Large Scale Authenticity: What I Learned About MOOCs from Reality Television

The development of social media platforms has allows us to exchange information and, well, rubbish very easily. Whether it’s the discussion component of a learning management system, Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Snapchat or whatever will be the next big thing, we can now chat to each other in real time very, very easily.

One of the problems with any on-line course is trying to maintain a community across people who are not in the same timezone, country or context. What we’d really like is for the community communication to come from the students, with guidance and scaffolding from the lecturing staff, but sometimes there’s priming, leading and… prodding. These “other” messages have to be carefully crafted and they have to connect with the students or they risk being worse than no message at all. As an example, I signed up for an on-line course and then wasn’t able to do much in the first week. I was sitting down to work on it over the weekend when a mail message came in from the organisers on the community board congratulating me on my excellent progress on things I hadn’t done. (This wasn’t isolated. The next year, despite not having signed up, the same course sent me even more congratulations on totally non-existent progress.) This sends the usual clear messages that we expect from false praise and inauthentic communication: the student doesn’t believe that you know them, they don’t feel part of an authentic community and they may disengage. We have, very effectively, sabotaged everything that we actually wanted to build.

Let’s change focus. For a while, I was watching a show called “My Kitchen Rules” on local television. It pretends to be about cooking (with competitive scoring) but it’s really about flogging products from a certain supermarket while delivering false drama in the presence of dangerously orange chefs. An engineered activity to ensure that you replace an authentic experience with consumerism and commodities? Paging Guy Debord on the Situationist courtesy phone: we have a Spectacle in progress. What makes the show interesting is the associated Twitter feed, where large numbers of people drop in on the #mkr to talk about the food, discuss the false drama, exchange jokes and develop community memes, such as sharing pet pictures with each other over the (many) ad breaks. It’s a community. Not everyone is there for the same reasons: some are there to be rude about people, some are actually there for the cooking (??) and some are… confused. But the involvement in the conversation, interplay and development of a shared reality is very real.

Chef is not quite this orange. Not quite.

Chef is not quite this orange. Not quite.

And this would all be great except for one thing: Australia is a big country and spans a lot of timezones. My Kitchen Rules is broadcast at 7:30pm, starting in Melbourne, Canberra, Tasmania and Sydney, then 30 minutes later in Adelaide, then 30 minutes later again in Queensland (they don’t do daylight savings), then later again for Perth. So now we have four different time groups to manage, all watching the same show.

But the Twitter feed starts on the first time point, Adelaide picks up discussions from the middle of the show as they’re starting and then gets discussions on scores as the first half completes for them… and this is repeated for Queensland viewers and then for Perth. Now , in the community itself, people go on and off the feed as their version of the show starts and stops and, personally, I don’t find score discussions very distracting because I’m far more interested in the Situation being created in the Twitter stream.

Enter the “false tweets” of the official MKR Social Media team who ask questions that only make sense in the leading timezone. Suddenly, everyone who is not quite at the same point is then reminded that we are not in the same place. What does everyone think of the scores? I don’t know, we haven’t seen it yet. What’s worse are the relatively lame questions that are being asked in the middle of an actual discussion that smell of sponsorship involvement or an attempt to produce the small number of “acceptable” tweets that are then shared back on the TV screen for non-connected viewers. That’s another thing – everyone outside of the first timezone has very little chance of getting their Tweet displayed. Imagine if you ran a global MOOC where only the work of the students in San Francisco got put up as an example of good work!

This is a great example of an attempt to communicate that fails dismally because it doesn’t take into account how people are using the communications channel, isn’t inclusive (dismally so) and constantly reminds people who don’t live in a certain area that they really aren’t being considered by the program’s producers.

You know what would fix it? Putting it on at the same time everywhere but that, of course, is tricky because of the way that advertising is sold and also because it would force poor Perth to start watching dinner television just after work!

But this is a very important warning of what happens when you don’t think about how you’ve combined the elements of your environment. It’s difficult to do properly but it’s terrible when done badly. And I don’t need to go and enrol in a course to show you this – I can just watch a rather silly cooking show.

Rules: As For Them, So For Us

In a previous post, I mentioned a game called “Dog Eat Dog” where players role-play the conflict between Colonist and Native Occupiers, through playing out scenarios that both sides seek to control, with the result being the production of a new rule that encapsulates the ‘lesson’ of the scenario. I then presented education as being a good fit for this model but noted that many of the rules that students have to be obey are behavioural rather than knowledge-focussed. A student who is ‘playing through’ education will probably accumulate a list of rules like this (not in any particular order):

  1. Always be on time for class
  2. Always present your own work
  3. Be knowledgable
  4. Prepare for each activity
  5. Participate in class
  6. Submit your work on time

But, as noted in Dog Eat Dog, the nasty truth of colonisation is that the Colonists are always superior to the Colonised. So, rule 0 is actually: Students are inferior to Teachers. Now, that’s a big claim to make – that the underlying notion in education is one of inferiority. In the Dog Eat Dog framing, the superiority manifests as dominance in decision making and the ability to intrude into every situation. We’ll come back to this.

If we tease apart the rules for students then are some obvious omissions that we would like to see such as “be innovative” or “be creative”, except that these rules are very hard to apply as pre-requisites for progress. We have enough potential difficulty with the measurement of professional skills, without trying to assess if one thing is a creative approach while another is just missing the point or deliberate obfuscation. It’s understandable that five of the rules presented are those that we can easily control with extrinsic motivational factors – 1, 2, 4, 5, and 6 are generally presented as important because of things like mandatory attendance, plagiarism rules and lateness penalties. 3, the only truly cognitive element on the list, is a much harder thing to demand and, unsurprisingly, this is why it’s sometimes easier to seek well-behaved students than it is to seek knowledgable, less-controlled students, because it’s so much harder to see that we’ve had a  positive impact. So, let us accept that this list is naturally difficult to select and somewhat artificial, but it is a reasonable model for what people expect of a ‘good’ student.

