Using AU (Alternative Universes) in GBL

Although this won’t be news to gamers, the Alternative Universe phenomenon (AU) surrounding games is impressively vast and active. There is plenty of it on Reddit and Tumblr – all places less travelled by teachers — even those using Minecraft.

In addition, there are also plenty of high-school students teaming up to play Overwatch games out of school, some are competing in tournaments and of course some kids are dropping high school to focus on being pro-players. Overwatch is of course not the only game – Rocket League, FIFA and other games are increasingly being seen as worthy ways to engage students in extra-curricular activities.

These things stand outside the AU culture. Below is an image of teachers in “Overwatch High School” where the game-hero takes on a rather more mundane persona.

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Here’s an example of some fanfiction inspired by Overwatch from another site which once again shows how remediation can work into traditional (non-game) teaching worlds.

The History teacher introduces himself as Reinhardt. Not Mr. Reinhardt, just Reinhardt. He explains that the name comes from what his fellow soldiers called him ‘back in the day’. Oh boy. Hana notes his strange accent. Some kind of European? Once Reinhardt finishes a 15 minute speech about his distaste for teaching only American History, Hana decides that she likes this class.

Arguably, schools are the AU when it comes to studying or remediating texts.  There is plenty of scope for creating an array of media around kid’s interest in Overwatch (or Fornite or …) but the key for teachers not to appear n00bish – and by that I mean to not really understand the meme-culture, streamers and players that are part and parcel of the game. Here’s an example of asking the wrong question in the wrong place.

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The costs of playing a 6-up team are not insignificant. PCs are great, but expensive and whole consoles are cheap these days, they lack that ‘flex’ value that IT Managers want. Then there are Xbox Live accounts (or Sony) which are annual subscriptions. Add monitors and headset’s and the cost rises. Realistically, a decent set up will be $600-$700 to play a game. Then there’s the issue of how Overwatch matchmaking, which currently makes 6-stack players play with people who rank above them.

So let’s say that it costs $4000 to set up an Overwatch space at the school. Sounds a lot, until you start to think how much it costs to get an edu-consultant to come and tell you about games (or anything) for a day or two. If we then think what we can do with space which can play FIFA, Rocket League, Overwatch, Fortnite … even Minecraft – it starts to look quite cheap. Then add on all the stuff we can do around ‘social’ factors to help kids learn to actually get along in games, take turns speaking and articulating what they are doing … $4,000 is quite cheap.

The output and possibilities are clearly un-tapped – but as I’ve set out, there is movement in the idea of high-schools organising games and certainly a rich and established culture for AU … so why is placing blocks the dominant ‘innovation’?


Poor Game kid – Rich Drone kid

There are plenty of models for learning to choose from and I don’t doubt that all of them arise from a body of evidence which shows they can be successful.

Since I’ve been teaching, the debate has centred on direct instruction vs inquiry learning, where belief and preferences for one, diminishes the other. In Australia, the movement for more open-ended discovery and enquiry has long been associated with projects and collaboration, despite a sustained body of evidence around the world that educator enthusiasm for discovery learning is not supported by research evidence, which broadly favours direct instruction. In the last few weeks, the media has reported on Gonski’s view that learning needs to be both personalised and conducted in ways which appeal to the student’s individual learning preferences, yet the psychological evidence is clear that there are no benefits for learning from trying to present information to learners in their preferred learning style all the time.

Ultimately, our school system remains married to ‘high stakes’ testing.  In the study Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology reviewed decades worth of data on ten basic learning techniques, many of which have direct implications for reading and an interesting connection to writing as well. Of the ten, the author’s concluded that five were highly or moderately helpful and that five were of relatively little help.

The highly useful techniques noted in the study were the following:

  • Practice Testing. Self-testing or taking practice tests over to-be-learned material.
  • Distributed Practice. Implementing a schedule of practice that spreads out study activities over time.

The moderately useful techniques were:

  • Elaborative Interrogation. Generating an explanation for why an explicitly stated fact or concept is true.
  • Self-Explanation. Explaining how new information is related to known information, or explaining steps taken during problem solving.
  • Interleaved Practice. Implementing a schedule of practice that mixes different kinds of problems, or a schedule of study that mixes different kinds of material, within a single study session.

