Reddit, TED and Sir. Ken Robinson

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Posted on / by Alex Berger

Background

In addition to my passion for travel, I’m actively exploring the professional and academic opportunities presented by virtual worlds and gaming technology.

I have written several widely popular blog posts (eg: Educating Millennials/my explanation of generational gaps). I’m also currently engaged in two major projects which you may not be as familiar with.

The first of these projects is FusionVirtual . While most of what I’m exploring through FusionVirtual isn’t public yet, I will share that I have the conceptual solution to many of the challenges facing web-based distance learning. A major component of this is the use of virtual space as an instructional tool. I am working with/seeking academic and development partners to bring the project to fruition and have recently been engaged in dialogue with a major community college, their President and upper administrative leadership. As well as members of the college’s foundation.

The second project is a book. I am a tech savvy Millennial, despite this and what common cultural dialogue would have you believe I’m not a Digital Native. I’m fresh out of a major university and the world of higher education, but also have nearly five years experience in corporate America. The sum of these experiences means that I’m a member of an incredibly small demographic. A demographic with a foot in both worlds and access to insights that would otherwise be elusive. My exploration of these insights has led me to a unique understanding of tech, education and professional issues. That understanding has helped me decode and identify the answers to issues which have baffled business and professional experts.

The Q&A

With that said, I was thrilled when I saw that two of my favorite resources TED.com and Reddit.com were teaming up to do a crowd-sourced Q&A session with one of my favorite TED presenters: Sir. Ken Robinson.

I submitted my question under my Reddit username (Glamdering) which was as follows:

Distance learning (web based education) is currently the new rage in education. However, the quality of the experience is at best sub par. As a recent college graduate, I cannot help but feel the three major types of online education (static html pages, pre-recorded video, power point slides with audio overlays) are missing the point. What are your thoughts on the future of distance learning, and have you seen any signs of a breakthrough that will replace the status quo, while delivering interactive, powerful, social and visually simulating learning?

After a week, during which users were able to submit and then vote questions up/down – mine made it into the top top 10. You can view the official blog post with all 10 questions and answers on TED.com HERE.

Sir. Robinson’s response was as follows:

I should just say: Distance learning isn’t the new rage in education. We’ve had it for years.

In the U.K., we’ve had the Open University, which was set up in the ’70s. I think it’s now the largest university on Earth. It’s a massive institution on a small campus. The purpose was to offer university-level education to people who were beyond conventional undergraduate aid. A lot of people in the Open University are in their 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, right up to their 90s. It’s a brilliantly innovative organization, designed to give people a second chance — or a first chance, if they missed it. It’s based on distance learning, with some residential programs built in. But all the programs were initially put on late-night television by the BBC.

So, distance learning itself is not a new thing. It’s the web that’s new.

But I think Glamdering is right. It’s not very good. There’s been a tendency in universities to try and cash in on the interest in web-based learning. A lot of them have been dumping programs online: lecture notes, videos of talks, and so on. They’re of variable quality. Some of them are great, and some aren’t. In a way, TED is a great example of how distance learning can work well. TED doesn’t have a formal curriculum. But it has new ideas about getting ideas across in a powerful, condensed way, with high-quality visuals, and then syndicating that. TED has shown us a dramatic appetite for new ideas presented in an interesting way.

Just dumping stuff online isn’t the answer to it. But there’s a massive thirst for ideas, for this sort of content, as illustrated by the mushrooming of social networking and user-generated content. There’s another interesting commercial organization called Blackboard which is growing very quickly and has been doing work that’s really worth looking at. I mean, I don’t think they would say they’ve got this whole thing sorted at all, but they’ve started to think differently about the best way to use web-based materials and distance learning both in institutions and outside of them.

Microsoft and Apple both have interesting educational programs. They both work with schools. They have educational leadership programs. They, I think, are looking hard at how the technology that they are developing and selling can really be used for distance education. And I think the work that both are doing is really worth looking at, although they’re approaching it in different ways.

As with what I was saying before about video games: I think there’s a massive potential that we haven’t yet fully tapped into. Most schools don’t really have contact with stuff. People who are at the leading edge of thinking about it are coming in with great ideas and possibilities, but the penetration of this stuff into education is still pretty limited. But I’m sure it’s the way we have to go in the future. And for a very good reason. Because we now have the ability to put the best thinking, materials, pedagogy, resources in front of everybody. This should be seen by schools as a massive opportunity to — not to replace what they do, not to replace their own teachers and curriculum, but to enrich and enhance it. And the really good schools know that that’s the way to go. And there are some great schools that are doing it. High Tech High is an interesting one in the U.S.