Let me ask you some questions before we proceed.

  1. A student is always late for class. Could there be a reasonable excuse for this and, if so, does your system allow for it?
  2. Students occasionally present summary presentations from other authors, including slides prepared by scholarly authors. How do you interpret that?
  3. Students sometimes show up for classes and are obviously out of their depth. What do you do? Should they go away and come back later when they’re ready? Do they just need to try harder?
  4. Students don’t do the pre-reading and try to cram it in just before a session. Is this kind of “just in time” acceptable?
  5. Students sometimes sit up the back, checking their e-mail, and don’t really want to get involved. Is that ok? What if they do it every time?
  6. Students are doing a lot of things and often want to shift around deadlines or get you to take into account their work from other courses or outside jobs. Do you allow this? How often? Is there a penalty?

As you can see, I’ve taken each of the original ‘good student’ points and asked you to think about it. Now, let us accept that there are ultimate administrative deadlines (I’ve already talked about this a lot in time banking) and we can accept that the student is aware of these and are not planning to put all their work off until next century.

Now, let’s look at this as it applies to teaching staff. I think we can all agree that a staff member who meets that list are going to achieve a lot of their teaching goals. I’m going to reframe the questions in terms of staff.

  1. You have to drop your kids off every morning at day care. This means that you show up at your 9am lecture 5 minutes late every day because you physically can’t get there any faster and your partner can’t do it because he/she is working shift work. How do you explain this to your students?
  2. You are teaching a course from a textbook which has slides prepared already. Is it ok to take these slides and use them without any major modification?
  3. You’ve been asked to cover another teacher’s courses for two weeks due to their illness. You have a basis in the area but you haven’t had to do anything detailed for it in over 10 years and you’ll also have to give feedback on the final stages of a lengthy assignment. How do you prepare for this and what, if anything, do you tell the class to brief them on your own lack of expertise?
  4. The staff meeting is coming around and the Head of School wants feedback on a major proposal and discussion at that meeting. You’ve been flat out and haven’t had a chance to look at it, so you skim it on the way to the meeting and take it with you to read in the preliminaries. Given the importance of the proposal, do you think this is a useful approach?
  5. It’s the same staff meeting and Doctor X is going on (again) about radical pedagogy and Situationist philosophy. You quickly catch up on some important work e-mails and make some meetings for later in the week, while you have a second.
  6. You’ve got three research papers due, a government grant application and your Head of School needs your workload bid for the next calendar year. The grant deadline is fixed and you’ve already been late for three things for the Head of School. Do you drop one (or more) of the papers or do you write to the convenors to see if you can arrange an extension to the deadline?

Is this artificial? Well, of course, because I’m trying to make a point. Beyond being pedantic on this because you know what I’m saying, if you answered one way for the staff member and other way for the student then you have given the staff member more power in the same situation than the student. Just because we can all sympathise with the staff member (Doctor X sounds horribly familiar, doesn’t he?) doesn’t that the student’s reasons, when explored and contextualised, are not equally valid.

If we are prepared to listen to our students and give their thoughts, reasoning and lives as much weight and value as our own, then rule 0 is most likely not in play at the moment – you don’t think your students are inferior to you. If you thought that the staff member was being perfectly reasonable and yet you couldn’t see why a student should be extended the same privileges, even where I’ve asked you to consider the circumstances where it could be, then it’s possible that the superiority issue is one that has become well-established at your institution.

Ultimately, if this small list is a set of goals, then we should be a reasonable exemplar for our students. Recently, due to illness, I’ve gone from being very reliable in these areas, to being less reliable on things like the level of preparation I used to do and timeliness. I have looked at what I’ve had to do and renegotiated my  deadlines, apologising and explaining where I need to. As a result, things are getting done and, as far as I know, most people are happy with what I’m doing. (That’s acceptable but they used to be very happy. I have  way to go.) I still have a couple of things to fix, which I haven’t forgotten about, but I’ve had to carry out some triage. I’m honest about this because, that way, I encourage my students to be honest with me. I do what I can, within sound pedagogical framing and our administrative requirements, and my students know that. It makes them think more, become more autonomous and be ready to go out and practice at a higher level, sooner.

This list is quite deliberately constructed but I hope that, within this framework, I’ve made my point: we have to be honest if we are seeing ourselves as superior and, in my opinion, we should work more as equals with each other.

Thoughts on the colonising effect of education.

This is going to be longer than usual but these thoughts have been running around in my mind for a while and, rather than break them up, I thought I’d put them all together here. My apologies for the long read but, to help you, here’s the executive summary. Firstly, we’re not going to get anywhere until all of us truly accept that University students are not some sort of different species but that they are actually junior versions of ourselves – not inferior, just less advanced. Secondly, education is heavily colonising but what we often tend to pass on to our students are mechanisms for conformity rather than the important aspects of knowledge, creativity and confidence.

Let me start with some background and look at the primary and secondary schooling system. There is what we often refer to as traditional education: classroom full of students sitting in rows, writing down the words spoken by the person at the front. Assignments test your ability to learn and repeat the words and apply this is well-defined ways to a set of problems. Then we have progressive education that, depending upon your socio-political alignment and philosophical bent, is either a way of engaging students and teachers in the process for better outcomes, more critical thought and a higher degree of creativity; or it is cats and dogs lying down together, panic in the streets, a descent into radicalism and anarchy. (There is, of course, a middle ground, where the cats and dogs sleep in different spots, in rows, but engage in discussions of Foucault.) Dewey wrote on the tension between these two apparatus (seriously, is there anything he didn’t write on?) but, as we know, he was highly opposed to the lining up on students in ranks, like some sort of prison, so let’s examine why.

Simply put, the traditional model is an excellent way to prepare students for factory work but it’s not a great way to prepare them for a job that requires independence or creativity. You sit at your desk, the teacher reads out the instructions, you copy down the instructions, you are assigned piece work to do, you follow the instructions, your work is assessed to determine if it is acceptable, if not, you may have to redo it or it is just rejected. If enough of your work is deemed acceptable, then you are now a successful widget and may take your place in the community. Of course, it will help if your job is very similar to this. However, if your deviation from the norm is towards the unacceptable side then you may not be able to graduate until you conform.

