The game SimLife came out in 1992, and I used to enjoy playing it on my computer at The Media Lab in the evenings. I’d set up a world, and let it run all night. One evening before I went home, I added a new species that I called a “mountain beast.” I made the mountain beast the best possible at everything. Does it eat plants? Sure. Eat meat? Sure. Live in deserts? Sure. Live in mountains? Of course! Eats everything, lives everywhere. I added a few mountain beasts and went home. And in the morning… I had nothing but mountain beasts. Every other species had gone extinct!
It was a memorable experience. Ecosystems are complex and hard to understand, but I felt like my mountain beast experience taught me something. So tip of the hat to the memory of a good simulation, and to my mountain beast.
I went to a talk a while back where a senior researcher analyzed some large-scale social computing data, and proved that it displayed an elegant mathematical property. I raised my hand during the question period and asked (as politely as I could muster), “Why does this matter? Does this have some kind of broader implication or application?” The researcher had no answer for me. In fact, he seemed puzzled by the question.
I’ve been going to a lot of talks like that lately–they seem to be breeding. People are playing with big data and coming up with incredibly clever results–with no evident broader implications. Lately, Twitter data seems to be a chief culprit. It’s so easy to get (or it was), and look at all the cool analysis you can do on it! I’m betting most of the those papers will rot uncited. I hope when our enthusiasm for this new big data toy wears off, people will invest their energies in results that matter. Of course, defining “matter” is the challenge.
What is the distinction between basic research and playing with data as a clever puzzle game? How do you even tell the difference? That’s the hard part. Personally, I’d like to see more people doing user-centered design: starting with problem statements that are significant for some group of people for some reason.
I’ve taught my class Design of Online Communities since 1998. (The first couple offerings were called “Design of Virtual Communities.”) The class is structured around having students do a qualitative study of an online site, using participant observation and interviews. The students did fantastic work this year as always–with studies of Something Awful, LifeKraze, Board Game Geek, Lord of the Rings Online, and more. As things are wrapping up for this year, I am taking notes for next time, and realize I need to make two changes to the assignment.
Mobile: I need to explicitly ask students, does your site have a mobile app? What is the relationship between mobile and desktop use? Is all the functionality of desktop available on mobile? Are mobile and desktop user behavior different? This wasn’t even a blip on the radar in 1998 or even 2008, but today it’s essential to understanding many sites.
New Project Option: a Cross-Site Phenomenon. In some ways it’s increasingly an anachronism to ask students to study a single site. This became particularly clear in a great project my students did this year on “bronies,” grown men who are fans of the television show My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. My students focused their study on the site Equestria Daily, but it became increasingly apparent in their work that there are a set of sites that form a kind of ecosystem, with activity on any one of them affecting the others. It’s impossible to understand Equestria Daily without understanding the adult site Equestria After Dark. And did you know that bronydom’s early history is tied to 4chan, and led to the creation of PonyChan? Amazing stuff. So next year, students will optionally be allowed to pick a focus site plus surrounding online ecosystem to study (with a warning that this is harder!)
Thanks to my awesome students for a great semester. Looking forward to next year!
“What time is it? That clock has got to be wrong.” I was early getting to the office this morning. And yesterday too. Twenty minutes to half an hour earlier that I expected. It’s been happening a lot lately. Actually, every day since I quit playing Words With Friends.
I knew playing that game was distracting. But I didn’t realize just how much time it was taking up. Here’s how it added up: In the morning, I used to look at WWF over breakfast (instead of reading the paper, no time lost). Then I drop the kids off at school. I’m not quite done making my moves over breakfast, so in the car in the school parking lot, I look at it quickly. Drive to the gym. In the parking lot before going into the gym, look at it quickly, responding to a move a friend made in our game while I was driving. Swim. Shower. In the locker room before driving to the office, look at it quickly. Each of those quick looks must have been five to seven minutes long, so three of them adds up to 15 to 20 minutes. Now add a traffic penalty–leaving just a few minutes later can add five to ten minutes to my drive time. And voila! 20 to 30 minutes wasted total. I had no idea.
