29 October 2012

Gaming or simulation?

I recently started designing an economics unit idea based on the use of two table top games: Settlers of Catan and Monopoly. Both are resource management and expansion games, but the first uses an agricultural/products model, while the second is more about property, currency and investments. The basic idea is that students would play the first game, accrue resources and products, which would create a market. The supply and demand of this market would determine prices for those resources which are held by the students at the end of the game. Thus, the resources from Catan would determine how much money/property each student had to work with in Monopoly at the start. This would demonstrate how products drive the macro-economy and how businesses and financial investing build off of that. All of the game play would be supported by class lectures and discussions so that students understand the economic terms and concepts in play.

I see this as a way of using games in the classroom in a context that allows for real world knowledge to be transmitted in an engaging way.

Recently this website was recommended to me: http://www.winthemoneygame.com/ . I think this is a great idea, but it doesn't accomplish the same thing. This is more focused on the management of personal finances - salaries, paying bills, budgeting for things we want/need, etc. While I believe that this is equally important, it serves a different purpose. The Catan/Monopoly set up is highly theoretical and is about larger economic concepts - understanding how the nation's economy works and also a brief history of economic practice (e.g. bartering vs currency). The Win the Money Game would give students a much more practical notion of what it is like to get paid and what to do with that money once you have it. Both are good lessons for students to learn.

The more I think about this entire project, the more I think there are ways to bring content into the classroom via gaming. My Catan/Monopoly idea brings the engagement of traditional table top games to economic concepts, while the Win the Money Game brings a more literal simulation aspect to the table.

What do you think about gaming in the classroom? Can it deliver?

22 October 2012

Game informed learning and RPGs

What is it about games that draw us in? They are engaging, challenging and entertaining. Wouldn’t it be great if we could make classrooms the same? The idea of game informed learning suggests that we can bring these elements that keep us playing games into the classroom. This doesn’t mean that a class has to literally BE a game, but that the design of the class should be informed by that which makes gaming so intriguing. I’d like to particularly address how RPGs (Role Playing Games) could help to inform class design.

A part of traditional RPGs is storytelling. Table top games are often loosely plotted out by a GM (Game Master – though you might know this better as the DM, Dungeon Master from the popular Dungeons and Dragons game) and the players interactively and collaboratively fill in the story as they go along. RPG style video games (such as Final Fantasy) have also made the player an interactive character within the story. Often in these types of games, the player gets to make some choices about how the plot goes (often in the form of answering questions differently or taking one of multiple plot tracks), but the plot usually ends in the same way for all players. MMORPGs (Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games) have taken this same idea and fleshed out a world full of choices for the player. Like in most RPG video games, there is an overall plot that is played through with some choice as to how to arrive at the end. Unlike most video game RPGs, there is a wide world outside of that plotline in which the player gets to develop their character. MMORPGs like World of Warcraft (WoW) and Guild Wars 2 have full crafting systems, auction houses, weapon/armor/clothing management and other engaging aspects that allow the character being played to be individualized and fleshed out. In a game like this, the player has many choices about what kind of character they play (personality, appearance, traits, storyline choices). This complex style of RPG creates an interactive space with thousands of other players and a barrage of choices that a player has to make each and every time they play.

It is this last iteration of RPG games that provide the most interesting design style for educational purposes. As teachers, we seek to make our students active, engaged learners and citizens. This requires students to understand how to make decisions, how to plan, how to manage time and material – the list goes on and on. What better way to teach students these things than to put them through the process of decision making, long term planning and self management? With an environment that causes them to regularly make decisions about what they will do (therefore planning for themselves and their schedules), students can choose which approach to material suits their interest and learning styles best, and take ownership of their education in a new way. Part of what makes these kinds of games engaging is the fact that players get incremental feedback, notice of achievements, and small rewards as they go. There isn’t a celebration every time a task is completed, but instead there is acknowledgement of how these small tasks build up for a full effect. Rather than giving in to instant gratification or having to provide huge end goal rewards that don’t maintain the interest of students, a constant feedback and acknowledgement of small achievements for actions that help build toward a larger, more holistic goal. This sounds exactly like the kind of environment I would like to teach in.

