Week 2: Digital Learners, “Those Youths!”

One of the kids on the Digital Media video said something that stuck with me. He was talking about how his perception of lessons in school has changed from “Ugh! I have to learn this!” to “This is interesting, I want to learn this!”, and I can’t help but wonder how much the design of his courses contributed to his newfound enthusiasm for learning. Obviously, there are lots of other things that have changed (and thus an equal number of confounding variables, but it’s definitely worthy of commentary.

I mentioned the influence of design in pedagogical practice in my previous post, and I’d like to continue that line of inquiry here. I referred to the design of various classrooms and how that can contribute to improved learning outcomes and greater engagement among the students who occupy those spaces, but that concerned the built environment. This time, I’d like to look at the design of coursework, the technological infrastructures, and the integration of the two in the successful and not-so-successful examples we saw and read about this week.

One of the most successful examples were the classes featured in Setting Students’ Minds on Fire, in which the teacher made the course material more engaging by turning it into a role-playing game. It was a huge success, primarily because, as was stated in the article, “the strongest gains come from pedagogies that feature teamwork and problem solving”. The atmosphere of friendly–but rigorous–competition drove the students to improve, thereby receiving positive reinforcement in the form of increased success in the game, which caused them to become more dedicated to it, and because the game relied on a store of knowledge that could only be acquired by learning the material, the students became better strategists and also better scholars of the material. This was a fascinating study in what happens when gamification goes wonderfully right, and I would have loved to learn more about the mechanics of the game and how exactly it was played. Unfortunately, for every instance in which gamification is successful, there are several more examples where it fails. One example from my own life was the last-ditch attempt to introduce online gaming into my middle school’s English and Language Arts classes. While this was many years ago, the consistently low test scores and rankings of that particular school indicate that not much has changed. Instead of reviewing the literature and emphasizing the importance of strategic thinking, problem solving, and planning ahead, the administration merely foisted computer games on their English classes in the hope that something would stick. It did not, nor did the reading and writing scores improve.

Even in classes with strict teachers, students who were determined to text their friends, pass notes, or otherwise remain disengaged would always find a way to achieve their ends: one enormous mistake a lot of the more conservative authors of this week’s articles made was to underestimate the cunning of adolescents and young adults. The intentionally disengaged student is the primary reason why I fall firmly in the middle of the spectrum when it comes to devices in class. I believe that they can be of great use, the ADA requires that those who have disabilities be given dispensation to use devices if they aid in learning, and they can be a fun way to involve even the most aloof students. These tools are becoming more integrated into our daily lives than ever before, and I personally believe that trying to stem the tide alone is futile. We should use this newfound power for good and show our students that classes can be more rewarding than scrolling through their newsfeeds. It’s no small task, but I believe the next generation of teacher can rise to the occasion.

12 thoughts on “Week 2: Digital Learners, “Those Youths!”

  1. You have raised a number of excellent points in your blog this week. Your points about the Digital Media video and Setting Students Minds on Fire video were especially well made, and nicely interrelated. The emphasis on shifting students from needing to wanting to learn, and incentivizing learning through competition, teamwork, problem solving, and games are in line with bright spots in education at all levels.

    I’m curious what you think about learning opportunities on campus that occur outside of formal coursework that involve gamification, competitions, and applying concepts such as the Solar Decathlon (http://www.solardecathlon.gov/) or the SpaceX Hyperloop pod competition
    (https://www.businessinsider.com/spacex-hyperloop-competitions-teams-2017-1)? Could these be offered for credit? Could they be interwoven with a course or series of courses from different disciplines?

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    1. As someone who has a (VERY) strong competitive streak, I think those are all excellent ways to integrate learning with things students consider pleasurable and fun. There are plenty of ways for that to work: DIY majors in college, independent studies in secondary school or earlier (which doesn’t happen in many lower schools, but I believe we should trust our younger students to make their own educational decisions–that’s a rant for another time), and experimental courses in which students complete projects like the ones you mentioned: they get excited about learning, and the administrators get those precious quantifiable results with which they’re so obsessed. This is an excellent comment; thanks!

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  2. Hi Jasmine,

    You have raised a number of excellent points in your blog this week. Your points about the Digital Media video and Setting Students Minds on Fire video were especially well made, and nicely interrelated. The emphasis on shifting students from needing to wanting to learn, and incentivizing learning through competition, teamwork, problem solving, and games are in line with bright spots in education at all levels.

    I’m curious what you think about learning opportunities on campus that occur outside of formal coursework that involve gamification, competitions, and applying concepts such as the Solar Decathlon (http://www.solardecathlon.gov/) or the SpaceX Hyperloop pod competition (https://www.businessinsider.com/spacex-hyperloop-competitions-teams-2017-1)? Could these be offered for credit? Could they be interwoven with a course or series of courses from different disciplines?

