Troubleshooter Mode

A post about organising groups, and recognising that all groups are a collection of individuals. It’s common in our world to talk about ‘leadership’ and in groups to appoint someone as being in-charge. It’s the basis of centralised management organisation, and a valuable skill for students to learn. Ultimately, as you progress though life you will either be the leader or you won’t. Group work is convenient for educators, but has some seriously dubious social push-backs about how we learn life works.

In games, most players are learning to be TROUBLESHOOTERS. They are not simply following the instructions, failing and trying again. That is just some dumb thing conference speaker say – learning to fail, which is a total facepalm.

For parents, playing games means using all sorts of media for the sole purpose of learning to be a TROUBLESHOOTER. Troubleshooters learn that they don’t have to accept what they are told as the only way the world works. In fact, very early on they learn that they don’t have to. Minecraft currently represents the most optimal environment for learning to be a TROUBLESHOOTER.

Trouble shooters learn to notice problems, think about alternative endings and then go off to create their own missions to solve them. I know PBL (Project Based Learning) types bang on about students “designing their own projects”, but to me, this is little more than re-arranging the furniture in your private cell. Because the outcomes are set (etched into the grand syllabus) – all roads eventually lead to Rome. While students might enjoy taking several different pathways, PBL is notorious for lack of measurement in regard to what ‘new’ or ‘alternative’ learning happens. This is for a many reasons, not least the fact that schools are run on a regimented time-line, where being a great TROUBLESHOOTER is not generally assessed at all. TROUBLESHOOTERS are not the same as problem solvers — as I’ll explain.

Troubleshooters create their own missions. They look at the problems, decide which part of it they can not just solve, but really really solve. At the same time, they choose and take their own rewards. TROUBLESHOOTERS are learning not to fit in, but to stand out. This might appear to parents as “not doing what they are told” and many might read this and have an opinion that it’s bullshit. If you look at every successful society throughout history, it has highly prized troubleshooters (even if learning to be one is a risky business).

Gamers live in TROUBLESHOOTER cultures, where as parents and educators tend to live (and orbit) strategic cultures. The well worn axiom “culture eats strategy for breakfast” is no more powerful or obvious than in video games.

The idea kids learners and educators will simply coalesce and a solution will  emerge through an unmanaged process of technological osmosis and serendipity is false. This has been the zombie-argument of dull-powerpoint thinkers for a decade … eventually, if we try enough technological tools and deliver enough keynotes – something will work.

TROUBLESHOOTERS grow up to be entrepreneurs, they are the ones in the room who see alternatives. They are not always liked – as strategic leaderships is all about follow the leader.

Only about 20% of kids are video-gamers, whereas about half of adults are, and have been playing for over a decade. So while there is this attention seeking call for “Gamification” – to which one can again write books and keynote about endlessly – the reality is that MOST workplaces and classrooms have TROUBLESHOOTERS already. All it takes is for the ‘leaders’ to engage with them, rather than ostracise them using dogmatism.

It always strikes me as odd that the most dogmatic demand the removal of troubleshooters, whilst they themselves present stacked evidence and red-herrings. Its little wonder that most game-designers have no interest in ‘gamification’ at all.

Anyone notice bandwagon appeals at E3 about “gamification” this week? … roll on next week at ISTE, it is likely to be a bonanza with Jane “TED Talks” McGonagil.

The problem is, how to you learn to create learning episodes that get students to work hard – and be TROUBLESHOOTERS and give up on this idea of strategic leadership. That might sound counter-intuitive in a world where “strategic leadership” is the gold standard … except it isn’t – for students, most learn they won’t ever be more than a follower.

It’s no wonder that so many adults play video-games.


Does games based learning work?

One of the questions educators ask me about games is “Does games based learning work?”. It’s a reasonable question, but it’s not the what people mean. Firstly, I can’t begin to answer without also asking them in return “Is play a serious activity?”. Most people seem believe it is, and can cite numerous examples from their own lives. What they are really asking is “How could games based learning work in my context”. This is almost impossible to definitively answer, but we can find numerous arguments to say that it might already be working – we just need to be more conscious of where and when.

cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by dan taylor

Children engage in learning processes in several different contexts. The context most often studied is the classroom, during formal school learning. Children are, however, also engaged in learning outside of school during informal interactions and play. A further revision to the question is “How do games teach children” when they are not at school. This is less studied, as it’s much harder to study.

Game players can take up a game or put it down at will, but the first-year writing course is rarely voluntary. This highlights the work/play distinctions to be maintained and this historic separation creates barriers to introducing games into a curriculum. Although productive play can be educational, this association causes skepticism. As many don’t play games, even more  don’t read about them either in relation to education, though they probably have heard the term ‘native’ and ‘immigrant’ in association with non-game technologies

Many educators have not grown up around video games, and games certainly have not consulted educators in their evolution. Commercial games seldom provide specific educational value towards prescribed ‘content’ – but like make other technologies require adaptation. Rather than see games as a potential provider of more entertaining content, think of them as part and parcel of digital literacy and culture. In this way, there is no reason why the objectives of a course could not be the objectives of a game—and that textual objectives achieved in both spaces could not also have “real world” significance.

