Grand Theft Education

The readings this week extended our notion of learning environment. Jean Lacoste’s teaching statement shifts the focus from a generic one-size-fits-all approach to a customizable learning experience that uses the Web as a part of the classroom infrastructure. I was struck by how his teaching philosophy attempts to create personalized experiences within large-lecture classrooms. My worry is that his video lectures nullify the need of face-to-face interactions if his classroom management style is still heavily reliant on lecturing. If his lectures were to be more about Q&A, then he’d  still be doing the work of video lecturing but without the feedback of a live audience.

Talbert recognizes that the lecture format may have outlived its place in the classroom as a method of content delivery. I couldn’t help but notice that the context setting function of lectures is still critical for guiding students through lessons and plays an important role in the learning process. The PBS video highlighted how learning can be “smuggled in” through games and reorganizes the classroom through student-produced content. Following Paul Gee’s chapter, I wonder if games themselves can be used as instruments for facilitating learning without the need to set context. Learners may be better able to to determine what the game means to them without being guided through a context setting lecture. If Gee’s optimism is to be taken seriously, then lecturing might be detrimental to learners because the context in which the information is presented and interpreted is still largely set by the professor which limits how much ambiguity is involved in the initial process of meaning-making. Carnes, however,  focuses the conversation on the power that games can have to carry the classroom into other spaces. Games can inspire when used correctly and if we’re supposed to foster the creative spark in each individual, the pedagogical potential of games cannot be overestimated.

Reflecting on my own experiences, it’s clear that the games that grabbed me as a kid told me something about myself. Mathblaster and Simcity at FEA summer camp just didn’t get their hooks in me quite like Deus Ex or Way of the Samurai. Maybe I should’ve known that I would study politics and not engineering because the games I loved reflected the open-ended nature of the questions I’d become interested in as I got older. Maybe the hours spent in front of the screen playing Fallout before it was an FPS or the openness of Bethesda Studio’s digital worlds indicated something I already knew about myself.  Maybe I can tell my folks that those hours of Tony Hawk’s Pro-skater were hours spent in the classroom as it challenged me to have better timing and put together more fantastic combinations against the tyranny of the clock. Or maybe education should focus on developing the interests and talents that students already hold rather than stamping out another basic unit to be yoked to the industrial process. But will the Boomers who still won’t get the hell out of politics understand that? Will we be stuck waiting for an enlightened Gen Xer to grasp the nature of learning outside of the factory education? Or is it going to take someone from the digital generation before we see any real change?

Active Learning

I found Jean Lacoste’s teaching innovation statement very interesting. I particularly like the idea that she tried to incorporate different teaching methods while minimizing the drawbacks of each.  I strongly identify with the statement that in very large classrooms you don’t feel that you matter. It’s very encouraging that the overall experience was positive and I am looking forward to learn about the specifics, such as the simulation software that allowed students to test-out of skills they had mastered and generate custom lessons for skills they have not. In fact, I have seen this type of approach followed by successful online private teaching websites. The fact that these institutions are on demand probably indicates that higher education institutions should learn and adapt.

In addition, Carne’s idea on active learning is quite fascinating. I got excited by merely reading the article, especially the part when students get to portray different historical figures and eras.  It definitely does foster motivation. Furthermore, Robert Talbert’s article on the four things lecture is good for was also quite perceptive. While I do recognize from my own experience that lectures are not necessarily good in transferring information, I never explicitly thought about the advantages of lectures, even though on an intuitive level I knew it was useful in organizing my thoughts.

Finally, James Paul Gee brings a novel idea on how video games can teach us how to teach. Reading and thinking are social achievements connected to social groups. His elaborate piece regarding good learning principles and how gaming developers continuously improve them without making game easier, but in most cases, harder was insightful. I look forward in reading his 36 learning principles.

2/15 Engaging the Imagination

In “Four Things Lecture is Good For,” Robert Talbert argues that for all things there is a season; a time to lecture and a time to not lecture. Although I agree with his list of suitable occasions, I would argue that there are many opportunities to use lecture-like strategies and tactics without becoming a sage on the stage.

