Reddit, TED and Sir. Ken Robinson

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

Are Virtual Worlds The Harbingers of The End of Society?

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Audio: Are virtual worlds the harbingers of the end of society?

When people discuss the future of online communities and virtual environments it’s the question that nags at the back of everyone’s mind.  Even among virtual world evangelists it’s a topic of concern, apprehension and uncertainty.  A concept and concern so powerful that mega hits like the Matrix have been based on it.

The question begs – are virtual worlds the harbingers of the end of society? Will, as most people fear the eventual march of technology result in environments so immersive, so powerful, and so socially disconnected that our species loses its ability and desire to interact, reproduce and perpetuate itself?  Will virtual worlds and their progeny result in the eventual death of civilization? Experience tells me that most people believe it will.

I disagree.

In fact, not only do I disagree, but I’m not worried in the least. The forward march of technology is an interesting dilemma.  Especially since, with each new invention things previously unimaginable become a reality opening the gateway to future inventions and technology so far beyond the scope of our current understanding that they are, by today’s standards, unfathomable. The side effect of this forward moving evolution is change.  Sometimes a change so fundamental, it re-shapes our very lives. Fire. The wheel. The written word.  Change can make the topic a very difficult one to explore, after all – change is scary or at the very least something that requires a transition period before it becomes comfortable. So, where is the fine line between what we’re afraid of because it’s new or different, and what we’re afraid of because it’s detrimental?

I believe the answer lies in our core nature as a species.  We are, fundamentally, social creatures.  We reach out, build communities, and seek out companionship.  We are not a-sexual and as such by our very biological makeup are hardwired to seek companionship.  Community is at the core of who we are, and our success as a species.  It powers our communities, which have enabled us to overcome great obstacles, eventually becoming the dominant form of life on earth.  It’s for that very reason that the thought of technology breaking down those social bonds is so alarming.  It’s also for that very reason that I’m not concerned. Humans – as a species – will always seek out other humans. In fact, the lengths we will go to are spectacular.  A point I am continually reminded of when I look at gamers behavior.

A few years ago when I was spending a lot of my time playing Everquest and other online games,,, I was constantly amazed at the lengths guild/group members would go to in order to meet each other in person.  It’s not uncommon for gaming guilds to hold meet-ups and while the lions share are more regionally oriented many are international in scope with members from all over the country (and world) flying in for small & medium sized face-to-face gatherings. There’s an important lesson here – even in one of the web’s most immersive environments people still reach out to each other.  Another example of the power of community presence is LAN parties where groups of 3 or more gather in one location and all play/chat/etc. for hours and in some cases days. At these events it’s not uncommon to have X people in a room silently focused on their screens for surprisingly long blocks of time without verbal interactions.  Despite their apparent lack of social interaction, they are using Skype-like technology to communicate with each other and others throughout the world, chatting constantly, and interacting in a rich world with their avatars.  So, why gather at all?  The comradship of being together.  The power and appeal of being in the presence of other humans and enjoying the face-to-face socialization that happens during downtime.  Again, these behaviors make it clear that as a species we thrive on, and hunger for, social interaction.  We are social creatures.

Confident in our social nature, I’m not concerned about the growing influence of technology because fundamentally we will always reach out to connect physically.  The dynamics may change, but the physical presence of someone, especially a romantic partner, is an experience that technology can’t duplicate.  In cases where it comes close it may temporarily satiate our needs, but ultimately even in these instances real world social interaction will always win out.  That’s why – to me – the fears about virtual world technology are a non-issue.

So, what happens if technology does move to the point where it can imitate and replace social interactions and the benefits of face-to-face interactions? That is the imagined matrix paradigm, a virtual reality so complete, real, and believable that you can’t tell the difference between it and the real world.  If, or rather when, technology evolves to the point where it is able to flawlessly imitate the real world, where does that leave us? Staunchly embedded and fiercely loyal to the world we know. It’s a scary thought, but realistically would that world be any less real, albeit different, than what we now classify as the “real world”?  Would it truly be a bad thing if it satiated all of our needs and fulfilled us every bit as completely as the “real world”? I don’t believe it would be bad.  In fact, at that point I believe it becomes every bit as real, valid and perhaps even essential as what we take for granted today.

So, are virtual worlds the harbingers of the end? If you believe that humans are fundamentally social animals and that we need that social interaction to survive, then your answer should be a confident no.  If, on the other hand, you do not believe that we are fundamentally social – what are you concerned about to begin with?

As always I value your feedback, thoughts and discussion.  Please take advantage of the comment feature below and share your thoughts!

Educating Millennials – Part II

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Blog Audio: Educating Millennials P2

This post is a follow up to my original post: Educating Millennials – Why We’re Doing It Wrong

Since it was posted Part I has received nearly 22,000 views and 80+ responses. At this point in time I think it’s safe to say I hit on a major issue…one we have only just begun to dive into. I’m thrilled by the reception the post received and the opportunity I’ve had to begin dialogue on the subject. The purpose of this post is to serve as an update and to work to clarify several points. Please take it as such.

