Like a kid in a MOOC

Today’s massively multiplayer online courses, or MOOCs, provide an opportunity for teaching, and learning, at an unprecedented scale. Universities, instructors, businesses, and students are still exploring what the benefits and limitations might be. Should you pay tuition or should it be free? Should you get a certificate of completion, and if so, how should future employers or schools value it?

Most of all: are MOOCs successful or not?

Like most things, it depends how you define success. If a MOOC is like a college class on steroids, then you can start with the same metrics used to evaluate college classes: enrollment numbers, completion rates, and (maybe) student evaluations. MOOCs have been criticized for abysmal performance in terms of completion rates, which are something like 5-10%. A traditional college class with a completion rate that low would likely be canceled (if only because it wouldn’t be economically feasible).

Yet, gradually, arguments are emerging for why the wailing and gnashing of teeth can stop. Maybe we need to redefine what it means to ‘sign up’ for a MOOC. Justin Reich and Andrew Ho point out that HarvardX MOOCs stay open even after the deadline for certification has passed — so all subsequent registrants are “dropouts the second they’ve registered” (i.e., they aren’t allowed to “complete” the class).

Or maybe we need to stop equating MOOCs with their tiny, elite, in-person predecessors and develop new ways to evaluate them.

William Spaniel offers an interesting alternative metaphor. He likens signing up for a MOOC to adding a show to your Netflix queue. I like that concept, and it makes me feel a little better about my own course-dabbling habits at Coursera. Even though the classes were free, and there was no explicit obligation to complete them, I felt sad and embarrassed each time I had to un-enroll from another eyes-too-big-for-my-stomach endeavor. But a movie queue… it’s okay if something sits on there forever and never gets watched. Right?

Then there’s the low cost of entry: you can click and sign up for a MOOC, for free. How much of a commitment you consider that to be is up to you. Contrast that with college students who may feel bound to grind through a painful or boring class because they just paid thousands of dollars for it and/or they need it to get into another class or to graduate. MOOCs eliminate that kind of pressure. Instead, the currency that matters is your time. Where will you spend it?

I’d like to go one further and propose another new metaphor for a MOOC. It’s not a college course (even if taught by college professors and employing content from a college course). It’s not a Netflix queue. It’s a candy store, where all the candy is free! Or again, more aptly, the cost is measured in time.

We’re used to valuing things by how much money people are willing to spend on them. Think of the stock market, clothing, cars, airline tickets. But how much closer to the heart is a measure of how much time you’re willing to spend on something (or someone)? What does it take for a course, to which you owe no obligation, to inspire you to spend hours reading, listening, writing, thinking, investigating, and learning?

It’s simple, really: the course has to provide something in return that you value (entertainment, new knowledge, new skills, interaction with other students, whatever). Because the main beneficiary of all that effort is… you.

In which I explore an MMORPG

For my library school class on Maker Spaces, we were given the following assignment:

Spend at least three hours (not necessarily consecutively) playing a game you were previously unfamiliar with. Analyze your gaming experience, your learning curve, what skills you learned, and whether this game could be used in a library setting.

The games I play tend to fall into two categories: puzzle games on my own (e.g., Tetris, Bejeweled) and board/card games with friends (e.g., Dominion, Agricola, Race for the Galaxy, Galaxy Trucker). For this assignment, I decided to play a game from the MMORPG genre, which is something I’ve heard about but never tried myself.

I was first tempted to try the mother of all MMORPGs, World of Warcraft. However, the free download demanded 23 GB of disk space, which I didn’t have. I therefore downloaded a game called Dofus in which the goal is to quest through the land and (eventually) find a number of dragon eggs.


The game began by putting me into a starting Tutorial mode, which was very welcome since I had no experience with this kind of interface. A man with an eagle’s head (Master Yakasi) told me to go to the next screen (area of the map) and read a story that was inscribed on a stone pillar. I returned to him and he told me to go out and speak to three particular characters. And so on. This process introduced me to the idea of quests and how to interact with my inventory as I collected new items and accomplishments. I continued playing and gained more knowledge of the game, more experience points, and more skills (e.g., I acquired the profession of Farming and learned how to wield a scythe to reap wheat). I also learned how to engage in combat, and I killed a Moskito and an Arachnoid. I found several monuments and read about them (sadly, the writing quality is not very good; it may be translated from a non-English original language). The graphics are quite attractive and often very detailed (down to cups and plates that are only a few pixels in size).

