Me – Ph.D?

It’s funny, how even fundamental things change so rapidly.

A few weeks ago, I was very happy with my life as an edu-entrepreneur (and I certainly still am!).

Then, out of the blue, I’m encouraged to apply for a Ph.D.

I’m very much in doubt, but simultaneously very intrigued by the idea.

I think about it, considering my options.

“How do I build the best possible foundation for my continued work and contributions to the field of education?”

I love adventures!

Did I remember to say, that I love adventures?

There’s no one answer, of course, but I’m aware, that the Ph.D.-appraoch would certainly grant me valuable opportunities.

I decide to give it a shot.

Hey, “immer ein abenteuer”, right?

The perpetual adventure that is life.

Now, the project is split between The Animation Workshop (part of Via University College) and Aalborg Universty (in Copenhagen). First, there’s an internal deadline in VIA, where they have to select their candidates, followed by the “real” deadline with the The Danish Council for Independent Research. It’s all just a few short weeks down the line.

I write an early brainstorm, and, in continuation of my many attempts to promote “transparent communication”, I throw it out there for people to comment upon.

I receive much valuable feedback, and in a few hectic days, I write a very, very rough draft.

The other day, I learned that the internal selection in VIA didn’t turn out in my favor.

No reason to lie; being turned down is never fun.

It just isn’t.

The decision seems to have been more influenced by internal politics than the content of the applications, and even though that’s a bit frustrating, it’s the way it is. I somehow understand.

A few weeks ago, I didn’t even want a Ph.D. Now I don’t want to give up the idea.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned by being self-employed for the last five years, it is to be stubborn. Too stubborn, some might say. It’s just…I don’t care much for giving up.

There’s always another way. Sometimes you’ll just need to look a little harder, dig a little deeper.

That’s ok.

I like digging.

So now I’m investigating these other ways.

I’m not interested in doing a PhD at any cost. Not at all. Many things need to be “right” for it to make sense, and the project itself needs to be defined (primarily) by me. If not, then I’ll spend my time on something else. I’m not looking for a job, I’m just (always) looking for ways to learn, and become better at what I and want to continue doing: challenge and improve education.

I might be a bit naive here, but I’m putting some effort into that; remaining naive, and a tad idealistic.

I don’t care about jobs or careers.

I care about A) having fun & B) improving the world (however slightly).

Post scriptum

“But what is it that I want to research”, you might ask.

That’s a fair question, considering you’ve read this far.

If you want details, you’re welcome to read the application.

In short, I want to find out, what game developers can teach us about working with game development, creativity, innovation & entrepreneurship in education. Can we build a model for game development together with actual game developers – and can this approach contribute to the (as I see it, necessary) transformation of education?:

the project also operates with a broader scope, studying to what extent this transformed role of teachers and students can inspire both groups to perceive themselves as creative entrepreneurs capable of designing and developing innovative solutions.

 

The simple beauty of a duck

As already stated, yesterday I had the pleasure of participating in the very inspiring “NEXT KIDS TECH 2011″ conference hosted by the LEGO Foundation in Billund. Besides “just” participating in an exciting conference, I was struck by the culture permeating the organization which is LEGO. I’m fully aware that this experience cannot be separated from happy childhood memories, intensive corporate branding and my personal opinion that LEGO is cool.

Even so, the core values of LEGO (some of which are caught on the image to the right) all seemed very credible to me and I returned home with a reinforced conviction, that our schools should be more like the informal, autonomous, open-ended and exploratory learning, which the LEGO bricks so brilliantly facilitates.

Less scaffolding and rigid rules, more freedom and exploration.

All these important lessons were beautifully illustrated by the little yellow LEGO duck. At the end of the day, we all received a tiny bag with just six bricks, and were told to each make our own duck as we thought a proper LEGO duck would look like. Everybody engaged passionately in this, and few ducks ended up looking the same.

“There is no wrong way to build with LEGOs, only right ways” we were told.

Of course this is all a relatively cheap (yet effective) trick, but two things struck me as being perfectly encapsulated in this little intermezzo (besides all the allready established LEGO-values).

First off, the idea expressed above. There are no wrong ways, just right ways, and in addition, if you have enough LEGO, you can build just about anything. The same should go for education – there should be no wrong ways, but rather a multitude of right ways, all depending on your individual preferences, and we should definitely support the notion, that with the right amount of creativity and hard work, you can build anything.

