Personalized Learning Versus Dungeons and Dragons

Personalized learning is popular right now. But is that a good or bad thing? I can buy all kinds of personalized gadgets online, but do I really like or need any of them? If you decided to get me a custom dinner place mat that says “Matt’s Grub” – sure that is personalized. But its also a pretty useless personalized item that I have no interest in.

Many prominent personalized learning programs/tools are a modern educational version of the Choose Your Own Adventure book series from the 1908s. As I have written before, these books provided a promise of a personalized adventure for the reader, which was entertaining for a while. But you were really just choosing from a series of 50 pre-written paths, hoping to pick one of the ones that led to a happy ending. Of course, If you happened to have any physical characteristics that were different than the ones written into the story (I remember a classmate that had shaved his head making fun of one page that had the main character doing something with his hair – yes they were sometimes gendered stories even), then the “your” in “Choose Your Own Adventure” fell flat.

ChooseYourOwnAdventure

These eventually evolved into more complex books like the Lone Wolf gamebooks that had you doing your own battles, collecting objects, and other activities that were closer to role playing games.

LoneWolf

But let’s face it – the true “Choose Your Own Adventure” scenarios in the 1980s were really role playing games. And few were as personalizable as Dungeons and Dragons.

Now, whether you love or hate D&D, or even still think it is Satanic… please hear me out. D&D, at least in the 80s, was personalizable because it was provide different pathways that were scaffolded. New players could start out with the Basic D&D boxset – which came with game rules, pre-designed characters, basic adventures to go on, etc. And that wasn’t even really the starting point. If basic D&D was too unstructured for you, there were books like the Dragonlance Chronicles or the Shannara series that would give you this completely guided tour of what D&D could look like. Oh, and even a Saturday morning cartoon series if the books were too much for you.

But back to D&D, once you mastered the Basic set, there were more sets (Expert, Companion, Master, and Immortal) – all of which gave you more power and control. Then, when you were ready (or if you found Basic D&D too pre-determined), there was Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. This was a set of books that laid out some basic ideas to create your own characters and worlds and adventures. And you were free to change, modify, add to, or completely re-invent those basics. Many people did, and shared their modifications in national magazines like Dragon Magazine. Oh, and what if you want to make your own world but are still unsure? You had a whole range of pre-designed adventures called Dungeon Modules. Just buy one, play, and get inspired to create your own. Or, maybe the opposite is true: you were just tired of your creation and wanted to take a break in someone else’s world.

add

To me, Dungeons and Dragons in the 1980s was a much better metaphor for what personalized learning should look like. You had completely mindless escapism entertainment (aka lectures) when you needed it, like the books and cartoons. You had the structured environment of Basic D&D to guide you through the basics (aka instructivism). You had a series of games and accessories like Dungeon Modules and Companion Sets to guide you (aka scaffold you) to the advanced stage. You had the Advanced books that set a basic structure for creating your own world (aka the Internet). Then you had a network of people sharing ideas and designs to keep new ideas flowing (aka connectivism). Many gamers would go back and forth between these various parts – creating their own world, sharing their ideas in the magazines, playing dungeon modules on occasion, reading the books, and dipping back to basic D&D when the mood hit them.

This scene from The Big Bang Theory shows how players can customize, adapt, and personalized the game experience, even as they play:

edugeek-journal-avatarOf course, there were problems with the gaming community. It was expensive, and often sexist and/or racist. So I am not painting the Dungeon and Dragons world of the 1980s as some perfect utopia. I am looking at the design of the tools and system here. It is one that in some fashion pre-ceded and informed what we are doing with pathways learning, and one that I think is closer to true “personalization” than what some personalized learning situations offer.

Personalized Learning Versus Dungeons and Dragons

Personalized learning is popular right now. But is that a good or bad thing? I can buy all kinds of personalized gadgets online, but do I really like or need any of them? If you decided to get me a custom dinner place mat that says “Matt’s Grub” – sure that is personalized. But its also a pretty useless personalized item that I have no interest in.

