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What if Curriculum was an Adventure?

Rules, in game play, are traditionally static — printed on the lid of the box. Is this so in real life? How many innovations are rule-changers?

I had the opportunity last week to participate in a conversation that was arranged by ISTE, exploring some of the potentially pivotal emerging issues in the ed tech and broader education domains. I was asked to go first, as I would not be able to stay long — and was consequently put on the spot, to think quickly, and clearly articulate ideas to some really smart people. So I blubbered something about a niche for some new and compellingly relevant digital and networked learning platform that will so effectively, efficiently, and elegantly facilitate all of the education philosophies that we are all so urgently trying to describe that it will change education as we know it.

Peggy Sheehy, being Peggy Sheehy (and rightly so) intercepted my fumbled explanation, campaigning for games as an integral part of that platform. I understood where she was going, said so, and she acknowledged it — because we’ve had the conversation before.  But there is a frustrating problem with Peggy’s mission.  Most people still see games as play and learning as work — and although many of us have become convinced of the learning potentials of video games  and begun to promote their use, the game is still what happens after the teaching.

Periodically, I’m asked to do a presentation called “Video Games as Learning Engines,” which is an introduction to video games (mostly for non-gamers) and an attempt to show how games are actually a form of pedagogy.  Yet, I suspect that what most attendees are actually looking for directories of flash-based educational games designed to help students master their multiplication facts or identify parts of speech. Those games are certainly out there, but they do not interest me.

One of the lingering mysteries that continues to intrigue me, in the waning years of my very long career, is what makes it a game — or more to the point, what makes it fun? ..and can we unfold the elements in such a way that they become handlebars in that learning platform I was trying to describe, from which we can hang more engaging learning experiences for our students.

I guess that a learning platform, integrated with games and play would be characterized by
More Less
  •  Surprise Predictability
  •  Rules that change, can be changed and are inability Static and constraining
  •  Focus on accomplishing personal goals Focus on achieving institutional goals
  •  Frequent, meaningful and empowering rewards Scheduled, symbolic rewards

For instance, one interesting quality of the games our children play is that they do not require you to learn the rules before you play the game. Learning about roles and rules is part of the playing, and they are often a surprise that has to be earned.  They’re a secret. In solving a puzzle or simply exploring, the player finds a magic coin, potion, or relic.  As a result of the find, she is endowed with new powers of flight, invisibility, or speed. The powers are a surprise and they change the rules.

Ewan McIntosh recently described a very simple but explicit illustration of this, concerning a school he is working with in Sydney, Australia.  There is a fairly nondescript and unreferenced book in a classroom that when moved, releases a switch that turns on a light.  Students find it by exploring the environment.  They explore because they expect to find secrets.  It’s an example of what McIntosh calls Secret Spaces, one of Seven Spaces of Technology in School Environments (watch the video).

So what if this learning platform held hidden information switches, such that when a student references a particular document in his work, he is suddenly endowed with new powers, an opportunity to visit previously blocked resource or tool, or an invitation to formally explore a topic of personal interest, or awarded points or admin rights to further configure his profile page with options and colors that were not available before.

What if curriculum was an adventure, and learning was the reward?

Learning about World of Warcraft in Education with Lucas Gillispie

Here are some fairly rough notes from a workshop I attended on video games in education, presented by Lucas Gillispi. My comments are boxed and italicized.

On top of everything else that was new to me with this session, I got to operate an Alien computer.

I’m sitting in a session about World of Warcraft, being facilitated by Lucas Gillispie, from Pender County Schools (far eastern part of the state). His blog is EduRealms, where he talks about games and learning. Lucas has worked with Peggie Sheehy, who started with SecondLife and is now exploring the learning that happens in games like World of Warcraft.  Their guild in WoW is Cognitive Dissonance.

“Education needs a Cataclysm,” he says. There’s double entendra here. See this. In the traditional classroom, its about teacher, textbook, and workshops. WoW has built-in resources, fan sites, blogs, facebook, and twitter feeds, WoWWiki (second largest wiki in the world), custom apps, etc.

I wonder how many of those game-resources would work for formal learning. – dfw

In formal education, mastery must occur within allotted “seat time.” Achievement is constant in games such as WoW. The traditional classroom is about “No Talking!” In the game it’s about collaborating and sharing. Everyone’s talents bring something to the team. Slackers will fail and will fail their team.  Guilds provide a larger community. Plus the game is differentiated. You choose the style of play (learning) that works for you. “World of Warcraft players crave assessment,” rather than dread it. In the traditional classroom, failure is punitive. In games, failure is expected. Failing at a quest means you re-try, as often as needed.

