Some Work of Noble Note

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Learning as a “Choose-Your-Adventure” Experience

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I’ve had the privilege of being a student at the University of Oxford, an institution that has been responsible for education for nearly a millennium (classes were taught as far back as 1096 AD).  While I loved the experience for countless reasons, I came away significantly more in love with the “American-style” teaching employed by universities this side of the pond.  At least one purpose of every exchange program is to expose students to different pedagogies, and the Oxford experience did exactly that.

Oxford expects more of its students – not in terms of outcomes, but in terms of self-direction.  American colleges, meanwhile, prefer to meet students halfway and provide more structure around learning.  I think this is a function of age.  Education at Oxford hasn’t evolved very much over the centuries.  The Junior Common Room (JCR, i.e., undergrads) are treated like grad students in the US; in other words, you’re given enough rope to swing freely or hang yourself.

My Classical Economic Thought class, for example, was shockingly hands-off, compared to any economics class at Dartmouth.  The assignments were weekly prompts (like “Reconcile the differing views of comparative advantage in Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations and Ricardo’s Principles”) to which you produced a 5 – 10 page paper.  To answer these prompts, you were given, at the start of the term, a reading list of about 20 books and 50 articles and were assured that all the requisite understanding lay somewhere in that recommended reading list.  If not, you could refer to another generic reading list on the Econ department’s website (of about another 30 books).  Your challenge was to figure out how much time and at what intensity you wished to engage with the material.

Also unexpected was how classes weren’t lecture-based, but rather, just a weekly one-hour tutorial with a grad student advisor.  You would submit your paper to the Tutor a day in advance of your tutorial and would then discuss it together for an hour.  Most tutorials were one-on-one so you rarely interacted with other students in a formal academic setting.

It is a system which I imagine has existed in similar format for a few hundred years; it’s most notable concession to easing the student’s burden was probably the introduction the reading list provided at the beginning of a term.  It does have its advantages, though:

  1. For one, it forces you very quickly to learn how to read an unreadable amount of material in a short timespan.  You learn to become an intelligent reader and manage your own time well.
  2. It also turns your reading material into a “cloud services” type of deployment.  Every single thing you read could potentially be applied to any number of your weekly assignments over the course of the term.  Instead of reading with the mindset that your current chapter can be forgotten as soon as you finish your midterm, you store all the accumulated knowledge in a “data center,” ready for it to be engaged in future assignments when appropriate – similar to how companies can scale their AWS demands up or down based on the bandwidth they need.
  3. As a corollary of the above, the Oxford model encourages critical thinking more than traditional American learning.  The assignments lack specificity on how best to respond to them, and as a result, they made you creative in how you chose to answer questions.  A Marx enthusiast, for example, could choose to base his essays predominantly on Marx-centric source material and commentary.  A Smith enthusiast, through Moral Sentiments, Wealth, and commentaries derived thereof.  On the other hand, you could choose to be a roving jack-of-all, delving shallowly into all the thinkers and responding more observantly than deterministically.

You see what I mean about the grad school pedagogy.

The lack of structure helps creative thinkers – the future thought-leaders of whatever their chosen discipline – really flex their academic muscle.  Not that I put myself in this category but as soon as I discovered that you weren’t expected to answer any question in any specific way, I grew to love putting on different hats for different essays.  One week I was an avowed Keynesian, advocating for fiscal intervention through the hammer-wielding strength of the federal governments.  The very next, I retreated unapologetically behind the cape of free-market fatalism.

Yet for all those advantages, the Oxford system exposed one huge flaw – it couldn’t help you any more than you could help yourself.  You had to go out of your way to seek real professors (instead of just grad student tutors); you had no structure for talking to other classmates about issues; and the grading / final examination system made it all too easy for you to phone in entire terms without significantly negative penalties.

Students could get the full value out of Oxford only to the extent that they were brilliant AND hard-working.  If you lacked brilliance, the un-structure made it hard for you to engage with the material.  It would be like being forced to play a game without knowing the rules.  If you didn’t work hard, you missed the opportunity to buttress your understanding to the full extent that the curriculum allowed.

Oxford helps one type of learner better than all others.  And despite my personal enjoyment of the program, therein lay my quibble with its model.

The American system, younger, fresher, more structured, still resembles the one-room schoolhouse model with its single-lecture content delivery and the immutable teachings of printed textbooks.  At the college level, even though we depend on lectures and discussion groups, team-based exercises and peer feedback, the content shared is still effectively the same.  It never occurred to me until Oxford that this model could be improved upon.

Oxford’s open-ended essays made me value individuality in the classroom experience.  Certainly, the way Oxford did it wasn’t ideal for everyone, but there had to be some method that combined its flexibility and “choose-your-ending” teaching style with the social learning aspects of Dartmouth.  I wasn’t even thinking at the college level anymore, either.  I wondered how this might work at the youngest age possible.

A preview of coming attractions

It wasn’t until I started exploring EdTech in the last few years that I discovered just how close we are to optimizing the learning experience.  Adaptive learning is the future of education; its driving force is its desire to shatter the age-old notion that educational content ought to be delivered in lecture-style, one-size-fits-all, 1:X teacher to learner ratio.

Education “old school” is sort of like coaching a football team by having the entire offensive roster sit in a classroom and running then through the playbook as a group.  For each play, you’re talking about the QB’s hot reads and progression, the O-line blocking scheme, who the RB is responsible for blocking, etc.  That’s a massively inefficient way of teaching, but it’s not because the material is mostly irrelevant to each of the players.  In fact, the material is entirely relevant – the blockers need to know what the QBs reads are and who the RB has to block; likewise, the QB needs to know how his blockers are going to be protecting him as well.

But it’s inefficient because each position needs to know about the entire play but from different perspectives.  Instead of having the left tackle sit and hear about QB footwork to progress from reads one through four, have him learn about it from the O-line coach so that the information he’s getting is tailored to what he cares about.  Don’t back up too quickly or you’ll run into the RB during the play-action.  Don’t worry about a late OLB blitz since the RB has him.

Technology today is finally catching up to the state where we can truly individualize the content based on personal learning preferences.  In a classroom of 30 students, some may learn better through graphs and visual displays; others may prefer more practice exercises demonstrated rather than lecture; still others may do better with word problems than numerical problems.  Think of each of those learners as a different position group on the football team’s offense.  And instead of giving each one a position coach (like Eidetic Teachers, Lecturers, Tactilists, etc.), technology does the versioning of the same material based on those preferences.  That’s astoundingly powerful.

Knewton is probably the foremost name in adaptive learning today.  The Company was recently honored as one of Fast Company’s Top 10 Most Innovative Big Data players out there.  Note – this is NOT an EdTech specific list so it’s thrilling that across all the companies in all the industries out there, EdTech was represented, and in no less a space than adaptive learning.  Adaptive learning is predicated on identifying different learning types out there based on constant collection of learning preference data.  It’s good to get validation that this is being done right.

I’ve got another, more in-depth, post on adaptive learning coming up.  I want to talk about where the industry currently is, what I hope the product roadmap is, what its challenges are, and where I see it in 30 years.  Suffice it to say for now that this is the single most exciting subset of the technology world and, unlike other “cool” areas of technology out there, this is one where I don’t just want to see how it grows, but I want to determine that growth myself.

Author: AJ

I'm an education enthusiast, growth equity investor, and MBA student at Wharton.

One thought on “Learning as a “Choose-Your-Adventure” Experience

  1. Pingback: Education’s Awakening: Adaptive Learning | Some Work of Noble Note

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