Learning in 2006 vs 2016

In 2006, I dropped a computing course, because I could not follow the pace of the class. Even though the professor answered my questions, I easily forgot the answers, and I was tired of asking the same questions again and again. It was my third time to fail or drop a class related to computing, and these experiences became a big complex about my computer skills afterwards. During the professional experiences, my computer skills that I had suffered in learning were improved, I thought that the improvements were a fruit of my hard working which could be a happy ending. However, other computer programs have appeared since 2006 that made me face even more challenges than before while I still had a bad memory, and was reluctant to learn the new skills. I wanted to overcome my computer phobia, and it was one of the reasons that led me to return to academia.

When I started my first semester after several years of working, I realized that the definition of learning had been changed from ten years ago. When I took a computing class, the professor said that the goal of a class today is learning how to learn during your whole life rather than transferring a fixed knowledge. She also said that she was really slow in learning computer, but she could self-learn the skills that she teaches now with the support of YouTube and learning communities on the website. Thus, if she could learn the skills, all of us should be able to master them. Her comments were encouraging to me, and she was right. I could not follow the class sometimes, but the video tutorial assignments helped me to cover the missing parts. The advantage of the video was that I could replay the difficult parts again and again without feeling guilty, and the materials were easy to find in Google. The interesting point was that the professor in the 2006 class was a high-level expert compared to the professor in the 2016 class, but the latter class was much more helpful for me.

After taking this class, I do not have computer phobia anymore. Nothing is changed, I still cannot remember the things I learned, but whenever I face a barrier in learning, I know that the answer is out there, which will come to me soon. Now, I practice new software regularly by using YouTube or Lynda and enjoy communicating with anonymous people in learning communities. Learning new software is not a painful process for me as before, I finally liberated from the burden of computing!

Dubious on Digital Learners

I must admit that to this outsider, the field of education seems very odd! It is surprising how enthusiastically the field embraces new ideas, and their eagerness to denigrate the old ways is even more unusual. I certainly can’t imagine engineers or biologists so willing to say that the last 200 years were done all wrong, and insist we need to completely reinvent the field – yet if this week’s readings are to be believed, pedagogy since the 1500s has been a disaster. Even Robert Talbert claims that organized lectures are useless for “information transfer”, and he was its only proponent.

As an outsider, maybe I have no idea what I’m talking about, but while the intersection of digital gamification and active learning seems to be innovative and useful, it is also hardly a panacea. As a product, or perhaps victim, of the old educational system (nearly was one of ‘ third of college students), I have a few layman’s criticisms:

1. Gamified learning sounds great, but is it truly accessible for all students? I like Dr. Carnes’s ancient Athens game, but that requires a lot of social interaction. There must be introverted students who can’t stand these games and intentionally withdraw as much as possible. Moreover, one must remember that the teenage years are marked by a need to rebel. A game that is embraced by juniors in private college is surely not going to be embraced by 7th graders, especially if it is mandatory, and especially the teacher is playing along. To be honest, when my lab forces us to play team-building “games” I feel heavily patronized – I’d rather sit and listen to a boring lecture. Some students just want to get the material and go home, and they will feel just as off-put by forced social games as any extrovert does in a lecture.

2. This seems like a brilliant addition to the standard curriculum, but it surely can’t replace the old-fashioned lectures and labs. It just doesn’t seem very applicable to most subjects – there are only so many ways you can gamify statistical analysis. Moreover, while creating video game levels for Aesop’s Fables seems like an amazing way to absorb that material – what does that kid do when they get to college and need to learn some mundane but necessary on their own? There are times in your academic career where you need to simply sit down and read a boring book, no fun, no play, no games, just the discipline to be bored. If we indulge the need to play from K-12, nobody will ever have the discipline learn something horrible like SQL.

3. For all this talk of active learning, does it work? Are we sure that it works? Has anyone proved that it works? Has anyone quantified how much more effective it is than traditional learning? My wife is a physician and often talks about her old medical school’s two curriculum system. Students had the option of the vanilla lecture / lab curriculum, or what they called “problem-based learning” (PBL) which sounds like it was inspired by an episode of House MD. The PBL students met every day to take on a case, typically from a catalog of real-life historic cases. They each had to do research, come up with a diagnosis, and a treatment plan, getting updates as they go. It actually sounds awesome. A heck of a lot more fun that sitting in a lecture hall. It must be more fun for the professor too, as they must decide realistic consequences for mistakes. But for all this fun, at the end of their schooling, the PBL folks in her class did far worse on the medical licensing exam than the traditional folks. They had a higher failure rate too, and a far lower placement rate in residencies. To be fair, this could just be a symptom of teaching for the test, and perhaps that test isn’t a great way to gauge ability. But even in residency, my wife claimed that the PBL graduates were well behind. This story is anecdotal, but the NIH studied this significantly.

Here is a metastudy, looking at 15 earlier studies that compared PBL to conventional med-school curricula. The study concludes “Twenty-two years of research shows that PBL does not impact knowledge acquisition; evidence for other outcomes does not provide unequivocal support for enhanced learning.” (Harting, et al. 2010). So, at the end of the day, are we certain that these changes are as beneficial as these authors claim? Or is active learning just another subtle improvement on a centuries old formula?

