Hacker School: collaboration unleashed

In school, I found that the classes I learned the most in were the ones where I had to work in a group with some people smarted than me. People that would challenge my ways of doing things and how I thought about problems. This is essentially the idea behind Hacker School, a New York based group which brings together programmers with a passion to program and has them work together for 3 months to create what they want. If accepted to the school, participants gather together 4 times a week for 8 hours a day and code all sorts of projects and in a variety of languages. Learning is done not from lectures and speeches but from collaboration with other schoolmates who have experience in the area. Collaboration is the key as students build off each other as they branch out and try different languages or create additions to open-source projects. This is how I sort of thought college would be before I started. These “incubators” of talent produce some great ideas and really hone skills that have been left unattended by work or undiscovered through college. At hacker school programmers program because they love it and have a vision of something they want to build not for a grade or a paycheck. At Hacker School, there are no grades or classes, only progress.




Algebra, Warthogs, and badges: how gamification motivates learners

When I was in second grade, we had to learn our multiplication tables. Pretty standard stuff 2*2=4, 9*9=81. But our teacher added in a twist, one of the most motivating twist somebody can provide to a group of 7 year olds. She gave us sundae toppings for each set that we “mastered”. learn all the ones 1*1,1*2,1*3… earn a scoop of ice cream. the 2’s another scoop, 3’s whipped cream, and on and on. Our toppings were given to us as construction paper cutouts we placed on the wall and at the end of the unit we got our sundae with all the fixings. Now years later I realize today, that I was a victim of gamification. Before gamification was even a thing, before zynga and cow clicker addicted the world. My second grade teacher was a gamification hipster. Back then they just called it motivation though. We had the “leader board” on the wall with our names on our bowls with our topping badges on top. We even cranked the motivation up a notch by racing each other to see who could finish the tables the fastest and the most accurate. I remember one day at school racing through this multiplication table ( I want to say it was the 5’s but I don’t remember that much) and finished first. After racing up to my teacher’s desk to turn it in and have it graded and got two questions wrong. One of my best friends got up there just after me and had it all right, “beating” me in this battle of wits. Man did that suck in my mind. I still got my topping but had lost the battle. Next time I got them all right and was done the fastest, and that caramel sauce tasted that much sweeter.

This new craze of gamifying learning is nothing revolutionary. Kindergarten and elementary teachers have been masters of it for years. bribing students in every way they can think of, tempting them with class outside, extra recess, story time. All these rewards for doing our work and all this fun we have while learning of all things. People wonder why kids love going to school when they are little and slowly become cynical about its value and enjoyment. It’s cause the teachers stop trying to make learning fun because they have to get through the mandated lesson plan. But there is always that one teacher that manages to squeeze it in, that one teacher who is everyone’s favorite. And now people are heading back to those tried and true methods.

Badges, points, levels, leaderboards, all these gamification “tricks” are being re-integrated into education for everybody not just for little children. Complete one of Stanford’s open online classes and receive a certificate showing you passed or even passed with honors. ” “Badges” are a teensy step in the right direction, but clearly are only motivating to the weak-willed (guilty!) and easily impressed (ditto!). Soon, someone is going to discover a way to apply the crack-like effect of well-designed games like World of Warcraft to the educational realm. I want to learn algebra about as much as I want to spend eighteen hours killing and skinning virtual warthogs” as it says in the article. Online courses like codeacademy and skillshare provide these benefits to their users as well as many other sites. self- motivated learning is growing at a massive pace as more and more sites give access to college lectures, tutorials, books and all those other things one had to go to class to get access to before. Now users can go their own way and get badges to show all the places they have been and all the things they have learned. All through such a simple thing as a construction paper cut-out of a cherry to put on top.

source/inspiration: http://plasticresume.wordpress.com/2012/04/11/skillshare-codecademy-and-the-gamification-of-education/  linked in the article and very related: http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_pink_on_motivation.html

Colbert Report: interview with Richard Hersh

I don’t know if anybody else saw this yesterday but Colbert did and interview with Richard Hersh as he talks about how colleges need to change and need to challenge students to think and grow through college and not just earn degrees. UM also gets a shout-out as one of those schools doing it right.

