Hacking EDU: Discussing Education Reform During Husky Fest

Hanson Hosein interviews Jean Floten

During a rainy kick-off to Husky Fest this past Thursday, the MCDM team was center stage for the entire day and strongly committed to discussing ways to transform education as we know it. If you’ve been paying attention at all to the Four Peaks Hacking Edu events and coverage, you’ll know that MCDM students and the head of our program, Hanson Hosein, are spending the month looking at reshaping education from every angle imaginable. Clearly higher education has reached a place where everything from the enormous costs to its purpose all together needs to be re-assessed. But grade school education and the complex digital divides that separate students along socio-economic lines at an early age are fair game for discussion as well. Education as a whole in the U.S. isn’t going as well as many Americans would like to believe and collectively throwing out ideas and discussing ways that it can be re-envisioned going forward is a necessary step.

For the third event in the month-long series, the MCDM team optend for a live televised event with four key educators offering their unique perspective on how education can be reformed. First up was Jean Floten, Chancellor of Western Governors University Washington who was able to speak about what it’s like heading a 100% online university. WGU is a potential model for what higher education as a whole may look like in the future given how rapidly we’ve become a digitized society.

Floten was the head of Bellevue College for 22 years and, having come from a brick and mortar educational institute, it’s interesting to see her so strongly in favor of the online method. At one point, Hanson asked Floten how can she promise a high quality and good experience when the instructors or professors can’t even see the students. It’s a question that isn’t easily answered, but Floten’s reply was a good one. She mentioned that from the moment students enroll in Western Governors University, they’re assigned an educational concierge/mentor to who is able to help them with any problems they have and is by their side virtually via instant message and chat features. When asked about the likeliness of students potentially cheating on exams given the fact that there’s no professor on hand to monitor students, Floten mentioned that actually, students are on camera while they’re taking tests and technology allows for a monitored learning situation, even in an online only environment.

Aside from the knee-jerk reaction about students being monitored at home while they work as a little creepy, it’s likely the only way to actually ensure everyone is being tested as fairly as possible. Chances are that, to some degree, this is a glimpse at the future of higher education. It lowers costs, allows students to learn at their own pace and tremendously cuts down on overhead while using technology to further students learning experience. There’s still something about being in a classroom with other students that feels most conducive to learning, but everyone has different needs.

University of Washington computer science professor Zoran Popovicjoined Hanson next and the two talked about ways that gaming can transform education across various age ranges. Popovic feels strongly that incentivizing education is important and thinks we need to find more ways to make education fun. He helped create a game for elementary aged youth that dealt with math, and specifically fractions. He says fractions is one of the first bottlenecks in grade school education where some students can see it, and others have more trouble.

Zorin Popovic

Fractions can trip up a lot of kids (and adults, let’s be honest) but the trick is to teach the subject in a fun way so that the answers are more visible. When students played the game that Popovic helped create, their ability to correctly answer questions increased. We here at the MCDM are learning a lot about the power of gaming and it seems that Popovic’s research is completely inline with the slightly alternative opinion that gaming can be used for a heck of a lot more than simply leisure. Can gaming be a part of the higher education model? Sure. It is for MCDM students and it can work elsewhere, and it almost seems like a no-brainer that it needs to be a more integral part of grade school education if research is showing that it helps students learn.

Ruby Smith Love was the third guest of the event and she brought an interesting perspective about the importance of STEM education. The state of Washington has a high need for workers who are at least fluent in the four pillars of STEM (Science, Tech, Engineering and Math) and in Seattle, jobs here practically demand it. But figures show that Washington grade-level and high schools aren’t doing a great job with STEM eduction. Despite what some might think, locally, the pipeline still is not in place. As the Chief Development Officer at Washington STEM, Love was able to speak directly to not just the importance of STEM education but what some of the barriers are locally for us to not be producing the talent our own micro economies require. Love mentioned that across America, 70% of jobs now require some level of STEM fluency. That number is only going to increase. She thinks that if can start pushing STEM subjects to their students at an early age so that fluency becomes second nature, it will make a difference. Love also mentioned that the stigma around science, tech, engineering and math being students that only “geeks” or “nerds” pursue needs to be eradicated. If kids only knew how cool it is to be educated and gainfully employed versus being hip and left behind, perhaps they would carry their science and math books to school with a bit more pride.

Panelists answer questions from the audience

Poet/activist Mark Gonzales helped close out the official interview portion of the show with a dynamic and didactic poem that encouraged the world to show its spine more often. Gonzales has a Master’s in Education from the UC system, spent time teaching in some of Los Angeles’ less desirable high schools and at Stanford University as an artist-in-residence. Having walked among gang members and Fulbright scholars, he knows that education at any tier is richer when some level of art and self expression is involved. He spoke about art as a healer, a teacher, and a vessel to help students perceive education through a different lens. Of course, that doesn’t have to be poetry, but if STEM is deemed to be so vital, perhaps an A for art could be included to help us create an educational model powered by STEAM instead.

Overall its vital for educators and those committed to the craft to be in these conversations and to share stories with one another about how they’re hacking education. This is too big of a monster to fight alone, thus it’s good to see that our Four Peaks Hacking Edu month has so many strong thinkers involved who are committed to walking and not just talking. With that said, the new MCDM Scholarship fund is now established and anyone who want to help give students more access to a coveted degree in our program can go here to not merely “donate,” but learn more about why helping digital media students in today’s economy will likely have a higher return on investment for this region than some might imagine.


photos by Dan Thornton


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