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Category Archives: Gaming in Education

The Importance of Teaching Media Creation Skills

There is an abiding myth that kids today are born digital natives. Anyone who has ever taught ICTs in any form will know that this is simply not the case. Digital skills very much have to be taught! Kay and Goldberg have described computers as a metamedium, a medium, in other words used in the creation of other media. As such it would seem axiomatic that computing should be taught to everyone. And yet this is far from the case. All over the world computing has to fight for a space in the curriculum. No doubt much of this contention stems from the expense of acquiring computing resources, and from securing adequately trained teachers. The great onlining of education has shown us the importance of computers as a medium of communication, but as a medium of creativity it can scarcely be less important. I have taught PhotoShop, Flash and Dreamweaver for many years, often in the context of web design, or game creation. I find that it is an excellent way to segue into coding for middle school students. Computers can be used to create all manner of digital content, but games are particularly alluring for students.

In this blog post I would like to walk through my thoughts about how the nature of remote teaching will have to change my curriculum and instructional design. I would like to cover the same basic concepts: namely photo-editing and game design introducing elementary programming procedures.

Starting with image manipulation in PhotoShop one can teach not only photo-editing skills, but also copyright issues. I usually teach students to use the Creative Commons Search Engine to find suitable images to use that are copyright free. There are many plarforms available for games creation. Up until last year I used Flash, despite the increasing difficulties as the platform becomes less and less supported. I have been considering using Scratch instead, but the seamless integration inside websites and the ability to run in a browser still made Flash a viable choice. My school had an Adobe licence, so justifying that expense was also a concern. I usually teach students how to create buttons in flash and use interactive behaviours. This requires starting to use ActionScript. We use existing scripts and learn how to tweak them. After a few tutorials I get the students to design their own games and then help them get it to work. The graphic shows one of the games created by students which depended upon drag and drop behaviours to work.

So, here’s my problem. I am due to start teaching this unit in May with my grade 8 class, and yet we are likely to be on lockdown, and I am wondering if it is a unit of work I can teach remotely. Certainly not with PhotoShop and Flash, as students are unlikely to have the Adobe Suite. But apart from the problem around access to the software and the necessary data or devices – most of my students use iPads if they do not have a laptop. This presents a number of problems. Firstly, I will be really sad not to have the linkage between image editing and games creation. Realizing that everything about remote teaching and learning takes longer, I will have to concentrate on the game design alone. For remote teaching an online Photo editor such as Photopea appears to work well. The crucial skill is removing a background and saving as a gif with transparency. I am not sure that I will be able to adequately support students through photo-editing online, and the games design, however. So I will have to play this aspect by ear.

In my experience getting students to the point where they can design their own games requires a good few basic tutorials teaching base skills, and then a great deal of scaffolding the process of discovery, especially where it requires coding beyond my own capacity! Tackling this online presents problems. It is difficult to help students debug their code when you can’t see their screen, or where you have to reconstruct it to test it on your own screen! It also needs to be something that can be done on an iPad if a student does not have access to a laptop or pc. It should also not involve any downloading of software or purchase of an app.

So I have decided to use Scratch on the MIT platform which works inside a browser, and apparently works fairly well on an iPad and allows students to use a free account. Students can also share their projects with others. This is crucial because I would like students to work in small groups. I usually get students to do a few tutorials online and then set the project as a group project. Working with groups might prove tricky during remote teaching and learning, but might also help overcome some of the isolation of working from home.

To test the versatility of the platform I created a quick pong game and a tamigotchi game, and it seems to me that Scratch works very well at enabling game creation. The platform also has tutorials which allow for students to work on their own, and develop capacity beyond any tutorials and tasks I create for the class. It also has an extension for the BBC micro:bit controller, which I use for robotics. I have not been able to explore this, but it seems to me that it creates some potential tie-ins, which is important. I also use the MIT platform for mobile app design with my grade 9s, so using Scratch on the MIT platform to introduce coding seems a good fit all round.

