Tag Archives: project based learning

Goals of An “Online” Education

Jeannette Wei, great mom and teacher extroardinaire

I had lunch with my mother today.  She’s 82-years old, but Jeannette Wei still teaches every day at an elementary school in Palo Alto, CA, then commutes into San Francisco to tutor Chinese immigrant children (she’s an immigrant herself) three times a week.  Yes, she’s a saint.

She’s also an amazing teacher (recognized as a California Distinguished Teacher with a Master Teacher accreditation) at a very innovative public school.  Much of her teaching philosophy has influenced our educational values at Nuvana — most of it based on listening to children, respecting them and empowering them.

Today, she handed Jeff and me a yellow postcard which, at first glance, I thought said:  “Goals of an Online Education.”  Here it is:

Ohlone Elementary School’s education goals

It took me a while before I realized it didn’t say “Online.”  It said “Ohlone” — the name of the elementary school she teaches at and it’s a very special place.  You can tell by reading their educational goals:

Self-Awareness—Our children will have positive self-images and know their strengths and challenges.

Independent Thinking—Our children will have a growth mindset, think for themselves, act responsibly and be resilient.

Time Management—Our students will manage their time wisely, focus on quality work and take responsibility for their own learning.

Democratic Values—Our children will realize the meaning of democratic values and give voice to their principles through their words and actions.

Tolerance and Compassion—Our children will show compassion for others and value different perspectives.

Citizenship and Community—Our children will understand their places in the global community and care about the environment.

Lifelong Learning—Our children will view learning as a lifelong process that will enrich their lives.

“Physical Awareness—Our children will be aware of, and comfortable with, their own bodies.

Risk Taking/Creativity—Our children will be comfortable taking risks to express their creative selves.”

A pretty impressive set of goals.  And certainly works for ‘Online” education too, don’t you think?

Okay, mom — we’ll do our best to embed those goals into our online educational tools.

And I promise to also read more carefully!

— JvK

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Sustaining Transformation

When trying to create positive behaviors, ecstatic positive transformation is usually not that hard of an event to create.  It can happen in an instant at a religious ceremony, a self-help workshop, a music festival, a New Year’s party (“This year, I’m definitely going to quit smoking!”), a university classroom…even at a gym workout session.

These moments are powerful, visceral and life-changing.

The question is, how can we sustain those transformations?  And even more important, how can we share and inspire others to undergo the same transformation?

Because we all know what happens after corporate retreats, or self-help workshops, or New Year’s resolution declarations…

They go kaput.

According to corporate consultant Tom Connellan, 25% of New Year’s resolutions are forgotten in the first week, and by the end of the year — a whopping 88% are abandoned!

Again, transformation is not the problem.

Sustaining it IS!

In recent weeks, as we’ve been demo-ing the new Nuvana MVP, many have been telling us that the ability to sustain behavioral transformation is a particular strength of our platform.  That by socially-networking a transformation community in a gamified context, the MVP sustains new positive behaviors, even when the behavior is difficult, or on it’s own, not particularly pleasurable (i.e. quitting smoking, breaking obesity habits, going to school, working harder, overcoming fear).  The context of the game PLUS actions witnessed by the social network of the transformation community results in an overall pleasurable experience that drives the player to repeat the effort.

What is a transformation community?  Well, the more we talk to folk, the more it seems just about any community of positive practice is aiming itself at transformation.  Learning communities (i.e. schools, universities, research orgs), for-profit and non-profit businesses looking to improve their methods and attract more customers, health organizations trying to re-vamp behaviors, event organizers looking to grow and impact — they are ALL in the business of transformation, either of their cohorts or constituents.

One organizer we’ve been talking to is well-known for the collective intellectual epiphanies they generate at their exclusive workshop event that borders on the ecstatic.  Attendees return to their workplace full of energy, ideas and inspiration, but are unable to share what they’ve learned with co-workers who did not attend.  With the Nuvana MVP, not only can these “evangelists” share their experience, even while they’re attending the event, but they can also collaborate with other attendees who they normally would lose contact with, long after the event is over, no matter what the physical distance — resulting in deeper investigation of issues, the sharing of best practices, seeding real world impacts, drawing in like-minded supporters, all while creating compelling testimonial content for the original organizer.