watch it here: http://media.mtvnservices.com/embed/mgid:cms:video:colbertnation.com:412127

the ties that bind them

Professor William Schmidt is working to change the way children are taught science in school. Science is one of the unique subjects where all the different “topics” are really all interconnected. physics, chemistry, biology all of these are intrinsically tied together as principles from one topic are vital to the workings of the others. All of them build off each other and yet are separated in school. children learn them one at a time, occasionally realizing along the way how they are relearning stuff they learned earlier. Schmidt proposes, in his 8+1 plan, that schools focus more on the concepts behind the world rather than on teaching subjects by the books. These 8 concepts are core pieces of all science subjects and were all discovered using 1 way using the scientific method. Instead of having kids memorize all these facts and stats about organisms and molecules, Schmidt wants them to focus on the concepts behind them focus on how atoms interact, form molecules which form cells which form animals.

source: http://8plus1science.org/ and http://phys.org/news/2012-04-students-science.html

One Laptop per Child: How to judge success or failure…

One laptop per child is a non-profit organization that works to bring low-cost laptops to children in developing areas of the world. Through these laptops they hope to “empower, engage, and educate” the children and help them to improve themselves. It seems a pretty straight forward idea, giving these kids all the worlds knowledge at their fingertips and let them see how the world works. With these laptops they could research all sorts of topics and improve their grasp of concepts they learn in school. And yet a standardized test scores do not show improvement. So this initiative has failed. ??? Can we really say that? One study done in rural Peru found an increase in students cognitive skills. That seems to be what OLPC set out to do. Give children access to information so they can figure stuff out for themselves. So the initiative has succeeded then?

It seems that just giving access to technology is not enough to drastically improve test scores and yet the kids got smarter. Seems like just another example where standardized testing doesn’t showcase what people want it to. It doesn’t show how children grasp concepts or understand principles, all they want is regurgitation of information. And yet these kids could have been using their laptops to study anything. But anything wont be on the test. So can we really say if OLPC is a success or not? It seems to me that we will have to wait until these kids grow up and become adults to see if they are able to improve their communities and make their children’s lives better than theirs. Maybe it will inspire these kids to graduate and get advanced degrees, start businesses, or maybe they will invent some new technology or develop the next instagram and sell their program for $1,000,000,000. We won’t know for a while since standardize test scores are gonna tell us if one of these laptops inspired the next Bill Gates down in Peru. Just have to wait to pass judgement on this program.

source: http://www.hackeducation.com/2012/04/09/the-failure-of-olpc/

STOP! Collaborate and Listen

Learning is evolving. The days when monolithic structures filled to the brim with books dominated the college skyline. Kids don’t go to the library for books anymore. It has be come a place to meet up with friends and classmates to study. Those rows upon rows of technical books aren’t needed. Most probably haven’t been moved in years. We have wikipedia now. I’m sure most students who read this can remember at least one time they wandered the floors of the UGLi or the Dude to find open tables, study rooms, or even enough open computers to work with their teammates. The bookshelves take up space that could be study rooms. Williams college is having this problem right now. http://alumni.williams.edu/roomlearn. Do they still need books? What does this new generation of learners want and need to become academically successful? e-readers? computers? or just a wi-fi connection? As technology gives people more and more access to information, what people really need is a quiet place to meet and talk to other people to work on their project.

All sorts of ways games help

Gaming can have all sorts of positive effects of people in different ways. From therapy to learning gaming can help increase the quality of life and really help people help themselves. Here is a little infographic to show you some stats:

Gaming is good for you

from: http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2012/04/05/gaming-is-good-for-you-if-you-pick-out-the-good-bits/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+RockPaperShotgun+%28Rock%2C+Paper%2C+Shotgun%29&utm_content=Google+Reader

Teaching to the test and one teachers stand against it

Standardized testing, the bane of children’s existence. Those weeks spent preparing for the test with practice tests and practice essays, those mind-numbing hours spent taking the test, filling in those little bubbles, freaking out if A hadn’t been used in a while, cranking out a five paragraph essay about some random topic. Kids hate them and teachers don’t want to take time out of their class to teach to the test just to meet some arbitrary standard.

