Authentic Games & PBL: November 2010 Archives

New Media Seminar Week 9: Obsession in the Classroom?

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This week's reading was on Video Games and Computer Holding Power by Sherry Turkle, which summarizes her ethnographic observations of game players from 1984. I thought was thoughtful in that it pointed out that gaming wasn't mindless, but pointed out that games have their own traps (I'm thinking of the episode "Hollow Pursuits" of Star Trek: TNG where one of the crew members deals with holodeck people rather than real people because he can control their reactions much better).

Gaming (and Knitting) Obsession

However another point that struck me was how one teenage girl had developed a love-hate relationship with her game. She had reached a fairly high level in the game, and while I am pretty sure she liked it in the that moment she loathed it because she couldn't advance to the next level. But of course, she couldn't stop playing it until she had achieved a certain level.

This obsession is well-known among the gaming literature, but my first point is that it's NOT just gaming. Many complex tasks can rise to the same level of obsessive love/hate including Sudoku, puzzles, golf, knitting/embroidery, programming and cooking. The desire to improve your performance even as you are slowly being driven insane is what adds drama to many a reality TV competition show.

Obsession is also what drives us to complete tasks and spend the time needed to master complex skills. In many cases too, the reward is intrinsic (at least in terms of financial gain). Maybe you complete a game level to show the game who is boss or to get a higher score than your friends. I've completed some projects because I was confident that they would look "cool." For a lot of these challenges, I am happy if other people like the results, but not necessarily concerned if they don't.

Obsession in the Classroom

An interesting question is how well can this be translated into the classroom? Motivation is a key aspect of your being willing to go through the agony needed to master some skills. I was willing to start a knitted hat seven times (not kidding), and I was putting serious time trying to get to level 8 of Bewjeweled. But do we know anyone willing to put in the same effort for their homework? Only very rarely (and usually only if it's in the student's major).

We are investigating educational games because we assume that they will be more enjoyable than traditional homework assignments, and I do believe that is true...up to a point. One challenge though is that not everyone likes every game. I was willing to learn the different plant weapons for Plants vs. Zombies, but not necessarily those for other war games. Nor have I been attracted to John Madden's NFL Football, Grand Theft Auto or even golf. Not working for me for whatever reason.

You could assign a sports game like John Madden's NFL Football in a business class and have students learn some good financial lessons in managing talent. Again though, what if you don't like football (or basketball or hockey)? Without knowing who the current stars are or how to evaluate them for a game, the play is fairly meaningless.

Could we supplement this kind of exercise with a series of optional games? If the point of using a game in a hypothetical business class is resource management, maybe other games could be added like Cake Mania which might appeal to the non-sports crowd.

The Game of Higher Education

The larger challenge is the effect of being in a structured classroom at all on motivation. Even if you are taking a class in a subject you love, chances are you are still a little bit concerned about your course grade (I know I was). In your recreational life, you can take a class and focus on what you need to know. If you don't get a great grade or performance, so what? It doesn't count. If you really are bad at it, you can move on to a different hobby or try again in a few years.

But when education is related to your professional life (or future professional life), the stakes are much higher. Many people are deeply concerned about the course grade and GPA, even if they are in a major they like. The Penn State diploma does allow you to enter the job market with a better certification than someone with only a high school degree, and a higher GPA on that diploma opens up other opportunities.

It really is no wonder people in class focus so much on grades and not on content...especially when the course is one they are taking as a requirement and not for fun. The goal in this scenario isn't really "learn as much X as I can", but "learn just enough X to get the grade I need." An immersive activity taking many hours to master is NOT what students are looking for...even though it may be the best thing for them.

This is where educational games can class with the realer "Game of Higher Education" in which students find strategies to minimize effort for maximum output (grades). This current generation has probably still learned a bunch of cool tricks to maximize output vs effort for traditional lecture classes and either have none for new assignments like games, video production or blogging, or they realize they will take more time to do. No wonder they resist and turn to excuses like "the tech is too hard" (is it harder than Facebook? Really?)

Sucking it Up?

Since I am in ETS designing these opportunities for students, I would never advocate giving these up in the classroom. They are valuable precisely because they require more cognitive engagement than just reading the textbook. There's even a good chance that students will prefer more active assignments...once they get on board with one.

