The Future of Education: Technology and How People Learn

No small issue on the agenda here at Aspen Ideas Festival — the future of education, technology, and how people learn — but the panel assembled is in fact up to the task. Connie Yowell (MacArthur Foundation, whose brainchild is the $50 million Digital Media and Learning initiative), Howard Gardner (Harvard Graduate School of Education), and Will Wright (renowned game designer, of the Sims and Spore) are the stars at the front of the room, with lots of other experts in the “audience”: John Seely Brown introduced the theme overall, Beth Noveck, Eric Lander, Dorothy Zinberg, Idit Harel Caperton, and many other luminaries grace the back benches.

(As an aside, the sign of a truly great conference is often the strength of what we used to call the “audience”. People are hanging from the rafters, despite some stiff competition on the Aspen Institute’s campus.)

Gardner starts off with thoughts based on his 5 minds studies. 1) New digital media are plural: games, social networks, all manner of information sources. 2) The Digital Revolution may be as big a deal as the beginning of writing or publishing. The data that Gardner is grounding his work in interviews: with young people, teachers, and psychoanalysts. 3) The most important thing that we need to ask ourselves: what kind of minds do we want to be creating in today’s young people?

Gardner gives us the Five Minds in Under Five Minutes (pretty impressive speed here…): the five are the disciplined mind, the synthesizing mind, the creating mind, the respectful mind, and the ethical mind. The disciplined mind is about becoming an expert in something. It’s hard to imagine that the digital media are helping in this respect. The synthesizing mind, some have said, is the most important in the digital era: to sort through lots more information than has ever before been available to human beings. Digital natives like to search, but it’s unclear that they are in fact good at it. The creating mind comes up with new approaches, new methods. Creating minds think outside the box — but you need the box first, which are from your discipline and your synthesis. One of the big questions: can these media help creativity, or might they instead inhibit creativity, by giving too much of a frame and discouraging going beyond that box.

The other two types of minds are in the human sphere. The respectful mind is about how we relate to others with respect. Most of us are raised to be related to 150 people, many of whom are related to us. How do we relate to more people, in the digital sphere. You can get on and offline quickly, in and out of touch quickly. The ethical mind is about how we fulfill roles: the role of the worker and the citizen, of our communities and of the world. The ethical mind asks: I’m a teacher, a researcher, a writer: what are my responsibilities given these roles? We should look for neighborly morality. How large is that circle of people to whom we have an ethical responsibility? The scale is so much greater today in a digital era. And the scope of citizenship is much greater than ever before: it is, for many, global. Gardner’s research shows that most young people do not have much of a sense of ethical issues, whether online or offline.

Will Wright asks us to step back and ask about the fundamental type of communication in play in a digital era. Kids are getting immersed in these new media, in ways that parents have a hard time understanding. Asynchronous
communications are leading to new techniques of moderation, with new community standards and rules for banning people from communities. There’s a mimicking of biology: instead of top-down control, we see a bottom-up, evolutionary-based set of rules, based on parallelism rather than serialism. Wright applies a Darwinian analogy, echoing the set of Darwin-related themes bouncing around Aspen this week.

Another big difference, per Wright: we each have the opportunity to become the expert in something. eBay flattened the flea market system. It drove people to specialize in specific markets.

Gardner asks Wright about Wikipedia and what it tells us about governance in a digital age. Gardner describes is as a yin-yang exercise between Jimmy Wales and a broader community, and that a tension exists between top-down and bottom-up control. Yowell adds a key note: what it means to move to a different kind of a governance system online is driven in key ways by the practices and theories of Open Source software development.

(As an interesting aside, much a hard problem in my own mind: Wright tells us that surfing is an interdisciplinary exercise. Much of the most interesting learning is happening at the intersection between what we think of as academic “fields.” Gardner disagrees with that statement. There’s room for interesting exploration here!)

Yowell notes that it’s crucial to distinguish between different types of participation. Friendship-driven and interest-driven kinds of participation are distinct, as Mimi Ito has shown. In friendship-driven participation, kids bring their offline relationships and ways of communicating across to the online space. In interest-driven communities, it works quite differently. Wright agrees. What he says games excel at is helping kids to develop a passion for something that may not have interested them quite so much before. Players also learn a great deal from one another in games, such as Spore. Wright pointed to the cooperative process of catalyzing learning that he sees through games. The computer acts as an amplifier on learning and creativity.

