Maaroof Fakhri, Head of K12 Education at Labster, joins the podcast to discuss immersive education in the metaverse, and why “productive failure” is where the best learning happens.

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One of the most important lessons a student can learn is to fail early and often — by doing so, they discover how to tackle challenges consistently. 

In this episode, Maaroof Fakhri, Head of K12 Education at Labster, describes the process of “productive failure,” and how immersive education in the metaverse can help students fail in a budget-friendly and safe environment.

The Importance of Failure Over Success

Failing can be fun. This seems counterintuitive, doesn't it? Failing is usually associated with negative consequences: If you don’t succeed, then the whole process is useless.

But students learn along the way with any project they take on, regardless of its success or failure. Consider the problem solving required when a project goes awry. When a project veers from the original plan, a student actually has more opportunity to learn new things. 

Maaroof taught productive failure at schools in the form of a science project. Dressed as a superhero who couldn’t fly, he tasked students with the challenge of getting him into the air. 

It usually took several failed attempts to help Maaroof fly with the help of an airplane or rocket before students found the solution: placing him in a hot air balloon. But even if the students didn't find a satisfactory solution, one thing was true: They had fun figuring it out. 

By practicing productive failure, students are less rattled when they take on truly big challenges. The real world rarely provides a problem that can be solved without surprises; we must help the problem solvers of tomorrow recognize this truth.

Limitations of Budget and Student Safety

The current school situation isn’t as conducive to productive failure as it could be. Think of the science lab where two students must share a microscope, a school budget that only allows each student to conduct an experiment once, or the safety concerns that restrict students from dangerous, but important, situations.

Virtual simulations can help solve this problem: A student can try the experiment as many times as they need, at the pace they need. They don't have to worry about real-life safety concerns, such as lab fires or other dangerous situations. 

Teachers can also keep a closer eye on all of their students. In a traditional lab, a teacher can only be in so many places at once. In a virtual setting, the teacher can check a student’s mastery afterwards, identify any problems, and report back to the student with a more formulated solution than if they needed to answer on the spot. 

Virtual environments also don’t have to follow the same rules as a traditional lab. They can feature fantastical storylines by going into outer space, zooming into the structure of a molecule, or seeing a mysterious creature wash up on a beach shore. These possibilities can offer firsthand experience in how science works. 

Learning from Video Games

Most students like video games. It makes sense: With interactive, engaging storylines and reward systems, there’s a real payout to playing. 

Taking those same principles and applying them to traditional learning, Labster has found a sweet spot for students to get the most out of their lab experience — even helping lagging students catch up with their coursework more quickly than a traditional approach. 

The Equity of Access

If a school already has budget constraints, adding virtual reality seems out of the question (Just one Oculus headset costs approximately $300). 

Fortunately, Labster has been around for a lot longer than the recent metaverse boom taking place. Operating from mostly low-end laptops and tablets that schools tend to already have, the opportunity to use virtual reality resources is readily available for most schools. 

While Maaroof doesn’t see a total shift over to virtual reality labs, he hopes to see more schools embrace the tool in the classroom to help students get the most out of their education and build their ability to productively fail.

Guest Links 

Labster Virtual Labs

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This episode was brought to you by Art of Problem Solving, where students train to become the great problem solvers of tomorrow. 

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Episode Transcript

Maaroof Fakhri Q&A [1:54]

Eric Olsen: On today's episode Maaroof Fakhri, Head of K12 education at Labster joins the podcast to discuss immersive education in the metaverse and why productive failure is where the best learning happens.

Maaroof, why is it so important for students to fail early and fail often? Why is productive failure where the best learning best happens?

Maaroof Fakhri: So I guess my first introduction to productive failure was when I was a science performer. I used to travel in to schools and teach students science, but as a character, as a superhero who was trying to learn to fly. And so the idea was we, the students would be learning principles of flight, maybe how a plane flies or a rocket flies and then they'd try and apply it to me as a superhero who wanted to be like the other superheroes who could fly and every time it would fail. So they'd learn about how rockets fly and we'd try that out and it didn't work and then we'd learn how planes flew and I'd try to be a plane and it didn't work. And eventually we got to the end and we found a way that could work which was actually a hot air balloon. And then I would fly up in that sort of cheating, but it was, it reminded students that science is fun.

