Monday, December 9, 2013

Power of Code

When I was in eighth grade, circa 1983, our school got its first computer: a TRS-80 in the Media Center. A friend of mine and I were given the opportunity to use it. We were handed a book for learning the programming language BASIC and just dove in. In high school, our computer classes were programming classes: BASIC and Pascal were the two classes I took.

Fast forward to the school where I work today. Through our Digital Conversion initiative, our students are fortunate to each have a Macbook throughout the school year. Their experience of using computers is vastly different from my student days. It is a fantastic tool for accessing information, producing media, practicing skills, and communicating amongst students and staff.

While my students are using the computer in amazing ways, I have not seen anything about learning computer programming like I did as a student. The focus is on using a variety of web sites and applications, not creating them with code. Students produce a lot of cool media projects with iMovie, ComicLife, SketchUp, etc., but they don’t have any idea what is behind the applications and web sites they use every day.

Through a 3D GameLab quest line this past October, I learned some of the basics of Scratch, a kid-friendly programming language and web site created by a group at MIT. I was attracted to this tool partly out of nostalgia and partly because of the fun factor. Making a cartoon cat or robot or shark move around the screen at my command is a heady and extremely satisfying experience!

For my students, I saw this as a powerful tool for doing new things in new ways. We could go beyond creating a Keynote presentation or Paintbrush picture. Students could make something that moves, talks, interacts. So my first thought was that Scratch would kick our media production up a notch. My fifth grade students are already learning the basics in preparation for creating a project that shows the creatures that fill various niches in specific ecosystems.

In the last couple weeks, I have been hearing a lot about the Hour of Code, a promotional event for Computer Science Education Week, December 9-15, 2013. Their site has tutorials that just about anyone can use to learn coding using different tools such as Scratch. They also have infographics about the need for more computer science students and the underrepresentation of women and people of color.

This promotion increases my motivation to get all of my students using Scratch, not just as a cool media production tool, but as an experience with computer programming. My hope is not just that many of them will be prepared for good-paying jobs. I think about the power of knowing the language that runs our information economy. We are surrounded by apps and web sites and video games. I don’t want my students to be mere consumers of these tools. I want them to help shape them.

Photo credit:
Flominator. TRS-80 Model 1 - Rechnermuseum cropped. [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Monday, August 5, 2013

Reflections on Summer Part II GamesMOOC

Jumping into GamesMOOC gear for the second half of the Summer session, I found a smorgasbord of ideas, examples, games, and worlds. We discussed the use of avatars, explored other game-related MOOCs, visited the GamesMOOC Minecraft server, and shared games that might be useful in education.

Our Wednesday evening tweetchats focused on the experience of using avatars. Rosie O’Brien Vojtek, one editor of the Virtual Education Journal, asked us to think about the Avatar Generation: folks who are very comfortable operating in a virtual world using a personalized avatar. These folks have a facility for negotiating virtual worlds and building and communicating in these worlds.

Avatars have some connection to the identities that we claim in “real life.” Introverts may feel more comfortable speaking up via their avatars. The “disinhibition effect” seems to free us up to behave in ways we wouldn’t in face-to-face encounters. Avatars may represent our sense of our true selves to greater or lesser degrees, depending on whether the player is trying to explore a different identity in a safe space or trying to represent themselves faithfully.

We ventured into a couple of other MOOCs, one of which was the rgMOOC (Rhetoric and Composition: The Persuasive Power of Video Games as Paratexts), a course taught in part by Sherry Jones. This course invited participants to engage with texts and videos that offered background content, explore a variety of games, and enter into discussions of what they found each week. The course had a clear structure within which participants had many choices.

The rgMOOC asked participants to explore the messages and assumptions of the games that we play in our society. In the GamesMOOC, we discussed other uses of COTS (commercial off-the-shelf) games in educational settings. Because I work with students who are under 13 who have access to a school-issued laptop throughout the school year, I have opportunities and limits in what we can use. The easiest games for me to incorporate are free web-based games that don’t require installation. Lure of the Labyrinth and Coaster Crafter are a couple games that I have discovered in the past. I would like to look more closely at several suggested games: Poptropica, the Mesoamerican Ballgame, Wallace and Gromit Sprocket Rocket, and School of Dragons.

the looming castle

Our tours of the GamesMOOC (et. al.) Minecraft server reminded me once again that I shouldn’t give up on trying to find a way to get teachers and administration to accept this game in school. Having a server that educators can explore seems like a good way to introduce the game to those who haven’t seen it. And the work that MouseyMoose and Giraffe619 did to create the Inevitable Betrayal village and castle reminded me of the many skills that children use in this world. Badges may be a good way to define and communicate to outsiders what children are accomplishing in game worlds like Minecraft. Massively @ Jokaydia seems to have a strong start on this with their Awards.