The least useful techniques were:

  • Highlighting/Underlining. Marking potentially important portions of to-be-learned materials while reading.
  • Rereading. Restudying text material again after an initial reading.
  • Summarization. Writing summaries (of various lengths) of to-be-learned texts.
  • Keyword Mnemonic. Using keywords and mental imagery to associate verbal materials
  • Imagery for Text. Attempting to form mental images of text materials while reading or listening.

This list appears to be out of sync with how many kids are learning at home from games. And this is the essential problem with competing fields using competing methods to find the ‘best solution’ or model – be that a theory of education or a system designed to enact that theory into ptactice.

The research points above are almost entirely focused on the classroom as a closed environment which arrives at a point where students encounter the high-stakes test. It follows that the ‘best way to learn’ debate is always headed towards a point where what has been learned (and how good you are) is measured by that test at nominal points in a students life – which they have no control over.

If we think about ‘the timetable’ – students are housed in a system which is entirely designed to condition them for these events – whether it’s in-school exams, NAPLAN or the HSC. This happens despite numerous industry and educational reports which express the idea of ‘jobs of the future’ being unknown and what students are learning today is likely to be irrelevant by the time they enter the workplace.

I won’t get into a debate about lack ‘soft skills’ other than to point out they are often set out as a lesser set than the hard skills in the table above the field of psychology itself is in a binary debate with itself about this).

Games are not represented in the hard-skills table. Being a good gamer is seen as an amusement – unless of course we look to dystopian novels where kids need to succeed at games to win at life – Hunger Games, Ready Player One etc., But no one’s getting a winner-winner chicken dinner award on their school report – yet kids STUDY these texts in some weird universe where these skills are relevant – just not here, not today – close the laptop.

Richard Van Eck argues Games and play can be effective learning environments, not because they are fun but because they are

  • immersive;
  • require the player to make frequent, important decisions;
  • have clear goals;
  • adapt to each player individually; and
  • involve a social network.

My own elderly teen is amazingly good at games. playing in the top few percent of leagues and despite his age, is more than able to play with adults ten years older than him – many of whom are also streamers and well known in the game community. He doesn’t study for a game using any of the methods in the table above – and yet has developed the skills and ability to process and react to information in the way scholars such as James Gee have argued are very useful to developing multiple forms of intelligence. This of course has no bearing on his school performance — as he (like many) has almost no engagement with a system that he knows is going to require memorisation of facts for a high-stakes test. At the same time, his school experience has made zero effort towards using games or attempting to understand any of the literature about how games and their embedded systems, methods and cultures could actually be useful.

Van Eck asked us over a decade ago

  • Are computer laboratories available where students can play games? Are they appropriately configured? Are they available for the extended hours that game play involves?
  • Is the right equipment available, such as headphones, speakers, and special consoles?
  • Is support available for the game, both technically and in terms of gameplay?
  • Are there instructional designers who can develop games?
  • Is gaming integrated into the curriculum or just added on?

For almost every student in our educational system – the answer is no. Firstly, computer labs have been removed in favour of cheaper and largely unproven 1:1 schemes of less powerful devices. These devices have poor processing, poor software and don’t adequately support video animation, filmmaking etc., Schools do not make game-spaces available to students — and often ban games in the little time students have between time-tabled classes. Consoles have never been taken seriously in schools – and I’m yet to see a school willing to make a six station game-room – nor do I see Sony or Microsoft making an effort to encourage it. Even worse, Microsoft has put all it’s education eggs in the Minecraft Edu basket and has become extremely blinkered in its representation of what gaming in schools could be, which has stopped any real development of games in classrooms – but it sells like hotcakes and fuels an array of ‘expert’ speakers who also make money from it – and probably couldn’t get out of Bronze in Overwatch if their life depended on it. It’s very hard for kids who are playing Fornite, PubG and Overwatch to get excited about Minecraft … but they are now required to ‘play’ it in school because that’s the only thing the teacher has to offer or is willing to accept.

