Sharon Guan

Manipulating Learning with Tools and Rules

Three months ago, I published a blog entry called “Summer Math Class with Khan Academy: A Case of ‘Manipulated’ Learning”. Ever since then, I have tried a few more rounds of manipulation on my IRB-free research objects—my two kids. As a proud mother of manipulation, I’d like to report on a couple of cases of manipulating learning—and behavior—with tools and rules.

Case I: School means Schoology—or Texting and Doodling

Two years ago, my kids’ school became an iPad campus. After making a pledge of restricting its use to school and academic work only, every middle schooler received an iPad pre-imaged with apps and tools for learning. It turned out to be a revolutionary move—no more heavy binders, no more print out of assignment sheets, and no more highlighters on that much shortened list of school supplies.

To my 12-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter, it seems to me that their academic life is now housed in this small electronic pad: as shown in the screenshot below, all of the subjects of my daughter’s classes are arranged per their daily schedule, and each class provides links to lectures, learning materials, updates on assignments, and grades for each assessment.

Schoology interface Screen Capture of Schoology

This K-12-friendly Learning Management System is called Schoology. Different from the LMS we use in Higher Ed, Schoology offers a parent account that allows me to access course content and check my kids’ grades—a privilege for parents before FERPA kicks in to make grades private to students. In addition to accessing courses online via the Learning Management System, kids are taking and sharing notes using the Notability app, which is integrated with Schoology. They can also check the status of homework submissions and see who’s submitted the assignment. If the teacher allows it, they can also view projects submitted by their classmates. Upon submission of their answers, students can automatically gain access to the answer keys. They also use Egenda to manage their homework to-do list.

Looking at the class list on my daughter’s iPad, it dawned on me the reason that my kids were not taking seriously the Chinese language class that I am teaching them is probably because it did not show up on their screen! To today’s kid, if something doesn’t exist virtually, it is not real! 

Since I can’t figure out a way to add my course to their Schoology system, I decided to sneak into that smaller screen of theirs—I am getting into their phones!  

So, instead of hollering the kids to the dining room every night to teach them two Chinese characters, I texted them a link to a character list on Quizlet. Because many people have created character lists associated with the textbook I am using, I was able to easily locate a list and sent the link to my kids. The link opens the app on their phone and  looks like the detail below.

Detail of Quizlet app

Since the kids already use Quizlet at school, they had no problem accessing the list via their Quizlet app. With a touch of a finger, they can hear the pronunciation of each word, check the meaning of it, or start a matching game between Chinese characters and their English translations. 

I asked them to pick any two words from the list as words of the day, and make a sentence in Chinese with each word (they could also make one sentence with both words). They each had to type the sentence as a text message and send it to a group of recipients including me, their dad, and themselves. Instead of running after them every night, I texted them reminders, and whenever one kid submits the sentence, it serves as a reminder to the other, like the one below:

Text message in Chinese and English

Even though most of the communications were taking place via electronic device, I felt that only knowing the pronunciation and the “look” of the character was not enough for the kids to know how to really “write” it. To solve this problem, I asked the kids to write the words with a Kids Doodle app, then take a screen shot and send it to me:

Doodling app interface

To my Doodle-loving daughter, this feels more like one of her favorite art projects. And to me, this experiment demonstrates the power of mediating learning with technology. It’s not just because we have the technology to make learning more flexible and engaging, it is also because kids who grow up in a technology-mediated world are so used to learning in such a way.

Case II: The Shoe Rules

Ever since my kids were able to take off their own shoes, our entryway had been a mess.  No matter how many times I reminded them to put their shoes in the closet, there were always pairs or singles lying on the floor. There were shoes of my kids, my husband, and even myself, who gave up the fight after realizing that putting my own shoes in the closet wouldn’t make any difference to keep the place tidy.

Although the mother in me was willing to give up, the instructional designer in me wanted to try something new. Behavior change is also a result of learning, and how to make the learning happen is based on how we design the lesson!  

One day in September 2017, I printed a chart called “Shoe Rules.” It contains three columns labeled as offender, catcher, and time of offense. To make things easy, names of the family members were already printed as potential offenders and catchers. Whenever someone found shoes on the floor, he or she circled the name of the shoe owner as an offender, and himself or herself as a catcher. The catcher also filled in the date and time of the offense. Each time someone is caught in leaving his or her shoes outside the closet, the offender will pay the catcher a quarter.

According to the 21-days-to-change-a-habit myth, I only printed three sheets of paper with each containing seven counts of records. I did not make any big announcement about the “Shoe Rules.”  In fact, it was a soft launch, with me posting the sheets on the door of the closet and telling my kids that they could start catching offenders the next day. I also didn’t anticipate the excitement this could generate among the kids, who seemed to be so eager to jump into the task of shoe policing!  

One and half months later, every pair of shoes in my household found its residency in the closet! I really didn’t need to print more sheets!

Example of Shoe Rules form and photo of author's closet

My closet

The most interesting part is that no one had paid anyone a penny!  It seems the excitement of “catch-ya” or not being caught had outweighed the desire of making money out of someone else’s mistake. The shoe game worked so well that my daughter asked one day if we should start “socks rules” to stop her brother from littering his socks everywhere!  

Aside from me testing the effect of gamification, this experiment also brought my kids into an exercise of policy making. During the first few days, my son realized that Dad had been caught multiple times by different people within the same day. It turned out that Dad was out of the house and never got to move his shoes to the closet during this time. So we added to the rule that whoever found any misplaced shoes should put the them into the closet before marking the chart. I told the kids this is exactly how policies are amended and refined in our society—every pitfall or loop hole serves as an opportunity for policy makers to seek for ways to make it better.

Whether it is with tools or with rules, learning seems to be taking place in my household in either open or secret ways. As a Mom, these little tricks seemed to be working for my two little objectives. And as an instructional designer, the result of these experiments further proved that learning can be manipulated through thoughtful design and effective use of technology tools.

Sharon Guan

About Sharon Guan

Sharon Guan is the Assistant Vice President of Faculty Instructional Technology Services (FITS). She has been working in the field of instructional technology for nearly 20 years. Her undergraduate major is international journalism and she has an M.A. and a Ph.D. in educational technology from Indiana State University. She has conducted research on interpersonal needs and communication preferences among distance learners (dissertation, 2000), problem-based learning, online collaboration, language instruction, interactive course design, and faculty development strategies. She also teaches Chinese at the Modern Language Department of DePaul, which allows her to practice what she preaches in terms of using technology and techniques to enhance teaching and learning.

Leave a Reply