Secondly, by building our own little duck, we all experienced a strong sense of ownership over our little creation. Most people kept their ducks, showing them off, and bringing them home to support the memory of a mighty fine day. What if we could instill the same sense of ownership with students in our educational systems by allowing them a more autonomous role in “building” their own education?

Definitely worth thinking about, and yet another reminder, that most informal learning (e.g. LEGO or video games) are way better at fostering intrinsic motivation, and that we simply cannot afford to ignore this in formal learning contexts.

Oh, and my overall impression of the entire day wasn’t in the least ruined by a bit of bribery:

Bribed to be creative?

Embrace the initiative

I am not very good at not being intrigued and fascinated by the world, and by the combined forces of stubbornness and serendipity, I repeatedly find myself falling in love with new topics in whole new areas. Though this has some implications for my spare time, I generally consider it a privilege to be able to live and work along such a rather exploratory pattern.

My infatuation with entrepreneurship is one such area.

I am not, however, primarily interested in the business- or commercial side of things. This is not to say that I ignore financial realities or neglect the notion of actually making money; I don’t and I do acknowledge the importance of that dimension.

Despite this, what really pulls me in is the creativity, the ideas, the drive, the initiative, the desire to change the world (however small the change may be).

I am clearly not alone when I maintain, that the world is desperately in need of more people with the will and ability to make changes. In society as a whole, we put great emphasis on creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship as the primary future sources of wealth. We shall not make a profit on producing cars, but on developing ideas, concepts, new services and solutions.

We are not quite there yet, though, and too much education remains focused on maintaining status quo, doing as we’re used to, rather than on promoting change.

Point to problem or deliver solution?

Most people don’t believe they are capable of initiative.

Most people have been brainwashed into believing that their job is to copyedit the world, not to design it.

Seth GodinAs written by die-hard proponent of entrepreneurship, Seth Godin, the fact is that all too many people doubt their own ability to perform change.

Change begins with the initiative. Someone must be the instigator, the agent of change, taking the initiative and making things happen.

But where does initiative come from? And is it possible to “teach” people to show more initiative?

First, you need to pinpoint something in need of change, an area where you could see something better happen. I would argue that quite a large number of people are actually able to identify such areas.

Next step would be to figure out how such change could take place. You need imagination, the ability to not do as you’ve been told, to provide alternative solutions. This is harder, and fewer people are probably good at this.

Finally comes execution. If pointing out problems is easy and thinking up solutions is somewhat harder, actually making the change, the push, is what eventually puts many people off. Perhaps they don’t really believe in their idea, or they doubt they have the capacity to carry it out.

Chances are, that people, more than anything else, are intimidated by the fear of failing.

Embrace failure

Before embracing the initiative, we must thus embrace failure.

I think there’s been a widespread and very unfortunate tendency to paint and maintain a very bleak, almost dystopian picture of the ramifications of failure. In education, our incessant obsession with testing, measuring and grading is not exactly working against the fear of failure. On the contrary, when every single student is met with high expectations to do well in tests, the will to experiment and quite possibly fail is probably reduced, if not eliminated altogether.

I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work – Thomas Alva EdisonThomas_Edison2

At the same time, though, history is filled to the brim with examples reinforcing the basic idea that behind every breakthrough is a series of failures.

Failing can be hard, of course, but rarely fatal. Much more often failure is instructive, a necessary part of the process, which eventually leads to non-failures. Success, if you like.

We desperately need to reinterpret “failure” and readjust the ways in which we frame it. Perhaps we should not even talk about failure, but just consider it one possible outcome, which can be improved.

Odd as it may sound, we need to encourage kids to fail, not least in education. As educators, we must take on the responsibility to challenge norms, conventions and ways of thinking. We must act and think differently, and we must allow kids to do the same, regardless of the fact, that they may fail (often).

Just do it…now!

nike-just-do-itNike was and is right. We should just do it.

Go, start something.

Currently, my favorite example is the enthusiastic and hard working guys over at ClearCut Games.

They’re at GameIT College, yet (luckily) their ambitions reach further than “just” being a student of games. Much further.

