Minecraft and Education 2015

For a long time now, education has discussed and experimented with immersion in virtual worlds, often with far more success and innovation than counterparts who have moved from office automation to cloud automation.

In virtual worlds, the potential for learning and teaching lies in the unique archetypes they continue to offer. Despite some mentions in popular reports such as Horizon, few educators to date have really found the time or interest in online, virtual communities (beyond Twitter).

Before Minecraft emerged as the ‘new’ way to learn in classrooms, games were wrapped up in cultural controversies about addiction, violence and other ‘media effects’ and so numerous projects in virtual worlds were largely ignored. Not because they didn’t work, but because the media-market which has grown out of Twitter focused (and sold) easier solutions to teachers. While some of us were busy in virtual worlds, others were making pithy YouTube videos, drawing long bows about ‘digital literacies’, creating endless Nings and writing blogs about lists of ‘apps’.

Minecraft isn’t in education. It is ‘in’ the public discourse about games and society. It’s aesthetic qualities are easily recognised by adults as ‘legos’ and it’s naturalistic biome seems pleasant in comparison with more dystopian games. Minecraft is popular in education for two cultural consumer reasons: 1 – It doesn’t scare parents significantly and 2 – it’s different enough for some teacher-users to attract attention and money. It is not in education because it has passed through the critical eye of virtual-world research, or because sufficient K12 research has been conducted to make any determination as to it’s value in school.

To be realistic, schools are not particularly open to games or reform. Minecraft is a game made by adults for adults and as such has no particular value as a ‘serious game’. What children may or may not learn from it is subjective. This is also subjected by broader media interest in the game, the creator and the billion dollar industry that Microsoft paid for – and into. Microsoft will use it’s claimed Educational value, as the relative cost outlay is tiny and inconsequential. The corporate-social-capital of snagging the ‘experts’ in a room has been a routine tradition in attempting to valorise claims, rather than get into any academic research.

Microsoft isn’t overly interested in game based learning, or at least it isn’t in Australia. I wasted my time with Microsoft once around Project Spark. They’ didn’t even return emails to a request they made to me. Aside from trying to show how ‘cutting edge’ they are there’s nothing to suggest Microsoft is overly interested in games and game based learning (enough to fund it) but happy to show how ‘edgy’ they are and use it in marketing messages. This isn’t news to people who have been working on games and virtual worlds for the last decade or so, but let’s not assume that everyone agrees to go along with the corporate marketing messages. I know Microsoft doesn’t care what I think and I’m fine with that. At the same time, I’m not about to give them (or other) a free ride into academia either. I would not be doing my job if I did.

Now don’t get me wrong here, I do think Minecraft has educational value to children. I just don’t believe converting the game into an educational narrative has merit yet. People make money out of this and it is part of the wider efforts of corporations to position their products as ‘part of childhood’ — where childhood is itself a story we tell ourselves. It’s not real. If your child is playing Minecraft, then the good news is that the archetypes in the game do show positive signs for learning, imagination and creativity. There’s nothing to suggest that any other media-computer time would be better or worse.

If they are playing in school, then the question is who’s really benefitting? Is it the child or some company executives and stock holders. What are they not learning? and why do teachers and schools feel the need to make specific mention of their Minecraft use

What I didn’t see coming out of the recent Minecraft summit in Los Angeles was new research or new funding for that research. To be fair, aside from a Facebook photo, I don’t know what it was about at all. And maybe that’s the point of marketing these days – to tell us nothing memorable enough to get us to ask questions. I am sure everyone had a great time talking about Minecraft … but what was made in Minecraft and where were the legions of kids who play it?

This seems the tragedy of ed-tech. It consumes technology and media as though they might be educational (and that’s enough to use it) but fails to address longstanding research questions about whether or not this investment has or is improving schools and society beyond them. Do schools need as much reform as entertainment media has faced from games and if so, what media education is needed?

