OHM was a place full of amazing ideas and clever hacks. In this atmosphere, a friend and I started talking about our education system and the age-old promise of “multimedia” in the classroom. It’s a popular topic these days, education. Startups like coursera are providing free online lessons, clever tools like geddit are trying to improve teacher-student interaction. What Vloo and me discussed was using presentation slides in class in order to improve engagement.

Something like this is already in use in my home country of Bulgaria. There are specialized classrooms equipped with computers and projectors, and every once in a while, the students have an “interactive class”, where they watch videos and perform quizzes. However, this is something that happens rarely and is considered a “special” lesson. I was more interested in turning any lesson into an actual lecture. Just as lecturers at tech conferences teach me about the latest, greatest web framework, it should be perfectly possible to use the same tools for a chemistry, or biology, or history lecture.

As we were describing what a lesson would look like, we realized we could actually prepare one. We dubbed the event “Back to School” and I started working on a chemistry lecture to present at the local hackerspace, initLab.

Slides Make Everything Better

The lecture itself was nothing amazing. I talked about elementary particles, covalent bonds, electron clouds (slides in Bulgarian). My lack of deep knowledge in the subject made me a bit uncomfortable and it showed, but it was alright as a whole. The more interesting part was the meta-lecture (slides in Bulgarian), in which I talked about my motivations and prompted a discussion. As expected, people had much to say. Us techies have this tendency to apply technical solutions to all sorts of problems. While it may be misguided sometimes, I think it’s ultimately a good thing. Education is one area that we can throw a lot of tech at, and the amount of startups in the area shows.

My simple idea is inspired greatly by lectures on programming. Go to any conference talk and you’ll see slides. Slides are the natural companion to words, the illustrations, the replacement for a chaotic whiteboard when we know what we’re talking about. Personally, I love this. Don’t get me wrong, I hate having to prepare slides, but I can see the value they bring to a lecture. In fact, I fully believe that, in the future, when everybody has a brain-installed computer, we’ll all have the ability to project ad-hoc holographic illustrations of whatever we’re talking about right now, making every interaction better.

But even if you don’t subscribe to weird future speculations, it’s hard to deny that the occasional illustration helps when trying to figure out something complicated. I tried to distill what is it that helped me out in this particular talk:

  • Summaries: A single word or phrase on a blank slide works wonders as a mental anchor. The lecturer may be going on and on about the details, which is why having the topic right in front of the audience helps in anchoring to the general idea.

  • Illustrations: Depending on what you’re learning, seeing a simple illustration of it could make all the difference. Imagination only goes so far when it comes to, say, the shapes of different electron orbitals.

  • Review: After every section, it’s easy to have a quick review of the main points with a set of bullets. It’s also easy to move back and forth: “Remember the Bohr model? Now that you know about electron orbitals, let’s talk about it again”. Not only is the repetition itself good for remembering, it’s also easier to make the connections between ideas that looked unrelated a moment ago.

  • Flow: Teachers follow some plan while talking, going through a particular string of ideas in a predetermined way. Having the plan set in the slides itself, it’s easy to stick to it and avoid distractions. And, with a good enough flow, it’s possible to suck the listener in, giving them a ride from idea to idea, building nice little bridges between them. I still remember fondly a series of algebra lessons in university, seemingly unrelated, culminating in the proof of a theorem that elegantly used every bit of knowledge we’d gained from the start of the semester. It was like watching the exciting reveal to a detective story.

The best thing about presentations is that it’s not even hard to make useful slides. Note that I don’t say “great” or even “good”, just “useful”. You don’t have to weave a complex tale with eye-catching illustrations and hilarious jokes to make a set of useful slides. There are a few simple rules I can think of that need to be adhered to:

  • Little text and/or illustrations per slide: You don’t want to write a novel on a slide, and you don’t want to overload it with imagery. One phrase per slide is good. One title and 4-5 one-phrase bullets in a slide is good. One illustration in a slide is good.

  • Step-by-step reveals: Making all bullets in a slide visible as you’re talking about them is a big no-no. People will read ahead and will start thinking about what comes next. In the meantime, they will have a hard time listening to you. Showing things gradually keeps the flow going and anchors the screen to your words.

  • Little or no effects: This one should be a given. Fancy zooms and slides have been out of fashion pretty much since they were invented. The only animation you need is “Appear”.

Naturally, a good presenter may break the rules, as long as they have a good reason. But for a novice, just sticking to these constraints means making a very usable slideshow with not a whole lot of effort.

