Good learning is good gaming

The crucial distinction between interactive and linear entertainment is agency, our ability to alter the world around us or our situation in it. When we act, our action has effects.Games are all about driving the ambition of the player, rather than taking them along for the ride.

Whether or not you ‘like’ games isn’t important. What is important is that computers used in the classroom have far more affinity with interaction that linearity. They differ from print and video as these rely on static things such as

– always controlling the order of events
– controlling the timing between events
creating fixed narratives and characters

To that end, tools often preferenced in ‘class’ are those which provide intentional-control, making sure the learner experiences it in the way the teacher intends. This was once considered ‘good’ eLearning. The current revolution in games isn’t so much technological as it is emotional – and that has had a big impact on what we expect from all ‘online interaction’. Designers are getting far better at creating agency that drive more satisfying emotional experiences (Amazon, Apple, Google, Xbox). It’s no shock that tools which create agency are the most disruptive to people used to control. Learning designs which create interactive, non-linear, agency experiences are the only eLearning we should be releasing – if we’re also talking about critical thinking and problem solving.

If not, then make sure the drill and skill, mastery app is solid enough to teach the skill, but for goodness sake, please don’t put kids on Mathletics and claim it’s something more while you mark paper.

Knowing isn’t the same as knowledge

Larry Johnson at the New Media Consortium (NMC) and Horizon Report has said more than once when asked about Second Life, that he has always seen it as a ‘now’ technology and in doing so is conscious that whatever they do there, needs to be transferable to some other technology that contains new opportunities. By this he means the objects are less important that what they ‘know’ about virtual worlds, they can afford to leave objects behind if the potential ‘knowing’ is greater. I call this holding your tools lightly — which is still problematic with teachers, who like to invest in heavy tools, that they a reluctant to change. You can’t blunder your way into making a virtual world successful, if you are reliant on knowledge as facts, or strategy as process – but as history has shown, millions of dollars can be wasted searching for the grail.

Anyone who has been involved in virtual worlds seriously will tell you that people bring with them knowing and knowledge —  ideas, facts, experiences and skills from other domains. While anyone with a modest amount of technical knowledge can set up a Minecraft Server and set about getting kids to do tasks that can be paraded as educational, to me that misses the bigger opportunity. By this I mean not stamping ‘education’ on it. Virtual worlds have important differences from other digital environments. John Seeley Brown said “While the architecture of these worlds is distributed across the Internet, the activities within these virtual worlds create a sense of shared space and co-presence which make real-time coordination and interaction not only possible, but a necessary part of the world.” This is the sense of ‘being there’ and most significantly choosing to be there with others, not being forced in an open-world such as Minecraft is, as JSB states “culturally imagined and the practices of the participants, their actions, conversations, movements, and exchanges, come to define the world and continually infuse it with new meanings”. If we look at Huizinga (the father of game research in many ways), he said that culture is the manifestation of play, not the reverse. So learning to play is not the same as playing to learn.

What Massively Mincecraft is  interested in is this idea of ‘living in shared practice’ and in providing that, liberating players from the experiences of everyday learning as ‘students’ – most obviously by re-defining their role in the world. We believe that doing this allows kids and parents to develop new practices though imagination though networked, collective action. We are interested in kids and parents ‘knowing’ rather than it being used to create knowledge both inside and outside the game. We are already seeing this, even in our youngest players. Rather than waste time defending it, my response is to ask doubters – how are you creating better ‘knowing digital communities’ and most specifically, if you are focused on knowledge (content) how do you know that what you do with technology around the edge of that is not just a novelty.

This is why Massively Minecraft isn’t about getting the game into a classroom per se, it’s about what kids and parents bring (or not) to the game-world, and what they take from it though collaboration, shared meaning and collective action. One parent told me that they went to see their kid’s teacher and challenged the results they had been given saying “clearly my child is capable of more than this, what are you doing that gives you this information as fact – as I can see this isn’t right”. Massively Minecraft isn’t just playing, it’s about creating roles for players in and out of the game, that perhaps they didn’t expect – and I see this growing everyday, and it is a good thing. To me playing Minecraft with teachers is a very useful experience for them … it’s promotes knowing in new ways.

Eat, Prey, Rez

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast” according to Peter Druckler, who’s writings were marked by a focus on the relationships among human beings, as opposed to crunching numbers. Among the many great ideas, he saw de-centralisation as a key way to bring out the best in people, find a sense of community and dignity in modern society.

