The Limits of Memory

7There is definitely some psychology to design. And UX design is definitely about organization.

There is a principle of organization that comes psychology that I have seen written about in terms of product and service design. It is Miller’s Law.

It was put forward in 1956 - long before UX and web design was a thing - in a paper by cognitive psychologist George A. Miller. In his well-known paper (at least in psych circles), titled "The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information" he proposed a limit to memory which is now called Miller's Law.

Miller proposed that the number of perceptual ‘chunks’ an average human can hold in working memory (a component of short-term memory) is 7. He found that memory performance is great five or six different stimuli but declines aft so let's say 5-9. If the mind can handle ~7 bits of information when completing a task that requires cognitive effort, then designers need to keep that in mind when designing. That would apply to completing forms and surveys. It applies to lists in menus and lots of other tasks that might be presented to users. What happens when a catalog page shows 15 items?

Miller believed that all of us "chunk" information and that if the information is organized in categories no larger than 9, but preferably ~5 chunks, memory is best served.

A related find - which I learned in a writing course - is about primacy, and recency effect (also known as the serial position effect). These two terms describe how we remember items placed at the beginning and end of an experience, and if we forget some it's likely they will be in the middle. Combining this with Miller's Law and you would say that the bigger the number of items, the more middle to be forgotten.

Originally posted on RonkowitzLLC.com 

Lateral Thinking

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With all the concern about the pandemic this year, moving courses online and making plans for reopening, I'm afraid that what has been set aside is pedagogy. I did graduate work on a doctorate in pedagogy that I never completed, but it exposed me to a lot of ideas on how we might improve our teaching.

One of the things I learned about some decades ago is lateral thinking developed by Edward de Bono in the 1960s. Lateral thinking fosters unexpected solutions to problems. De Bono believed that we tend to go for the straightforward, and obvious solutions to problems. He encouraged seeking out more oblique, innovative answers.

Lateral thinking is sometimes called “horizontal thinking” as contrasted with vertical thinking. The latter might be defined as going for the first good solution that comes to mind and launch into the details.

Lateral thinking encourages a longer brainstorming session in order to enhance creativity and come up with the most innovative solutions.

There are several lateral thinking techniques: awareness, random stimulation, alternatives, and alteration.

For de Bono, we need to cultivate an awareness of how our minds process information. That is a skill that is very rarely part of any curriculum, and yet moving away from established patterns leads to greater innovation.

Random stimulation is something I have been employing during this pandemic year - and I suspect many readers of this have also - probably unconsciously - done it. Normally, we try to shut out all distractions in order to focus on a task. In lateral thinking, problem-solving improves with some "random" input which often includes information - taking a walk, talking with a colleague or stranger, listening to a podcast, journaling.

At the heart of de Bono's approach is to deliberately consider alternative solutions. That has been described is many ways, including "thinking out of the box." Doing this is not easy for many people. His term, "alteration," can mean using several techniques. You might reverse the relationship between parts of a problem. You might deliberately go in the opposite direction of what’s implied as the correct approach. Sometimes breaking a problem or obvious solution into smaller parts can lead to an alternate mindset about individual parts.

It didn't help the spread of de Bono's theories in academia that he was not a fan of extensive research. He had called research “artificial.” For example, he claimed that “nobody has been able to prove that literature, history or mathematics classes have prepared people for society” - though I think we all believe that they have helped prepare people.

Lateral thinking has its critics, but the basics are sound and I have always thought that incorporating them into classroom activities is a good thing. I have never "taught" de Bono to students, preferring to embed it in activities. 

 

 

The MOOC Revival

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I have been writing a lot about MOOCs since 2012. (Do I still need to explain that a MOOC is a Massive Open Online Course?) That was (as dubbed by The New York Times) the “year of the MOOC.” 

This year, the Times was saying that though MOOCs were "near-death" the COVID-19 crisis has put them back into the "trending" category. Their article is headlined "Remember the MOOCs? After Near-Death, They’re Booming."

Though MOOCs existed prior to 2012, the emergence of online learning networks was something new. While many colleges initially viewed these free online courses as a threat to their tuition systems, within a year many of the most elite colleges began to offer them. It was more than "if you can't beat the, join them." Schools, faculty and students (often on their own) discovered the value of not only MOOCs but online learning in general.