ClearCut Games

They want to become real game developers, obviously, so they began developing Cado, which is scheduled for release on iOS this summer (as any game developer knows, this is prone to change). They’re in a safe zone right now, as they’re attending school, and developing games in their spare time (that’s the official story, at least). From my perspective, using this safety to experiment with the risks and rewards of entrepreneurship is just brilliant.

They’re great guys, great company, great inspiration. They are, however, not very representative. We need more like them, more people performing a leap of faith, plunging into what is not yet known.

My point is not that we need everybody to develop games and start all kinds of game companies (despite the importance of games).

What we do need, however, is the courage, the passion, the desire. We definitely need more people founding companies based on great ideas, but we also need people instigating change within existing companies and organisations. None of us should shy away from pursuing better solutions, challenging traditions and the structures we navigate within. Most importantly, we should not be afraid of failing.

…and heck, if such an approach allows you to follow your dreams in the process, wouldn’t that be worth something?

Jamming in education

Nordic Game Jam (ITU)

I never stop thinking about the perils and challenges of contemporary education, and the pivotal component of my overall mission is thus contributing to improving education.

How can this be done?

This is a silly question, as it somehow indicates that it can actually be answered.

Obviously, there is no one answer and none of us will probably ever comprehend the true complexity of our intricate system of education in its entirety.

Even so, we should never cease asking hard questions and providing new and creative solutions to the challenges ahead of us, leaving the beaten track without the old and possibly worthless maps of yesteryear.

As I am constantly navigating the intersection between education and video games, I consider looking to games development for inspiration a feasible suggestion.

Some time ago, I read the article “Game Jam Your Studio!” by Blake Rebouche from BioWare Austin. He argues, that doing experimental game jams with your game studio “is so much better than bowling, the normal team exercise everybody does”.

Where it is obvious to do gamejams within a games company, the idea of “jamming” may very well be adopted to the area of education.

Looking to the Nordic Game Jam, which is part of the Global Game Jam, we could ask – “why participate in a game jam?” and find the following answer:

And why go through 48 hours of: very little sleep, hard work, great ideas, crunching, problem solving & technical issues? Because a game jam encourages innovation and experimentation. It is one of the vehicles behind the new generation of game developers that can experiment with platforms and game ideas in an intense and yet still informal atmosphere. This is the space where the new generation of talents can be found.

Nordic Game Jam > Nordic Education Jam?

In addition, the game jam is described as being “more like an “idea space” rather than competition, where participants can challenge their skills and ideas”, which again indicates the value of these intense and problem-oriented projects.

We need “innovation”, “experimentation”, “idea spaces”, and “challenging skills and ideas” everywhere in society, but perhaps first and foremost in education.

Actually, we need to think of education as an idea space in itself, and as a site of constant experimentation, where we maintain a desire to challenge what we think we know. Think about “education” as a dynamic concept, which never reaches any final stage.

Doing an education jam along the lines of the far more widespread game jams might help us reach upon such an understanding.

It can be done at the level of the individual institution; gather your teachers for an entire weekend of creative experimentation, where all the traditional concepts of education are challenged, and everything is possible. Build a somewhat structured framework, perhaps with a set of “rules and constraints”, like most game jams do, and allow groups of teachers to imagine scenarios, build prototypes and concepts and afterwards try them out in class.

Another possibility would be to do a Nordic/Global Education Jam.

Imagine that; summon a large number of dedicated, creative teachers and relevant practitioners, release them from the everyday constraints (if only for 48 hours) and indulge them to work out new experimental solutions.

What’s not to like?

Leave the map behind

Jon Krakauer & Sean Penn in the wilderness

The other day I watched with admiration as the tireless adventurer, mountaineer and author Jon Krakauer along with actor/director Sean Penn talked about the inspiration for writing and filming the book “Into The Wild” (which is a marvelous story for a would-be adventurer like myself). The book and movie portrait young Christopher McCandless, who went aimlessly and maplessly into the alaskan wilderness. Krakauer pointed out that he actually understood the motivation of McCandless, who ended up dying in his pursuit of meaning. What Krakauer seemed to understand was the urge to leave the map – not just leave it behind, but actually leave it, moving off the map to carve a new path for himself:

“People don’t get it. He didn’t even have a fuckin’ map; what kind of idiot? THAT was the point. There’s no blank spots on the map anymore, anywhere on earth. If you want a blank spot on the map, you gotta leave the map behind.”