For Example, I teach philosophy, and philosophy is difficult to understand. It is conceptually dense, rigorously argumentative, and by and large, a subject that follows lines of reasoning that are very foreign to most individuals. That being said, lecture, at least at the introductory level, is crucial for learning. Thus, I might lecture for ten or fifteen minutes and then take a break to discuss the material with my students. During this break, questions are asked and clarifications are made. It is also an opportunity for students to engage with other students, either to argue against or affirm the author’s or another classmate’s perspective. Towards the end of the semester, when the students become more accustomed to the oddity that is philosophy, the need to lecture, even for short periods of time, diminishes.

Thus, I think that there is a middle ground where lecturing is definitely utilized, but utilized sparingly, so as to more effectively engage the students.

Stop Talking To Me

I love school. I have always loved school since the very first day of kindergarten. I even tried to trick my mom that school started earlier than it did.

That being said, I am not a very good listener for learning. When I came to college, I had a bit of a panic because I sat (aka slept) through many of my lectures because I struggled to pay attention. I was worried that I was unintentionally wasting college. I did attend 99.8% of my classes unless I was at death’s door ill.  I worked hard outside of class. I am a kinesthetic learner, and learn by writing and by doing. I basically taught myself what I needed to know to advance. It served me well. I graduated magna cum laude in my undergraduate career and summa cum laude for my Master’s from Virginia Tech. That being said, I still greatly value the concept of a physical class.

I get frustrated when I am talked at. I get frustrated when discussion is forced. It is just now how I learn. I agree, for the most part, with  Robert Talbert’s four things a lecture should be used for. There is no advantage to a lecture that just repeats its reading. It needs to expand and enhance. My roommate, an intelligent and upcoming biological engineer, intentionally skips a class every week. She doesn’t do this because she is uninterested or a bad student. She does it because all the teacher does for the class period is present a power point lecture of the chapters that he had the students read. She asked me, “why do I need to go hear exactly what I just read?” My roommate is also in the course we discussed in class last week. The class that was described as a “triple flip with a twist”. Every week, I see her actively engaged with the work for this class. She will sit down on a Friday night and watch the videos or complete the “pre-class” activity. This is a class that she never misses.

Shifting gears now, I want to talk about Mark Carnes’ post about Setting Students’ Minds on Fire. I am all for active learning and contextualizing it for a subject area. I love the idea of incorporating a game like the one he mentions. I still fondly remember my AP government class from high school where our teacher had us divide into table groups and become countries. My group kidnapped another group’s leader for the sake of bargaining for better trade from his country.

I am a PhD student in the Department of Hospitality and Tourism Management, and I am specializing in the area of events management. Events management is not something that can just be read about. Students need to be actively engaged in an experiential learning process in order to properly learn the elements of event planning and coordination. I hope to develop classes that reflect this.

Tying back to the start of this blog post, I hope as a future teacher that I can avoid the booby trap of “read the power point” classes. I don’t want to sit there and just talk at people almost as much as I don’t like people just talking at me.




Teaching Innovation

While I have learned a lot from the readings for the previous weeks, I felt like most of them just highlighted the problems in education and didn’t come up with any solutions that I felt I could use in my classroom once I became a professor. Jean Lacoste’s “Teaching Innovation Statement” actually gave examples of how to change your classroom to benefit each student. We read earlier this semester about how not all students are the same and you need to create a classroom environment that allows everyone to be able to learn to their fullest ability but until reading this statement this task seemed nearly impossible.

Jean explained in her statement that she had both online videos of her lecture and in person lectures. We discussed a teaching method similar to this in our class last week, where a professor for the into to engineering course had the students watch the lecture before class and then used the class time to work though problems. I think this concept is a great way to have more interaction with the students. I also really like the idea of having the recorded lectures online so that students can go back and re-watch parts they didn’t fully understand. I have had a few courses in graduate school that used the Echo360 service because we had students in our class that were in Northern Virginia, and I got a lot of use out of the recorded lectures. I would go back to the recorded lectures when I I was doing my homework if I remembered going over a concept in class but didn’t fully grasp the concept at the time and I would also use them  to study for my exams. I though this was a great tool and really enhanced my learning experience. Like Jean mentioned in her statement, having the lectures recorded online also allows students to be fully engaged in the class discussions since they don’t have to worry about taking detailed notes because they can go back and watch the lecture online.