Now, you might be able to argue this on accuracy, were it not for the constraining behavioural overtones in all of this. It’s not about doing the work, it’s about doing the work, quietly, while sitting for long stretches, without complaint and then handing back work that you had no part in defining for someone else to tell you what is acceptable. A pure model of this form cripples independence because there is no scope for independent creation as it must, by definition, deviate and thus be unacceptable.

Progressive models change this. They break up the structure of the classroom, change the way that work is assigned and, in many cases, change the power relationship between student and teacher. The teacher is still authoritative in terms of information but can potentially handle some (controlled for societal reasons) deviation and creativity from their student groups.

The great sad truth of University is that we have a lot more ability to be progressive because we don’t have to worry about too many severe behavioural issues as there is enough traditional education going on below these levels (or too few management resources for children in need) that it is highly unlikely that students with severe behavioural issues will graduate from high school, let alone make it to University with the requisite grades.

But let’s return to the term ‘colonising’, because it is a loaded term. We colonise when we send a group of settlers to a new place and attempt to assert control over it, often implicit in this is the notion that the place we have colonised is now for our own use. Ultimately, those being colonised can fight or they can assimilate. The most likely outcome if the original inhabitants fight is they they are destroyed, if those colonising are technologically superior or greatly outnumber them. Far more likely, and as seen all around the world, is the requirement for the original inhabitants to be assimilated to the now dominant colonist culture. Under assimilation, original cultures shrink to accommodate new rules, requirements, and taboos from the colonists.

In the case of education, students come to a University in order to obtain the benefits of the University culture so they are seeking to be colonised by the rules and values of the University. But it’s very important to realise that any positive colonisation value (and this is a very rare case, it’s worth noting) comes with a large number of negatives. If students come from a non-Western pedagogical tradition, then many requirements at Universities in Australia, the UK and America will be at odds with the way that they have learned previously, whether it’s power distances, collectivism/individualism issues or even in the way that work is going to be assigned and assessed. If students come from a highly traditional educational background, then they will struggle if we break up the desks and expect them to be independent and creative. Their previous experiences define their educational culture and we would expect the same tensions between colonist and coloniser as we would see in any encounter in the past.

I recently purchased a game called “Dog Eat Dog“, which is a game designed to allow you to explore the difficult power dynamics of the colonist/colonised relationship in the Pacific. Liam Burke, the author, is a second-generation half-Filipino who grew up in Hawaii and he developed the game while thinking about his experiences growing up and drawing on other resources from the local Filipino community.

The game is very simple. You have a number of players. One will play the colonist forces (all of them). Each other player will play a native. How do you select the colonist? Well, it’s a simple question: Which player at the table is the richest?

As you can tell, the game starts in uncomfortable territory and, from that point on, it can be very challenging as the the native players will try to run small scenarios that the colonist will continually interrupt, redirect and adjudicate to see how well the natives are playing by the colonist’s rules. And the first rule is:

The (Native people) are inferior to the (Occupation people).

After every scenario, more rules are added and the native population can either conform (for which they are rewarded) or deviate (for which they are punished). It actually lies inside the colonist’s ability to kill all the natives in the first turn, should they wish to do so, because this happened often enough that Burke left it in the rules. At the end of the game, the colonists may be rebuffed but, in order to do that, the natives have become adept at following the rules and this is, of course, at the expense of their own culture.

This is a difficult game to explain in the short form but the PDF is only $10 and I think it’s an important read for just about anyone. It’s a short rule book, with a quick history of Pacific settlement and exemplars, produced from a successful Kickstarter.

Let’s move this into the educational sphere. It would be delightful if I couldn’t say this but, let’s be honest, our entire system is often built upon the premise that:

The students are inferior to the teachers.

Let’s play this out in a traditional model. Every time the students get together in order to do anything, we are there to assess how well they are following the rules. If they behave, they get grades (progress towards graduation). If they don’t conform, then they don’t progress and, because everyone has finite resources, eventually they will drop out, possibly doing something disastrous in the process. (In the original game, the native population can run amok if they are punished too much, which has far too many unpleasant historical precedents.) Every time that we have an encounter with the students, they have to come up with a rule to work out how they can’t make the same mistake again. This new rule is one that they’re judged against.

When I realised how close a parallel this, a very cold shiver went down my spine. But I also realised how much I’d been doing to break out of this system, by treating students as equals with mutual respect, by listening and trying to be more flexible, by interpreting a more rigid pedagogical structure through filters that met everyone’s requirements. But unless I change the system, I am merely one of the “good” overseers on a penal plantation. When the students leave my care, if I know they are being treated badly, I am still culpable.

As I started with, valuing knowledge, accuracy,  being productive (in an academic sense), being curious and being creative are all things that we should be passing on from our culture but these are very hard things to pass on with a punishment/reward modality as they are all cognitive in aspect. What is far easier to do is to pass on culture such as sitting silently, being bound by late penalties, conformity to the rules and the worst excesses of the Banking model of education (after Freire) where students are empty receiving objects that we, as teachers, fill up. There is no agency in such a model, nor room for creativity. The jug does not choose the liquid that fills it.

It is easy to see examples all around us of the level of disrespect levelled at colonised peoples, from the mindless (and well-repudiated) nonsense spouted in Australian newspapers about Aboriginal people to the racist stereotyping that persists despite the overwhelming evidence of equality between races and genders. It is also as easy to see how badly students can be treated by some staff. When we write off a group of students because they are ‘bad students’ then we have made them part of a group that we don’t respect – and this empowers us to not have to treat them as well as we treat ourselves.

