Theory and practice … IN SPACE!

As I continue to read the fascinating book Apollo, I continue to find stories about technology and space exploration that have parallels with the frontier I’m currently exploring: technology and education.

This morning, I read about Bill Tindall, a veteran of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs who left several marks on America’s space program, not least of which his frank, humorous memos, which were dubbed Tindallgrams. While Tindall had many accomplishments, and while Tindallgrams are fun to read about, the feat that stood out to me this morning was his crucial role in “figur[ing] out how to do a rendezvous in orbit.”

The authors are quick to specify that from a physics standpoint, people had figured out orbital rendezvous a long time ago. In fact, Buzz Aldrin chose the mechanics of spacecraft rendezvous as the subject of his dissertation at MIT six years before putting his research into practice during Apollo 11. Tindall’s role, then, was a practical one. “[N]o one,” explained Bly Cox and Murray, “had applied these theoretical findings to the world of hardware and tracking stations, where it was essential that the ground be able to monitor and control a rendezvous.”

This discrepancy between theory and practice should be familiar to anyone involved in research, especially in educational research, and perhaps especially especially in educational technology research. It seemed particularly relevant for me, though, since I’m in the middle of reading Are educational computer micro-games engaging and effective for knowledge acquisition at high-schools? A quasi-experimental study, a paper by Cyril Brom, Michal Preuss, and Daniel Klement.

Brom, Preuss, and Klement remind game-based learning scholars that despite theoretical (and some empirical) claims that games are good for learning, there are tremendous practical obstacles to introducing games into what they call “curricular education.” Since my focus is mostly on formal education, I appreciate the work of these scholars, who acknowledge the theoretical progress that game-based learning research has made while arguing that we need more Tindalls who can help test the practical applications of those theories. Brom, Preuss, and Klement appear to be some of those Tindalls, and, with any luck, I’ll be able to build on their work in the years to come.

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