Tech 4 Learners – Final – Advice to a Future Learning Tool Designer

“Activities, tasks, functions, and understandings do not exist in isolation; they are part of broader systems of relations in which they have meaning. These systems of relations arise out of and are reproduced and developed within social communities, which are in part systems of relations among persons. The person is defined by as well as defines these relations. Learning thus implies becoming a different person with respect to the possibilities enabled by these systems of relations. To ignore this aspect of learning is to overlook the fact that learning involves the construction of identities.” (Lave and Wenger, 1991, Ch. 2)

Regardless of your current profession and experience, you have been impacted by education and technology. As we progress in our society, we must think how might we deliver the best educational content, implement the most effective teaching methodologies (pedagogy), and the utilize tools that engage both learners and educators in meaningful learning experiences. Education is one of the most complex issues in our society and has been since the beginning of civilization. Without education, how does a community, a company,  a country, and the human race progress? This paper, along with the Pedagogical Compass ( will present an overall view of who are the stakeholders, how education happens for educators, how learning happens, and what might we select as relevant content for the future.

Even if you are not directly involved in education, you certainly have faced the need to teach someone, explain how something works, train a new employee, present your research, your work, or your thoughts. With this in mind, we propose to look at educational tools with a set of lenses that might provide an encompassing view when designing effective learning tools. The Pedagogical Compass looks at what we teach (North), how we teach (South), how we learn (East), and who we learn from (West). Through these four cardinal positions we might facilitate and hopefully stir your thought processes based on current research, learning theories, and experiments done in the field.

If we look at user experience designers, we generally consider a tool’s graphical layout, the affordances provided by the tool, it’s usability or ease of use, and finally the service and/or outcome the tool offers. Game designers go a step further in looking at how the user repetitively engage with the tool, reward systems, and how the gamer learns and progresses in the gameplay. One effective framework to use is the “Core Loop” which looks at every step of engagement one has within a game. It involves a cycle which starts with 1) assessment of the current scenario, 2) choosing the correct action, 3) aiming your action appropriately, 4) launching your action, 5) being rewarded (or not) by the consequences of your action. Once rewarded, you go back to step 1 where you assess your next move. By identifying the elements in each of the loop’s nodes we are able to better visualize the process and hopefully improve it. What happens between these nodes should also be considered in order to change the speed of the loop’s cycle.

This approach can be particularly useful in designing a learning tool. The learner, when engaging with new content or knowledge that must be acquired, will first assess what is known, what resources are available and what needs to be achieved. Second step is to choose a potential approach to absorbing the content such as reading, taking notes, and discussing the subject matter with colleagues. Once the action is chosen, one must aim at the appropriate content to engage with, launch your action and finally be rewarded by learning, understanding, and/or comprehending the content. We then continue back to the first step where we assess once again what we know, what we should do, how to apply it, take action, and be rewarded by the results. Yet designing a learning tool is not limited to the learner’s core loop. Learning happens to someone, within a social and cultural context, setup by a teacher, guide, or environment, and the interactions of these elements.

Going back to our Pedagogical compass, let’s first look at what we teach. Is it useful teaching quantum physics to a learner who’s talents lie primarily in the artistic realm? Will a certain content be helpful to get a job or to function better in society? It seems more than plausible to “focus what and how we teach to match what people need to know” (NETP, 2010). Therefore, when designing a learning tool, we must first consider the ultimate goal – the learning objective and outcomes. This approach has been coined by Walters & Newman, 2008 as backward design:

“This backward approach encourages teachers and curriculum planners to first think like an assessor before designing specific units and lessons, and thus to consider up front how they will determine whether students have attained the desired understandings.” (Walters & Newman, 2008)

“One starts with the end—the desired results (goals or standards)— and then derives the curriculum from the evidence of learning (performances) called for by the standard and the teaching needed to equip students to perform.” (Walters & Newman, 2008)

By preemptively defining how we will evidence the intended learning, we might do a better job when designing and refining each step and activity along the learning/teaching experience.

Now that we have our learning plan in place, how might we effectively transmit this to our learners? How do we teach more effectively? Can we simply use technology to do so? Can we eliminate the teacher from the process? This technocentric approach, where one believes that technological tools alone will transfer knowledge to students is widely criticized. Yet technology makes us rethink education and the role of the teacher in a more profound way:

“Combating technocentrism involves more than thinking about technology. It leads to fundamental re-examination of assumptions about the area of application of technology with which one is concerned: if we are interested in eliminating technocentrism from thinking about computers in education, we may find ourselves having to re-examine assumptions about education that were made long before the advent of computers. (One could even argue that the principal contribution to education made thus far by the computer presence has been to force us to think through issues that themselves have nothing to do with computers.) ” (Papert, 1987)