What I am advocating that we understand that a student playing a game (or shooting a video) in a class is different than doing it for fun. There may not be as much motivation to master the interface without documentation, or as much motivation to figure out a workflow plan. I do think instructors have to suck it up and provide a little more support if we want these activities to succeed.

But they can succeed, and when magic strikes a student realizes that that boring requirement is actually kind of interesting and worth putting in just a little more effort to get to the next level.

Sloan-C ALN: Trends and Highlights

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I went to my first Sloan-C ALN conference last week somewhere in central Florida near some lovely historic towns and lovely lakeside scenery. Location aside, I found the Sloan-C conference interesting because it is appealing to a wide audience from K-12 to higher ed and from advanced experts to total novices. There was a lot to pick and choose from in terms of presentations. Here were some trends and highlights I did get to observe.

Second Life and Virtual Worlds

We've taken a breather from Second Life here at Penn State, but there were actually a lot of sessions devoted to it at the conference. One class in social work used it for both virtual tours (e.g. to both the U.S. Holocaust Museum) and for "social experiments" such as "The Store", a scenario where avatars had to buy emergency food from a grocery store, but were locked out or admitted based on the color of their "HUDs." Lots of interesting use of scripting here.

Best Second Life tip - If you want to show a movie in world, set up multiple video screens so avatars can get a good view no matter where they are.

Another presentation discussed science themed exhibits and locations in Second Life, particularly those designed by NASA. But other virtual worlds were discussed including a virus lab in Why Ville, ancient world simulations on Heritage Key and project management in World of Worldcraft. Now that Second Life has discontinued its academic discount, many are predicting that schools will leave for other alternatives like the ones described here as well as places like Xenos Island (foreign language) and various sim grids in the OpenSimulator model (very much like Second Life).

It appears that there will be interesting times ahead for virtual worlds.


The good news is that accessibility was on people's minds. There were several presentations available, and they were reasonably well attended. The bad news is that the general mode remains reactive rather than proactive. The bulk of the presentations focused on quick fix strategies one might need should a student with disabilities appear on your student roster. Interestingly, the audience shared some very good tips at how to be a little more proactive and really work the challenge. The MovCaptioner tool was a much appreciated suggestions.

Global Snapshot

My main purpose at being at ALN was to participate in a joint presentation on the Global Snapshot report completed over the summer. I was pleasantly surprised at how many people attended despite the topic seeming a bit obscure (although maybe not so obscure with many presentations coming from outside the U.S.) You can see a summary of my portion in my blog post on M-Learning in Africa

Speaking of global outreach, one of my favorite presentations was one about how to market to Japanese students for your virtual program. The presenter, Annie Shibata, noted that although the Japanese market was far ahead of the U.S. in terms of mobile technology, access to the Internet via laptop/desktop was lagging behind. She was not sure how much Internet tech was being introduced in the higher education curriculum today as it had not been encouraged in the past. However, I later attended a session on blogging with Moodle from an ESL program in Japan, so some programs are adopting e-learning strategies.

Most of Shibata's strategies were about marketing, specifically - being willing to invest 2-3 years in building a base, including a residency option in the U.S. (even if it's just a short time) and investing in Japanese translators or local liaisons (who may be in the time zone as Japanese students). Some of these tips may already be known to World Campus who has a profile of a Japanese student in their marketing, but it was good information for anyone working with international students.

My Favorite Presentation

I think the presentation that intrigued me the most was a report of mental models using the mechanisms of graph theory (nodes are nouns/concepts and lines are verbs/relationships). As instructional designers I think a lot of us would agree that learning is understanding the student's initial mental model and then guiding to one the instructor feels is more accurate. A stumbling block though has been to determine how to consistently document a mental model so that models could be systematically compared. Any progress in that area would be a welcome development.

Although we were not able to see a specific model, she did have some interesting results to report on misconceptions of incoming instructional design graduate students. My favorite was that instructional designers needed to know specifically where a course would be taught before it could be designed (even if that were true, it would be impossible in most of the real world).

Another interesting outcome was that she showed that two SMEs did generate different models for the same process. Again, this is not a surprise, but the two models could show different strategies in processing information. Could there be a future where instructors and students sharing similar models were matched up? Would that be a good thing or would it not allow for enough diverse information? Interesting questions. This is one presentation I hope to download in a few weeks.

This is a presentation I will want to review once it goes online.