My last point is about ‘instructional design’. Yes, people, it’s a thing. The way learning is presented – the quality of the delivery, the variations in activities, the use of space — all matter. Few teachers seem to engage with the basic idea that they have to be good instructional designers to be a good teacher. It follows that students who are presented with indifferent or poor instructional design experiences are not going to be able to apply either their own media-game understanding or the stuff that I stuck in the table above – which is geared towards ‘static’ text and high stakes tests.

The literature is clear when it comes to the poor use of an LMS, the scroll of death, the digital vending machine and the absent teacher who doesn’t know how to be present in an online space. I’m going to guess that these teachers don’t play games or haven’t yet watched kids play in an MMO or reviewed their media-habits when not playing games.

So why not let kids play an MMO before school starts? Because the idea of ‘school start’ is part of the problem. Why not get kids to play MMOs as part of their development as people? Why do they only get to play MinecraftEdu and not Overwatch or Fornite? Why is being an exceptional gamer of zero value in the way we assess student ability or capability?

I think it’s because education is on an endless search for the ideal solution which on one hand engages students to use their own interests and sense of self – but at the same time has to also deliver ‘results from high stakes testing. If a child’s preference and interest lie in playing Fornite and another is interested in drones – I guarantee the drone-kid will be scooped up by teachers and encouraged while the other is ignored. That makes me quite sad, because for kids who are actually GREAT at games, almost nothing in their school day is going to reflect their interests or understand them as a person – and over time, they are presented with insipid online activities and content as the cloud of high stakes testing forms around them with no shelter – until they get home.

Perhaps, if games were as accepted as drones and bots, then kids might go home an do something else. Perhaps if teachers played games, they might be more interested in instructional design … but as it is … the search goes on.

Digital Media uncovers our love of the past.

About fifteen years ago, I put a two group espresso machine in my 1967 Kombi to take to Volkswagen meets. Back then, it was a bit of a curiosity as the coffee-boom had not yet happened. Last week, the family went down to 21 Grams Coffee in Dee Why to learn from their baristas. the Coffeewagen has been down there since February having a high end fit out for a weekend business which the family will run. Over the years, the van has been many things — a storage container, dog-beach hauler, surf and camping van. While #vanlife has become somewhat of a lifestyle movement — mostly featuring the beautiful young people who get to escape the daily grind. The movement itself has become a huge industry — from fitting out vans, making documentaries, giving talks and of course arranging meet-ups and events.

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It seems that many people, old and young are interested in low-technology life, or at least weekend escapes. Social media is a human-history of people looking for and finding vintage escapes as well as documenting their lunch or outdoor adventures. This makes it very hard to argue that technology is creating a shut-in society or that everyone is addicted/distracted to post iPhone devices. Media is documenting a revival in vintage things. For us, owning a vintage coffee van is a ticket to having weekend fun – and perhaps giving our kids an insight into running your own business. For me, a love of coffee and vans made a perfect fit fifteen years ago, but back then – people didn’t spend as much time in so many diverse places as they do now. Artesian markets and a parade of car shows are on offer every weekend. People use social media to find ‘real world’ leisure time and love to document their enjoyment.

Social media creates tribes. It also makes it possible to place your telepresence in multiple tribes. My wife’s Facebook feed is full of Springer Spaniels as that’s her ‘thing’ whereas mine is predictably full of old cars. For me, it’s an endless swap-meet of Italian, British and German cars.

Buying a real-world thing leads you to new people, experiences and cultures. For example, I recently bought a TVR. It’s been on my list of ‘want’s for years — and finally, via social media – I got the tip-off to negotiate the purchase from the seller – but as it’s a rather rare beast, the car had a digital history and story, curated by other TVR enthusiasts. I had the car inspected by someone I’ve never met, but he was recommended by a guy who had previously helped me out (but also never met) and flew down to Melbourne to drive it home, some 1200kms. Along the way, I had a few questions that were almost immediately answered by TVR owners from Australia, the Netherlands and the USA. All people I’ve never met.

Unlike my Volkswagen tribe, the TVR is embedded in historic racing and old British car fanatics. Simply buying the car opened up new car culture portals. At the casual level, I’m viewing part of an ever-flowing visual stream of images people are capturing as they move about their lives. Vintage cars are deeply embedded in this idea of freedom and nostalgia for a time before digital – but is documented because of digital. It is a complex soup of fandom and nostalgia – a visual treat of looking back at designs which emerged from a sense of passion and artistry rather than consumer focus groups which seem to produce technologically brilliant cars which all look the same. Some people are collectors, most are sick of losing money of cars with planned obsolescence and expensive repairs once the warranty runs out. There are people who buy cars for purely practical reasons – the increasing phenomenon of commuting to work and driving to the mega-mall etc – but there is also a massive culture which rejects it.