Gardner asks about how Wright’s gaming relates to what’s happening in schools today. The digital environments, Wright says, are much better at creating constructivist learning spaces. Yowell pushes back on Gardner: we should not see what’s happening in school and out of school as oppositional, but rather we should look to a larger learning ecosystem for kids.

Eric Lander, an MIT professor of genetics and founding director of the Broad Institute, jumps in from the back-benches of the room. His passion growing up, he tells us, was mathematics. Through peregrinations, he came to become a geneticist. There is a next step, once a passion is sparked, in gaining a disciplinary knowledge of a field. Lander doesn’t think the process of learning this field is in fact found on the web. You can learn facts from Wikipedia, but the online learning environment doesn’t cause the catalyzing effects that we need for learning. He cites MIT’s OCW as a “crummy version” of the university’s learning process. He is looking to the future where we can draw upon the best teaching processes that can be disseminated through digital media. What are the platforms that will lower the barriers to improving education in these promising ways? (Good question. JZ‘s been puzzling about just this problem, from the H20 process and beyond.)

Gardner throws out a “good Aspen idea.” We each should know better how our own minds work, metacognition. This is the kind of thing that works for me, we ought to know. There is a lot of data about how we can continue learning, especially by nurturing our various intelligences. If you’re not so good spatially, you can learn that, and sometimes the Internet can help you to develop these intelligences over time. The Internet also provides scale: not everyone can get to Aspen in the summer, but many more people can access digital networked technologies.

Yowell presses the panel about what’s really helpful about games. She calls games “rails” that can push kids along a trajectory of learning, which she links to Gardner’s five minds. She references Katie Salen‘s effort to create a school that MacArthur Foundation is funding to build a game-oriented curriculum. What is the design methodology? How can we deal with the engagement problem through game design, Yowell asks? Gardner says we have to continue to build in forms of “romance” all the way along the continuum after they get a discipline — back to the Aspen ideal. He cites Personal Knowledge by Michael Polanyi which helps us to understand what it takes to learn in key situations. Gardner describes how this works in the law school (Socratic method) and medical school (clinical) contexts for learning.

And on to a series of rapid-fire comments from the room:

The key to making learning work in these new media environments is to establish the proper engaging context, says one participant. Another says that we need short, viral things that engage kids off the bat. Someone else worries that students are not learning to write well. (Gardner says that his research shows that writing may well be getting less good, but that facility with other modes of communication are improving. He realized recently that he’s a writing teacher on some fundamental level.) Wright: he calls a “peak” to written literacy, with the new literacy having to do with multimedia. Idit Caperton builds on this insight, suggesting that the new literacy is game literacy, and suggests that a sixth mind ought to be added to the framework: an inspiring mind. Another person notes the revolution in the science museum world.

JSB: there should not be a false dichotomy here. There’s a role for a master. And there’s a role for the crowds, the cutting edge online, the gaming, the peer-based learning. We shouldn’t be exclusive in either respect. (There’s a great cathedral-and-bazaar analogy here, building on Yowell’s note about the open source and proprietary software development processes.)

Katie Salen, ed., "The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games, and Learning"

The first book that I read in the series of MacArthur/MIT Press’s Digital Media and Learning series was “The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games, and Learning,” edited by game designer and educator Katie Salen (open access version here). As with the other books in the series, it’s a very important contribution to the scholarly literature of a nascent field. (I’ve come back to Salen’s work just as Urs Gasser and I are turning in the final, final version of our forthcoming book, Born Digital.) “The Ecology of Games” is an excellent primer on where innovation is happening at the intersection between games and learning and where future avenues for research offer promise.

The first essay, Salen’s “Toward an Ecology of Gaming,” sets the frame for the collection. She recounts, helpfully, those things that “we” know already: “… that play is iterative as is good learning, and that gaming is a practice rooted in reflection in action, which is also a quality of good learning. We know games are more than contexts for the production of fun and deliver just-in-time learning, the development of specialist language, and experimentation with identity and point of view. We know games are procedurally based systems embedded within robust communities of practice. We know that video games and gaming have done much to shape our understanding and misunderstanding of the post-Nintendo generation, and hold a key place in the minds of those looking to empower educators and learners. Beyond their value as entertainment media, games and game modification are currently key entry points for many young people into productive literacies, social communities, and digitally rich identities.” (pp. 14 – 15) She ends her chapter with five unanswered questions, each worth reflecting and working on. (p. 15)