It seems like the way Jean set up her course would take a lot of effort up front (recording all the lectures and coming up with all the activities for students) but the overall benefit for the students would make it worth it in the end. Especially if this is a course that you are teaching every semester.




Four things discussion is good for

Modelling thought processes: I think discussion, rather than lecturing is the best way to understand what gives a person his or her opinions. I don’t believe in experts. I think this kind of reciprocal interaction is also good for differentiating someone’s character, his or her specific way of responding to stimuli, and neurosis, people’s tendency to position themselves as an aberration to social norms, rules of conduct, etc. Neurosis gives us a way to combat “expertise-ism.” Humor is a good example of the power of neurosis; as Kirsten Hyldgaard says in her essay on neurosis and perversion: “Humour and joking are, on the other hand, the neurotic’s breathing hole and playground in the social. Here he can let loose all that the good society would rather was left unsaid and unheard. Laughter and humour is a pleasure or enjoyment that is never innocent” … “A joke has to have a latent “tendency” consisting of hatred, obscenity, and cynicism in order to create the enjoyment of a roaring laugh.” The point is that we’re all neurotic.

Sharing cognitive structures: discussion is again a much better way to do this. Discussion is discursive, can move directions and respond to inputs in a much more flexible way than lecturing. It gives all parties a chance to share cognitive structures. There is nothing in the concept of lecturing that offers a superior mode of reciprocation.

Giving context: discussion creates a much more complex context in which to situate one’s self than lecturing.

Telling Stories: There is also nothing specific to lecturing that provides a better platform than discussion for the telling of stories. Discussion simply allows for more thorough cross germination of ideas and stories. I have found that in my teaching I often end up giving short lectures and telling stories of an analogous form to what we are discussing, ad hoc, on a variety of topics that come up in the discussion that they have little knowledge of, and when I don’t know it, we look it up on the spot. I use networked classroom strategies too sometimes.

Fork† ABET

Is it time to kick ABET to the curb?

ABET’s proposed dilution of student outcome criteria, which will effectively reduce the breadth of engineering education, may be the death knell of ABET.

Various stakeholders are invested in decades of evolution in engineering education.   By all accounts, communication skills, teamwork skills, and an understanding of the engineering profession’s place in a larger society are important and necessary for engineering practitioners and sought by employers.  Here are some excerpts from several engineering schools’ mission or vision statements that describe their respective commitments to broad engineering education:

“Provide students with a broad and exceptional education that prepares them to excel in their professions and to become creative leaders and mentors in an increasingly complex world . . .”

Cornell University College of Engineering Mission Statement

“. . . the College nurtures the intellectual, professional, and personal development of its students. The College strives to prepare them for entry into the engineering profession, related fields and graduate programs, and for continuing development as highly competent professionals and responsible members of society.  A Bucknell engineering education is distinguished by . . . an emphasis on learning within a liberal arts university environment.”

“We believe it is essential to educate engineers who possess not only deep technical excellence, but the creativity, cultural awareness and entrepreneurial skills that come from exposure to the liberal arts, business, medicine and other disciplines that are an integral part of the Stanford experience.”

“WPI educates talented men and women in engineering, science, management, and humanities in preparation for careers of professional practice, civic contribution, and leadership, facilitated by active lifelong learning.”

“The WPI curriculum . . . has remained true to its original mission of fusing academic inquiry with social needs, of blending abstraction with immediacy, of linking new knowledge to applications.”

“We create a collaborative environment that embraces interdisciplinary thought, integrated entrepreneurship, cultural awareness, and social responsibility, and advances the translation of ideas into practical innovations.

“Provide engineering graduates who, through their excellent technical and leadership skills, cultural awareness, and social responsibility, will solve the challenges of the 21st century.”