On the subject of data – I’ve reached out to several government officials and other contacts within academic circles in an effort to locate source educational data to check my hypothesis. However, before I share an update on the progress/issues I’ve had with the data I want to address some background questions.

Background Information

My original post was made as a hypothesis based on observation. I am not an academic researcher, nor is it appropriate that I include all of my research & thoughts in these blog posts.  This is not a research site or news outlet. It is a blog and as such my posts must be limited in length and cannot be as in-depth as many of us might otherwise like. Nor am I a full time academic researcher affiliated with a research institution.  Rather, I’m a curious, passionate millennial observing the world around me, the way my fellows and I interact, and looking at alternative explanations.  It is a place for sharing observations, thoughts, and interesting information. It is my sincere hope that these thoughts and ideas will be picked up by my readership and pursued further.   As mentioned in my previous post, I am more than happy to discuss any concept expressed on this site further/privately.

The Sexes

I received a number of comments accusing me of sexism or being grossly mistaken about the distribution of the sexes in online environments, particularly the realm of video games. While, in most instances, it was obvious from the reader’s comments that several of my main points were missed, or they failed to read the post to its conclusion. I want to take a moment to address this concern. First, I am very well aware of the female presence in online gaming and on the web. I founded and lead one of the oldest/longest running online gaming guilds for 8 years. I am familiar with most of the statistics cited in the comments about web demographics. In fact, I used some of the very same data in my Honors Thesis which I completed a year and a half ago. That said, the male/female demographics of the online gaming community have changed exponentially in the last 3-5 years. That’s not to say that there have not been female gamers for as long as there have been games.  Rather, that the audience who grew up utilizing these games (from an early age) has – until recently – been mostly male and that as a result these individuals will be the most heavily effected.

In addition to the issue of demographics, research has shown that males and females relate differently in social situations.  That same research shows that conventional one-way, top-down, information exchanges like that in most classroom environments is more compatible with the learning styles of women.

The combination of these two factors – as previously explained – is part of why the topic focuses on males. The other part stems from the nature of the post as a response and alternative hypothesis to the commonly accepted arguments for why young males are under represented in higher education. The conventional arguments have revolved around a difference in capability between the sexes and are largely based on notable gender bias. The proposition in Part I of this post, if anything, is far from sexist.  Further, as I’ll discuss later in this topic, one of the greatest issues I’ve had with exploring the data is the lack of unbiased, relevant source data. Many of the official tables provide female percentages and numbers while neglecting their male counterparts.

The Author

Attacking the author is a fundamental part of Internet culture, a fact I completely understand.  While I did not want to spend much time on myself in the original post as I feel it distracts from the actual subject, my credibility and background seems to be a major, relevant, component for a number of readers. Some were concerned I was someone who hadn’t made the cut and wanted to justify my failure. Others assumed it was a complaint written by a frustrated millennial unable to find a job.  Several readers even suggested that my passion and focus for virtual technologies and their impact implied a lack of reading or cultural enrichment on my part. Others suggested that I must inherently suffer from a lack of social skills and connections.  While I’ve responded to each of these concerns independently in the comment section of the previous post I will briefly respond to each of the more frequent comments.

I actually preformed quite well in University. I graduated with a 3.38 GPA from Arizona State University with degrees from the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication and the Barrett Honors College.  My honors thesis is available for review on the blog roll to the right. It focused on MMOGs and their social impact. In High School I was engaged in the We The People constitutional debate program as well as a Key Club Officer. In addition to my academics, I come from, and grew up in a family heavily involved in academics.

Professionally, I have enjoyed significant success. In the spring of 2005 (summer of my sophomore year of college) I began an internship with the #3 commercial real estate company in the world. By the end of the summer the position grew into a part time position during the school year/full time job in the summer. I was with the company in various capacities (Research, Mapping, GIS, IT) until I graduated in 2007 when I was offered a full time position which I declined.  After a 3 month trip through Europe I returned to the states and immediately accepted a position as an Analyst with one of Arizona’s premiere mid-market mergers and acquisitions groups. In addition to my current position in the M&A industry, I founded the company FusionVirtual.

Socially I have regularly been referred to as a social node.  I’m lucky to enjoy an extensive social network all developed outside of the Greek system.  To use Facebook as a social benchmark, my friends list currently has over 600 contacts virtually all of whom I’m in semi-regular contact with. In fact, I periodically prune the list to keep it up to date and relevant.  To those with doubts, I can assure you I am both socially competent and active.

Culturally I have always enjoyed reading and have tested as post college since 6th grade. I enjoy regular reading, though my recent schedule has made me cut back significantly.  In addition to classic texts I enjoy poetry and the arts. I’ve seen theater on Broadway and in London, opera in Vienna and ballet in Prague. In addition to these experiences I’ve been an avid ballroom dancer for the last 4 years and salsa dance on a weekly basis. I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to travel extensively. I’ve been to Europe three times (once for a year, once for 3 months, and once for 6.5 weeks). I’ve also spent a year traveling across the U.S. and been to Alaska, Mexico and Hawaii.