Side note: The “New Learners of the 21st Century” documentary makes an egregious false equivalence when it compares social-media and game addicts, who are condemned, to studious kids who are praised. The addiction to video games can be as pathological and compulsive as the addiction to hard drugs. It is a legitimate psychological disorder which literally kills a few young people per year. Though I suppose it is possible to do the same studying, it is certainly not something to be praised. On the contrary, an obsession with studying could also be extremely dangerous, while gaming, social-media, or studying in moderation is fine.

TL;DR: Sounds good, but: Introverts must hate active learning. Is it really applicable to all fields? Does it really work as well as these authors claim (I doubt it)? Addiction is bad.

  • Hartling, Lisa, Carol Spooner, Lisa Tjosvold, and Anna Oswald. “Problem-based learning in pre-clinical medical education: 22 years of outcome research.” Medical teacher 32, no. 1 (2010): 28-35.

Had I been a railway minister…

For a moment let’s consider a pair of strange bedfellows: the origins of popular culture in the English speaking world and Mohandas Gandhi’s views on the operation of India’s national rail system during the British Raj and what they can teach us about teaching.

For a time, I considered American culture to be the birthplace of most things that modernity considers to be entertainment — rock music, motion pictures (animation in particular), television (both the invention of, and programing for), and the spectacle of contemporary sporting events.

But the idea of entertainment as a cultural phenomenon — the notion that a person’s life should include structured leisure — is a product of the establishment of a broad class of skilled and semi-skilled laborers in (roughly)  Georgian era England.  Of course, laborers of all skill levels have existed throughout human history, but this particular period in English history brings with it a troubling reliance of these workers on a market economy for their survival.

At this time in history, a laborer is charged with the creation of a single item or component that is later used by the larger economy. In compensation for this specialised item, the laborer is provided money which can be exchanged for goods that form the basis of person’s existence (e.g.  food, shelter, clothing). This model of “earning a living” was a stark contrast to the  the subsistence labor that dominated the feudal period of the previous twenty-some centuries in which a laborer was materially invested in the direct satisfaction of his or her own basic needs. That is, they worked directly to grow or construct the wide variety of items needed to sustain their existence. Specialization and trade was, broadly speaking, a secondary concern when considering how to support oneself.

The decline of feudalism and the rise of the modern market economy generated the concept of an apprenticeship or of “learning a trade” — many of which took periods of time commensurate with earning first, second, and terminal degrees in the modern higher education system of the United States. Here for the first time, we find a formalized model of a professional (i.e. non-liberal) education structure in society.  And while schools, as we know them with stratified levels and grades given based on performance, that taught the trades came later (thanks a lot, Carigee :/ ) my point is simply we find people teaching other people how to earn a living by way of exchange — labor for know-how — and doing it in a way that commoditizes education.

But what motivation do we find to pursue X-career over Y-career during this period of time?  In modern times, we are inundated with idea that we should choose an educational path in life that provides us with a career that maximizes our “lifetime earnings” (thanks a lot, Collegeboad :/ ).  In the villages of 18th and 19th century England where identity was still broadly based in family and community, we find a slightly different motivation epitomized by Michael Wood’s presentation of a grievance report from that time, the Condition of the Framework Knitters (1845) (another discussion here) where he quotes a John Lover of Smeeton:

“There is no race of people under the sun so depressed as we are, who work the hours we do, for the money we get. It would be my delight to bring my family up to a school; I cannot bear the thought of bringing a family up in ignorance so as not to read a little.”

It’s amazing, I think, that Mr. Lover’s concern isn’t for the luxuries that an increased wage may afford him — a trap I have personally found my thinking stuck in from time-to-time — but rather for the benefits of a liberal education for his family.  So much so that this is the point he decides to highlight in airing his treatment by the textile industry.

In fact, we find that the push towards prioritizing liberal types of education to be the foundation of the culture of modern entertainment — both in terms of the leisure time and wages it affords  by way of class organization but also by the shift of identity towards the individual. Its interesting to note that this shift is paradoxical in that it is away from the identity of place and community that sparked the prioritization of the liberal education in the first place. The loss of which is a theme that still resonates in popular British entertainment culture:

I’m all lost in the supermarket
I can no longer shop happily
I came in here for that special offer
A guaranteed personality
And it’s not here
It disappeared
I’m all lost in the supermarket

The Clash


Let’s consider for a moment that most course work in modern tertiary education is liberal in the sense that, while some may be more professionally or technically oriented than others, it all attempts to save the beneficiary from a life of latter-day toil (retail?).  So yes, even though, as educators, we are still acting in the framework handed down to us from the 18th century of a commoditized educational scheme, we’ve at least gotten past educating our students into becoming (literally) part of the machine:

Operating a Hand Frame
Operating a Hand Frame (Framework Knitting)

How can we, as educators, ensure that we’re not feeding the paradoxical cycle I described in the last section? How can we ensure our students are actually liberated, not just in the sense of the career they pursue, but as more fulfilled humans — complete with a sense of place and community? And not seduced by the comforts that a toil-liberating education (and frankly, the accompanying social class) affords them? In a nod to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, I might say: More Freder, Less Fredersen.

