Primer Part 2

As promised, part two of my technology in education post. Thanks to John and Cameron for their comments. In this article I’m going to develop the three core life skills that a person has to develop to become a good citizen capable of living a fulfilling life: self-discipline, cooperation, and reflective evaluation, and explain how educational technology can be used to develop them.

Self-discipline is simply the ability to do something which is not much fun in the short term, yet which you know to be good in the long term. It is a key-component of long-term planning and law-abiding behavior. Walter Mischel’s famous marshmallow study demonstrated a strong correlation between the ability to delay gratification at the age of four and future academic success and good life outcomes. David Brook’s recent column The Relationship School had an interesting vignette about discipline at the New American Academy: “Even though students move from one open area to the next, they line up single file, walk through an imaginary doorway, and greet the teacher before entering her domain.” The goal here is clearly to get students to treat normative barriers in the same way that they’d treat architectural barriers. While different people have different levels of self-control and discipline, it is clear that these are skills that can be learned. Indeed, character-building is the central premise of the KIPP schools.

Cooperation is the ability to work well with others. Human beings are intrinsically social, most tasks these days take place in a group, and even a ‘lone genius’ acts as part of a tradition of human effort. An MIT study on collective intelligence found that the skill of a group didn’t depend on the abilities of its individual members, but rather on the “the willingness of the group to let all its members take turns and apply their skills to a given challenge,” a quality the researchers deemed social sensitivity (which, as an aside, women have a substantial edge in). In preschool and kindergarten, teachers focus on social tasks like sharing toys, but education soon becomes very structured and individualized. Aside from team sports and group projects, we leave learning how to cooperate to ‘free time’ like lunch and recess, and leave teachers out of it. And then we wonder why kids are horrible to one another.

Finally, reflective evaluation is the ability to look at yourself, look at the world around you, and figure out what it is that you want to do with your life. It is the ability to appreciate aesthetics, to create, to explore, to seek clarity, to behave morally, to be driven by something other than shallow urges towards pleasure and away from pain. This is the fuzziest notion of the three that I have advanced, but it is connected with the Maslow’s idea of self-actualization, or Foucault’s goal of “becoming yourself”. Basically, we are happiest when we are doing something that we love and something that we are good at. The trick is figuring out what it is that you actually want.

So how can technology make enable these goals? The key features of the educational technology that I envision are a touchscreen tablet that can easily accept being linked to keyboards, mice, and things like microscopes and sensors for special assignments, a front-mounted camera that can identify the user, a microphone with voice recognition, GPS for locational data, and a system that monitors user activity. Expect it to be loaded with apps that are directly educational, like classic books, history lessons, and math and science worksheets, along with creative apps for art and music and programming, and the usual social networking and games.

Today, the majority of teacher's energy is spent making lesson plans, delivering lectures, and grading assignments. These core educational tasks are about transmitting information and checking that it is received. As they are currently performed, involve a massive duplication of effort, a waste of trained expert's time on menial tasks, and make it impossible to actually develop best practices.

Rather than the lecture, homework, and test model, a textbook app provides multimedia (text + video + extra clarifications) tutorials on the subject, followed by a series of practice problems. Rather than having to demonstrate lessons and maintain order in the classroom, the teacher has time to work with students individually, along with a wealth of data about exactly what in the lesson their students don’t understand. The class doesn’t have to run at the pace of the slowest student, each student can work through the lesson at their own pace and style: alone, in a group, outdoors, or late at night.

Completing a lesson gives you ‘credit’ that you can use to unlock the next lesson, games, and in some cases a useful tool. For example reading a book and writing about it lets you check out more ebooks from the school’s library, or audition for the play. Mastering addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division gives you a four function calculator. Trig and algebra give you a graphing calculator, and completing calculus gives you something like Wolfram Alpha. Completing a unit in science might allow you to sign up for a field-trip or experiment. Participating in a gallery show might upgrade your available art apps from Paint to Photoshop to Maya. Rewarding people for doing good work by giving them more of the same keys both intrinsic and extrinsic rewards.

Finally, I do believe that testing is important, but as it stands, we spend too much time testing students, and students spend too much time worrying about tests. Why not the student review the material as much as they want, and then when they’re ready, they go to a “Quiet Room” where talking is discouraged, put their tablets in test mode, and complete a worksheet just like the ones they’ve practiced with by their selves. In test mode, communication applications are locked down and the face-recognition camera makes sure that the right person is using it. If the student didn’t bother to prepare or scored poorly compared to their previous work, their teacher is automatically alerted.