To my mind the key to instructional design in a case like this is to have a programme in mind which can be cut short, or can be extended, depending upon the time available and the capacity of the students. In this case the vagaries of remote teaching becomes a particular concern. I will write a follow up post after completing the unit.

Bibliography

A. Kay and A. Goldberg, “Personal dynamic media,” Computer, 1977, pp. 31-41.

 

Towards a Taxonomy of Educational Games using Bernstein as a Guide

Games and gaming have increasingly become a part of the educational landscape, both in analog and digital formats. Teachers are keen to find out if they can use games in their classrooms to improve student learning and performance. It is often easy to demonstrate an uptake in engagement, but less easy to justify the time spent on a game, if educational benefit cannot be quantified. Taxonomies of games are largely based on their genre or features, the degree to which chance is present, or the complexity of the rules. This is great if you are trying to classify games, but not very helpful if your interest lies in its pedagogical value. One approach has been to try to map the affordances of game genres to educational concepts derived from Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives, Gagne’s five categories of learning outcomes, and Jonassen’s typology of problem solving (O’Brien, et al, 2010). This approach is promising, but suffers, I think from a surfeit of base concepts. By trying to account for too much, we end up with the kind of diagram beloved of these post-post times, so complex that it differs little from anecdote, and illuminates nothing.

I would like to suggest instead that a fruitful avenue might start with the work of Basil Bernstein (2004). Bernstein’s sociology of education has offered many researchers insight into the problems they were researching and a shared language which can illuminate different concerns, at different scales from the macro socio-political level to the individual lesson. By bringing this language to an analysis of types of games in education it seems to me we might be able to leverage a common language to understand better what it is in a game that might bring use value to the educational setting. I am not going to go into a lengthy summary of Bernstein’s work, which is often dense and difficult to navigate. Bernstein was basically interested in the ways in which education reproduced inequality in society, the rules and processes by which middle class students are advantaged, and working class students disadvantaged. A key tool of analysis for Bernstein was to see pedagogic practice in terms of two concepts: classification and framing.

Classification refers to the content of pedagogic discourse, the boundaries and degree of insulation between discourses. This answers the question of what knowledge is considered valid and legitimate. For example, in a Science class there is a strong sense of a body of knowledge that constitutes Science and doing Science. Even within different Science classes, some teachers may organize around tightly drawn boundaries of what constitutes doing Science, but others may operate around learning Science through problem-based approaches. A Social Studies class may have less of a sense of what might constitute legitimate knowledge in the field. In Social Studies there is more cross-disciplinary work being done, and the boundaries of the field are less tightly drawn. A class might quite legitimately be engaged in gender studies or in studying ancient history. Classification, in other words can be strong or relatively weak. Some schools organize work around themes rather than distinct subject areas. Problem-based learning probably represents the weakest classification of all.

Framing refers to the “how” of pedagogical practice, and sets out how control operates within a classroom, the ways in which the curriculum is sequenced, paced and evaluated. Strong framing reflects very much a teacher-centred approach, while weak framing is where students have greater control over what and how they are learning.

Both classification and framing are described as strong (+) or weak (-) and allowed Bernstein to identify two codes – collection codes which result in the acquistion of specialised knowledge and integrated codes in which the boundaries between subjects are weaker as are the boundaries between everyday knowledge and school knowledge. By visualizing these continua of weak to strong as a Cartesian plane – as below – we can start to identify recognizable pedagogical modes and ways of describing shifts in pedagogical practice over time. While teachers tend to favour one style or another, effective teaching relies upon the ability to shift between pedagogical modes according to the needs of the moment.

Figure 1: Pedagogies analysed with classification and framing (adapted from Jónsdóttir & Macdonald, 2013 in March et al (2017)

As Maton and Howard (2018) have shown, integrative knowledge building is dependent on movement between fields of knowledge – what they term Autonomy Tours. I have summarised what is meant by autonomy tours in a previous blog, but what research indicates is that successful lessons involve more than just sticking to the subject or topic being studied. Effective teaching involves turning everyday knowledge, knowledge from other bits of the curriculum to the purpose at hand. A Science teacher will often need to use Maths knowledge in her lesson. A History teacher might use Geography, and all teachers tend to use knowledge from students’ everyday experience to unpack and understand the concepts being built upon in their discipline. To teach effectively teachers need to take tours through content that is relevant to their field and knowledge outside their field and turn it to the purpose of teaching the topic at hand. In this way knowledge across the curriculum becomes more integrated.