It is important to point out that despite my background and life experiences, the observations raised about the educational system in Part I of this post are every bit as relevant for me as they are for other male millennials. I drilled down and forced myself to complete the higher ed process, but make no mistake, I found myself consciously making the decision to work within the system for the social validation and professional benefit that the degree “check mark” on job applications offered. The system did not serve my needs. It could have done more to challenge on multiple levels. In fact, it also did very little to prepare me for the real world.

So, to those of you who asked, I say;  No, this is not an apology. It’s not a justification.  It’s not an excuse. This is an observation of a failure by the education system. This failure has affected me personally and has affected a large number of my acquaintances and friends.  Read through the comments, look at what the young males of the millennial generation are telling us.

The tragedy is that we are squandering the potential of hundreds of thousands of America’s best and brightest, all because of bureaucracy and outdated tradition. All in a time when we need them the most.

Data

It’s taken over a week for me to make this post in large part because I’ve been having difficulty tracking down relevant data. At this point in time, I’d love to be able to post a few graphs and several tables of data showing clear snapshots of what’s going on in our education system.  The unfortunate reality is, it doesn’t seem possible with the data available.  This would be a great graduate research project. As mentioned in my previous post, I’ve contacted the US Census Department, the US Department of Education, and IPEDS (The Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System). I’ve also worked with several other contacts in trying to find/analyze the data in a way that gives real, relevant data.

It appears that the data collected by the U.S. Education System is in such a confused state and so poorly documented that it’s nearly impossible to find standard enrollment and completion numbers broken up by sex and institution type and relative to U.S. population statistics by year.  The data has been gathered and stored in such a way that anything beyond micro analysis is nearly impossible for the casual researcher. If you have information relevant to the discussion please post it in a comment or forward it to me and I’ll add it to the post. Additionally, if you do any statistical analysis please share your results and methodology with us.

Noteworthy Data:

  1. Degrees conferred by degree-granting institutions, by level of degree and sex of student: Selected years, 1869-70 through 2016-17
  2. Total fall enrollment in degree-granting institutions, by attendance status, sex of student, and control of institution: Selected years, 1947 through 2005
  3. Historical Educational Attainment Reports from 1940 through 1998
  4. US 1990 Census: Population Figures
  5. US 2000 Census: Population Figures
  6. US 2007 Census: Population Figures

Things to note:

  • There is a major data shift in 1995.
  • Enrollment figures provide a % female, but no mention of a % male.
  • Enrollment figures fail to distinguish between the gender breakdown in full/part time categories.
  • Enrollment figures fail to distinguish between higher education programs.
  • Degrees conferred can not be accurate compared to enrollment data.
  • Degrees conferred are not broken down by type of institution, only level of education*.
  • Population figures: I was unable to locate credible year-by-year projections. Only US Census data by year was publicly available. The 2007 figures were generated through a private information vendor and forwarded to me.
  • Population figures: Should be adjusted based on generational differences in population.

*This is relevant because of the widespread success of web-based Universities like University of Phoenix. If included in the above material (which I believe they are) these web-based Universities have been extremely popular over the last 8+ years. The type of education these programs offer (web-based) is drastically different from the class method and environment utilized in major colleges and universities. As a result, I’m concerned that these may offset significant shifts in the brick and mortar institutions this article focuses on.

*EDIT* – Just saw this and feel it’s very relevant given my mention of University of Phoenix above. UofP was ranked as the #1 recipient of federal assistance/aid for FY 2008. According to the list, Arizona based University of Phoenix has received $2,810,085,079 in aid so far in this fiscal year.

Closing Thoughts

Ultimately the data is important, but may be more of a distraction. The theory discussed herein is nothing new. We’ve known since the days of Aristotle and Socrates that instructor-student interactions are the best way to learn. As humans we learn best when we can interact, exchange thoughts, and question. After all, what is a question but the search for information and clarity? When the written word was invented we transformed the way knowledge was shared from the telling of stories to a system of written words. Modern technology allows us to increase the level of interaction between student and professor.  It offers the potential to make the material more engaging, informative, and to increase students’ investment in their education. Sadly, that scares a lot of people. Luckily, the demand for multi-level delivery systems will continue to grow until educators respond.  While we can disagree on some of the details and the execution, ultimately ask yourself if a more interactive, ‘immersive’, and vibrant educational experience will be good for the students.  If your answer is yes, I urge you to stop making excuses for a system that no longer works as-is. I ask that you help work toward a modern, 21st century educational system.

Each day we wait another brilliant mind falls through the cracks.

As always, I value your feedback and will respond to all user comments. Please share your thoughts, reflections, and any additional information you might have in a comment on this post.

*If you’ve enjoyed this post and want to share, please vote for the post on reddit/digg/delicious using the links below and help me spread the word.

*EDIT* I was just linked this amazing video by Mike Wesch which really does an amazing job hitting on/discussing some of the same issues.