I think Thomas and Brown’s A New Culture of Learning, in the vein of Campbell’s “networked learning”, is pushing us towards thinking like this. It details the necessities which they consider to be essential (such as free access to lots of information), but they craft the collection of these items as a cultural shift: moving from a teaching-based approach to education towards a learning-based approach.


But I can’t help but think that this is going to require more than just a shift in policy by the instructor. It is going to take a shift in expectations by the students as well.

For example, amenity-based college recruitment that is so common presently, might boost enrollment numbers (and profit), but what signals does it send to the student?  Why, as a society, do we go to college?

In my mind this business seems to be going in the wrong direction — more Fredersen, less Freder. And I’m afraid that in this collegiate environment, focusing on classes that inspire students, is dangerously close to classes that entertain students, and that (paradoxically) is a dangerous indulgence in class (the social kind).

I don’t have a solution to this problem. I don’t feel qualified to comment on it. Perhaps it’s enough for now that I think about it.

I might end, though, by quoting someone who probably would be qualified to comment on it — famous for not only his efforts in dissolving class, but doing so (in part) by encouraging the burning of fabric woven on the same machines and by the same people we discussed in the last section: Mohandas Gandhi.

Gandhi was a bit of a blogist for his time. He wrote a lot, and published a great deal of it.  But more importantly he thought a lot, and he did so from the perspective of a villager living in India. Despite being of reasonably high caste, and a London-educated  lawyer, he lived as a villager would, worked as one, dressed as one, and traveled as one.

It is his musings on traveling that I would like to draw your attention to because I think they have the most bearing on the thoughts of Campbell, Thomas, Brown, and Kuh.

Traveling by third-class rail in British India was notoriously troubling. Of it, Gandhi had this to say:

“On the way passengers got for tea tannin water with filthy sugar and a whitish looking liquid mis-called milk which gave this water a muddy appearance. I can vouch for the appearance, but I cite the testimony of the passengers as to the taste.

Not during the whole of the journey was the compartment once swept or cleaned. The result was that every time you walked on the floor or rather cut your way through the passengers seated on the floor, you waded through dirt.

The closet was also not cleaned during the journey and there was no water in the water tank.

Refreshments sold to the passengers were dirty-looking, handed by dirtier hands, coming out of filthy receptacles and weighed in equally unattractive scales. These were previously sampled by millions of flies. I asked some of the passengers who went in for these dainties to give their opinion. Many of them used choice expressions as to the quality but were satisfied to state that they were helpless in the matter; they had to take things as they came.


On Indian trains alone passengers smoke with impunity in all carriages irrespective of the presence of the fair sex and irrespective of the protest of non-smokers. And this, notwithstanding a bye-law which prevents a passenger from smoking without the permission of his fellows in the compartment which is not allotted to smokers.”

At this point in his career, he  clearly lays the blame for the conditions at the feet of the Raj:

“Among the many suggestions that can be made for dealing with the evil here described, I would respectfully include this: let the people in high places, the Viceroy, the Commander-in-Chief, the Rajas, Maharajas, the Imperial Councillors and others, who generally travel in superior classes, without previous warning, go through the experiences now and then of third class travelling. We would then soon see a remarkable change in the conditions of third class travelling and the uncomplaining millions will get some return for the fares they pay under the expectation of being carried from place to place with ordinary creature comforts.  “



But after India won independence, he referred back to these comments and experiences with advice for the newly free India. Speaking at a prayer meeting shortly after Indian independence he spoke metahpoicially of the challenges independence would bring and related that to the experience (that most everyone had) of traveling by rail in India.

“The passengers should consider the railways as their own property. They should keep the trains clean. They should not spit and smoke in the trains and should not pull the chain without real need. And not a single passenger should travel without ticket. Then I would be able to say that we have attained true independence. “

The idea here is that the people who use a service, can collectively take responsibility for the level of service that is rendered. A consummate message in Gandhi’s thinking: if, as a group, we stop treating third class like it is a “third class”, we can all ride in a better environment. And even though he’s speaking of India here, I can imagine him speaking to many of the students that I have had in my classes — the message is the same. Professors have their part in the student’s liberation, but so do the students. None of us can move forward until we all move forward.






My favorite (digital) things

Engaging the current generation of learners requires that educators understand and make effective use of digital media and technology. In a 2015 study by the Pew Research Center, it was reported that 87% of all teens in the United States have or have access to a computer or laptop and 73% have or have access to a smartphone. While smartphones and computers can be a distraction in the classroom, they can also be a powerful tool in helping to interest and capture student’s attention. Utilizing digital resources is becoming a standard tool for teachers and I think it really is a valuable one.

I am a very big user of digital resources for my own learning, including youtube, khanacademy.com, and most recently brilliant.org. I find it very helpful to watch lectures and worked example problems in a video format that lets me pause and rewind so that I can keep up with my notes and actually understand what is being taught instead of just copying notes as fast as I can. I also like that I can take breaks if I am starting to loose my focus. This point was eloquently made in the article, “Four Things Lecture is Good For”

There are serious problems with retention and recall of information given in a lecture even if the lecture is rhetorically solid — and this is to say nothing about the disconnect between the length of the average lecture and the average human being’s attention span.