James Paul Gee‘s “Learning and Games” gives an overview of what “good game design” can “teach us about good learning” and vice-versa (p. 21). He offers these insights through what he calls the “situated learning matrix.” (pp. 24 – 31) The most illuminating part of his essay for me was the discussion of the ways in which young people form cross-functional teams within gaming environments — and his view of the excellent training opportunities these contexts could hold in terms of training them for workplace experiences. (p. 33)

In “In-Game, In-Room, In-World: Reconnecting Video Game Play to the Rest of Kids’ Lives,” three authors (Reed Stevens, Tom Satwicz, and Laurie McCarthy) take up a great topic: “whether playing these games affects kids’ lives when the machine is off.” (p. 41) The key insight for me was the notion of identity: “… young people are indeed forming identities in relation to video games. The idea that they can do things in the game that they cannot do in the real world is only part of the story; the other half is that they hold actions that they control in-game in regular comparative contact with the consequences, and morality, of those actions in the real world. Actions in games, then, are a resource for building identities in the real world, occurring through a reflective conversation that takes place in-room.” (p. 62)

“E is or Everyone: The Case for Inclusive Game Design,” by Amit Pitaru, followed a different structure than most other essays in the series. It’s told as a story about the researcher’s time with students at the Henry Viscardi School in Albertson, NY, a “remarkable school” that “educates approximately 200 pre-K to twenty-one-year-old students with a variety of physical disabilities and medical needs.” (p. 68)

Through this narrative, Pitaru offers insights on many levels. The essence of the argument is that a lack of play among children poses dangers, many of which can be avoided through digital games when set in the proper context. Pitaru claims further that digital games “provide a viable complementary activity to existing mediated forms of play” for children with disabilities.” (p. 85) I wondered, at the end, how many educators would agree with Pitaru, and where other experimentation is happening.

Mimi Ito, as usual, offers an extraordinarily helpful essay. If you read any single essay from the DML series, read this one: “Education vs. Entertainment: A Cultural History of Children’s Software.” The topic is genres of participation. She tells a story about “commercial children’s software, designed to be both fun and enriching, lies at the boundary zone between the resilient structures of education and entertainment that structure contemporary childhoods in the United States.” (p. 89) Ito gives an instructive history of the development of games for kids along with a genuinely useful analytical frame and a clear conclusion. She writes, “If I were to place my bet on a genre of gaming that has the potential to transform the systemic conditions of childhood learning, I would pick the construction genre.” (p. 115) Here’s to tinkering (and to Mimi’s great work).

In “The Rhetoric of Video Games,” Ian Bogost makes an intriguing argument in favor of “procedural rhetoric” via games. In his view, this approach could enable the questioning of the values behind certain professional practices instead of their blind assumption. (p. 130) I’m not sure I completely got his argument, but it was useful and provocative to puzzle it through.

Anna Everett, the editor of another volume in the series, and S. Craig Watkins offer a counterpoint to much of the rest of the book, exploring ways in which games and other immersive environments are not always socially productive. (p. 143) It’s a helpful reminder and a useful link to the DML series book on race.

The most interesting data that is presented in the book comes from the private sector: Cory Ondrejka, then of Linden Labs/Second Life and the Annenberg School (now headed to an exciting new job…), points out some usage statistics about SL in “Education Unleashed: Participatory Culture, Education, and Innovation in Second Life.” The most striking — and hopeful — figure was his note that 67% (sixty-seven percent) of respondents to a survey of Teen Second Life users “had written at least one program using the scripting language.” (p. 239) Of course it is a tiny sample (384) of self-selected young people, but the tinkering spirit that Mimi Ito highlights in her essay is alive and well in the people that Ondrejka heard from.

Barry Joseph, director of Global Kids, Inc., wrote the concluding essay on “treating games as a form of youth media within a youth development framework.” His notion of game design as an element of making meaning through the creation of structures is a great addition to the thinking on semiotic democracy that I think is so crucial in this literature. His theory is well-grounded in experiences he’s had with Global Kids, working with teachers and students and corporate supporters, which gives the piece an important series of links to reality that is often missing from our scholarly literature — without giving up the theoretical side.

Salen, Ito, Ondrejka, and Joseph’s essays, among others in the book, led me to a conclusion out of the book: in some contexts, great forms of learning may come for some students using well-designed games, primarily of the construction genre. There’s not yet sufficient evidence here, in my view, to turn over our entire educational system to games and virtual worlds, but there’s plenty to learn from what some young people are doing in these environments during school time and otherwise.