Beyond educational research, consumer research is telling is of massive shifts in societal interest in game-like media experiences – that people like to buy DLC, that they self-identify with certain game titles and cultures. The question is not ‘what digital literacies does Minecraft offer’, but what does Mincraft culture say about how dubious the popular trope called “digital literacy” is. Minecraft has become central to the ‘talk-fest’ about games and game based learning, based on almost no evidence or research.

For parents and teachers, the questions to be asked remain around whether or not children and schools offer a well rounded, de-branded media education and on what basis do we bother to listen to people who don’t backup their claims with any real evidence. I wonder if playing “The Escapist” would be just as useful.

Malone’s theory of gaming.

Malone (1981) presented a theoretical framework for intrinsic motivation in the context of designing computer games for instruction. Malone argues that intrinsic motivation is created by three qualities: challenge, fantasy, and curiosity. Challenge depends upon activities that involve uncertain outcomes due to variable levels, hidden information or randomness. Fantasy should depend upon skills required for the instruction. Curiosity can be aroused when learners believe their knowledge structures are incomplete, inconsistent, or unparsimonious. According to Malone, intrinsically motivating activities provide learners with a broad range of challenge, concrete feedback, and clear-cut criteria for performance.

This theory pre-dates today’s technology, connectivity and digital culture. His theory emerges alongside the invention and domestication of the home video player. At the time, people we’re just beginning to expand their consumer biosphere from a radio and TV where information was created for them and about them to devices such as home micro computers, video players and the seminal Sony Walkman. Culturally, game offered these three qualities electronically for the first time, however anyone playing RPGs or numerous other table-top games would have thought how simplistic and unimaginative these blocky games appeared.

These three things are counter-intuitive to schooling. Challenge is associated with ‘being a better person and intrinsically feeling good about the self’ rather than accepting failure and repeated failure is motivating. Fantasy is rarely tolerated in school curriculum when facts prevail and therefore curiosity is tethered to time and distance a teacher feels a student can move from those facts in the time they make available.

I do like so much of the emergent theories about instructional design, technology and games in the 70s and 80s, but while they are interesting, much has changed technologically and culturally in game design and experience. Some schools have made the leap from drill and skill, others are talking about it. The key insight in Malone theory to me is clear cut criteria and concrete feedback which once again is best served from human interaction and empathy.

Malone, T. (1981). Towards a theory of intrinsically motivating instruction. Cognitive Science, 4, 333-369.

Google Feud

This game is interesting. Its called Google Feud.  Its super simple and could be really amazing if you could add your own terms for class. Oh how the conceptual frame and subjective frame might be more compelling. As it is, its interesting to play, and then discover what people are typing into google. Warning: you are going to loose time to this.

i-Solated

Technology is isolating I’ve decided. Not immediately isolating, but it grows over time so that by the time you (me) start to really recognise how terrible this is, it becomes a dubious way of life. Now don’t get me wrong, I do love to use technology. I’m not sure I can un-plug without catastrophic events following that choice. I imagine how utterly frustrating daily life would be without it. My day job runs on digital-rails and so does my PhD life (currently being neglected) so much that I spend vast amounts of time managing, creating and receiving it. Inbox 42,000 and I don’t care.

I learned a long time ago that making more information is a terrible idea for learning and teaching. So far the research suggests it makes very little difference to students. I wince at the “flipped classroom” tropes that some people have hung their hat on. I once heard a motoring journalist say “A Jag impresses the neighbours, if they no nothing about cars” and if you know how to use media well (and why media education has power) then the idea of ‘flipping’ becomes a null point. It does impress ‘other’ people if their own information fluency is limited to Word, Emails and giving the odd PowerPoint. And no, writing and publishing on the topic does not somehow validate neo-fauxisms.

Flipping is isolating. It places glass between the teacher and the learner. What do people mean when they say “what is normally homework becomes classwork”. There is no agreement that ‘homework’ benefits students and is anything more than a cultural construction connected to what parents are told schooling is.  What they mean is that they are putting some of their information in digital form and making it available to students. This doesn’t seem earth-shatteringly innovative. Having someone talk via video or assemble a set of videos is simply media delivery, and potentially isolating. There is hardly any real research into this, so your guess is as good as anyones.