I enjoyed the exploration part of the game, moving from scene to scene. Although there are quests you can take on, the game explicitly noted that you are not obligated to do so. There is no obvious competitive element, so you are free to decide what objectives matter the most to you (Experience points? Exploration? Completing quests? Gaining new skills?).


Over the course of three hours, I was able to rise to level 7 in experience points. I don’t have enough context to judge what that means (a lot? a little?).

dofus-balloonThe game does tell you how many experience points you have and how many you need to reach the next level, so you can seek out ways to gain those points and advance. One feedback element I really liked is that the game tells you when you aren’t ready for something that you attempt to do. For example, I found a hot-air balloon and was offered the option of riding it to a different part of the game world. I agreed, but then was told that I had not progressed enough to go there and that I should spend more time exploring first. This is great feedback since it prevented me from inadvertently taking on problems (or monsters) that I would be unable to defeat. The game is structured as a series of quests, and they are broken into steps you can consult so you know what you need to do next (e.g., “Talk to Brett Ernal” or “Take 6 Wheat to Piwi”). However, it was unclear to me whether they actually progress in difficulty. The quests are split into two categories: “Main Game” and “Incarnum,” which suggests to me that the Main Game ones matter for the general narrative and the others are optional side-quests to gain experience points or resources.

One game aspect that I looked forward to exploring, since Dofus is an MMORPG, was the interaction with other players. The first real player (as opposed to game character) that I encountered was Babygurl, who ignored my tentative “Hi there!” Next I discovered Dark-Kirito, who responded with “hey” and then invited me to join his “group.” I had no idea what that meant, but I accepted. His group consisted of the two of us and Babygurl. At that point I realized that they were levels 27 and 23, respectively, so at level 7 I was definitely a newbie. Here is our conversation:

Me: Hi, I’m new to the game.

Dark-Kirito: lol really.

I was so embarrassed that I went silent for a while, then ventured “What’s your current goal?” which neither of them answered. Meanwhile, the game continued to flood me with details about the battles they were engaging in (at other locations on the map). I tried to join them at those locations and see if I could help, but in each case the battle was over before I made it there. Perhaps the game would benefit from more guidance about how to interact with other players.

I also expected that an MMORPG would provide more opportunity for role-playing. However, interactions with the in-game characters were limited to a choice of two (sometimes only one) pre-written text response(s) to their comments. There was not much opportunity that I observed for acting out your character’s personality, story, and style.

Yet this game has accumulated a devoted following. There are players who create Dofus fan art, post Dofus fan art to Pinterest, post videos of their game play, and more.

I found Dofus to be an interesting world to explore, and no doubt with more time invested I would discover more elements of interest and create more substantial connections to other players.

Learning through playtime

When are you most engaged and inspired to learn something new? Thomas and Brown, in their book “A New Culture of Learning,” argue that play is a powerful setting, and motivator, and facilitator for learning. Sitting down to a new board game, exploring an online MMORPG, experimenting to find the best baseball swing — these are all settings that push you to integrate new information and also to explore the limits of what’s possible. What happens if I click there?

These are also settings that seem incompatible with the form that our public education currently takes.

Thomas and Brown sing the praises of the “new culture of learning,” which they define as unlimited access to information (i.e., the Internet) combined with an environment that allows for “unlimited agency to build and explore within boundaries.” Agency enables exploration and discovery, and the boundaries serve as spurs to imagination. Similarly, constrained art forms like the sonnet or haiku can provide boundaries that inspire new creations. Thomas and Brown also use the word “culture” deliberately, and not in the sense that probably first came to mind: think bacterial culture in a petri dish, something that grows through cultivation.

And in Chapter 2, something more radical emerges.

“For most of the twentieth century our educational system has been built on the assumption that teaching is necessary for learning to occur,” Thomas and Brown assert.

Wow. Yes! If a teacher is absent from the classroom, we assume that learning grinds to a halt, and that it is only through the teacher’s intervention that the students will learn anything. Yet a moment’s consideration raises a multitude of counter-examples. Have you ever read a wikipedia article out of curiosity? Watched a Youtube video to learn how to make mitered borders on a quilt? Tinkered with Legos to see how tall a tower you can build? Tried a new route to work to determine whether it’s a shorter commute? Invented a variation on a recipe? Read this blog to Learn Something New?

We are learning all the time, with or without teachers.

