Tag Archives: motivation

What’s Missing in Digital Aristotle – RE: CGP Grey and the limits to learning with the internet

I love CGP Grey. And Hank and John Green on YouTube. But I don’t think a customized version of this sort of thing is the ideal future (or solution) to education. Here’s my take – start by watching this video:

Two experiences come to mind:

  1. I teach (and previously attended class) in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at UIUC (GSLIS). It’s regarded as one of the most highly-ranked schools in the country and has many cutting edge programs, including a distance learning system known as LEEP. While LEEP isn’t exactly what he’s talking about here it has many characteristics in common – the school acts as an intermediary for providing learning materials, assignments, guidance on subjects and evaluations, at a comparatively lower cost for all involved. Students generally pursue these materials on their own timeline (save for a 2 hr online class held at a regular time) and largely in front of a computer screen. One of the biggest problems with LEEP (in my opinion, though we have some research on this topic) is that students find it harder to be engaged when they’re stuck in front of a screen instead of amongst peers in a classroom. We try to counteract this by having on-campus days for in-person activities, which usually go well, but fact of the matter is their motivation is often less because they’re often less committed to participating in a class. Students listen to lectures while doing their dishes, slack on doing online readings and so on. And these are top-tier masters students. It’s easier for them to not care because we trust them to do more self-guided learning and we don’t check on them as much. I don’t think this problem is endemic to online learning, I think there’s a lot of variance in how much people actually enjoy learning at all. Many of the undergrads at U of I aren’t here because they like or want to learn, they’re here because it’s the path that’s been laid out for them.
  2. I’ve had a few years of experience teaching classes in informatics in GSLIS for both graduate and undergraduate students. A lot of the time we’re working on technical application skills, like building websites or learning to code, and since this stuff moves at a pace that’s too fast for even me to keep up I do a lot of referral to online learning resources like videos and sites like Lynda.com or the Khan Academy. I do what I can to inspire ideas, answer questions, provide interesting, challenging and realistic assignments and create an environment where students work together and feel supported. I encourage only self-driven potentially-independent individuals to enroll. Even in this environment I’ve noticed that as many as half in a given class has difficulty driving themselves to evaluate and make the most out of learning materials out there. They often have trouble caring about it given all of the other classes and deadlines on their plates, especially when it’s a “learn at your own pace and work at will” kind of setting.

So, as you’ve probably guessed, my issue with CGP Grey’s idea here is that he’s missing three big issues that relate to education:

  • Motivation – This varies a lot by individual but often times people can’t be entirely (or optimally or joyfully) self-driven. They need to be paid for work, get recognition for it by others, or find it constantly relevant to their in-the-moment tasks and challenges. Online learning faces a myriad of issues with motivation. Look into Nicole A. Cooke’s research for more on this issue. I think many of the people who learn online effectively in technical fields have inherited motivation and self-teaching strategies from prior in-person schooling in their early years. If my college (and above) level students struggle with this I can’t imagine what high schoolers and below in socially excluded settings go through.
  • Socialization – Another reason we have people in school is to teach them how to participate in society – as part of the workforce, as citizens in countries or communities, and as individuals. Online learning doesn’t provide as much of an opportunity for this, and I think it can even be dangerous. I make all of my kids learn about how racism, sexism or homophobia relate to technologies, regardless of if they want to because it’s part of our duty as educators to work to do so. If a learner gets to just pick and choose material Ala-cart online they’ll avoid this total package that I think is so essential to holistic and contextual learning. If we make them take ‘perspective-taking 101’ how can we assure that they’ll ever advance past the first class? How do we even know this kind of thing can be taught without real human-to-human interaction? How do we prevent ‘personalized’ from becoming ‘isolated’ in negative ways?
  • Edutainment – I’m not really convinced the internet is going to have any less interference and distraction than TV, radio or the other technologies that have failed to be our saviors in years past (see the 2:30 mark in the video). How many hours have been lost to people watching cats on the internet? There’s a reason that educational material is not the most popular – there’s not as much money there. Many instructors already feel pressured to be especially entertaining to compete with this stuff, I think this will happen on the web too. TL; DR is one of the most infuriating expressions of this I think I’ve ever run into.

