grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy (the traditional liberal arts) will remain relevant in education regardless of the era.

One area that will not be addressed in this exploration is the education of students between the ages of 10 and 14 years old.  This is a very important and very difficult portion of any education.  It is also too fraught with coming of age, adolescence and redefining family boundaries and relationships.  Even the most advanced Montessori curricula tend to stop at this age.  I would personally urge more research in this area, particularly here in the US, where our systems of education seem weakest at this most critical point in learning. The other area not discussed will be the later two years of higher education and graduate school.  Institutions at these phases tend to do a better job at blending discipline-specific knowledge and general information, as well as fostering a working relationship between the instructors (often tenured faculty) and the students (as research assistants or other valued workers).  In fact, we will explore how this relationship can be ported into other phases of education through the use of school choice, competition, digital technologies and most importantly the Gamification of Learning.

Explaining this "Flexible Constellation"

These "flexible constellations of praxes" from my (ridiculously long) title do not refer to standards, requirements or curricula imposed from above, but instead guidelines for "evolving-yet-enduring systems" that could be used by existing school systems, start-up charter schools, museums and other cultural institutions, software developers, course designers and even semi-legitamate for-profit colleges to interact with each other and with students to create a more flexible environment for learning, both online and in real-space.

Again, this requires keeping "choice" as free as possible for both the student/parent team (free to use their education capital where they imagine it will give the best returns) and for the schools (free to select students who fit into the various curricula of their institutions) and for the educators (free to move between institutions for the best fit, and the ability to earn more capital themselves)  [a side note: as a society, we should allow that educators want to make a lot of money and shape the hearts and minds of the next generation — teachers need not be postmodern monks]

These "public-private educational settings, accreditations and networks" should provide learning pathways and options for the study of the 'hard' sciences, policy/law/rhetoric, artisanal trades, design/engineering and service/hospitality/human resources. But these disciplines should not be seen as exclusive of each other.  A student tracked to become an attorney is rarely taught woodworking, or calculus or customer service.  This has become a problem because our educational systems do not meet the challenge of career flexibility and job switching.  Instead, most educational systems reinforce a coercive system of mass production that is less and less relevant in a digitally interconnected free-market of ideas.  On the supply side, the semi-cartel of teachers unions needs to adapt and evolve away from an industrial model and toward a more flexible guild system which intersects with the training of educators and the constant churn of the marketplace of ideas.

Using the existing systems, and those coming in the near future, we could create ubiquitous and personalized digital curriculum where every student had an "I.E.P", an individualized education plan that, like Creative Commons copyright licenses, is human-readable, lawyer-readable and computer readable.  Examples abound of providers such as Khan Academy, Duolingo, Open Courseware, Coursera, MOOCs and many, many more.  [another aside—please feel free to leave your favorite examples in the comments sections below e.g. FoldIt]

Gamification of Learning and Education

In my own personal experience, I have begun to write a curriculum for teaching the history of cinema in general, and the Hollywood Studio System in particular, while using Activision's 'The Movies' as a didactic (yet still fun) game.  Students learn both the √¶sthetics of camera angles and editing in the sandbox mode; then students learn the financing of a studio and a (tounge-in-cheek) day-to-day operations of a fictional Hollywood studio.  Many 'bleeding edge adopters' were disappointed by the shortcomings of Second Life, but pleasantly surprised by the long-term success of Sim City and Spore.  The relationship between console games and PC games will be important to the long-term success of the gamification of learning. Some real-life examples point to a history of using collborative practices within traditional schooling: debate clubs, collaborative sports teams, theatre productions, student art shows and many others.  [again—please feel free to leave favorite examples]

But the revolutionary idea here is to create a system where once a student has a basic mastery of a subject, their continued practice in the area would actually pay them money for their usable work on computer networks.  For example, Duolingo provides a translation service for outside clients.  The computer algorithm takes chunks of text that need to be translated (Spanish-English, English-German and a few others right now) and crowd-sources them through thousands, or even tens-of-thousands of students using their software who are practicing their translation skills while learning Spanish, English or German.  Students could be paid in actual currency (USD, EUR, GBP) or in-game currency, school-specific currency or other forms of currency (Bitcoin, Whuffie, etc)  Student skills that are likely in demand as a crowd-sourced commodity are: text editing/conformation, calculation/auditing, technical writing, graphic design, language translation and even physical crafts and artworks.

Again, these are not institution-specific initiatives, but instead run by competing, accredited groups of curriculum suppliers who would also act as 'solutions contractors' who provide crowd-sourced services.  As such, these double-providers would have an incentive to create both good digital curriculum modules and an incentive to have good students in their talent pool.

[there's an irony here: "from each according to his ability, to each according to their I.E.P."]

There are two specifics, however that should probably be required of every overlapping institution involved in this project.  First, that there should be some form of discipline program.  At its core should be the idea that the most hurtful thing a student (or teacher, or administrator) could do is to diminish or take away the choices of others.  Again, this idea is important to have as a foundation of these "evolving-yet-enduring" systems, but the precise measure of 'choice-theft' and its consequences should be left to the multiple, competing institutions providing the education services.
The second idea is encapsulated nicely in Samuel Becket's play "Westward Ho"(1983).  The full quote also reinforces the idea that education today shares much with education 200 years ago and 200 years from now:

"All of old.  Nothing else ever.
Ever tried.  Ever failed.
No Matter.  Try again.
Fail again. Fail better."