Robert Talbot, “Four Things Lecture is Good For”

One of my favorite youtube channels is called 3Blue1Brown and is dedicated to making very nice animations to show complicated math problems. Often times the concepts that we teach can be difficult to understand, especially if they are abstract and don’t have intuitive analogies. This channel does a great job of tackling complex math problems and providing animations and perspectives that make them much easier to grasp. I think one of the best parts of this channel, and a common theme throughout successful digital education materials, is that when I am watching these videos, I am actually being entertained. I first found the channel when I was trying to understand some difficult topics in linear algebra, but now I am excited to watch the new videos that the channel creates because it is entertaining.

Who cares about topology? (Inscribed rectangle problem) Click on picture to see the video

I am interested in finding out what digital tools other students and teachers are using. Please share if you have a cool youtube channel or website that you like to use.

Let’s Play: Engaging Engineering Students with Web Games

Game is everywhere, in daily life

“My kids show no interest in anything but games.” This is a complaint I heard many times by frustrated parents from different countries. But why does this phenomenon exist and to some extent become a global issue?

The interest to play games is not the patent of humankind. Without the ability to make tools, baby lions play with each other to learn how to bite and fight. The fights among these young warriors are not serious but provide vivid scenarios that mimic the future battles.What cannot kill you makes you stronger. In another word, what kills you makes you die. Playing games offer them chances to regret and improve their skills for more serious work.

Go, a board game, was used by an ancient king to stimulate his son’s wisdom. It’s obvious to say “people learn from their own experiences.” Sometimes experience comes from the practice that causes non-invertible damages. A more efficient way of learning is to learn from others’ experience. Some educators take the abstraction from the knowledge and put them into games. The desire to play games, from my understanding, comes from the intuition of strategies to learn and to survive.


Game is somewhere, in class

My first experience of games in class was where the games served as rewards for behaving well. Years later, I found out that games can be used as exercising or teaching tools. One combination of game and math class was to type the correct answers of visually nicely wrapped equations. Animations appear after the correct answering the questions to serve as a rewarding.

These kinds of nicely wrapped math exercise were expanded by commercial games whose original objective was for recreation. Minecraft, a popular digital game, released an education edition in 2016. In Minecraft education edition, a teacher can create Non-Player Characters who can guide the students through the topics. Students can talk to each other in the game world. Portal 2 is a First-Person-Shooting-like game. Instead of fire bullets, the gun in the game can only open portals that can be used to transport characters. In this game, other than the magic portals, the mechanics are realistic. Some teachers used this game to teach physics. SimCity is a game with decades of history. The game producer claimed that they implemented the four-step model in the game. The four-step model is a model that is taught in traffic planning class to senior students. Dr. Trani, a professor at Virginia Tech, said he used that game to teach traffic planning ten years ago.

Other than commercial games, there are games developed by higher education educators. These kind of games are usually small size-wise. They are more like interactive modules for different topics. The professors or educators are the fittest people to get involved in the design and/or development of the educational games. However, only a few of them know how to develop games. Using games cannot replace the formal way of teaching now so other educators cannot devote too much time to exploring how to develop games. Even the educators who know how to build games will not focus on polishing their games because most of them are still busy in fulfilling their other duties and building games are not on their evaluation criteria.

Most of the professional game developers who can develop educational games only know knowledge in K-12 education. This is true because those developers’ professional training during their higher education is to build games! So it is hard to have good educational games for higher education.

What I have done

I’m in transportation engineering. It was my advisor’s idea to start developing educational games for this area. When I got the assignment from my advisor, I started to think about games’ role in education. Transportation engineering is a broad area. There are several topics, serving towards transportation, with low correlation under this area. But in general, knowledge on all these topics is needed in order to build transportation systems. I, therefore, builded five games for those topics.


  • Road Crush


The earliest topic in transportation engineering is on the road. People need to build strong enough roads to link between origins and destinations, and this need spawns the research in pavement design.

I designed a game called Road Crush for this topic. In this game, players can see different traffic scenarios (different traffic volume and compositions) in different levels. They will need to design the pavement for the given scenarios. The main design parameters in pavement design are thickness and material for each layer. The design will be achieved by dragging materials onto different layers and dragging each layers to change the thickness of them. Visual feedback of each layer of the pavement and quantitative feedback of each parameters will be offered to the players as they play the game. The players are given a certain budget. If the players do not design the pavement well, the game will show the road get crushed by the traffic.


  • Angry Curves


People realized that strong pavement does not guarantee safe driving. Different highway curvatures result in different cost and safety measure. The study of curvature design falls into the topic of highway design.

The game for highway curvatures design is called Angry Curves. In the game, if the player does not design the curvatures well, the curves will get angry and throw the vehicles away. In reality, if the engineers do not design the curvatures well, the vehicles will fall and may even actually throw themselves away. I introduced certain constraints in this game to make the world more complicated and in a sense closer to real problems.  


