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iCue Testing

Lessons from a failed attempt at educational reform

Two iconic institutions. Six capital letters. One bittersweet tale. A new book from MIT Press recounts how MIT and NBC partnered up to revolutionize education and ended up learning some lessons of their own.

The More We Know
By Eric Klopfer and Jason Haas
MIT Press, 2012, $27.95

The More We Know: NBC News, Educational Innovation, and Learning from Failure describes the life and (slow) death of a product called iCue. The book is written by two people who worked on iCue, Eric ­Klopfer and Jason Haas. Klopfer is a professor of science education at MIT and director of the Scheller Teacher Education Program. Haas is a graduate student in the Media Lab. iCue was a—well, it defies easy description, and that was maybe part of the problem.

Simply, iCue was an attempt, born in 2005, to teach history, politics, literature, and more online through archival material. The main unit of content was a short video—typically a broadcast news clip—that appeared on a flippable “CueCard.” The back of this virtual card held data and room for the user’s notes. The site featured course syllabi, test questions, games, and social networking.

Alex Chisholm and colleagues from MIT’s Department of Comparative Media Studies outlined the project and eventually partnered with NBC, which had the content, the money, and the audience. “It was a chance to try to get out into the world some of the ideas we had around games and media and education,” ­Klopfer says. They wanted to influence learning and collect data on student behavior. Meanwhile, NBC wanted an in with a younger generation, and it eventually came to share the researchers’ passion for education as an end in itself.

The team realized it couldn’t capture much of the home test-prep market, and schools were a hard sell, too. Teachers couldn’t easily fit this collaborative and self-directed educational tool into their top-down teaching methods. NBC also watered down or eliminated games, social networking, and user-generated content, in part because of privacy concerns. Released free on the Web in 2008, iCue was shut down in 2011 after attracting only a few thousand users, mostly adults. Tens of millions of dollars had been spent. “This was a product to be proud of,” Klopfer and Haas write, “but ultimately not the product that anyone at NBC News or MIT would have preferred to see make it to market.”

The book offers lessons for academics, educational entrepreneurs, and established media companies eager to participate in massive open online course (MOOC) initiatives such as edX. One takeaway is that the educational system is built on strict standards that need to change before it can accommodate new models of interaction. Another is that media companies have a lot to offer but benefit from the guidance of academia. A third is that new educational products require patient incubation.

“Our goal,” Haas says, “was to provide an accessible narrative as a way into the things we really care about.”

Recent Books from the MIT community

The Life of Cheese: Crafting Food and Value in America
By Heather Paxson, associate professor of anthropology, University of California Press, 2012, $29.95, $70

The Assumptions Economists Make
By Jonathan Schlefer, PhD ’03, Harvard University Press, 2012, $28.95

Long Shot: Vaccines for National Defense
By Kendall Hoyt, PhD ’02, Harvard University Press, 2012, $29.95

Engineering Signals and Systems
By Fawwaz Ulaby and Andrew E. Yagle, SM ’81, EE ’82, PhD ’85, NTS Press, 2013, $138.95

The Innovation Butterfly: Managing Emergent Opportunities and Risks During Distributed Innovation
By Edward G. Anderson Jr., PhD ’97, and Nitin R. Joglekar, SM ’87, PhD ’97 Springer, 2012, $129

Medical Equipment Maintenance: Management and Oversight
By Binseng Wang, ScD ’79, Morgan & Claypool, 2012, $35

Cyberpolitics in International Relations
By Nazli Choucri, professor of political science , MIT Press, 2012, $27, $54

Resisting Reality: Social Construction and Social Critique
By Sally Haslanger, professor of philosophy, Oxford University Press, 2012, $35

Contact MIT News
E-mail mitnews@technologyreview.com, Write MIT News, One Main Street, 13th Floor, Cambridge, MA 02142, Fax 617-475-8043

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