Don’t get me wrong, I like new cars – our Alfa Romeo Giulietta QV is 240hp super-hero car thanks to its Tony Stark levels of technology. It’s a perfect car for every day as the technology is sufficient to be both practical, reliable and fun – and there are plenty of social-media tribes who post endless images and superlative comments about how great they are to drive – or make go even faster.

What has become very apparent is the number of people who want to also own a classic car — and the rising prices that come with demand. Finding a classic that might appreciate is also powered by digital. Whether you want to spend five grand or fifty — technology powers the search. Not many of us have the time to go on ‘barn find’ trips, but those who do – also use social media to post where they are going to be and what they are after. One tip-off leads to real-world connections where a guy knows a guy who knows a guy. All of this is of course captured on YouTube via an array of drones, go-pros and phones. This has also become a business – one which necessarily includes ‘experts’ who offer insights into heritage and history.

So while I’m reading about what young people ‘need’ – personalised learning, keeping up with the skills needed for future work, there is an equally strong movement which is interested in pre-digital, escape, old mechanical things – and uses technology to find, experience and enjoy it.

My computer is a cat.

I have a cat. It’s semi-friendly most of the time but has a tendency to make demands while appearing to be friendly. It likes to bite when it doesn’t get what it wants – which is hard to know as has cat-communication issues. I still feed it, look after it as best I can and take the occasional happy-rub with the random swipes and bites. The cat doesn’t seem to do this in a pre-meditated manner and if I read it correctly, the follow-up rub is a sign of remorse. The cat reserves this for those who live here, it generally ignores visitors as the cat knows, they won’t feed it. I find myself studying the cat too much, trying to figure out if there is a pattern here, or what triggers it. Overall, I think the cat just likes to do it on impulse as it’s a solitary creature pre-wired to knock things off tables because it can or dissapear for few days on whatever adventure it’s on.

The cat is somewhat predictable. It’s general attention seeking mode kicks in about 10pm when our pack of hounds have found a child’s bed to curl up in and the ground is far safer to walk on. It’s not a big cat and our gun-dogs are more than happy to scoop it up and carry it around until they get bored. Of course, the cat is a fascination to them as it has superpowers. It can leap on any surface and unlike them, is allowed to sit in places they’d be kicked out the house for. It can also vanish into thin air or ambush them from dark corners. I pretty sure the hounds don’t study the cat the way I do, but they too have a weird relationship with it – except the cat’s wise enough not to bite the dog and to high tail it when caught in the open ground.

Most of all, the cat doesn’t care. It care’s about stomach-o’clock, getting the odd pat and being on the high ground – preferably in a food-coma. It doesn’t provide much in the way of service from its lofty existence. We had a rat in the kitchen who ate plastic pipes – the cat didn’t care. There’s no cat-brain connection between other animals and it’s bowl. The humans will fill the bowl on demand. The shallow cat rationale seems to be –  I am a cat and I am here. To the cat, the rest of us are there for one reason – to feed it. It shows up when we unpack the weekly shopping.  I can see it judging us, as it sifts through the bags with disappointment. I’m sure it doesn’t know what it thinks we should bring home or care – but it just likes to maintain a sense of under-whelming gratitude.

I’ve come to think that technology if it were an animal, that it would be a cat. Perhaps in a different time, factories were also cat-empires that we – the working cogs – serve. The difference between the adults of the 1950s and today is that we have a much more demanding, smarter and punitive feline to deal with. I also think that the instant-nature of technology promotes cat-like behaviour in some people. The obvious one being the keyboard warrior – which I am sure is something my cat will evolve to do at some point when it feels the need to mess with people at a distance or we run out of objects for it to knock off shelves or benches.