  • Transporters


After the construction of a road system, people found out that some roads have higher traffic than the others. They can save some money while still provide better performance if they can put more money to build stronger and wider roads for those with higher traffic need and save money from the roads with lower traffic need. The process that predicts the traffic needs before the design and construction falls into the topic of traffic planning.

The transporters game includes an algorithm that has been used in traffic planning practice. The algorithm is from a model called four-step model. As is written in the name, the four-step model has four steps. The Transporters game will guide the players through the steps in different levels. In the final level, the players have a more complicated planning task to do and they will need to think about all the steps in the planning model. The game will show a visual feedback of where the road will be congested to the players after their design.


  • DZ-Man


There are intersections because two routes may meet and they want to use the same piece of land. When the traffic from both routes is high, the intersection becomes complicated. At first traffic police need to stand at the intersections to guide traffic. Then, traffic lights were introduced to serve a similar function of traffic police. Sometimes people can see traffic lights turn yellow when they approaching the intersection. It’s a dilemma that they do not know whether to stop or continue. A good traffic control should minimize the chance of this case.

DZ-Man is based on the concept of dilemma zone. Dilemma zone is the zone where people will have this dilemma of deciding whether to stop or go. In this game, players will need to control the traffic lights. They can see the cars in dilemma zone turn red when they turn the traffic lights to yellow. Their goal is to minimize the number of cars in dilemma zone.


  • Time-Space Invaders


When there are two intersections close to each other, the vehicles arriving patterns of one intersection are impacted by the signal timing of the previous intersection. The way to control multiple intersections cooperatively is called coordinated control. If the coordination is designed well, the traffic efficiency of these intersections can be improved significantly. A tool that has been used by the traffic control community to study and design the coordination is called time-space diagram. The time-space diagram reflects the trajectories of vehicles through a period of time.

I designed the Time-Space Invaders game to illustrate time-space diagrams and coordinated control concepts. The game visualization is based on a modified time-space diagram. I implemented a simulation algorithm to simulate the movement of cars. So the movement of the cars is, although random, realistic. When the students play this game, they can observe the phenomenon that is simplified and even ignored by people during a certain time in history.

Visits from surrounding middle schools

Although the targeting customers are the junior or senior undergraduate students, the games have been tested by middle school students. In the year of 2016 and 2017, students from surrounding middle schools visited Virginia Tech. We volunteered to give them short lectures on transportation engineering. It’s hard to explain the word of transportation engineering to those young visitors. Then we used the games. They got really interested in the games. During the lecture (and their gameplay), I heard voices from different seats. “I got an 8!” “I got a 10!” They are showing off the scores they got in the games. They are easy to get engaged. While they are playing the games, I started to explain to them what does the game elements mean in the real world and why what they saw happened. It’s rewarding to see the games can bring them happiness and knowledge at the same time.

Experience from what I have done

We tested the games in different years at Virginia Tech. The results showed the students can understand the hard concepts better in transportation engineering. The students were from transportation engineering classes and the concepts were taught in those classes. Ideally, the students should fully understand those concepts. The evaluations were conducted by before-and-after studies. The students were asked to do a quiz consisting of several multiple choice for a given topic before they play the corresponding game. No feedback on their grades was given to them. After playing the game, they were asked to do the quiz again. The quizzes and gameplay were untimed. Since playing the game was the only activity between the quizzes, it should be the only factor that causes the change of their grades. The statistics showed that their scores improved significantly. This means 1) their scores on the quiz improved, and 2) the improvement is not out of chance. This further implies the games can improve students’ understanding of the hard concepts in transportation engineering.

The middle school students from the visit showed more interest in the traffic planning game. Comparing to other games, the traffic planning game has more degree of freedom. The students can design the layout of the city rather than clicking certain buttons or dragging sliders. In another word, the world for them to explore is bigger. This phenomenon suggests education games developers to design games that can be explored further. However, to build a bigger world, the required time and resources become longer and more. A rewarding mechanism should be designed to encourage the developers and faculty to collaborate on building educational games.

The educational games can break barriers for students who do not have the background but still want to learn the topics. The transportation educational games were designed for junior or senior engineering students. However, the middle school students can still play them and learn certain knowledge from the gameplay.


Teaching Old Dogs New Tricks OR Reminding New Dogs Old Tricks are No Good: Striving for Quality in Higher Ed

