The Future of Education?

In a recent TED video, Salman Khan talks about his Khan Academy, which evolved from a few YouTube videos into a whole library of videos plus resources for teachers to track student progress. The idea is that teachers can assign video lectures for homework and save classroom time for more individualized guidance.

The amount of data available is truly impressive. The program tracks how well students are doing on a host of concepts (e.g., fractions or decimals), and teachers can even see how long it took a student to answer online test questions and which ones he got right.

A lot of the comments on TED.com question whether Khan Academy is truly a reinvention of education, since it uses a common technology (video) and common practices (like focusing on one-on-one tutoring and remediation). What strikes me as interesting is that the teacher role, though changed, is not eliminated. But visions of futuristic education usually involve students learning from online video, and not going to school. Is that realistic?

Khan’s talk suggests that it might be. In addition to teachers helping struggling students, his program can facilitate interactions between students. Students could connect with peers who have mastered a subject and even view their “reputation” (which I assume means comments or ratings from other struggling students who have learned from them). An education system that went fully online would require such peers—young or old—to provide help to those who have trouble learning from video content alone.

Would this be a good thing? I once spoke with someone who was starting a college, and asked her about online education. She replied that in-person interaction is vital for students because it allows them to witness the teacher interacting with others, demonstrating virtues of character in action. It gives them a role model. This relates to a broader view of education as growth as a person, not simply growth in knowledge. Fully online education may mean that parents have a greater responsibility for this aspect of their children’s development.

The Game of Life

According to this new TED talk from TEDxBoston by Seth Priebatsch, there is a “game layer” under construction in the world, and we should all care about how it’s getting built.

The game layer is a framework for interacting with other people that allows us to influence their behavior.  This framework involves various dynamics: the appointment dynamic requires players to return at a predetermined time; the influence and status dynamic manages players’ behavior through social pressure; the progression dynamic allows players to advance gradually through stages or steps; the communal discovery dynamic calls upon an entire community to solve a problem.

For example, restaurants set up happy hours that draw in customers at particular times; the color of credit cards varies with their spending limit, making us desire the prestige of a gold card; LinkedIn warns us that our profile is only 85% complete, an incentive to finish filling it in.

It would be interesting to explore how individual agency operates in this dynamic.  Presumably, people will not change their behavior unless it is to their advantage to do so; happy hour draws us in because the deals are pretty awesome.  But Priebatsch hints at an interesting phenomenon: sometimes, people get sucked into the game and act against their interests.  If Farmville required players to water their plants every half hour, he claims, people would do so, to the detriment of their productivity elsewhere.

So why do games appeal to us, and how do they affect our ability to make good decisions?  Why kinds of new skills do we need to live in this game world?


Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happinesses?

In this TED talk, psychologist Daniel Kahneman explains that we have two selves – the “experiencing” and the “remembering” self – who experience life in totally different ways.

The experiencing self is the self in the present, feeling sad or happy, feeling pain or pleasure, sobbing or smiling.  The remembering self is the self reflecting on the past, evaluating a past experience or how life is going in general.

As it turns out, our reflections on the past don’t line up with how we actually experienced it.  In a study of patients undergoing an uncomfortable medical procedure, those in group A experienced a high amount of pain for a short time, while those in group B experienced pain for double the time, beginning high and ending low.  When asked later how painful the experience was, however, patients in group A said it was much worse than patients in group B.

Similarly, people going on a two-week vacation have twice as much fun as people on a one-week vacation – their experiencing selves, that is.  But ask them later how the vacation went, and their remembering selves barely favor the longer vacation.  What matters to the remembering self are significant moments, changes, and endings – and that second week in Aruba was pretty much the same as the first.

According to Kahneman, this yields two notions of happiness: the happiness of our experiencing self and the satisfaction of our remembering self.  Experiencing selves tend to enjoy things like spending time with friends and family, while remembering selves care more about income and long-terms goals.

So simple, but so radical.  To me, this lines up neatly with short-term vs. long-term happiness.  I (my experiencing self) might enjoy relaxing by the pool this weekend, but perhaps some freelance work would make me (my remembering self) better off.  So we should always remember which self we’re trying to satisfy with any given activity, and be sure that we don’t neglect either one.  This also applies when comparing two short-term pleasures.  Though our experiencing self might prefer an hour-long massage, we should consider that a shorter one will seem almost as good after the fact.

So how long are you taking off for vacation?