Seeing learning through the lens of venue

“Your non-responsive learning product will probably result in non-responsive learners” – Richard Feynman


In the ‘Art of Game Design’, Chapter 3, the fantastic Jesse Schell talks about ‘the lens of venue’

He posits that game designers often overfocus on the ‘device’ on which gamers play           (playstation, smartphone, PC) instead of focusing on a more important variable, the venue.

The venue is the place  where we actually play the game (the bus, the living room, the desk) . The venue exerts a great influence on the gaming experience we have. Games that  are successful in different venues present very different characteristics.

I believe taking the venue into consideration is also crucial for the design of learning experiences.  

Let’s look at learning through the lens of venue.


The workbench is a place where do serious work, like a desk. It is a “front-leaning” place, and the games that work well on this venue are usually long and intense, like ‘The World of Warcraft’

In my learning experience, high focus, highly visual learning activities that require intense keyboard and mouse activity (and probably two screens) are well suited for the desk. MS Excel or graphic design tutorials ring a bell.

My guess is that, if the learning task is ‘too relaxed’ for the desk, the person will choose to do something more ‘work-like’… after all, she is at the desk…and probably at an office, pretending to work.

MY TAKE: As a  designer of learning experiences, take advantage of the time learners spend on the workbench for high focus, keyboard and mouse intensive  tasks.


Ok, let’s move on to the venue of the hearth.



According to Schell, the hearth is the place where we have, as humans , historically tended fire. The living room is the classic example: a relaxed, yet noisy and sociable place. In the realm of games, those who succeed are either locally multiplayer or  fun to watch (think of Nintendo’s WII)

I suspect that university or corporate  cafeterias and campus lawns present similar characteristics.  The learning experiences that are suitable for such sociable places are NOT those that will make the learner look like a friendless geek.

MY TAKE: There is tremendous opportunity for designers to create mobile learning experiences for ‘hearth-like places’. Such experiences must be either fun to play together or fun to watch, like a Jeopardy game, perhaps?


The reading nook is the place where we sit  down and read. Tablet PC’s brought about new opportunities  for  game designers , and the same is of course true for designers of learning experiences.

The kind of games that work well on the reading nook are relaxed, much like reading a book.

MY TAKE: Take advantage of the moments when your learner is in his favorite couch to propose longer reading activities that  require significant focus. 



Gaming experiences that work well everywhere are interruptible and have simple stories. The book is the classic  learning device that is suited fot being used anywhere, as are Sudokus and word puzzles. The Kindle app for  smartphone is a strong competitor, but I believe online video Moocs are not, especially with current bandwidth constraints.

MY TAKE : Interruptible learning experiences, delivered in small chunks will succeed in charming the learner-on-the-go. Such ‘everywhere’ learning  experiences should be low bandwidth-friendly (text or audio only) and ANTICIPATE the offline moments the student will experience.


And you? What kind of learning do you enjoy doing on the workbench, on the reading nook or everywhere? Can you think of learning experiences that are successful in the hearth? 




The Mooc to take to a deserted island

In this blog post you will learn:

  • which Mooc should be first on your list.
  • a little bit about ‘diffuse’ and ‘focused’ modes of thinking.
  • a little bit about ‘illusions of competence’.

The last day I sat a final exam was a day to remember.

I was sitting at the last row of the lecture hall as the clock struck 15. It was time to hand the exam. I re-read my paper approvingly, put down my pen, and sighed. It was over. Four and a half years had gone by. I grabbed my jacket, stood up proudly  and walked down the lecture hall with a solemn, condescending stride. I delivered my paper to the examiner. I got out of the building. I was free.

I would finally have the time to  pursue my passions, intern at my dream company in Paris, and especially, educate myself outside academia. It was time to get into MOOCs.

That very night I enrolled in  “Learning How to Learn” by UC San Diego. It had excellent reviews.

I didn’t know it that day, but I was in for a beating.


I first learned about focused and diffuse modes of the mind. When you are paying your undivided attention to, say, a math problem, a project or a book, you are in a focused mode.

When you take a study break and go for a walk or make yourself a sandwich, your brain doesn’t just forget that you had been tackling a math problem for hours. It is still working on it subconsciously, but it loses the stronghold it had on your focus.  Your ideas take note that the master (your brain) is distracted and escape through the window.