We have to start from the basic premise that our students are at University because they want to be like us, but like the admirable parts of us, not the conformist, factory model, industrial revolution prison aspects. They are junior lawyers, young engineers, apprentice architects when they come to us – they do not have to prove their humanity in order to be treated with respect. However, this does have to be mutual and it’s important to reflect upon the role that we have as a mentor, someone who has greater knowledge in an area and can share it with a more junior associate to bring them up to the same level one day.

If we regard students as being worthy of respect, as being potential peers, then we are more likely to treat them with a respect that engenders a reciprocal relationship. Treat your students like idiots and we all know how that goes.

The colonial mindset is poisonous because of the inherent superiority and because of the value of conformity to imposed rules above the potential to be gained from incorporating new and useful aspects of other cultures. There are many positive aspects of University culture but they can happily coexist with other educational traditions and cultures – the New Zealand higher educational system is making great steps in this direction to be able to respect both Maori tradition and the desire of young people to work in a westernised society without compromising their traditions.

We have to start from the premise that all people are equal, because to do otherwise is to make people unequal. We then must regard our students as ourselves, just younger, less experienced and only slightly less occasionally confused than we were at that age. We must carefully examine how we expose students to our important cultural aspects and decide what is and what is not important. However, if all we turn out at the end of a 3-4 year degree is someone who can perform a better model of piece work and is too heavily intimidated into conformity that they cannot do anything else – then we have failed our students and ourselves.

The game I mentioned, “Dog Eat Dog”, starts with a quote by a R. Zamora Linmark from his poem “They Like You Because You Eat Dog”. Linmark is a Filipino American poet, novelist, and playwright, who was educated in Honolulu. His challenging poem talks about the ways that a second-class citizenry are racially classified with positive and negative aspects (the exoticism is balanced against a ‘brutish’ sexuality, for example) but finishes with something that is even more challenging. Even when a native population fully assimilates, it is never enough for the coloniser, because they are still not quite them.

“They like you because you’re a copycat, want to be just like them. They like you because—give it a few more years—you’ll be just like them.
And when that time comes, will they like you more?”

R. Zamora Linmark, “They Like You Because You Eat Dog”, from “Rolling the R’s”

I had a discussion once with a remote colleague who said that he was worried the graduates of his own institution weren’t his first choice to supervise for PhDs as they weren’t good enough. I wonder whose fault he thought that was?

CodeSpells! A Kickstarter to make a difference. @sesperu @codespells #codespells

I first met Sarah Esper a few years ago when she was demonstrating the earlier work in her PhD project with Stephen Foster on CodeSpells, a game-based project to start kids coding. In a pretty enjoyable fantasy game environment, you’d code up spells to make things happen and, along the way, learn a lot about coding. Their team has grown and things have come a long way since then for CodeSpells, and they’re trying to take it from its research roots into something that can be used to teach coding on a much larger scale. They now have a Kickstarter out, which I’m backing (full disclosure), to get the funds they need to take things to that next level.

Teaching kids to code is hard. Teaching adults to code can be harder. There’s a big divide these days between the role of user and creator in the computing world and, while we have growing literary in use, we still have a long way to go to get more and more people creating. The future will be programmed and it is, honestly, a new form of literacy that our children will benefit from.

If you’re one of my readers who likes the idea of new approaches to education, check this out. If you’re an old-timey Multi-User Dungeon/Shared Hallucination person like me, this is the creative stuff we used to be able to do on-line, but for everyone and with cool graphics in a multi-player setting. If you have kids, and you like the idea of them participating fully in the digital future, please check this out.

To borrow heavily from their page, 60% of jobs in science, technology,engineering and maths are computing jobs but AP Computer Science is only taught at 5% of schools. We have a giant shortfall of software people coming up and this will be an ugly crash when it comes because all of the nice things we have become used to in the computing side will slow down and, in some cases, pretty much stop. Invest in the future!

I have no connection to the project apart from being a huge supporter of Sarah’s drive and vision and someone who would really like to see this project succeed. Please go and check it out!

The Earth Magic Sphere image, from the Kickstarter page.

The Earth Magic Sphere image, from the Kickstarter page.

Enemies, Friends and Frenemies: Distance, Categorisation and Fun.

As Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola wrote in “The Godfather Part II”:

… keep your friends close but your enemies closer.

(I bet you thought that was Sun Tzu, the author of “The Art of War”. So did I but this movie is the first use.)

I was thinking about this the other day and it occurred to me that this is actually a simple modelling problem. Can I build a model which will show the space around me and where I would expect to find friends and enemies? Of course, you might be wondering “why would you do this?” Well, mostly because it’s a little bit silly and it’s a way of thinking that has some fun attached to it. When I ask students to build models of the real world, where they think about how they would represent all of the important aspects of the problem and how they would simulate the important behaviours and actions seen with it, I often give them mathematical or engineering applications. So why not something a little more whimsical?

From looking at the quote, we would assume that there is some distance around us (let’s call it a circle) where we find everyone when they come up to talk to us, friend or foe, and let’s also assume that the elements “close” and “closer” refer to how close we let them get in conversation. (Other interpretations would have us living in a neighbourhood of people who hate us, while we have to drive to a different street to sit down for dinner with people who like us.) So all of our friends and enemies are in this circle, but enemies will be closer. That looks like this:


I have more friends than enemies because I’m popular!

So now we have a visual model of what is going on and, if we wanted to, we could build a simple program that says something like “if you’re in this zone, then you’re an enemy, but if you’re in that zone then you’re a friend” where we define the zones in terms of nested circular regions. But, as we know, friend always has your back and enemies stab you in the back, so now we need to add something to that “ME” in the middle – a notion of which way I’m facing – and make sure that I can always see my enemies. Let’s make the direction I’m looking an arrow. (If I could draw better, I’d put glasses on the front. If you’re doing this in the classroom, an actual 3D dummy head shows position really well.) That looks like this:

Same numbers but now I can keep an eye on those enemies!

Same numbers but now I can keep an eye on those enemies!