It seems to me that in a similar way, effective teaching depends upon Pedagogical Tours, movements between pedagogical modes. There are times when it is appropriate for students to explore a topic on their own or with minimal guidance, but it is also appropriate for much more teacher-directed activities at other times. Movements between student-centred and teacher-centred pedagogies are necessary for learning to take place. It might well be that teachers are more comfortable in one or other pedagogical mode, but it is hard to see how effective learning can take place without movements between modes.

How are we to understand the role played by educational games?

I would argue that educational games can similarly be described through the lens of classification and framing.

Classification here would refer to the relative insulation of the game content. Some games have highly specialised content, while others have more integrated or open content. A game of Maths Blaster, for example, is clearly focused on mathematical concepts and skills, despite a space age theme. The content of the game displays strong classification (C+). On the other hand a game of I Spy with my little Eye incorporates content from everyday life around the players, and has very weak classification (C-). All games have relatively stronger or weaker classification along a continuum. Chess, for example, although it has warlike pieces and is nominally a game of conflict, is clearly more integrated in terms of general cognitive skills than a tactical wargame, which has more specialized military content.

Framing here would refer to the locus of control. Some games are tightly controlled through the operation of the rules, or software. Progress and sequencing is determined by the rules of the game and players have little opportunity to choose their own path. For example, in a game of tic-tac-toe, possible moves are heavily circumscribed. Players can only ever place a nought or a cross, and there are only nine possible starting positions. The Framing here is strong (F+). On the other hand, in a role play game, although the Games Master may have circumscribed the action by setting out a particular setting or scenario, players are generally free to try anything within their imaginations. The Framing here is much weaker (F-). In between of course might lie a continuum of games with relatively stronger or weaker framing. Chess, for example has more pieces and more possible moves than tic-tac-toe, although the framing is still strong because players cannot deviate from a set of possible board positions or legal moves. A tactical wargame might have weaker Framing because there are more pieces, more freedom to move in any direction and fewer restrictions on what a player may choose to do.

If we put the two together on a Cartesian plane, we can start to plot different games as follows:

 

Clearly we might differ in where we position any particular game on this matrix, and these are just a few examples of both analog and digital games. By using classification and framing, it seems to me that we can easily see the affordances of games for educational purposes, without being clouded by its features, genre and so on. By superimposing the two diagrams we might begin to identify possible code matches and code clashes between educational games chosen for use in a classroom and pedagogical styles. A code match is where the classification and framing of both pedagogical style and game match each other, and a code clash where this match is absent.

 

 


What exactly does this tell us though beyond a common sense understanding that teachers that value a great deal of control over the pacing and sequencing of their teaching are unlikely to choose to use a role play game in their classroom because it surrenders a great deal of control over to their students? Or that a teacher who values insulated academic boundaries is more likely to explore History through a game like The Oregon Trail than through creating an alternate world in Minecraft because there is simply more historical content in the former and learning is more tangential in the latter. This may seem obvious, but many teachers are genuinely confused by the range of material available to them, are easily swayed by sales reps, and misunderstand the affordances of the games they select for use.

What this taxonomy does offer, I believe, is a clear way into looking at those very affordances to be able to understand better the choices that teachers make. I think it also represents a useful research tool for looking at games in education generally and being able to relate it to pedagogical choices.

 

Bibliography

Bernstein, Basil. 2004. The Structuring of Pedagogic Discourse. Vol. 23. Routledge.