Many prominent personalized learning programs/tools are a modern educational version of the Choose Your Own Adventure book series from the 1908s. As I have written before, these books provided a promise of a personalized adventure for the reader, which was entertaining for a while. But you were really just choosing from a series of 50 pre-written paths, hoping to pick one of the ones that led to a happy ending. Of course, If you happened to have any physical characteristics that were different than the ones written into the story (I remember a classmate that had shaved his head making fun of one page that had the main character doing something with his hair – yes they were sometimes gendered stories even), then the “your” in “Choose Your Own Adventure” fell flat.

ChooseYourOwnAdventure

These eventually evolved into more complex books like the Lone Wolf gamebooks that had you doing your own battles, collecting objects, and other activities that were closer to role playing games.

LoneWolf

But let’s face it – the true “Choose Your Own Adventure” scenarios in the 1980s were really role playing games. And few were as personalizable as Dungeons and Dragons.

Now, whether you love or hate D&D, or even still think it is Satanic… please hear me out. D&D, at least in the 80s, was personalizable because it was provide different pathways that were scaffolded. New players could start out with the Basic D&D boxset – which came with game rules, pre-designed characters, basic adventures to go on, etc. And that wasn’t even really the starting point. If basic D&D was too unstructured for you, there were books like the Dragonlance Chronicles or the Shannara series that would give you this completely guided tour of what D&D could look like. Oh, and even a Saturday morning cartoon series if the books were too much for you.

But back to D&D, once you mastered the Basic set, there were more sets (Expert, Companion, Master, and Immortal) – all of which gave you more power and control. Then, when you were ready (or if you found Basic D&D too pre-determined), there was Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. This was a set of books that laid out some basic ideas to create your own characters and worlds and adventures. And you were free to change, modify, add to, or completely re-invent those basics. Many people did, and shared their modifications in national magazines like Dragon Magazine. Oh, and what if you want to make your own world but are still unsure? You had a whole range of pre-designed adventures called Dungeon Modules. Just buy one, play, and get inspired to create your own. Or, maybe the opposite is true: you were just tired of your creation and wanted to take a break in someone else’s world.

add

To me, Dungeons and Dragons in the 1980s was a much better metaphor for what personalized learning should look like. You had completely mindless escapism entertainment (aka lectures) when you needed it, like the books and cartoons. You had the structured environment of Basic D&D to guide you through the basics (aka instructivism). You had a series of games and accessories like Dungeon Modules and Companion Sets to guide you (aka scaffold you) to the advanced stage. You had the Advanced books that set a basic structure for creating your own world (aka the Internet). Then you had a network of people sharing ideas and designs to keep new ideas flowing (aka connectivism). Many gamers would go back and forth between these various parts – creating their own world, sharing their ideas in the magazines, playing dungeon modules on occasion, reading the books, and dipping back to basic D&D when the mood hit them.

This scene from The Big Bang Theory shows how players can customize, adapt, and personalized the game experience, even as they play:

edugeek-journal-avatarOf course, there were problems with the gaming community. It was expensive, and often sexist and/or racist. So I am not painting the Dungeon and Dragons world of the 1980s as some perfect utopia. I am looking at the design of the tools and system here. It is one that in some fashion pre-ceded and informed what we are doing with pathways learning, and one that I think is closer to true “personalization” than what some personalized learning situations offer.

Evolution of the Dual-Layer/Customizable Pathways Design

For the past few weeks, I have been considering what recent research has to say about the evolution of the dual-layer aka customizable pathways design. A lot of this research is, unfortunately, still locked up in my dissertation, so time to get to publishing. But until then, here is kind of the run down of where it has been and where it is going.

The original idea was called “dual-layer” because the desire was to create two learning possibilities within a course: one that is a structured possibility based on the content and activities that the instructor thinks are a good way to learn the topic, the other an unstructured possibility designed so that learners can created their own learning experience as they see fit. I am saying “possibility” where I used to say “modality.” Modality really serves as the best description of these possibilities, since modality means “a particular mode in which something exists or is experienced or expressed.” The basic idea is to provide an instructivist modality and a connectivist modality. But modality seems to come across as too stuffy, so I am still looking for a cooler term to use there.