The Times article is negative on the impact of that MOOC revolution saying that "the reality didn’t live up to the dizzying hype." I agree that the hype was truly hype. It was too much. My wife and I wrote a chapter for the book Macro-Level Learning through Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs): Strategies and Predictions for the Future and we titled it "Evolution and Revolution." The title was not meant as a question. Much of the discussion in 2012 was about the revolutionary nature of MOOCs, but we viewed them through the lens of 2015 and saw them as more evolutionary.  

Fast forward to 2020 - the "year of the pandemic" - and we see schools from kindergarten to graduate schools forced to use online learning in some way. A revolution? No. Again, an evolution that should have started for schools a decade ago but clearly has not for many of them who fond themselves unprepared in march 2020 to go fully online.

MOOCs have changed. My many posts here have shown that the open part of mOoc has become far less open both in the ability to reuse the materials and in the no-cost aspect. Companies have been formed around offering MOOC-like courses, certificates and degrees. 

The biggest criticism of MOOCs was probably that most learners (not always traditional students) never completed the courses. Completion rates in free courses of about 10% certainly sounded like a failure. Making students pay even a small fee or offering credit improved that percentage but not enough to make observers feel the revolution had succeeded.

I never worried about the completion rates because my research and my own experiences teaching and as a learner in these courses made it clear than the majority of students in them never intended to complete all of the coursework. They were there to get what they wanted to learn and get out. They didn't need to take a freshman year of requirements and prerequisites or gain admission to Stanford in order to take a course on artificial intelligence from Stanford. 

Of course, as the Times article points out, MOOCs kept going without all the hype. They evolved, and in some ways so did online learning because of them. Platforms and for-profit companies emerged and certificates, fully online MOOCish degrees, and nanodegress were offered. 

With the spotlight off them, MOOCs were able to evolve into different species - free, for-profit, accredited, for lifelong learning, massive, small, skills training, corporate, for K-12, etc. 

Sheltering and working and learning from home has given another boost to that second "O" in moOc. The providers like Coursera have signed up 10 million new users since mid-March, and edX and Udacity have seen similar surges. And that doesn't even take into account the less-visible use of big (such as Khan Academy) and small grassroots use of these courses by teachers and students.

My wife and I are now writing a journal article for this fall about online learning as a solution for some crises in higher education. 2020 has definitely a time of both crisis and opportunity for online learning. I hope the hype doesn't return to the MOOC. It did not serve it well in the past.

If you have any thoughts on the current state of MOOCs and online learning, contact me.

The Long Summer Slide of 2020

It is known as "summer slide" - the learning loss many students experience during the summer break from school. The topic is often associated with younger students in K-12 but if you have ever taught college students or adult learners (especially in sequential courses) you have also seen it occur.

In 2020, the typical two-month recess became six months for some students because of COVID-19 class cancellations and possibly less-than-ideal attempts at online learning.

Will we see a greater slide this fall than in other years? Will a high school student whose second half of French II, Algebra, or another course be really prepared for the next course this fall? I have friends who teach in secondary schools who fully expect in the fall to have to spend the early weeks (months?) reviewing and catching students up on work before moving forward. They did this in past years, but expect a greater need for remedial instruction for fall 2020. 

When students are not engaged in learning for an extended time, they slide. It would be true if they skipped a semester of took a gap year or were ill for several months. From what I have read, this is particularly true with math, science, language, reading, and any sequential course that builds on a prerequisite.

There has been a lot of research on summer loss the past century which shows young people can lose up to several months’ worth of school-year learning over the summer break, and some studies also show that older students have greater gaps. It is particularly concerning that summer loss seems to be greatest for low-income students for a number of reasons.

There are those who question the whole idea of summer slide, but in my 45 years in classrooms (secondary, undergraduate, and graduate levels) I have seen that loss when students returned in September, even in their work and study habits. 

What is the solution? The standard answer is to keep students engaged in reading and educational activities. But every parent will tell you when school ends motivating students to do things that closely resemble schoolwork is very difficult. Plus, this year many parents were doing more schoolwork support the past few months than ever before and also want a break.

College students might be wise to use some free MOOC offerings to supplement courses from this past semester or to prepare for fall. But again, after a semester fully online, more online learning may not be very appealing.

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