Desert of My Real Life

Ian Schreiber, co-author of Challenges for Game Designers, is undertaking an interesting experiment in online education this summer.  He is offering an online course called Game Design Concepts via Web 2.0 tools (a blog, a wiki, a discussion board, Twitter and so on).  None of this is revolutionary.  What makes this experiment interesting is that Ian is offering the course entirely for free and allowing an unlimited number of people to register (or not) for the course.  Registration closed yesterday (June 29th) with 1402 registrants.  Many, many more people (myself included) will probably follow the course informally without registering for it.

One thing that I wondered was why Ian would decide to do this.  In his own words, here’s why:

I have many motivations for starting this project, some selfish and some altrusitic. Best to be up front about it:

  • Game design is my passion, and I love to share it with anyone and everyone.
  • I have taught some classes in a traditional classroom and others online, and I want to experiment with alternate methods of teaching.
  • By exposing my course content and viewing the comments and discussions, I can improve the course when I teach it for money.
  • It is a career move. If this course is successful, it gives me greater exposure in my field and promotes my name as a brand.

The reason that I find most interesting is the last one. I wonder how he knows that a successful course will lead to “greater exposure” and branding his name.  But let’s assume that assume that success will mean that he gets these things.  I also wonder how he will determine whether the course is “successful.”

Most of the materials that Ian is providing come in the form of text–twice a week blog postings, a wiki and so on.  These items are not really much different than the book that he requires the students to buy for the course.  In other words, so far this sounds like a correspondance course.  But online education differs from other types of correspondance courses in its ability to allow interaction between a faculty member and a students as well as between two students.  With 1402 students, I don’t think Ian will have much time to interact with the students individually.  He puts the students into online groups and so they should have the opportunity to interact with each other.  Of course, the quality of the experience that one has in such a situation is likely to depend on the other students in one’s group.  It could be a great, meaningful experience if there is a critical number of students in the group who engage in thoughtful online discussions and group project work.  It’s unclear at this point how many of the 1402 students will have this experience.

In explaining that there is a text book required for participation in the course (but no other expense), Ian says, “It’s still cheaper than a college education.”  He’s absolutely right.  The idea of getting together a group of people who are interested in learning the same thing is nothing new.  I participate in a two-person academic book club and in a teaching reflective practice group to accomplish something similar to what Ian is trying to do via this class and I find both to be among my most rewarding activities.   The difference between my book club and Ian’s class, however, is that the class has a single person (a teacher) who is structuring the experience while in the book club, we both take responsibility for structuring the experience.  This responsibility ensures that we are both serious about the work we do in our book club meetings.  But if enough of the people in Ian’s class are serious about the work, I think this will be a “successful” experience.

{October 5, 2008}   Isn’t It Ironic?

The MediaShift blog on PBS’s web site (written by Mark Glaser and which I highly recommend) recently reported an interesting story about the experience one of its interns had in one of her classes at NYU’s School of Journalism. The class was called Reporting Gen Y and was supposed to be about the use of new media in journalism. Apparently, the instructor was not very knowledgeable about new media and so the intern wrote a report for the MediaShift blog about the fact that the class was not particularly up-to-date and that perhaps the instructor should know a bit more about new media if she was going to teach such a course. After reading the report on the blog, the instructor decided to discuss it in class. She asked the class what their responses to the blog entry were. What happened next is in dispute.

The students say that they were told that no one would be allowed to blog or Twitter (which is micro-blogging–writing short entries about a particular topic–see my own uninteresting Twitter entries here) about the class. Because the class is about new media and journalism and the newest media include blogging and Twittering, it is somewhat ironic that such coverage would not be allowed concerning the class itself. And if she did say that such coverage was not allowed, we have to wonder whether there would be a similar ban concerning traditional media such as the student newspaper. The instructor, however, says that she never said the students couldn’t blog or Twitter about the class. Instead, she claims she said that students could not blog or Twitter during class. The distinction she makes is, of course, huge. Blogging or Twittering during the class would be a distraction to the student herself as well as to students sitting around her while blogging or Twittering about the class seems like it should be allowed under any First Amendment rights. It’s difficult to know what the instructor actually said during the class but I think this incident has a couple of interesting lessons for those of us who teach.

The first lesson is that we have to remember that we can learn from our students. Their experiences of life are different than ours. They may not be “experts” in the sense that they have thought about their experiences and put them into a context. But they are definitely experts in the sense that they are on the front lines of new media use. Our job is to help them contextualize their experiences and we should not be afraid to learn from them just as we would hope they are not afraid to learn from us. The second lesson is that we should not be defensive when our students criticize us. We are not perfect. We don’t know everything. Engaging in conversation about our shortcomings empowers our students and helps us grow as instructors. This is a good experience for everyone. Rather than being threatened by our students’ empowerment, we should seek out such situations and savor them for the magic that they hold.