And ultimately the most fun part of science is when things go wrong over and over again, and you build this muscle of learning how to tackle problems by failing and ultimately then the learning kind of sort of happens as a side effect. So I think it's really important for students to develop that comfort very early, because then you don't get rattled when a big challenge comes along that you don't know how to solve. And I think the world is full of important challenges to tackle that aren't really very described very well or prescribed and there are a lot of unknowns and so I think building that skill very early and being comfortable with failing is ultimately what's going to lead students to success when they kind of go out into the real world.

Eric Olsen: I love that story and reminder that skipping to the ending, not only skipped learning, but just isn't fun as well. It's like giving a brain teaser to someone and just telling them the answer and cheating them out of the mystery and the progress and so if I think about our current school situation, in a real life school lab situation, budget and student safety sort of dictate that we can't have a lot of failures along the way. The student's got to get one chance, one set of materials to conduct one experiment perfectly, but you argue that's not always where the best learning or any learning actually happens. How do virtual simulations help solve for this?

Maaroof Fakhri: Yeah, that's a good question. So sometimes it's not even one chance a student gets. We see a lot of situations in schools where there's one microscope between two students or one between four and the one confident student sort of takes over the experiment or takes over the activity and the rest sort of stand around and watch. So with a simulation, which is what we build, first of all it gives every student their own sort of multimillion dollar lab that's very interactive, that they can participate in, but it's also a safe place for them to try things out at their own pace. They can make mistakes. They can look at things and figure out why the experiment didn't work. Maybe it did blow up the lab and they're like, hmm, why that didn't happen in real life. They never run out of materials as well.

So they can really try things over and over again and build that confidence, build that muscle for problem solving. It also sort of on the teacher side has a lot more room I think for feedback because the students going. It's really hard for a teacher to monitor so many students in a science class and in a lab so along the way we sort of prompt the student with questions, check their mastery and then a teacher can kind of go in and sort of identify where the students struggled. Maybe they attempted it three or four times and they got stuck at the same point. So they've got a sense of how to steer the student when they come into class and I think a little bit like a flat simulator we're able to give students a scenarios that you couldn't really do in real life like the dangerous ones or sometimes working with animals, which have ethical questions, et cetera.

Labster has been building immersive educational experiences in the metaverse for a decade now [6:04]

Eric Olsen: I love that flight simulation analogy. How dare you put me on a plane with a pilot that has not crashed a hundred times in a simulation without actually taking down a fleet of 747s. Let's ask the same for our scientists and our innovators and our researchers. So when I watch videos of Labsters virtual lab experience it's very reminiscent of the metaverse demos that I see Mark Zuckerberg on the Today Show with talking about. Now Maaroof, we all know Zuckerberg invented the metaverse just a few months back so how dare you claim that Labsters been doing this for 10 years?

Maaroof Fakhri: Yeah. Look, hey, it's great to have more champions coming to the party of immersive experiences. Thankfully there has actually been a lot of work kind of in this area already. Decades of it really. It just in the last 10 years we've focused really on how it can enhance education and good learning design and in, I use enhance for that reason. It's not about really replacing things that happen in the classrooms. It's really how does technology kind of support that and make it better? So we, I think it can really deliver kind of great learning experiences. We use storylines a lot in what we do. We frame the problem for a student.

Maybe they're off on an asteroid to collect samples. They're preparing for a basketball game and they're looking for the best food to eat, to give them the top performance or they're working in a hospital with a patient or maybe some mysterious creature has washed up on shore and they're sort of standing there and looking at this weird beast that's sitting on the beach and that's something you can do. You can transport students to a real life scenario, a problem and then from there they might step into a lab and they have access to all the equipment. So it's then about enhancing the equity of access pace, giving them the highest end equipment that maybe their schools can't afford.