Some of the seemingly ‘instant’ things we do are not so instant. And they add up! It’s hard to understand the over all impact of lots of little things–until you remove a stack of them all at once, and find yourself at your desk mysteriously early.
Free online classes with large numbers of enrolled students are lately being called “Massively Open Online Courses” (MOOCs). As writers like George Lakoff have eloquently explained, the words we use to describe a phenomenon shape how we think about them. I would like to suggest that a more accurate name than “MOOCs” is “Very Low teacher/student Ratio Courses” or “VLRCs” (pronounced “vlercs”).
There are many visions of the potential future of VLRCs. In the sunnier ones, we succeed in democratizing access to education. In the darker ones, we increase the gap between access to quality education by relegating less affluent students to cattle call online classes with no personalized attention, and more affluent students continue to attend deluxe in-person instruction. I hope the more democratic outcome can be realized. In our path forwards one way or the other, I think it’s important that we call a spade a spade. Calling them VLRCs is more accurate and focuses our attention on the key issue.
A call to action:
If you hear people talking about “MOOCs,” please respond with “VLRCs.” And be relentless about it!
Stronger Social Network Gets the Meteorite Scoop: How a Hockey Blog Beat the Associated Press by 90 minutes
Friday evening I was eager to show my family videos of the Russian meteorite strike. We gathered around the computer, and I pulled up the link a friend had posted on Facebook:
My sports-fan husband laughed. ”You’re on ‘Russian machine never breaks’! It’s a hockey fan site!” ”I am?” I replied. This morning NPR posted an interview with bloggers at the Washington Capitols fan site. Evidently they reported the meteorite story 90 minutes before the Associated Press!
Of course this is just a random occurrence. But it’s also emblematic of broader changes in journalism. Hockey fans have some pretty good contacts in Russia! With Internet-based reporting about news stories, the quality of your social network is key. Will small special-interest bloggers break more major international news stories? I’m guessing the answer is yes, and eventually this will not even seem strange.
My Grandmother had a sharp tongue. And as she progressed into her eighties, it got sharper. As if her internal “maybe I shouldn’t actually say what I’m thinking” filter had worn out. For example, one day she said to me:
Years from now, you’ll look back on how you wear your hair, and you’ll think “I don’t know how I ever could have been so unkempt!” I know–my children went through this in the sixties.
I did love her–was as close to her as anyone. She was brilliantly intelligent, and fascinating to talk to about pretty much anything. And you just had to take the insults in stride. After a while, I started counting her insults. The average was three. In a day spent with her, you could expect that she would insult you three times. And once I started counting, it made it OK. Instead of thinking “I can’t believe she just said that. I wonder if I can invent an excuse to leave early?” I was thinking “Two so far today!” and trying not to giggle. It was a kind of gamification of a tense social situation.
The counting trick is useful in lots of situations. If you are planning a high profile event like a wedding, you can expect that approximately three things will go majorly wrong. I absolutely expect three things to go seriously wrong at CSCW at the end of the month, a conference I’m co-chairing. And when they happen, I’ll laugh and increment the count.
A good friend is going through a stressful major life transition and her family is being unsupportive. We decided on the phone last night that she would get some posterboard and start a chart of how many times each parent and sibling has said something hideous. (Her Mom is in front, but sister is only two insults behind and closing fast!) So now we have a multiplayer counting trick game–a first! And no computer is required to play!
Gamification is all the rage lately–it is being used for the design of every possible kind of computer application. My kids’ elementary school uses a program called Accelerated Reader (AR) where they read to earn points and points win your prizes. I could write volumes about what is good and bad about the program. Ideally the children should be reading for the love of reading–for intrinsically motivated reasons. We know that extrinsic rewards some times drown out intrinsic motivation. But on the other hand, for the kids who are not developing an intrinsic love of reading, I suppose just getting them going is an accomplishment. And maybe they’ll learn to love it later? There’s an empirical question here, and I’d love to see a rigorous experimental study of the impact of AR. And of other examples of gamification.
