The Future of Educational Technology

It’s my job to stay on top of educational technology. In the last two months alone, I’ve attended huge ed tech conferences like SXSW.edu and ASU+GSV, each with hundreds of well-funded new ed tech ventures. But I’ve been constantly disappointed, because almost none of this ed tech innovation is grounded in the science of how people learn. Of the 2,500 people at ASU+GSV, less than ten of them were learning scientists, and only two of the speakers on the program had any claim to such expertise. (Less than 50 people showed up to hear what they had to say.)

Just a few days ago, Bror Saxberg, the Chief Learning Officer at Kaplan, published an important article noting this same problem, and making a strong claim: technology will not help people learn, until ed tech developers start to work closely with learning scientists.

This is a key problem: Almost no one who is involved in creating learning materials or large-scale educational experiences relies on the evidence from learning science.

Saxberg says what we need are learning engineers–professionals who can apply learning sciences research. And ed tech companies don’t have them; instead, ed tech developers “are essentially using their intuition and personal experience with learning rather than apply existing science.”

I agree with Saxberg, and that’s why I’m creating a new master’s degree program, at the University of North Carolina, in educational innovation, technology, and entrepreneurship–to create this new generation of “learning engineers”.

This morning, Daphne Koller, the President of Coursera, published an article in the Wall Street Journal that makes an important point:

The “sage on the stage” at a university will no longer be a common mode of delivery. In the classroom–whether physical or virtual–we will see more attention given to group projects, conversations and applied learning, with lecture content going the way of textbooks as something experienced in preparing for class. At the same time, universities will devote considerably more effort to activities that occur outside the classroom, be it research, individual mentoring by faculty or senior students, team activities, volunteering, internships, study abroad…

I predict that in two decades, lecture halls will no longer be used. Not because of cost, or technology, or student preference, or high professor salaries, or because “they don’t scale”–but because the science of learning shows that lecture is an ineffective pedagogical technique. But this doesn’t mean the future of college is online, because the same learning sciences research shows that MOOCs are ineffective. Let’s hope that ed tech innovators increasingly work with learning sciences researchers: that’s the future of educational technology.

Why Hollywood Comedies Look Improvised

The short answer is: It’s because they ARE improvised!

But there has to be a longer answer, because improvisation is famously unreliable. When the actors are at their peak, nothing is funnier, more pure in essence, than spontaneous improvisation. But a big-budget movie has to be good all the way through; every minute has to be perfect. And although I’m a huge fan of improvisation, I have to admit: it’s the opposite of perfect.

Improvisation creates spontaneous magic, but by definition it’s slapdash and unrefined.

The New York Times Sunday Magazine just published a story that reveals how Hollywood channels improvisation to be reliably funny: directors ask the actors to improvise the same scene, over and over again. And then, they hire an editor like Brent White, who combs through hours and hours of improvised digital video clips to select the funniest takes out of an improvised mess:

White’s career coincides with the rise of improvisation as a technique central to Hollywood comedy-making, and his adeptness at giving shape and rhythm to wild excesses of off-the-cuff material put him at the front of his field.

White’s first big hit was the 2004 comedy “Anchorman,” directed by Adam McKay (who I videotaped, long ago, as part of my research at the ImprovOlympic theater, when McKay was improvising as a member of the group called The Family). White has done many of the Adam McKay/Will Ferrell movies, but also Adam Sandler movies and Seth Rogen movies.

Because directors these days use multiple cameras to film every scene, doing improvisation on set results in a huge amount of digital video data. You could only edit in this way recently, when the cost of video data storage has declined dramatically. I love this line from the article:

White’s duties oscillate between those of a gem carver and those of a bricklayer–it’s one thing to perfect a single joke, quite another to assemble a series of these into a movie that stands up straight.

“Bricklayer” because White can’t just choose one single funny line; he has to shape the whole movie, so that the funny lines he selects build together. The funniest line in one scene might not blend well with the funniest line in the next scene, so you have to make compromises. White says “there are all those great things that we wind up taking out.”

White’s most awesome brilliance is choosing the pace and timing between lines of dialogue. Sometimes, adding a second–or taking one out–gets an unexpected laugh. As Director Paul Feig once told him, “sometimes, you just create a joke out of nothing.”

A New Trend: Educating Entrepreneurs

A Chronicle of Higher Education story reports on a nationwide trend I’ve been studying myself: the increasing proliferation of entrepreneurship classes for college undergraduates (April 20, 2015, “Now everyone’s an entrepreneur.”). Lots of students love the classes, because they combine fun and creative activities with hands-on internships and links to interesting job opportunities. They also send a message of empowerment that’s popular with today’s students: “You can make a difference, you can change the world.” As the Chronicle article puts it, “entrepreneurship offers the creativity and independence that traditional careers seem to lack.”

College leaders and supporters love it, too, because it provides an important rationale for the modern university: It’s a source of economic growth, a way to commercialize innovations that create value for the region and the country. This is the argument made by Holden Thorp and Buck Goldstein, of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in their book Engines of Innovation. And in fact, way back in 2009, Carolina was one of the first universities to embed innovation and entrepreneurship throughout all academic units, not just in the school of business–for example, by creating its entrepreneurship minor, and a “special assistant to the Chancellor” position in innovation and entrepreneurship, held since 2009 by Judith Cone, formerly of the Kauffman Foundation.

Beth McMurtrie, the author of the Chronicle article, writes with a mild underlying tone of skepticism. When it’s not done well, such programs can seem like “a superficial blend of buzz words and rosy promises.” They quote one professor saying, sensibly, that “it’s unrealistic to imagine that one or two classes will help a student become more entrepreneurial.”  They anonymously quote “some professors” worrying that “focusing on entrepreneurship gives students an exaggerated sense of their own power”.

I read this article closely, because here at Carolina I’m charged with creating entrepreneurship programs in our School of Education. I think this article does a good job of pointing out the potential strengths and also the potential ways that such programs can go wrong. I think we’re doing it right here in the School of Education. First of all, our programs will be graduate degrees for adults–for example, a master’s degree for experience professionals, who have some expertise and possibly, some valuable successes and failures already completed. My classes will focus on the science of creativity and innovation, on how to manage effective collaboration, how to foster innovative organizational designs and cultures–and how these come together to foster successful innovation and entrepreneurship. I’ll also be requiring a hands-on internship with a local innovative educational organization.

Because I study improvisational creativity, I love that “one lecturer likened teaching entrepreneurship to improvisational jazz” 🙂