Therefore we must not only look at the tool but how we use it, and how we interact with the learners when engaging with the content. Learning is a continuous process, a technique acquired that will leverage further and future learning – learning how to learn. Learning that it is possible. One is not born with a certain and immutable level of intelligence. Believing this fixed notion of intelligence is potentially harmful and limits learners to put in the effort into the task. If the learner believes that progression is not possible, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The simple act of praising or criticizing one’s ‘intelligence level’ instead of nurturing the process of learning may prevent learners from having a ‘growth mind-set’ and promoting self-guided interest in development of one’s knowledge base:

“I think educators commonly hold two beliefs that do just that. Many believe that (1) praising students’ intelligence builds their confidence and motivation to learn, and (2) students’ inherent intelligence is the major cause of their achievement in school. Our research has shown that the first belief is false and that the second can be harmful—even for the most competent students. ” (Dweck, 2007)

“Understanding that interest can develop and that it is not likely to develop in isolation is essential. Further articulating the contribution of interest to student learning and its relation to other motivational variables has potentially powerful implications for both classroom practice and conceptual and methodological approaches to the study of interest. ” (Hidi & Renninger, 2006)

Now that we have glossed over what we should learn and how we might teach it, we can look at how do we actually learn. Learning is a natural and innate process. We learn how to speak, how to walk, how to interact with our environment, and how to behave in society. We learn not only in formal environments such as schools and training centers, but also in the interaction with others. If we look at children playing video games, research shows that they are naturally learning how to play the game, how to collaborate, and interact with each other with the goal of enriching their experience:

“For these reasons, we do not appeal to the games-are-highly-motivating explanation, but we do see a reason that young people play games and get them tangled up with the rest of their lives, and this reason is cultural. The phrase that best helps us explain it comes from one of our participants, Mikey, who in talking about games said, “It’s what we do.” The “we” he was referring to was kids these days, the young people of his generation.” (Stevens, Satwicz, McCarthy, 2008)

Another powerful concept is that we learn by teaching. What better way to understand a concept but to explain it to someone else? Not only must we utilize our metacognition to access the key elements, but we must articulate in a clear manner so that others can grasp the knowledge at hand. On top of that, humans naturally seem to care more about helping others than helping themselves. An increased level of responsibility and engagement with the content when teaching others is tapped into – it’s called the Protégé Effect. The research looked at how children taught a Teachable Agent (TA) and how this affected their own content acquisition.

“We then introduce TAs, which combine properties of agents and avatars. This sets the stage for two studies that demonstrate what we term the protégé effect: students make greater effort to learn for their TAs than they do for themselves.” (Chase, Chin, Oppezzo, Schwartz, 2009)

“Given our hypothesis that the protégé effect is due to social motivations, we would expect students in the programming condition to be less inclined to acknowledge ” (Chase, Chin, Oppezzo, Schwartz, 2009)

Finally, but not less importantly, we should look at who we learn from, beyond the teacher in it’s most traditional definition. Research shows, along with our common knowledge, that we learn from our peers, from our environment, from the media that we consume and the interactions we engage in while doing so: Joint Media Engagement – the new co-viewing (Takeuchi and Reed Stevens, 2001):

“The variety of ways that we saw young people arrange themselves to play games surprised us, especially since most of these ways were interpersonally and emergently organized by the young people themselves.” (Stevens, Satwicz, McCarthy, 2008)

“Parents, teachers, and other adults may wish to share educational resources with their children, but teaching with media and new technologies doesn’t always come naturally, not even for experienced instructors. Provide guidance for the more capable partner in ways that don’t require a lot of prior prep or extra time, actions that can help ensure that the intended benefits of the resource are realized. ” (Takeuchi and Reed Stevens, 2001)

With this is mind, the role and actions of the teacher is greatly expanded and complicated since it must consider not only what is happening inside the classroom but also outside the classroom. Engaging students, triggering and maintaining their interest in the content is a great challenge that can be modeled by the Four-Phase Model of Interest Development developed by Hidi & Renninger, 2006, which looks deeply into how interest progresses from an initial casual level of engagement to a more deeply involvement with the subject matter, where the teacher’s role is to provide positive feelings towards the content, generate curiosity to encourage further research, provide opportunities for learning by offering content and pointers towards meaningful resources, and a guide on research to enable learning progression. By providing this, the interest level of a learner will move from Triggered Situational Interest to Maintained Situational Interest to Emerging Individual Interest and finally to a Well Developed Individual Interest.

Designing learning tools might be the most complex challenge we face in our society, not only from a pedagogical standpoint. We must look at the scalability of teaching, content relevance, socio-cultural implications, cognitive developmental stages, interaction with peers, policy, assessments, teacher professional development, costs, and implementation – to list a few. We invite you to become part of this ever evolving field, take on the challenge of creating a better future for humanity, develop, implement and research how might we help spreading knowledge across the world in an effective, considerate and meaningful way. We need designers, teachers, engineers, developers, psychologist, philosophers, doctors, lawyers, leaders, and anyone with a desire and drive to share knowledge and improve the tools we have to do so.