Thomas and Brown characterize our current view of learning as “mechanistic” in that “learning is treated as a series of steps to be mastered” in which “the goal is to learn as much as you can, as fast as you can.” That doesn’t sound so bad. In fact, the idea of an organized curriculum, a progression of easy to hard, sounds quite attractive to me. But it rests on some unstated assumptions that just might not be valid:

  1. That all knowledge *can* be organized in a logical series of steps. Is this true of every field?
  2. That the same organization of knowledge works equally well for everyone.
  3. That knowledge doesn’t change much over time. (Otherwise the curriculum would be in constant need of revision.)

Thomas and Brown discuss #3 in their book. The first two are mine, and I think both assumptions are suspect.

What can we do instead?

Thomas and Brown suggest viewing learning in terms of an “environment” (the boundaries mentioned before). The learning culture emerges from the environment in which people operate, and they learn through engagement in that world (not by being externally instructed). Learners are not constantly required to prove that they “get it” but can instead embrace what they don’t know and keep asking questions and exploring.

I am reminded of the critique of education levied by Sir Ken Robinson in 2010, brilliantly illustrated by RSA Animate (“Changing Education Paradigms”):

It gets especially relevant around 6:30 when he discusses the historical evolution of our approach to public education and how influenced it has been by the industrial revolution. What was most striking to me was the point about how we educate children in “batches” by age. Really, does this ever make any sense?

Moving to an emphasis on the environment and play opens up entirely new approaches to learning. It also places more responsibility on the learner: to be active, to explore, to prioritize his or her own learning. This is a natural outcome to reach as an adult, free of the pressures of obligatory schooling — yet so often we are consumed with life maintenance that we do not carve out time for learning or for play.

Thomas and Brown suggested that this is, or at least has been, a natural shift in priorities. They argue that historically, as children grew up, the world seemed more stable with age. People figured out how the world worked, and then could settle into a mostly static view of the world and the best strategies for interacting with it. But they argue that today, the amount of change (driven by technological advances) renders this strategy less successful.

It’s certainly not new to claim that today’s citizens experience a higher rate of change than those in the past. However, this is the first time I’ve seen a prescription for coping that encourages, effectively, more play. “Embrace change,” Thomas and Brown advocate. Open your arms, and your mind, to a rich environment that provides endless chances for learning and growth.

I will quibble slightly with one of their claims. I don’t think it’s uniquely the Internet that makes this kind of endless learning possible. Some people manufacture a learning environment wherever they go, constantly wondering “how does that work?” and “why does it look that way?” and “could I make one myself?” It’s all already there, anytime you want it.

Play on!

The burden of being a Facebook Friend

Seth Fiegerman argues that the experience of aging in Facebook is a more trying one for those who joined it in their 20s than for the rest of us who joined after we’d already experienced an adult life. Younger users are “forever connected to people from the past” (even if they’d rather not be) while “older users [have] a powerful tool to reconnect with those they’ve long since lost touch with.”

He describes these younger users as being burdened by a growing balance of tenuous yet tenacious “friend” connections. These are not your true, close, cherished friends in the present, but rather those people who you once attended class with or met on a bus ride or used to date. “Before Facebook,” he argues, when the reason for regular connection and conversation was gone, those people would naturally and gently fade into the background and out of your life. But with Facebook, you must take “an unnatural and severe action” to “make a conscious choice to delete a person from your life.”

There might be a reason that Facebook cheerily informs you when someone sends you a Friend Request, but provides no announcement when you are Unfriended. Or maybe that makes it worse, as you are left to discover your change in stature serendipitously, when you return to to a Once-Friend’s photo album and realize that you can’t access it anymore.

What’s unnatural and severe, I think, is not the conscious act of managing your friendships, but rather the Facebook concept of a Friend. Being connected to someone on Facebook encompasses a broad range of relationship types, not just friendship. It can indicate a networking connection with a work colleague, a shared hobby, an interest in dating, a current partner, an ex. In many cases, you might accept a Friend request out of social obligation rather than any personal interest. That doesn’t happen in real life, because we don’t go around distributing Friend status badges for people to wear. Friendship is permitted to be fluid and continuously valued rather than a discrete state that one attains.

Google+ made an effort to recognize these nuances by creating “circles” (friend lists) that had names other than “friend” (like Acquaintances). I’m not sure this solves the problem, either. It’s still fundamentally categorical, a constraint that seems to flow from the concept of a social network as a, well, network. Each pair of people either do or do not have a link between them.