Thoughts

Sir. Robinson spends paragraph 1 discussing the origins of distance learning. I found this part of the response helpful. It reflects generational differences in terminology. Distance learning is old – very old – Sir Robinson reaches back to the start of the Open University. One might also reference the old Sears Catalog or any number of similar services. Where I used the term distance learning, I took for granted a web-specific context. This gap may suggest the need for a more standardized alternate term. Web-based learning works, but is limiting since it discourages the inclusion of platforms that blur the line (virtual worlds, VoIP networks, combination systems, etc.).

In paragraph 2, Sir Robinson highlights TED as a quality example of how online video delivery can work for education. I agree almost completely. What’s missing, however, is interaction. TED delivers incredibly creative, informative videos and has tried to increase involvement by adding a powerful comment system. Despite this, it remains fundamentally a one-directional medium. While that’s great for knowledge sharing, it is not interactive enough. The beauty of the internet is that it allows two-way exchanges. An outlet like TED is still limited by the old one-way exchange which plagues lecture halls in Universities everywhere.

In paragraph 3, Sir Robinson mentions Blackboard. As a recent ASU graduate I used Blackboard through the majority of my college career. Blackboard is an interesting beast. It serves as a great enabler. It replaced the horribly constructed geocities websites that leading-edge university professors were creating pre-Blackboard. Blackboard created a standardized platform that most professors have been able to use to upload notes and encourage discussion. That said, I detest Blackboard – a sentiment which most students share. While it’s changed slightly in the last two years it’s still largely the same beast. The Blackboard I used was based on an archaic forums system which was obtuse and largely irrelevant. The same can be said about the service’s chat and collaboration features. In truth, Blackboard was little more than a dumping ground for files and an awkward, outdated one at that. All that was made worse by the company’s monopoly on the industry which was illustrated in the DOJ’s recent anti-trust inquiry into the Blackboard/ANGEL merger. That said, I agree that Blackboard has laid the groundwork and helped validate an ideological shift in the way we view online interaction and collaboration.

In paragraph 4, Sir Robinson points to Microsoft’s and Apple’s education programs. Two that I’ve explored casually, but have yet to dive into completely. If anyone has more information on these projects please post it in a comment!

In paragraph 5, Sir. Robinson shares several thoughts which I was excited to see. His commentary on the wall between those at the leading edge and academic implementation is right on the money. One thing he hints at but doesn’t explore, is the resistance from old, entrenched faculty who are clinging to outdated technologies and academic structure while actively working to block new ideas and concepts which are both technological and structural. One of the biggest fears among entrenched academics is that they will be “replaced” – a point which I was thrilled to see him address. I was excited to see his mention of video games (virtual worlds) as part of the equation of the future.

His response is further affirmation of the concepts, observations and projects I’ve been exploring for the last 9 years. It’s exciting to share a vision of the future, and to stand at the vanguard of 21st century education in the company of great minds like Sir. Robinson’s.

I have the utmost respect for him and would like to thank him for taking the time to respond to my question while engaging with Reddit, TED and the community for this Q&A session.

-Alex

Alex Berger

I am a travel blogger and photographer. I also am involved in academic research into the study abroad and backpacker communities.

13 Comments

  • Edward F. Berger, Ed.D.
    August 31, 2009

    Alex, I doubt there are more than a handful of people over the age of 25 who have the insights and connections necessary to bring about the necessary changes you are defining. Keep up the good work. Keep leading. Keep communicating.

    Reply
  • ozten
    September 1, 2009

    Great article! I totally agree with the need for better educational software. I've used Catalyst and another system. Very clunky.

    I've never considering a game engine… interesting idea. The web and business applications are tuned for delivering text, while games and 3d environments are less optimized for text. Example: The croquet project is a 3d world which allows you to embed a web browser or a spreadsheet. This is somewhat awkward.

    For non-reading/writing activities game engines open up possibilities which aren't currently available, such as surgery, auto-repair, architecture, etc.

    I'm looking forward to seeing where you take things.

    Reply
  • AlexBerger
    September 1, 2009

    Thanks for the comment Ozten. Bridging the gap between large quantities of text and a 3d spatial environment is definitely a challenge, but one I think I've found ways to bridge. I'd be more than happy to share some of the basic concepts I've been exploring with you in greater depth.

    Thanks for the post!

    Reply
  • Danielle
    September 2, 2009

    Another great post, Alex! I admire Sir Robinson's in-depth response to your questions. I couldn't agree more that we need better web-based education and I think you're on the right track to tackling these issues. I'm eager to see where you go with gaming technology. Best of luck!

    Reply
  • AlexBerger
    September 2, 2009

    Thanks for your comment Stephanie. Great thoughts!

    Reply
  • AlexBerger
    September 2, 2009

    Thanks Danielle for commenting. Agreed, I was very impressed with the in depth response Sir Robinson delivered.