This somewhat contradictory statement immediately resonated with me (even though I would probably never wander into any wilderness without the safety of maps, a gps an so on). Krakauer implies that as the entire world is now carefully mapped, we must ignore these maps if we desire to explore the world anew.

I am now thinking about this idea of “leaving the map” as a clear analogy to the work I’m doing with education.

I like analogies. They can help us see things, which we might just ignore or write off, and they help us see those same things in a new perspective (they can also confuse and muddle things, but that’s another matter).

For centuries, we have been developing “maps” – conventions, traditions, habits, “solutions” – attempting to completely illuminate and navigate within the complexity of education.

These maps may very well be growing obsolete and useless, pointing us in the wrong direction down blind alleys.

Thus, we must be willing to leave the existing maps behind, explore society and the territory of education once more, draw new maps – and continue to do so.

Or, according to Ken Robinson in the very inspiring TED-talk found below, we must shift our focus from evolution to revolution:

“Every education in the the world is being reformed at the moment, and it’s not enough. Reform is no use anymore, because that’s simply improving a broken model. What we need [...] is not evolution, but a revolution in education. This has to be transformed into something else. One of the real challenges is to innovate fundamentally in education. Innovation is hard, because it means doing something that people don’t find very easy for the most part. It means challenging what we take for granted, things that we think are obvious.”

As humans, we hunger for easy solutions, but sadly, no such thing is readily available in this case.

Even so, we should consider leaving the map behind a crucial part of our solution. We should continually encourage experiments and a willingness to risk failing by challenging conventional wisdom and old assumptions on what constitutes good education.

Failure is definitely an option, and one we must embrace in order to move forward along the right tracks.

Only a Miner

Here’s a video which seems to strike the note for the remainder of this post:

I am certainly no miner, yet for some odd reason I have recently been exploring this dangerous and tiresome trade.

Crafting tools, digging down deep, retrieving stones and metals for different purposes.

My effort can’t reasonably be compared to the average Chinese worker suffering in the hazardous mining shafts, especially because I’ve been firmly seated in front of my computer all along.

What, then, makes someone like me talk about mining all of a sudden?

I have merely succumbed to the strangely alluring grinding and construction that is Minecraft.

So what is Minecraft?

Minecraft is a game…sort of.

But it lacks the missions or explicit goals of most games. Even open-world sandbox games like GTA or WoW provides the player with missions, quests, purposes.

Minecraft doesn’t take the trouble to frame your actions like that.

It just sets you loose in a world made of square blocks, inevatibly reminding you of the LEGO of your childhood. Graphics are low-res resulting in an unpolished retro style (to say the very least). Aesthetics making it look like a misplaced game from the nineties somehow only feels refreshing, and it effectively shifts the focus to the core of Minecraft; a core consisting of creation and exploration.

The world of Minecraft is nothing but a gigantic sandbox, where any cliché about “your imagination being the only limit” absolutely makes sense. Imagination doesn’t quite cut it, though, as building something noteworthy also requires a massive investment of time (as a recent piece in Wired is soon to point out):

“Minecraft differs from the current crop of games so popular on Facebook in another key way: Building something in Minecraft takes far more creativity than simply pointing, clicking and acquiring. A stack of virtual Minecraft bricks might not seem impressive to an outsider, but anyone who’s played the game understands that it can take weeks or even months of work to assemble raw materials, followed by painstaking brick-by-brick work to create a magnificent structure.”

To throw some further challenge in the mix, the game continually changes back and forth between day and night. Day is good and friendly, while night is decidedly evil. At night the gruesome monsters appear, and you do best to stay indoors in heavy lighting; unless you desire dying and respawning. So confusing can the experience be, that many “miners” are offering beginner’s guides to Minecraft or guides to just surviving the first night:

I have only been in this strange world for less than a day, and I am not yet certain that I actually know which direction it is taking me. I started out by cutting down trees, building tools, carving out a home, mining coal, creating light with torches, exploring the world, expanding my mansion, hunting animals, forging armor, digging deeper, encountering the first monsters…and so on.

These trivialities might very well be the ingredients of a perfectly normal day in the life of Minecraft (if one such even exists).

As a gamer, though, I can’t help but acknowledge this nagging feeling that something is not quite right.

Something is missing from the regular gaming experience; or something is added.

In any case, things are not as the games I know.

It might just be that I am simply not used to this much freedom in a game.