Now our program has to keep track of which way we’re facing and then it checks the zones, on the understanding that either we’re going to arrange things to turn around if an enemy is behind us, or we can somehow get our enemies to move (possibly by asking nicely). This kind of exercise can easily be carried out by students and it raises all sorts of questions. Do I need all of my enemies to be closer than my friends or is it ok if the closest person to me is an enemy? What happens if my enemies are spread out in a triangle around me? Is they won’t move, do I need to keep rotating to keep an eye on them or is it ok if I stand so that they get as much of my back as they can? What is an acceptable solution to this problem? You might be surprised how much variation students will suggest in possible solutions, as they tell you what makes perfect sense to them for this problem.

When we do this kind of thing with real problems, we are trying to specify the problem to a degree that we remove all of the unasked questions that would otherwise make the problem ambiguous. Of course, even the best specification can stumble if you introduce new information. Some of you will have heard of the term ‘frenemy’, which apparently:

can refer to either an enemy pretending to be a friend or someone who really is a friend but is also a rival (from Wikipedia and around since 1953, amazingly!)

What happens if frenemies come into the mix? Well, in either case, we probably want to treat them like an enemy. If they’re an enemy pretending to be a friend, and we know this, then we don’t turn our back on them and, even in academia, it’s never all that wise to turn your back on a rival, either. (Duelling citations at dawn can be messy.) In terms of our simple model, we can deal with extending the model because we clearly understand what the important aspects are of this very simple situation. It would get trickier if frenemies weren’t clearly enemies and we would have to add more rules to our model to deal with this new group.

This can be played out with students of a variety of ages, across a variety of curricula, with materials as simple as a board, a marker and some checkers. Yet this is a powerful way to explain modelsspecification and improvement, without having to write a single line of actual computer code or talk about mathematics or bridges! I hope you found it useful.

A Break in the Silence: Time to Tell a Story

It has been a while since I last posted here but that is a natural outcome of focusing my efforts elsewhere – at some stage I had to work out what I had time to do and do it. I always tell my students to cut down to what they need to do and, once I realised that the time I was spending on the blog was having one of the most significant impacts on my ability to juggle everything else, I had to eat my own dogfood and cut back on the blog.

Of course, I didn’t do it correctly because instead of cutting back, I completely cut it out. Not quite what I intended but here’s another really useful piece of information: if you decide to change something then clearly work out how you are going to change things to achieve your goal. Which means, ahem, working out what your goals are first.

I’ve done a lot of interesting stuff over the last 6 months, and there are more to come, which means that I do have things to write about but I shall try and write about one a week as a minimum, rather than one per day. This is a pace that I hope to keep up and one that will mean that more of you will read more of what I write, rather than dreading the daily kiloword delivery.

I’ll briefly reflect here on some interesting work and seminars I’ve been looking at on business storytelling – taking a personal story, something authentic, and using it to emphasise a change in business behaviour or to emphasise a characteristic. I recently attended one of the (now defunct) One Thousand and One’s short seminars on engaging people with storytelling. (I’m reading their book “Hooked” at the moment. It’s quite interesting and refers to other interesting concepts as well.) I realise that such ideas, along with many of my notions of design paired with content, will have a number of readers peering at the screen and preparing a retort along the lines of “Storytelling? STORYTELLING??? Whatever happened to facts?”

Why storytelling? Because bald facts sometimes just don’t work. Without context, without a way to integrate information into existing knowledge and, more importantly, without some sort of established informational relationship, many people will ignore facts unless we do more work than just present them.

How many examples do you want: Climate Change, Vaccination, 9/11. All of these have heavily weighted bodies of scientific evidence that states what the answer should be, and yet there is powerful and persistent opposition based, largely, on myth and storytelling.

Education has moved beyond the rationing out of approved knowledge from the knowledge rich to those who have less. The tyrannical informational asymmetry of the single text book, doled out in dribs and drabs through recitation and slow scrawling at the front of the classroom, looks faintly ludicrous when anyone can download most of the resources immediately. And yet, as always, owning the book doesn’t necessarily teach you anything and it is the educator’s role as contextualiser, framer, deliverer, sounding board and value enhancer that survives the death of the drip-feed and the opening of the flood gates of knowledge. To think that storytelling is the delivery of fairytales, and that is all it can be, is to sell such a useful technique short.

To use storytelling educationally, however, we need to be focused on being more than just entertaining or engaging. Borrowing heavily from “Hooked”, we need to have a purpose in telling the story, it needs to be supported by data and it needs to be authentic. In my case, I have often shared stories of my time in working with  computer networks, in short bursts, to emphasise why certain parts of computer networking are interesting or essential (purpose), I provide enough information to show this is generally the case (data) and because I’m talking about my own experiences, they ring true (authenticity).

If facts alone could sway humanity, we would have adopted Dewey’s ideas in the 1930s, instead of rediscovering the same truths decade after decade. If only the unembellished truth mattered, then our legal system would look very, very different. Our students are surrounded by talented storytellers and, where appropriate, I think those ranks should include us.

Now, I have to keep to the commitment I made 8 months ago, that I would never turn down the chance to have one of my cats on my lap when they wanted to jump up, and I wish you a very happy new year if I don’t post beforehand.

Skill Games versus Money Games: Disguising One Game As Another

I recently ran across a very interesting article on Gamasutra on the top tips for turning a Free To Play (F2P) game into a Paying game by taking advantage of the way that humans think and act. F2P games are quite common but, obviously, it costs money to make a game so there has to be some sort of associated revenue stream. In some cases, the F2P is a Lite version of the pay version, so after being hooked you go and buy the real thing. Sometimes there is an associated advertising stream, where you viewing the ads earns the producer enough money to cover costs. However, these simple approaches pale into insignificance when compared with the top tips in the link.

Ramin identifies two games for this discussion: games of skill, where it is your ability to make sound decisions that determines the outcome, and money games, where your success is determined by the amount of money you can spend. Games of chance aren’t covered here but, given that we’re talking about motivation and agency, we’re depending upon one specific blindspot (the inability of humans to deal sensibly with probability) rather than the range of issues identified in the article.