March, Jackie & Kumpulainen, K. & Nisha, Bobby & Velicu, Anca & Blum-Ross, Alicia & Hyatt, David & Jónsdóttir, Svanborg & Levy, Rachael & Little, Sabine & Marusteru, George & Ólafsdóttir, Margrét & Sandvik, Kjetil & Thestrup, Klaus & Arnseth, Hans & Dyrfjord, Kristín & Jornet, Alfredo & Kjartansdottir, Skulina & Pahl, Kate & Pétursdóttir, Svava & Thorsteinsson, Gisli. (2017). Marsh, J., Kumpulainen, K., Nisha, B., Velicu, A., Blum-Ross, A., Hyatt, D., Jónsdóttir, S.R., Levy, R., Little, S., Marusteru, G., Ólafsdóttir, M.E., Sandvik, K., Scott, F., Thestrup, K., Arnseth, H.C., Dýrfjörð, K., Jornet, A., Kjartansdóttir, S.H., Pahl, K., Pétursdóttir, S. and Thorsteinsson, G. (2017) Makerspaces in the Early Years: A Literature Review. University of Sheffield: MakEY Project.

Maton, K. and Howard, S. K. (2018) Taking autonomy tours: A key to integrative knowledge-building, LCT Centre Occasional Paper 1 (June): 1–35.

O’Brien, D., Lawless, K. A., & Schrader, P. G. (2010). A Taxonomy of Educational Games. In Baek, Y. (Ed.), Gaming for Classroom-Based Learning: Digital Role Playing as a Motivator of Study. (pp. 1-23).

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The Matrix Game as a Thinking Tool

Matrix Games (developed by Chris Engle) are an excellent classroom tool. A handbook detailing their application in education and other professional settings has recently been published. They represent a flexible and easy to use game mechanism for any role play or simulation setting. In brief, players (either individually or in teams) make arguments about what they wish to do and why this should happen. An umpire then assesses these arguments and evaluates how likely they are to succeed. A die is rolled to simulate luck and the argument either happens or fails to happen. Games can be relatively free-flowing or more structured depending on the context and desired result.

So, for example in a History class in a game simulating the Russian Revolution, the Bolshevik player might argue that the First Machine Gun Regiment would lead an assault on the Winter Palace, with the backing and support of the party and that this would succeed because the regiment was well armed and prepared, was militarised and supported the party and because the palace was weakly defended by troops whose loyalty was suspect. The umpire might rule this argument average, giving it a 50% chance of success. The umpire’s reasons for ruling this way might be that although the First Machine Gun Regiment historically did indeed ask the Bolsheviks to take action, the Bolshevik leaders turned down their request to begin the revolution, fearing it was premature. Each player makes arguments which either succeed or fail and the game develops in his way along its own trajectory. In this example it is likely that the players will develop a better understanding of the background and the forces at play in shaping the outcome of the revolution. The Matrix Game is an excellent tool for running simulations in the classroom, but I want to argue that the Matrix Game represents a cognitive tool in its own right and should be added to every teachers’ tool box. The Matrix Game supports two major cognitive processes: thinking and communicating with clarity and precision and listening with empathy and understanding.

Thinking and Communicating with Clarity & Precision:

When advancing an argument, players need to think about what they want to happen and the reasons why this action will be successful. This can be scaffolded by providing a matrix of reasons (which is why it is called a matrix game), but usually players use the matrix of the real world or of imaginary worlds to draw on for supporting their arguments. In this way the argument represents the conclusion and the matrix of reasons the premises for any logical argument. The form of the Matrix game thus forces players to think in logical and coherent ways about what they want to argue and why it should work.

Empathy & Understanding:

Players assume different roles and compete against other players to have their perspectives advanced. This necessitates understanding the world from another’s point of view and simulating action from that perspective. I am currently running a game in which different interest groups compete to mine the moon. Each team makes arguments from their own perspective. By setting different victory conditions for each team, the players are scaffolded in framing their actions from a certain point of view. See the graphic on the right.

Because different teams have different criteria for winning they will try to manoeuvre game outcomes in their favour. I like to set Victory Points at 2 or 1 points for different outcomes. A player can claim a win on 2 points, or a partial win on 1 point. They lose if they achieve none of their victory conditions. This encourages players to work with others to reach compromises.