Flipping comes with the same teacher-owned-assumed authority associated with the cognitive-apprentice. It isolates teachers from students in preference to them being part of information assemblages. But this post isn’t primarily about ‘flipped classrooms’, but what they represent. I think that over the last decade or more, that working with technology has become more isolating from the real and immediate word around me. I wonder what is happening out there, and find myself looking at Facebook and Twitter to find out. I am clearly insane. But I can’t ignore it, because at any second someone important will send me a message and I have to do something in the real-world about it. Now call me a neo-evolutionary objector, but what if I’m playing tug-o-war with the dog, or I want to go ride my bike in the rain because I like the pinging noise the hot engine makes. I can’t, because at any second something wicked this way comes … or occasionally, something sweet and uplifting (that isn’t a cat video or another Yo Momma video).

In my classroom, I am interested more and more in how I can use technology to connect with current (real time and live) questions and learning dilemmas my middle-school students are facing. I am frustrated that most tools are built for the ‘flipped classroom’ mentality. Take Edmodo for example. It does not have an RSS out function. I can pour other peoples content into my student’s online space, but I can’t push their content out. If I could, then I could pick up every kid’s post and know exactly which kid from 85 in the room I needs to talk with next. I don’t want to sit on a desk and stare at my Edmodo app (which doesn’t work very well on iPad btw). I want to get Edmodo to talk to IFTTT and IFTTT to get my Android phone to push a “ding” notice to the home screen. That way I’m always on route to a real-time learning drama or celebration.

But technology isn’t doing this. It is increasingly isolating ‘us’ from the real world. Online, I’m monitoring dozens of blogs, forums and feeds. I am spending many many unseen hours knitting together the feeds into things I can collect and analyse from Google Sheets to Evernote books. It all takes more and more time, not less.

Once the digital-dashboard is set up, I can start to flick information around, but it’s still at a distance and at a cost. The need to create more and more information workflows feels relentless and few institutions seems willing to label classes “high” levels of fluency needed. It’s a little like the motorbike test. Riders have to pull up a bike from 25kph to a stop (no falling off) in a certain distance. The problem is that if it’s wet, the distance stays the same.

I feel a lot like that with technology these days. I look at every new tool and wonder how this will connect me more to real-life. Institutions never liked people much and have created systems to isolate workers from the workplace. Fill out this online form only to be emailed immediately with “we got it” but down the line, no human ever emails or calls you to let you know what is happening or how you are. Technology seems increasingly interested in the next THREE months, because organisations seem to have decided thats how long they either need to commit to, or how long you need to have “it” before they want you to have the new “it”. And I’m a chap who actually likes technology!

So when I escape the isolation and tune into my favourite game-worlds, I feel like I am in charge of time. It’s like when I put my glasses on in the morning. I choose when the world comes into focus. I don’t doubt that the judgemental world will think “get a real life”, but what is real-life in an era where machines ping and ding endlessly. This is why I drive pre-ping cars and look at my phone at certain times. It isn’t good for me (or my students) if I am self-isolating via a screen. I am no where near the dose-response behaviour that I see out in ‘the real world’. There are people who clearly start to choke if they don’t tap, swipe and stare into their phones every 2 minutes. But this isn’t something I want to look back on and say “I was teaching”.

If the technology isn’t connecting to the real-world and it isn’t making real world conversations faster and more effective — what is ‘communication’ in the 21st century becoming?

Why blocking Google and Apple for a week might expand your media horizons

Until recently, little research existed concerning the potential benefits of video game-play even though many children and adults spent a large amount of time playing games. Now, more researchers are looking at possible benefits of game-play and have found that they may improve social skills, encourage teamwork, increase knowledge pertaining to technology, develop math and reading skills, and improve problem solving. Negative media reports have realised that games now represent revenue that they once received from television and music. It no longer pays editors to be negative about video games, nor to push debunked psychology tropes about addiction and violence from so called ‘media-effects’.

