Experts Debate Edtech Pros & Cons

NYCtickerAfter buying a $5 street umbrella on my way to the Tyton Education Summit last week, I looked up at the news crawlers ringing Broadway and 7th Avenue in Times Square and wondered, “If the headlines were about edtech, what would they say, and would anyone care?”

Our industry has never been short on hype. The problem is that like street umbrellas turning inside-out in the wind as soon as they’re opened, many products struggle to do their jobs.

Tyton recognizes this and brings industry leaders together to explore more durable solutions. Once inside the impressive TimesCenter — a 600-seat auditorium with a glass-walled atrium framing a tall stand of birch trees behind the stage — Tyton served up a thoughtful program for edtech investors, practitioners, and consumers.

Here are some of the ideas, issues, and questions that struck me as worth sharing.

Measureable outcomes | Adam Newman of Tyton asked: “Can we better reverse engineer the outcomes we want and make the systemic changes needed to meet those outcomes?” This theme of setting and measuring results without unnecessarily impeding innovation recurred throughout the conference. “In pharma you can’t get a drug approved that causes a small amount of arrhythmia in a tiny fraction of patients,” said Paul Freedman, CEO of Entangled Ventures. “But we don’t measure education nearly as closely.”

Broken system | Bill Hughes, Chief Strategy Officer of Learning Objects, summed up a view of K-12 procurement shared by many: “The system is broken. We’re spending $10,000 per kid but where does it go?”

Loyalty is a two-way street | Paul Freedman also cited a rising source of corporate angst: Employee training no longer ensures employee retention. Starbucks has partnered with Arizona State University to offer free courses to all of its employees. Many corporate-university partnerships have followed. Will lifelong learning as an employee benefit become the new normal?

Network fit | Perhaps retention depends more on hiring the right people in the first place. Jean Martin, Executive Director and Talent Solutions Architect at CEB, puts it this way: “Network fit is what companies are most hiring for now. Not a cloud engineer but an Apple cloud engineer.”

Maximize learning. Minimize debt. | Mohua Bose of Excelsior College articulated a formula many online schools want to put into practice: “For non-traditional learners how can we maximize education while minimizing debt and time away from the workforce?” Schools that succeed in delivering on this value proposition could put schools that don’t out of business.

Don’t forget the learner | After the session Are You Ready for the Workforce? I met Diane Inverso, Senior Director of the Mayor’s Commission on Literacy in Philadelphia. Diane has spent 25 years working with disadvantaged adult learners. She thought we had heard too much about meeting the demands of employers and not enough about serving the needs of learners with limited literacy skills.

Life skills needed | Doug Walcerz of Essex County College expanded on this topic during a session on Institutional Change Management moderated by Rahim Rajan of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Essex graduation rates have risen from 5% to 10%. Math remains the key barrier to graduation. With just $4,000 per student to spend on a total population of 13,000 (95% need remedial help), great adaptive programs like ALEKS can only do so much. Walcerz says math instructors need to teach other skills like time management and learning strategies.

MOOCommunities | Chris Liedel, President of Smithsonian Enterprises, asked this question about MOOCs: “How do we keep the community going when the class is over?”

Critical thinking | Jeff Braden, dean and professor of psychology at North Carolina State, and his colleagues are working on better ways to assess critical thinking. This is a key focus at Muzzy Lane, where we’re developing tools to automate such assessments, so I was grateful to meet Jeff and learn more about how NCSU’s tackling this important issue.

Uber Edtech | The phrase “We are the Facebook for [edtech burning need]” seems officially to have been replaced with “We are the Uber or Airbnb for [edtech burning need]” but the underlying substance of such claims remains dubious. Prasad Ram, CEO & Chairman of Gooru, framed market inefficiencies this way during a session called Will Free Models Win?: “Like Airbnb if Airbnb also needed to worry about supplying the linens.”

Technical Debt

rocketMuzzy Lane is a 13-year-old technology company. That’s a lot of time to build up technical debt. Our largest debt by far was relying on our Sandstone browser plugin, created to deliver engaging, multiplayer 3D educational experiences. The plugin, so necessary in the early days, had become a steady source of technical support issues and a barrier to adoption, especially in locked down computer labs on college campuses. Add in browser vendors’ recent decisions to remove plugin support and it was definitely time for a change. So change we did.