A different possible refinement would be to create links between everyone and allow them to have a real value, or weight, associated with them that indicates the strength of the connection (which might be zero). These weights could be used by a social networking site to automatically filter that overwhelming news feed from all of your connections so that the highly weighted links provide more of the traffic you see. While perhaps more flexible, this approach also has problems: who wants to spend hours specifying the degree of friendship they have with each of their connections? And updating it as life progresses? What would they get out of it?

I also find it interesting that Seth, who lumps himself in to the “under 30” crowd plagued by these lingering ghost connections and an inability to Unfriend them, characterizes anyone over 30 as blithely free of such constraints. Those over 30 instead use Facebook to RE-connect with people they’ve lost track of over the years. “It’s where you rediscover old friends, coworkers and estranged family members,” but “the thrill is often short-lived because these relationships have been dormant too long.” Instead of too many past-their-expiration-date connections, the over-30 crowd is unable to jump-start the ones they miss most.

Both experiences can be traced to a common root cause: the ease with which you can Friend someone. It is easy to connect, socially awkward to disconnect, and fatiguing and impractical (in many cases) to resurrect an old connection that no longer exists in your non-Facebook life. And yet I wonder how differently these social phenomena would play out if we simply changed the name of a social link. What if you Bookmarked people instead of Friending them? That would constitute a one-way link with minimal (or no) pressure for reciprocity, and it wouldn’t have the social connotations of a “friend.” It would allow you to keep up and share with people of interest. And for those leery of pruning even their bookmarks, it would be easy to implement a time-decay rule that gently and silently removed bookmarks that didn’t see enough use.

Another option, of course, is to sign off of Facebook and go play board games, see a movie, make dinner, or otherwise hang out with… your friends.

Game design principles that can facilitate learning

James Paul Gee, a professor of Reading, decided to explore the world of video games. He picked up a copy of “The New Adventures of the Time Machine” (inspired by the work of H. G. Wells) and was surprised by its difficulty. “Lots of young people pay lots of money to engage in an activity that is hard, long, and complex […] and yet enjoy it,” he wrote in a paper titled “Good video games and good learning”. As an educator, he wondered what elements of these video games could be used to improve learning in a more conventional school setting.

Gee identified 16 learning principles that good (effective, successful) games use. I won’t go into all 16 here, but some are interesting to consider, especially in terms of how they might be adopted in schools or universities.

He posits that good games require the player to take on a new identity, inspiring “an extended commitment of self.” The game is a world that you at least partially inhabit. It’s personal. Learning in a class can be the same way, asking you to commit to see the world through the eyes of a physicist or a francophone or a mathematician. Personal investment changes your experience radically from memorizing facts to actively seeing the world in a new way.

Another important principle of effective games is that they give players the opportunity to experiment, and possibly fail, with a relatively low cost. Even if your player dies, you can restart the game. In traditional school environments, failure is often much more public and much more costly: feedback may come in the form of “that’s wrong” instead of “try again.”

Gee also posits that good games are “pleasantly frustrating” in that they keep you within, but right at the edge of, your “regime of competence.” Tasks are doable but challenging. I think this is my favorite regime in which to live, period: challenged but able to make some progress!

A final principle that caught my eye was what Gee calls “well-ordered problems.” Good games give you a series of problems to solve that provide a learning progression: easier tasks first that lead to more difficult ones. In the field of machine learning, some researchers have been studying the best way to present examples to a learner (human or machine). One theory that matches with Gee’s observation is called “curriculum learning”: start with easy examples and progress to more subtle or nuanced ones. Humans tend to use this kind of approach, which perplexes some machine learning researchers since it is provably better to first show the hardest or most ambiguous examples first, because they give you the most information. For example, if I wanted to teach you how to tell whether a child is tall enough to ride a roller coaster, I might point to a boy who is 35 inches tall and say “he’s too short,” and then point to a girl who is 36 inches tall and say “she’s tall enough.” Curriculum learning instead would give you examples like “that man who is 6’4″ is tall enough” and “the 21-inch infant is too short” and only gradually work their way to the harder examples closer to the threshold. However, many learning problems aren’t easy to map to a linear scale in which you just want to pinpoint a threshold, and in those cases, curriculum learning seems to be more natural and more effective.

What else can we learn about learning from how games are designed? Do game designers know something that educators don’t? Not necessarily — but their incentive structure is different, which may lead them to create new kinds of playing, and learning, environments that educators can borrow from.

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