Dr Eric Hamilton is a Professor of Education with Joint Appointment in Mathematics at Pepperdine University, California. His education research has taken him across the globe: he is currently co-ordinating a Science Across Virtual Institutes project (SAVI), linking sixteen research groups in the USA and Finland. The SAVI is particularly interested in learner engagement and has formed links with Africa – a Kenyan “ICT champion” teacher attended the first meeting in Helsinki last October. Eric’s other research has also involved conducting studies in several locations in Kenya and Uganda. As an enthusiastic proponent of video media-making, he is also due to give a session on student and teacher media making at this year’s eLearning Africa Conference in Namibia. Once the News Team had caught up with him, he told us all about his work, his observations on eLearning, and the Socratic tradition.
Interview by Alasdair MacKinnon
eLearning Africa: What did your projects in Kenya and Uganda involve?
EH: The projects involved two interrelated themes. The first is an approach to applied problem solving in mathematics and science called “model eliciting activities”. This approach is increasingly used in US engineering education and is an effective pathway to building complex reasoning. The second involves the collaboration of teachers and students in the creation of videos that can be used on mobile devices to help advance classroom learning in science and mathematics.
eLearning Africa: What makes Africa of interest in conducting education research?
EH: This research takes place both in the US in Africa and it is fascinating wherever it is carried out. We have run one workshop in Australia and will go to Mexico City this summer. My interest in Africa originated in part from working with a colleague from Uganda, Goretti Nakabugo (now in South Africa). We began collaborating on the possibility of holding workshops on model eliciting activities as an approach for future learning environments; that eventually led to a successful grant proposal. Once that began all kinds of interesting developments unfolded. The research was intrinsically interesting, as were the various settings in Africa. It was a nice combination.
eLearning Africa: Have you noticed any difference in the outcome of similar studies conducted in Africa and elsewhere?
EH: It is both different and the same, an answer that you might anticipate.
One thing that is similar is that once students and teachers undertake the task of explaining structures in ways that are meant to be interesting and coherent to others, they become thoroughly engrossed. This happens with close to 100% certainty and is enormously satisfying to observe. Part of our research is to uncover conditions under which individuals and groups enter into “flow” states or become fully immersed in productive activity, so we are excited by this outcome. Deep and sustained immersion is uncommon in mathematics or science classrooms. It is a significant research development to be able to establish conditions under which deep engagement is routinely inducible.
There are significant differences, however, between the contexts. In general, it seems that teachers and students need to cross fewer generational bridges to collaborate in schools in Los Angeles. The collaboration in Africa has been remarkable, but from our sample it is true (without making a broader inference) that there is more hierarchy in African settings. It is also true that lessons created there seem to be more didactic then corresponding lessons in the US. This may be a matter, however, of what we emphasize in the initial training.
Finally, we found that African students seem ready to integrate media a bit more quickly than their American counterparts, though this also may be an artefact of how the workshops were organized and the individual participants.
eLearning Africa: You work a lot with video, which certainly is not new to education. How has the internet changed the use of video in the classroom, and what innovations are you yourself seeing at the moment?
EH: The main development as a result of the Internet is that content is shareable to a much greater degree. This has given rise to an entire industry of video providers. Equally important is the emergence of easy-to-use tools that permit individuals to create their own content, engendering an entirely new sense of community identity, ownership, and voice. Previous materials have always entailed a hierarchical arrangement whereby professional content producers make curriculum and materials that are then “consumed” or used within schools.
We currently, however, have new tools that upend this pattern.
These include new tools to allow teachers to blend digital representation systems, academic content and their own wisdom in crafting video to help advance learning. This significantly promotes a wonderful sense of personal creativity, ownership, and professional satisfaction. And of course, the internet furnishes a space for sharing these advances. In developing countries, or in countries where there are few language-appropriate materials, the ability to create shareable digital media takes on directly the shortage of materials . It places educators and students in the new role of being makers, not just consumers, of curriculum content.
Another “innovation” is the recognition of iterative thinking and an acceptance of the incomplete as necessary in developing “the next level” of something. We’re accustomed to textbooks having a certain level of perfection. The truth is that humans don’t act only when they have everything figured out. Ideas evolve. When it comes to making videos, there is a tolerance, a tolerance for amateur production. This is an excellent development. Why is it important? Because expertise requires continual evolution, observation, experimentation, and development. Educators that develop this combination will be far more effective than we ever dreamed. We have to tolerate transitional steps, patchiness and awkwardness, as novel and transformative new approaches that democratize access to creating and consuming knowledge become more commonplace.
eLearning Africa: You describe video-editing as a “deeply engrossing experience”. What effects do these experiences have on teachers and learners, and what benefits do they offer?
EH: Video editing is sublime. Far from being a merely technical craft, it is at the nexus of representation, content, creativity and pedagogy. This is a magical intersection. Video editing instils a deep sense of intellectual coherence at a fine-grained level, which is essential for making mathematics, for example, more broadly understandable to the large fraction of students who have unsatisfactory experiences in mathematics learning. The practice of video editing, when applied to mathematics or science, is indeed engrossing and it builds much deeper intimacy with the interconnectedness of ideas and their uses. Of course, because video editing exercises imagination and creativity, it strikes a distinctly human chord, something to which we should always aspire in education.
eLearning Africa: You have spoken to me previously of the Socratic tradition, and its goals. How do you see technology as allowing educators to approach those goals?
EH: The Socratic tradition is quite salient in our projects, where teachers and students work together to craft effective video explanations of ideas. The Socratic tradition is discursive: all voices are given full and respectful hearing, in contrast to the overused didactic approaches that still characterize most classrooms. It is the notion of leading multiple voices to contribute to a satisfying, thought-provoking or insightful conversation. This, at least, is the approach we take in our research, whereby teachers and students find ways to commend and critique one another, while perfecting videos in their presentation and mathematical or scientific accuracy. We emulate the “Japanese Lesson Study” approach, which is intrinsically Socratic. It is an approach that contravenes typical hierarchical structures in classroom learning. As teachers allow students to give voice to their own media productions and constructively comment on their videos, mutual trust and respect flourish, and students mature in their confidence and willingness to take on explaining challenging more or science. It is moving to observe cross-generational dynamics and intellectual growth between students and teachers in this way.
eLearning Africa: What do you hope to gain from the eLearning Africa conference?
EH: I will be at the conference with members of our team from different parts of Africa. We will invest time in one another and grow as a team through our conference participation and the pre-conference workshop we will hold. We hope to meet people, learn promising approaches, and form new ideas or thoughts we have never had before. We want to form new partnerships. We want to find ways to refine and advance the vision we are all following for transforming the future lives and learning of our students.
eLearning Africa: there’s a famous French print from 1910, showing education in 2000 (above). I’d like to ask you to make a wild prediction: what will education be like in 90 years‘ time?
EH: In the 1980’s, personal computing was revolutionary. In the 1990’s, the Internet was revolutionary. This past decade, social media has been revolutionary. What if we excel in chasing the dream of imagination and creativity in learning, and wind up forming revolutionary breakthroughs of this magnitude every year, every month, or every day? Makes me smile to imagine!
Eric Hamilton will be presenting many more of his findings at eLearning Africa 2013: taking part in a discussion on “How Digital Media Inspires Learner-Centred Learning” on the 30th and leading a hands-on pre-conference workshop for authoring digital video media entitled “A New Path to Creativity in Education” on the 29th. To take part in the workshop, please remember to register beforehand.