Archive for September, 2010

Level Up Your Gaming

September 27th, 2010

Lately I’ve been looking around for a new game. Like I really have time to play but the truth is that gaming adds a bit of spark to my humdrum existence. Sometimes I just like to get away from it all and play a bit.

One of the things I used to do was MUD. That’s a text based MMORPG where you don’t have pictures and such, but room descriptions and rapidly flowing text. I love those things, although they may be a bit dated now. I still think they’d be great reading interventions for middle and high school students. The one thing that MUDding does is give you lots of practice reading. My favorite MUD – Last Outpost – went off line after years of play. We even used it in the 688 Games course a few times.

Recently a house guest – somebody I met while MUDding – showed us Lord of the Rings Online. The service recently went to a Free-to-Play model and the free version works very well indeed at lower levels. A word of warning — it’s an adventure game and in order to advance you have to slay monsters (and sometimes kill animals, people, HUGE spiders, etc.). It’s not terribly violent but there’s certainly an aspect of violence that some will find offensive. On the upside, there is no player-vs-player violence. There’s enough action in the forests.

What I’m finding fascinating from an instructional design and educational gaming perspective is the meta-cognitive view of the game. This is a “level up” game – that is, you gain more skills and powers as you move up the ladders and earn more points of experience. You gain that experience by completing quests that – at least at the level I’m running at so far – involve a lot of running around from here to there and finding people/things that you are looking for. The set up involves race (Human, Elf, Dwarf, Hobbit) and a variety of classes (Hunter, Guardian, Minstrel, Champion, etc). The characters are enhanced with skills and traits to emphasize various aspects of their experience. Elves are agile, dwarves are not. That kind of thing. All told, an interesting and complex set up.

But the game doesn’t stop there.

On top of it all (or under it, depending on your perspective) is the idea of a profession. There are cooks and tailors, smiths and woodworkers. You can specialize in farming or forestry. As with the races/classes, these professions have things that they can do that others cannot. Food turns out to be an important asset that’s sometimes difficult to find. Having a cook means getting sustenance when you need it – like after that huge cave bear chewed your leg half off. Tailors can make armor, Foresters find wood and leather. Miners harvest minerals, and it all feeds into a larger construct of the mutually created world of LOTRO.

The interesting thing to me is how this relates to learning and education. You don’t go to school to learn to play the game. There is a very – and I mean very – brief new player intro where you pick up the basic skills of movement and interaction. There are occasional popups explaining some aspect of the game, its interface, or the experience when you first start out, but basically, you learn by doing – you construct your knowledge and understanding of how to play the game as you play the game. Playing is – literally – learning.

Before anybody gets strung out on the next round of High Stakes Political Gaming, I’m not suggesting that LOTRO is necessarily teaching anything about US History or Earth Science. There are aspects of it that are directly applicable to arithmetic and reading. You really do have to read a lot, and knowing a little math helps a great deal. In that aspect, it’s much more like life than a game.

The interesting aspect – for me as an educator – is how they manage to get all that stuff into a game. When you start, you don’t know a snow spider from a cave claw, a forge from a shopkeeper. You need to learn where to go, how to get there, what to do when you arrive. You have to differentiate among Non Player Characters (NPCs) and other people who are driving their avatars (toons) across the landscape. There are merchants, trainers, facilities, and a plethora of mysteries that all get illuminated as the story unfolds. And there’s even an encyclopedia for the game for when you need to look something up — like “What does Fate do?”

At the moment, I’m still unpacking it. The crafting (profession) aspect of it has features that make the game play much more intriguing, and provide a rationale for interaction beyond “let’s get together and kill stuff” that’s common in many other games. This idea of crafting is not new. I believe it was started by EverQuest and moved along into World of Warcraft (I’ve never played them so I can’t speak with any authority) but I know this isn’t a new idea in a game, but it’s still a fascinating implementation.

Still, as a replacement for my Last Outpost experience, I’m finding LOTRO to be a very satisfying replacement.