I have a past that I once considered dark. I was embarrassed to admit to any new friends I made that I had once been a hardcore gamer. For about 3 years during my undergraduate years (a decade ago), mostly summers and over holiday breaks when I wasn’t working, I spent my time plugged into World of Warcraft (WoW)… not casually playing–grinding for resources, completing quests, raiding, and participating in team PvP combat. It was never dull! I had multiple top-level characters-my favorites were a human warlock and a Draenai priest, that I played with friends in real life and with friends I had met online. I was embarrassed to talk about my gaming past because of the reactions I would get from people. If I wasn’t getting a blank, yet horrified stare, the person I was talking to might be laughing or snickering at me for my juvenile, time-wasting hobby. But I never saw it as a waste of time. I learned a lot in those games about social interaction, team work, planning, communication, and problem solving that I don’t think I would have had an equivalent opportunity to experience in real life. Especially in an age where communication and learning is increasingly happening online and in the digital realm, I believe it is increasingly important that we all practice our skills so that we are ready to engage with other people/learners whom we might not be working with face-to-face. Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown in “A New Culture of Learning” talk about how gaming is a highly social activity that can bring together and engage multiple generations while also allowing the players to direct themselves in the play. I think this is an insightful way to look at WoW and other games like it. It is a simulation of a fantasy world, sure–but that doesn’t make the learning outcomes any less real or valuable. Jumping into a “traditional” classroom, we think of a teacher in front of a class full of students and what are they doing? Well, they might be doing something out-of-the-box that’s fun and engaging, but more than likely, they’re doing the same thing we teachers have always been doing–they’re lecturing their class to death and they’re wondering “what is it about the students these days?” News flash: it’s not the students. It’s you. It’s me. It’s us. It’s educators who have been so focused on career development/their own learning/whatever, you name it–that they’ve forgotten what it was like to be a student having to struggle through another exhausting lecture-based class. Just last week, I had to give a presentation to a class that I’m the Research Assistant for and since I was in a relative hurry and the information wasn’t exactly “interesting” per se, I created a basic PowerPoint to deliver the information and at first, was satisfied with my work/preparation. During the 20 minute presentation, though, I discovered quickly that I had made a mistake. I was the only one that talked. No one really asked any questions. I was trying hard not to read the slides, but found myself stumbling through the information.  I was probably 4 minutes into it when I noticed I “lost” my first student, and I was only half way through before one of the professors on record walked out because what I was doing/delivering was clearly a waste of his time. In retrospect, especially after the readings this week, I realize that I would have done them a better service to send the class an email with links to the websites where I pulled the information from and then spent that same 20 minutes discussing the case studies rather than boring everyone to death with policy discussion. The big question I’ve been asking myself since then is: “How am I going to do it better next time?” and “What am I going to do differently?” From Jean Lacoste’s Teaching Innovation Statement, I pulled this quote because it really resonated with me: “I want to reach every single student in the class. I want each student to feel important, and I want each to know I care about his or her education.”  And it’s true. I really do care about each and every one of my students. I want them to get the most out of our time together, yet when given the opportunity to really help them, I feel like I set myself up for failure by following the same model for classroom interactions every week. (But that’s why I’m in this course now–so that I can learn to be better. One of my personal mantras is “Know Better, Do Better” and pedagogy is no exception. I decided to go into education because I LOVE learning, yet I realize that I don’t know all that much about teaching, yet. I am going to wrap this blog post with an excerpt from the Robert Talbert reading:

“Notice also that I do not count whether a lecture is inspiring or not. No doubt many lectures are inspiring, but being inspired and being taught are not the same thing, and just having one’s thoughts provoked doesn’t mean that one has interacted with the lecturer in any real way.”

Robert Talbert “Four things lecture is good for” (2012)

As I look to the future and imagine opportunities where I will be able to make a difference to my students, I will start by not “teaching” with the same stale lecture and exhausting PowerPoint that I have elected to use in the past. These methods are outdated by contemporary standards, and we owe it to our students to do a better job at meeting their educational, social, and creative needs. There are so many different innovative, exciting, and engaging examples of how educators are out there today, providing a completely new and inspiring educational experience. So how will I be different in the future? Well, I’m going to start by slowing down a little bit. I’m going to slow down and start paying closer attention to the things that inspire me and capture my attention–and then I’m going to study those methods. I’m going to be mindful about my own learning experiences and see if there are things from my past that I can draw on in order to grow into a better version of myself (who is actually an amazing educator!) I will be thoughtful and thorough when it comes to my course material because I owe it to my students to provide them the best education that I possibly can–and that if they’re going to show up ready to be taught, then I am certainly going to meet them on their terms. //

Tomorrow is Here Now

I cannot tell you how many times I have heard someone say “why do we need to do this differently?” or simply avoid change. It is difficult for me to comprehend why anyone would want to continue to do anything the exact same way, day in and day out even if whatever they were doing worked perfectly. Learning is a function of either not knowing something and taking the time and energy to absorb/comprehend it, or making a mistake and then finding a way out whether its a mess or another opportunity that results.  There are times that I wish I didn’t have to struggle so much/long to work my way out of a problem, but looking back those are exactly the times that I revel in my accomplishment and ability to overcome the obstacles that stood in the way. That sounds cliche, and I am not one for quippy aphorisms or platitudes. But I don’t know how else to explain what learning and accomplishment looks like, to me.

In my youth, there was a sentiment that some people were “born before their time” meaning that they were visionaries, able to see around corners where others couldn’t, being able to imagine the future being radically different than the present day, or having such a unique talent, perspective or ability that they were perceived as one-of-a-kind. I don’t hear that phrase very much anymore. And I don’t see the same things being considered as ‘before one’s time’. Instead, the unique person – the visionary – is one who possesses the skills and experiences to deal with situations as they arise with enthusiasm and confidence, seeking innovative ways to solve problems or create solutions because of her/his unique perspective.