Education

Globally, there’s a ton of complaints about the current education system and a lot of drive to innovate it. Above, I mentioned coursera and geddit. What they do is provide children and adults with better ways to actively pursue better education. Remember the “actively” bit there, I’ll be back to it in soon.

These two startups (most startups, I beleive) are somewhat oriented towards places that can afford this. For instance, geddit assumes that everyone in the classroom will have a smartphone or tablet. While there have been campaigns like One Laptop Per Child that aim to equip poorer classrooms with technology, we can’t forget that there are many schools that still don’t have the possibility of providing for every student. There is still hope, though.

Sugata Mitra’s “The Child-driven Education” talk demonstrates an experiment that tries to bring quality education to even the most remote regions by leveraging children’s natural curiosity. It uses very little technology (a single computer in a wall, one computer per 4 children), but due to the format of the study groups, this works out quite nicely.

Motivation

One problem that doesn’t seem to be addressed enough is the lack of motivation. Most startups provide amazing ways for people to learn new things, provided they actively allocate time and effort for it. Even Sugata Mitra’s experiments rely on children being motivated to learn, though it does attempt to “trick” them into learning by communicating with each other.

However, if children have no desire to learn, there’s not much that can be done. In my experience, school has always had a culture of “learning is uncool”. The cool kids skip class and smoke behind school, they mess with the teachers, they play pranks. Students that actually get good grades are stigmatized as “nerds” and are pushed to underperform in order to avoid being ostracized. Adding to that, teachers lose motivation when they’re constantly heckled and ignored. They may become bitter and resentful which serves even more to damage the learning environment. This is an especially big problem with young teachers who don’t have the inherent authority that comes with age.

In Bulgaria, student protection laws tie up teachers’ hands. A teacher may never order a student to leave the classroom, regardless of how they behave. A poor grade may only be written upon examination, but if the teacher tries to examine a student, they may play dumb and then dispute the grade, wasting half of the class’ time in the process. Aside from that, schools are stimulated to accept students regardless of their grades, since a lack of students will mean being financed with less money from the government. In the end, this means that it’s easy to just stroll through school without learning anything, provided you’re arrogant enough to “game the system”.

Solutions?

It’s really hard to motivate people. The only solution I can think of is finding ways to stimulate learning from an early age and fight the “too cool for school” culture. More and more people are becoming self-learners as adults, exploring online courses and youtube videos, and this is something that should be pushed to children as well. Educational shows like the old “Bill Nye the Science Guy” have potential for this, but if lessons at school are not engaging, only these shows on the side will always interest only a minority of kids.

The idea of using presentation slides is somewhat targeted to improve motivation. I don’t think that the classroom should turn to using gimmicks and games every single day in order to maintain interest. This would be difficult to maintain in the long term, and it’s unclear whether actual knowledge will be kept afterwards. I’ve had bad experiences in university with a lecturer trying to show mostly pretty pictures and fun videos during class, only to end up with a full class of people that lack understanding of even the simplest theorems, due to focusing only on the fun bits. But incrementally improving the classes themselves, making even the boring parts of the subject a bit more memorable with visual cues and repetition, could actually work, I believe. Especially if it’s done every single class in a consistent, unobtrusive way. We are creatures of habit. Having a single “special” class once a week is not going to turn bad habits around. Having every class be just a bit more engaging might.

Something Actionable

Whether this can actually be pulled off is another topic entirely. I’m not a teacher and all this is borne out of my experience as a student and assumptions as a developer. One way I can see this working out is if some techie decides to “pair program” with a teacher for a while. As in, the techie can discuss the lesson with the actual, professional teacher, build up some slides in collaboration with them, and then present them as the teacher is speaking. I can imagine this happening with young teachers, both because they still haven’t built up their methodology in dealing with children, but also because they’d be more inclined to trust a technical solution.

On my side, a lot of people seemed to be interested in the initLab lecture and there was a fair amount of discussion afterwards, which at least makes me positive that many people take these ideas at heart. One friend in particular is going to be leading HTML & web-dev lectures to high school kids, and I’ll follow up with him to see what his experience is in terms of engagement. I’d still really like it if we found a way to do “pair teaching” with some actual, real teachers and see how it goes, but I’m not sure if there would be enough support from schools and enough technical possibility to pull this off (a projector, a canvas).

In the end, I feel that my own part in this will be all talk. I’m far too easily distracted by a new idea for a vim plugin or a ruby gem to keep up a serious education-related campaign. But if you happen to be reading this and you happen to have a friend who’s a teacher, consider talking them about this, asking them what they think of it all. And let me know how it goes.