One teacher got finally snapped and wrote this letter to her 8th graders, https://www.commondreams.org/view/2012/03/23-8. In that letter one of the most striking parts I found was “All that matters, it turns out, is that you cite two facts from the reading material in every answer. That gives you full credit…In your constructed response—no matter how well written, correct, intelligent, noble, beautiful, and meaningful it is—if you’ve not collected any specific facts from the provided readings (even if you happen to know more information about the chosen topic than the readings provide), then you will get a zero.” I guess that explains why people practice the ACT and spend hours taking practice tests, so they can learn what the test wants them to be able to reproduce. I can see why they are forced to do this. My AP12 English teacher told us she graded for the AP test one year and said they got at most 90 seconds for each essay. 40 minutes to write each essay, carefully selecting the words to incorporate all those literary techniques you had learned over the year, time spent trying to nail that awesome alliteration and find the perfect metaphor to describe Frankenstein’s monster. All that effort comes down to one teacher sitting in a massive auditorium glancing at the paper for 90 seconds to decide if you passed that test or not, the difference between passing out of a college requirement and maybe graduation early or having to take intro English rests on those 90 seconds. So by God you better have a sweet intro paragraph or else you have no hope. Really seems like more effort should go into each essay but I guess when you have to grade thousands of essays time is of the essence. Doesn’t matter that those 90 seconds can affect peoples lives. My cousin, Hannah, applied to some college over in England last spring because she wanted to be a write. To get into that college she had to get a 5 on her AP literature exam and fortunately for her, she got it. But if those 90 seconds hadn’t been enough time to really see what she had written, her dreams would be crushed and she would have lost this once in a lifetime opportunity for her to study in England. Fortunately, this child wasn’t left behind but why should these types of exams be used to determine fates of children, schools or whole districts.

We need to find a new way to measure students and their progress through school. Standardized test shoehorn students into one path and hope they make it all the way through the merry adventure we call public education. Should they stray from  this school-house red brick path into computer science or god forbid be interested in art or music, nobody will know that they have this interest, this drive for something else. All they will see is the reading, english, math and “science”, or graph-reading, scores from the ACT. The senators dividing up the budgets won’t see the kids portfolios, github accounts, or listen to their concerts. They will only see the math scores are up here so what they are doing over here must be working. But these other skills can’t be accurately measured by a standard tests because you can’t measure a jazz musicians skill on a scantron exam. Until we find some way to include these other interests and skills in our  education system as part of the core curriculum or allow students more choice in what they learn, we will be stuck with these outdated tests and every year kids will suffer through the meap and then be sorted and shipped like meat based on those numbers.

Stanford’s experiment

As most of us have heard Stanford is providing access to a multitude of free classes online. Last semester they started this program off with a course in artificial intelligence and machine learning, some advanced concepts in computer science. This semester they are continuing with the program after the huge interest they got last semester. I decided to try them out and signed up for classes on the design and analysis of algorithms (similar to EECS281 at UM) and a course in game theory. So far I have had a great experience with both these classes. They allow you to go at your own pace by providing lectures in smaller chunks usually no longer than 30 min with most sections around 15min, so you can watch them as you feel like it and they aren’t too long so they are really able to keep your attention. They have “assignments”, “quizzes”, “projects”, and “labs” for you to try to test your understanding of the material. Everything is of course optional, since its a free class, it is really just a way to branch out an explore new subject areas. For me, I was always interested in taking a game theory class since it seemed interesting but it never quite fit in my schedule, so this provides me an easy way to explore that subject at my own pace and even earn an “electronic certificate of completion” which could possibly be integrated with the Mozilla badge initiative at some point in the future. It is also a way for me to review some stuff I had learned earlier in school through the algorithms class. I can review topics that I am a little fuzzy on and also gives me a chance to see how the “stanford” experience matches up with what I have learned here.

