Back to basics

I have a special love for this kitschy phrase (incidentally, Christina Aguilera’s first album title) and the strangely thematic past weeks that I’ve had. Anecdotes and encounters from different sections of my life have been converging to remind me of what’s important as I forge ahead with my adventures in education and technology. The lesson is a simple one: to remember that humans and learning have been around far longer than computers, and to place enough faith in that.

I have been following Modpo on Coursera with a diligence unprecedented in my participation of any other MOOC’s. Besides the fact that it makes me miss Penn and Philly in a way that I’ve never thought possible, it has been the most rewarding online class that I’ve tried taking part in (with heavy emphasis on “tried”), not just on Coursera but across a great spectrum of online learning. Not only am I not falling behind, I am actively ahead in my video lectures (take that, all you MOOC delinquents!). This enthusiasm stems from the poetry-shaped hole in my heart; but more important, I find myself unexpectedly moved by the liveliness of the video format and content. Unlike other Coursera classes, the video lectures in Modpo do not consist of a professor talking into the camera by him/herself in an excruciating monologue that really marks a backward step in education, instead, they feature group discussions. The most gratifying is the tangible, vivid energy that comes through the camera lens; it’s the first time that I’ve felt the classroom experience close to being replicated in a virtual realm. Yet when you get down to what makes the whole thing tick, it’s so shockingly simple. It’s not some slick virtual whiteboard or super intelligent auto-grader or syntactically well-groomed forum: it’s just the dynamic, messy energy of real people sitting around a table, looking at their pieces of paper, circling words and hurtling more words in an attempt to make meaning and feeling. It is, very simply, an affirmation of the humans on the other side of this virtual medium.

Around the same time, I heard a great story by a father that we interviewed for the education startup that I am working with in my UX class. We talked about his children’s after school interets and pursuits, and one of the things that came up was his son’s total, unmitigated devotion to Minecraft. The dad had no problem with Minecraft, he thought it was creative and encouraged his son to play it; the only rule that the he imposed on his son was that while playing, he must talk to his friends that he played with on Skype using voice, and not just chat with them via text. He wanted to make sure that the son understood the importance of being the same person that he is offline as he is online, and to force him to have interaction that was more personal, closer to real-life. I was so impressed by this stroke of pragmatic brilliance—this clever ruse of sneaking in the human element in his digital life without making him relinquish the virtual world. Shortly after this encounter, I was reminded again of the power of personal interaction and the inexplicable process of building empathy at a user research panel involving the likes of Facebook and AirBnb. One of the researchers talked about how important it was to bring in the relevant stakeholders early on for them to sit in and watch the interviews. Somehow, this always managed to create and internalize an empathy for the subject that could never be done through videos. It made the person real.

This emphasis on the human element is something that comes up ad nauseam in UX design, but it’s something that I’ve gained a fresh appreciation for the first time through my class. Many people accept “human-centered design” as a politically correct ideology, but very few really stop to think about what this means and calibrate their intentions and actions according to it. I have seen one too many entrepreneurs, including those of edtech, impose their world view on others through their product/solution— without even being aware of so, they seek fragments of validation in their conversations with others and don’t really see the human on the other end of the exchange. I am also at fault for this all too often; I have to remind myself that other people don’t exist as a projection of my thoughts and wishes and learn to encounter them as they are.

Yet the trickier part of all of this human centeredness is to realize that the human is also fallible and misleading to decipher at face value. Being human-centered means accounting for people’s irrationalities. One of the most important things that I have learned so far is to learn to hear what people are not saying, either through their own inconsistencies or other aspects of the behavior. This is an especially interesting proposition because the inconsistency in question doesn’t always just apply to your subject, but also yourself. It is unsettling to have to admit to ourselves our own hints of irrationality and the conflicts in our motivations, but they inevitably exist. In learning to not take what others’ claim they are wholly for granted, we have to also learn that we are not always who we claim to be.

I wanted to talk about this in the context of education technology because I am not sure if we are all that good at remembering the human in this context: the rational, the irrational, and everything in between as it exists. I am increasingly of the belief that the role of technology is to elevate the human, and to surface our humanness even more than what is apparent otherwise. I always go back to Modpo on this example, but in this case even though the sound infrastructure is what enabled this beautiful exchange across oceans, the magic at the core of it has little to do with technology and everything to do with the rawness of human energy. In fact, when it is done so well you forget that the technology is there and you take the transposed humanness for granted.

I wonder, too, if we are taking enough time to examine our underlying assumptions about what technology can or cannot do, should or should not do. I especially loved this recent essay in the Atlantic on The Writing Revolution, which talked about how a faltering high school’s decision to focus on analytic writing and expression of critical thoughts yielded surprising positive results across students’ performance. It reminded me of the importance of restoring the power of expression and creation back to the human, and our converse inability to recognize that at times against other fancier solutions and our own ego. All too often we are so busy advocating what we believe to be the solution that we forget to even truly observe what we need to solve without any preoccupation. In doing that, we fail to see the human in its real context, we fail to see their irrationalities that may be an integral part of what we need to solve, and we fail to see our own assumptions that may be coloring our judgment.

I want to ask all the edtech entrepreneurs out there: how closely have you worked with the people that you are solving the problem for? And do you know what they are not telling you as soundly as what they are telling you? Have you gone out into the field to observe what other solutions they have been applying to the problem? Are you aware of the role of your own assumptions and ego? Are you really capable of seeing the humans, including yourself, involved? Because that is all that great technology should come down to: surfacing our humanness, especially the already brilliant parts of it, so effortlessly.

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