This TED video provides some really interesting points on gaming – and far less ‘hollywoood buy my book’ than the ‘other’ one on TED which you might have seen. It talks about leveraging the power of games and how your brain deals with it.

One myth among ‘online educator’ groups – those whom self-identify with certain brands and technologies is that teachers who play games (or want to bring game like design into the classroom) are part of an out-group. Despite what feels like a persistent social debate about what tools are ‘cool for school’, relatively little research has examined teacher beliefs or adoption of these tools in day to day practice. Almost none has examined teachers who play games. Where this has happened the studies did not find any significant differences between those teachers identified as gamers and those as non-gamers, specifically in perceived levels of comfort in regard to completing job-related technology tasks, amounts of instructional technology usage, and amounts of participation in innovative teaching strategies.

Educational research has mostly presented a general picture of the current state of online educational games in terms of grade levels, subject areas, cognitive skills, game genres, and major types of games and their general characteristics. The broad conclusion is that educational games have limited impact, due to limited titles. I argue this could be applied to popular educational technology domains too. Most quality practice involves teachers learning to adapt technologies that were not meant for education, into information systems, practices and routines that help students develop knowledge and skills outside of them. Society doesn’t care if you are a Google expert any more than a COD player in it’s summative testing. Of course the things you learned though the use of Google may spark some useful insight and response in an essay or test — but so too can the knowledge and insights from playing online games. I have lost count how many times I’ve been talking about some topic and a kid has injected an example from a game they have played.

It would be easy for a non-gaming teacher to miss the significance or insight that child has. By limiting ‘digital literacies’ to brand-apps and subscribing to Twitter-topic-bias, which in resolute in it’s technological determinism about what apps to use, what they do and how to use them. Imagine that we dumped the dogma of ‘digital literacy’ and instead focused on the macro ‘media education’ needed to develop information fluency and make sense of the corporeal and digital world around us. Not understanding games, not knowing something of their history, characteristics and methods limits a teachers ability to communicate or to approach the design of learning effectively. One problem seems to be that any new idea attracts buzzwords and tropes in order to try and appear ‘modern’ or part of the grassroots insight that academia is yet to discover.

For example: Using SAMR and GAMIFICATION. Why exactly does a teacher need to deal with the murky pond of ‘gamification’ and why would the development of game-insight, skill and experience be the same trajectory as learning Google Docs for example? – Because it says that the ‘in-group’ in correct in it’s assimilation agenda.

I don’t doubt that being able to write and run scripts in Google is a skill worth learning, and that there some people have worked hard to learn those skills and share them with a broad educational community. I equally believe many of them use that skills and network for personal profit — as is the way in a post Reaganomic world. However, what has this got to do with getting a 29 cap in Destiny. Which is harder, which required more problem solving, which involved deeper fluency?

This highlights the importance of expanding the discussion about media education in order to liberate it from the ‘ed-tech’ marketplace that so far has achieved no significant difference in it’s in-school efforts or explain how in-school is un-connected with out of school media use — which includes games. Unless this happens, what kids are actually learning — most of the time — are competencies of brands – learning to use particular branded products. This isn’t new, Apple did this with the Apple II and have continually used emotional appeals such as “kids can’t wait” to prise open the wallets of governments and institutions.

Well here’s the thing. Apple can wait. So can Google. Sit down for a week and play Minecraft. Take the time to learn a few dice games — barricade your classroom from the ‘ed-tech’ machine for a week by playing and talking about playing. You might just notice kids have media insights well beyond what Silicon Valley would like you to believe.

Master of Games

Today is the first day of #INF541. First, I must thank my long term friend and colleague Judy O’Connell. Judy’s inspirational vision and determined leadership at CSU has taken what was once a grass-roots, bloggers cafe conversation about technology, information and learning (in the era of read/write web) into a comprehensive set of courses at Masters level. While many have remained on Twitter or other social media to attempt to raise the profile and scholarship of technology in the classroom, Judy has placed it front and centre of University education.