Institutions that are committed to “nurturing” the development of its engineering students across multiple dimensions may find in ABET criteria a mismatch for their aims.  Engineering schools will not be alone in detecting a mismatch.  ABET’s own member societies claim to be deeply committed to the values that the new accreditation criteria will dilute.  For example, these are the published core values of ASME, which is the lead ABET member society for three disciplines:

  • Embrace integrity and ethical conduct
  • Embrace diversity and respect the dignity and culture of all people
  • Nurture and treasure the environment and our natural and man-made resources
  • Facilitate the development, dissemination and application of engineering knowledge
  • Promote the benefits of continuing education and of engineering education
  • Respect and document engineering history while continually embracing change
  • Promote the technical and societal contribution of engineers

When ABET’s member societies and the schools that seek accreditation become disenchanted with ABET’s move away from their core values and missions, they may collectively decide that ABET has outlived its usefulness. The obvious solution is to found a new accreditation body.  The pursuit of additional accreditation credentials will not void existing ABET accreditations. There is nothing to lose except the time and effort required, and this will be spent anyway in attempts to convince decision makers in ABET to retain language that is on the chopping block.

Eventually, the new body’s accreditation credential may become the preference of state engineering registration boards.  This may not be so far-fetched;  in Maryland, where ABET is headquartered, the statute governing professional engineering registration does not mention “ABET” or accreditation at all.  An engineer applying for registration must have graduated from a program “that the Board approves,” or alternatively, “that the Board has not approved,” with additional years of experience.  Without changing the law, a new accreditation can be adopted by the fact of the Board’s approval.  With or without an alternate accreditation credential, there is nothing in Maryland law barring the Board for Professional Engineers from ceasing to “approve” ABET-accredited programs that relax their liberal education components in accordance with the new criteria.

History is full of examples of mainstream institutions that ran their course, became outmoded, and were deposed into obsolescence:  bloodletting, primogeniture, segregation.  Let’s not turn back the clock on decades of evolution in the systems that must prepare graduate engineers for “engineering the solutions to the grand challenges of the 21st century.*”

*Purdue University College of Engineering Overview Statement


In The End

The Set-up:

Let’s play a game. No, but really, go play this for a few minutes in between writing your dissertation, analyzing data, or procrastinating on youtube looking at cat videos (you know who you are…).

The game, called The End, is structured such that it asks a number of questions that philosophy classes might include in their curricula. For example, this game allows you to work through views on what exactly you are (a mind? A body? Both?), beliefs about death, fate, whether it important to have children, alterity, etc.

It’s pretty much this in game form:

While not all encompassing, it serves as a good primer for the types of philosophical questions we might ask in Knowledge and Reality or in a Killing Things course (No creatures, human or otherwise, were harmed in the course except for fictional blue whale, in a helmet, filled with water, on a trolley track…).


Current Approaches:

During my first semester here at Tech and as a TA for K&R, I had my students play the The End at the beginning of the year. But, I never asked them what they thought at the end of the semester and I didn’t ask them to go play it again to see what, if anything, had changed! Alas, I am not currently a TA for K&R and The End doesn’t quite mesh the class I TA for currently.

Lacking a video game analog for Morality and Justice, I have students in all my sections fill in a “I Believe…” form at the beginning of the semester. This form gives them an idea of the types of questions we will be discussing, allows them to share what they think and why (prior to any philosophical reflection), and it gives me a heads up concerning what weeks tensions are likely to run high in each section. If half of the class thinks Bambi is perfect for dinner and the other half are card-carrying members for PETA, the food ethics week is bound to be interesting, for example.

This form is all on paper and, for the most part, I don’t use it again until the last day of class. After reading the pieces this week, I wonder what would happen if, instead of a form that they get back at the end of the semester, they had a character that they had to interact with for the entire semester. What if, as opposed to abstract concepts and relations of concepts that they struggle to link together, they had a center character, an avatar, that they could manipulate, drop into different scenarios, and reflect on critically without feeling threatened? I’ll come back to this in a moment, since I have an idea, but first I want to process through why I think such an approach works in other ways for philosophy and then bring it back to games (video or, as I suspect is more likely, a group RPG).


When In Philosophy…:

In philosophy we deal with a lot of complex, absurd, and downright awful ideas and beliefs. A struggle many of my students have at times (and that I still have) is working through a topic when you feel something personal is on the line. If you are a libertarian for example, and are against both taxes and reparations, it may be difficult to separate out the implications of the arguments we look at that say “hey, you can’t be a libertarian and against both taxes and reparations” from what that would mean for you as a person identifying as a libertarian. As a TA I want to support my students as they begin to grapple with the arguments, give them space to start linking the implications of various views together, and eventually let them reflect on how that applies to their lives; but when everything is personal, as many ethics questions are, I haven’t always had success with this and they haven’t always been wiling to reflect.