The main consideration for these possibilities is that they should be designed as part of the same course in a way that learners can switch back and forth between them as needed. Many ask: ‘why not just design two courses?” You don’t want two courses as that could impeded changing modalities, as well as create barriers to social interactions. The main picture that I have in my head to explain why this is so is a large botanical garden, like this:

01216 Scene at Fort Worth Botanic Gardens

There is a path there for those that want to follow it, but you are free to veer off and make your own path to see other things from different angles or contexts. But you don’t just design two gardens, one that is just a pathway and one that is just open fields. You design both in one space.

So in other words, you design a defined path (purple line below) and then connect with opportunities to allow learners to look at the topic from other contexts (gold area below):

pathways1-1

You have a defined modality (the path), and then open up ways for people to go off the path into other contexts. When allowed to mix the two, the learner would create their own customized pathway, something like this:

pathways1-2

The problem with the image above is that this really shouldn’t only be about going off the walkway in the garden to explore other contexts. Learners should be allowed to dig under the walkway, or fly above it. They should be able to dig deeper or pull back for a bird’s eye view as needed. So that would take the model into a three dimensional view like this:

pathways2

(please forgive my lack of 3-D modeling skills)

Learners can follow the instructors suggested content or go off in any direction they choose, and then change to the other modality at any moment. They can go deeper, into different contexts, deeper in different contexts, bigger picture, or bigger picture in different contexts.

The problem that we have uncovered in using this model in DALMOOC and HumanMOOC is that many learners don’t understand this design. However, many do understand and appreciate the choice… but there are some that don’t want to get bogged down in the design choices. Some that choose one modality don’t understand why the other modality needs to be in the course (while some that have chosen that “other” modality wonder the same thing in reverse). So really, all that I have been discussing so far probably needs to be relegated to an “instructional design” / “learning experience design” / “whatever you like to call it design” method. All of this talk of pathways and possibilities and modalities needs to be relegated to the design process. There are ways to tie this idea together into a cohesive learning experience through goal posts, competencies, open-ended rubrics, assignment banks, and scaffolding. Of course, scaffolding may be a third modality that sits between the other two; I’m not totality sure if it needs to be its own part or a tool in the background. Or both.

The goal of this “design method” would be to create a course that supports learners that want instructor guidance while also getting out of the way of those that want to go at it on their own. All while also recognizing that learners don’t always fall into those two neat categories. They may be different mixtures of both at any given moment, and they could change that mixture at any given point. The goal would be to design in a way that gives the learner what they need at any given point.

Of course, I think the learner needs to know that they have this choice to make. However, going too far into instructivism vs. connectivism or structured vs. unstructured can get some learners bogged down in educational theory that they don’t have time for. We need to work on a way to decrease the design presence so learners can focus on making the choices to map their learning pathway.

So the other piece to the evolution of this pathways idea is creating the tools that allow learners to map their pathway through the topic. What comes to mind is something like Storify, re-imagined as a educational mapping tool in place of an LMS. What I like about Storify is the simple interface, and the way you can pull up a whole range of content on the right side of the page to drag and drop into a flowing story on the left.

storify

I could image something like this for learners, but with a wide range of content and tools (both prescribed by the instructor, the learner, other learners, and from other places on the Internets) on the right side. Learners would drag and drop the various aspects they want into a “pathway” through the week’s topic on the left side. The parts that they pull together would contain links or interactive parts for them to start utilizing.

For example, the learner decides to look at the week’s content and drags the instructor’s introductory video into their pathway. Then they drag in a widget with a Wikipedia search box, because they want to look at bigger picture on the topic. Then they drag a Twitter hashtag to the pathway to remind themselves to tweet a specific question out to a related hashtag to see what others say. Then they drag a blog box over to create a blog post. Finally, they look in the assignment bank list and drag an assignment onto the end of the pathway that they think will best prove they understand the topic of the week.