It really allows some self-directed learning as you can choose what courses to take and how much you want to be engaged in them. The course’s staff encourage you to go and find groups online either through google+, facebook, work or school to get together and study or go through the material and assignments. When I interviewed with some companies last semester I would usually ask about how I could grow at those companies and quite a few mentioned that they had groups taking these classes and would meet to work on them, though they were tech companies so it was a biased sample. These classes have taken off much faster than expected and been written about in numerous sources such as wired.com http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2012/03/ff_aiclass/all/1. But why is this idea more talked about than say academiceath.org or MIT’s open course ware

Building off the idea of MIT’s open course ware, stanford really takes it a step further by creating that class atmoshpere. Instead of just giving old homeworks and solutions to them, it provides interactive quizzes to take for the “course”. Weekly lectures are released and it really encourages the learner to keep coming back to view the new content and helps to keep them more engaged than other sites. while the traditional school structure may seem flawed, its system of deadlines and class times really helps bringing people back to learn more.


TED (technology, entertainment and design) is embarking on a new project. Known for there inspiring videos on a wide variety of topics, TED is now targeting education. Launching a new youtube channel, TEDEducation, TED hopes to bring the best lessons teachers give to more people than those sitting in class, probably not even paying attention. TED hopes to bring together teachers along with animators in order to make these lessons as engaging as possible. Currently they are looking for teachers and artists to join with them in this new experiment and people can nominate those they feel deserve a shot. intro video and a little more info here: http://www.engadget.com/2012/03/13/ted-launches-ted-ed/

Tetris – improving lives, one row at a time

Researchers at Oxford university have found that playing tetris after viewing traumatic events can reduce the occurrence of flashbacks and help reduce the impact of problems like PTSD. http://www.ox.ac.uk/media/news_stories/2010/101111.html Researchers seem to think that the brain has two separate channels, sensory and conceptual, which deal with events that we experience. After experiencing trauma, the channels are unbalanced as sensory is emphasized. Tetris competes with that same channel and so helps to reduce the impact of the traumatic event. However, this effect only seems to impact an individual if tetris is played within a few hours of the event.

If this research holds true it could be used to help treat these stress disorders and help soldiers recover from the terrors of war. Maybe a gameboy will even become standard issue. Understanding how games impact the thought process of those playing the game can really help to improve therapy sessions for numerous ailments, both physical and mental. Good games naturally encourage play and when used in therapy provide that motivation to practice that therapy needs to truly be effective. Research like this can greatly improve how people recover and improve their own lives.

Learning the wrong way

I found this article on wired.com from a few days ago and it talks about how we are trying to learn the wrong way. http://www.wired.com/geekdad/2012/01/everything-about-learning/

When people tend to study, they sit down with their textbook or class notes and read them until they can’t read them anymore. They go back over the same material and think that they know it because they had just read it while studying. I know I do this all the time. But when the test comes, suddenly you can’t quite remember the answer. Then when you look at the answer key or talk to your professor/gsi after and they start to answer your question, magically all the answers jump into your brain and you wish you could go back and take the test over. That’s because you really did know the stuff you just didn’t work on recalling it. “Because humans have unlimited storage capacity, having total recall would be a mess,” said Bjork, the professor interviewed in the article. You’d go crazy if you were always remembering every thing you’d ever learned since its not all relevant. You have to train yourself to pull back the important information. The article suggests different techniques like studying in different places, taking notes after class instead of during class and taking breaks between study sessions to really test your brain. Having your brain switch topics and then coming back to the material or problem lets you digest the information you learned before and helps recall it better.

For me as a computer science student, I know that if I get stuck on a problem or project I will usually get a new idea to try if I walk away from it. They usually come when I’m trying to get to sleep or in the morning while taking a shower, something where I’m not even thinking about the problem. My brain just suddenly switches back to that issue and figures it out. It’s like when you are just sitting around and you suddenly come up with a super awesome come back to whatever your friend had said earlier. So browsing facebook isn’t that bad when studying, if you use it as a break after like a half hour of studying. It lets your brain focus on something else and use a different part of itself. It helps to let the brain diversify itself.