One approach I currently have that has worked to open up a space for reflection is to let my students play “games” when it comes to difficult topics:

  • During the week when we talk about abortion, we play a game where students are divided into groups and given a third of a dialogue that contains common (but philosophically problematic) arguments for/against abortion. They are then asked to describe the problems with each of the common arguments and they historically do an excellent job at zeroing in on the problems even for views that they may hold themselves. In fact, I usually have 3-5 students tell me that they realized that their own view is problematic for the same reasons they found the character in the dialog’s view to be problematic. Without prompting, they reflect on what the game meant for their own views while, if it was open discussion, usually the conversation tends to devolve into ad hominems, polarization of views, and defensiveness.
  • For implicit bias week, I have them pair up and do an iceburg activity with one another. They write down all of the assumptions they make about one another, share their assumptions, get to communally guess things about me (it is quite entertaining), and by the end we tend to have an open conversation about the kinds of biases and assumptions we make without the intermediary step of shame and guilt. When I have tried to have more discussion based conversations about bias things have tended to go the “I don’t see color” route and folks get stuck on the carousel of shame. Not so when it’s a game.

Aside from the games, I incorporate two thought experiment animals (Qaly the Koala and Chubby the Whale) in my classes since I have found that they too allow us to have discussions that might otherwise be difficult to process. They also allow my students to visually see representations of concepts (such as validity) and in-text examples that otherwise would be relegated to my badly drawn stick figures on the blackboard. Like the games, I think that Qaly and Chubby allow my students to reach a critical distance from the course material and to conceptualize it in a way that is meaningful, accessible, different, memorable, and ultimately mutable. With this in mind, I want to go back to the games.


Games, much like Qaly and Chubby, would offer my students an opportunity for initial impersonal engagement with philosophical materials and concepts that will eventually come into conflict with one another. In “Four Things Lecture is Good For,” Robert Talbert says that lecture can be great for giving context and to see relations of ideas. I see games as a means to achieving that end. In fact, I wonder if the slightly impersonal nature of the avatar would allow my students to recognize the inconsistencies in the views of the avatar and then later reflect on what that would mean for their own views without feeling threatened or forced to reflect. I wonder if it would allow them to recognize the context of their views and engage with the context and connections more so than traditional methods of presentation.

Concerning personalization of curricula, I think Lacoste (whom I initially misread as Lakatos) is on to something that could be implemented in a philosophical game. While the set up proposed in their article, “Teaching Innovation Statement,” may not work as-is for all classes, I think it is adaptable to the philosophy classroom and a philosophical game. What if, for the subjects a student was actually interested in for a philosophy class, the game spawned additional areas to explore that would go deeper into the questions about, say, the Problem of Evil and the connections that issue has to other areas in the discipline. In current courses we spend a week on each topic at most, but I think a gaming platform would give students the license to continue to explore areas that they are actually interested in and to see the connections they may not have seen before. In seeing these connections, what would it look like if they were building their world with one another outside of the classroom in a forum where they were invested in the communal creation of dialogue and conversation about our more central, sacred, and deeply held beliefs?

Lacking any coding ability, I don’t think a video game like The End is the route I intend to take in furthering the inclusion of games in my classroom. But this idea of a community space and forum where folks are building a community, engaging in intellectual discussion, and being accountable to one another for the space and content has given me an idea of sorts.

The Idea/Initial Musings: 

Most of my students are not philosophers and take the course as a distribution requirement. However, there are groups of students that I can group together based on major or area. With a bit of tinkering, I think that at the least I can sketch easily mutable outlines for the topics that can be personalized to hit on questions that are relevant for their areas and, in being so relevant, make the things we talk about more meaningful and applicable to their lives after the course. This is not a full blown game, of course, and nothing compared to what Mark C. Carnes describes in “Setting Students’ Minds on Fire,” but I think it will lay down some important groundwork for an eventual game.