I believe that this mechanism helps students to develop an understanding of different perspectives in ways which encourage a much deeper appreciation of how actions are founded on world view and one’s standpoint.

Setting up a Matrix Game

Matrix Games are easy to set up. All you need is a context and roles for players to simulate. You can set up role play cue cards as depicted for the Mining The Moon game, or allow players to define their own roles. Play normally proceeds in turns during which each player gets a chance to advance an argument, but you can adapt this to suit your needs quite easily. For example, I sometimes let players submit an argument whenever they wish to, but then I make them submit in writing and adjudicate in the order received.

When umpiring arguments it is a good idea to assume average as a starting point and then decide if it is weaker or stronger based on criteria more directly linked to the curriculum. Go with your gut instinct. I always try to reward greater understanding of a context and give reasons why I am ruling something weaker or stronger. Adjudication, of course, is always done in terms of what has succeeded in the game. You cannot have one argument cancel out another. Arguments that support other arguments closely are automatically very strong.

If you try out a Matrix Game in your classroom, please drop a note in the comments. It would be great to hear your experience.

 

 

Mentoring – The Killer App? Using Game Mechanics to achieve Differentiated Learning Opportunities.

One of the great conundrums facing education is that while we as teachers know that students only learn effectively when they are in their proximal zones of development, ie. learning something just a little above their current competence, we sit with classes of twenty to forty students, each one with different learning needs! How to personalise learning when economics determines larger class sizes remains the burning issue of our times. In an ideal world all classes might be one-on-one, or relatively small group sessions when preferred. In that way all instruction could be tailored towards the precise needs of each individual student. Those promoting the use of computers have long touted the machine as an answer. BF Skinner’s teaching machines promised the panacea of an infinitely patient machine providing students with individualised content and appropriate feedback, using branching procedures to make sure that each student received exactly what they needed to maximise learning. These machines did not work, however, and were quickly labelled drill and kill!

Now it might be that advances in Artificial Intelligence will deliver machines more capable of the subtlety and empathy required for effective content delivery and feedback, but we are not there yet. In my experience computer driven instructional software tends to be rejected by students overwhelmingly. The classroom still sits with the problem of one teacher and multiple students, and no clear way to offer personalization efficiently and effectively. Dan Buckley’s Personalisation By Pieces approach offers perhaps the best solution yet. Students create pieces of work which demonstrate mastery of skills. This work is uploaded electronically and assessed by a peer mentor who has passed the skill level being demonstrated. This provides the student with accreditation at that level and enables them to mentor and assess others. There is more to the system than this, but in a nutshell this is what is used to establish a cycle of virtuous practice designed to create independent learners.

The model presented is of two possible routes for Personalisation, one teacher lead (T-Route) and the other student driven (P-Route). The uses of ICT are accordingly different, specifically being used to monitor and record progress, and link peer mentors and mentees and provide them with channels of communication rather than to prepare teacher resources and instructional materials. Crucially learning becomes student-directed, with multiple pathways available and students able to choose which direction they wish to pursue. The key difference between the Personalisation By Pieces approach and Skinner’s Teaching Machines lies in the key insight that mentorship works to the benefit of both parties! Students who have completed a level are more than capable and benefit from helping explain, mentor and assess the work of their peers.

As Vygotsky noted, learning is social in the first instance, and we need the assistance of a more experienced other to help us bridge the gap between what we already know or can do, and what it is that we are learning. A system which uses peer mentor assessment could be crucial in providing the kind of individualised feedback that promotes personalised learning pathways. In my view this does not down-play the role of the teacher, whose whole class instruction and oversight of progress remains crucial.

Now the PbyP approach obviously crosses the borders of individual classrooms and schools in linking mentors and mentees, but it would be interesting to see what could be done even within individual classrooms and without the benefit of a custom-built ICT platform like PbyP.