The problem with this appears to be dogged centralization of decision making, financial control and policy within top-down structures. Occasional pilot schemes and experiments are awarded only to a chosen few , yet give a public impression of a socially inclusive, progressive approach to education – yet are under lock and key. Almost no funding goes to social-enterprise, yet these are some of the most innovative and dynamic innovators, who see their work as more than a task, it’s a mission. Those with power, never give it up without a struggle, yet de-centralised approaches are rapidly draining the long-held internalised intellectual property once assumed proptery of the central system. It probably doesn’t even notice, but is arguably unsustainable in light of the depth of resources, support networks and research that is happening in lounge rooms every night.

“Personal infrastructure eats institutional infrastructure for lunch”

3G and portable devices have killed the imperative to connect to one organisation channel. Competition in the marketplace is a race to zero which makes BYOD (Bring your own device) only semi-useful unless it is also connected to BYON (Bring your own network). It’s not the Internet that we want, it’s the ability to connect to people who can help us realise whatever we are trying to do – anytime we like and to make choices based on advice from those we trust most – the network.

“Process networks eat organizational networks for dinner”

If we take Kolb’s learning conjectural cycles – Concrete experience, reflection & observation, abstract concepualisation and active experimentation, it is vividly characterised through networks of people (PLN) who come together to solve problems, regardless of their partisan alliances or social status. I grant you, there are some co-opting opportunists here, but in the years I’ve been hacking away at this, most move on or fade as process networks require effort. If the person above you or next to you isn’t doing this, then it’s a sure sign it will be a long winter, requiring fortitude and resilience to stay motivated.  If the person below you is doing it (and you’re not) – then they have no need of you and won’t bother to tell as much either. The Internet and the media carried though it simply doesn’t care about idealism or conservatism. Innovation hinges on invention, and invention is the name of the game online as it leads to reputation within these process networks. Someone who gets things done, is willing to help others and don’t assume they have all the answers.

The Internet was created to connect people, media, mentors and institutions in one dynamic space designed to inspire collaboration and creativity. That was what Berners Lee set out to do, so who is hasn’t kept up? When you think about it, institutions had at least a decade head start, and has spend the last one agonizing over what it all means – not that anyone knows really.

By working both in process networks and as individuals (life long learners and researchers) people have an opportunity to engage in online projects that promote critical thinking, creativity, and skill-building. So many projects in fact there is something for everyone. The role of process networks (YouTube, Xbox, Twitter, Facebook etc.,) is to connect physical and online spaces to support people in participating with digital media to get things done faster – and that is fueled by diversity, not conformity.

Professor Mizuko Ito (2008) produced a report called “Living and Learning with Digital Media. This ethnographic study of more than 700 youth found that young people participate with digital media in three ways: (1) they “hang out” with friends in social spaces such as Facebook; (2) they “mess around” or tinker with digital media, making simple videos, playing online games, or posting pictures in Flickr; and (3) they “geek out” in online groups that facilitate exploration of their core interests.

Why? Well, look at the world outside. There is a shortage of authentic, engaging physical and virtual spaces for teens in public space (unless you want to play sport). There is a lack of meaningful opportunities for teens to learn digital media skills while also gaining relevant new entry points into public space.

Public space has to be as dynamic as virtual space if it want’s to be relevant. That means buildings not laptops. it means immersive social worlds, not content-portals. For a generation online, virtual space now eats physical space for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It is not optimal, but it is very adaptive. It is full of mentors, interest based research and partnerships – and is now so de-centralised, that continuing to arguing over which parts should or should not be allowed into buildings (by the high authorities) – largely says more about the failure to innovate in learning spaces as it does about curriculum reform.

If we can’t change physical space, why not use virtual space? If you don’t like virtual space – then innovate the physical. Standing still isn’t a strategy, it’s an excuse. Do one or the other.

Something wicked this way doesn’t come

In the debate about which technologies are more or less important in the lifecycle of classroom learning, it’s worth pointing out that the introduction of Internet based tools and practices also introduces digital-culture. Games will introduce game-culture. Are we ready for either? are we rushing into games simply because we’ve rage-quitted the digital-culture debate.

Digital-culture has strong ties to identity, it is un-surprising that while on on hand students are told to write a blog, they also must accept that Facebook is outlawed. No real explanation is given, no real discussion – as discussing it serious will amplify how facile the ban-solution is.