The interesting thing about this possible “tool” is that after creating the map, the learner could then create a graph full of artifacts of what they did to complete the map. Say they get into an interesting Twitter conversation. All of those tweets could be pulled into the graph to show what happened. Then, let’s say their Wikipedia search led them to read some interesting blog posts by experts in the field. They could add those links to the graph, as well as point out the comments they made. Then, they may have decided to go back and watch the second video that the instructor created for the topic. They could add that to the graph. Then they could add a link to the blog post they created. Finally, they could link to the assignment bank activity that they modified to fit their needs. Maybe it was a group video they created, or whatever activity they decided on.

In the end, the graph that they create itself could serve as their final artifact to show what they have learned during the course. Instead of a single “gotcha!” test or paper at the end, learners would have a graph that shows their process of learning. And a great addition to their portfolios as well.

Ultimately, These maps and graphs would need to be something that reside on each learners personal domain, connecting with the school domain as needed to collect map elements.

When education is framed like this, with the learner on top and the system underneath providing support, I also see an interesting context for learning analytics. Just think of what it could look like if, for instance, instead of tricking struggling learners into doing things to stay on “track” (as defined by administrators), learning analytics could provide helpful suggestions for learners (“When other people had problems with _____ like you are, they tried these three options. Interested in any of them?”).

edugeek-journal-avatarOf course, I realized that I am talking about upending an entire system built on “final grades” by instead focusing on “showcasing a learning process.” Can’t say this change will ever occur, but for now this serves as a brief summary of where the idea of customizable pathways has been, where it is now (at least in my head, others probably have different ideas that are pretty interesting as well), and where I would like for it to go (even if only in my dreams).

#2162-2301-002 Research Survey

In the near future, we will send out our end-of-course research survey in Qualtrics via your UTA email. The team would appreciate your feedback regarding the course design to facilitate updates to the upcoming iteration next semester. We appreciate your willingness to participate in the innovative and exciting learning elements, and we will share our results as the project continues to unfold. Thanks for being such an integral part of #2162-HIST-2301-002 and our study!

#2162-2301-002 Social Media Activities 3B

There are three options to earn up to 100 points (75 pts + 25 pts for commenting on other posts/tweets). Don’t forget the comments! =)

  1. Find a massive open online course (MOOC) that you would be interested to take. Focus on the period of study in our course. Include the course title, URL, and why you are interested in it. You can find MOOCs at edX, Coursera, etc. Add as a comment on the Facebook post or use the Twitter hashtag (may require multiple tweets).Blog
  2. If you choose to do a blog project, you can share your work here. Include the blog name, post title, and URL. Add as a comment on the Facebook post or use the Twitter hashtag (may require multiple tweets).

  3. Find an article or blog that is relevant to the Unit 3 material. Share the link, and provide a brief summary of the article/blog and how it relates to our course. Add as a comment on the Facebook post or use the Twitter hashtag (may require multiple tweets).

#2162-2301-002 Social Media Activities 3A

There are three options to earn up to 100 points (75 pts + 25 pts for commenting on other posts/tweets).

Palmyra

  1. Read the article in the tweet titled “Palmyra must not be fixed. History wouldn’t forgive us.” Then write if you agree or disagree with the arguments and why. Add as a comment on the Facebook post or use the Twitter hashtag (may require multiple tweets).Old books
  2. Find two quality social media websites that focus on the period of study in Unit 3 (ex: @medievalists on Twitter). Share the URL/username and a brief description for each. Add as a comment on the Facebook post or use the Twitter hashtag (may require multiple tweets).
  3. Find an article or blog that is relevant to the Unit 3 material. Share the link, and provide a brief summary of the article/blog and how it relates to our course. Add as a comment on the Facebook post or use the Twitter hashtag (may require multiple tweets).

Reclaim the Front Page of Your Learning Experience for #IndieEdTech

One of the most contested areas in online learning is what I sometimes call the “front page” – usually the user interface or splash page or whatever main area learners first see when they start a course/learning experience/etc (usually also the main area they have to come back to every time). Schools want to control the “front page” learners see first in their class (usually always the learning management system they paid big money for). Ed-Tech companies want to control the “front page” learners see when they use their product. Other non-educational websites that get used in education like Twitter or Facebook want to control the “front page” of what users see. Of course, the average learner uses many of these services and has to navigate through many tools that are trying to control what you see while they learn, to control the “front page” of their learning experience.