    Reply
  • Stephanie
    September 2, 2009

    Very interesting post! Recently finishing my undergraduate studies I have participated in a number of different class formats (traditional lectures, small classes, online classes, hybrid classes). In my experience, many students are taking online classes due to scheduling convenience and the relative flexibility of completing assignments. However, these online classes often tend to become forms of “teach yourself”, read the book, read the notes, do the assignment, take the test. I am excited to see how technology can help students to develops greater critical thinking skills with real life application to what they learn.

    Reply
  • evagill
    September 9, 2009

    Interesting. Do you think this will percolate down into high/middle schools? The focus for distance learning seems to be on college level.

    We are in the process of planning a RTW walkabout with the kids, and have been looking into options for online programs on a middle school and high school level. It would need to be highly portable; we don't want to lug 70 pounds of textbooks and materials around the globe. Soultravelers3 have done it on their own, but their daughter is younger (8, I think.) Educational needs are greater once the kids are older, working on the curriculum to graduate and prepare for college. The kind of interactive programs you are talking about would be a huge step.

    Let me know if there are programs out there you know of which I should look at, and I'll be watching for your FusionVirtual info.

    Reply
  • AlexBerger
    September 9, 2009

    Hi Eva, thanks for posting!

    I think it will transition to High Schools in the immediate future. To a certain extent, I think a large part of the focus has been on higher education because that's where the money, expertise, and independence is to drive the technology and curriculum. I'm currently focused on College level coursework – but hope to expand the platform to middle/high schools as well. Unfortunately, i'm still looking for development partners/funding.

    That said, as someone who spent two of my middle school years home schooled on RTW styled walkabouts – there is a definite need.

    The hardest part about a trip like that isn't academic – that comes almost organically from the experience. It's the social interaction.

    The good news is that even though they're far from ideal there are a wealth of new distance learning video solutions popping up online. These only offer recordings of courses – but do provide useful information. However, most of the ones I'm familiar with are college oriented. You might explore Youtube.com/edu, MIT's Open Courseware (http://ocw.mit.edu/OcwWeb/web/home/home/index.htm) and other similar projects for applicable material.

    Also, consider the move towards online text books Google and others have been pursuing. A 1TB HD is less than $100 right now. Consider pulling digital copies of the textbooks and downloading some of the lecture videos to be used offline at a later date.

    Feel free to shoot me an e-mail at alex [at] fusionvirtual.com for more info. I'd be happy to see what I can dig up for you as well.

    Reply
  • evagill
    September 9, 2009

    Thanks, Alex.

    I am finding some home school options that seem like they will work, but they're mostly “static,” the interactivity element would be much better. I know that the girls seem to learn better from a closer connection to the teacher. I'm sure it will work out fine, but I'm glad to see some of this stuff coming out in the relatively close future.

    I know what you mean about the social side of things for the kids. That is a big concern, and certainly the biggest one either of the girls have themselves. I'm hoping with Facebook and e-mail they can at least keep in touch with friends from home. Hoping, too, that some of our friends make it where we are to explore a bit with us.

    I'd not thought about the big Google books project for textbooks. (Sort of a “Duh!” moment for me, I have to admit. Don't know why I did not make that connection.) I've been looking at the e-reader – Kindle type option as well.

    Thanks, too, for the contact info. As we go down this path toward our adventures, I may have other questions you might have answers to.

    Reply
  • AlexBerger
    September 10, 2009

    Yeah, I've really enjoyed having Facebook/e-mail/twitter on hand during my travels of late. It really takes the feeling of disconnect away. Even simple things like quickly perusing friends facebook feed allows you to keep up to date with the major events in their lives, and even chat here and there while globetrotting.

    Right now the biggest challenge for any time of more immersive environment is 1) It doesn't exist and 2) what exists is currently is fairly bandwidth intensive which can be a problem while you're on the road with intermittent internet.

    The bitter sweet part of it will be – socially – that they will return home as different people, with a different worldview, goals and aspirations. That, perhaps more than the distance weighs heavily on relationships.

    Shoot me an e-mail or tweet any time. Always glad to help. Also feel free to add me on facebook.

    Reply
  • evagill
    September 10, 2009

    True- the connections we find on the road may or may not support the media, even if it were available.

    That last part makes me sad, even though it's probably so. I really like their friends. Both girls are strong independent thinkers even now, and pretty selective about who they hang out with. I hope those friendships find common ground when we get back.

    Reply
  • evagill
    September 10, 2009

    True- the connections we find on the road may or may not support the media, even if it were available.

    That last part makes me sad, even though it's probably so. I really like their friends. Both girls are strong independent thinkers even now, and pretty selective about who they hang out with. I hope those friendships find common ground when we get back.

    Reply

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