For example, how many students post “I’m blogging about the villains of the Roman Empire” on their Facebook wall? when they must constantly annexe their academic ‘me’ from their digital ‘me’. The fact this wall-post might reach a wider audience, perhaps even a valid authentic one and lead to additional blog-readers and comments is negated and therefore separated – both by the teacher and the student.

Facebook is not for school, it’s for the rest of your life …. hmmm, which one do kids think is more important?

The more we do, the more complex it gets. Today’s leet-users of Web2.0 are radically more experienced and dynamic than 2006. In short we exasperate the problem simply by talking about it.

Games present a further dilemma. They are not only emerging from digital-culture, but from game-culture. If you’re not arriving at ‘games would be good’ from that culture, it’s a problem, just as not approaching Web2.0 from a digital culture has proven to be.

While the digital-teachers might be toying with the idea of gamification, they also need to consider what that culture will release into the classroom.

Seymour Papert commented “game designers have a better take on the nature of learning than curriculum designers” and that in reference to eLearning games that it is “downright immoral to trick children into learning and doing math when they think they are just playing an innocent game.” 

How exactly are these level ups, achievement badges and XP points lowering risk. From what I can tell, games are the next biggest risk after porn – go on type in games and see what the filter says.  I have some questions about these ‘gamified’ classrooms …

James Gee suggests “Good video games lower the consequences of failure; players can start from the last saved game when they fail. Players are thereby encouraged to take risks, explore, and try new things. In fact, in a game, failure is a good thing. Facing a boss, the player uses initial failures as ways to find the boss’s pattern and to gain feedback about the progress being made. School often allows much less space for risk, exploration, and failure.”

How can we identify the learning processes that occur during game play and does this help us establish what is being learnt?

Van Eck warns “we run the risk of creating the impression that all games are good for all learners and for all learning outcomes, which is categorically not the case”.

Is this particularly true of gamification where there is no actual game being played, (apart from the that pretends innovation happens when you say ‘level up’ not’ well done’)?

My point is that just because a game uses levels or badges to reward players, simply adding these to a Blooms progression and renaming scores as achievements neither honors digital-culture or game-culture. In fact it might have a negative effect in that students who play games will *roll-eyes* and be further de-motivated. If you are going to use game based learning – then start with using a game, not a metaphor for a game.

So you think your robot can dance?

Last week I was showing Mr6 the Macquarie ICT Innovations Centre via their website. He’s going to be presenting with his sister at their conference in October on Massively Minecraft, and wanted to know what it was about. His sister is hoping to go to the regional public speaking competition with her talk, so anyone who tells you games are not academic is deluded. Anyone who tells you she’d be doing it for an achievement badge could join them.

Anyway, back to the story. Debbie Evans and her small but feisty team are nothing less than inspirational. That’s not just a wild claim, congratulations are in order to Katy for here recent 2011 teaching award (along with my new mate Greg Alchin) and let’s not forget Cathy Howe (2010 Microsoft Innovation Awarded teacher).MACICT has a reputation for doing, not just talking and continues to evolve in step with everything people say is needed to engage students.

MACICT is a hot house of ideas that come to life and in all my travels  is the one place that truly lives up to the ideals of innovation for me. Let me explain why with a personal story as a learner and a parent last week.

Mr6 thinks he has an idea for a game as we cruise the website. I thought a hat-tip to Cathy was in order and let her know on Twitter. Making games is as important as playing them these days. A short time later Cathy replied to say they had a Good Game Design workshop the next day and he could come along … but it was for year 9 and 10s, not Kindy.

Online I know Mr6 can mix it up with anyone, but a whole day in a classroom with scary teens? Then I thought, I’d like to learn this stuff too and really wanted to try out the student experience that Cathy puts on so well and  figured I’d wrangle Mr6 who can be a handful when he gets on a mission. So I too signed on, keen to learn about Kodu.

There were teachers in one room learning about game theory, engagement and safety and kids in the other room being given a series of challenges, talking about the essence of game design, story and user experience.

