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Edtech as pigs

In September 2020 I attended an interesting conference in Ercolano, the U.S. ITALIA ED INNOVATION FESTIVAL. It was, as usually are these kind of situation, a great opportunity to connect with exciting people I’m still grateful to.

For that occasion I had prepared a small contribution, then we had a round table and not a self presentation and therefore my contribution remained unused. But in Maieutical Labs we have a saying: “work is never thrown away” (which somewhat recalls the saying about pigs: “del porco non si butta via niente” (no part of the pigs is ever thrown away), which sounds a bit like the American saying “Everything but the oink”).

So, with just two little updates, here’s what I would have said, if I did :)

Ninja of Latin grammar!

The Alatin software (on Latin grammar) was born in 2015 and today:

  • the db counts over 90 million of users’ answers about Latin grammar;
  • it is used by about 750 classes throughout Italy;
  • gains € 150k per year (not so much, but the best, being a pure digital scholastic product, here).

And it reduces the error rate of those who make more mistakes at the beginning: those who started with an error rate of 60% after a year of work reach 35–40% (the best ones, who already started at 35- 40% of error lower it up to 30%, a percentage of physiological error, because going on with the program the course topics become more difficult).

On the x, the average of errors; on the y, the number of exercises done.

When we started (we had made other teaching software), we looked around and realized one thing:

new technologies are not the solution.

They are the problem.

In the struggle for survival, traditional education is doomed: new technologies (Internet, smartphones, apps, social networks) compete for the attention of students and consume their cognitive resources, much more desirable than any standard school lesson could hope to be.

How do they do it?

There are two types of applications that are successful on smartphones (we ignore tablets because tablets are not normally used devices in the Italian schools): social networks and mobile gaming.

There are probably ways of teaching through social networks, we have not dealt with it because for us an unavoidable element of the learning path is that in which the learner finds himself alone in front of the subject to be learned, and he does it. We wanted to be there.

So mobile games.

Mobile games show interesting features beyond captivating graphics and the fact that they are video games, characteristics that cognitive psychology knows very well:

  • a learning curve based on single tasks (such as the one that Angry Birds implemented in 2009 teaching to use a new type of bird at a time) conforms to the mastery learning model, according to which all learners can achieve complete mastery of the objectives as long as these are well identified and operationalized in small units to be proposed gradually;
  • the presence of short game sessions (a feature already known in the world of video games but which became a trademark in 2012 with Candy Crush Saga) responds to the need to reduce the extraneous cognitive load (a short game that I can finish while I’m in the queue at the post office it induces me to stay “inside the cell phone” and not to be distracted).

In addition, due to the structure that is both narrative and interactive, video games obviously have a behavioural architecture that was easy for us to transpose into the world of teaching: control of the teaching process by the teacher; high pre-structuring of information; continuous interaction of feedback between teachers and learners; enhancement of feedbacks.

So, did we make a game? No, we didn’t. We made a Latin language course whose contents have been rethought for the smartphone, where to pass to the next lesson you must correctly answer 12 questions on the first attempt, and every question you answer incorrectly will still have to answer again in the end, a software designed to be not a self-learning tool (because kids in our age group — 14–16 years — need to be led to be constant) but a tool in the hands of teachers and students, a tool which requires which translates into an effective way of interacting with content that was not designed specifically for the technologies that convey it.

Is this the way we can lead the permanent revolution of new technologies?

Absolutely not, but we don’t need to do it, we don’t need to teach how to change the world — teenagers already know to do it! — but we can give them (cognitive) tools to do it.

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Adri Allora

Adri Allora

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Linguist, entrepreneur (co-founder of Maieutical Labs), curious. I’m here on Medium mostly to learn, even when I write something.