Does it work? Yes, but this isn’t to mean it will work for everyone, so in that regard have no more need to defend themselves than anything else.

Why you might already be using games-based-learning … and never knew.

There’s a cycle to games that reflects Kolb’s learning styles. He’s the guy who talks about experiential learning, and that learning happens even when there is no teacher around. You might see this in action whenever you see a kids huddle around a computer game. You might have also noticed that even though only one is actually playing, the others are actively watching. This is what Kolb calls active observation. You might then have seen kids wade in with tips, pointing at the screen or calling out ideas and instructions to the player. This is them thinking, or what Kolb calls abstract conceptualisation. They are predicting what will happen next much of the time. Eventually all this leads to doing, or rather active experimentation leading to feelings – excitement, disappointment – being in the zone or boredom. This is where games close the loop, by providing concrete experiences.

To be good at a modern game requires kids to acquire declarative, procedural and strategic knowledge. Kids will often be hurtling around this loop often unaware of the process. There is a generation gap of technical knowledge with teachers rarely playing of even having knowledge of games. What games do very well is place kids in recursive loops that promote persistent re-engagement and meta-cognition. Whether a game is single, multi or massively multiplayer, as soon as more than one kid is present, these learning loops are engaged, but not synchronous. As one is doing, the other is watching etc., Now multiply that by 12 million players, all working to increase their knowledge and skill of the game at different rates, and we have a highly complex social learning design.

Teachers are trained in traditional methods that do not include the use of games in the curriculum. Only researchers and a few innovative teachers have embraced video games for learning beyond ‘elearning games’. Students are being training to learn in very fast cycles, and are well able to phase their own learning cycle with other players – and spectators in order to improve their performance. In fact, learning though a game would not work if every advanced in sync with each other. When we compare this to the way most adults learned about technology – though step by step training and follow the leader tutorials it is very different – however, classroom activities are often exactly like this – as students advance as a mass, rather than as individuals – which results in a tempo for learning that is often very pedestrian and linear.

This isn’t to say teachers are not interested. Numerous reports by organisations such as FutureLab report high numbers of students and teachers interested in game based learning, but not necessarily (as many are) for the purpose of research. It seems to me, that the advent of social media, and teachers forming personal learning networks is that teachers are exposed more and more to affective learning methods using Twitter, Facebook etc., If you revisit Kolb’s cycle, it’s not too hard to see the cycle in personal learning networks.

However, don’t be fooled by gamification or games based learning. Badges and tokens won’t change motivation or intent in schools very much in my view – unless the method is designed – from the outset using game-theory, complete with actors, narrative, fantasy (and room for error and conflicting ideas). Training teachers to recognise what an experiential learning cycle looks like, and how effective affective learning can be using the full range of tools on offer today seem more important than teaching them yet more ‘skills’, as no matter what tool they learn – if it’s not used in a way that resonates with kids who are – as they say – growing up digital, no ICT will engage and re-engage them over and over the way games do.

So why not make learning fun – it doesn’t mean the teacher won’t play a crucial (exhilarating role) in achieving the learning outcomes, be it declarative, affective – it just means we fundamentally need to training teachers to think in cycles that reflect the digital-age-tempo. You don’t even need a video-game to do this – you classroom is more than capable of being a game-world, and students players. It’s a mindset, not a console issue – but it’s not something anyone’s going to do well, without having a clear vision, roadmap and passion to do it – unless you’re in the games industry of course.

Games as documents. Beyond web2.0 in digital literacy

Today, if you turn on the Xbox, hordes of kids aged three to adult appear immediately to play Halo Reach in hi-def, cinematic glory – blissfully unaware of the dark-days before broadband and epic networks.

So what are we not understanding or tapping into?

I think it has a lot to do with being selective about digital literacy and in doing so we are not noticing the biggest change in literacy since the internet itself. For example Your age takes a back seat to experience in gaming. The screen represents social interaction and play to today’s digital-generations, and on the other side are just other players who have absolutely no interest in your age or backstory, only your performance and social relevance to the current goals of the community and group you are playing with.

Knowledge is created along side social levelling, ability and reputation. By skillfully decoding virtual scenarios, they reach goals at the very edge of what they currently know and can do, unlocking new knowledge in doing it.

Games are both knowledge management systems and learning systems by popular definition yet we feel more comfortable applying to Moodle or Wikispaces.This probably sounds rediculous to non-gamers. Educators generally prefer games to pull over to the side of the the road in the face of the on-coming edu-content trucks thundering down the information super-highway. But that doesn’t mean they are not there – promoting an entirely new way to learn and connect.