The “front page” is how companies gather data for analytics so they can monetize users. Think back to the major changes between MySpace and Facebook. As horrible as MySpace could look at times, users could insert CSS and control all manner of aspects of their front page. That control was a good thing, despite the eye sores it created from time to time. How can a company monetize a MySpace user page when users can completely remove portions of the page? How can a company monetize interactions when users rarely have to leave their “space” to interact with others? The changes between MySpace and Twitter/Facebook resolve a lot of those issues, and hence created the battle for the “front page” of users’ internet experience.

This may not seem to be a big deal to many, but as we have been researching learner agency by giving learners modality choice in a customizable modality pathway design (aka “dual-layer”), the “front page” becomes a very, very important space that existentially affects learner choice in major ways. The tool that learners begins a learning experience in becomes the place they are comfortable with, and they resist venturing past the “front page” of that tool. You might have run into this problem with, say, introducing Twitter into a course taught in Blackboard. Many learners start to complain that the Bb forums would work just fine. There is a stickiness to the front page that keeps learners in there and away from other tools.

Shouldn’t the learner be in control of this “front page?” Shouldn’t this “front page” display their map of what they want to learn? Shouldn’t the tools and content and things they want to learn with/from support this map, linking from the learners “front page” rather than competing with it?

This is pretty much the big problem we run into with the customizable modality pathway design. The “front page” control battle segments the learning process, pulls learners away, makes them comfortable with giving up control of that space, and enforces the status quo of instructor-controlled learning. Up to this point, we have been working on design and structure – all of which is, for better or worse, coalescing into a design theory/method of some kind. However, the technology is simply in the way most of the time, mainly because very few tools actually work to give the learner control. They mostly all attempt to put their tool in control, and by extension, the person (instructor and school admins) behind the tool in control as well.

edugeek-journal-avatarIn many ways, I think this issue connects to the Indie Ed-Tech movement. I’ll be blogging more about that over the next few weeks/months. I’ll need to cover how the technology that allows learners to reclaim the “front page” of their learning experience could look – turning the idea of a “Neutral Zone” into a learning map that learners build (and then connect artifacts to create a “portfolio” map of what they did). This will allow learners to mix and match what tools, services, course, etc they learn from, leading to alternative ways to prove/certify that they have specific knowledge and skills, fueled by owning their own domain, APIs, cool stuff, etc. Of course, since any work in Indie Ed-Tech needs a music reference, I will be taking up Adam Croom’s challenge for someone to write about grunge rock (not my favorite style of music – Audrey Watters already used that one – but a good genre to represent the angle I am going for). So, yes, I have a good dozen blog posts in mind already, so time to get cracking.

(image credit: “The Kids Don’t Stand a Chance” by Nina Vital)

#2162-2301-002 Social Media Activities 2B

There are three options to earn up to 100 points (75 pts + 25 pts for commenting on other posts/tweets).

Storify Logo

  1. Add the link to your Storify project if you chose to complete that assignment in Unit 2. Add as a comment on the Facebook post or use the Twitter hashtag (may require multiple tweets).pottery-from-museum-exhibit
  2. This class has included some additional information from fields like archaeology, anthropology, and art history in the class Twitter feed. How do you think that cross-disciplinary approaches strengthen knowledge? How could they weaken it? Finally, how could you see humanities fields such as these interacting with STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math)? (i.e. what could be the benefit to both?) Add as a comment on the Facebook post or use the Twitter hashtag (may require multiple tweets).Tweet
  3. Find an article or blog that is relevant to the Unit 2 material. Share the link, and provide a brief summary of the article/blog and how it relates to our course. Add as a comment on the Facebook post or use the Twitter hashtag (may require multiple tweets).

Will The “Best” Best Practice Please Step Forward?

Whenever educational discussions turn towards student agency, learner-centered learning, and other less-utilized (non-instructivist) strategies, several common questions/concerns are raised about going this route. One of the more important ones is how do we put learners in control when there are so many learning mediums? How do we pick which one is best?

