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What students really want is not what we’re currently giving them

Edutech is one of the hottest buzzwords in the start-up community, but are edutech companies really helping education?

Everyone is racing to develop the next technology that will enable students and improve their learning and knowledge retention. Edutech is now one of the new buzzwords in the start-up community.

This is occurring while universities are struggling with how to extend the lifespan of dying MOOCs, while developers are creating a plethora of Angry Birds clones under the guise of educational apps.

The attempts to bring an easier form of technological education are stagnating simply because universities are trying to cram antiquated teaching approaches into our current technological environment and developers are trying to gamify learning with no real educational background.

Students are not excited, and I don’t blame them.

What’s wrong?

To understand why this isn’t working requires exploring how different generations use technology. Generation X grew up with technology that was created to solve specific problems. Think of the change from type writers to word processors to specifically make writing easier. Not surprisingly, Gen Xers thus think of technology as a tool to solve a particular problem and are marrying technology with education to make information consumption “easier”.

Millennials and the younger generations, in contrast, are growing up with technology already in their lives. New technology isn’t created to solve problems in the same way because the same problems don’t exist. Technology is now being hijacked to improve social interactions. As a result, these generations view technology as a part of who they are and find it difficult to be away from it.

The vision of educational solutions and the needs are thus in direct conflict. True innovations in edutech space will thus not occur when Gen Xers try to create learning spaces for individuals that learn and interact differently than they do.

If the current start up environment demonstrates anything, it’s that true innovation comes from the disruption of current perspectives (think the new sharing economy). To truly recreate the educational space, we need to tear it down and create a new paradigm that marries education with technology in a holistic manner.

This is what we at arludo are doing.

We create augmented reality learning environments that allow students to use technology to improve social interactions and learning.

The goal isn’t to improve information acquisition, but to provide a comfortable environment where students can work together to test hypotheses. The technology isn’t the goal, it’s the lubricant to improve discovery, and therefore, learning.

How we’re changing education

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We recently unveiled our first augmented reality learning application at UNSW Australia.

The goal was to create an app that allowed students to learn three different evolutionary concepts:

  1. female preference functions (what females prefer and what is required to successfully mate with a female),
  2. the evolution of novel mating strategies, and
  3. the cultural transmission of learning

The problem is that student naiveté combined with experimental design and the variance in animal behaviour due to stressful environments reduces the likelihood of student success. Additionally, students don’t have the opportunity to make mistakes because of time constraints.

We decided to use a different approach and created an augmented reality game where students interact with an augmented reality female an attempt to determine what she prefers and what is required to successful mate with her.

The beauty of this approach is that students retain the psychomotor benefits of handling live objects because they are playing with tags that bring the objects to life on tablets. Additionally, the “animals” behave optimally each and every time, providing the consistency needed for discovery and real learning.

Another important aspect of the games design was that students simultaneously took on two different roles while playing:

  1. that of a researcher trying to solve a problem, and
  2. that of the animal trying to mate with a female.

Simultaneously existing in both domains means that students are not limited to a single perspective when trying to solve the problem.

Playing with science

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To play the game, groups of four students were given a random female that preferred a specific colour and six objects that fell in one of three colours. Teams determining what their females prefer.

When presenting females with a particular object, the female provides obvious feedback to let players know if they were right or wrong (think of the game Mastermind from the 80s).

In this way, students discover the first evolutionary concept, female preference, learning that different females have different preferences. Each of the groups discovered this relatively quickly.

What students didn’t know, however, was that although they could determine what females preferred, they could never successfully mate since they were not given enough items of one colour. Students were now presented with their second problem: how to find enough items to successfully mate.

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Students were stuck. Nothing they did solved the problem. What happened next couldn’t have been planned any better. One group had an epiphany: they needed to get the objects they needed from a different group. This is how scientific discoveries occur.

This discovery by one group led to the knowledge spreading like wildfire to other groups. Immediately, different strategies began to “evolve” with students borrowing and stealing items from different groups. Some students used deceptive strategies to obtain what they needed, while others began hording items to prevent other students from mating. The lab came to life with students running to win.These are exactly the strategies that have evolved through time in different species of bower birds.

In less than 20 minutes, students discovered how novel strategies can “evolve”, and with that, how these strategies can be passed on culturally through learning. These are two concepts students could never have discovered on their own in a traditional practical.

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The future of learning

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Our augmented reality platform combined the psychomotor feedback of dealing with “real” objects with the immediate digital feedback that is known to improve learning and a fun and intuitive social environment that students need to feel comfortable when learning.

The debrief after the lab went quickly because the students understood the concepts they were taught because they experienced them through discovery.

The feedback we received was phenomenal. The gasps associated with seeing augmented reality tags’ coming to life were delightful. Students thoroughly enjoyed the lab and I’ve never seen so many smiling faces in a biology practical before.

Although one team won the mating challenge, I felt that each of the students were winners that day.