So how exactly does running a game informed class like an RPG look? Check out one example at The Mac Lab. Mike Skocko, a high school art teacher, has done exactly this. He has taken the MMORPG style very literally into his classroom. His students join the TAG (The Artists Guild) and gain XP (experience) by completing quests (assignments) – some of which they get to choose, while others are necessary for “leveling up”. Students get to acknowledge their own achievement levels and can claim their own mastery. While this might raise the concern that students will game the system and claim mastery without it – don’t worry. Mike has set up a system in which students can challenge each other PvP style (Player vs. Player in gaming terms) to prove they have mastered the skills and tools. While this may not work for all kinds of content, other more traditional options (quizzes, tests, papers, presentations, etc) could serve to demonstrate the mastery of the student when they are ready to claim it.

At the same time, this model doesn’t have to look exactly like gaming. As is pointed out in the article “Game Informed Learning: Applying Computer Game Processes to Higher Education”, simulation is a game informed style of learning. One secondary education example might be dissection or the simulation of dissection on a computer, which is often provided as an alternative to actually dissecting an animal for biology. This gives the student the ability to gain from actual experience of dissecting an animal, usually meant to parallel the exploration of what a human body might be like. The articled cited above uses the example of medical students being given case studies and having to play out their examinations and diagnoses as though they were already working at a practice or hospital. These are situations in which students have to make real time decisions based on knowledge to learn about a larger process or topic

This is an idea that I very much hope to be able to explore and implement in my own classroom in the future. What do you think? Could students benefit from game informed learning in all subjects?

15 October 2012

Gamifying the Classroom

Recently I was reading an article entitled 'Digital Badges' would Represent Students' Skill Acquisition, which discusses the use of online/digital badges as a way for students to earn recognition for their acquired skills and achievements in and out of the classroom. These badges could be awarded for skill acquisition in the classroom, but part of it would also be for the skills acquired during their extra curricular activities. One of the focuses of these badges is to acknowledge skill sets that aren't traditionally represented in the normal grading and achievement recognition schemes that exist, such as leadership, or very specific skill sets, such as learning HTML or Java script.

One of the main objections to these badges is that it creates a situation which "gamifies" the classroom - turning education into a game. The problem skeptics cite is that by providing extrinsic motivation for things which students are already intrinsically motivated to do, we are decreasing their intrinsic motivation to do so. Apparently, the use of point systems is just a way of gamifying education and teachers should be helping students find intellectual value in their educational pursuits that has nothing to do with rewards.

One problem that I have with this objection is that point systems have been used as behavioral control in classrooms for a very long time. It is a well established, well studied, well taught part of education. While it is acknowledged that point systems do not work in all circumstances, to suddenly say that it is turning education into a game when it bleeds over from classroom control into content seems completely ridiculous. By that logic, getting students to behave appropriately in the classroom is only a game, too.

Personally, I am still ambivalent about the topic of gamifying the classroom. I can understand the downsides of rewarding things that we, as teachers, think students should be motivated to do intrinsically. On the other hand, if there is a way of engaging students in their learning process that works and motivates students to learn through their own exploration, while also benefiting from the reward system that sparked that interest, then I would be hard put to find objections.

One fantastic example of a gamified classroom that I believe works can be found in The Mac Lab. Mike Skocko is a teacher that took the online gaming platform structure (gaining XP [experience], questing [mastery], being part of a guild [classroom community], and having a code of honor [classroom rules upheld as much by the students as by himself]) and applied it to his classroom, which involves time spent in an actual school as well as having blogs and personal sites for presentation of work. Though he is an art teacher, I think this kind of classroom style could potentially be beneficial, particular as many schools move toward 1:1 computing situations. Part of what keeps students interested in video and online games is the dynamic space in which they get to explore, learn, hone their skills and challenge (or get challenged) by other players. The traditional classroom has been criticized for lacking this dynamic aspect, so the thought of bringing an interactive style to the classroom that would help students want to engage and take some control of and ownership for their learning sounds appealing.

What do you think? Would bringing a gaming aspect to the classroom help or hinder education?