Naytiri: “… ignorant, like a child”. Avatar (2009)

Gamers are not ignorant, lazy, or socially inept – this is a legacy view of an extended media campaign peddling techno-fud. In reality, they are willing learners inhabiting compelling digital environments, aquiring a depth of skills we are yet to fully understand.

We know can aggregate data along multiple different dimensions, and perform complex operations over that set of dimensions. We can use this hole in the wall to overcome the belief that games cause interruption to the information broadcast. Games can be used as a vehicle to immerse people in thinking more deeply about anything. This might appear strange, but I think playing games with teachers as a vehicle for building digital literacies makes more sense than powerpointing them.

Let me give a few examples of what I mean.

Writing is inherently static and cannot anticipate the needs of its future audiences – yet it remains the measure by which we teach and judge the capability and intellect of the future generation.

Games are documents – of sorts – ones that restructure themselves to meet the needs of particular people at a particular time. Social networks operate similarly and have almost limitless potential to reshape the digital-world — changing what can be learned and achieved when used in combination.

Documents often assume that readers have internal specialised knowledge, such as a particular branch of mathematics, language etc., so we have to know something of our audiences ability in order to create any kind of document. To make meaning from any document you must have this internal knowledge. I am never surprised people don’t get Second Life, but do get Google Docs as they can’t read games and virtual worlds as living documents.

Why would powerful literacy not appear in games, but would appear on the internet? After all we mostly agree that digital literacy matters.

It also seems that even the internet – as a document currently presents as un-readable to those who have not yet acquired the necessary internal knowledge to read it. So why limit critism to those who don’t tweet or tune into RSS feeds, but extend it to those avoiding games and virtual worlds in their dialog of imperatives.

Col. Quaritch: “You are not in Kansas anymore, you are on Pandora, ladies and gentlemen, respect that fact every second of every day”. Avatar (2009).

Here’s where I deviate from much of peer-thinking. I don’t see Web2.0 as ‘the’ new literacy – because it is not dominant in self-directed learning. Yes it’s better than what we had, and edu-pln kicks a big hole in the walled garden mentality – but is the doorway to better experience and motivation? I’m not so sure.

Web2.0 is not the datum point for the future, yet we get wrapped up in comparisons with previous iterations of what ICT means. We are also bombarded by commercial interests — with any number of experts ready to empty your wallet. To a generation growing up in ageless, competency based social levelling systems, Web2.0 bolted onto current methods is slow and tedious in comparison to game-systems. You cant know this if you dont play.
It is also obvious crude tools that reformed office automation in the 1980s are just that. They serve only ‘hammer and nails’ learning philosophy, which is as harder to remove than chewing gum on pavement.

On Pandora, the natives dont use pavements.

Web2.0 provides only a moderate fresh breeze if the underlying philosophy remains the same – and won’t be overcome by spanking resiliant teachers as avoiders. Avoiding Web2.0 may not be a bad thing for many. There is a depth of understanding needed about the ‘role’ technology plays in learning anything entwined with cyberculture and science fiction narrative. For many, this is not an engaging topic worthy of personal contemplation beyond the immediate workplace demands and personal use.

“I’ve seen Second Life, it isn’t going to help students learn to be real Lawyers” someone commented to me recently.

Why would they believe this?

Games help doctors save lives, improve practice, overcome nature, transport millions safely and kill other nations. Why not accountants, geographers … Lawyers. It is ignorance propelled by a lack of internal literacy and learned behaviors.

Kids as young as 2 or 3 are learning to operate highly complex knowledge and learning systems through games and immersive worlds constantly. These are life-present well before writing.

If we agree that information is contained in the material of digital objects, and that these are mobile, fluid and important, then this happens to all spheres of social life at all ages – which includes games. The resurgence of debate around informal learning however marginalises games in favour of more saleable arguements.

I really struggle to resolve why laptops, blogs and wikis are more favourable than a Nintendo DS, inventive teacher and a paint brush (apart from the fact we dismiss the strange and unfamiliar).

The book for the next generation of educational technology leaders to read/write is Games, Virtual Worlds, Play and other powerful learning experiences.

It is time to think past Web2.0 – not abandon all its tools, but consider a trial separation and possible divorce. I appreciate that there is considerable jokeying for intellectual and financial superiority in the web2.0-education marketplace – but perhaps if someone gives a teacher a DS and a paintbrush, we can achieve better outcomes for kids and teachers might begin to interalise game literacies.

Play Warcraft, Little Big Planet, whatever … if we understand digital games better, we might just see invention in teacher strategy. I bet that training teachers with Warcraft is better than Powerpoint – but principals are hardly going to sign off on that, especially as they are only just noticing web2.0.