I dont want to rehash the entire article but the key points that I want to discuss are the notion of manipulating difficulty and fun pain. A game of skill is effectively fun until it becomes too hard. If you want people to keep playing then you have to juggle the difficulty enough to make it challenging but not so hard that you stop playing. Even where you pay for a game up front, a single payment to play, you still want to get enough value out of it – too easy and you finish too quickly and feel that you’ve wasted your money; too hard and you give up in disgust, again convinced that you’ve wasted your money. Ultimately, in a pure game of skill, difficulty manipulation must be carefully considered. As the difficulty ramps up, the player is made uncomfortable, the delightful term fun pain is applied here, and resolving the difficulty removes this.

Or, you can just pay to make the problem go away. Suddenly your game of skill has two possible modes of resolution: play through increasing difficulty, at some level of discomfort or personal inconvenience, or, when things get hard enough, pump in a deceptively small amount of money to remove the obstacle. The secret of the P2P game that becomes successfully monetised is that it was always about the money in the first place and the initial rounds of the game were just enough to get you engaged to a point where you now have to pay in order to go further.

You can probably see where I’m going with this. While it would be trite to describe education as a game of skill, it is most definitely the most apt of the different games on offer. Progress in your studies should be a reflection of invested time in study, application and the time spent in developing ideas: not based on being ‘lucky’, so the random game isn’t a choice. The entire notion of public education is founded on the principle that educational opportunities are open to all. So why do some parts of this ‘game’ feel like we’ve snuck in some covert monetisation?

I’m not talking about fees, here, because that’s holding the place of the fee you pay to buy a game in the first place. You all pay the same fee and you then get the same opportunities – in theory, what comes out is based on what the student then puts in as the only variable.

But what about textbooks? Unless the fee we charge automatically, and unavoidably, includes the cost of the textbook, we have now broken the game into two pieces: the entry fee and an ‘upgrade’. What about photocopying costs? Field trips? A laptop computer? An iPad? Home internet? Bus fare?

It would be disingenuous to place all of this at the feet of public education – it’s not actually the fault of Universities that financial disparity exists in the world. It is, however, food for thought about those things that we could put into our courses that are useful to our students and provide a paid alternative to allow improvement and progress in our courses. If someone with the textbook is better off than someone without the textbook, because we don’t provide a valid free alternative, then we have provided two-tiered difficulty. This is not the fun pain of playing a game, we are now talking about genuine student stress, a two-speed system and a very high risk that stressed students will disengage and leave.

From my earlier discussions on plagiarism, we can easily tie in Ramin’s notion of the driver of reward removal, where players have made so much progress that, on facing defeat, they will pay a fee to reduce the impact of failure; or, in some cases, to remove it completely. As Ramin notes:

“This technique alone is effective enough to make consumers of any developmental level spend.”

It’s not just lost time people are trying to get back, it’s the things that have been achieved in that time. Combine that with, in our case, the future employability and perception of that piece of paper, and we have a very strong behavioural driver. A number of the tricks Ramin describes don’t work as well on mature and aware thinkers but this one is pretty reliable. If it’s enough to make people pay money, regardless of their development level, then there are lots of good design decisions we can make from this – lower risk assessment, more checkpointing, steady progress towards achievement. We know lots of good ways to avoid this, if we consider it to be a problem and want to take the time to design around it.

This is one of the greatest lessons I’ve learned about studying behaviour, even as a rank amateur. Observing what people do and trying to build systems that will work despite that makes a lot more sense than building a system that works to some ideal and trying to jam people into it. The linked article shows us how people are making really big piles of money by knowing how people work. It’s worth looking at to make sure that we aren’t, accidentally, manipulating students in the same way.

Game Design and Boredom: Learning From What I Like

For those of you poor deluded souls who are long term readers (or long term “receivers of e-mail that you file under the ‘read while anaesthetised’ folder”) you will remember that I talked about producing a zombie game some time ago and was crawling around the house to work out how fast you could travel as a legless zombie. Some of you (well, one of you – thanks, Mark) has even sent me appropriately English pictures to put into my London-based game. Yet, as you can see, there is not yet a game.

What happened?

The first thing I wanted to do was to go through the design process and work out if I could produce a playable game that worked well. Along the way, however, I’ve discovered a lot of about games because I have been thinking in far more detail about games and about why I like to play the games that I enjoy. To quote my previous post:

I play a number of board games but, before you think “Oh no, not Monopoly!”, these are along the lines of the German-style board games, games that place some emphasis on strategy, don’t depend too heavily on luck, may have collaborative elements (or an entirely collaborative theme), tend not to be straight war games and manage to keep all the players in the game until the end.

What I failed to mention, you might notice, is that I expect these games to be fun. As it turns out, the first design for the game actually managed to meet all of the above requirements and, yet, was not fun in any way at all. I realised that I had fallen into a trap that I am often prone to, which is that I was trying to impose a narrative over a set of events that could actually occur in any order or any way.

Ever prepared for a class, with lots of materials for one specific area, and then the class takes a sudden shift in direction (it turns out that the class haven’t assimilated a certain foundation concept) and all of that careful work has to be put away for later? Sometimes it doesn’t matter how much you prepare – life happens and your carefully planned activities get derailed. Even if you don’t get any content surprises, it doesn’t take much to upset the applecart (a fire alarm goes off, for example) and one of the signs of the good educator is the ability to adapt to continue to bring the important points to the learner, no matter what happens. Walking in with a fixed narrative of how the semester is going to roll out is unlikely to meet the requirements of all of your students and if something goes wrong, you’re stuffed (to use the delightful Australian vernacular, which seems oddly appropriate around Thanksgiving).