Entire curriculums can be built out of a series of lessons of increasing complexity. Students and teachers can work together to develop an individualized lesson plan that meets state mandated minimum requirements for a certain number of hours of math and English and what have you, as well as a time-line of how the student should be progressing. A student that is behind on their lessons can be instantly located and given extra support. The goal is a total assessment environment that is both accurate and effortless, rather than the artificial hoops of the current system.

This model is based on the most addictive video games, which combine token economies with collecting activities and increasing difficulty. Make the lessons just hard enough to induce ‘flow’, and students will spend hours in the zone as they burrow through math lessons, scientific theories, and novels and histories. Because “textbooks” are all electronic and monitor how they are used, publishers can continually modify lessons at no cost to clarify issues that lots of students find confusing. And teachers have more time to work with students one-on-one or in small groups.

The conventional wisdom is that electronics, and particularly the internet, are making us perennially distracted and unable to focus. Won’t putting more computers in school make this worse, and lead to the opposite of self-discipline? Well, the internet is only distracting because there’s no reward for not making it distracting. When your email pings, you check it because checking it is rewarding and there’s no reason not to. Imagine that a student is using an educational app and gets a text from a friend (we might as well surrender to the fact that kids are going to text and use social media in school, because that genie is not going back in the bottle). Rather than look at the message, the student chooses to finish his or her lesson and respond in 15 minutes. Their tablet gives them a little smiley face and a ‘good job on good decisions’ message. Only small changes are necessary to make technology useful for concentration rather than distraction.

Through little nudges like this, discipline is taught as an incremental process. Early apps are very structured, and as a student advances they are required to learn how to structure their own education. For example, a ‘learn-to-read’ book might highlight each word in turn and ask the student to follow along out-loud, using voice recognition to demonstrate proficiency. A book for 4th graders might have multiple choice questions about the content at the end of every chapter. A book for middle-school students would ask for a series of short answers about specific elements of the book. And a book for high school students might not have any work attached until the end, where the student has to synthesize an essay about the major themes. At each level, the student is provided the tools to make a smooth transition to the next level.

And finally, we can encourage discipline by making providing a clear reward for success: Freedom! A straight-A student maintaining an ambitious course-load can be expected to have the tools to succeed on their own. A C student struggling with the concepts needs more support. So give the C student a lot of structure and a lot of supervision, and let them graduate to making their own decisions. With constant monitoring of activity, teachers can see instantly if a student is slacking off or excelling.

Teaching cooperation is hard, but my first premise is that since learning core skills will take less time and can be done in groups, students will inherently learn to work together. Students can learn to manage common resources like playground equipment, teaching them about sharing resources. Finally, virtual spaces offer a great way to learn the norms of collaboration. Minecraft has become a platform for monumental shared world building, including a recreation of The Lord of the Rings as a spiritual pilgrimage. Imagine using similar techniques to integrate students into a scientific and political study of local water quality issues, or an international sharing of cultures. And rather than just being seen by the teacher, student’s work could be presented to the entire class, and participating in constructive criticism part of an student’s job. Several of my colleagues have reflected that their students (ASU undergrads) write better for class blogs than they do on traditional papers because they know their audience and want to leave a good impression.

More formally, the MIT study linked above used electronic badges designed by the Media Lab to record the pattern of interactions in groups. Tablets with the right software could do the same, recording when everybody is talking. But this is overkill, and we need to encourage students to cooperate of their own free will with people nearby and over the net because it’s fun and useful.

On the final key skill, reflective evaluation is something that can’t be taught by a machine, a person has to find it on their own. But the process can be made easier by providing many different types of opportunities, and by continually probing with that most important question, “Why?” I hope that under this system, students will spend less time on basic skills, and more time doing in the real world working on interesting problems or pursing their passions in the creative arts. I hope that education can become more relaxed, rather than rushing from kindergarten to college without pausing to take stock. And I hope that it is a process that never ends: that even after passing their High School Certification Exam, people continue to access educational materials.

This model might be optimistic, but I don’t think it’s utopian. The technology is almost ready, requiring just a little more integration. The major problems are now political, with teacher's unions, national testing standards, and a belief in the intrinsic value of a high school diploma. The money for reform can be found: in 2008, according to Department of Education statistics, public schools spent an average of $10,441 per student for results which are at best average and are truly failing disadvantaged communities. We must do better. And the first step towards doing better is replacing 19th century information technologies with 21st century ones, and freeing our skilled and education professionals to do what they do best: inspire and mentor!

I’d also like to preemptively address two major concerns: surveillance and cyber-bullying.