Unless teaching and learning attempts to exhist in respecful harmony with the 1 billion registered accounts in games and virtual worlds (and the billions more who are yet to take their gaming into online communities) – we are likely to miss an opportunity as powerful as the internet itself to reform education and student capabilities.

Wizard 101 – MMO for learning

I, (Nicholas Dragonstone) am loving this massive multiplayer called Wizard 101 for several reasons.

You’re a young wizard being trained in the ways of magic at the Ravenwood School of Magical Arts under the care of headmaster Ambrose. As you learn to use mystical powers, you are tasked with saving the school from the evil Malistaire Drake.

Sounds like Harry Potter? Well, it is a lot like Harry Potter; but set in a game system that is a lot more like World of Warcraft.

Lets get the FUD out the way. YES there is a chat system in the game, but several mechanisms are in place to ensure that chat is child safe.

I always smile at people when they freak out about online chat in games – I ask them if they mute their TV and never listen to the radio in the car when their kids are around. A trip to school with a moronic morning breakfast host is far more likely to ruin their sense of innocence in my view, but thousands do it without a second thought.

MMOs are a damn sight safer than web-chat, and there’s very very little research to suggest otherwise.

“It’s great to see kids getting so excited and involved in a game that, as a teacher, I can feel good about recommending for play”Amy Gonzalez, English Teacher, Austin Independent School District

The system can be limited entirely to preset phrases. Alternatively, players on your friends list can be granted additional chat priviledges that allow you to speak more freely.To avoid any shenanigans related to naming characters, names are similarly constructed from presets. Parental controls can be activated on an account so that settings can’t be changed and purchases can’t be made without grown-ups. Parental controls are a feature that should be high on any parents list.

You defeat enemies (NPC) and other players using a magic circle where combatants take turns casting spells at each other by choosing cards from their decks.

Spells are based on a deck of cards selected beforehand – Yu-Gi-Oh! style – from which 7 are drawn each round. Players have less than a minute to play a card or they pass their turn. So if kids are used to playing card games, and not just getting owned in action-based games; the turn taking here is a nice relief. But you cant cast magic all day, you’ll run out of mana (fighting power). It beats the pants of Jumpstart’s online world for engagement. I won’t even compare it to dusty Magic School Bus type CD-Roms.

After casting spells at your enemies, you’ll be mighty tired – and have low mana (Fantasy writer Larry Niven in his novel Not Long Before the End described mana as a natural resource which is used or channeled by wizards to cast magic spells) .Mana is standard measurement of power in most MMOs.

You have several ways to get your mana back. Running around catching wisps while out of combat, which is a little like ‘grinding’, if there are other players around, competition for whisps is fierce. If you have potions you power-up immediately, else it’s a slow regeneration of energy in town. You can  play mini-games for mana. The mini-games are similar to casual titles like Bejeweled, so if you’ve got kids playing on your Facebook account – then this is similar, but a step up in a MMO.

Wizard 101 is a free PC download – I had it running under Bootcamp on OSX, Vista and XP. Mercifully it is not the usual 4 gig download of most MMOs, so you’ll be up and running in 20 mins or so at the outside. Its free to play – but after you hit Level 10, you run out of things to do. This is where they hit you up for money – but to be honest, I think it’s worth it. The game is 10+ Rated; but Mr4 seemed to have no real problem playing with a help reading.

I’d think it will suit 10/11 year olds – though the game will be interesting because of it’s spell-card system, not action – it takes some skill to select a series of spells to cast to beat an opponent.

There is a decent map to explore – and the levelling system is very WoW-esq. My kids loved setting up their character – which seems critical in them deciding to play the game. They hate mini-mmos where you only get to choose some ‘toon-animal’.

The story is presented well, it doesn’t demand reading some novel or bore you with several next buttons to skip though. There are a number of activities that you can also hook into though the community portal – fan art and fan fiction! – so no only can you build a writing task around this – it has a place where they can actually publish it!

This video is a great example of players wanting to make video and share their experience of a game – though a story. It’s well worth watching, as they take you on a tour! – Needless to say my nine year old took to this instantly … I wasn’t too unhappy that he didn’t complete the photocopied maths book worksheet this weekend.

There is a lot you could construct around Wizard 101 without needed to get to the payment level of play in the classroom – and I am sure children would love the interaction, even with chat set on safe-as-boring mode. My kids didn’t want to read or chat – they were too busy working out how to organise and use spells to build their reputation

Where does it fit in game based learning? – I think it would make a great ‘small group’ computer activity, and be a great way of introducing the use of games to the classroom. Keep it simple; spend some time playing yourself, then work towards the fan faction and art. It would give teachers a good introduction; and start them thinking about adapting further games … if you have kids on the Autism spectrum – they are going to love Wizard 101.

Read more at Wired about this game’s details or alternatively, download this english worksheet about the ocean and type ‘games+ignore’ into Google.