Helping students learn how to learn

nick confused

I am currently working for UBC Student Development / UBC Library as the Student Development Coordinator for the Chapman Learning Commons. My role includes managing the space, the students who work in the space and the learning services that are run out of the space.

What makes this position fascinating for me is the problem that it poses, namely:  how do I manage/create/frame services in a way that actually leads to them helping students be better at school?

This problem is massively difficult, as at a university level, being better at school requires students to break over 12 years of bad habits and replace them with good habits. As anybody who has tried to pick up good habits knows (especially in the time-constrained university environment), changing habits is very, very hard work that takes time to show results. Anything that one creates to help students do this has to be really, really good (if it is possible at all).

So, for this summer, in order to actually achieve this goal I’ve settled on 4 different principles that will hopefully lead to success.

  1. Hire good students. This piece is critical. Having awesome students work on these projects helps keep things in perspective, makes customer development easier and brings a fresh sense of energy and ideas into the field. This piece’s current status is definitely “mission accomplished”.
  2. 1-on-1 peer mentorship is currently the only really feasible solution to this problem. Having a well-trained peer guide you and keep you accountable is a hundred times better than any online resource or workshop that I could create.
  3. Solve the pain. Students experience a lot of pain and the whole point of this is to help reduce that. Wording like “learning services” means absolutely nothing to most students, we need to frame things in a way that shows them how we will help them get rid of their pain.
  4. Be lean and agile. Concepts like “Do More Faster”, “release early, release often” and all the other techniques that I have learnt around successful software development and entrepreneurship apply in this context too. We are here to actually fix the problem, not just follow through on the requirements document.
That’s the plan, 2 months in I hope it’s working. One of the pieces that we’ve made some big strides on is the Learning Commons website. If you’d like to see some of the principles in action compare the current site to my student’s current prototype (principle #1 can be seen in the quality of the work). We still have lots of work left to do on it, but the idea should be clear. If you do take a look, please drop some feedback, they are iterating fast so any feedback helps!
Current Learning Commons site
Current Learning Commons site
New Learning Commons Site
New Learning Commons Site

(if you’re looking for a place to put the feedback, just comment below)

Using Game Design Theory as a Framework for Course Design

Poster on Using Game design to influence course design entered at the UBC Computer Science Undergraduate Poster Competition

A while ago I wrote a post titled “school is just a game, let’s make it a good game“. At the time I thought I was really clever for coming up with it. Unfortunately, the idea was being looked at in other places and this idea now even has a title: “the Gamification of education”.

Gamification is one of those words that just sounds dirty. It sounds like (and just could be) a disease that people want to unleash upon school (this could also be due to the fact that “gammy” was a part of my slang vocabulary as a child). To many it is in fact a dirty word, the sentiment of “wait, what, we’re going to use operand conditioning to get students to learn?”… “This is evil and mindless and corporate.” is travelling around.

Of course, if you apply the FourSquare method of just tacking on “achievements” to a course, this sentiment is justified. But what if instead of turning school into a crappy game, we started with the premise that it is already a game and that a way to improve it would be to make it a better game?

In order to test that premise I spent 4 months working with Kimberly Voll to review the current literature around game and course design looking at what good game design was and seeing if we could apply it to course design. The in-depth hectically cited paper and poster are attached below for those who want to read them but here are the cliff notes:

We looked at 7 different elements (these are not the only 7, just the ones we looked at) that designers play with to create good games and looked for places in course design literature where these elements had been looked at. The 7 are:

  • Motivations: Designing in a way that complements the reason for playing
  • Reward: Providing multiple types of satisfying rewards
  • Punishment: Creating punishment that can be enjoyed (games that never punish you suck)
  • Challenge: Keeping the game just hard enough to be engaging
  • Story: Providing a narrative and sense of mystery that pulls the player forward and gives them a sense of purpose
  • Community: Giving players a chance to interact with other people
  • Freedom: Giving players as much agency as possible (or at least the illusions of agency) within the game’s structure

By tweaking these 7 different aspects game designers create incredibly engaging games. If we want to make a more engaging course, all we have to do is tweak those elements as well. Notice, we don’t have to add the elements, they are already a part of the course, they just need to be fixed. A key thing to note is that this is not a one-size-fits-all way of looking at things, each course (just like each game) would need to come up with a unique way of improving on these elements.

Paper is below and I will be writing much more about this as I go on to work on it over the summer and study it as a Master’s thesis.

Paper on using game design to influence course design

Poster on Using Game design to influence course design entered at the UBC Computer Science Undergraduate Poster Competition

Your Personal Learning Environment – Presentation to JumpStart 2010

I just finished presenting a workshop on Personal Learning Environments to around 300 international students for UBC’s JumpStart international orientation. I think it went really well, but for anybody reading this that went to the lecture, don’t hesitate to comment below on how I could improve.

My story arc was as follows:

In order to create and effective personal learning environment you need to recursively go through the following process: Continue reading “Your Personal Learning Environment – Presentation to JumpStart 2010”

Are we fighting a war?

I just watched the movie “Idiocracy” as recommended by Brian and Joe. In the words of d’Arcy Norman“damn. that movie was depressing, funny, and awesome”. It tells the story of a distopian future, where due to the fact that smart people have less children than stupid people, by the year 2500, smart people have died out. Everyone is incredibly stupid. Those left spend their time drinking “Brawndo, The thirst mutilator. It’s got electrolytes!” and watching people get kicked in the balls on television. It’s a future where everyone behaves exactly as Kraft, Walmart, etc want us to behave. It’s a brilliant cautionary tale and I highly recommend watching it.

