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Monday, October 20, 2014

Maps101's Field Trips and the University of Illinois' PLATO

This is my first assignment (Assignment 1.1: Ed Tech Then and Now) for the MOOC I'm currently taking: MITx: 11.132x Design and Development of Educational Technology. We were asked to explore a current and older educational technology and then compare the two.

Part 1: Current Technology 

Field Trips are a new addition to the online offerings of Maps101. Maps101 is an online resource library aimed at K-12 social studies teachers and learners with a focus on geography and history.

Each Field Trip organizes content and resources in the Maps101 subscription library into an interactive map template (specifically, an Esri story map) on specific topics such as World War 1, The Spanish Influence on Texas and Energy Consumption. The Field Trips are all organized the same way (image below): a series of numbered thumbnail images run along the bottom of the screen. When one is highlighted a larger version appears in the upper left with explanatory text. The largest part of the screen shows a map of the location of the topic or feature.

Interface of Field Trip titled Gift of the Nile
I think the goal of these interactive lessons is to make the topics more engaging for students. They are meant to replace reading a textbook.

The “doing” aspect of the technology is quite limited. Students scroll through the images, read the text, and zoom in or out on the map. Sometimes an image will include a link to a short video from National Geographic. Save for the few clicks, students are passive learners, much like they’d be if they were reading a text book.

The Field Trips do not offer specific goals or narrative stories. As published only the instructor, not the student, has access to a list of of concepts and skills to be learned. The Field Trips are open ended, though there is clearly a “preferred” path through the content, one that follows the numbered images and map locations.

I found no evidence student motivation or engagement are a priority. There are no “in trip” quizzes, badges or quests. My fear is that the content would be presented akin to “read pages 50-57 of your history textbook.” There are instructor resources with lesson plans and ideas. For the Gift of the Nile they include a printable blank map of Egypt. Students are instructed to use an atlas to name and color in the countries.

If a learner was motivated, he or should would go outside of the Field Trips to learn more, perhaps to the Maps 101 content. Let me provide a specific example. Item 2 in The Gift of the Nile Field Trip is called Geography and the Nile. It discusses how the river is formed by the merging of the White and Blue Niles. It goes on to mention some rapids that are treacherous for boats at a location called The Giant Bend. I zoomed in and out on the map but could not find the two tributaries. Perhaps they were there, just not labeled? I could not find where the rivers merge or the location of The Great Bend. There is no search tool for the map. Even worse, the location “pin” for Item 2 on the map is not even on the river (see below)! A motivated learner would quickly jump to a search engine to find a better map of the waterways of Egypt!

Location of "Pin" for Item 2
Part 2: Earlier Technology

In the fall of 1983 I was studying physics in college. We had access to PLATO, an educational tool from the University of Illinois. I was not aware at the time it stood for “Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations.” PLATO tools were available for an number of topics. All I knew was that our professor (Isaac Abella) said it could help those of us struggling with understanding forces and the like. The image below is what I recall it looking like on the terminals of Eckhart Hall.

PLATO's graphics and text were limited back in 1933.

As I recall the system for physics offered a series of physics problem and helped “walk” the student through them. First, text on the screen would display the problem. Then, they student would be asked to “identify the forces.” I don’t recall if it was touch or arrow keys, but I do recall “pointing” to ropes holding weights and the like.

The PLATO program I used was intended for college physics students. And, as I used it and I think my professor intended, the idea was that it was an “extra tool” to be used in addition to lectures and problem sets. Many students in the class never touched it. I recall spending several hours a week practicing with the limited number of problems offered!

The goal of this module of PLATO was to teach the basics of physics, and in particular, a workflow for physics problem solving.

My sense was that for those who needed the extra practice, PLATO was terrific. It had scaffolding; as I recall you could “ask for a hint” and be guiding through the analysis. I could do the same problem over and over (and I did) and no one would laugh. I enjoyed the very simple interactivity and I do believe you got a “happy face” when you got the problem solved correctly. PLATO increased my confidence in my problem solving ability. And, I did get an A in physics!

The only downside or unexpected effect of using PLATO, I think, was social. I don’t recall any students saying it to my face, but I did have a feeling I was one of the “slower” students since I needed this “remedial” help. I could see how there might be some stigma in going to a special room in the math building to get on one of the two PLATO terminals. I’m pleased I was brave enough to go and use it.

Part 3: Comparative Analysis

Field Trips and PLATO (for physics) do have something in common. Both try to lead the student down a particular path. The former is a “story” about a place or event, while the latter is a workflow to solve a problem. The former has both a content and a procedure component to it, while the latter is more about changing the procedure of learning.

The “media” of Field Trips and PLATO are starkly different. The former is an aggregation of content: images, text, maps and occasionally videos. While there is a path (numbered) through each item, there is no defined route as to whether to look at the picture first, then the map, then the text or to explore them in some other order. It’s a simultaneous presentation. That term commonly used to describe a key difference in information conveyance between maps (all at once!) with text (linear, one piece after another).

PLATO uses just one medium: a one color (green or orange) terminal. It presented simple geometric shapes and blocky text. And, the path through each problem was a one way street: the student had to answer each “step” in the problem solving workflow before moving on to the next one. Some of these choices, I suspect, were made based on the technology of the time. Still, I think there’s something to be said for such simplicity even with today’s fancier graphics and animations.

I found Field Trips terribly dull despite its images and maps. The content and frankly the interface, were no more engaging than a text book. PLATO does not seem “sexy” compared to today’s video games and education technologies. Still, its simplicity, scaffolding, and ability to “do the problem again” worked for me. I have fond memories of it even today, some 30 years later!

It’s possible that those new to Field Trips and the story maps template might find Field Trips more engaging than I did. Still, going through one after another in this form would eventually become dull, just like reading the next chapter of less than engaging text book. I’ve looked for reviews of Field Trips from other educators but found only endorsements the company uses to help sell the product. This statement is from an employee of the company on whose mapping technology the Field Trips are based: "As a former social studies teacher, I would have loved having my students work with these. History comes alive when you can see the whole story, and it is much more powerful in a map you can dive into. Field Trips rock!"

The fact that PLATO continued to exist and teach until 2006(!) suggests to me that its ability to teach physics and other disciplines found a loyal following!

I think it’s worth really considering the content vs. procedure idea introduced in the very first video. The whole idea of Field Trips to take existing content, curate it and repackage it in an interactive and engaging way. PLATO is far more about “practicing” skills over and over. I think there is a place for both in educational technology and look forward to exploring more engaging Field Trips type programs and more physics teaching tools that grew out of the legacy of PLATO.