As I say, I’ve been watching the cat and I’m onto it. I’m also increasingly trying to observe my technological-cat and not be on call to feed it or feel like I have to respond positively when it bites me or decides to be a jerk. I can’t control what people actually do with technology – when they use it; how they use it or what their intent is. It’s a waste of time, other than to accept thinks amazingly appear before me – which the techno-cat would like me to attend to – now. It might genuinely be hungry, but it’s just as likely to be messing with me for its own amusement.

I think our relationships with our inbox is a lot more like having a cat and far removed from our relationships with other humans. It’s hard for us not to pay attention to it – and it doesn’t care about what we think about its demands. The inbox is there to make demands of us, whenever someone feels like it. I’m sure I’m not alone in experiencings a ‘ding’ of an email notice and then minutes later someone says “did you get my email”. Then there are those mass-emails, where dozens of people are saying “did you read THE email” … as though we all get just one a day. Most of my time in my kitty-litter box is trying to get rid of turds to be honest – endless spam that I try to ‘unsubscribe to’. Yes Twitter I’m looking at you.

I’m going to tame the cat-inbox to create a calm inbox. I’m going to give Inbox Pause a go and see if it has any effect on me and others. I am aware that I am also guilty of being a techno-kitty pressing SEND at the end of every technological interaction. So I want to send less in order get less. I have over 30,000 un-read messages. I actually paid $25 to add more storage to Gmail today – which the point I thought – you are an idiot – the cat is running your life.

I’m not so important that I have tons of important email anyway, most are junk as I said, but as a human, I really think that other humans can call me or visit me when things are super-attention worthy. If I convince myself that 90% of inbox messages to various systems I’ve stupidly learned to use – and see as important – are the work of cats – it might just help.



Teacher currently afk

One enduring problem with online solutions is that they have to actually be used by teachers for the benefit of students. For example, if an LMS is just a grand-flash-drive in the sky, where a teacher periodically places a few activities, students will have no motivation to engage with it. The result will be learning analytics that show the student has low-participation. This is not the student’s fault. Why would you visit a dead-space to see if a teacher has uploaded another task? This is also true for games – why visit a world where nothing much happens?

If the system is used poorly: no feedback at the point of learning; unmarked work, incomplete grading etc.,- the student is hardly going to value it.

If the teacher relies on the machine to grade the work and set the agenda (endless quizzes) then the machine is the teacher and the teacher just the operator. Where the course is poorly designed, resourced and rarely used by the teacher –  it’s easy to see why the student wouldn’t value it – and find something else to do with their laptop.

There are 5 aver-arching rules for working with any online system

  1. Make a great first impression
  2. Create a course that’s easy to navigate
  3. Make it easy for students to find everything
  4. Let students know what to expect
  5. Keep students informed and engaged

The benefits are also super simple

  • Ease of use of the tool saves time and cognitive energy when locating and using course materials
  • Facilitates student-centered learning

Feedback given as part of formative assessment enables learners to consolidate their strengths, identify their weaknesses  and guides them about the necessary actions in order to achieve the learning outcomes.

Again, using a system doesn’t mean, sticking your practice on auto-pilot and leaving the machine’s algorithms to give students feedback.

Feedback, throughout the course, should be electronic and verbal. It should be:

  • timely: feedback is more effective if it is provided timely since students can still recall how they addressed each assessed task. Timely feedback timeframe is clearly communicated to the students.
  • motivational: feedback may have a positive or negative effect on student motivation and self-esteem. It affects students’ personal feelings which, in turn, affect their engagement in the learning process.  As a result, formative feedback should be empowering and constructive.
  • individual/personal: each student has unique strengths and weaknesses. As a result, in order to be effective and enable students to improve their competences, formative feedback must fit each student’s achievements.
  • manageable: feedback should certainly be detailed enough to ensure that students understand their strengths and weaknesses.

So while we have some very powerful tools, ranging from free to the institutional LMS, they all demand teacher-engagement – not just with the design of the course, but in communication with each student – especially where there are large numbers of students. Systems which shovel ‘work’ and variably issue ‘grades’ but no feedback not only de-motivate and dis-engage students from using the system, but also impact how the students see the class or institution — all of which is well researched.

The bottom line is that all digital tools we are using in pursuit of student productivity, organisation and assessment need to be able to do the above – because the teacher is present in the space.  – so any ‘ghost town’ experience – teacher afk – is something to be avoided at all cost. Students soon work out who is present in online spaces and act accordingly.

