Learning in a Social Network Environment

Stanley Han, CEO and co-founder of Personal E-Motion private limited (PEM), gave a very informative and encouraging talk on the future of technology in education, as well as not-so-subtly hinting at the increasing viability of careers in computing and media as an alternative to the standard Asian parents’ ideal of what a good career path should be. He drew from his own experience, telling the story of how his father spent a large part of his savings to buy him an Apple computer when he was just a child, an investment that was considered very risky and possibly slightly insane at that time, especially given the impoverished nature of his family. His acceptance into elite schools, and finding success in an IT startup, had smashed all expectations, and broken traditional molds of how success could be achieved. He goes on to sell this alternative career path to the audience, noting the increasing demand for programmers and IT related jobs and urging parents to think outside traditional mindsets.

As a supporter and strong believer of societal progress through the medium of technology, this really impressed me. Learning programming and excelling in its application is as arduous and difficult a task as say, med school, and Stanley had made a name for himself by taking the steps to teach himself these skills even as a child. This proved again the tenacity and ability of children to learn autonomously if they had sufficient motivation; in a sense his very essence is a metaphysical representation of his work, and his product.

And this product is called Koobits:

That’s not an advertisement banner link, but if it was, it would greatly help your child in his/her schoolwork, Stanley guarantees.

His start-up, PEM, engaged in extensive research on the inner workings of a child, and made the basic root observation that most children often put in tremendous effort to excel at, say, video games when they are confronted with it – not so much with homework. While it may seem like common sense (children like to play and not work), it seems that most children are adversed to schoolwork not because it is work and not play, but because of its inherent connection with strict, unrewarding treatment from parents and teachers without any real incentive otherwise. This is something that presents itself in abundance with video games. He also makes the observation that I have been making throughout the course of my posts here, that children DO thrive best in a semi-autonomous environment, and learn best through trial and errors made at their own individual speed.

A case in point: he shows results of studies made of children playing Angry Birds without any supervision whatsoever – in one case the first 5 shots missed their marks entirely and showed tell-tale signs of the player fooling around, but the next few attempts eventually got serious and in 20 shots, the child  managed to achieve a ‘B’ rating. That wasn’t enough for him however, who replayed the level to eventually achieve an A+ rating.

His research objectified the core differences between the different displays of motivation a child makes when faced with these choices, and attempted to reconcile these differences in the interact software known as Koobits. In the talk, he described 5 main dynamics he introduced into his game. I will briefly list them here:

  1. Exploration Dynamics: where it is crucial to allow every child to have free reign over what he/she wants to start working on first, be it languages, maths, or science,
  2. Engagement dynamics: by presenting normally drab schoolwork in a fun and interactive game environment, without skimping on content,
  3. Positive encouragement: in which a child is frequently praised for getting questions right, and praised even more when he/she scores an A+. Apparently, children need a constant flood of positive encouragement (note: NOT instant gratification) for them to succeed,
  4. Achievements: by offering incentives for scoring more A+s, including multiple leaderboards and even special awards for excellent work,
  5. Shadow dynamics: building on the earlier mentioned leaderboard system, puts children into competitive mindsets that spur them on to work harder to surpass their peers. Everyone benefits as a result.

Listening to his speech, one can tell that if Koobits is done properly, has the potential to be revolutionary. Inadvertently there were several misgivings, ranging from “over-encouragement” to worries that the syllabus the software teaches is different from schools, but Stanley calmly allayed these fears with well thought out answers. This proved that he and his team have attempted to brainstorm and troubleshoot as much ground as possible, and this makes the project all the more promising. Only time will tell if his system can pose as serious competition against the archaic “Tiger Mom’ approach, but I for one will have faith that even if this social experiment fails, another more improved, more polished system will take it’s place. It is heartening to see change being wrought right before our eyes.

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