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  3. There is an interesting dynamic between learning in a classroom and learning through a video game (or any kind of game). One of the readings for this week mentioned how learning through educational institutions has largely been refined, simplified, and streamlined to ensure its scope and objectivity. However, many games on the other hand are pushing against established norms and building upon the problems presented by games that came before. Thus, a more complicated and difficult game often is more successful. I think technology can be employed to incorporate this trajectory into educational learning as well. Certainly, there is a balance, and there will likely be those who misuse technology, but every classroom is a collaboration between the instructor and the students. Effective communication of expectations and empowering students to create their learning environment for themselves is more likely to work than arbitrary bans on technology.

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    1. The funny thing is, it doesn’t even have to be “technology” in the sense I believe you mean here, that is, high tech. It can be as simple as a tabletop RPG or, like the history class mentioned in one of the articles in which the class took on the roles of the factions they studied. For example, if we studied the French Revolution and I was a part of the Royalist faction, you were part of the sans-culottes, Julia was a Jacobin, etc. and we all got so into it that we became completely absorbed in the study of history.
      It could be something complex as the games I mentioned or as simple as, say, an extended game of Mafia (fun fact: Mafia was created by Dmitry Davidoff, a psychology student from the USSR, in the late eighties). It combines all the positive aspects of gameplay and healthy competition with more complex themes of social dynamics within stressful situations, trustworthiness versus dishonesty, emotional mimicry, and strategic thinking. Perhaps one of the compromises that can be made between use of tech in the classroom and a complete ban is an analog solution, at least until the robots takes over.

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  4. Jasmine, I think you have a great idea, in that no matter what, students with disabilities should be kept in mind in course designs, and not made to feel like they stick out if they need accommodations. Though I wish to ask a slightly devils-advocate question. In highschool, students are kept in classes for about 8 hours straight with few breaks. So what if they text their friends or check their Insta feeds? If they get their work done, don’t distract other students, and of course provided that they aren’t doing anything inappropriate, wheres the harm in a little distraction? When I was in high school and I finished my assignments early, I took out whatever book I was reading and spent the rest of the period distracted by great adventures in other worlds. Teachers very rarely had a problem with that. Is there really much of a difference between that and a student playing Candy Crush?

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    1. Excellent question, counselor.
      To that, I say that 8-hour schooldays need to be reexamined. Studies have shown that the current model is NOT optimal for students in the age range that is subjected to these schedules: young brains, teenage brains especially, are not really supposed to be awake and functional by homeroom (which is much too early), but closer to lunchtime, which I believe is far too short.
      More importantly, because their bodies are still growing, they also need much more sleep than they currently get. I’ve always been of the belief that the allocation of nap time over the course of a student’s career is backwards. I say we trade the nap times we get in kindergarten (which no one wants) to higher grades, start them in elementary school right after recess (which should be available to older students in a different form) or at the very least, allow students a siesta at midday. Either way, the current system is NOT optimal or human-centered at ALL. I could get on my Design soapbox and talk about more successful educational models, but I think I’ve answered the question and will stop here. The prosecution rests. 🙂

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  5. Thanks for a great post, Jasmine! I too am having difficulty discerning where I fall on the pendulum of technology in the classroom. I am a young teacher, not much older than my upperclassmen students, and sometimes that makes me want to be stricter to reduce technology use. I have at times, wished I could collect cellphones at the front of the classroom, when the two students who were texting all class email asking a question that I know I covered in class. I like your suggestion to make the class more engaging that their screens, I definitely try to engage my students throughout the class period, whether that means showing a funny, pertinent video, or making a few (not very funny) jokes myself. I’m in the English department, and your personal experience with lack-luster games to replace meaningful teaching is so upsetting! I agree that is not the way to engage learners!

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    1. Yes, it was truly unfortunate, but that’s one of those cases where neither the faculty not the administration truly cared about the students. I am aware that in this class, one of our primary assumptions is that we as future faculty have a duty of care for our students, and that we take that duty seriously. Sadly, not everyone feels that way. It’s something I think we should at least touch upon during class. Perhaps we should show some clips of Waiting for Superman, that show the problems in our k-12 education system and discuss how we might make some inroads. Here’s a link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p2SZE8IA9RA

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  6. Co-opt the cunning? (LOVE Sponge Bob Square Pants and the walker!). I’m with Jasmine in the middle — and definitely concerned that we keep the needs of students with disabilities in mind as we develop specific policies for our classrooms.

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  7. Jasmine- I really enjoyed reading your post and I appreciate the thought you put into it. I oftentimes find myself thinking the same thing as you, that we can foster these environments where looking through your Twitter feed is not even a thought because of how engaging the course is. However, I will not lie when I say that I also find myself wondering how? I have no doubt that we as future leaders of the classroom have the power to make it happen, I just am not sure of how, especially considering the resiliency of those aforementioned cunning adolescents and that is where I think the focus should shift to next.

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