07 October 2012

Students on Steroids

No, this is not a controversial sports post, but about what Thomas Friedman, author of The World is Flat 3.0: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century, calls the technological "steroids" that are creating a "flatter" world. Friedman writes:

        "I call certain new technologies the steroids, because they are amplifying 
         and turbocharging all the other flatteners." (Friedman, 187)

By flatteners, he means the technologies that are making it easier for everyone to be more connected and have a more equal chance to participate globally. The "steroids" he mentions are the technologies that speed up connectivity, allow for transfer of more data more quickly to anywhere in the world. He points out that "year after year we have been able to digitize, shape, crunch, and transmit more words, music, data and entertainment than ever before" (Friedman, 188). So the question is: what does this mean for students and teachers?

The students of today are natives of this technological wave, they are the people who will most easily navigate and adapt with the technology that is already shaping their lives in so many ways. This inundation with technology in our everyday lives has spread to education already with the prospect of many schools moving towards ubiquitous (or 1 to 1) computing. While bringing technology to the classroom has been an ongoing process for a while, this kind of transition will force a change in the way that teaching and learning are viewed. Rather than having some teachers believe that project-based and student-centered learning are the key to continued success, teachers will be forced to see that traditional, lecture-style teaching methods will no longer be appropriate in ubiquitous computing settings.

While many students are familiar with the "steriods" Friedman refers to and would love to use them in the school setting, they may not particularly understand what changing to a student-centered learning style will entail. This is not just a change for teachers, but a major change for students. They can no longer rely on sitting and half listening to a lecture and asking a few questions in class to cover their grades. Student-centered learning requires students to take initiative in their own educations. While this involves more choice (usually seen as an advantage to the students), they will also have to help drive themselves and be more ambitious if they want to succeed in school.

So are these steroids, which will allow students to engage their peers and information in new and exciting ways, going to help them by relieving some of the academic pressure of studying and finding information? Or is it going to make their jobs as students much more difficult with every higher standards of presentation and engagement?

The answer may be "both".

01 October 2012

Blog vs Wiki: The Educational Showdown

As a teacher, I've got to ask myself: which do I think would be more effective in the classroom: a blog or a wiki? These two ways of presenting and interacting with information on the web are very different and each have advantages and disadvantages.


Both are media that allow multiple authors to write and present material on a web page such that others can add to that written material. Blogs often have comment boxes enabled, so that readers can comment and address the topic which the author has chosen. In a wiki, the original author swiftly becomes the co-author of all pages as readers turn co-author and edit the original page and writing done by the original author. Blogs are more conducive to single authorship and discussion of a topic, whereas wikis are better set up for collaborative work. Wikis allow authors to create new pages for new topics, which might better organize certain kinds of material, rather than the temporally updated and listed material of a blog.

Time as a Factor

With blog, teachers would be able to clearly see when students authored and submitted their work. The general set up of a blog post includes the time and/or date of the post in the header with the title of the post. Wikis are set up to be topic-based rather than chronological in their layout, so authors of the page can edit and change material anywhere on any page at any time on any topic. It is much harder to tell what was done when by whom, unless you have a system that tracks changes. A project with a particular due date for some kind of completed or substantial amount of material would be harder to monitor temporally.

Monitoring of behavior

In a classroom/educational setting, the subject of safety and behavior monitoring have to be taken into account. The natural set up of blog seems to make this easier, as a single administrator can have the power to edit or delete inappropriate posts by authors. It would also be much easier to tell which author posted inappropriate material. Wikis are naturally set up to evolve and change as the group of authors decide, with less attention paid to authorship. This would make it more difficult to monitor the behavior of individuals, again, without the close monitoring of tracked changes. Also, the nature of a wiki is to expand topically. Authors can create new pages and expand the size of a wiki site very rapidly, which is good for material organization, but also makes it easier to hide inappropriate material as a wiki rapidly grows.


I think that choosing a blog or wiki will really come down to assessing what kind of project is being done and what kind of material is being approached. If the material involves a broad topic with many sub-topics that need to be discussed and addressed by all students, particularly in the creation of some kind of study-guide or reference website, then a wiki is probably the best choice. If the students need to turn in distinctly individual materials on a schedule (daily, weekly, monthly), then a blog is probably a better medium. When taking the behavior of a particular class into account, if a teacher needs to monitor and restrict information sharing and authorship more closely, a blogging format and set up with naturally serve better. If a teacher is leading a mature group of students in a project that is understood as a peer editing and collaborative project, then a wiki is an exciting resource to be able to use.

This post is part of the 21st Century Learning post series.