And then I think the last piece which I feel immersive experiences really add value to is the fact that you can zoom in and out. Science can be very abstract. Molecules are often invisible and so when they're on that asteroid and they've collected that sample, they're in the lab and they're looking for signs of life or water, they're able to zoom in and really see the molecules interacting, or if they eat something before a game, they can dive into the body and really see what happens. So I think that really demystifies a lot of science. It's no longer about belief in what's happening. You can see it taking place. You can understand the principles at work, and then you can continue on with the rest of the lab work, really understanding and putting it in context.

Does the metaverse replace the classroom or supplement it? [9:05]

Eric Olsen: Let's dig into use cases. I feel like I buy into the problem that you've presented. I buy into the possibility that virtual simulations and immersive education can provide. What does this actually look like? Walk us through how high schools are most commonly using Labster today. I think in my head I'm picturing a bunch of kids at home not going into school anymore, wearing oculus'. I'm guessing the reality isn't quite like that.

Maaroof Fakhri: No. So we actually work more on low end laptops and tablets and devices because equity of access is a big part of that. You don't need an expensive headset to really, to have these types of experiences and I think that's one of the things sometimes the metaverse distracts us from. We want to make sure no one misses out. And so in the classroom it's often used as a, slotted into a curriculum that already exists. So a teacher might be on day one. They might be doing a demonstration on a particular science concept in front of the students in the lab. Then they might go home on day three and they're actually walking through the experiment, learning about the context at home, and then they'll come back into class and they're much more confident about doing the experiment themself now in front of the teacher and having an engaging conversation.

So that's generally how it works and we've got about 300 different experiences across biology, chemistry, physics, earth sciences, all these kind of exciting areas that are about 15 or 45 minutes. So they're very piecemeal. They can be slotted in directly into a class or it's a homework activity at home, but eventually you do it, you do want the student back in with their teacher and with their peers talking about the experience, the shared experience that they've had. What did they learn? Where did they get stuck? And so that's typically how it's used, as a compliment to all the other wonderful things the teachers doing in the classroom already.

Eric Olsen: How much is this novelty that students like playing things that look like video games and there's probably some real inherent engagement benefits in that? And how much of this is really strong curriculum design that we believe really improves student learning outcomes?

Maaroof Fakhri: Yeah, it is a mix. I, myself is distracted by video games a lot while in school and university, but I think we can learn a lot from the video game industry. Their whole business model was around finding ways to engage someone and so what we try and do is take the best parts of that, the things that are designed to engage, to be immersive, with milestones and feedback and scores and things like that, great storylines and then we combine that with sort of pedagogical research. So Labster itself started out as a university project. So we are kind of grounded in research. We don't believe it's worth rolling things out in the classroom and risking the next generation until it has some foundation in research. So we have shown that these types of immersive experiences can almost double the learning outcomes.

Those types of results are published in sort of journal articles by scientists. Test scores go up and I'm personally not a fan of summative testing at the end of a semester, but it's a fact that it is part of our system and it does limit students' options if they aren't able to kind of grow their grades. So that does help and then I think for me the most interesting research around immersive learning is that students that are traditionally left behind, if they're taught a different way, can actually catch up. That we've seen that their knowledge can rock it up much faster than other students who are maybe using the same immersive tool and their confidence grows dramatically and I think when we talk about leveling the playing field and equity in that sense, this research really does show that these types of immersive experiences can have a huge benefit.

Eric Olsen: What does the future of this look like? You've been doing this for 10 years. Zuckerberg's been doing this for a few months. How do you hope, how might virtual simulations be adopted into K-12 classrooms in the long run, both within science specific courses and perhaps beyond?

