Engineering a 21st Century Education

As a game developer turned teacher, the one most difficult part of the transition was paper. I'm not even talking about the thousands of copies of handouts and worksheets for students. I'm talking about the paper that compromises the layers and layers of bureaucratic processes that any sufficiently large organization develops over time. The forms. The reports. The mundane paperwork that must be done to uphold the laws that govern the operation of a school.

I get it.

It's stuff that must be done.

The problem isn't that it exists, it's how schools deal with it. The school has limited resources available so it needs to get the most out of the resources it has. That makes sense, right? The school administration has ready access to a large number of highly trained, adaptable, resourceful, and intelligent individuals on hand with a wide range of skills covering every discipline imaginable. It has teachers.

I'm always more than happy to help when needed! I just get frustrated when I'm asked to perform work that could be reduced or eliminated by technology.

In my last post, I talked about school being a game and the need to meta-game it. One of the first issues that I think we need to talk about are "opportunity costs". Every hour that teachers spend on administrative tasks is an hour that is not being spent on teaching. Furthermore, these costs are recurring. If schools could automate 10 minutes worth of administrative tasks each day from a teacher's workload, they would save each teacher about 30 hours of work over the course of the year. That's a lot of time that teachers could reallocate towards improving instruction.

Teacher time is a valuable resource and finite one. Education needs to be engineered to get the most out of that time. Based on my short time as a teacher so far, here are some of the systems that I think could be optimized:

We need a complete "Electronic Individualized Educational Plan Record" system overhaul. The current generation of "Student Information Systems" is grossly insufficient to deal with the complexity of our educational legislation. Schools need to keep documented records of adhering to a student's legally entitled accommodations, and a significant amount this documentation is still being done on paper. We have the technology to design an educational record system that is secure, fault tolerant, and efficient. It would take an substantial initial effort, but imagine the time that it could save school staff in the long run.

We need a better "asset management system" for school property used by students. It's very frustrating to me as a teacher when I need to fill out carbon copied checkout lists for textbooks by hand in the year 2016. When a student doesn't return the textbook, I'm required to fill out another carbon copy form, manually address an envelop to the student's home, and put it in the mail bin for processing. Why isn't this process electronic yet? I should be able to snap a picture on my phone, press a button to assign it to a student or document its return, and everything else should be taken care of by a computer program. We clearly have the technology to do this.

We need a "behavioral intervention tracking and diagnostic system". The school keeps paper records of certain student behaviors such as tardy slips and misconduct reports -- which again are filled out by hand on carbon copy paper. There are also some cases where the teacher is expected to intervene in certain ways such as contacting the parent. The issue is that there are so many different rules that I need to keep track of and responses that I need to take to that data. We need a system that that can track behavior data from multiple sources and suggest interventions based on a statistical models of what has and has not worked for that student.

On top of moving from antiquated "pen and paper" systems, we also need to improve interoperability between the educational software we already use. There's some good ideas happening with the Tin Can API, but the support from technology providers just isn't there yet. I love to see new ideas in educational software! The problem is that some of these applications seem to neglect the teacher's experience with the product. We need to set higher standards for educational software.

Whenever my students complete a learning activity on the computer, it should automatically go into my grade-book. The grade-book should automatically flag any items that need to be manually graded, and the process of providing feedback to the student should be as stream-lined as possible. More detailed information about the student's performance should be stored into a database for later statistical analysis.

The other problem is the lack of standards regarding assessment items. For example, my students love Kahoot. I would totally use it way more if it were easier for me import multiple choice questions from an existing database. If I could program randomly generated questions in MyOpenMath, export them to a standardized format, and then import them into Kahoot, I would be one happy teacher.

I don't think any of these technologies are unrealistic. It's not like I'm asking for facial recognition software to replace hall passes or an artificially intelligent grader (although those would be kinda awesome too). If schools want to instill "21st Century Skills" in their students, they need to lead by example. In the "21st Century", knowing what processes can be automated by technology is a crucial skill to have. To do otherwise is a disservice to both teachers and students.

I used to think schools needed more games

I love games! I love playing them. I love making them. I love theorizing about them. They're an essential part of who I am as a person.

I used to think schools needed more games.

I was working as a video game developer and was fascinated by "tutorial levels". You know, that part of the game that is designed to help you learn how to play the game. Some games neglect their tutorial level and it comes off feeling like a dry lecture. Go here. Push button. Repeat. However, I've also been completely awed by some games that take their tutorial levels to a completely different level. Games like The Elder Scrolls and Guild Wars for example. The experience is so seamlessly integrated with the "game" that you don't even realize you're playing a tutorial. You just play. By the time you've completed the tutorial, you were totally immersed in the game and knew exactly what you needed to.

I used to think schools needed more games.

There's an certain authenticity to this learning that I never really experienced as a student. I thought if I could design the perfect "tutorial level" for math, then everything else would just fall into place. The students would have fun. They'd learn real mathematical concepts in a natural environment. They'd grow and develop as individuals and as a group. I'd be like a "math teacher" and "guild leader" all rolled into one (although I probably wouldn't run IWAY).

I used to think schools needed more games...

...and then I started teaching.

The problem is not that school doesn't have enough games, it's that school has too many games. Now, I'm not talking about the latest web app: Kahoot, Quizizz, Manga High, etc.. Those are certainly a type of game that has a place in school, although perhaps the number of apps is getting overabundant as well, but I'm talking about the games that are school. School itself is like a "Live Action Role Playing Game". Everyone invents their character, acts out their role, cooperates with some players, competes with others, and are rewarded or punished in accordance with the game master's rules.

Now school being RPG isn't a problem on its own. The problem is that there are a whole bunch of mini-RPGs being played simulatenously, and all of them have conflicting rules. Here is a short list of a few games that might be going on at a given time:

  • The students are playing a game with each other. They compete with each other for social status while cooperating against outside threats to their system.
  • The teachers are playing a game with their students. The teachers are trying to maximize student learning while the students are trying to minimize the work they have to do.
  • The administrators are playing a game with their teachers. The administrators are trying to maximize test scores while minimizing teacher burn-out.
  • The school board is playing a game with their administrators. The school board is trying to maximize community approval while minimizing school funding.
  • The parents are playing a game with their school board. The parents are trying to maximize the quality of education while minimizing the amount of attention paid to local elections.

Within these games, temporary alliances are made to accomplish mutual goals. Teachers and parents might cooperate to get students in for extra tutoring. Administrators and school boards might cooperate for better community awareness. Sometimes these alliances help the system as whole and sometimes they detract from it. It's one of the most complex network systems I've ever seen.

I used to think schools needed more games...

...and now I think schools need to have a closer look at the games that are already being played there.

In most of these games, competition is the dominant strategy. Students that are competing for limited scholarship funds have little incentive to help one another. Schools that receive funding based on standardized test scores have a very strong incentive to focus on instructional strategies that produce short-term results over long-term retention. School boards are underappreciated as a position of political power and tend to just "fly under the radar". Until we fix the reward systems so that they encourage cooperation, the games will continue to be frustratingly difficult for everyone involved.

We need to start meta-gaming school. We need to look at how the rules affect the relationships between players. We need to look how those rules can be changed to encourage more co-operation and less competition between the parties involved. Until we have these conversations, we're never going to win.