Computer Gaming is often seen as the enemy of education, but as James Paul Gee has pointed out in his book What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, computer games demonstrate principles of learning in remarkably efficient ways! Players are kept in their proximal zones of development and learning is artfully scaffolded. Players do not feel daunted by failure, they simply try and try and try again. Ample time is given for these re-takes, and the rewards are epic! No player seems to resent someone who is a level or two ahead of them, they simply strive to get their themselves. Players are also generous in their assistance, mentoring newbies and sharing strategies and tactics. We could do a lot worse than getting our classrooms to emulate games.

I am not arguing that every lesson should be gamified, or that the syllabus should be rewritten as a game. There is a great deal of knowledge which cannot be gamified. But I am suggesting that game mechanics should be used as exemplars of classroom management practice. In a game, players take on urgent tasks, but not necessarily in any given order. They tend to tackle that task and keep working at it until a solution is found. They may suffer spectacular failure, but bounce back until they succeed. Players collaborate to help each other out. This is exactly what we would like to see in the classroom. But how do we get the same effects without trivializing the tasks involved?

As a teacher of English Second Language, I often found a great deal of differentiation in level amongst the students in my class. But with classes of 35 plus, addressing everyone’s specific needs was difficult without creating a variety of tasks graded for ability. This is not really very difficult to do. Take comprehension skills, for example. I still did whole class instruction when tackling skills, strategies and approaches to comprehension. But when it came to selecting practice tasks for students to tackle, it is easy enough to have a box full of differentiated tasks, colour-coded for reading ability. These can be used across age cohorts. When tackling language skills, I would direct those students struggling with concord, for example, towards exercises around this, and those needing more work with vocabulary towards these tasks. I kept a file with a page per student to record what tasks had been completed, and what needed further work. While not very game-like, this did mean that students were tackling mastery across parallel, overlapping, but differentiated paths. One can easily imagine overlaying game mechanics to create a more engaging experience. Students loved the individual attention they were getting. I was usually able to sit down with about a third of my class in any session and I used to assess work in front of them and give feedback and follow-up tasks at the same time. I have never believed in taking marking home with me!

As a Computer Skills teacher I have a gamified my syllabus completely in that all the tasks revolve around a narrative – see The Mobius Effect – Gamifying Your Classroom. But while these tasks allow for different speeds of progress they are not differentiated according to learning needs. This is partly because a computer skills syllabus does not really involve much work that is really complicated. There are only so many spreadsheet skills, for example. Something more complicated and nuanced, such as comprehension skills provides far more need for branching. Many students struggle with idiomatic expressions. There appears to be something of a generation gap between the authors of pieces used in comprehension passages, magazine or newspaper articles, and school-aged readers. But others may be misconstruing the connotations of words and therefore missing the purpose of the writing. Differentiated learning paths would greatly benefit students in this instance. But simply adding a games layer to your English classroom may seem forced and artificial. Simply awarding badges and posting leaderboards does not seem to me to be the answer either.

The idea of using peer mentorship and assessment using more experienced peers to be found in Personalisation By Pieces, however, seems to me to offer a real alternative. To take our example of Comprehension Skills, having a student who is struggling with idiomatic language usage receive help and have a task based on idioms assessed by someone who has recently “passed” a unit of work based on idioms would deliver a useful and authentic context for games-like level based achievement. This could be achieved across grades and ages using online piece submission platforms such as Google Classroom or Microsoft Teams for Education. Analog work could be scanned for submission purposes if need be. This would provide a paper trail and record of what was covered.

 

 

 

 

Plants vs Zombies: what even a silly game can teach us about critical thinking

downloadPlants vs Zombies is a somewhat addictive, but fairly pointless game in which zombies invade your house and you use plants to fight them off! While the game itself has no clearly definable educational point, it illustrates well how games themselves represent best learning practice, and how they might be used to promote cognitive skills generally.

I came across a statistic quoted in a talk by Art Costa recently from the 2015 ICOT Conference, that 40% of adults are not metacognitive, presumably because they have never been taught to do so. Since metacognition, the ability to think about your thinking forms the basis of all critical thinking, this is a stat that should give us pause. It is clear that most people do not reflect upon their thinking enough and that teachers urgently need to find strategies that will help develop this habit in their students. I believe that games, even silly ones like Plants vs Zombies, represent opportunities to encourage students to practise thinking about their thinking.