We don’t know what happened in that classroom. It’s actually not that important to me. What is important is to remember that when it comes to using new media, we have much to learn from our students. They are experts in the use of such media. Our expertise lies elsewhere, in the analysis of that use. As always, we can help our students put their experiences into context, help them to think about their experiences in new ways. Defensiveness ALWAYS gets in the way of that.

{September 3, 2008}   AcademHack

My last post about my frustration with our faculty day speaker prompted some interesting discussion, with several people sharing their own, similar frustrations. So I thought I’d see if I could find some discussion on the web about the pedagogical aspects of using technology in education. The best site that I have found so far is a blog called AcademHack. Lots of useful, interesting stuff so check it out!

{September 2, 2008}   How Not to Do Educational Technology

At the start of each academic year, my university hires a speaker to address the full faculty, presumably to inspire us to take on new challenges. Like most universities, mine is interested in new and exciting uses of technology in instruction. This year, our speaker was Dr. Curtis Bonk, from Indiana University’s Instructional Technology Department and who, according to his web page, “firmly believes in distance learning since he is a product of it.” His web page also tells us that he “is listed in the Who’s Who in Instructional Technology.” So he should know.

The problem I had with his talk was that it was focused on the “technology” part of “educational technology” and not the “education.” Dr. Bonk seems to believe that technology will solve all problems. That if we simply use technology, all that is wrong with the world of education will be fixed. For example, he started his talk with many stories about his own boring accounting education. Toward the end of the talk, he showed us how exciting accounting education is now–professors are using PODCASTS! But the clip he showed us was a podcast of a boring lecture about accounting. He seems to think that simply using the latest, greatest technology will automatically make students want to learn. And that somehow the technology itself will HELP them learn. But his lack of focus on pedagogy was problematic.

The ironic thing to me about this idea is that Bonk himself comes out of a program that thought that using TV for educational purposes would revolutionize education. We all know that it hasn’t. And yet, Bonk has not learned from the failures of educational TV that technology in and of itself is not the answer. Why should we believe that using Web 2.0 technology–podcasts and Youtube and Twitter and Second Life–will somehow be different than all the other technologies that came before them? Bonk seems to think that Web 2.0 is somehow different than all the technology that came before it.

Don’t misunderstand me. I do believe that there are some interesting uses of technology that can truly help us to increase student learning. My problem is with those who think that using the latest, greatest technology will automatically increase student learning, that somehow the technology itself is a pedagogical tool. Bonk showed himself to be one of the people who believes in the power of the latest, greatest technology when he gave us a short discussion period and timed it using a freely downloadable PC-based timer. When he stopped our discussion, he said something like, “There. Use this timer and you’ve put technology into your class.” My questions were, “How is this different than an egg timer?” and “Will using this PC-based timer increase student learning compared to using an egg timer?” Bonk never addressed either question.

Bonk’s fascination with technology for the sake of technology was very clear when he discussed the capacity of flash memory drives. He showed us his latest thumb drive which holds 32 gigabytes of memory. He told us that soon such drives will hold a terabyte of memory and then, he asked dramatically, “What will knowledge be?” As though knowledge is about the number of facts that can be carried with you! Knowledge is about more than just facts. It is about being able to synthesize facts, being able to make connections between facts and being able to analyze those connections, being able to apply what you know in one context to a completely new context to reveal something about the world that no one has ever thought about before. More memory on a flash drive will not help students do this.

Technology in any context should be used only if it supports the goals of what you’re trying to do. As educators, we should not be advocating the use of technology for the sake of technology. We should be asking, “Which uses of technology increase our students’ learning?” That’s where we should be focusing our attention. Unfortunately, too many people think the latest, greatest technology in and of itself will solve all of our problems. And even more unfortunately, Curtis Bonk seems to think that technology is a panacea. A look at our long history of technologies that have failed to live up to their initial hype should remind us that there is no panacea.

{April 29, 2008}   Interdisciplinarity?

Ian Bogost’s keynote presentation at this year’s Game Developer’s conference is about the notion of interdisciplinarity. Interesting stuff.

{March 20, 2008}   War–A Game-like Activity

I teach a class called Creating Games that fulfills the Creative Thought requirement within our general education program. The class is focused on game design principles that can be used in creating games of all kinds. Because of the limited availability of the technical tools required to create digital games, this class focuses on the design and development of non-digital games although I believe that there are plenty of principles that apply to games of all types.

The main challenge I have in teaching this class is to get students to understand that games can be studied and analyzed just as cultural artifacts such as novels and movies can be studied and analyzed. It seems that many students want to say whether a game is fun or not and leave their comments at that. So we go through a series of exercises in which we break a game apart and try to figure out how it works. In one of these exercises, I use Greg Costikyan’s article “I Have No Words and I Must Design” as the framework by which we will analyze the classic card game War.

