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Features of Habit: Making the Most of New Technologies in Education

Posted in Ed Tech on May 3, 2012 by

Our schools and universities are on the verge of a fundamental shift. As instruction moves from the lecture hall to the digital classroom, there’s an opportunity to create new learning interfaces, new ways to motivate our students, and new teaching methods.

Most of our knowledge about how students learn comes from the traditional classroom. Like the adopters of new technologies that have come before, institutions hoping to transition to a computer-based learning model have inherited blueprints that reflect constraints and assumptions that no longer apply.

Here at Knewton, I manage several of our partnerships with K12 and higher education institutions. Our partners know that it would be all too easy to simply port the traditional classroom online or into labs, almost exactly as-is. They’ve recognized that doing so would miss the opportunities for improvement and transformation that adaptive learning provides.

Instead, schools and colleges on the forefront of this shift are taking the best of what the existing model has to offer—great instructors and great content—and amplifying their impact on each student. This mission requires educators, instructional designers, and companies like Knewton to separate elements of the older model that contribute to improving student outcomes from those that are vestigial limitations inherent to brick and mortar.

Skewing Toward Skeuomorphs

Technologists speak of skeuomorphs, features of new technologies that mimic past forms. Pick up any electronic device today and you’ll find plenty of skeuomorphic features: icons of long-disused 3.5-inch floppies to save our files, dog-eared “pages” within our e-readers, simulated shutter sounds from our shutterless digital cameras.

Some skeuomorphs are beneficial reference points, anchors that orient users within an unfamiliar environment. Unfortunately, other skeuomorphs do harm, confining us to a path that prevents us from making the most of our innovations.

Though they’ve become more common in our current era of rapid technological change, skeuomorphs are not new. Archaeologists originally coined the term to describe decorative architectural features meant to imitate previous materials or construction techniques. For example, when ancient Greek temple builders shifted from wood to masonry, they continued to reproduce in stone the peg heads, beam ends, and other features of the earlier wooden temples.

Skeuomorphs can persist long after they outlive their original function, accommodating skills or patterns of interaction that people learned in an earlier era. Christopher Latham Sholes designed the QWERTY typewriter keyboard in the 1870s to prevent typebars from jamming by separating commonly paired letters like “A” and “N,” an innovation that ostensibly slows us down today. But the high switching cost of having everyone re-learn touch-typing prevents us from moving past this skeuomorph’s purposeful inefficiency.

New Perspectives

In “What Technology Wants,” Wired Magazine co-founder Kevin Kelly writes:

[When we think about new technologies, our] immediate tendency is to imagine the new thing doing an old job better… The first movies were simply straightforward documentary films of theatrical plays. It took a while to realize the full dimensions of cinema photography as its own new medium that could achieve new things, reveal new perspectives, do new jobs.

Like those first films, most early efforts to take learning online have focused on simply broadcasting otherwise-unchanged lectures and coursework to remote students. This has greatly increased the geographic reach of traditional instruction (and its socioeconomic reach, thanks to open educational resource projects like MIT’s OpenCourseWare). But these developments don’t really represented a step forward in pedagogy.

One approach that can help provide a more critical view of skeuomorphs is to import recent insights from disciplines outside education. Psychometrics allows us to attain statistically valid levels of confidence about what students know and don’t know, their learning style, and more. Advances in the study of human-computer interaction yield new insights on the features that make user interfaces intuitive. New research from the field of game design, of all places, demonstrate powerful ways to motivate progress through any kind of material for kids and adults alike.  Information design provides new techniques for visualizing progress and proficiency. And adaptive learning challenges the presumption that all students should (or, for practical reasons, must) get the same material at the same time, allowing us to answer each student truthfully when he or she asks: “What should I do next?”

Rewriting the Blueprint

In educational interfaces, skeuomorphic designs abound:  digitally reproduced blackboards, “spiral-bound” gradebooks, and the like. But skeuomorphic thinking goes beyond just icons, toolbars, and images. The 45-minute lecture in class has become a 45-minute lecture on a web cam. We can do better.

We can start thinking of class time as a venue for reinforcing and expanding what students learn at their own pace at home or in lab time, rather than a locus of primary instruction. We can provide students the freedom to move to the next class as soon as they’re ready, rather than confining them to discrete quarters or semesters. We can build grading policies that value attaining new levels of proficiency over simply showing up and completing assignments. We can even start breaking down some of the walls between disciplines by organizing learning around concepts rather than courses. We can allow the most advanced students to push their knowledge to new heights, and we can devote more instructor time to the students who need help the most.

All these opportunities are open to us, if we allow ourselves to pursue them. The tension between tradition and innovation isn’t a zero-sum game; treading a path between the two will yield the best learning outcomes for our students. We owe it to them to equip them with the best learning tools we can devise.