To do well in the game, players need to solve problems. What plants combat what zombies? Over what distances? Having determined this, by trial and error, and testing hypotheses, players need to establish optimum sequencing and resource allocation to hold back successive waves of zombie invaders. Given that the game changes each time it is refreshed, the learning that occurs needs to be applied in new situations every time. While playing the game I was consciously aware of my own strategies: I went through an experimental phase of determining the last possible moment at which a plant needed to be placed to stop each type of zombie, and then from this data was able to form hypotheses about optimum combinations, and sequencing of placement to get the highest score. This allowed me to generate general principles which, in the heat of battle, could guide my actions when I didn’t have time to figure it out precisely.

Because games are so obviously based on strategy, I believe they represent the perfect vehicle for getting students to think about how they strategise in problem-solving situations. And because it’s a game, many do not balk at putting in this effort. So here’s my suggested lesson plan. Set your students some homework: to play Plants vs Zombies a few times. It is a free app or download. Then, in class, get them in groups to discuss a solution for the game, a sequence of moves that will always win, and present this to the rest of the class, perhaps as a screencast with voice-over. This will force students to verbally explain their thinking about their thinking, and help develop the habit of metacognition. One can then use the awareness of this experience to bring similar processes to bear on other, more serious problems.

 

Saving the Universe – Alternate Reality Games

DSC01789Jane McGonigall, in her TED Talk talks about the four powers of games: urgent optimism, blissful productivity, social fabric and epic meaning. These are qualities often missing in the classroom, which games have in abundance. This year I ran an alternate reality game for our end of year programme in grade 8. Alternate Reality Games are games which present themselves as real life events. In this game, I assembled all the garde 8s for a collaborative project with another school. When accessing their website to contact them, students had to solve a mystery and save the fictitious school from alien invaders. To accomplish this they had to crack a few codes, sift through some clues to solve a mystery and figure out how to use the lyrics of a song to find a secret web-page to communicate the solution. I used a fictitious blog and some fake twitter accounts to sprinkle clues around.

The task was run on the second last day of the year as part of an extension programme, and was meant to show-case our cognitive education programme. There is a concern that our girls are not as confident in problem solving skills as we would hope, especially that they give up too easily. The current task was adapted from one I ran a few years ago, and was shortened, with a little more scaffolding early to try and ensure that students did not give up too early.

DSC01775In the reflection, girls were generally positive about the game, although significant numbers found the tasks too challenging, and felt they had not received enough support from me. This was deliberate, and expected. I wanted my role as puppet-master to be hidden, and I tried to act surprised and bewildered as events unfolded. What hints I made to groups who had given up were done purely to get them engaged in the task again. Some groups were unable to crack any codes and were sent to spy on groups that had done so. About two-thirds of the students did successfully crack substitution cyphers. All groups were able to correctly identify what the fictitious school needed to do to defeat the aliens, but the biggest struggle was over finding the easter egg on the index page, and translating the song lyrics into a URL.

I believe that students need far more exposure to problem solving tasks than they are getting, and that alternate reality games offer a wonderful way to accomplish this. McGonigall’s powers of games offer a useful perspective.

Urgent Optimism

The predominant attitude in games play is for players to search around for tasks to engage in. This was evident in this Alternate Reality Game (ARG). At times girls were running around the room to consult with other groups or find out what could be done next. One aspect of the game I particularly enjoy is the richness of the red herrings. A group can explore a blind alley and really enjoy doing it, uncovering all kinds of unexpected and unintended associations which appear to lead to clues. These red herrings are actually as beneficial in terms of problem solving than the intended clues.

Blissful Productivity

The ability to spend hours engaged in a task while losing all sense of time is one common in games, and absent in many classrooms! In the ARG, I noticed that while pursuing a clue, girls seemed to lose all track of time, but when they gave up, time dragged. This was an aspect of the game that I will need to improve on, perhaps by insisting that all clues solved get shared. Some groups translated the task into a competition to solve it first, and this  competitiveness, while useful, did hamper those who needed extra help at times.