Idiocracy Poster
Idiocracy poster (via Wikipedia)

Will it happen though?
Is there a possibility that humanity is doomed to get dumber? I think yes. There are many different reasons why this may or may not be so (all of which better suited for a non-wee-hours-of-the-morning post), but I think the largest of those is that in a world of stupid people, the corporations win. Corporations are psychotic entities that would do anything to get us to behave as they want and they have a lot of power (as described in another thought-provoking move, the Corporation). The power is evident everywhere. They are doing their damndest to use all media at their disposal to dumb-down children and make them into perfect buying machines, doing their bidding.

How do we stop it? We fight back in the schools. If education can be revolutionized (and there are many smart people working on it) then we can teach the young how to take back the power from the corporations and to make them do our bidding instead. Eating healthy,  exercising, learning and being compassionate are what smart people do and we need to ensure that despite the corporation’s efforts, everyone is given the tools and motivation to do so.

This is a war, it’s humanity VS. the corporations.We are fighting to see who controls who. If we get real about being flexible and innovative enough to fix education and make it a place where people learn to become smart enough to take back power from our creations.

Themes – A personal journey

Twenty hand

My site has gone through a lot of them changes over it’s history. Even though one of the bloggers that I admire most (at least before he went off the deep end) disagrees with theme changes, I feel that creating and changing my themes has allowed me to flesh out my ideas around aesthetics as well as my sense of self and personal style. I started university believing that I had no artistic talent whatsoever and have slowly come to realize that I just never spent any time developing it.  I treat my theme as a personal journey, it showcases my knowledge, ability and feelings at a given point in time and allows me to show everyone in a visual way when those things change by updating my theme.

So although I’ve lost a few of the steps along the way, here is a subset of the themes I’ve hacked along the way…

Learning through a narrative

Future of education

I just finished reading “The Future of Education – re-imagining our schools from the ground up” by Kieran Egan. It describes the idea of “Imaginative Education” (IE) and gives an example of a timeline in which this superior form of education could be the norm by 2050. I’m unsure of my opinion about most of IE and will spend a lot more time looking into it before I draw firm conclusion.

The one thing that really struck me about IE was the concentration on narratives. In the book students are given an arbitrary topic when they start school (for example “leaves” or “wind”) and work on a portfolio around that subject for their entire school school career). They are then guided by portfolio mentors to apply everything they learn to this topic. So for instance, when learning about metaphors, they are asked to find metaphors in literature involving leaves. When learning about area, they can find the best way to estimate the area of different kinds of leaves. This way of teaching serves the duel purpose of not only making students an expert in their topic, but also
gives them something tangible to relate their learning in all areas to. It forces them to develop a habit of applying the things they learn.

Now, I haven’t figured out how I feel about the idea of an “arbitrary” topic (I think students should at least have some influence in the choice of their topics). However, at a university level students like myself should have the power to choose their own topic and follow it through. I chose my topic of improving education (both in method and in distribution) a long time ago but can see many points in my education where I have failed to relate my learning back to that. For instance), why was I bored stiff in my databases class when I could have been finding ways to relate it to my passion? Boring as SQL may be, it can be seen as a powerful upgrade to parts of human language due to its exceptional clarity. The questions I should have been asking myself could have been as follows:

Should everyone learn how database queries work simply in order for them to understand the pure logic that it creates?

Is this type of logic necessary?

Does that kind of thinking make innovation more or less likely to happen?

So many questions could be formed from something as boring as SQL queries. I know that the ones above are very surface level, but that is precisely because I was not thinking deeply about this while they were being taught databases in depth. I have this feeling that I would have been able to draw many deep and meaningful connections.

From now on I intend to try my damnedest to relate everything I learn in school to my central topic and in order to test how powerful this way of thinking can be.

Educational Technology, the Users’s Perspective

Last week I spoke at ETUG 2010. My talk was entitled “Educational Technology, the Users’s Perspective”. In the talk I made a case for user-centered design and then explained the perspective of over 96% of the users of educational technology. Below is the video of my presentation (only starts about 1:50 into the video) and read on for a short summary.

http://blip.tv/play/AYHmsGQC
Continue reading “Educational Technology, the Users’s Perspective”

School is just a game… let’s make it a better game.

The idea here is that games and school have more in common than does school and life. So perhaps, instead of finding ways of engaging students by turning to real life, we should be turning to game design.

How is school like a game?

Both School and Video games are highly repetitive environments where you overcome deliberate obstacles in order to reach a goal. In both cases, you pay money in order to perform work. I’m going to use one of my favorite games of all time, Diablo 2 as an example in some direct comparisons.

Continue reading “School is just a game… let’s make it a better game.”

Personal Learning Network Presentations


My prize for best returning presentation

Over the last 6 months I have given two presentations on the ideas of Personal Learning Environments/Networks. The first one was in late August for UBC Jump Start,  a 2 week orientation program for students that I attended in my first year at UBC and that provided me with great friends and learning experiences. The second presentation was give at the 2010 UBC Student Leadership Conference, a conference that I have been heavily involved with over the past few years and this year was co-chaired by two good friends of mine, June Lam and Robert Winson. I had some technical difficulties with the first presentation, but the second one went really well, I even won the “best returning presenter” award for it.

Continue reading “Personal Learning Network Presentations”

Connectivism and Connected Knowledge – The first post

This year I am participating in the Connectivism and Connected Knowledge (CCK09) course offered by George Siemens and Stephen Downes. I was considering taking it for credit, but ran out of time and energy to jump through the hoops needed to make that happen. So instead I am doing it for fun, learning for the sake of learning, because it is a topic that really interests me (I will have to put some of the principles from my very first blog post into practice).

So what is Connectivism anyway? After reading and watching much of the first week’s content here is my interpretation: Continue reading “Connectivism and Connected Knowledge – The first post”