Review of ‘At-Risk’: A Simulation Training Program for College Staff

heeter80By Carrie Heeter
Editor, Games Development

I vividly remember the day I received email from a graduate student who had gone missing from my online class, announcing that he had “just gotten back from the loony bin.” He wrote that he had checked himself in to a mental hospital and was now back and ready to start making up late assignments (with one week left in the semester). Over the years as professors each of us comes to realize our students are enrolled in classes other than just the ones we are teaching, and beyond that they have real lives, jobs, and families. Our official job is to teach well, to inspire, and to grade fairly while juggling our own impossible to meet demands of work and life. Unofficially, the unfolding joys and concerns experienced by everyone’s whole self may enrich or undermine teaching and learning.

At-Risk is a simulation training program designed to addresses one specific, potentially lifesaving dimension of this complex milieu.

At-Risk was created by Kognito, in partnership with the Mental Health Association of New York City (MHA-NYC). MHA-NYC programs help raise awareness about mental health problems and encourage people to seek treatment. The At-Risk training simulation teaches college faculty to identify mental health problems among their students and to refer mentally distressed students to the college counseling office for assistance.

poster with 3 small people in front of 1 taller person and the words: at-risk - identify students in mental distress - refer them to the campus counselling center

In the simulated 20 person class, 6 students have been flagged as potentially experiencing mental distress. As the instructor, your goal is to talk with each of those students and, if appropriate, refer them to the counseling center. You can review each student’s grades, behavior in the class, and appearance. You are told at the beginning that three of the six are at-risk, but you are not told which three. The training simulation lasts approximately 45 minutes. It is 2D web based and includes many lengthy narrated explanations before and after the interactivity.

At-Risk uses “conversation menus” organized by category to offer choices of what to say next. The animated student responds, choices of what the instructor says next are presented, and the simulation offers encouragement or criticism about the conversation choices.

I played through the free online demo of one of the six students. Wendy’s problems were exaggerated and extreme. She is a 4.0 student who is so nervous she comes in to talk about every assignment. Heart palpitations caused her to go to the health clinic, causing her to skip the class presentation. As I played through the simulation, I argued with myself about whether it is reasonable for professors to call a meeting with 4.0 students who are nervous about speaking in class, even if the student is very nervous. I made a note to myself to check whether my university counseling center still exists, after the latest round of budget cuts, and what services they offer.

I also found that experiencing the simulated conversation was helpful and informative, even though I was trying to figure out what the simulation expected me to choose. It was useful to choose and hear spoken exactly how to bring up the counseling center. If sending students there has a chance of helping them cope better with life and with school, that’s something I would be willing to do. And now I have a better sense of how it’s done. The simulation was more useful in convincing me of the importance of identifying mental health problems and in showing me how to refer people than reading a brochure would have been.

clip-art-like image of a class where students at risk are marked by a white triangle above their heads

I also naively expect socially useful serious games to be free. At-Risk is definitely not free. Licensing fees are way beyond what any individual faculty member would consider paying. I am not familiar with how universities prioritize nontrivial expenses like this for 45 minutes of online simulation, especially in times of deep budget cuts. The online free demo for one of the six students was informative and useful. Playing the other five conversations would not add five times more value — just playing one was enough to get the most important message: referring students is not hard to do and could help them a lot.

Serious game design needs to be accompanied by research to determine whether the serious goals have been met. Kognito has taken this important step. They are studying their own product and using the findings in marketing. And yet, product specific efficacy studies are not an expected domain for academic scientific research. The research findings offer a window onto desired and achieved impacts of the At-Risk simulation. I contacted the company for details about the sample size that I didn’t see online. They responded that 42 colleges and universities (who were not paying customers) were invited to use a trial subscription. The first 35 individuals who completed the training at each institution were automatically invited to complete an anonymous online survey. Respondents who were full time practicing psychologists were excluded from study results which, instead, focus on faculty and staff reactions. A total of 375 respondents are represented in the results. No response rate percentage is known.

Key findings from the Kognito.com online research report:

  • Over 80% reported that At-Risk increased their awareness that identifying and referring students is part of their job role and that At-Risk made them more likely to engage in identifying and referring at-risk students.
  • 87% of respondents indicated they were better prepared to identify, refer, and approach at-risk students, and 82% felt better prepared to help a suicidal student.
  • 99% of respondents said the simulated conversations were realistic representations of conversations they were likely to have with at-risk students.

If I had been a respondent, I would have answered the way the majority of respondents did, based only upon playing the demo.

For more information about the simulation see http://www.kognito.com/atrisk/

Innovation in Education: What? How?

Harry KellerBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

What is innovation in education? How can you make it happen?