We’ll be gathering data on the effectiveness of our tool in different contexts, but initial indicators are very positive.  Stay tuned for case studies.

—  JvK

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Sowing the Learning Environment

In almost every game, just like a good story, there is a beginning, middle and an end.  We’ve talked before a bit about “win states” and “failure states” which are, of course, end game events.  Since Nuvana games revolve around mission-based activities, our opening gambit is almost always a call to action.  What we’ve noticed over the years, is that if the gaming environment is prepared in certain ways, the more successful the learning outcomes.  It really doesn’t matter if the environment is in a school, in a business, or an organization, there are certain qualities that create optimum pre-launch conditions.

First off, the environment has to be safe.  A good call to action challenges players to engage in actions that are often outside their comfort zone.  In fact, in our opinion, the definition of a good learning community — whether a school, a workplace, or an affinity group — is one in which the environment feels safe enough for the learners to accept even the most demanding challenges that will likely end in failure.  Furthermore, in a safe community, players feel comfortable about sharing everything from best practices to authentic feelings to constructive criticism.

That said, when we began creating Nuvana games, our team spent many hours debating on who should create these calls to action.  After all, generating calls to action is a tremendous responsibility and bestows upon the creator a considerable power.  You’re telling the community what to do.  You’re dictating their behavior.  Given that authority, one faction on our team felt that admin and experts should make up all the missions.  But another faction had a very different opinion.  They felt that the player community should also have that right to create missions.

If you’re familiar with any of our games, you know that it was the latter camp that won the day.  On every one of the games we’ve launched thus far, there is a subtle but radical feature common to them all:  there is a clickable button that reads:  “Suggest a mission.”

What we didn’t realize at the time we first embedded this button was how empowering this little button was to any playing community.  In most learning communities, it is a “Top Down” proposition.  The teacher or admin or the COO or the exec director or the expert tells the community, “This is what I need you to do to satisfy MY standards.  This is what I challenge you to do.”  But in one fell swoop, the Suggest-a-Mission button flipped everything by fostering a “Bottoms Up” environment.  The player pool is able to tell admin, “Why don’t we do this!  THIS is what I’m interested in — and so should you!”

Essentially, the community was empowered.

The level of engagement went through the roof, even in subject areas that normally have minimal interest.  Rarely do we see flame wars or spamming in our games.  Mutual respect is the order of the day.  Liking and moderation is a much more intrinsic behavior rather than a frivolous activity because it actually means something coming from an engaged and committed community.  Instead of slacking off, players tend to exceed expectations.  And all because the player-base is empowered.  They are, in essence, owner-operators of the game along with admin.  You don’t vandalize your own property, right?  So too with learning communities:  by empowering the learners, they become the mentor/guides with real investment in the outcomes as they build social capital in the activity.

Dan Pink talks about this in his TED talk about motivation.  His cites scientific research that shows incentives like rewards and bonuses often diminish performance results.  (Another reason why I’m on the fence when it comes to badges.)  When it comes to driving higher performance, Pink believes it’s a matter of three triggers: autonomy, mastery, and purpose (especially if it’s higher purpose).  In results-only work environments (R.O.W.E.), employees who are given autonomy over their hours and the direction of their efforts, their productivity and work quality goes way up.  In other words, empowerment.  ROWE companies like Google and Pixar certainly prove out the strategy.

So back to what makes a good learning community:  it’s safe.  And it’s empowered.

What else?

Well, according to renowned high school, math teacher, Sam Calavitta, an effort-centric environment is key:  “Contrary to popular belief, brilliance is not a prerequisite for learning math. Rather, perseverance and diligence over time can certainly equalize — and even surpass innate ability,” said Calavitta, who has taught everything from remedial math to advanced calculus. “I teach my students to never, never, never give up!”  In the jargon of psychologist Carol Dweck, this philosophy is the essence of “growth mindset” — where recognition of effort leads to authentic learning and mastery.