They put their party pants on and go bounce freely in the immense dancehall of the mind called the diffuse mode;  a more relaxed kind of thought flow.  In this big party, your current ideas see other unrelated, older ideas sitting down, waiting to be asked for a dance. Often, new and old ideas hook up.

Every now and then, they really, really like each other.

When they do, you get an Eureka moment. You solve an engineering problem by comparing it to music scales. You come up with the most beautiful of metaphors. You remember a long forgotten problem that somehow applies to the marketing challenge you are working on.

This is the reason  why taking breaks from working and revising is crucial. It is only in moments of relative relaxation that your ideas escape the stronghold of the focused brain, go dance around, and luckily find a plan for the night.

This of course means that embarking in 5-hour study sessions while wearing  a sleeveless ‘rest is for the weak’ t-shirt is NOT the way to go.

Rest is for the weak.JPG

Don’t do this. Really.


The following week I learned about illusions of competence, the dangerous delusion of believing we understand a topic while we just feel more comfortable around it.

When you have been reading and re-reading a text, your eyes and your brain get used to it. Because of the familiarity, you feel more comfortable around the document. Then you confuse ‘feeling comfortable’ around a document with ‘understanding’ it.

I then remembered how confident I felt before an International Law test, and how confused and clueless I was during the actual exam.

I suddenly understood what was going on. I didn’t understand international law. I just felt comfortable around international law. It was an illusion of competence. This was probably true with most of my ‘knowledge’.


I might not understand you, but I feel comfortable around you. You must be an ‘illusion of competence ‘

The  mediocre grade I got that day  in Law was disappointing, but realizing I had deluded myself for half a decade actually hurt.

As weeks went by, I felt increasingly naked by the truths of learning being revealed to me… by a Mooc, no less…

It was hard for me, the quintessential clutch test taker, to accept it.

My career as a student was probably over, but my career as a learner, was just starting.

Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects

University of California, San Diego@Coursera

Massive Peer Assessment is a Killer Application. Part One

In this blog post you wil learn: 

  • What is massive peer assessment
  • Its implications for student feedback

Imagine  a university professor, sitting by himself in  a cozy  café. In front of him lay three dozen student projects. He looks at them and sighs. They will take him all weekend to read, comment and grade.

It is hard work, but someone has to do it.

Imagine a different situation now. What if the teacher were not faced with three dozen projects, but  three hundred ?

How about three thousand?


Enter Coursera HCI Mooc

This was the problem faced by the staff at Coursera and Stanford  during 2013’s Human Computer Interaction Mooc. They had to grade and provide feedback to homework submissions from over 3,000 students.

They solved it by outsourcing the classmates assesment to other classmates. Every student submitted a homework and  received specific instructions and a short training on ‘how to evaluate a peer’s  homework’. If they succeeded the training,  they were  trusted with grading five of their peer’s papers.

How reliable was it? 

Some papers were also evaluated by staff at Stanford, so as to provide some ‘ground truth’At the end of the assessment the absolute difference between peer and staff grades was 3%. Under- and over-grading sort of balanced out.

Not perfect, but still amazing.for the first time peer assessment had been used a such a massive scale.

Ever since,  calibration techniques have been devised to improve graders’ accuracy. Massive Peer Assessment (MPA from now on) is now used in hundreds of Moocs in several platforms.

Call it ‘crowdsourcing of feedback and grading’

Call it ‘assessment by the students, for the students’

I call it a killer application. 

To see why this is the case, let’s fist talk about student feedback.

Student Feedback

One of the most interesting aspects of the technology is its implication on student feedback. It  has the potential to make it more timely. And a lot, a lot more abundant. These are exciting news for several reasons:

  • First, feedback is precious.     In the now  classic 2-Sigma paper ,  Benjamin B. Bloom observed that one-on-one -tutoring using  effective techniques can help any student raise to the top 2% of her class. Yes, any student. The availability of immediate, personalized feedback is at the core of the value added  by a tutor, and can indeed make or break a student.
  • Respective to motivation, feedback ist crucial. In  Flow Theory, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi established that immediate feedback is  a crucial element for a person to concentrate fully on a task , a state of enjoyment also called being  in the zone.   There is no better state of mind for learning  than being in the zone. 
  • On the flipside, lack of feedback is dangerous. Research has found that ignoring a person’s efforts is almost as bad for motivation as destroying their work.