In my head, while putting my game together, I had thought of a set of exciting stories, rather than a possible set of goalsevents and rules that could apply to any combination of players and situations. When people have the opportunity to explore, they become more engaged and they tend to own the experience more. This is what I loved about the game Deus Ex, the illusion of free will, and I felt that I constructed my own narrative in there, despite actually choosing from one of the three that was on offer on carefully hidden rails that you didn’t see until you’d played it through a few times.

Still my favourite computer game!

Apart from anything else, I had made the game design dull. There is nothing exciting about laying out hexagonal tiles to some algorithm, unless you are getting to pick the strategy, so my ‘random starting map’ was one of the first things to go. London has a number of areas and, by choosing a fixed board layout that increased or decreased based on player numbers, I got enough variation by randomising placement on a fixed map.

I love the game Arkham Horror but I don’t play it very often, despite owning all of the expansions. Why? The set-up and pack-up time take ages. Deck after deck of cards, some hundreds high, some 2-3, have to be placed out onto a steadily shrinking playing area and, on occasion, a player getting a certain reward will stop the game for 5-10 minutes as we desperately search for the appropriate sub-pack and specific card that they have earned. The game company that released Arkham has now released iPhone apps that allow you to monitor cards on your phone but, given that each expansion management app is an additional fee and that I have already paid money for the expansions themselves, this has actually added an additional layer of irritation. The game company recognises that their system is painful but now wish to charge me more money to reduce the problem! I realised that my ‘lay out the hexes’ for the game was boring set-up and a barrier to fun.

The other thing I had to realise is that nobody really cares about realism or, at least, there is only so much realism people need. I had originally allows for players to be soldiers, scientists, police, medical people, spies and administrators. Who really wants to be the player responsible for the budgetary allocation of a large covert government facility? Just because the administrator has narrative value doesn’t mean that the character will be fun to play! Similarly, why the separation between scientists and doctors? All that means is I have the unpleasant situation where the doctors can’t research the cure and the scientists can’t go into the field because they have no bandaging skill. If I’m writing a scenario as a novel or short story, I can control the level of engagement for each character because I’m writing the script. In a randomised series of events, no-one is quite sure who will be needed where and the cardinal rule of a game is that it should be fun. In fact, that final goal of keeping all players in the game until the end should be an explicit statement that all players are useful in the game until the end.

The games I like are varied but the games that I play have several characteristics in common. They do not take a long time to set-up or pack away. They allow every player to matter, up until the end. Whether working together or working against each other, everyone feels useful. There is now so much randomness that you can be destroyed by a bad roll but there is not so much predictability that you can coast after the second round. The games I really like to play are also forgiving. I am playing some strategy games at the moment and, for at least two of them, decisions made in the first two rounds will affect the entire game. I must say that I’m playing them to see if that is my lack of ability or a facet of the game. If it turns out to be the game, I’ll stop playing because I don’t need to have a game berating me for making a mistake 10 rounds previously. It’s not what I call fun.

I hope to have some more time to work on this over the summer but, as a design exercise, it has been really rewarding for me to think about. I understand myself more and I understand games more – and this means that I am enjoying the games that I do play more as well!

What Do You Mean… “Like”?

I was alerted to a strange game the other day. Go to Mitt Romney’s Facebook page, note the number of ‘likes’ and then come back later to see if the number had gone up or down. As it turns out, the number of Facebookers who ‘like’ the former Presidential Candidate’s Facebook page is dropping at a noticeable but steady rate. My estimates are, if this drop is maintained and it is linear, it will be about 1666 days until there are zero people liking the page. (Estimates vary, but the current rate of loss is somewhere around 11 likes a minute. You can watch it here in real time.) I mention this not to add to Mr Romney’s woes, because he is already understandably not happy that he lost the election, although you may disagree with the reasoning in the linked article. I mention this because it identifies how nebulous our association is with the term and the concept of ‘like’.

If this is your closest friend, you might need to catch up on this thing that we call ‘Facebook’.

For those who have recently returned from 7 years of bonding with a volleyball in the Pacific, Facebook does not allow you to ‘dislike’ things, it only allows you to comment or hit the ‘like’ button (or hide the comment or post but that’s a separate thought). What does it mean then to not click the ‘like’ button or to comment? Thank you, Facebook, for presenting us with yet another false dichotomy and for giving us such a large example on Mr Romney’s page. Before the election, millions of people liked Mr Romney’s page which, one can only imaging, meant that they were showing him support and saying “Go, Mitt!” Now that, in a completely different way, the message “Go, Mitt” has been communicated, it appears that, at a time when an unsuccessful candidate would need the most support, the followers are leaving. Now, this is important because, as I understand it, to stop liking something you have to take the active step of clicking on something – it doesn’t just expire in a short timeframe. People are actively choosing to remove their liking of Mr Romney’s page.


Well, there’s a lot of speculation about this, including the notion that some of the initial surge of followers came from buying friends by bringing in other accounts that are used by non-people but this still doesn’t explain where the unlikes are coming from because, after all, a Justin Bieber Slashfic Spambot is nothing if not loyal in its mechanically allocated trust. What is probably happening here is that the social media front ends were being used explicitly as part of a campaign to see Mr Romney elected President and, understandably, the accounts are now seeing much less use and, fickle as the real Internet is, you’re only as good as your last post or as hot as your posting frequency. The staffer or group of staffers that were paid to do this have now lost their jobs and the account is heading towards the account graveyard. (The saddest thing about any competition like this is that someone, somewhere, who has been doing a good job may still lose their job because the public didn’t support their candidate. I try to remember that before I overly celebrate either victory or defeat, although I don’t always succeed.)

What concerns me are the people who liked this Facebook page, legitimately and as real people, and have now turned around and deliked it, because this can easily be seen as a punitive action. It has no real impact on Mr Romney in any sense but it does make him look increasingly unpopular and, really, it achieves absolutely nothing. What does ‘like’ mean in this context? I support you until you fail me? I support you because you might be President and I have some strange mental model that your Secretary of State will be picked randomly from your Facebook followers?