Sometimes I feel a bit lost, wandering about, disoriented, unable to properly make use of the freedom I have suddenly been granted.

Minecraft releases me from expectations, which strangely enough boosts my own ditto. Knowing I can do just about anything, I feel obliged to channel these possibilities into remarkable deeds and unforgettable monuments.

Show the world

This desire to achieve big things in Minecraft is strongly accentuated by the blossoming environment around the game. Many people have been playing for some time now, and during that period, stunning creations have been produced.

I might very well not be completely up to speed here, but I am immensely impressed with the activity of the players; showing the world is clearly as important as building the world. Images and videos presenting this or that building are found in abundance, and this documentation process undoubtedly constitutes a large part of the overall experience.

This leaves me in a particular predicament, because how should I compete with something like this:




True innovation

Well, however confused I may be, I am undoubtedly going back to mine some more, which then again probably leads to further thoughts and writing in the nearby future.

Despite my fumbling around in the world, one thing that is already strikingly clear to me is, that this game definitely marks an extraordinary outburst of creativity. The Swedish creator, Markus Persson (it’s a freakin’ one-man job!) has created something, which in every sense feel fresh, new and different.

I haven’t really seen anything like it, and in that sense Minecraft must be the wet dream of every gamer and critic longing for innovation and creativity in a field often accused of lacking exactly that.

Social media site, Mashable, is dubs it a “gaming revolution” and Shamus Young over at The Escapist is talking about how and why he loves Minecraft:

But Minecraft isn’t just a graphical anachronism. It’s also a throwback to those anarchic days of the 90s before our current genres were solidified and developers were eager to try crazy new things. There is no big-budget game out there that even resembles Minecraft. This is a new idea. We don’t get to see those very often. [...] One guy, alone, has made a game which is more interesting, cheaper, and has better replay value than games that took an entire studio full of pixel-pushers and codemonkeys to produce.

Not only is this strange creature receiving widespread critical acclaim, it also seems to be surprisingly profitable, allegedly making 350.000 $ in one single day for Persson. And that is for a game still in alpha! The thing is not even close to being bloody finished, but we are happily paying 10€ without having seen the final product. Even as a business model we might learn from Minecraft – how do we create such an attractive product, that people willingly shell out before we are done making it?

Minecraft is already established as a cult phenomenon with a large group of dedicated fans, who themselves are pretty darn creative. I, for one, am happily following along on the journey to see where this somewhat crazy and unpredictable beast leads us.

Don’t just repeat; rephrase!

I’m doing all kinds of stuff, both when working and when trying not to.

It often proves hard to find a common denominator encapsulating my activities; to briefly explain what I do.

One attempt, however, might emanate from the idea of challenging the “established order of thinking”.

This is not to say that things “established” never work or only work partially. It is just that I consider it important to seek new ways, to explore new grounds, and to attempt to approach problems from different angles.

I would probably offend no-one by stating that traditions and habits die very hard in the world of education. Many processes are carried out as they are because that’s what we’re used to. Again, some habits are valuable and should be maintained. Others, however, are no longer appropriate, and should be substituted by something else. I try to work out what the “substitutes” could be.

Don't just shout it out – recompose the message (credits: view from 5'2"' http://www.flickr.com/photos/viewfrom52/)

Last summer I was talking to this Finnish girl living in Denmark, who complained about a pattern in her communication with Danish people. Now, she’s actually quite good at Danish (for a Finnish girl, that is), yet from time to time, words or sentences got lost in translation, and she naturally asks for a reiteration. The crux of the matter is, that most people just repeat what they already said – the same all over again, even though it’s exactly what caused the confusion in the first place. All right, but faced with the fact, that the message is not yet understood, the most patient of people try again. The same thing, repeated like before – this time only LOUDER.

I’m not making this stuff up. Please, enlighten me, what should it help to shout things that were not understood when spoken?

This conversation made it unmistakably clear to me that the alternative path is the solution. In the specific situation, alternative words, phrases, synonyms; approaching what was not understood from a different angle, combining words in new ways in order to convey the message in a more understandable fashion.

This seems like a valid metaphor to me; when something is broken, or just not working as it’s supposed to, don’t simply do the same thing once more.

Be creative – do something else.

Don’t just repeat yourself; rephrase the entire message, deliver it differently (or stop talking altogether).

Anything else is just a waste of energy.