What might a Fitbit for learning look like?

Nike Fuel Band
Nike Fuel Band

Wearable technologies for fitness are all the rage. From the Nike Fuel band to the Fitbit, the constant tracking of activity and instant feedback motivates many to gradually increase their fitness. Unless Santa is bringing a surprise, I can’t claim firsthand experience on whether the technology can help people implement the changes they desire, but I wonder if it might be a model for education. While others have postulated what these fitness devices tell us about learning, I wonder if a similar device could be created for mental fitness.

While there are many apps that one use to bring learning on the go via smartphone (such as Lumosity or iTunes U), I don’t know of a wearable device that is designed to enhance mental fitness. There are a few educational models that might drive the design of such a device:

  • Regular, repeated content delivery: distributed practice has been shown to be an effective way to bolster long term retention of newly learned material. Perhaps reminders on a wristwatch (or in something like Google Glass) delivered by an app that knew the optimal content, time, and modality could make routine memorization easier.
  • Connection to real world events: the news can be a great way to find a meaningful connection with the issues of the day. While this is another take on the idea of distributed practice, it’s another way that one might develop the mental frameworks for learning.
  • Mind games: simple recall games, like the ones from Lumosity, might help build build generalized mental fitness — much like wearable physical fitness devices!

Other than the difficulties of designing content for exceedingly small screens, I can anticipate one other hurdle to implementing wearable learning fitness technology. The device could not act on it’s own; it would need to connect to another system (or systems) to organize the subjects that one is studying.

There’s also the question of whether learning fitness is as marketable as physical fitness.

Where do singular educational experiences fit on the path?

I am long overdue for a response to the insightful comments I received on my post on “No Path for Badging.” In essence, I agree with most of my readers sentiments. The consensus appears to be that badges (currently) are a good supplement to a formal education. I totally agree that badges (and MOOCs) provide opportunities for learners to earn and display educational certifications — especially in interest areas that may be outside of the traditional path of education.

Yet, I still see the “path” as an important issue (one that, Sal Khan seems to understand), as most learners might not have the sensitivity to know the best next steps to take self-motivated learning. I certainly felt this way growing up. As much as I enjoyed reading or visiting museums, it was often very opportunistic. I went through a great many dry spells where I “didn’t know what to read next.”

I realize there is disagreement on this issue. For example, Hick writes about “Education 3.0“:

Pushing the idea further, this kind of “new curriculum” would not simply some abstract matter of curiosity and whimsy, where we throw out any and all learning goals and let students run about, but rather a redefining of what students “study”–goals based on the student, their history, their passions, and their networks and native geographical communities.

Here, the curriculum is authentically personalized, based on thinking and making (which is internal and intrinsic) rather than an ability to parrot a carefully choreographed “performance” (which is not).

Perhaps scholars like Neil Postman, or experiences teaching unmotivated undergraduates, have made me skeptical of a typical student’s ability to take the reins of their education. It’s also possible that I’m over-defending what seems to be an attack on higher education (where columnists like Friedman declare that technology is the savior to the ills of higher education).

As an educational technologists, I naturally believe that technology can enhance education. As a constructivist, I value a learner-centered approach. In the end, I think we should make a reasoned call to better define the strengths of a traditional, residential education — either to see how technology might enhance face-to-face learning, or to better understand the residential experience’s place in the new educational landscape. I still believe the idea of the learning “map” plays a key place in organ, and I hope to develop some thoughts about how it might reconcile

No path for badging (or MOOCs)

Khan Academy Learning Dashboard

Yesterday I (virtually) attended a great chat with Sal Khan of the Khan Academy. I posed a question that was fortunate enough to be aggregated with others. When asked about the “knowledge map,” Sal responded that it is where they are “investing most heavily.”

My guess is, the Khan Academy folks are investing because they have already grasped what badging and MOOC proponents have not — single courses or competencies do not translate to deep learning.

If you’re not familiar with the Knowledge Map, it’s a tool that plots the relationship between related concepts in a given subject (currently math). A learner can thus use the map to forge a path to higher levels of learning in that subject, or to move down to more foundational topics when they find themselves in too deep.

Thus, the Knowledge Map forms the curriculum for self-paced, online learning. Without the clear path that a curriculum provides, a learner can have a difficult time knowing what they do not know — or where best to expand their knowledge.

Currently, MOOCs and badge/competency-based programs largely have not addressed this problem. Learners pick courses based on interesting titles, or notable teachers. As good as many of the online programs might be, without a surrounding curriculum many learners hop from one interest area to another.

Certainly badges play a role as a new form of certifying achievement in a discrete subject area (and in motivating learning). MOOCs also play a great role of opening access to great course content.

Yet, on their own, badges and MOOCs foster dilettantism in learning. Students who have taken this approach in traditional higher education have traditionally not been successful. It stands to reason that online learners working on their own might reach a similar fate.

A digital liberal education?

An interesting debate has sprung up between seasoned and visionary minds in education: Stanley Fish and Daphne Koller. I won’t strive to summarize their arguments here, but would instead suggest that it’s best to reflect on them in their entirety.

I will confess that I’m sympathetic to Fish’s long-standing esteem for the liberal model of higher education, and I agree with his criticism that newer digital models lean too heavily towards fact and skill at the sacrifice of knowledge and wisdom. Fish doesn’t use the term “information transmission” in his criticism – but I would contend that this is exactly what he is getting at. By focusing on teaching students facts, we neglect critical life skills that traditionally have been imparted through higher education (though, historically to a chosen few).

Koeller, however, counters with an excellent point that online lectures are a better use a professors time (though I know quite a few that prefer a face-to-face performance to a “cold” recording). Koeller cites UW-Madison as an example of where flipping a classroom can benefit student learning. 

Though flipping may improve outcomes which are tightly defined (skills and knowledge), one wonders how much improvement if any is gained for the knowledge and wisdom. Knowledge and wisdom are two aspects of life development that I am skeptical can happen outside of a residential education.

Perhaps there is value in both arguments – we can find a balance in effectively using the Internet to transmit knowledge and to improve interpersonal communication, while still providing opportunities to develop these more intangible skills. Broadly defined learning outcomes (like the LEAP Value rubrics) may also offer ways to fine tune the college experience, both on and offline.

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