So what makes it engaging. Gee says that its in your regime of competence — hard but doable. (see this summary of Gee’s principals of learning.)

So “What if school was more like a game?” Gamification is term being used to make. Look at Epic Win, as a way of turning everyday tasks into a game.

Hmmm!  But isn’t school actually like a game?  Students who do well are not always your brightest and most resourceful, but they’re the ones who play the game well.  I’d rather suggest that we change the rules of the game, and perhaps even the rule of the schooling game, to include some of the pedagogies of WoW and other compelling and deep games. – dfw

Gillispie and team were recently contacted by a philanthropic organization from Washington state who’d been watching what they were doing through his blog and twitterings.  They asked him to submit a proposal for funding for gaming laptops (Alienware). “look kids,” he’d told the students, “Here’s someone who is paying attention to you and what you are doing.”

It occurred to me, then, that Pender County is not, to these students, the same place that their parents grew up.  For many of them, it was a padded world that was effectively insulated from the outside world (I speak from experience from having grown up in a similarly rural area.)  Because of their experiences with WoW and other networked learning experiences, Pender County is a gateway to a much broader and richer world.  ..and that richer world is available to them, even if they choose to always live in their rural community.

The theme of their project is “A Hero’s Journey.” Students are “Heros,” teachers are “Lorekeepers,” and grades are “experience points.” Interesting that experience points, which are is almost like currancy that is accumulated.  You start out your experience with the game as a poor and weak character, gaining in strength and skill, resulting in more wealth.

A question immersed from the conversation that I think was quite important.  Why do we not grade our students in the very same way?  Why have we not always graded our students in the same way?  Why not have grades (or what ever we’d call it) that reflect learners growing wealth of knowledge and skill, rather than measuring discrete sub-knowledge and sub-skills? We couldn’t answer that question. – dfw

Here are some of the things they are doing as part of the class:

  • Character Tweets: Students tweeted from the perspective of non-player WoW characters. They’re projecting into another character and determining perspective For instance, there’s a girl who wonders a specific road selling bread. What does the world look like to her.
  • Propaganda/Ads: Students used photo editing to create ads aimed at WoW characters.
  • Research and argumentative writing: So what would happen if Hobbit characters (which they’re required to read) were living in WoW.
  • Fan Fiction: Writing a story from inside the plot of the game.

Very cool session!

School & Games Overlay

Photo of Stewart Buterfield taken at Web 2.0 Expo 2007 by Scott Beale ((Beale, Scott. “Web 2.0 Expo 2007.” Flickr. 18 Apr 2007. LaughingSquid, Web. 16 Feb 2010. <http://www.flickr.com/photos/laughingsquid/464170886/>))

Mashable featured a fairly long progress review (Glitch: Flickr’s Stewart Butterfield Explains His Ambitious Online Game) for a game that is due for launch in late 2010, Glitch. Behind this game’s are Flickr co-founder, Stewart Butterfield and other alum, and someone from Digg — forming a company called Tine Speck. This appears to be a return to the gaming world for some of these folks, since the Flickr technology was originally intended to be a feature of an MMO (massively multiplayer online game) called Game Neverending. The photo sharing application proved to be more feasible, and the company scrapped the game. ((Graham, Jefferson. “Flickr of idea on a gaming project led to photo website.” USA TODAY 28 Feb 2006: n. pag. Web. 13 Feb 2010.))

Here is a short description of the game posted on TechVibes, on February 9 — Not really intended to whip folks who are my age into a frenzy of excitement.

It’s called Glitch because in the far-distant and totally-perfect future, the world starts becoming less and less probable, things fall apart, the center cannot hold, and there occurs what comes to be called the “glitch” — a grave danger of disemprobablization. This results in a time-traveling effort at saving the future, going back into the minds of eleven great giants walking sacred paths on a barren asteroid who sing and think and hum the world into existence and … you know what? You’ll probably just have to wait and play the game :) (( Lewis, Rob. “Stewart Butterfield reveals Glitch.” TechVibes. Techvibes Media Inc., 9 Feb 2010. Web. 13 Feb 2010. . ))

What intrigues me about this, or at least my understand of the game (and the initial intent of Game Neverending) is its cross platform nature — and not in the traditional sense.  It’s how the game appears to play across a variety of technologies, game systems, web browsers, cell phones, etc. It appears that aspects of the game that might be played via SMS and other mini games that you might play with an iPhone app to build up your avatar. It seems to more closely mimic the real operation of social by players’ ability to invite the game into multiple avenues of communication and information processing.