One of the very clever (PBLish) things Cathy did, was to bring a young academic at Macquarie in to speak to the class about the extra-ordinary number of career paths they present young people, and how to start right now. Not some future dream, but how to get into the industry at the age of 14 or 15. Here is a rather poor quality (iphone), but never the less great off the cuff, no powerpoint, talk he gave them as they all leaned forward and absorbed every word. Mr6 has not idea what work is, other than he seems to think you have to do it sooner or later, so the idea of games-tester worked, and in fact he figured he could do that now. Sadly the guardians of the brain-missing temple ban games at the filter, so learning about this growing (not declining) industry can’t be too important. However, Australia is good at games. Take the 25 million downloaded iPhone game Fruit Ninja. Stupid? or has a benefit – how about a therapeutic benefit? or perhaps teaches animation?

During the day, he worked using Sploder – a great way of getting into game design (blocked) and also using Kodu, which is downloadable game-maker and I am told runs on most low end laptops. Cathy had prepared all sorts of resources about story, narrative etc., and I was pretty impressed when Mr renamed himself Shadow Reaper for the blogging and feedback session. He’d never written a blog post before, but soon made short work of it. I don’t think he needs to learn to blog, he needs a reason to. He made games, tested games and gave kids feedback on their games too. The video I took was delightful, both the 15 year old boy and him we’re laughing and so engaged they almost missed lunch. On getting home, he was straight onto Sploder and showing his siblings what he’d made. They of course made games too and we’re busy testing and sharing them – no help needed, Mr6 is quite a good teacher.

I tell you all this as a cautionary tale.

The future of innovation and learning is not by dividing kids into ages and subjects. The future is by creating places that they want to go to learn. That means selecting people who can innovate and providing spaces that support it.  The people who will make that future are not those promising change as they climb the ranks of authority, but people who are innovators and prepared to work with kids on what they both see as important. My good friend Peggy Sheehey recently said to me about innovation – “we are barely climbing around the edges, and yet from what we see online, you’d believe we are even capable of being its master”.

Until very recently, MACICT was just for Department of Education NSW teachers and students. However, that has changed – now any system can take part – Catholic, Private or organisation that wants to learn about the power of virtual worlds, technology, games, robots, video … the list goes on. If you are yet to discover it or a fly-in expert here to give a talk about [select: change/shift/innovation/technology/the future] make sure you go to MACICT.

You’ll be amazed at the long list of distinguished educators that do – and for good reason. What MACICT does off the smell of an oil rag puts many big-budget, big-talk efforts to shame, proving once again that people make things happen, not machines – and now the people are connected and connecting kids too. The only downside of this trip, Mr6 could only do 1 of the 2 days. He was less than impressed by this, and somewhat difficult when sent to school the next day, where he’s learning to count to 30 apparently.

6 essential outcomes of successful learning spaces

I have been reading Understanding by Design by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe. It reinforces this view I have that we use the wrong (but convenient) language when it comes to using ICT, and in this we are not sending the right message to teachers. The new task is about Integrated Communictions Technology ecosystems, not using Information Communications technology – as information does not yield understanding in itself, and so results in poor scaling and unsustainable practice as we endlessly move chairs to dance around notions of innovation.

We clumsily ask them to be ‘digitally literate by presenting social-dilemmas and also demand they become capable creators of information in new forms.  Nothing great that comes out of digital realms happens without understanding design. This separates the users from creators. The goal of ICT and Innovation leadership is not more users, but make better creators.

The authors set out essential elements in a successful design for understanding.They are not particularly interested in game design or games, however these principles appear evident in the understanding kids have – and expecially our Massively Minecraft players. This is because we’re getting better at working out the facets of the task design itself, however like most games (Warcraft, LOTR, Runequest, Rift, Aion etc) these principles are met – and in turn the player’s understand.

  1. Can explain: provide thorough, supported, and justifiable accounts of phenomena, facts, and data.
  2. Can interpret: tell meaningful stories; offer apt translations; provide a revealing historical or personal dimension to ideas and events; make it personal or accessible through images, anecdotes, analogies, and models.
  3. Can apply: effectively use and adapt what we know in diverse contexts.
  4. Have perspective: see and hear points of view through critical eyes and ears; see the big picture.
  5. Can empathize: find value in what others might find odd, alien, or implausible; perceive sensitively on the basis of prior direct experience.
  6. Have self-knowledge: perceive the personal style, prejudices, projections, and habits of mind that both shape and impede our own understanding; we are aware of what we do not understand and why understanding is so hard.