The Praxes
Whether this "flexible constellation" is being used by an existing school, or start-up, or software developer or museum it should have an "evolving-yet-enduring" structure that resembles the theoretical design of a utopian design for a campus — something between Jefferson's 'Academical Village' [sic] and Hakim Bey's 'Periodic Autonomous Zone'.  It's important to remember that this is not a description of an actual building, but could be.  "Form follows Function."

0) The beginning point in this system are the games and simulations that teach, reinforce and re-enframe the basics or "necessary-but-non-sufficient" conditions of knowledge.  Examples have been mentioned previously, but would also include the MOOCs and the systems for assessing and delivering the content in a game-theory-centered manner.

1) The first phase would be a group meeting space, a quiet space in a library or a board room with either a large table or several reconfigurable tables.  Here small to medium sized groups come together to plan for a project, study for an accreditation exam, follow-up on an event or production — diagram, design, paste-up ideas and assign duties and responsibilities according to the needs of the task at hand.  Instructors/Professors/Teachers would likely be present and overseeing multiple projects and tasks.  Like the scriptwriting software Celtx, this phase overlaps with both phase 0  (learning the basics through simulation) and other application phases

2) The core importance of physical books and online libraries in this system is reinforced by phase 2 which includes library research using a real-life library (regardless of physical size) and digital collections for quiet research and contemplative thinking.  These physical and virtual libraries should provide a space where students can "geek out" and deeply learn the subject they are currently exploring.

3) Radiating out from the libraries would be a series of Labs and Workshops where students could work on the creation and experimentation of the projects that they have been researching.  Here again Instructors/Professors/Teachers would be present to guide the application of ideas.  Also student teams could work together and integrate the work of single groups together.

4) Farther out in the system would be display spaces/shops, theater spaces, common areas, auditoriums – all spaces for doing or displaying work that is ready for public feedback, consumption, marketing or critique.  This gives a place to put student work that has reached a level of completeness.

5) Lastly, this system should be 'porous' with society or 'the city' in general, where the public has some access to both the works in progress and the best work on display.  The institution should be interesting enough to attract visitors – in the form of museums, shopping arcades, hotel, movie theatre, etc. (an interesting potential might be to retro-fit a dead suburban shopping mall)

Most importantly, these phases are not linear.  They bend back around on each other pivoting on the simulations (gamification of learning) and the labs/workshops (practical experiments).  Students engage in learning while spending time at each of these different phases.

Over time, the less self-directed students will likely be more comfortable in phases 4 and 5 and will hone their skills in artisan crafts, management, technical trades and and service skills.  The more self-directed students will likely be more comfortable in phases 1 and 2 and will learn integrative thinking, discipline-specific skills, management and research skills.
The overlap is the management and integration that all students learn through the simulations and labs.

The administration of each of these educational settings/digital networks should be sleek, evolving-yet-enduring, open to competition but allowed to freely choose its students and its curricula.  Done correctly, the market forces should help keep these systems in balance. The administration that administers best administers least.  Or put another way,
"The wise man's tools are analogies and puzzles."

Students, Faculty and Administrators would all share in phases 0 and 3 to learn and teach evolving standard skills and create a shared cultural literacy that they'll be guided toward — but ultimately create anew in each new cohort.  This should incentivize a focus on portable digital skills and allow for career changes and institutionalize the practice of multiple job opportunities during a career.  This also encourages latent customer-service skills in all professions and removes barriers to time away from careers like sabbaticals, family leave, spiritual retreats, etc. These educational settings/digital networks could be used to guide and support mid-career changes with experienced professionals returning to teach their discipline-specific skills, both online and in an "Education Setting" (e.g. school, museum, etc) as a standard cultural practice.

Marketplace of Ideas
The gamification of learning is both really cool and potentially disruptive.  This essay has been trying to look past the novelty and explore some of the possible practices that could evolve along with it.  The hardware and software that are used will have an impact on the long-term social institutions that rise to meet the need.  It is important to keep both the technology and the institutions as free as possible.  The best way to accomplish this is though choice and competition – a marketplace of ideas and a marketplace of institutions.  In this evolving system, phases 0 though 5 will have to interface with the needs of other institutions, perhaps through crowd-sourced and competing accreditation standards.  These standards and oversight could be provided by other similar programs in higher education or businesses.

Some "evolving-yet-enduring" standards to maintain include:

—Keeping multiple, relevant, meaningful and competing accreditation organizations would be key. These institutions would also need to connect toward the elementary (and middle) schools and up toward graduate schools.
—Keeping portable credentials and portable student funding would allow for easy movement between institutions, while allowing relevant, meaningful and competing curricula to grow and evolve along with the needs of the students.
—Keeping strong-yet-flexible framework for porting these education settings into varied cultures and social situations and produce measurable results and allow for local ideas to be incorporated without alienating other or degrading academic exploration and performance.

The long term success of a society usually turns on how well it can absorb new ideas and new ways of doing things.  The free marketplace of ideas, where individuals are free to make choices, especially silly or bad choices, will create a robust, evolving system of education based on the gamification of learning.  Forms of school choice likely provide the best system for creating evolving-yet-enduring systems of educational settings, accreditations and digital networks.  And like games themselves, this process is going to be both educational and fun.

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