Now that the Summer Part II GamesMOOC has wrapped up, and my school year is about to begin, I need to think about how to bring these ideas and games to life at my school. I love the sharing and camaraderie of the GamesMOOC, but I need to find a way to bring it home. My first thought was to choose a couple of games to explore further and then share those with my local colleagues. But perhaps I need to take it further and get them involved in exploring those games. Perhaps I need to create a Mini Open Online Course for the teachers at my school that would expose them to some of the basics of how games connect with learning and example of games they could use.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Touring This Land

A Minecraft server has been set up to house several educational groups that explore virtual worlds: SIGVE, Games MOOC, Inevitable Betrayal guild, and others. Today, a tour was offered of This Land, the section that belongs to the Inevitable Betrayal guild.

This section was created over the course of four days by two girls, ages ten and twelve. It includes a village and castle surrounded by a huge wall with towers at the corners. The village has a variety of stores, a park, a jousting area, and more. The castle has a throne room, banquet area, kitchen, and a hall of bedrooms. Adults on the tour were rightly impressed by the detail, scale, and design of the project.

The leader of our tour, Kae Novak, pointed out the numerous professional skills that the girls had used. They had been asked to create an outpost for Inevitable Betrayal and went above and beyond in the scope and quality of this outpost. They met a deadline. They did research on different styles of castles, choosing one they had seen but building it with different materials.

The girls reported that one of the biggest challenges was to come to agreements about how the outpost would look. Apparently there were many conflicts of opinion, but the final result shows that they were able to get past those. This kind of negotiation in a group project is a crucial skill for the world of work.

One of the questions that arose after the main tour was, how do we recognize children for the skills like negotiation that they are developing in these virtual worlds? So often the larger culture and educational institutions see games like Minecraft as mere entertainment. But clearly children are practicing and developing many important skills in these collaborative game environments.

My first thought was to develop badges that kids could apply for. We could outline some requirements for the Negotiator, Research, Problem-Solver, or Designer Badge. Our two Minecraft creators could document the project that they worked on and share examples of how they met those requirements. This could be done with text and screenshots or a screen recording or a live interview with an adult who could award the badge.

I do wonder if the idea of getting recognition or credit for their learning is more important to us as educators than it is to kids. I suspect that the kids mostly just want to play the game. But the badges could be used to prove to schools and society the value of what is happening in these virtual worlds. If that value is recognized, schools might give more time and resources to allow students to play these games.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Coaster Crafter

One online game I recommended to fifth grade science teachers last year for their force and motion unit was Coaster Crafter. It doesn’t require any downloads or installations, it’s free, and kids can sign up for an account without an email account.

Coaster Crafter Sign Up

The game has a Design Challenge section that asks kids to fix some poor roller coaster designs. In the process, Brunette introduces relevant science vocabulary: velocity, gravity, acceleration, friction, momentum, etc.

Coaster Crafter 2

Once Level 1 is completed in the Design Challenge, students can try the Coaster Challenge where they get to design their own coasters that meet certain requirements. Completing the Design Challenges also makes different design elements available in the Free Play section of the amusement park.

Coaster Crafter 1

As a teacher, I might introduce the site by having us complete the Level 1 of the Design Challenge as a class. Then I’d let the kids spend some time working/playing through the site either individually or in pairs. I can imagine some kids getting stuck and a classmate helping them out. Eventually, I might have them do a screencast that shows off their favorite coaster design with a voice recording that explains the design using force and motion vocabulary.

By the way, I discovered this game site through Common Sense Media, a web site that offers reviews of books, movies, video games, web sites, etc. for kids, parents, and teachers. It’s a great resource!

Common Sense Media

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Missives from the MOOC 2: Super-Empowered

A set of questions for educators:
  • Wouldn’t you love it if your students had “the desire to act immediately to tackle an obstacle, combined with the belief that [they] have a reasonable hope of success”?
  • Would you like your class to have a “tight social fabric”?
  • Would you like your students to be “willing to work hard all the time”?
  • Would you like to feel like your class is working on “awe-inspiring missions”?
These are no-brainers, right? Obviously, we would love our students and classes to have these characteristics.

In her March 2010 TED talk "Gaming Can Make a Better World," Jane McGonigal lists these as the exact strengths that we develop through experiences with games:
  • Urgent Optimism
  • Social Fabric
  • Blissful Productivity
  • Epic Meaning
She goes on to discuss how we need to harness those strengths in tackling the problems faced by our world, but my thoughts go immediately to the classroom. How can I use the design elements of games to help my students become “super-empowered, hopeful individuals”?

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Missives from the MOOC 1

I've just joined a MOOC. As I travel on this six week journey, I want to use these Missives to share some of the best bits.

First, what on earth is a MOOC? MOOC stands for Massive Open Online Course. They are online courses that are available for anyone to join.

Here's a short video with Dave Cormier's explanation:

There are variations in how MOOCs are structured, but the one I've joined includes a variety of content and projects about using games in education. We will have opportunities to communicate through discussion forums, chats on Twitter, and streaming video on Google Hangout. We won't have grades, but there are opportunities to earn awards and badges. It's a great opportunity to learn alongside a group of motivated educators from a variety of backgrounds.

What are we learning about in this MOOC? In the first three weeks we are learning about apps, AR (Augmented Reality), and ARGs (Alternate Reality Games). In the second three weeks, we are applying what we have learned to create our own games using these tools.