INF541 is a Masters unit in Games Based Learning. I took a sabbatical from my PhD in Games Media to write the course with Judy and in doing so, it pressed home the importance of integrating game-like designs into learning. I was particularly interested in using the work of people such as Sara de Freitas and David Buckingham to connect game based learning to broader, well established calls for a more robust and relevant media education in both schools and higher education.

While the so called “Web2.0″ movement gained the attention of teachers a decade ago, so far the grass roots efforts have gravitated towards individual Twitter fame and pop-up consultancies over any real attempt to expand the research around the impacts on teacher belief, changing practice and ultimately the outcomes of students themselves.  Emotional appeals to authority get attention in the always-outraged Twitterverse, but saying ‘children are at risk of being left behind or ill prepared for the future’ is untrue. This has been the claim for decades and debunked on numerous fronts including the 1970s call for de-schooling society as children are not ignorant or unable to make sense of the world for themselves.

We know very little about the impact of the commercial world’s deliberate targeting of children as consumers though the media. Hashtagging teachers, seeking out consultancy gigs are particular concern of mine these days — they enjoy a position of trust, yet seem to be oblivious to the fact they are making economic and social capital by exploiting children’s (perceived needs). Games are part of the media-lives of 98% of adults and children in Australia, and yet they are routinely banned in schools and completely ignored by the hashtagging ‘feel good’ debates on Twitter, usually primed not through experience, but linear Question, then Answer routines. One of Buckingham’s central arguments is that people think that if they are doing things with technology then they are doing media education and they‟re not.

INF541 explores games, their characteristics and their connections with media cultures. While it uses select focused works of scholars, it also accepts that teachers need to also find and explore much broader media-sources to understand more about how people come to know games, why some ideas in games take hold (such as Minecraft) and other’s don’t. It’s been a real pleasure to work on this course and try to connect games to other courses in Information Studies at CSU. Part of this is a little daunting. INF541’s sister courses have been designed by people whom were in the vanguard of the grass-roots movement a decade ago, and now are successfully, leading, writing and researching at a global scale. People such as Julie Lindsey and Ewan McIntosh, both of whom I first met in 2008 in a blogger’s cafe and whom have a solid reputation among connected networks online and have also made the move to a more academic frame.

It’s hard to imagine even a few years ago, when I did my Masters in Educational Technology, that there could be a unit about games based learning, or that teachers would see it as a viable and important part of media education. It highlights the fast-culture that has been brought about by global connected conversations and access to media. You’re welcome to follow along in the #INF541 media stream, and I’m sure I’ll be blogging the trip.

Do games teach game-making?

I’m yet to resolve the true value of playing something like Minecraft in school. I can think of many really dull/functional uses of technology such as dumping a PDF online so kids can do the electronic worksheet. Games are perhaps the furthest technological activity (technically and culturally) from the e-worksheet, level one SAMR activity.

This leads me to wonder just what kids are learning when playing something like Minecraft. Is all their learning like this? or is it just one teacher swimming against a resistant culture of ‘getting through content’ and loading up the evidence binder. I wonder if kids who are playing MWGs or immersed in Doritos, Mountain Dew and Illuminati pop-culture can learn to make games, or even follow instructions to make an RPG from a guidebook.

I want to try this out with middle-schoolers. I want to ask them to

  • Create fictional characters and use them to explore a rich setting
  • collaborate with your friends to tell a dynamic story
  • explore themes and issues that matter to you
  • make meaningful choices and drive the story forward

I would like them to make an information system that encourages people to change their beliefs, were a group of individuals struggle with each other and the world to uphold their beliefs. I don’t think that playing games, even complex ones creates the ability to do this. In fact, I think that video-gaming makes this so super simple that there is limited choice, just the illusion of choice. What is therefore make in a game is the agenda and story of the game developer and game industry, not the imagination and creativity of game-makers and players.

Goodness, the sun’s come up and I’ve got nothing … eeek.