Within my focus of science education, I see little in the way of really innovative ideas being implemented in classrooms. Part of the reason has been discussed by John Adsit (“Needed – A Professional Approach to Teaching“). More on that later.

I’ll begin with where education innovations originate.

“That which has come to be, that is what will come to be; and that which has been done, that is what will be done; and so there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9).

And so it is with ideas. There are really no new ideas, just remixing and repackaging of old ideas. As I researched the ideas underlying the use of student science laboratory experiences in teaching science, I found a single theme repeated again and again: inquire, explore, and discover.

In many of these cases, the author did not acknowledge those who had gone before, suggesting a rediscovery rather than building on previous knowledge. What a waste! You’ll detect echoes of Adsit’s article here. If educators would just study what has gone before, they could save time and improve education.

Therein lies at least one fertile area for innovation. Seek out previous ideas that worked well in the classroom but failed to spread for some reason. Understand that reason. Find a way to overcome the problem and repackage the good idea so that it will work this time.

hallAs for inquiry learning in science, Prof. Edwin H. Hall of Harvard University was using it in 1891. He wrote a book, A Text-Book of Physics: Largely Experimental, that included his philosophy in its introduction. Reading that introduction was a real eye opener for me. Those old guys were really quite smart. I should note that Prof. Hall was famous for discovering the Hall effect.

Hall had great success initially with his idea, but it foundered. Why? The reasons are not hard to find. Hall himself states that the laboratory class sizes must be no greater than twelve students. Try to imagine that in today’s typical public schools. New York City limits class size to 34 students, nearly triple the Hall limit.

Another reason can be found in the writings of Frederic W. Westaway, a very well-known writer on science philosophy and education from the 1890s through the 1920s. He also supported the inquiry approach to learning science and wrote eloquently about the qualifications of a science instructor in the inquiry mode. Such a person must be conversant with all science subjects, not just the one being taught. The instructor must also be well-acquainted with the history of science and understand the philosophy of science.

No amount of teacher recruiting, professional development, increase in teacher salaries (a good thing for other reasons), curriculum reform, or other traditional methods of improving instruction will fix these problems – at least not in a reasonable amount of time and with a reasonable amount of money. So, for over 100 years, this concept has languished. Periodically, it’s been resurrected and promoted by this person or that. Teacher workshops result in enthusiastic responses. Yet, it dies again and again. The pressures of required curriculum, tight budgets, limited and diminishing instruction time, remedial work with unprepared students, and so on prevent using this technique. Also, the teachers are not prepared for the demands of this teaching style. They haven’t the background that Westaway suggests they must have.

The rapidly and exponentially increasing computational and communication capabilities provided by today’s technology provide the best means to get out of this situation. Software can build in process and support so that teachers don’t have to be experts. Software can track student progress and success and suggest where extra effort should be expended. Administration can see whether teachers are using the tools well. I’ve implemented these ideas for online/offline science labs and found that they work very well. The best part, in some ways, is being able to make adjustments in the software rapidly. The software evolves much more rapidly than traditional textbooks or curricula. It just keeps getting better.

I can recommend this approach to innovation to anyone:

  • Research your particular area of interest.
  • Find educational approaches that have worked very well but failed to spread out into the general population.
  • Find out why.
  • Think about how technology can overcome the obstacles.

If you find a way, you could be the author of the next great education innovation.

kellerdec1808Lest you jump too quickly into innovating, allow me to add a small caution. You’ll have to get the educators who will use your innovation on board. Here’s where Adsit’s comments really come into play. Working for a school is completely unlike working for a company. The company will tell you what tools to use. You’ll be reviewed once or twice a year. Your salary and continued employment depend on the outcome of the review. Even if your job has little that can be measured objectively, you’ll still be measured.

If you invent a truly astounding education innovation that can transform students everywhere into great learners, you’ll face very high hurdles. You won’t be able simply to sell a school district on your invention. They have to get the buy-in of the teachers, who may say nice things about your idea and then go back to the classroom and continue on as though you didn’t exist. The teachers cannot be forced to use new ideas. Unless you’re relieving some real pain that these teachers feel, you won’t succeed without Herculean efforts. And failing students are not pain.

Adsit comments that a school leader was sticking to the “tried and true” methods. He was right to put that phrase in quotes. The real tried and true methods are those that have been tried and found to be true in that they work well. The methods the leader was implementing were “tried and false” instead. It’s insanity to expect doing more of the same in a failing situation will change the result.

For all of us who would like to see education progress to greater success, we have to identify the problems. That’s easy. We have to determine how to fix the problems. That’s proven to be very hard indeed. Someone once told me that education is the institution that is the third most resistant to change. “What are the first two?” I asked. Monasteries and nunneries was the answer.