Roger Schank
Biography  Part 2 of 2

While he was trying to get computers to learn, the school system was trying to get Roger Schank’s children to learn. Schank noticed that both the methods and the content used in each case were completely different. Schank was concerned with how a computer would acquire scripts and other kinds of procedural knowledge. He could, of course, simply put them in the computer, but then the issue was how to get them to understand what to do when a script failed. Scripts change over time after all. Schank realized that computers needed to be able to fail and to explain their failures in order to learn. In order to do this, they would need goals that they were trying to pursue that they might fail at achieving and the ability to figure out what to do so that they would succeed next time and realize the goal. His job therefore was to give the computers the ability to have experiences and to analyze their failures. Teaching, he believed, was best done when the computer was stuck and could take advice from an outside observer.

On the other hand, schools seemed to hold the collective belief that the essence of learning was the acquisition of new information about facts, rather than improving and expanding one’s own internal processes and abilities. Schank realized that he needed to expand his children’s horizons as the school wasn’t going to do it. (He later wrote a book for parents on how to do this.)

While talking to educators about the source of the problem, Roger discovered that there were various vested interests in education that were committed to things staying the way they were. Predicting that computers might serve as a vehicle by which changes might be accepted, Roger began to seek funds for building a computer curriculum where these issues could be dealt with.

In 1989, Andersen Consulting decided to give Schank funding to further experiment with his ideas if he was willing to shift his focus to training their employees. Schank believed that there was still much to be learned before he approached the schools, so he was happy to begin with adult learning. He moved to Northwestern University where he was given a chaired professorship and established the Institute for the Learning Sciences (ILS). In short order, ILS had nearly 200 employees and had attracted various government sponsors (the Army, the EPA, the National Guard) and other corporate sponsors (IBM, who sponsored software for children, Ameritech, and others.)

The premise of what ILS built was based on learning through simulation supported by just-in-time story telling. The software that was built allowed a student to play a role in a simulated world. For Andersen this might mean managing fictional employees (played on video by actors). For the EPA this meant running a public meeting and dealing with an angry populace. For the Army this meant convincing fellow officers of your plan of attack. For children he built programs that allowed them to travel the country in search of places where movie events took place (to learn geography) or to play the role of anchor and writer on the evening news (to learn about modern history.) ILS built hundreds of these kinds of simulations. World experts on every topic were videotaped and when a student ran into trouble in trying to accomplish something they listened to advice (sometimes contradictory) from the best and brightest about what they had done in similar situations.

This kind of software (one student, many recorded experts, simulations of all possible situations and responses) is very expensive to build. During the 1990's, money was available and some very high quality programs were delivered. Andersen Consulting was so excited by what ILS had built that they decided to enter into the business of building it for their own clients. Many ILS graduates started or joined a wide variety of companies to build simulation-based learning by doing software.

But by the time universities were ready to try out on line learn by doing programs that could instantiate Schank's ideas in real schools, times had changed, and there was little money available. So, he developed a much less costly version of his educational model, which he called the Story Centered Curriculum (SCC). In an SCC students inhabit a fictional world analogous to one which they hope to enter in real life.

In 2001, Schank became the Chief Education Officer of Carnegie Mellon's new Silicon Valley Campus, offering Masters degrees in Computer Science. The curriculum consisted entirely of projects—students work in teams, one project naturally leading to a more complex project, mentored by experts.  Taken all together, the projects in an SCC embody the story of life in this fictional world—in CMU's case, the life of a software engineer or e-commerce consultant.

In 2002, he founded Socratic Arts, a company that is devoted to making high quality learn by doing curricula available to businesses, schools and other organizations, and Engines for Education, a non-profit organization dedicated to designing and building new curricula for primary and secondary schools. Socratic Arts has grown into a vibrant educational software development facility (except that the facility is virtual) mostly focused on corporate training.

In 2008, Schank joined forces with La Salle University in Barcelona in order to build new on line masters degrees that are entirely experiential, using mentored learning by doing as a methodology.

In 2012, Schank launched a new venture called XTOL (experiential teaching on line.) XTOL creates learn by doing experiences for universities in any area of expertise. Socratic Arts designs and builds the on line courses which are financed by outside investors. The university partner offers and runs these programs. XTOL is currently focusing on computer science and business degree programs, but will soon move into other areas as well.

The University of Texas, The University of Maryland University College, and the Open University of La Salle are in the process of launching the short courses we have created. Other universities are signing up.  Five experiential masters degree programs have been built and will soon be launched.

Schank continues to work in Artificial Intelligence. Socratic Arts has launched EXTRA which is a dynamic memory reminding machine intended to give just in time expertise to people who need immediate help with decision making. Three areas where EXTRA has been built include medical decision, business decision making, and military decision making.

Part 2 of 2

Roger Schank
Education Outrage

Just a thought... If kids have to go to school (a really horrible idea as any movie maker can tell you) then maybe we could make school less horrible?

Read Schank's blog, Education Outrage

Artificial Intelligence

My new goal is not to build intelligent machines but rather to build an intelligently organized knowledge base that is easily accessible and gets smarter over time.

Visit the A.I. section to find out more.

Hand reaching
Spark the Flow

Socratic Arts is devoted to helping people learn, think, and create better.

Visit Socratic Arts to find out more.

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