Starting points:

  • The students will do the “I Believe…” forms just like they normally do but then they will be asked to make an avatar (probably a pretty fantastical one) to use/edit the rest of the semester.
  • Much like they all have personalized validity animals, they will have personalized philosophy avatars. Maybe the validity animals can be companions for their main characters.
  • As we progress through the course and the landscape each week, their avatars will be asked to address this problem, go on that adventure, relate this new thing back to the old thing, and ultimately they will have to decide the path their avatar takes.
  • For certain topics, there will be major specific events or prompts that relate the material of the week to their lives and professions.
  • While not a video game, it can also have additional content that can be co-created by the folks in the class with the facilitator of the course and passed on to the next generation of gamers.
  • They will be asked to contribute content and reflection in a co-authored “rule” book throughout the semester.
  • ??????

I don’t think I can get a more solid sketch of the idea done until after I try implementing a few things this semester (such as major specific prompts to understand the concepts of utilitarianism vs deontology) and see feedback from my students. But, it’s a start.

(Learning About) Digital Learning

Instead of a regular blog post this week, I decided to work on something new: a video where I both learn to use software enabling said video creation and convey some of my impressions from this week’s readings* and video resources. Speaking of the resources for this week, here’s a screen shot from the New Learners of the 21st Century where I paused at the most perfect moment, if “perfect moment” is defined as the opportunity to make a meme of James Gee:

*The class readings I refer to in the video are Robert Talbert’s “Four Things Lecture is Good For” and James Gee’s “What Video Games Have to Teach Us.”

The Bright Side of Competition Projects

Thinking about how best structure a class and what kind of assessments work best and why that is the case can make a person go crazy. This week I was reading through Mark Canes article ‘Setting Students’ Minds on Fire’ when I came across the last paragraph in his article it made me reminisce about my first years as an undergraduate student.

But research shows that the strongest gains come from pedagogies that feature teamwork and problem solving. Experience also suggests that teams work harder when they’re competing against one another, and that students learn more when they’re obliged to think in unfamiliar ways.

Makes me think of when I little freshman student in undergrad. During our freshman year as mechanical engineering majors we were required to take Statics 1, a relatively boring class since things don’t/ aren’t supposed to move. But, the professors that taught the class liked to spice it up every year by having a team project at the end of the semester. This project would change every year to keep it more interesting and I’m guessing reduce cheating. My year we had to design a linkage and figure out a counterbalance for a crane in order to hold a specified weight that was hanging off the boom of the crane (the picture to the left helps illustrate what I’m talking about).

All of the teams were pinned against each other and the winning team was decided based on the team that made the lightest link that didn’t break and specified the smallest amount of counterbalance weight that would prevent the crane from tipping over.

I enjoyed this project mainly because of the challenge of figuring out how to design the link and the weight necessary, but also because of the competition part of it. By ‘pinning’ us students against each other it helped push us further and made us want to do better. One important key feature is that the team rankings only a small effect on our grade, meaning if you were the last place team you could still have a chance at getting a B on the project if you did everything else perfectly. For this reason, you had many teams that designed on the edge using factors of safety of 1.1 or dare I say 1.01 when determining the thickness of the link and the weight necessary to keep the crane from tipping. Us students weren’t playing it “safe”, we were building the edge. We wanted glory or catastrophic failure!

I think that projects like this really helped make what is typically a boring class more interesting. In addition, being completely honest, I feel like I learned more doing this project than I did sitting through the couple hours of lectures every week.

So, to try and tie this long-winded story back to the topic of assessment. I feel that project based assessments can be of more use than exams. When working on projects you have the ability to test if students actually learned the information without putting a stiff timeline on them. Additionally, when it comes to projects the project can typically be designed to push a student’s knowledge further and ensure that they are capable of connecting the dots between things.

I don’t completely agree with using grades as an incentive for getting better work because students either play it safe or if they do try to push the limits and fail they just drop the class and take it later to avoid risking their GPA. But if only a small part of the grade is used as an incentive than students may be more prone to pushing the limits, kind of like how the team rankings was done for my statics project.

Lastly, for projects to truly be useful they need to be properly constructed. I think the critical part of a good project is one that covers multiple topics that are used in the class. Working in teams can also be a useful, but I don’t find it to be as critical as the multi-topic criteria.

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