The controversy about AR is that the gamification is substituting a made up trivial thing for something good. And shouldn’t you want that good thing in itself? The cool thing about The Counting Trick is that it substitutes a made up trivial thing, your count, for something bad. Our wedding band told us they would “play something appropriate” while the audience was settling down before the ceremony. Not wanting to micro-manage every detail, we just said “fine.” And they played “You LIght up My Life” without the words. A wedding guest later told me they were giggling in the audience saying “I know Amy didn’t pick this!” And I was giggling backstage thinking “One…” It helped. Points substituting for something bad is a win-win.
If you’ve tried The Counting Trick, leave me a comment–I’d love to hear your story! And general thoughts and articles on gamification also appreciated.
As a result of the MOOC craze, some of my colleagues are suddenly spending a lot of time thinking and talking about technology and teaching. I suppose I should find this refreshing—my background is originally in educational technology, and everyone is talking about my area! Cool, right? But in practice I’ve found most of these conversations frustrating rather than energizing. I think it comes down to a lack of shared assumptions and vocabulary. Consider this conversation I just had with a colleague, liberally paraphrasing:
Me: In MOOCs, students can’t ask questions to a meaningful degree.
Colleague: But I answer every question I’m asked!
Me: Yes, but the structure of environment discourages question asking. Compare the number of conversational turns per student versus faculty in a traditional class versus a MOOC. The numbers make it impossible for you to have meaningful interactions with students.
Colleague: OK, well students can ask questions of one another. We have ways to get them answers. Why does question asking matter so much anyway?
[NB: This is a rough caricature inspired by a real conversation but does not accurately represent the views of the actual person, which is why there's no name. I'm making an abstract point here.]
It took me a moment to realize that we didn’t have a shared understanding of the fundamental nature of teaching and learning (for more on this, see Mark Guzdial’s excellent blog). My colleague is right that they can have a lot of FAQs and answer most questions—but is that teaching? What is teaching? My colleague (understandably) had never heard of the work of Lev Vygotsky, and I couldn’t imagine discussing this further without that shared background. For those who are curious, here’s a quick, simplified explanation.
Vygotsky wrote about the “Zone of Proximal Development” (ZPD), which is the difference between what a person can do alone and what they can do with help. Two learners can have identical capabilities, but quite different ZPDs. For example, imagine you are teaching a math concept to children several grades earlier than it is normally taught. Let’s say you are explaining negative numbers to a class of first graders. For some, you could show them a well-done video on negative numbers, and they would understand. Let’s call them group A. For others, you could successfully supplement the video with an intelligent conversation in which you probe and respond to their understandings and misunderstandings. That’s teaching in their ZPD. Call those group B. For others you would perhaps say, “let’s revisit this when they are older.” In other words, this is currently outside their ZPD. Call them group C. You can empirically measure how many students fit into each group. You would find that Group A is a tiny subset—not just the sharpest students, but the sharpest students whose learning style fits with learning from videos.
Many early implementations of MOOCs are currently teaching predominantly to group A. Completion rates for MOOCs are typically low—a figure of 10% is commonly cited. That’s group A. The challenge going forwards is: what can we do to reach at least group B? What does it mean to teach in someone’s ZPD when you can not give them any meaningful amount of personalized attention because there are a thousands of students in the class? Could a software tutor help? How effective are software tutors today, and how expensive is it to develop them? These are fascinating questions to address going forwards.
I don’t want to romanticize traditional higher ed. Large lecture classes also give students no meaningful opportunity for interaction. The interaction takes place in recitation sections. And we’ve all had recitation sections that were a waste of time. Recitations don’t always live up to that ideal of a knowledgeable instructor helping to stretch you as far as you can go in your ZPD. MOOCs as currently being offered in most places are equivalent to that large lecture class with the useless recitation instructor. Not an inspiring image. How do we do better? That’s the challenge going forwards.