What if Schools Made Progress Visible?

In The Game Changer: How to Use the Science of Motivation with the Power of Game Design to Shift Behavior, Shape Culture, and Make Clever Happen, Jason Fox offers anyone interested in the intersection of game design and motivation studies a thought-provoking read. For me, a key takeaway in his book can be summarized in a three-word quote: “make progress visible.” Amid the many theories and suggested strategies for increasing motivation in the workplace, Fox focuses upon this core concept. People are more motivated when their progress is visible, when individuals have some means of frequently seeing how their behaviors are impacting the extent to which they are making progress in their work.

Back when I started exploring why some students cheat and others do not, I quickly found myself traveling into a wonderful and richly rewarding world of research. I learned that the old-school policing and crime metaphors for cheating and school missed the mark. I discovered that one of the easiest ways to reduce cheating was to change the environment. Reduce student anxiety and increase student confidence going into major, high-stakes assessments. Then people don’t seem to have as much of a drive or temptation to cheat. That is what led me to my more recent work and writing about the power of formative feedback and assessment.

By giving people lots of frequent and focused feedback, we help them see whether they are progressing, giving them motivation and confidence to persist in their learning. In other words, we can design a learning environment that helps bring out the best in ourselves and others, and a significant part of it was very much in line with what Fox explains in his book. There is power in making progress visible.

This is such an incredibly simple concept, but one that can improve any classroom or school that takes it seriously and makes it a central part of how we think about designing learning environments and learning experiences. As Fox points out in his book, this is why so many of us are motivated by something as simple as creating a checklist and marking off items as we complete them. It is why, in the presence of massive and intimidating projects with little feedback, we often procrastinate and revert to small tasks that we can complete quickly and see our progress or accomplishment.

I would love to see a school take this single concept and make it a priority for a single school year. How would it impact the student experience, the school culture, and learner motivation? At the same time, there is no reason why this must be the sole responsibility of teachers. Imagine the power of helping students learn how to create their own mechanism of making their progress visible. By engaging in such an exercises, they will develop a deeper understanding of what progress looks like in a given domain, and then learn how to create systems that are motivating and allow them to make more consistent progress in their learning.

The Death of Testing and the Rise of Learning Analytics

I know that it is sad news for some, but more than a few of us have assessed the situation, and the prognosis is not good for our friend (or perhaps the arch enemy to others of us), the test. We might be witnessing the death of testing. Tests are not going away tomorrow or even next year, but their value will fade over the upcoming years until, finally, tests are, once and for all, a thing of the past. At least that is one possible future.

Tests are largely a 20th century educational technology that had no small impact on learning organizations around the world, not to mention teachers and students. They’ve increased anxiety, kept people up all night (often with the assistance of caffeine), and consumed large chunks of people’s formative years.

They’ve also made people lots of money. There are the companies that help create and administer high-stakes tests. There are the-the companies that created those bubble tests and the machines that grade them. There are the test proctoring companies along with the many others that have created high-tech ways to prevent and/or detect cheating on tests. There are the test preparation companies. There are even researchers who’ve done well as consultants, helping people to design robust, valid and reliable tests. Testing is a multi-billion dollar industry.

death of testingGiven this fact, why am I pointing to the death of the test? It is because of the explosion of big data, learning analytics, adaptive learning technology, developments around integrated assessments in games and simulations and much more. These technologies are making and will continue to make it possible to constantly monitor learner progress. Assessment will be embedded in the learning experiences. When you know how a student is making progress and exactly where that student is in terms of reaching a given goal, why do you need a test at the end? The student doesn’t even need to know that it is happening, and the data can be incredibly rich, giving insights and details often not afforded by traditional tests.

Such embedded assessment is the exception today, but not for long. That is why many testing companies and services are moving quickly into the broader assessment space. They realize that their survival depends upon their capacity to integrate in seamless ways with content, learning activities and experiences, simulations and learning environments. This is also why I have been urging educational publishing companies to start investing in feedback and assessment technologies. This is going to critical for their long-term success.

At the same time, I’m not convinced that all testing will die. Some learning communities will continue to use them even if they are technically unnecessary. Tests still play a cultural role in some learning contexts. My son is in martial arts and the “testing day” is an important and valued benchmark in community. Yes, there are plenty of other ways to assess, but the test is part of the experience in this community. The same is true in other learning contexts. Testing is not always used because it is the best way to measure learning. In these situations, testing will likely remain a valued part of the community. In some ways, however, this helps to make my point. Traditional testing is most certainly not the best or most effective means of measuring learning today. As the alternatives expand and the tools and resources for these alternatives become more readily available, tests will start the slow but certain journey to the educational technology cemetery, finding a lot alongside the slide rule and the overhead projector.