This is a great question. We should always strive towards what is best for our learners. The problem with this question comes not really with the question but the context that one or a few mediums are “best” and that we as educators can pick correctly for all learners at all times.

“Best practices” is a term commonly used in this context, and a problematic concept for many reasons. One of the bigger problems being that “best” is not really an objective line in the sand. What is “best” is constantly changing based on context, goals, preferences, and many other factors.

For example, different learning modalities each have their own set of best practices. Do you want a stereotypical instructor-focused course with lectures and quizzes? There are many ways to do that correctly, and many ways to do that incorrectly. Very incorrectly..

Do you want problem-based learning? Our field knows a lot on how to do that correctly, and a lot on how to do that incorrectly. There is also a lot we don’t know. And all of that changes drastically if you want, say, a well-defined contextually specific problem versus an ill-structured problem.

Other modalities (connectivist, cognitivst, social, independent, etc) have their own set of best practices, and each set of best practices changes within each modality depending on what flavor of that modality you are choosing. And even then there are still so many best practices that it really dilutes the term “best practice” down to “do the good stuff and avoid the bad stuff and be cautious with all of the stuff that we aren’t sure where it fits.”

Of course, sometimes when we say “best”, we are referring to choosing the “best” overall modality for a course, or even better, a given module inside a course. Anyone that has taught will know that once you choose a modality, half your learners will like it, and the other half will complain: “Why do we have to do group work? Why can’t you just tell us what to do?” “Why do we have to listen to you tell us what to do? Why can’t we just go do it on our own?” “Why can’t I have a group to help me?” and so on (even if you don’t hear them, you know they are happening in your learners’ heads.)

The truth is that different learners need different modalities for different topics at different times, some times even changing from one day to the next based on a whole range of internal and external reasons.

This means that the best device for choosing the best modality for any given learner at any given time is the learner themselves.

This whole post was inspired by a few tweets today that I think sum up nicely what I am really getting at:

The general idea is that our education needs to shift towards teaching learners how to learn, how to adapt, how to choose their own modality as they learn. We need to focus more on how to be learners and not just what facts and skills to learn. You, teach a person to fish and all that. This is the basis of heutagogy – the process of learning how to learn, how to adapt, how to self-regulate towards self-determined learning.

In other words, how do we get back to putting the human at the center of the educational process instead of our favorite tools and modalities?

edugeek-journal-avatarOne practical way some are working on this idea is the custmozable modality pathway learning design (my term de jour for what we used to call dual-layer). Shameless plug warning! Last week I was able to successfully defend my dissertation on this idea (and there was much rejoicing!). So hopefully after a few months of revisions and edits I will soon be able to start publishing the results on how diverse and personalized learners’ pathways are once they are given the choice. The educational field in general so rarely gives much true learner choice or agency that the outcome of enabling that choice is pretty eye-opening.

#2162-2301-002 Social Media Activities 2A

There are three options to earn up to 100 points (75 pts + 25 pts for commenting on other posts/tweets).

      Nefertiti Image

  1. Read the article “Want to 3D Print Nefertiti?” (retweeted 2/29). What do you think about what they did? Should museums retain the rights to historical artifacts such as these? Why or why not? Add as a comment on the Facebook post or use the Twitter hashtag (may require multiple tweets). After posting, check out the post “The Nefertiti Hack: Digital Repatriation or Theft?” (retweeted 3/8). Does this change your opinion in any way?
    Gladiator Movie
  2. Have you seen a movie based in the period of study? If so, have you noticed anything that could have been historically inaccurate? What would it be? Are these “errors” harmful or harmless? Why? Add as a comment on the Facebook post or use the Twitter hashtag  (may require multiple tweets).
    Tweet
  3. Find an article or blog that is relevant to the Unit 2 material. Share the link, and provide a brief summary of the article/blog and how it relates to our course. Add as a comment on the Facebook post or use the Twitter hashtag  (may require multiple tweets).

Ancient History Meets Advanced Instructional Strategies