Learning Matters

Friday, June 24, 2005

GLS 1.0 Day Two

Day Two started off with a presentation by a team from PARC on utilizing the potential data gathering opportunities in virtual environments. I had not considered the research opportunities virtual gaming environments present, but it is possible to capture extensive data for quantitative and qualitative analysis. After a brief presentation, the facilitators passed out DVD's with captured video from a game session of "Star Wars Galaxy" and some log and other data files. My table was overwhelmed with the amount of data and struggled to filter out the noise of in game merchant marketing and the behavior of AFK (away from keyboard) avatars. However, an adjacent table demonstrated greater proficiency and were able to analyze how much of the game dialogue were ads, analyzed the content of the ads, and compared the prevalence of the word "please" vs. average usage. I'm impressed by the potential to study decision making and social interaction in virtual games and need to consider whether the potential exists to develop predictive simulations. We just need to match questions to gaming environments appropriately.

For the second session, I am in a session on simulating schooling with Kurt Squire and Levi Giovanetto presenting on Civ III's Apolyton University (where hardcore Civ players go to advance their knowledge) as an educational institution, followed by Rich Halverson on "Games for Leadership, Leadership for Games."

Apolyton is a user community on the Civ website where virtual courses are organize

Thursday, June 23, 2005

At GLS 1.0

The end of the school year was very hectic. It always is, but we have some major construction projects underway and a major end of school year data retreat that were big draws on time.

But today I'm at GLS 1.0, the first year of the Games + Learning + Society Conference sponsored by the Academic Co-Lab and UW-Madison's School of Education. Games and learning is an increasingly high profile intersection for research and application in education. Reading the business press, I see reporting that the popularity of games is eroding the market share of traditional entertainment forms of television and movies in the youth and young adult market.

For schools, the rise of gaming is relevant both as the emergence of a powerful tool for learning, but also as a competitor attractor for the attention and time of our students. The dominant strand that I have seen in the research literature so far places games as an instructional tool in a blended learning environment facilitated by an instructor. Later this morning, I'll attend a session where Marc Prensky from Games2Train that will explore whether games can replace teachers in certain areas. I'm a skeptic, but as an educator I come to the topic with a pre-existing stance. But now, I am listening to a presentation by designers from Muzzy Lane on how to design and manage gaming systems within a classroom. Their platform allows for content creation, feedback, assessment, and tracking.

As a thirty-something technology director who is not much of a gamer, it is becoming apparent to me that I am behind the curve on games. I had been looking at games (not Oregon Trail type games, but these very rich multi-player games with capability to customize) as something to focus on in the medium term. In talking with my student interns this month, though, it's clear that they see games as central and very NOW in the digital lives of their peers and themselves. So over the next two days, I'll start to scale the learning curve.

UPDATE...In the second session now and hearing Angela McFarlane from the University of Bristol present on the use of games in the UK. Collaboration, problem solving, and forums to persuade with evidence are skills that their student surveys suggest are advanced through use of gaming. Transparency and accurate content/models are key design features. For example, if a student is playing "Rollercoaster Tycoon," what economic models (if any) are reflected in the game. Are the models accurate or are students at risk for negative learning? Also, students will reject games that are too easy or too hard, so it is important to scaffold the learning experience so students can game in their zone of proximal development. Saving and scenario development are features that impact upon the use and allocation of instructional time if your classroom utilizes gaming. Feels, correctly I believe, that developing relevant, real-world simulations or games is much more difficult than developing fantasy based games. The implication I draw is that while the private sector will be very innovative in terms of presentation, multi-media, and multi-player capabilities, the education sector should not rely on the private sector for much in the way of substantive game development because it is unlikely to be as profitable as gaming for entertainment.

Now Marc Prensky is up and is choosing to lead off by promoting his upcoming book. "When and How Can Game-Based Learning Eliminate the Need for Teachers in Certain Areas." He says he is not aiming to eliminate all teachers, just the lousy ones. Now he is citing "Human Accomplishment" by Charles Murray who he characterizes as an excellent statistician, and is asserting that teacher quality is not on a normal curve, but on a Lotke curve, which is skewed to the left.

His next topic jump is to note that $50 billion annually is spent on teaching secondary math globally and assert without examination that this is an excessive amount to allocate to this objective.

Prensky proposes that games should be used less for enrichment and more for offloading instruction from teachers. He argues that the positive consequences are that teachers have lighter loads, can concentrate in areas where they matter most and will be happier. On the negative, students may not learn some things that they learn from teachers now and perhaps some teachers lose jobs, although there is still the custodial care aspect. He posits that the status quo keeps the "flow" of courses together, but teachers will still struggle in their areas of weakness.

But how to decide what should be offloaded. Do we select topics that students like to learn least? Do we select topics that teachers like least to teach? Or do we select whatever can be presented/learned sequentially/procedurally and by algorithm. Once example of a promising game he cites is Spore by Will Wright, the Sims creator. However, Prensky believes that today's students (Digital Natives) are more receptive to algorithmic learning than their teachers (Digital Immigrants). I am inclined to believe. However, there needs to be a realistic appreciation of what is strictly procedural and what is not. That requires deep content area knowledge to be embedded in the development process. It is hard to say based on a short talk how wide a circle Marc Prensky casts for procedural knowledge and skills. I'm thinking that "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,Than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

When challenged on his view of teacher expertise, Marc Prensky stated that pedagogy is not a set of complex skills and that virtually all educational research is terribly flawed. He also downplayed the importance of content specific pedagogical skills, which is very much against the current research trend in classroom effects. Prensky clarified that he believes the most critical teacher attribute is the ability to be empathic and motivate students. His position, then, seems to be that we should select teachers based on their ability to relate effectively with students and offload as many content specific learning tasks from the teacher to games.

McFarlane weighed in again at this point to agree that much of the research base was problematic, but that educational games and simulations have not been successful to date in moving students beyond rote knowledge. That is not to say better results cannot be achieved in the future, but everything to date suggests that teachers play a critical role in placing procedural learning in context.

Marc Prensky came in to jiggle our jello and succeeded to a large extent. Today he was playing for effect, but I will be interested to look more at his work to see if his overall view of learning is more nuanced.