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Learning as Work or Play

I’ve learned so much more outside of school than in it. For every book that I’ve read for a school assignment over the years, I’ve likely read 20 outside of school. I’ve conducted more interviews, written more, observed more, experienced more, and learned more. I’ve also surfaced far more insights outside of school than inside it. They’ve led to meeting and connecting with fascinating people; changing my beliefs, behaviors and convictions more than anything that happened amid my formative or higher education experiences. I’ve also enjoyed these activities immensely. I’ve lost track of time on late Friday nights. They’ve driven me to travel thousands of miles for a single conversation or a few hours of a new experience. They’ve left me  falling asleep at night with a sense of accomplishment and joy about a life of discovery and learning. They’ve also kept me from falling asleep, wanting to write or read just one more page, wildly scribbling out a new idea, chatting with a new friend, or dreaming of the possibilities. I had some wonderful experiences in formal schooling as well, but they just don’t compare to what I’ve learned beyond the walls of those buildings. Why?

In The Most Productive Ways to Develop as a Leader, Herminia Ibarra wrote the following:

In contrast, no matter what you’re up to, when you’re in “play” mode, your primary drivers are enjoyment and discovery instead of goals and objectives. You’re curious. You lose track of time. You meander. The normal rules of “real life” don’t apply, so you’re free to be inconsistent — you welcome deviation and detour. That’s why play increases the likelihood that you will discover things you might have never thought to look for at the outset.

This blog is play more than it is work. This is the place where I log and experience new discoveries. I am free to debate with myself from one article to another. I’m not trying to write like an academic. My thoughts are serious and I strive for substance, but this fun for me too. I don’t try to sell myself as much as I play with thoughts and experiences, exploring the possibilities and inviting others to join me in this play. Wonderful outcome emerge. I build new connections. The play extends. It often turns into “work” in the sense that money is exchanged, goals and planning emerge, tasks are accomplished, programs are developed, and agreements are signed; but for me it is still driven more by a mindset of play than work.

This leads me to wonder, if play is such a powerful lever for learning, why not take greater advantage of it in our learning organizations? I recognize that there are times when play might not work or it might not even be appropriate, but so much of what is done in school could happen through a culture of learning by play, as so powerfully and whimsically championed by the Institute of Play. Groups like the Institute of Play represent a movement in modern learning (not just schooling) and work that:

  • invites us to accept the challenge of addressing the engagement crisis in schools and workplaces;
  • helps us take advantage of our human propensity for play and discovery;
  • sees teachers as game-designers and architects of a culture of engagement;
  • invites students to participate in quests, challenges, adventures, and experiments;
  • and helps students learn to apply principles of games and play to direct their own learning throughout life.

Doesn’t that sound fun?

But how does a school full of games and play prepare people for the real world?

First, it helps them learn. Second, it helps them maintain that inquisitive, engaged, exploratory, adventurous spirit of their childhood. Third, it helps them chang the real world into a place with more curious, engaged, playful people. As Lincoln is quoted as saying, “The philosophy of the school room in one generation will be the philosophy of government in the next.” Could the same thing be true for the communities and workplaces of the future?

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Educational Publishers & Content Providers: The Future is About Analytics, Feedback & Assessment

What is the future of educational publishers and content providers? As more content becomes freely distributed online and there are more creative (and sometimes free) products and services that help aggregate, curate, chunk, edit and beautify this content; there are questions about the role of educational publishers and content providers. While there is something to be said for a one-stop-shop for content, that might not be enough to secure a solid spot in the marketplace of the future, especially given that content is not the only thing for which people are shopping.

Some fear or simply predict the demise of such groups, but I expect a long and vibrant future. In fact, over the past decade or two, we’ve already witnessed publishing companies rebrand themselves as education companies with a broader portfolio of offerings than ever before. They’ve done so by adding experts in everything from educational psychology and brain research to instructional design, software development to game design, educational assessment to statistics, analytics, and testing. These are exactly the types of moves that will help them establish, maintain, and extend their role in the field of education. This is a shift from a time when many educational publishers and content providers would suggest that it is best to leave the “teaching” up to the professional educators. Now, more realize that there is not (nor has there really ever been) a clear distinction between the design of educational products and services and the use of them for teaching. Each influences the other, and understanding of educational research is critical for those who design and develop the products and services that inform what and how educators teach students.

According to this article, the preK-12 testing and assessment market is almost a 2.5 billion dollar market, “making them the single largest category of education sales” in 2012-2013! A good amount of this is the result of efforts to nationalize and standardize curriculum across geographic regions (like with the Common Core), allowing education companies to design a single product that aligns with the needs of a larger client base. However, even apart from such moves for standardization, more people are becoming aware of the possibilities and impact of using feedback loops and rich data to inform educational decisions.

This is just the beginning. If you are in educational publishing or a startup in the education sector, this is not only a trend to watch, but one to embrace. Start thinking about the next version of your products and services and how learning analytics and feedback loops fit with them. If you look at the K-12 Horizon Report’s 5-year predictions, you see learning analytics, the Internet of everything, and wearable technology. What do all three of these have in common? They are an extension of the Internet’s revolution of increased access to information, but this time it is increasing a new type of information and making it possible to analyze and make important decisions based on the data. Now we have a full circle. Data is experienced by learners. The actions and changes of the learner become new data points, which give feedback directly to the learner, to a teacher, or the product that provided the initial data. There is a new action taken by the learner, teacher and/or interactive product and the cycle continues (see the following image for three sample scenarios).