Actions Not Nouns

September 24th, 2010

Stephen Downes has been having a heavy think about learning and a theory of learning lately. You should subscribe to him and read his stuff. He sent me to this post about learning objectives:

Actions lead to lively activities
A course ruled by conventional learning objectives like “define pathogen” will have simple fact checks and Jeopardy games. A course dedicated to supporting real-world behaviors like “kill pathogens on imported fruit” will be more likely to have realistic simulations, such as an activity that requires learners to assess a crate of apples for possible pathogens and take the appropriate actions.

via Why you want to focus on actions, not learning objectives » Making Change.

This rings a bell with me. It has a resonance that makes sense to me from an instructional design standpoint.

Read and think.

School as Video Game

September 16th, 2010

Go see what the questions are and visit for awhile.

The best thing about “Learning by Playing,” the most excellent feature in this week’s New York Times magazine, is not that it gives a fairly fair and balanced look at the potentials of learning games in the classroom. No, instead, it’s the willingness to ask big questions in a big, hairy mainstream publication that lots of people read:

via Weblogg-ed » School as Video Game.

If you haven’t already added his blog into your feed readers, go back and do it now.

What if we DID turn school into a video game? I’m looking at you, Mr. Walker! 🙂

Free to Play

September 15th, 2010

For those who may be fans of the MMORPG, Lord of the Rings Online is now free to play. You can still subscribe and get a nice bonus for doing so, but it’s very playable – at least a lower levels – for the free version. I’m impressed with the way that they’ve integrated the premium with the free to give those who have paid accounts just a bit more, a little something to make it worthwhile. Never having played it before, I dug in over the weekend and, I have to say, darn this is fun!

You need a good machine and a fast connection, but if you’re on SL, I suspect you can get onto LOTRO as well.

Find more at their website.

Play to win:

September 7th, 2010

It’s not just education that’s looking to cash in on the idea that the addictive nature of games has some potential.

Companies are realizing that "gamification" — using the same mechanics that hook gamers — is an effective way to generate business.

via Play to win: The game-based economy – Fortune Tech.

This idea that the best games trigger an addiction-like response in players is the crux of what makes games so interesting to educators. It’s not the “making it fun” because frankly some of the most addictive games are not fun. They are also not easy nor simple. Can we make reading addictive? What would the implication be if you had to pry books out of a 10 year old’s hand? What if your 11 year olds snuck off behind the barn so you wouldn’t see them doing math? How do we make learning as addictive as leveling up in WoW?

THAT is the question we’re struggling with this semester. Don’t lose sight of it.

Learning Styles — Again

September 6th, 2010

Every semester we go around with this. Every semester people argue with me about it. Every semester I run through the evidence and even with it staring them in the face, every semester teachers reject the idea that there is no credible evidence to support the idea of “Learning Styles” as currently applied in education. Here’s another study that agrees with me:

Our review of the literature disclosed ample evidence that children and adults will, if asked, express preferences about how they prefer information to be presented to them. There is also plentiful evidence arguing that people differ in the degree to which they have some fairly specific aptitudes for different kinds of thinking and for processing different types of information. However, we found virtually no evidence for the interaction pattern mentioned above, which was judged to be a precondition for validating the educational applications of learning styles. Although the literature on learning styles is enormous, very few studies have even used an experimental methodology capable of testing the validity of learning styles applied to education. Moreover, of those that did use an appropriate method, several found results that flatly contradict the popular meshing hypothesis.

via Learning Styles — Psychological Science in the Public Interest.

I got this link from a NY Times article about how much we do in education is based–and I’m paraphrasing here–on superstition.

For the 682 class: What does this mean for your designs? If you’re restricted to using ONLY those techniques for which we have good, scientifically based support–as you’re required to do by NCLB, btw–what can you do in a classroom?

For the 801 class: Here’s a leadership challenge for you. You cannot support the use of learning styles as a valid, research-based practice. How do you deal with that?


What We Call Stuff

September 1st, 2010

D’Arcy Norman is one of my inspirations. Usually once a day or so he posts something that intrigues or challenges me. This is what I found when I woke this morning:

It’s very basic, but that’s the point of the video. Could come in handy in talking with faculty members – sometimes they have interesting concepts of what eLearning is (and isn’t)…

via Video: Sticky Concepts (introduction to) eLearning | D’Arcy Norman dot net.