Costikyan provides a definition of a game that includes six elements. The six elements are decision-making, goals, opposition, managing resources, game tokens and information. If an activity does not include each of these six elements, Costikyan argues that the activity cannot be considered a game. When the students apply this framework to War, students quickly find that Costikyan would not consider War to be a game, primarily because it requires no decision-making. You simply flip a card and hope that it beats your opponent’s card. Although most students are able to easily understand this lack of decision-making, they struggle with some of the other elements that Costikyan discusses, perhaps because Costikyan doesn’t make the relationships among the elements absolutely clear.

Students do not seem to have difficulty understanding what Costikyan means by goals but they do have some difficulty understanding the relationship between the player’s goals in War and the weaknesses of War. The player has one goal in War and that is to get all of the cards. (Some people play that the game is over when one player wins three wars–in that case, the goal is to win three wars but the argument remains the same.) This is a very clear goal and by itself, it does not constitute a weakness of the game. The problem is that there is nothing that the player can do to increase (or decrease) her likelihood that she will achieve her goal. And that’s because there is no decision-making within the game.

One element that students find particularly challenging to understand is opposition. Costikyan says, “In a two-player, head-to-head game, your opponent is the opposition, … .” So since War is a two-player, head-to-head game, the opponent is the opposition, right? But Costikyan makes a big deal about the word struggle when he talks about opposition. He says that when players don’t struggle to reach their goals, they won’t feel the thrill of victory because it was all too easy. He says that the game designer must make the players work to achieve their goals. But in War, there is no work to be done because there are no decisions to be made. There is no struggle. The player is left to face the forces of nature and hope that nature is kind. The player can do nothing to manipulate or change her destiny. The luck of the draw will determine who wins the game. In fact, as soon as the cards are dealt, the winner has been chosen and all the players can do is mechanically flip the cards to find out what nature already knows.

Costikyan then goes on to discuss managing resources. He argues that adding decision-making isn’t enough to make a game. The decisions must be meaningful decisions and they can only be meaningful if they involve the management of some kind of resource. War has a set of resources–the cards themselves. But because the game provides no decision-making at all that can be made in the game, by definition, there is no meaningful decision-making. So the weakness of the game isn’t that there aren’t enough resources to manage. In fact, lots of card games use only cards as resources and are outstanding games. No, the problem is that there is no way to manage the resources of the game because there is no decision-making in the game.

Students also seem to have difficulty with the distinction that Costikyan makes between resources and game tokens. He says, “A game token is any entity you may manipulate directly.” And the relationship between resources and game tokens? “Resources are things you must manage efficiently to achieve your goals; tokens are your means of managing them.” Part of the reason that students have difficulty with this concept, I think, is because in many games, there is a one-to-one correspondence between resources and game tokens. That’s true in War, for example. The cards act as both resources and game tokens. Just as it is not a weakness to have only cards as resources, it is also not a weakness to have only cards as game tokens. There are many fine card games that have no tokens other than cards. Once again, the problem is really that there is nothing the player can do with the game tokens to manage his resources in a way that increases (or decreases) his likelihood of winning the game.

The last element of a game that Costikyan discusses is information. Of the player, Costikyan says, “he must have enough information to be able to make a sensible decision.” In War, all information is hidden from the player. The player knows nothing about her opponent’s cards but she also knows nothing about her own cards. Students will sometimes address the lack of decision-making in War by dividing a player’s pile of cards into two piles. The player will then choose the pile, still without looking at the cards, from which her next card will come. Although there is now a decision to be made, it is not a meaningful decision because the player still has no information to help decide which pile will be best. So information is critical to meaningful decision-making. The player needs to have some information that will allow her to make a sensible decision, a decision that might help her get closer to her goal.

The main reason that people over the age of eight get bored with War is its lack of decision-making. The lack of information and the inability to manage resources are both related to the lack of decision-making. These things mean that War is not even a game if we are to use Costikyan’s definition. Students who remember fondly their hours of playing War are sometimes hostile to the idea that it isn’t a game. I would argue that War is game-like and serves two useful purposes for children who engage in the activity. First, kids learn the ranks of the cards. They learn which cards beat which other cards which will help them in learning to play many other games. Second, and perhaps most importantly, they learn how to engage in game activities. They learn that games have rules that must be followed, even when it means that you don’t win. They learn the patience that is required to engage in game activities–you can’t just jump to your goal without paying attention to the obstacles that have been placed in front of you in the name of the game. And they learn that everyone loses sometimes and sometimes that loss happens because of bad luck. Since game-playing is so important to humans, learning these lessons of games via a game-like activity is akin to learning to be human.

et cetera