Which brings me around to education. School is a closed environment.  It is as closed as we can get away with. Classrooms are closed. You go to class to learn Math or Science or Social Studies, but the only thing that comes out the door is the textbook, closed and stowed in a bookbag and hopefully the homework assignment, jotted down in a notebook. Science does not flow out through conversations in the hall, on the school bus, between the bookcases in the library, nor even in the Teacher’s Lounge (in my experience).

What if there were a way that we could, through a game (and I use that term loosely), cause curriculum to bleed through the walls of our classrooms and even the confines of our campuses? Butterfield says that he wants Glitch to be “as permeable as possibles.” That’s what I imagine, schools and classrooms that are as permeable as possible, so that learning leaks out — not that we’re losing it, but because we’ve stopped trying to contain it, allowing learning to grow, to network, to fertilize other learning.

Making this work, of course, would be very complicated, and it would take some pretty unique creativity. But I’m wondering about a commercial opportunity, or open source collaboration, to develop a package that overlays a schools curriculum with some sort of ARG (alternate reality game), along with game master instructions, social network plugins, a variety of barcoded clue stickers that can be planted, etc. Seems like some hard-fun learning.

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Your Game Puppet

Flickr Photo by Mark CoffeeGeek from Vancouver

Tweeted yesterday that during a pilot project in Portugal involving 8 and 9 year olds setting up virtual businesses in Active Worlds, they were encouraged to call their avatars, their “toys.”

I just discovered a Tweet-reply from VWassessments (Kathy Landerson).

Interesting -in SL -”avatar”, in WoW players call them “toons” & have main & alts, in Muxlim Pal -it’s ur “pal”, in Spore ur “creature” (Landerson)

I wonder how your term for your game puppet affects your relationship with the player identity and/or the player’s relationship with the game?  I’m sure somebody’s researching that.

For that matter, how does the students relationship with a end product affect his or her relationship with what’s being learned — or how well it’s being learned?

I always preferred being the race car.

Landerson, Kathy. 11 Apr 2009. Online Posting. Twitter. Web: 13 Apr 2009.

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Listening to Interview with James Paul Gee

I’m listening to a podcast interview with game guru, James Paul Gee. I highly recommend giving it a listen [link]. Here are just a few notes that connected with me. The Interviewer, Barry Joseph, asked for some basics of what make games important to education. Gee said that there are two. The first is that games result in learning, because they make the player a knowledge producer, rather than consumer. There are obvious examples of this, such as building objects in Second Life. But…

To play a game, you have to think like a game designer — think like a producer.

The second element is the “Principal of situated meaning.”

Traditionally, we learned with words. To learn a new concept, we were given a definition to learn (a bunch of words). With games and virtual worlds, “You’ve got to deliver more than words, you’ve got to deliver the world that the words go with.” ((Gee, James Paul. “RezEd Podcast, Episode 12- James Paul Gee on Virtual Worlds and the Power of Situated Learning.” [Podcast Podcast] ResEd. 11 Aug 11: 12. ResEd. 12 Aug 2008 <http://www.rezed.org/forum/topic/show?id=2047896%3ATopic%3A12696>. ))

The conversation went on to discuss other issues and projects, notably Our Courts. The first paragraph of the summary reads,

Our Courts will be a free, interactive, web-based program and eventually a virtual 3D world designed to teach and engage middle-school students in civics. Through the lens of the judiciary, Our Courts will allow students to participate in realistic simulations of government and to grapple with relevant social issues. They will investigate and argue actual cases and controversies using real law, and they will view these cases from the perspective of the judicial, legislative and executive branches of government. Our Courts will also encourage young people to act, by voicing their opinions in their communities and to their elected representatives. ((“Project Summary.” Our Courts. Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, Arizona State University College of Teacher Education & Leadership, and Sandra Day O’Connor Project on The State of the Judiciary. 12 Aug 2008 <http://www.ourcourts.org/about.html>. ))

There is also a good video intro from Justice O’Connor. What I found intriguing was how she came to understand, while attending the Games for Change Conference, that Game, in a sense, is another word for world, and that makes games an appropriate avenue for learning and education. I also liked the way that Gee admitted to being a baby boomer, and that he was getting out of the way and letting younger game developers actually design the Our Counts game.


Photo taken by Ewan McIntosh in a Taxi in Shanghai

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Cultivating Your Personal Learning Network
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Redefining Literacy 2.0 (2008)
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