Screen Shot 2015-02-16 at 2.36.14 PM

Some (although an increasingly small number) still think of the Internet and digital revolution in terms of widespread access to rich content. Those are people who think that digitizing content is adequate. Since the 2000s, we’ve experience the social web, one that is read and write. Now we live in a time where those two are merged, and each action individually and collectively becomes a new data point that can be mined and analyzed for important insights.

While there are hundreds of analytics, data warehousing and mining, adaptive learning, and analytic dashboard providers; there is a powerful opportunity for educational content providers who find ways to animate their content with feedback, reporting features, assessment tools, dashboards, early alert features, and adaptive learning pathways. Education’s future is largely one of blended learning, and a growing number of education providers (from K-12 schools to corporate trainers) are learning to design experiences that are constantly adjusting and adapting.

The concept that we are just making products for the true experts, teachers, is noble and respectable, but the 21st century teacher will be looking for new content and learning experiences that interact with them (and their students), tools that give them rich and important data (often real-time or nearly-now) about what is working, what is not, who is learning, who is not, and why. They will be looking for ways to track and monitor learning progress. If a content provider does not do such things, it will be in jeopardy, with the exception of extremely scarce or high-demand content that can’t be easily accessed elsewhere.

As such, content still matters. It always will. However, the thriving educational content providers and publishers of the 21st century understand that the most high-demand features will involve analytics, feedback (to the learner, teacher, or back to the content for real-time or nearly now adjustments), assessment, and tracking.

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Bartle’s Gamer Profile for Designing Learning Experiences?

What is your gamer profile and what does it say about you as a learner? Is it possible to use gamer profiles of learners to design more high-interest lessons and learning experiences? Last year I learned about Richard Bartle, creator of the first Multi-User Dungeon, author of Designing Virtual Worlds, part-time professor of game design at the University of Essex, and originator of the research behind Bartle’s Gamer Psychology Test. Based upon his MUD, Bartle noticed that there were four types of players. There are killers, achievers, explorers, an socializers. Kyatric provided a simple explanation of these profiles:

Achievers are diamonds (they’re always seeking treasure).

Explorers are spades (they dig around for information).

Socialisers are hearts (they empathise with other players).

Killers are clubs (they hit people with them).

While these were intended to describe interactions in a MUD; game designers, educators and those interested in gamification have used these categories for everything from instructional design to marketing campaigns. There are challenges and proposed alternatives to using these four categories, but the profiles offer an interesting lens through which to look at learning experience design, considering distinct motivational and personality profiles of participants.

As an example, in my last MOOC (Learning Beyond Letter Grades), we decided to experiment by using Bartle’s profiles to inform the types of features and experiences we built into the weekly learning experiences. We provided forums, Twitter, and a Google Community for ample opportunities to socialize. We also leveraged many activities where the participants collectively generated important knowledge from which we could all learn. We built a collection of suggested resources (including some for those who want to go deeper into a subject) for the explorers, but we also used the forums and other places for those explorers to display their findings for the rest of the group. For the achievers, we built a digital badge system, offering participants the opportunity to earn open badges by demonstrating a baseline skill with each of the learning modules. Finally, for the killers, we added a competitive feature where participants could see who already earned a badge for a given module, generating a leader’s board (although we had a glitch with this part and ended up disabling it).

This was more of a creative exercise and I have little evidence to show that learners were more satisfied or engaged as a result of using these profiles to shape the design. Nonetheless, it drove us to spend more time on the learner analysis of our instructional design. As any good instructional designer knows, the best designs need to take into account the needs, motivations, background, interests, and profiles of the intended audience. This can include psychological profiles, and Bartle’s categories served as a playful tool for building with the learner’s mind in mind. At minimum, it led us to design greater variety in the activities, adding a number of potentially high-interest experiences. We ended up with largely consistent activity through most of the MOOC (where activity dropped off more sharply over time with our first MOOC).

I have no research to argue that Bartle’s profiles can or should be used to increase student engagement or learning, but the research solidly supports designing learning environments and experiences that take into account the distinctives of individual learners and groups of learners. From that perspective, I see his profile as a fun and interesting way to start thinking about designing learning experiences that are multi-faceted, connecting with learners based upon their motivations and profile as learners.

What do you think? Would you consider using Bartle’s four categories to design learning experiences for the killers, achievers, socializers, and explorers in your learning organization? Might this help you think about more variety in the design of these contexts? Or, perhaps you could use this to invite learners to think about their own profiles as gamers and learners. If you’ve used Bartle’s profiles in one of these ways, I would love to hear your thoughts. Or, if you decide to give it a try, please considering letting me know how it goes.