Even if it’s a Game…

There’s a recentish trend in education around trying to “gamify” certain lessons to make them more engaging to students.

Personally, I’m a fan of this concept, I even use the tool myself when teaching gymnastics sometimes by making conditioning into competitions or basics on beam into a repeat after me game as I did today. I think it can definitely be a useful tool for any teacher’s toolbag.

However, I also learned today that doing a poor job at gamify-ing actually makes things worse from a user end.

As part of my psych class requirements, I participated today in a research study. If it wasn’t giving me class credit I would say that it was the biggest waste of an hour and a half I’ve ever had; it still quite possibly could be. Some part of me hopes that the researchers can benefit from my involvement in the study, but I’m pretty sure I’ll be an outlier in their study.

The study description was:

The purpose of this study is to assess how information is valued when it comes at a cost and how time pressure influences information foraging. In this experiment, you will play a medical diagnosis game where you will select information to aid in your diagnostic decision-making. 

So I come in, sign my release form, and then I was put at a desk with a computer in a small room that had a divider between me and the other participant. When I read that this study was being conducted in the form of a game I got excited thinking it was going to be a fun mental challenge with interesting rewards system; you know- game like.

Turns out this was not a fun game. The game worked by a patient “coming in” and telling you their symptoms. Then you could see the results of different tests like an MRI or Cat scan, etc. There were four symptoms, four tests each with three possible outcomes, and four potential diagnoses. Upon correctly diagnosing a patient you’d get $1000/points. Then there were different rounds that added different factors like time and hidden information which were meant to help get at what the study was trying to test.

In theory, you would have to guess at the beginning of the game and then would slowly recognize patterns to help you make informed decisions on how to diagnose each patient. The problem for me was that I never learned anything. To be honest, I got really annoyed with myself because I could not figure out the correct connections. It didn’t help that half of the test results looked the same and I didn’t realize during the instructions would be the only time they tell you the difference between the “positive, neutral, and negative” test results looked like.

What I do know though is that my feeling of “failure” to learn what I was supposed to be learning lead to exactly what you’d expect: I stopped caring to try. I just continued to guess and honestly, it made things faster and I was still having decent success in my opinion, though I have nothing to compare my game score against. At that point, I really just wanted to get out of there but knew I had to finish the study for my credit (and for feeling like a decent person purposes and helping with their study despite being bored out of my mind).

I couldn’t even tell you how many times I almost fell asleep out of boredom. This “game” turned into my clicking a mouse twice in two spots then clicking the space bar. Repeat. Over and over again. I then got to that point where I felt jumpy from sitting in one place for so long and trying not to think about going to the bathroom because I was just wondering how long I would have to keep playing the stupid game.

I’m pretty confident that there are a lot of other students out there like me in this story and even more that may have not even tried as long as I did to figure out the learning lesson. Students where if they were in the situation of feeling like they were never going to learn something, they stop trying to learn it if no one gives them a new way to approach the topic. I think people intrinsically know when a certain style of teaching is not going to work for them, so why keep trying to put the square into the circular hole when you know it will never fit?

And this goes even for exercises that seem “fun” and “game like”; they still may not work for everyone, no matter how excited you are about a new activity for teaching a topic. There always needs to be options and adjustments if we want everyone to succeed; we talk about that all the time in gymnastics. When we teach a new drill, we say it, show it, have the kids try it, and still sometimes need to give a few kids a spot through it for a little; it doesn’t matter how they get the information, but they need to be able to all safely try on their own.

It was honestly a big MoVe moment (moment of visible empathy) for me walking out of that room realizing how some students may feel fairly often at school when they just aren’t getting it and don’t know what to do about it.

My Opinion on Online Classes

Online classes aren’t really a new thing, yet they seem to still get perceived as new which is odd to me. I officially got registered for the online version of a required CS class today and as I was walking with an upperclassman she asked me, “As a student with a passion for learner-centered education, I’m curious about your opinion on online classes.”

I guess this title is a bit of a misnomer because in actuality I don’t have a strong opinion one way or the other about online courses.

I use to very strongly be against them, but seeing as today I signed up for my 3rd ever online class, I realized that opinion clearly changed and now is more neutral.

I was against online classes because the depth of learning isn’t as powerful in an online class. I mean if you ask most students they’ll flat out say online courses are easier- that was at least a factor to my reasoning to register. Online classes may be interactive some, but the material is set and rigid and pretty surface level since there are no conversations where deeper questions can be posed and explored. The material is all given to you up front and you can finish as quickly as you would like/are able to; there is no “well the class seemed really interested on this topic so we pivoted the schedule to do a whole project unit where we came up with plans and prototypes and pitched to board members…”

You don’t sign up for an online course because of the content. I signed up for CS online course because the in-person course happened at a time I didn’t particularly like with the rest of my schedule. It meant I would have to rush from CS class across campus to Marta twice a week all semester and then uber to the gym to still be a bit late to coaching the practices I help with.

