Space Blasters & The Potential of Fungal Fruiting Bodies

A quote from a book has stuck with me:

In truth, the McGraw Fungi films were no better or worse than many of the non-EBF science films of the era, and quite possibly might have been of value to students already interested in the subject. What they often did not do — and what EBF films of the era did — was to capture the visual interest of those who wouldn’t ordinarily express an interest in fungal fruiting bodies.

Geoff Alexander, Academic Films for the Classroom, pg 26

I love the idea of spurring an interest in “fungal fruiting bodies” in part because I personally cannot imagine what constitutes an interest in fungal fruiting bodies.  But that interest exists and we need to celebrate it! One of my foundational thoughts on teaching comes from Gary Stager: “Schools have a sacred obligation to introduce children to things they don’t yet know they love.” For the prospective fungal fruiting bodies expert, effort has to be made by the education apparatus to authentically engage fungal fruiting bodies, not for purposes of assessment but to activate the learner’s relationship with that part of the world.  An amazing movie about fungal fruiting bodies will not transform every learner into a fungal fruiting bodies aficionado, but a sterile presentation of fungal fruiting bodies as mere content will not allow those potential aficionados to fall in love.

The particular discussion in the quote, from Geoff Alexander’s excellent book Academic Films for the Classroom, is in reference to educational resources produced in the 1950s and 1960s.  The history of educational film is fascinating, and for reasons we will touch later and well into the future, is largely lost to all discussion and development of education practice today.  Suffice it to say, we don’t make these films any more in large part because we don’t value what they provide versus what they cost (financial, labor, organizational) to produce.

Instead it is up to a few intrepid individuals and a whole lot of basement green screen videos to make up for instructional video.  And the results are, by and large, bereft of everything that makes film magical. And here I certainly don’t wish to single out any existing fungus or other video resource; it is not easy to create multimedia. But it you were to, say, search Fungus Education on YouTube, the videos you would find would have several things in common

  • The motion is predominately computer-generated
  • The *branding* of the resource (production company, instructor, platform) is evident in resources with more heavy production
  • The narration is content-driven
  • The content is presented in a delineated manner

There is reason for all of this, much of which has to do with ensuring a learning objective has been reached in a fashion we can measure.  If a student needs to recognize characteristics of eukaryotes in order to reach competency in the course, the easiest path forward is to define eukaryotes and then describe the characteristics and then review once again. Producing any sort of film beyond a lecture capture has a significant degree of production and aesthetic difficulty, so if someone can get eukaryote content onto the computer with a few cute animations and enough narration that does not drone on and some students can remember enough for the examination, that is in many ways a success.

But did that effort do its diligence to introduce students to fungal fruiting bodies in a way that scaffolds further interest and potential love of a subject?  The history and research would argue no.

Compare any old Fungus Education video with this piece from NPR’s Skunk Bear project

It’s a three-minute video about acoustic dispersion and it is awesome. The guy who is responsible for the question is on video, and the glee on his face when he figures the whole thing out is incredible. This is that love of science, the desire to seek out more.

After watching the video, do I know enough to answer a test question on acoustic dispersion?  Well, probably not. But I actually care about acoustic dispersion, or I care enough to see this through a bit further.  So I think about it, and I I do have a background in radio, so I understand enough about the high and low frequencies to take this further, understanding how the high frequencies make it back to me quicker than the lower frequencies. The low is just catching up with the high, and it’s fast so it’s not a multi-second echo pause but happening in what feels like real time, so there’s a bit of an aural trick happening.

So I actually do understand acoustic dispersion…I just needed some scaffolding to take me from the *Wow, look at that* moment of the sound on the lake and get me to the scientific information so I could use this information beyond the decontextualized curiosity. I already had that, but for a group of learners who don’t, building the bridge is a lot easier when you are teaching people how blaster sounds are made (and hopefully then making blaster sounds through Slinky physics and not just ‘bew bew’ mouth noises). If I’m teaching about wavelength and I can make this come alive with blaster sounds and an experiment only requires a class of metal slinkies, some paper coffee cups and a three-minute video, I’ve got the learning the class will talk about the rest of the week.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what Jon Becker recently called Regression to the Mode*, the penchant for education and educational technology to build its edifices based on what is done the most rather than what is done the best.  Most is not an effective metric for measurement, but it’s a heck of a bolster for the concept of best practices. Sal Khan films himself doing quadratic equations on a light board and now lecture capture is a billion-dollar industry. Faculty publish written materials and curriculum with a few web tools and a network of peers, and now Open Education has become synonymous with free and reduced-price textbooks (as well as being its own billion-dollar industry).  And this is again not to sleight any work done with Khan Academy or OER (because this stuff is time-intensive), but I keep looking at the landscape of innovation in 2017 going into 2018 and thinking, Really?  This is where we are and we are proud of this? We think this is the best we can do?

As a learner, I am hard-pressed to find much about education more boring than concept lectures and their accompaniment in textbook form.  It’s especially frustrating because we have the technology to do so much more: Skunk Bear is an example of a much better way to do a content lecture, and the history of hypertext and multimedia writing shows the potential for a future of learning resources much more dynamic than open textbooks.  Yet here we are, capturing every last um and ah in our lectures and celebrating that at least now when we bore our students with their learning supplement the ancillary boredom was free or reduced in cost.  We can dream bigger, right?

Our obsession with measurement is an impediment to anything of this scale — when our effort goes into ensuring the learning objective was recorded and performed upon to suitable summative outcome, the methodology in which to get the scores aligned focuses on systems to accompany the end-result analytics. Good luck convincing grant agencies and educational institutions to invest in something that is remarkably different and more expensive (amount of labor, amount of time, cost of labor, cost of production) than the status quo, while at the same time seeking to upend the status quo’s safe measurements. But if we subscribe to the notion of education as transformative, there has to be space to fall in love with things and not just show an ability to stave off content boredom for long enough to show competency. Otherwise we will have a whole bunch of best practices on fungal fruiting bodies and no one who cares.

 

About Rolin
Assistant Professor & Director of EdTech & Media at Seattle Pacific University. Consultant w/ RAM TEC. Work with faculty, teach students, explore non-formal learning spaces (Galleries, Libraries, Archives, Museums)

2 Comments

  1. I love that Stager quote it’s what I think I stumbled through just now in twitter about not knowing what’s worth learning.

    Maybe I’ll finslly try to write the paper I may have hinted to you about the use of video that is not course content but more for giving a course a narrative thread rather than being driven by a syllabus.

    Maybe

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.


*


css.php