I love this use of video. It’s right up there with the Common Craft stuff but there are a couple of things that bug me. Call me a curmudgeon but I really want us to be clearer about some of these constructs.

I know it’s popular to put e- in front of everything. Ever since Apple trademarked i- I suppose we needed a letter and e- for electronic is easier than c- or even cy- for cyber- even tho cy- might be more appropriate and accurate. In this case, since the video actually gives examples that are electronically mediated and not just computer mediated, I suppose the use of e- here is appropriate.

My real complaint is the use of Learning. While the authors allege to talk about electronically mediated activities for learning, what they mostly talk about are electronically mediated sources for teaching. The summary information about the learning environment that included syllabus, lecture notes, assignments, exam results, etc in particular made me question the appropriateness of the term Learning.

Take “syllabus” as an example. At its simplest a syllabus is merely an outline for a particular course of study. While these can be self-generated, typically they’re provided by faculty to tell students how much work they need to do to get a good grade. In a true e-learning platform, I think the platform itself becomes a kind of syllabus as the resources of interest get added to and removed from the environment based on the learner’s need.

At the moment e-learning platforms are much more student centered than these quick videos indicate. I think part of the reason for the oversimplification and the shift in perspective is because of the complexity of true elearning platforms, which really are an organizing component of a personal learning environment, and because mainly these videos target teachers (not students) and telling a teacher they’re not the center of the learning universe has predictably Copernican implications.

I do applaud the producers for including the little bit about web 2.0 connections they added at the end, but I think that really does say a lot about how the producers feel about web 2.0 and its relationship to the e-learning platform–it’s something to be tacked on the end.

Let me offer my own e-learning platform as an example and maybe it’ll help explain why I think it’s a different construct on its face than the e-learning platform described in the video.

First, the components:
1. My computers. Yes, plural. I have a collection of computers to help me manage my learning. My windows based machine gives me access to a collection of communications tools that are not available on my Linux machines. Notably, this involves proprietary environments like Second Life, which have problems with the graphics adapters available on Linux based machines. My main Linux machine provides the horsepower I need to actually produce work like extended works in an audio format and web based development where I can prototype my web presentations without actually needing a connection to the web or exposing the draft work to the public while in development. Last, my netbook provides a handy tool for basic communications and production on the go. I can tuck it in my pocket and use it when I need more space or speed than my smartphone provides.

2. My smartphone. This lets me access people who are at a distance when I’m not at my computer. It also provides a rudimentary interface to web based resources while I’m away from my main connection points. It’s an mp3 player which I use for listening to content when my eyes are otherwise occupied, and a camera that lets me record images of things that might take too long to describe or that can serve as visual referents. (I can take a picture of a plant which I can then show to an expert in order to find out what it is, for example.) It’s also an e-book reader and I use it to read texts when I’m waiting for something else to happen (grocery line, cooking dinner, picking up kids from school, etc). It might be worth noting that I also have dedicated devices for MP3 playing, taking digital images, and reading ebooks. The smartphone has the advantage of being always with me, while I need to make special arrangements to use the dedicated devices.

How I use these devices to manage and organize my learning will probably take a post by itself, but really boils down to asking what do I want to learn and what resources am I using to learn it. The challenge is integrating the many devices in ways that make sense to me so that the resources I want are available to me when and where I want them. The simple answer is, of course, I use my brain to organize the disparate components and only need to remember which place to find the information I want in the context that I find myself using.

Please notice that all this stuff in my personal e-learning network provides me with access to the kinds of environments described in the video, but those environments are only pieces of a much larger picture that comprises the real e-learning platform of my experience. Moreover, the e-components form a subset of my larger personal learning environment (or personal learning network) which includes resources that are both e- and not e-.

Bottom line: We’ve gone too far in simplifying complex constructs to facilitate understand when the simplification mis-represents reality. We need to be careful of that–although I did like the line, “As much E- as necessary and as much human as possible.” I wonder if the producers meant to include the learner as part of the human bit.