Digital PBL – Still light on delivery?

There seems to be no lack of information around ‘Project Based Learning these days. This is good, but also a problem in that information spans several decades. The more recent incarnations, popularised by companies such as New Technology Foundation never really capitalised on Learning Management Systems. The result is a vast amount of graphic organisers, KWL charts and expert-advice, and very little actual ‘projects’ which could be ported from one context to the next.

The advent of better LMS systems promotes using learning analytics as well as a range of tools which can act as project manager, organiser, communicator and most recently, provide learning pathways based on both academic progress and student choice. We are then living at a point in time where no one project suffices: as it’s entirely possible to provide students with several pathways, gamification and tracking.

The LMS can provide both negotiable and non-negotiable learning experiences; wherein protocol based lesson activities can be leveraged into the enquiry, challenge and problem-solving. But where are they? In the case of Canvas’s Learning Commons, it’s a mixed bag of material content – and very little in the way of learning design.

It also takes time to design a project in this way. There is a vast difference between ‘using ICT’ and being able to create a ‘learning design’. Far too many teachers (from what I can see in terms of projects) are handing out a binder of ‘resources’ for students – aka worksheets – and materials. To be honest, this could all be done in an eBook or stuffed on a Flash Drive. The worst designs are simply a scroll of non-wonder where students start at task 1 and end at task Yawn.

Surely we can design learning so that it looks enticing? Surely we can present materials using tools like Canva to at least make it look ‘modern’. I mean, since when did kids see a YouTube video that didn’t have some kind of ‘graphic’ intro. And that leads me to the use of video in PBL courses. Very few examples because it either takes way to long to ‘find’ a video to use or too long to make a video in the zero spare time many teachers have.

So here I am, a decade or more into PBL wondering where the projects are – not just the information about projects. Links and tips welcome!

Super Teachers: Nope.

I know what a super streamer is. Take my go to game, Overwatch. A super streamer is someone who’s pulling half a million views an hour. I also know that the average YouTube subscriber number is about 240, whereas top YouTubers have over 50 million and billions of views. This helps give a context for so-called super teachers with videos that have been accessed 10 million times. What is this metric? Why is it used?

I’d argue a super teacher is a small media player. Khan Academy – the first YouTube super teacher today only pulls about 1.5k views on average, but inspired the trend to create video-content and supply it as a ‘service’ these days – the idea being that ready-made video-content can be streamed to students on a per-user subscription basis.

I am somewhat confused by this.  If all we are seeing is a lecture or spot-content, then why is this considered ‘super teaching’? I for one have spent a decade arguing that ‘content pushing’ might work for ‘remembering’ tests, but in terms of what we can do with ICT today, video lectures are hardly ‘super’ at all.

Using some educational ‘super teacher’ statistics, a content video with 225k views that’s 5 years old – is far from remarkable. A_Seagul will outrun this in 5 minutes of streaming! But then live-streaming and can-o-content are very different beasts. To me, the idea that super teachers are now media hot property with photo-ops for politicians isn’t good for anyone else.

After decades of media innovation, I am really feeling uneasy about the term ‘super teacher’ measured in YouTube views which presents us with video-lectures of essentially one-way content.

This isn’t inspiring me, nor does it reach more than the bottom rung of SAMR and other educational-media theories. It’s not interactive, it’s just stuff. Stuff filmed in HD with a decent low f-stop lens is still just stuff.

I’m clearly not a super teacher. To be honest, I don’t have the time or inclination to make content videos very often and rarely crack 1000 views after a few years. In my defence, I teach art and design, both of which have billions of video’s online, which I can <iframe> into an LMS in seconds. I’m not making content, but shamelessly embed good content from quality sources inside course which I hope do the trick for students.

There are some super-teachers out there. From those who create new schools and new ways to learn, to those who connect with kids every day in unseen and un-celebrated ways – and not measured in views or subscribers.

So I’m not going to swoon if the NSW Premier tells me I’m about to get lucky and meet a super-teacher who’s going to tell me how to ‘flip a classroom’ to get 1.5k views and ascend to the higher ranks.