And lastly (at least for now), let’s not forget fun.  When the learning environment is fun, the play leads to innovation and inspiration.  We see this in the workplace, like Pixar and Ideo.  We see it in schools, like MIT’s Media Lab and Carnegie Mellon.  More on this in a subsequent post.

For now, before launching any kind of digital media learning project, think about prepping the space first.  Make it:





As we all know:  we reap what we sow.  Let us know what blossoms from your efforts and if you have any suggestions for “pre-launch conditions.”

— JvK

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Redefining Failure

I wrote a post a couple weeks back about “The Win State,” which in the world of game design is what makes a game, a game.  But that naturally mandates there’s such a thing as a “Failure State.”  We all know what that is.  Brutal when you’re in the thick of an awesome, invincible, controller twitch — and up comes that terrible prompt:  You lose.  Your character has died.  Game OVER!

Nothing to do but hit “Start over” and begin again.  That’s the beauty of a game.  You can always begin again.  And we do.  Because in the world of entertainment games, there really is no consequence for failure.

In the all-too-serious worlds of education, business, philanthropy, and sometimes, life in general…if you fail, in many instances — you’re done.  We see this in high schools throughout California where if you’re not white or well-to-do, the dropout rate is staggering (in 2009, the dropout rate was 37% if you were black, 27% if you were Hispanic, 25% if you were low-income).  Unlike Angry Birds, you can’t just hit the re-start button and jump back in for a do-over.

The reliance on standardized testing in American public education has fostered a learning structure that relies on right and wrong answers.  After all, in multiple choice tests, for any given question, there are not multiple correct answers.  There is only one.  Unfortunately, that wrong answer does not set off a subsequent line of inquiry on those STAR tests — and therefore, failure is a dead end.

But in the current circumstances of our ever-beleaguered real world, terminating effort due to defeat  is a frightening notion in that it can only lead to overall system failure.  If we give up, we’re goners.  But try solving the following problems with your first draft solutions:  over population, food and water shortages, environmental crises, economic schisms, wars fought with IED’s built from junk parts on the one hand and high tech drones on the other, global pandemics — not to mention, obsolete educational methodologies.

There are no single right answers to any one of these problems.  A myriad of strategies, quickly but thoughtfully deployed by nimble thinkers — and even more nimble AND effective doers — who must have no fear of failure is the only salvation in the current age.  It’s the only path to effective innovation.

The brilliant inventor and engineer, Charles Kettering had this to say about failure:  “Every great improvement has come after repeated failures. Virtually nothing comes out right the first time. Failures, repeated failures, are finger posts on the road to achievement. One fails forward toward success.”

To redefine failure, a wrong answer has to clearly be a temporary state on a longer path to re-invention, wisdom and eventual success.  That is why Nuvana has for the time being, shied away from virtual world games.  In our former lives in entertainment media, we definitely built them.  Besides being expensive and time consuming (and do we really need costly, long-term building efforts in the face of educational budget cuts?), building a virtual world with CG or Flash or any kind of animation for that matter pre-supposes that it is a closed system with borders.  Players get frustrated and bored once they sense the boundaries of a virtual world.  The builder has to constantly expand the world (i.e. more cost and more time).  And intrinsic in this environment, there is a “right” and a “wrong.”  A win and a fail.  Somewhere, the world or the program or the AI reaches its limit.

In a Nuvana game, the effort is to empower the players, show them they have no limit other than their own persistence, and to support while learning along with them, in order for them to find other pathways and solutions that might exist.

As Bruce Lee put it:  “What is defeat?  Nothing but education; nothing but the first step to something better.”

By redefining failure, what we are really doing is reforming the learning process in any context to create innovative, creative, indefatigable thinkers and doers.  Done right, education can be transformed into an inclusive, equitable, behavioral change process that will make dropouts obsolete and create standards based on quality rather than quantity.

— JvK

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