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Reflections on ICLS 2004

ICLS 2004 was in Santa Monica, CA. The conference went from Wednesday afternoon to Saturday mid-day. I arrived on Wednesday morning. Due to the advantageous time difference between Atlanta and Los Angeles, I arrived in time for the opening keynote—Jeannie Oakes, UCLA. Her talk focused on the ordinary problems that schools face: too much teacher turnover, not enough qualified teachers, not enough books for everyone, inadequate classrooms, overcrowded schools, etc. Apparently, this is a huge problem in California and (she hinted) elsewhere. She demonstrated that these deficiencies mattered in terms of school performance. Unsurprisingly, the schools that were most affected by these problems were those serving lower socioeconomic status (predominantly Latino or African American) neighborhoods. Oakes pointed out that part of the promise of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education supreme court decision was that there should not be two different educational systems. Apparently, even after 50 years, we have not achieved that promise.

As learning scientists, we tend to be in a world of improving the already functional classroom. From her talk and the tremendous amounts of backing statistics, the message was clear. Many of the pressing problems that schools face are economic problems; they need more money and support. A policy like No Child Left Behind is suspect given these problems. How can you expect a school unable to get certified instructors, dealing with 50% more students than their capacity, and without the simple resources (textbooks) to support learning to succeed. You end up punishing schools (and thereby children) that are already punished by the current system.

The other keynote was by Na’ilah Suad Nasir, Stanford University. Her work focuses on the learning that takes place outside the classroom setting (i.e. in playing dominoes, high school basketball) and comparing that to classroom learning. What I like about her work is that she captures the richness of what is going on in these settings in a way that informs us about the critical differences and possible commonalities. One thing that struck me particularly is how the identity of the learner is different in each case. In one example, the track coach informs a skeptical student, "you are a hurdler." It is an indication of the learning trajectory that she is on. She is becoming a hurdler—a position that has value and meaning. You will seldom find the analogous sentiment ("you are a scientist") happening in conventional classroom. The question for learning scientists is "how can we move some of the practices of these naturally engaging learning experiences to a classroom setting?"

I presented two posters at the conference. The first was on the preliminary study for my dissertation work on personal home pages. Several people were interested, though most were interested in having adolescents create personal home pages as part of a project. The most relevant comment I received was from Chris Hoadley, Penn State University. He mentioned that he often looks at people's home pages (finding them through Google) when he is reviewing a paper to get a sense of the author and the context in which they are writing. This is a perfect example of how personal home pages can be an important way to communicate with your community of practice.

Presenting MBD Poster
Presenting Medium-Based Design Poster, picture by Jose Zagal

The second poster was on medium-based design. It showed how the design of DigiQuilt and AudioExplorer are useful cases of MBD. I was supposed to be co-presenting it with K.K. Lamberty, but she had to be at her brother's wedding. I demoed (her) DigiQuilt rather than (my) AudioExplorer as it is a quieter demo. This forced me to practice making the MBD arguments with the concrete example of the design of DigiQuilt. Many asked who would be using this design method. Can teachers use it? Unfortunately, my answer is no; you need to be able to program. Programming is the best method we have for creating and manipulating media; therefore, the medium-based designer should be able to program; it opens up the design space. Still, it is interesting that so many people are interested in design methods that teachers can use. I wonder whether the design of the challenges in learning by design are similar to MBD. If so, then teachers might be able to do that, given the more scaffolded context of LBD.

One of the more interesting papers I saw presented was by Flávio S. Azevedo, UC Berkeley. He talked about long-term (over multiple years) engagement in a hobby in terms of "lines of practice." I asked him why he did not simply use Lave and Wenger's terminology of "learning trajectory." He made a good argument that often what motivates someone is hard to link to a specific practice or community of practice. That's one of the best arguments I've heard for the limitations of the communities of practice framework.

I also finally saw Andy diSessa (one of my favorite researchers in the field), UC Berkeley, in person. He talked about advances (for example, simple vectors) in Boxer in the same session that Eric Klopfer, MIT, and Andy Begel, UC Berkeley, talked about the new 3D version of StarLogo. I thought it was interesting that Boxer has remained aesthetically simple (black on white, mainly text-based) while StarLogo has evolved to integrate a lot of flash. When I asked, diSessa replied that Boxer's simplicity was part of his design vision, rather than a product of limited funding. This points to an aesthetic tension (between rich and poor) in the design of learning environments that I wish we were addressing through academic discourse. Which is better for learning: a simple environment that is easy to master but boring looking or a flashy environment that is harder to master? For me, the answer is (I bet anyone who knows me can predict my choice) the former. Yet, it is not an answer without trade-offs.

One thing Colleen (Kehoe) pointed out was that, for a community that thinks an awful lot about learning, the conference had no particularly innovative kinds of engagement. There were keynotes, panels, posters, talks, worshops, etc. You can go to just about any conference and find those. Can't the learning sciences invent other useful ways to engage? One idea Jim (Hudson) and I came up with is doing a Buzzword Bingo. You give everyone a Bingo card at the beginning of the conference with various buzzwords instead of numbers in the grid. Then, whenever a presenter says that word, the conference attendee marks down who said it in what session. The first person to get a row, column, or diagonal full during the conference, calls "Bingo!" and gets a prize. On the back of the card, you could have definitions of the buzzwords. This might help make good words (ontology, epistemology, community of practice, etc.) become more accepted and pretentious words (methodology, praxis, authenticity, etc.) to become more reviled. I think it could work.

On a weird note, I had a great dinner with three people (Kurt Squire, Fred Martin, and Chris Hancock) at the last ICLS and was looking forward to seeing them again. None of them were at this ICLS, though two were planning to be there and had to cancel at the last minute. The moral of the story is don't have dinner with Je77 at ICLS.