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7 June 2006 / erikduval

Success is just another word…

On Monday, I had a lot of fun during a session in the ProLearn Summer School on “Success is just another word…” The basic idea was to explore with the PhD. students what they wanted to achieve with their PhD. work and why that mattered, to them … and to the rest of the world.

Most of the students signed up for this session, and we had a very lively and open exchange of ideas. I first asked them to try and define what success meant for them. Here are some of their suggestions:

  • used in real life, practical utility (13)
  • professional carreer, good job (5)
  • actually finish the PhD. 🙂 (5)
  • fun (!) (5)
  • results used in further research (4)

Actually, there were quite a few more suggestions. Once we had filled the whiteboard, I asked to pick only one. The numbers above are the vote counts. Overall, I was quite please with this result: I always worry that research isn’t as useful as it could be, and should be, given the many problems that need to be addressed… I also very much like fun as a driver: “Serious Fun” is how I think most all of what I do should be.

We then talked a bit about how we could develop more focused visions of what can be achieved in technology enhanced learning. I talked briefly about some examples, like the JFK challenge that led to Apollo, or the X prize, or the DARPA Grand Challenge, or the CRA “teacher for every learner”, and asked the students to develop their own vision in small groups.

Coming up with such visions, that could appeal to a large public and that can actually be tested in a hard way, is always a challenge. There were some good suggestions though:

  • develop a system that teachers can work with for 1 week; they will then be replaced by the system for 1 month and the students should continue to learn as if the teachers were still there (I liked the preciseness of this proposal, though it will be hard to verify that the system did as well as the teachers. Actually, given the poor learning that goes on in many universities, it strikes me that this may be trivial to achieve in many academic institutions. By the way, I agree that replacing teachers is maybe not the first goal we should focus on 🙂 On the other hand, those teachers that can be replaced without any significant difference, should have been replaced a long time ago 🙂 )
  • use a combination of hardware devices and software applications to reduce illiteracy from the current 18% to 5% before 2015, for instance by enabling learners to interact with a literate person (This is a nice challenge, but I believe that we should find an “easier” direct challenge that can be assessed in a hard way and that would help us to achieve this goal. For instance, how about an application for the $100 laptop that enables a learner to acquire basic reading and writing skills in his mother tongue in less than 3 months? BTW, I wonder how illiteracy rates are being assessed. Drop me a note if you know.)
  • develop a learning application that has as many users as a good computer game

Many of the other suggestions were a variant on the theme of access to all, something we also try to work on in GLOBE. Given the background of many of the students, I was a bit surprised that the focus of their proposals wasn’t more on collaboration or pedagogical aspects.

At the end, I asked them to write on a piece of paper what this session had meant for them and their PhD. research. As a firm believer in feedback loops (we need them to “get better at getting better”!), I always find it very enlightening to read these comments. Here are some of the things they wrote:

  • “This session has been terribly useful to me because it reminded me of the necessity of focus, encouraged me to ponder my PhD. goals and finally do all that enthusiastically.”
  • “It was fun!”
  • “good old Erik’s lecture” 🙂
  • “nice to see that lots of the other PhD. students also have the higher goal of making life better by doing their PhD.”
  • “This was useful for me because your presentation gave me motivation to continue and made me think more deeply what I am doing, how and why.”
  • “This was useful because this kind of discussion showed me (and others) that we are not alone with our fears about how to make success out of research that we are doing. It is natural to have these emotions, being afraid, want to be success, want to find someone to network, and so on.”
  • “I began to think about different things.”

Some students were probably expecting more answers from me, but the best I could do was try to help them to ask better questions 🙂 All in all, this session was very active and lively and I enjoyed it tremendously. I got at least as much out of it as the students did.

My very sincere and deepest thanks to all the students! (And let me know if you have some more ideas…)


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