We recently completed our major technology transition into a post-plugin world. The advent of standards like WebGL and WebSockets allowed us to re-architect our platform to deliver game-based learning experiences natively in the browser and on mobile. We are now a true web services platform rather than a desktop experience shoehorned awkwardly into the browser. Our service is hosted at Amazon Web Services, runs on Node.js as its task management core, and manages the vast volume of user data with MongoDB. Our client side experiences are now native web and take advantage of the best the web has to offer from standards such as HTML5, WebGL, WebSockets, and WebAudio to frameworks and libraries like PlayCanvas, Unity, and JQuery.

This transition delivered the benefits we expected. Removing the plugin requirement dramatically reduced our support issues. Managing our platform became easier and more cost effective. But it also brought benefits we had not anticipated. Because we are now a true scalable web service with our stateful data in MongoDB we can deploy updates in a rolling fashion with no downtime. This is a huge benefit for us and our partners in the education market. Our user base is global so there is no good time for an outage. Friday night into Saturday morning EST remains the low point for usage, although not exactly the time engineers want to be working. It’s extremely liberating not to need them.

So what’s next? For us the next frontier is putting content authoring into the hands of our partners. One of the challenges of the current game-based learning scene is that the game developers are creating all of the content. This is at odds with the rest of the educational technology market where developers create systems and subject matter experts create the content using tools provided by the developers. Our new platform architecture has been created with this in mind. We are rapidly moving towards a future where the Muzzy Lane development team creates the activity templates for game-based learning and provides tools to partners so they can create and deploy content for those activities. This not only allows our partners to create their own content but also allows them to maintain and improve their content without needing to come back to us. We’re very excited about this move to authoring tools – but that’s a topic for another blog.

Learning Through Conversations

Valued since the Greeks, and what it means for online learning today

Conversations are fundamental to being human. They are also central to our learning. A toddler learns by asking her parents “Why?” incessantly. Socrates began his famous dialog with Meno: “May we find out the meaning of virtue together?”  Conversations promote learning through an exchange of ideas.

Muzzy Lane and others have been thinking about how conversations can benefit online learning. One source of inspiration is digital game design, where simulated conversations have been an important strand.

Early role-playing games featured computer-controlled characters that delivered monologues. Later, games like Neverwinter Nights added more complex interactions with characters. Players could now choose what to say, and character responses and game outcomes changed based on their choices. Popular games like Phoenix Wright – Ace Attorney have made conversation the central activity. Players gather interview evidence and interrogate witnesses to win cases in the courtroom.

Virtual Conversations become valuable learning tools for teachers and students when they:

  • actively engage students to seek evidence and express opinions
  • provoke questions, analysis, and decision-making in context
  • provide rich adaptive feedback for choices made in conversation

Computer-based characters can provide mentoring and scaffolding through conversations. In our work, we use different conversation models to meet particular learning objectives.

In Past/Present, students take the role of an immigrant mill-worker in 1906. Through conversations they gather evidence on mill unrest to help decide whether the mill workers should strike.

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In Practice Medical Office, students build their skills in a real-world context by conversing with patients in authentic contexts.

Health-game developer Kognito has focused on creating immersive learning experiences to  practice difficult conversations around health. ChangeTalk provides training in managing challenging conversations about childhood obesity.

In Practice Spanish: Study Abroad, students build language skills through interactive conversations based on the kinds of situations they would encounter actually studying abroad.

Quandary (from the MIT Education Arcade and LGN) engages students in ethics by helping them take different perspectives as captain of a space mission. They speak with space colony members to understand their opinions and what lies behind them. Then they negotiate important decisions to keep everyone alive.

What’s next? At Muzzy Lane, we’re working on tools to enable educators to easily create conversation-based learning experiences.

What learning experiences would you create using conversations?

What subjects, issues, and objectives are you thinking about tackling? We look forward to hearing from you, and in future posts we’ll talk more about the tools we’re developing, and other aspects of Conversational Learning.