I have wrestled with this post most of the week, and have decided to make a list of inspirations from some of the materials to view and read. The Digital media video was truly inspirational: to know that there are so many other adults out in the world attempting to ‘change’ the way change is perceived, and provide children and youth – particularly – different ways of seeing the world they live within just a little differently and inspire them to learn. And Talbert’s article gave me pause to consider what good there might still be in a ‘lecture’ from a different perspective.

Digital Media – New Learners of the 21st Century

Form groups to learn …

Take an active role in order to shape their [learning] experiences…

Don’t sit in front of textbooks

system-based thinking: trial and error

the power and importance of play

tinkering brings thought and action together in some very magical ways

lifelong learning event

Game design (in school) teaches you to attack a complex problem in smaller pieces. It also makes you think on many different levels at once.

How do we get people prepared to learn in the future for things that don’t even exist now, and how do we prepare them to be able to innovate and solve problems and not just know a bunch of facts they can’t use.

A game is just a problem space … you must solve in order to win

Digital media is a tool … we’re learning from it

standards are a baseline …

If a learning system is well-designed, you don’t finish it without the guarantee that you’ve learned …

[we can] build such rich learning systems that they … assess themselves.

We’ve used the term ‘addiction’ to refer to things we don’t value, but they may, in fact,  be valuable to students and young people in their lives.


Digital Youth Network – brings a wide variety of opportunities to youth that may never have the opportunities otherwise.

In the 21st century, kids need passion … because learning requires a lot of practice

If you put opportunities in front of him, he’ll take advantage of it

Digital media … is changing the ecology of reading and writing. Different practices happen. Different types of texts are produced. Kids are doing more reading and writing than they ever did. [They’re just not doing it the same way they did before]

Media work builds on top of traditional literacy: and if a kid hasn’t had art, if they don’t understand color, if they don’t understand shapes and circles, then it’s very hard for them to say ‘we want to do graphic design’

A lot of learning happens outside of the classroom

We know that the learning outside of school matters tremendously in school

Every child has an interest…

[T]he responsibility of libraries, museums, schools, after school programs … is to help kids identify those interests and then … become more advanced … [with an] academic coach.

When you put a phone in their hand and say “look, you’re the photographer. You’re going to be … looking for objects.” Something actually happens. They look more closely …

They are engaged in the process of constructing meaning (not simply receptors of knowledge)  {KgC commentary}

Place-based learning … is mobile. It’s also pervasive in that you have it with you all of the time. Students, an hour later or later that night or over the weekend can continue to do work because they have the mobile device with them.

Removes the barriers [to meaningful learning] of walls, reliance solely on tangible resources, dependence upon ad


ults for providing information, tools and environment {KgC commentary}

The game has them look closer at the objects, have to learn about the objects to communicate information in their scavenger hunts [and] allows them to be more active and take a role in their experience.


There are a whole new set of tools accessible to help bring content to students … and increase your audience.

How do [we] move from the notion of individual expertise to collective expertise? Most of our learning could very well come from the interaction with peers in [our] particular collective[s] … In peer based collaboration you’re both learning and teach

ing. And that sense of having to explain something is often where you discover what you know and don’t know.



The individual student is being empowered … to follow a personal path to learning. [T]hey’re going to feel more confident, they’re going to believe more in the creative process, and they’re going to believe more that they can make a contribution to this world that is positive.

~    , Director Hirshorn Museum of Art

Humans don’t learn from abstractions. They don’t learn from just a bunch of words. They learn from having experiences and then learning how to generalize, eventually, from lots of experiences: find patterns in them and then marry them to words.

~ James Gee

Augmented reality game allows students to get out into their community, learn history from a game-based learning platform and then recognize the built environment and address what the needs may be for re-designing the town to address the desires of the community.

We can imagine a system [of learning] is not just about what job you’re going to have by about making everybody able to participate in society, to have dignity, to be able to innovate …. And then we’re going to have to deal with the problem that society is too smart for some of the jobs, which would b a nice problem to deal with.

An intelligent society where everybody can produce knowledge and collaborate with each other to make a better society would make us much more successful in the long run in the global economy.

~ James Gee


Robert Talbert, “Four Things Lecture is Good For

There is no doubt that I do not appreciate lectures. Like Talbert, I am inspired by others’ speaking about issues that they are passionate about, but I do not learn well when lecture is the primary driver for knowledge conveyance.  But his four things, in the context presented, do make a compelling argument for how a lecture format can be an effective tool for learning.

1.   Modeling thought processes

The idea of modeling is not new to elementary teachers. There is as much information conveyed to children in how you act/move as there is in what you say to young children. Their first learning experiences are all about watching and imitating gestures, walking, expressing emotion and all types of other non-verbal activities. If I take two minutes to show a child how to do something, I imagine it saving ten to twenty minutes of talking and possible re-teaching if I only use words (that are subject to misinterpretation or misperception.)

I can recall several instances where I was able to pick up on the thought processes, rationale and thinking that the ‘teacher’ was using to get to an appropriate solution.

