The Idea Train

Do you remember the first time you used a search engine? Do you remember thinking, “why has nobody thought of this before?” Then, as search got better and better and better, do you now wonder what we did without being able to find just about any piece of information within minutes?

I just experienced that, but for math, computer science, and professional writing.

Let me explain.

I have been writing books on learning, education, innovation, eLearning, etc., for a little more than a decade. (I know what you’re thinking. It’s only pathetic if I never get published…which I believe is closer than ever!) During my time writing, I have always done my best to seek out, hear out, or interview educators doing interesting and efficacious things. So I was ecstatic to have such an occasion this week. I’d like to tell you a little bit about what some fantastic professors are doing…

In full disclosure, I was given conditional permission to post this. One of the professors who is engaged in what you’re about to read reached out to me for a favor. So, with a little quid pro quo, I asked if I could tell the world about this. She said I could, but only if I kept it anonymous. (These professors want to publish and maybe more.) They aren’t even remotely worried about someone “stealing” their idea. First, she noted they would be thrilled if someone did so. But second, they have very little faith that other professors could or would take the initial time to set this up. So all in all, she isn’t concerned about intellectual property. So what is it that they hope to tell the world via an article or paper later this year?

First, you need to know the back-handed compliment that I received as it informs the actions. These three professors, who were not even friends a few years ago, label themselves as progressives. They read about education reform a lot. They watch TED Talks a lot. They go to conferences and actually attend the keynotes and the sessions, even presenting themselves. And like other progressives I know, they feel that most professors really know their stuff, but struggle to help students learn that “stuff” effectively. All three professors were lamenting this one day when they happened to be seated together for lunch. This led to a long conversation about a shared frustration - the lack of teaching education that college / university professors receive. So, despite a lack of support from their departments (who expect them to upskill around subject matter expertise, not andragogy), they started working together to change things for themselves and their students.

Enter me. Well, technically I had no idea any of this was happening. But I happened to be a keynote speaker at a conference a few years back and two of the three profs heard me. Again, unbeknownst to me, they consumed as much of my material as possible, going back to every resource, citation, or presentation from my keynote. They went back through old blogs, old YouTube presentations, and Slideshare decks. One idea of mine resonated with them a lot: the multi-course, realistically collaborative, gamified classes that I had built. At the time, I was able to report on the “Alternate Reality Learning Experience” (or ARLE) as I named it; the amazing experiences Saint Leo students were having through the 9-subject mock debate and the 5-subject mock trial we put on. These professors started to noodle with the idea that a single experience could generate authentic problems, realistic solutions, and find genuine interdependence for students, making teams important instead of annoying.

Before I continue, here is the back-handed compliment. My friend / colleague was quick to tell me that they really enjoyed about 80% of my stuff, but they disagreed with 20%. I didn’t feel too badly about that though, as they soon said they found some fantastic elements in work by Sir Ken Robinson, whiz kid math teacher Dan Meyer, game guru Jane McGonigal, and more experts I knew. But they also struggled with the lack of practicality from Sir Ken, the lack of substance behind the clever tricks from Meyer, and the reliance on resources they would never have by McGonigal. So I was in good company. But essentially, they took the best “bits” of some of the worlds best strategists, throwing out what they felt was bad or too hard, and created the following:

First, they didn’t want an ‘alternative reality’ experience, they wanted the experience for students to be real. So, rather than a mock or fake anything, they started asking how they could create an app or other software solution that would be available for use by the world.

Second, they wanted to impact the motivation issue if possible. When you hear what they did, I think you’ll agree that they impacted it a lot.

Third, they wanted the same kind of interdependent, multi-class collaboration project I had described.

Finally, they wanted the stakes to be far beyond grades. They wanted the students to see if the world believed they had met a need, solved a problem, etc.

How did they do all that?

I’ll describe two of the four apps here, but know there are two others I won’t get to. The first happens to speak to me personally as a major fan of pro football. Before you roll your eyes or dismiss this, know that the math professor in our story loathes organized sports. But he soon saw the motivation of sports to some students. Specifically, he noted the power of fantasy sports.

At the heart of fantasy sports is statistics. Perhaps better than any major sector in the world, sports has fully leaned into the power of statistics, numbers based predictions, and algorithmic decision making. It is estimated that in 2018, the average professional football game was simulated more than 220,000 times before it ever ran. Meanwhile, statisticians tweaked variables like injuries, weather, or a “hot hand.” As a result, anyone can sign up for (at a healthy cost) computer-aided predictions for the best possible fantasy players to choose week by week. Several indicting articles came out in 2018 explaining that “pro” bettors were using these sites and algorithms, making it unfair to the average “fan” who was simply trying to pick players based on their own wits. Well, these teachers are hoping to change some of that.

One of the apps being built by the Computer Science students is a fantasy prediction app. It will not only tell you which players to choose, but it will also tell you how much better or worse its predictions are from other apps / sites that do the same. One clever “kicker” the students came up with? The app doesn’t make money unless the player makes money. But guess what that kind of application needs? Math.

That kind of prediction doesn’t just need math, it needs serious math. The weighting of variables, the creation of a consistency ranking, bivariates, categorical values, and on and on. But do you know what else a predictive app like that needs? Professional writing and definitions. The software needs to be clear, concise, and to the point, while also seeming appealing and user friendly.

Do you see how CS, math, and writing students might be able to work on just such an app? Me too!


The other app was also something that felt important to me. Students actually perform a pitch competition at the start of the term, leading to the building of the apps. (They also do this in teams.) One set of students noted the real problem with shopping for clothes. As manufacturers don’t all use the same measurements for a men’s medium, for a women’s 8, nor even when buying 34X32 pants (how is that possible, by the way?), buying clothes can be hard and even humiliating for some. Enter the students.

They are building out an app that will use a common point of measure by which to give the closest possible “true” measures of both people and clothing. I struggled to understand this, so my friend simplified it for me.

“The app starts by knowing the size of your hand. It also knows your personal measurements. Then, after it knows that, you put your hand in the picture with a shirt on the ground and let the app scan both. It tells you if the shirt is more or less likely to fit you.”

Brilliant. As a 6’5” male with pants ranging from 36 to 42, that would be amazing! And just as in the fantasy football example above, there is a lot of number crunching and a lot of textual explaining to do.

Aside from the internal hoops these professors had (and are still having to) jump through, do you see the authentic nature of the experience? Do you see the active learning examples that may also lead to powerful job interviews when these students explain projects that could live under the umbrella of a company? The professors are even working to find ways for the students to be remunerated for the apps, if the world thinks highly enough of them to purchase. That takes job-study to a whole new level, doesn’t it?

I’m thrilled that my “80%” was part of the impetus here. This story, especially if it comes out in time, will be part of my “Garden of EDU” chapter for my book. (The chapter of stories showing efficacy.) I hope it inspires you to think about how you might do this at your college or university.

Good luck and good learning.