Surveillance and privacy is a hard nut to crack. You should really see Bruce Sterling’s 2006 story “I Have Seen the Best Minds of My Generation Destroyed by Google” for a vision of a dystopia where “All our social relations have been reified with a clunky intensity. They're digitized! And the networking hardware and software that pervasively surround us are built and owned by evil, old, rich corporate people!” (because Chairman Bruce does it better than I can). But on the other hand, read your Foucault: schools are disciplinary environments that run on surveillance, and that can’t be stripped out of the educational system. If you want to educate the masses, you have to monitor and evaluate them.

But we can set up the surveillance humanely. Make only the highest level data available to end-users, like grades and time to completion. A full data review should be reserved for major correctional interventions. Anonymized usage statistics can be sent to publishers to improve software without major issues, as is already standard tech practice.

We’re operating in a world that ranges from fully public, like what Google knows about you, to semi-private (Facebook profiles), to absolutely secret (an encrypted file on a disk in a bank vault). Make an environment that supports varying degrees of privacy, and teach students how to use it from the beginning, from maintain a public profile, to a place for their friends, to a private site for their best friends, to their personal secrets, and then respect their privacy. Teenagers are finding themselves, and a desire for privacy is not a crime in and of itself. It should not be treated like one.

While the Cory Doctorow story Knights of the Rainbow Table is a bit of an exaggeration, in this age of Wikileaks and Anonymous, technological architectures cannot protect us. Only strong norms can.

As for cyber-bullying, it’s a real issue, but I see it more of an extension of normal bullying than as a wholly new phenomenon. Right now, cyberbullying can be hard to prosecute since schools (rightfully) don’t have jurisdiction over what happens outside their walls. But if platforms are substantially used for education, schools can intervene. While I am not an expert on bullying, my sense is that bullying is aggravated by the fact that we force children to spend their time packed together in small rooms with no exit. In a more tech enabled school, a bullied child could simply leave and find an environment that is more protective and conducive to learning. And on the internet, there’s a subculture for everybody, as Juggalos and Bronies so evidently prove.


  1. Lovely! Very interesting ideas. Your examples of integrating existing technologies sound practical to me, not overly optimistic. Just wanted to add that reflective evaluation can be taught by Cindy, who is an awesome machine, so, actually, Cindy can just teach everyone that.

  2. Flexibility in the decision-making structure allowing teachers to make judgment calls is very important, and can change a student's life, making for quantum leaps in reflective evaluation.

    While I was a good student in high school, I had a history of getting C's in English class. At the time, English class just seemed uncommonly overbearing and ineffective. A tiered curriculum placed me on a track that emphasized, as Michael encourages, "a lot of structure and a lot of supervision." For me it was complete hell -- vocabulary lists, demeaning reading selections, and an overall culture of banality. Fortunately, I was an ornery and outspoken critic of the curriculum willing to articulate my frustration with the instructor. I made my feelings clear, and explained that my C-student output was no reflection of my appreciation of the English language.

    Then one day the AP English professor walked into my middle-tier English class and plucked me from the banal surveillance nightmare. He offered me a chance to read Shakespeare and Camus in an easy-going environment. Instead of decontextualized vocabulary lists and condescending baby-talk, we responded to open-ended essay prompts and argued about ideas.

    I remember wondering, How many C-students are stifled by structure and supervision, waiting for the opportunity to experience privilege and mutual respect, but unconcerned to advocate on their own behalf? How many promising students have an inclination to taken an aloof tack, rather than press for superior quality education?

    Somehow, school systems have to institutionalize such flexibility. My worry is that a tablet-driven system may not be "graceful". Student performance may not signal to a machine that this individual would thrive if offered an upgrade. Yet, it could be just such an upgrade that offers a quantum leap in reflective evaluation, cooperation, and self-discipline.

    I could be wrong about this; perhaps the tablet of the future could do for national education systems what only a compassionate english teacher could do for me.

    The technical details of a graceful tablet: is there something in gaming culture that corresponds to this type of situation?

  3. Thank you Megan and Cameron!

    Technology can definitely be used for evil as well as good ends. Your story shows exactly why we need to give people many chances to prove themselves. I don't know what a graceful tablet would be like, but I do know the opposite in gaming culture, and that's the Grind, where you have to spend hours repeatedly doing the same boring task to advance. Developers like Grind (especially in MMOs) because it keeps people playing without much work on their end. But it's poison to education.

  4. Via Ryan Rix, 3 Major Publishers Sue Open-Education Textbook Start Up.

    I am not an IP lawyer, but I do believe that you can judge the quality of cause by it's enemies. The system is running scared.