Social Fabric

Most games are strongly collaborative, and players will help each other with clues, inventory and so on. In this ARG, too many groups became competitive, but, what was enlightening was that groups formed naturally. Nowhere in my instructions did I ask them to form groups, in fact I gave no instructions at all. Groups are often problematic in the classroom, but seem to be intrinsic to the game format.

Epic Meaning

Games have a purpose, one often not very visible in the classroom, and their relevance and importance are self-evident. This ARG had as its point the saving of the planet from alien control, and the students appeared to take up this task with gusto. I was at first bombarded with questions about what they had to do, but after it became clear that I was not going to say anything, or give any direction, the class naturally splintered into groups and started working on clues, not all the same ones at the same time. As soon as the narrative was revealed, once the easter egg had been found, groups seemed instinctively to know what to do and what the “game” point was. The task fitted into game play genres and so made sense. When the game was “solved” there were loud cheers and frantic attempts on the part of all groups to submit the solution online. I think even groups who had not “won”, felt they had shared in the task by solving parts of the puzzle.

In conclusion, I think that Alternate Reality Games have a great deal to offer the classroom. But they need to be carefully designed and structured. They are much harder than any board game, role play game or computer game, because they need realia rather than playing pieces or pure imagination, but this makes them, in some ways, more rewarding.

 

Holiday Projects – Learn To Code As A Family!

With the holidays fast approaching, I am filled with just a little dread. Not only will my wife trot out the DIY jobs jar, but, as a father of teenage boys I know that after a few mornings sleeping in, a few days of playing the new computer game, will come that moment when the inevitable question gets asked, “What can I do now?”

But these holidays I am forearmed with an answer. Learning to code is all the rage: for good reason. Firstly – it is good mental discipline – the logical reasoning, attention to detail, the need to plan and move from the generality of pseudo-code to the specific syntax of whatever language you are using. I think learning to code teaches you a certain kind of mental precision that children used to get from having to learn Latin.

Secondly – I believe that it is a digital citizenship skill, something we all need to know for a future where being able to tweak your machine, modify your applications will not be seen as something geeky, but something as necessary as breathing. We are fast headed for a technological future where we will be interfacing with machines not as isolated events during a busy day, but on a constant basis. That future has two possible paths, one in which all the coding of those machines is managed by corporations, and we have little say in how we experience our environment, apart from choosing from a list of alternate “templates”, and another in which we are able to tweak the code ourselves, and can deliver more personalized outcomes. I believe it is imperative that we try our darndest to be ready for the second alternative – and that means learning to code.

It worries me that we seem to be producing a generation of consumers rather than producers. When I was young, computers came more or less assembled with nothing on them. You pretty much had to learn to program to be able to get them to do anything. Even to get the programs that were on them to work you had to learn to type in DOS commands! These days computers come with everything on them, and you don’t need to learn a stitch of code to work them. We need to get back to that spirit of showing your machine who’s in charge!

Thirdly – and perhaps most importantly, coding is fun. learning should always be fun, but especially during the holidays! It can also be an opportunity to experience learning together as a family. We don’t do enough of that. The natural order of things is that adults know more than kids, hopefully anyway! So learning tends to be about stuff your kids need to know, but you already know. Even if it’s stuff you’ve forgotten, like Algebra, it is never really a situation where the playing field is level. Coding, however, for most families will probably be a learning project the whole family can take on where all of you start as beginners.

So – here’s the challenge! Set up a challenge at the beginning of the holidays, a family project to code your own game for computer or mobile, learning to code as you go! This may sound like an impossible task, but actually the resources online are incredible, and make the task relatively painless. You can scale the ambition as you go. In many cases the tutorials and guidance is so good you can have a game going in 10 minutes! The rest is all about wanting to design your own game.

Here are some sites you can use (mostly free):

This list is not exhaustive, but represents some of the most popular sites.

 
 
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