To me, honestly, a lot of this looks like spite. After all, what does it hurt to remain a liker of a dead page? It doesn’t, unless your aim is to send a message. However, I think that Mr Romney probably already knows that he didn’t get elected to the highest office his country can offer – but I’m sure that when he becomes aware of all of the people fleeing his page, it will really neatly reinforce how he could have improved his campaign.

Oh, wait, that’s my point! The vocabulary of like/delike (recall that there is no dislike option) is fundamentally useless because of its confused binary nature. Does no ‘like’ mean ‘dislike’,’meh’,’sort of like’,’maybe in a dark room’ or ‘I missed this’? Does ‘like’ mean ‘yay!’, ‘hugs!’, ‘i want to smell your hair’ or ‘*gritted teeth at your good fortune*’? Or does it just mean ‘like’? We have no idea unless someone comments and, given that we have the easy out of ‘like’, many people won’t comment because they have the deceptively communicative nature of the flawed channel of ‘like’!

Like most Universities, we have a survey that we run on students at the end of courses to find out how they felt about the course, what their experience was. Regrettably, a lot of the time, what you end up measuring was how much a student liked you. It’s on a 7 point Likert scale but, and many students don’t realise this, the middle point is not ‘non-committed to like/dislike’, it counts as ‘not like’. Hence if you get 7/7 from everyone for something and get one 4/7, you no longer have 100% broad agreement regarding that point. Because there is confusion about what this means (and there is a not applicable that is separate to the scale), students who don’t care about anything tend to write down the middle and end up counting as a vote against. Is this fair? Well, is that the question? Let me ask a different one – was it what the student intended? Maybe/maybe not. As it stands, the numbers themselves are not very much use as they tell you what people feel but not what they’re thinking. The comments that also come on the same form are far more informative than the numbers. Much as with Facebook, there is confusion over like/dislike, but the comments are always far more useful in making improvements and finding out what people really think.

I feel (to my own surprise) some empathy for Mr Romney at the moment because there are hundreds, if not thousands, of people a day sending him a message that is utterly and totally confusing, as well as being fundamentally hypocritical. Ok, yes, he might not care to know what every American thought he got wrong, the Internet can be challenging that way, but ‘deliking’ him is not actually achieving anything except covering your tracks.

What did any of these people, who have now left, actually mean by ‘like’?

Being a Hypnoweasel and Why That’s a Bad Idea.

I greatly enjoy the television shows and, as it turns out, the writing of Derren Brown. Mr Brown is a successful conjurer, hypnotist and showman who performs stage magic and a range of deceits and experiments, including trying to turn a random member of the public into an assassin or convincing people that they committed a murder.

This is Derren hypnotising you into believing that this is the best post ever.

His combination of trickery, showmanship, claimed psychology/neurolinguistic programming and hypnotism makes for an interesting show – he has been guilty of over claiming in earlier shows and, these days, focusses on the art of misdirection, with a healthy dose of human influence to tell interesting stories. I am reading his book “Tricks of the Mind” at the moment and the simple tricks he discusses are well informed by the anecdotes that accompany them. However, some of his Experiments and discussions of the human aspects of wilful ignorance of probability and statistics are very interesting indeed and I use these as part of my teaching.

In “The System”, Derren shares his “100% successful horse race prediction system” with a member of the public. He also shows how, by force of will alone, he can flip a coin 10 times and have it come up heads – with no camera trickery. I first saw this on a rather dull plane flight and watched with interest as he did a number of things that, characteristically, showed you exactly what he was doing but cleverly indicated that he was doing something else – or let you believe that he was doing something else. “The System” is a great thing to show students because they have to consider what is and what isn’t possible at each stage and then decide how he did it, or how he could have done it. By combining his own skill at sleight of hand, his rather detailed knowledge of how people work and his excellent preparation, “The System” will leave a number of people wondering about the detail, like all good magic should.

The real reason that I am reading Derren at the moment, as well as watching him carefully, is that I am well aware how easy it is to influence people and, in teaching, I would rather not be using influence and stagecraft to manipulate my students’ memories of a teaching experience, even if I’m doing it unconsciously. Derren is, like all good magicians, very, very good at forcing cards onto people or creating situations where they think that they have carried out an act of their own free will, when really it is nothing of the kind. Derren’s production and writings on creating false memory, where a combination of preparation, language and technique leads to outcomes where participants will swear blind that a certain event occurred when it most certainly did not. This is the flashy cousin of the respectable work on cognition and load thresholds, monkey business illusion anyone?, but I find it a great way to step back critically and ask myself if I have been using any of these techniques in the showman-like manipulation of my students to make them think that knowledge has been transferred when, really, what they have is the memory of a good lecture experience?

This may seem both overly self-critical and not overly humble but I am quite a good showman and I am aware that my presentation can sometimes overcome the content. There is, after all, a great deal of difference between genuinely being able to manipulate time and space to move cards in a deck, and merely giving the illusion that one can. One of these is a miracle and the other is practise. Looking through the good work on cognitive load and transfer between memory systems, I can shape my learning and teaching design so that the content is covered thoroughly, linked properly and staged well. Reading and watching Derren, however, reminds me how much I could undo all of the good work by not thinking about how easy it is for humans to accept a strange personally skewed perspective of what has really happened. I could convince my students that they are learning, when in reality they are confused and need more clarification. The good news is that, looking back, I’m pretty sure that I do prepare and construct in a way that I can build upon something good, which is what I want to do, rather than provide an empty but convincing facade over the top of something that is not all that solid. Watching Derren, however, lets me think about the core difference between an enjoyable and valuable learning experience and misdirection.

There are many ways to fool people and these make for good television but I want my students to be the kind of people who see through such enjoyable games and can quickly apply their properly developed knowledge and understanding of how things really work to determine what is actually happening. There’s an old saying “Set a thief to catch a thief” and, in this case, it takes a convincing showman/hypnotist to clarify the pitfalls possible when you get a little too convincing in your delivery.

Deception is not the basis for good learning and teaching, no matter how noble an educator’s intent.