Massive Peer Assessment and student feedback.

Indeed, I believe most learning today is largely  feedbackless task. Classrooms and training needs are too large.  Incredibly, not even after major educational milestones like final exams do students get substantial feedback. Whatever the context,  feedback for students is extraordinarily scarce.

I believe there are  very juicy, low hanging fruits in terms of student achievement and motivation if we get more timely and abundant feedback. Massive peer assessment has now made those fruits accessible.

I believe MAP can allow educators to leverage abundant, quality feedback into the creation of  learning experiences  that approach Bloom’s ‘One-on-one tutoring’ in terms of achievement and that are engineered in a manner that students can really enjoy and get in the zone.


But that  is not all. Oh no, that is not all.


MAP might be precious for the student receiving it, but the same is true for the students generating it.


Indeed, assessing someone else’s work and explaining things to others are first-class learning experiences. Massive Peer assessment democratizes such experiences.

Coming soon:

Part 2: Why assessing peers is a  world-class learning experience  


Read more about Coursera and Stanford’s use of MPA here

A ‘Richard Feynman’ study blog.

“If you cannot explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough” – Albert Einstein

In this post you will learn: 

  •  2 study hacks that will make you a better learner.
  •  what a Feynman blog is.

So, what’s a Feynman blog?

A “Richard Feynman” study blog is a  learning tool.

It is a blank notebook, that I will fill in little by little with chapters and sections from the books, Moocs and research papers I am studying. I will attempt to truly learn the content by explaining it in my posts.


So, who’s Feynman?

Richard Feynman was a giant among physicists, an innovator in many aspects of his profession. You will see some links about the man at the end of this post.

He was an extraordinary teacher  and science popularizer, capable of making arcane subjects such as Quantum Physics understandable to everyone.. His creativity in conveying ideas earned him the nickname ‘The Great Explainer’, no less.

He also possessed a non-subatomic level of swagger.


In his path to becoming an erudite in physics, Richard Feynman used the following study hacks. Given the man’s resume, I thought it was a good idea to give them a try.

Feynman Study Hack #1

1. Choose a concept you want to learn about. Read about it.

2. Explain it to a another person. Try to use metaphors and analogies

3. Evaluate the quality of your explanation. If you hesitated, relied on complicated vocabulary or your pupil didn’t understand it,  it means YOU YOURSELF don’t understand the concept well enough. Back to the books.

4. Simplify the concept, use analogies and metaphors.

5. Back to trying to explain it!

Once you succeed at making  a clear explanation, you will have  organically validated your own learning, and gained a deeper understanding of the topic.

Feynman Study Hack #2

1. Choose a topic you want to learn about. Divide it into subtopics.

2. Grab a notebook. On the title page write : “NOTEBOOK OF THINGS I DON’T KNOW ABOUT”

3.Proceed to write the name of each subtopic at top of each page.  Some topics you will know something about, some others will not.The challenge is to fill every single page of your notebook.

4. The fact that you have a physical representation of ‘pages you have to fill’ will help increase your motivation to carry out the task. The idea is to tap into your human-embedded need for completion. We humans crave completion. It is one of those benign evolutionary bugs that have helped humanity survive. Most irresponsible cavemen who just left stuff undone probably succumbed to hungry, sable-toothed tigers entering through uncovered  hut holes, thus sparing us from those lazy genes.


 Ok, ok, you lost me there. What is a Feynman blog , again?

A Feynman blog mixes both Feynman techniques. It is a digital notebook, full of blank  pages, with the titles of  the books/moocs and research I need to read and thoroughly understand.

Not only do I have to write notes on the topics, but I have to explain them as clearly as possible. I rely on your comments to improve my explanations if you think they are not clear enough.

Your feedback is crucial, for it will help me obtain the necessary knowledge to design world-class learning experiences.

It is almost empty now, but everyday, a new chapter of a book will be ready.

See the future content of my ‘Feynman-Style’ blog here

Assorted links:

A video on Richard Feynman explaining fire is here .

Cal Newports Blog Post on the Feynman Study Method #2 is here.

Bil Gates on Richard Feynman as a teacher is here