2.  Sharing Cognitive Structures

While Talber’s example is rather facile, I can imagine fairly easily how this purpose could ignite understanding and provide the scaffolding a student needs to break through to understanding an abstract concept or idea when it is shared by an expert: learn from the master comes to mind. I imagine there are countless opportunities in every discipline or subject for this method to be effective: application of a mathematical formula; understanding a law of physics, chemistry or cell biology; determining the correct language to use in a paper; using a technique or tool appropriately in art, design or engineering.

3. Giving Context

Providing the appropriate mindset, setting and relationships is another fairly effective tool of the K-8 trade. As James Gee said in the Digital Media video (above):

Humans don’t learn from abstractions. They don’t learn from just a bunch of words. They learn from having experiences and then learning how to generalize, eventually, from lots of experiences: find patterns in them and then marry them to words.

Providing context allows students to use both their own experiences and their ability to abstract to develop their understanding of new material.

4. Telling Stories

Stories are a powerful way of transmitting knowledge and history – they were at the origin of mankind and have held their value through time. Stories based on both knowlege and history  provide context for further learning and understanding and allow students to insert themselves into the story as well.

21st Century learning is dawning as an age of personalization of learning experiences but working toward a collective knowledge base that makes us all responsible to and for one another’s learning.

Tomorrow is definitely here now.

Digital Learning – What was I doing again?

As a student in the CALS Graduate Teaching Scholar program, I have been assigned many readings about the dependency on lecturing within higher education. Us teaching scholars are taught that the attention span of adults is only somewhere between fifteen to twenty minutes. Therefore transitions must be made after this amount of time goes by. These transitions can be minor such as switching to a different topic or performing in-class questions. Even a short break can do the trick.

What I dislike about the Four Things Lecture is Good For article is that it does not provide alternative suggestions for lecturing. While I do agree that “covering material” is not an excuse for lecturing, it can be often be difficult to get students to go through material on their own. I believe it is an instructor’s job to make sure that students are set up to at least have the chance to be successful. For introductory level classes there should be plenty of materials discussed in the class itself so that students pretty much don’t have a choice but to be introduced to concepts for the first time. I was also not keen on the drastic distinction between being inspired versus being taught. In my opinion the two go hand in hand. If students are not feeling inspired then they may be less likely to be open to learning. Moral of the story – I am not much of a Robert Talbert fan.

It is refreshing to hear that former president, Barack Obama, experienced a season of life where he “went through the motions” in school. Although I’m now in the second year of a PhD program (I’m going to assume that you must like school if you have endured it for that long) I still remember a time in undergrad where I was much less interested in and dedicated to Food Science. I was filled with the excitement of being a freshman and had just recently joined a sorority. Food engineering was not my first priority to say the least. It took time for me to become passionate about my field of work. It is important that we don’t give up on students that do not seem as engaged as we would like them to be. Maybe it just hasn’t “clicked” for them yet. While I did like the concept behind getting students more involved, I also believe that school in general was not designed to be fun. For instance graduate school is rewarding and I enjoy it very much, but I would be lying if I said every aspect of it is fun. However, I think that’s ok.

The New Learners of the 21st Century video changed my perspective on a few things. I’m not much of a video game person. In fact, I sort of dislike them and find them to be a waste of time. With that being said, a wonderful point was made in regards to negative perceptions about addiction and video games. The point was that a child who stays up all night to read a book is praised, whereas a kid that stays up to play video games may not be. Similarly if a child puts in an extensive amount of work related to sports, that is seen as dedication. These conflicting ideals highlight what is deemed as valued to the population. I found these comments to be very convicting. How true!





Value of learning: student vs teacher

The increasing need to improve the quality of teaching and learning is an important issue that continues to receive attention among educators and the impact it has come to have on learning communities is central. Students have come to place great importance on earning money in comparison to the past, and they lack a love for learning while they aim to gain the needed competencies not necessarily provided by faculty members. As a result, the value they hold for education and learning almost never exists. Not only is this a major determinant for the value students come to hold for education, but is also as an influencing role of teachers and schools.

It is fortunate that, in higher education, faculty have great freedom to structure their teaching practices as developing their own teaching methods is not a subject for collective deliberation but is rather left to the judgment of individual faculty members. Faculty members need to start to develop their pedagogical capability in addition to their expertise in their fields. They need to contribute to the quality of teaching and to encourage initiatives that set a favorable learning and teaching environment imparting valuable support and inspiring reflection on their teaching roles. Not only should they strive for good teaching encouraging student learning, but also scholarly teaching where teaching is an area of study in which proficiency is constantly being developed. Correspondingly, they ought to engage themselves with pedagogical action research further flourishing their skills. In addition to professors’ passion for learning and for their field, this conceivably endorses passion for teaching and passion for students, which involves understanding student approaches to learning, motivating students and helping them through academic struggles.

This can also help with the problem in faculty planning that does not support the educational aim to prepare students for their future careers, where professors base their teaching on their own practiced interests and priorities rather than on students’ desires for learning and the chance to actively create rather than passively consume. Hence, teachers must strike the balance where student are taught basic course material, as well as the approaches they could potentially use in applying them, and thus gain knowledge from faculty expertise and prepare for probable future careers.

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