Saturday, July 14, 2007

That Damn YouTube!

For a decade, new Masters and Doctoral students in educational technology at Pepperdine University have experienced a "learning adventure" I created. Groups of relative strangers with diverse backgrounds, expertise and talents randomly draw a complex robotics challenge out of a hat. They then must design a robot to solve the problem on their sheet, program it in Logo and reflect on the learning experience.

The strength of this "learning adventure" lies in the following elements:
• The improvisational quality of the LEGO materials with which a bug causes you to reflect on your thinking, attempt new strategies and make adjustments while success inspires you to test a larger theory or expand on your invention.

• The activity creates a "level playing field" where despite differences in expertise, few adults are LEGO robotics champions.

• The activity is wildly interdisciplinary.

• The activity requires students to engage in math, science, engineering and computer science in a playful context.

• This is no mere "team building" activity. Collaboration is natural within the context of learning and constructing something of common value.

• Members of the community may learn from one another and achieve great results even when multiple projects are underway. In other words, it is NOT necessary for every student to be engaged in exactly the same task for the capacity of the community to grow.

• Students' eyes are opened to the larger potential of computers as intellectual laboratory and vehicles for self-expression.

For several years, students were required to videotape key moments of the invention process, edit the video and include it, along with a reflective journal of their learning process on the web. In other words, mid-career professionals could learn to engineer a robot, program it, shoot video, edit video, upload it to the web and create a web site complete with a reflective narrative, digital photographs and video clips - all in approximately 10 contact hours WITHOUT BEING TAUGHT.

How could that be? It's taken some schools 25 years to get teachers to check their email.

I'm developing a pedagogical theory to describe my work with children and adults in contexts like the robotics challenge. I call it, "A Good Prompt is Worth 1,000 Words."

That means that with:

1) A good challenge (ideally self-selected but in this case provided at random in the interest of time)

2) Substantial materials (not only bountiful in quantity, but possessing the quality of "objects-to-think-with)

3) Sufficient time (Stay up all night if necessary. Work again tomorrow...)

4) A supportive culture free of coercion, sorting, labeling and judging

It is possible to solve problems and do work of higher caliber or level of sophistication than you might otherwise have thought possible.

Every single person who has ever worked with me in such a context has collaborated to solve the problems in a way they can be proud of. That goes for five year-olds and 50 year-old doctoral students.

That Damn YouTube
I am reluctant to share examples of past student projects with current students for any number of reasons. Some students freak out and are overwhelmed. Some think the task is beneath them. Others might take steps to seek a competitive advantage and worst of all, "finished" projects from the past imply a correct answer or strategy. This limits creativity, divergent thinking and reduces the learning benefits of the activity.

I led a group of new Pepperdine doctoral students through the random robotics challenge today and something new occurred. Student teams had been given their randomly-chosen prompts (challenges) a few days ago so they could start thinking about execution strategies. During that time, a number of students searched YouTube for finished examples of such LEGO robotics projects. Remarkably, such video clips exist. This (mis)led several teams into thinking that they had "the correct answer" and may have dimished the richness of the learning adventure.

I don not consider this cheating. I encourage students to use any resources that help them learn. My world is open-book. They may just be cheating themselves.

Just because one solution is on YouTube hardly means that it's the best solution, but school conditions us to get done quickly and have THE right answer.

The Good News

This class of mid-career professional students solved complex robotics engineering and programming projects in just a few hours with no direct instruction. I didn't use a white board, black board or projector once. I did a 5-minute intro to the materials, answered questions, collaborated in brainstorming sessions on a team-by-team basis and suggested they ask other teams for assistance once those teams learned to solve similar problems.

One team even used YouTube in a personally meaningful way. They published a video of their magnificent invention. I just hope that the next class that comes along doesn't think that their solution is THE right answer!

My collection of LEGO challenges
Useful LEGO robotics reference materials
A small selection of videoclips from past student projects
A paper in which I explain the theory behind "learning adventures" and how I teach online - Towards a Pedagogy of Online Constructionist Learning

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  • LOL. I think it's great they actually USED the available time to figure things out. We just need to change the challenges so that the YOUTUBE stuff becomes a conceptual resource rather than a definitive answer.

    I think the next step is to design interlocking elements, that is, the object created by one group joins with the object created by another group to create a larger third thing.

    Oh wait... I think that's called manufacturing. ROFL.

    By Anonymous LindaX, At July 25, 2007 11:05 AM  

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