So, ultimately, what am I saying? That we shouldn’t have personalized online learning? No, not at all! Does a Digital Aristotle program have a place within schools? Absolutely. Is it a good idea to split kids up by ability within given subject areas, instead of age? Sure. Can self-guided learning be powerful? Probably more so than any other type!

I’m saying I’m excited to see models where we can solve issues with motivation, continue human-to-human socialization and avoid being pwn’d by digital capitalism. I don’t know what these are yet but they’re certainly not a bunch of kids just being plugged into computer sockets in a classroom (or at home) with no real teacher. As much as the fallout from standards might cause problems (like exams being a horrible method for assessment) I think having some sense of what we want all students to know and do is useful. If we are going to implement systems like Digital Aristotle let’s be careful about ensuring they can work with an entourage of strategies to ensure well-adjusted, adaptive learners.

Intentionally Empathic

I get it. I’m a social scientist. I think about everything.

I’m finding more and more this identity is overwhelming, in that the sociological imagination is not only permanently switched on my mind, but I’m not sure how to (or if I want to or could) switch it off. The same way in which I see myself situated within the world as a powerful actor who can influence the people and issues around him: I’m presented with a problem – a complaint, a question, a curious circumstance – and I look to understand it, and usually, solve it or make things better. I feel it’s downright unethical to not to at least want to. So in the same way I obsess over social experience and individual actors and actions – I like to think a lot about what it means when I or someone else does or says something. I don’t always realize the full ramifications of a statement or action, like all of us humans, but I’m usually actively thinking about some sizable portion of those occurring around me. I do this instead of reading for school.

I’m contrasted by my friends who suggest that this is ‘over-analysis’ or wonder why I always have to ‘go so deep into everything all of the time.’ They’d rather float about life, making statements about the weather or complain about things without any intention of envisioning a better world. They don’t ask questions or wonder all that much about what others are thinking – it simply isn’t important to them.

In research we talk about discerning intent – how we measure it, what cues we can examine to find it, or even the possibility or importance of capturing it. We can ask someone what their intention is, but it may be futile – they cannot possibly know everything that motivates their decisions, and the structured provisional truth they present us in explanation is built to its audience, mode of communication and the person’s current feeling. Beyond that, regardless of how reflexive we might be – our intent is constricted to a realm of discourse – the way we talk about it in certain ways (social norms, language) and in some sense, people may only have free will to a certain degree within the bounds of how they make sense of reality.

So what struck me today was the way intention and empathy intersect. I’ve often wondered what fosters empathy. Intent implies purpose, an active action to desire and see to an outcome (that may or may not come to fruition). I’m so utterly concerned with investigating intent not because I think it will uncover some hidden truth (it may tell us a better story, though), but because I think by being concerned with the intentions of others we facilitate the construction of empathy (a reflection of concern for others, the ability to identify with their experience).

This rests on a value, a sort of social good. What would happen if everyone were a little more empathic? In some sense this is no different from seeking to understand the perspectives of others, but it’s mitigated or encapsulated by action. That is discovering intent involves a communicative process – people making efforts to engage one another – starting with speculation, leading to questions and observation and ending, in, what may be something close to a spiritual belief for me, understanding similarities. I do think, at root, we have a lot in common with one another, when we take the time to find it, at least. We all have the ability to be empathic and seek this – and really this process is how we forge emotional maturity, I think.

And it’s multifaceted. Some of this is explaining our own intentions and actions, putting them out there for others to relate to, inquiring about the intent of others, and, potentially, figuring out what they all mean together in the world we live in.

So I know this is a variation on a theme for me, championing the compassionate and assertive individuals of the world, but I’d like to entertain many ways of being that produce social good. So I’ll ask all of you – how might someone develop empathy without taking action to understand one another’s experience? Could it be done as well with just listening and observing, but not actively starting conversations and asking questions? Might we divulge empathy from texts and not live people>? What more can we find?