Maaroof Fakhri: I think I'd love to see them as a must have, especially whenever we're talking about leveling the playing field for students or enhancement of learning outcomes, which is something you want across every subject. I don't... Right now simulations are seen as a supplement and I don't think that's really doing it justice. I think in the future I'd love to see, just like we talked about, a flat school. There's no flat school in the world that doesn't use a simulator to give students a chance to really productively fail, fail safely, explore the different circumstances that could arise when they're actually doing things in real life. So I don't see that. I feel like the education system needs to incorporate these types of tools for us to be doing justice I think to the next generation. So I hope we see them as really an enabler for teachers in the future and that ultimately will give teachers a sort of time to innovate in their classrooms and deliver more powerful experiences once they are baked in really at the core of the design of our curriculum.

Eric Olsen: It's a beautiful future you just painted for us. Leave us with some next steps advice for parents listening, interested. Why don't I have Labster at my school. I need this. They want to leverage the power of the metaverse for their students at their schools. How can they do that? How should they think about that challenge?

Maaroof Fakhri: I think it's, when we look at the education system, there is a huge teacher shortage. Teachers are at lack a lot of time and I think one way we need to approach this is looking for ways we can support teachers in adopting these tools. Usually it's in the hands of curriculum directors or similar. So if you know who that might be in your school you can find out. Share with them that it's important to you and also that you're there to sort of support the adoption with them so that they feel confident it's going to be successful because they care a lot about your children's future, and they don't want to roll something out that isn't going to be successful. So knowing that you are there to support them I think is the best thing we can do as parents. Schools are always looking for better ways to engage parents in the learning so I think being active in that sense will also be a, just a great start.

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Maaroof Fakhri Rapid Fire [16:20]

Eric Olsen: It's now time for our rapid fire segment called Problem Solved where we ask the guest to solve incredibly complex and difficult education issues in single soundbites. Maaroof, what's one thing about K-12 education you wish you could snap your fingers and problem solved, it's fixed?

Maaroof Fakhri: I wish I could immediately solve teachers’ workloads. When teachers have the space to innovate we'll see more rapid introduction of transformative experiences in the classroom. So that's the first place to tackle it.

Eric Olsen: If you could go back and give your kid-self advice on their educational journey, what would it be?

Maaroof Fakhri: I would say if I could go back I would tell myself to not be afraid of keep trying the things that I'm not good at. Ask more questions, even if I think I already know the answer. So in summary, try more things and ask more questions.

Eric Olsen: What part of education do you think or hope looks the most different 10 years from now?

Maaroof Fakhri: I hope that subjects have blended together more and less siloed. Right now that's the norm rather than the exception. So I would, I'd love to see math and music taught together and science and art taught together, engineering and ecology, any sort of blending of subjects I think will really give people a broader perspective of education.

Eric Olsen: That’s a good one. And what's your best advice for parents looking to raise future problem solvers?

Maaroof Fakhri: So I would never think to give parents advice, not being a parent myself, but I would say pretend you don't know stuff and take the discovery journey with your students because then they feel confident that not knowing things and failing and trying again is actually okay even as they grow into an adult.

Eric Olsen: And listeners, we'd love to hear your answers as well. So email us at podcast@aops.com with your best advice for raising future problem solvers. And we'll read our favorites on future episodes.

Maaroof, thanks so much for joining us today.

Maaroof Fakhri: No problem.

Episode Summary & Conclusion [17:30]

Eric Olsen: Oh man, I kind of want to buy a pair of those creepy Zuckerberg goggles now, but I really love what Labster’s doing from a technology perspective and not just the shiny tech, but the shiny pedagogy, using storytelling and visualization to make the really abstract a lot less so. To actually facilitate understanding and make advanced scientific concepts a lot more accessible and I love how they're using technology to make immersive learning more accessible too. Making sure every student in the country has access to the same learnings that a multimillion dollar science lab would give them. Making sure every student can experiment and encounter productive failure to actually have those light up aha moments. It's really exciting and it's really great to have our friends at Labster as friends of AoPS as well and may you continue your journey alongside us raising the great problem solvers of the next generation. See you next week.

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