That’s really the big plus I see about online courses: time and location flexibility. That’s the reason I’ve now signed up for three different online classes since high school. It was always an issue of scheduling where I needed to take a class but didn’t have room in my busy schedule and the online option ended up being the perfect compromise.

So from the perspective of a student trying to get a credit out of the way and get a decent grade while doing other things, online classes are great. However, when I think about the quality of learning happening in most online classes, I find it to be sub-par.

It’s pretty easy to cut corners in online classes, and when you’re already not interested in the topic and just taking the course for credit sake, there’s little motivation to not want to just “get through it” as fast as possible.

Furthermore, I believe that a huge part of learning revolves around the social interactions and relationships built during the learning process. It’s really hard to successfully achieve those relationships in an online environment. Again, partially because there’s no real incentive to strive for that deeper level of learning. I consider myself to be an intrinsically motivated learner and a pretty good student, (yes, I believe those are different thing, but that is a different conversation), and even I don’t find myself caring to make the extra effort in an online course to really make it a remarkable learning experience; I just want the credit on my own time.

Obviously, this is all my own personal opinion, and some kids may, in fact, make that extra effort, though in my experience few do.

As I told the friend who asked me about my opinion, thus inspiring this post tonight, I believe that online courses are still a work in progress. I don’t have a strong opinion yet because I see the potential in them to be a great learning tool, though at this point I think they are just a great tool for the traditional system where learning has a more cut and dry vibe. The flexible time and space component to online courses is learner-centered in nature, though the context, course material, and assessment structure is still very much not.

Learning the Game

Sometimes you can forget about generation gaps in knowledge. Things that are normal for you to experience growing up are just completely foreign concepts to others.

That’s essentially what it was like playing Mario Kart with my grandma earlier tonight. She has never played a video game before and playing with her and my siblings was pretty amusing, to say the least. There was a lot of supportive coaching while simultaneously trash talking and getting mad at the computer players.

My grandma may have never come in higher than 12th place (which if you know Mario Kart, you know that is last…), but she said it was a fun game and she personally improved her speed a little each time.

It’s not always about winning. Sometimes it’s just about learning the game and getting a little better each time.

It’s a Cat!

Associate thinking is so cool. That moment when you can connect the dots with seemingly different topics is kind of mind-blowing.

This semester I’m in a special topics CS class. I would not consider myself a particular fan of CS or computers or coding or programming or any of that, however, our professor is an advisor of mine which is how I found out about the class and why I knew I had to take it. Sometimes I jokingly call it my fake CS class so that people don’t confuse it with one of the required CS course where we learn a coding language. In this special topics class though, it’s all about computer architecture and the current process, history, and structural components involved with trying to make faster computers.

Today our professor decided to let us just have a fun Q and A day where we could ask him any question we wanted to about computers and he would try to give his best answer. We ended up talking a lot about his research in particular, because we were all curious about what exactly he does, and it turns out he’s been a huge leader in the process of trying to fundamentally change computing.

Like I said, computers aren’t really my thing, but what made this class particularly interesting to me was the fact that I could relate it so multiple other conversations I’ve had at different points in my learning journey.

Turns out a lecturette on neuromorphic computing (essentially the computing involved with trying to model the brain which is the essential technology behind machine learning; self-driving cars and all that jazz) is shockingly similar to a leadership session about defining versus distinguishing while at a conference around shifting the current education paradigm. Both are about the fundamental elements of learning and how our brain or a computer brain model is taught to distinguish elements like a cat from a raccoon.

Then we started talking about quantum computers, and I realized that last time I really had an in-depth conversation about quantum computing was the summer after 10th grade while at nerd camp (Duke TIP) taking a course called spy 101. Yet even though it was a good few years ago, I remembered the basic concepts still because that class to this day has been one of my favorites that I ever took; this was because the course was entirely interdisciplinary. We talked about the mathematical side of different kinds of codes and how they work, and modular arithmetic (all math I’ve only started to even see in college), and on top of that we talked about the history of coding and it’s role in World War 2 and then also hypothesised and explored the future of computing with the science behind quantum computers.  It was an amazing course, and one I remember better than a lot of my high school classes in terms of content.

Interdisciplinary learning just makes so much logical sense to me. In my experience, it just makes learning more memorable and more relatable in general. Meanwhile, I have classes like today in linear algebra and physics where in my linear class we spent the whole time talking about a topic we learned week one in physics, and in physics, we talked about a topic we learned early on in linear. When I get stuck in classes like that I honestly tune out a great deal no matter how much I know I should pay attention because things just get boring when they’re too repetitive without a new spin or learning connection.

My big wish is that there would be more interdisciplinary courses for credit in the education system. There are starting to become a lot of classes available that are interdisciplinary in nature, but they still are only being allowed to count as a “free credit” or something to the extent that basically means the material you’re learning can’t actually keep you on track for graduation with helping you receive required credits. It’s really frustrating sometimes to be honest.