When we step back, and look at the design of learning (lesson plans, scope and sequence, technological wonders) are we yet to deal with thse these are the meta-outcomes that sit above just about everything youth does with technology?

Without addressing them critically – as a designer, it appears to me that aligning content with outcomes and assessment is only one facet of the teacher’s role in the digital classroom. These are 21st Century skills, standards, outcomes – they are hard to assess using an essay or a test – and yet clearly persistent in game spaces.

Game based learning is job embedded learning, which is exactly why training, resource handouts – or handing out tokens and badges don’t create greater understanding or satisfaction.

5 life rules that games teach and Facebook won’t.

If you want kids to learn about how to behave in massive online spaces then don’t rely on school. If you are worried about Facebook – you should be. Games however, are far less scary than many people imagine. There are signficant benefits from choosing an online game world over ‘the web’ as a place for kids to learn about digital-rules. In fact all games have rules and are systemtic in their enforcement, they also happen to be the same rules that govern the behaviour that so many are worried about in non-game spaces. Of course to believe this, you must un-believe the relentless media bias and increatingly, the bain-missing rhetoric called ‘game-ification’.

Games give students solid understanding of digital rules.

  1. Mediation rule – conflict resolution in digital networks
  2. Behaviour constraint rule – what you must do and must not do
  3. Goal achievement rule – goals must roughly correspond to the goals of the individuals in the given role they have in real life
  4. Environmental response rule – how the environment behaves in response to individual action
  5. Social Rules – restitutive social law (social correction) and repressive law (social punishment)

If you spend time in game worlds, these rules are persistently applied. They are aslo far less permanent and forgiving unlike much of web-media that never forgets your mistakes, and doesn’t easily let you retry until you succeed. There are far wose things to see that a bit of blood splatter in a world everyone knows isn’t real.

How can we help you to learn with mobiles – PBL project

One of the fantastic project based learning solutions that came out of our Massively Productive #red project with K12 distance and rural educators was “How can we help you learn with mobiles”.

The problem statement surrounds the high numbers of students simply don’t respond to using a learning management system. They don’t log in, rendering all the instructional designed course beyond  unprofitable. This problem leads to a series of escalating pleas, threats and punitive measures which are largely ignored in a game of distance cat and mouse. As the project sketch played out, discussions turned to the transmissive use of SMS messages by schools. It seems most schools use SMS to tell parents that students are not attending school, however the gateway is not used in duplex – students can’t SMS teachers. The irony is that mobiles are banned for students  yet assumed that parents have them – as this is useful to the functional needs of school administration and proof of action. Mass SMS-ing, I am lead to believe is common practice at high public cost with un-reported results in it’s impact on improving student performance or attendance. It obviously ticks a complience box, but if this is all mobiles and SMS is seen as useful for, it’s quite depressing.

Giving students the teacher’s mobile was seen as risky, as was holding the student or parent mobile number on the teachers phone despite this information often being available via administration systems to teachers to call them. The convention is to use the official school phone to contact, or rely on the school SMS gateway to transmit a punitive message to the parent, which one assumes is then relayed to the child – assuming that is possible. In many cases the parents ignore it as well.

The project, as always, needs to make a product, and a case to an audience. The idea was to look at how kids use their phones to learn and to communicate – bringing in aspects of recent events in the UK, how developing nations are using phones, and some quantitative research around the students and their community. This case would them be presented to the people who are running the SMS transmission gateway, in order to argue how it might be better used by students to access and participate in online learning – especially in areas where actually accessing a computer and the internet is proving inadequate.

What is impressive here, is that this project was rendered by a group of teachers, brand new to PBL, in a day as their first. It is wide enough to work at all ages and stages, it has ties to current issues, known frustrations and solves a very large problem that both teachers and students face. Best of all it takes the case to the people who make decisions, policy and rules about the use of phones. The group mapped the project it NSW BOS outcomes, ISTE NETs for students and ISTE NETs for teachers and suggested several great ways of assessing the project. Best of all, it drives an innovation – as the guiding questions use SMS for delivery and response to the students. You might think this is too simple or limited, given the access we have to LMS, blogs and wikis. Consider though, that very high numbers of students simple do not respond to anything. Responding via a text might well be the first level of engagement with learning they have had in a long time.

Gratz! to the group for working so hard. It illustrates just why PBL  allows teachers and students to find, and solve meaningful problems – not cover content-standards, but leads to visible social action.