The Town of SpringHaven

There is a small village on the outskirts of a mountainous region, perched on a plateau overlooking the sea.  It sits in the shadow of a great castle adorned with great towers, fortified walls, and topped with a roof made entirely of blocks of pure diamond.  SpringHaven, as the locals call it, is a quaint village in a vast, largely unexplored world.  Shopkeepers and an ever-patrolling lad named Drakia, add to the activity and bustle, but real life is breathed into this town, and the surrounding regions, when the world’s architects are there.  I’m talking about the learners who are actively creating and building this living, breathing virtual world in Minecraft.  I merely provided them with the canvas, but they are the true artists who are making this year’s newly re-designed survival server come alive.

springhaven_s

This year, we’ve re-launched our district’s survival Minecraft server with an emphasis on building community among our student-players.  If the first few weeks is any indication, they have embraced that call.  They designed our starting area, the town of SpringHaven, the great Diamond Castle that overshadows it, and are working to create a unique world, all their own.  Another goal of this year’s project is to increasingly hand over the leadership and ownership of this community to the learners.  We’ve instituted a challenge/rank system, offering players the ability to “level up” by actively contributing to the design of the world and participating in the community-building projects and contests that we will be rolling out.  We’ve also incorporating some exciting new plugins, including MCMMO which allows players to level up skills like Mining and Archery.

Just last night, we just launched our first event, a community build (a collaborative, server-wide building project), called “The Town of Deadwood!”  In the spirit of the Halloween season, players are invited to build a deserted, and haunted town, each choosing a different component to be responsible for, and working to add it to the town’s deserted streets.  By participating, they earn community participation points and can advance their “status” on the server as a contributor.  Want to see our event flyer?  You can find it here:  https://docs.google.com/document/d/16Ry36DMAIarAKirE-3UECM6tCmDfubZ6s9Seu8r-iPk/edit.

I’m thrilled at the level of engagement and ownership I’ve seen so far.  I can’t wait to see what’s next!

-Lucas

So, What’s Next?

wowkidsLast year was largely an experimental year.  There were so many unknowns going into the WoWinSchool Project that our overall attitude was “Let’s see what this looks like,” and some aspects of the program were largely informal.  That’s not to say that we didn’t learn a great deal and that the participating students didn’t benefit from the program (and we from them).  Going in, we were unsure of even the simplest things like, “What happens when there’s a patch?” and “Will the network and firewall handle it?”

Those early hurdles are behind us and I’m very pleased to announce that we’re ratcheting the program up a notch for the coming year.  In the 2010-2011 school year, both Cape Fear Middle and Suffern Middle will offer a World of Warcraft-based language arts elective during the regular school day.  Development has begun on the course, the syllabus, and implementation plan.  So far, here’s what we’re thinking:

  • Though taking place during the regular day, the course will be hybrid, built online using the Moodle LMS.  This grants us the opportunity to be largely paperless (a good model for other classes!) and it makes the course granular and easily shared.
  • The course will involve a parallel reading assignment for students, probably a novel.  Cape Fear Middle will likely use Tolkien’s The Hobbit.
  • We are trying hard to get away from focusing on grades and are rather granting students XP (experience points) and levels for completing assignments.  Developing appropriate rubrics and scaling is a challenge.
  • The course will have an overall theme, probably based on “The Hero’s Journey.”
  • The course will be aligned to national/state standards and will supplement students’ regular language arts instruction.
  • Our goal is to thoroughly “mash-up” course and in-world experiences.

We have a tremendous amount of work to do to prepare and are excited about where we’re going.

-Lucas

Flash Mob Antics in World of Warcraft

Today wrapped up our last major event in WoWinSchool for the students at Cape Fear Middle.  As the district’s after-school programs are winding down, so does the busing.  The students at Suffern Middle’s program will continue playing for a few weeks.  To celebrate a successful first year of the program, we wanted to get the kids together, in world, for some fun.  What’s more fun that a Gnomish Flash Mob?  Now, if you’re unfamiliar with flash mobs, I highly recommend watching some of Improv Everywhere’s videos, they’re lots of fun.  But, a flash mob in a virtual world?  Why not!

wump2_sWe started the event by having each student create a gnome.  We specified that they should have either pink or green hair, and their name should end in -wumpus.  As the crowd began to assemble at the starting area, I could already tell this would be fun.  We had names such as Firewumpus and Applewumpus, among others.  Each of our students were logged into our Ventrilo server, so I gave them instructions on creating basic macros.  We made macros for /dance, /cheer, and /say “Wump!”  Before rolling out to Ironforge, we practiced our timing.  ”Three, two, one, Dance!”  Seeing 20+ Gnomes in a coordinated dance is a beautiful thing (or totally weird?).

Ironforge was mostly dead.  We had a challenging time of getting anyone to interact with us, so we boarded the Tram and made for Stormwind.  Stormwind, was where the magic began!  Our first order of business was to surround a bystander, kneel, and in unison ask, “Are you the Great Wumpus?”  Now, I don’t know about you, but World of Warcraft is over five years old, players are burning through content, and hanging out in a capital city for any length of time is a clear indication of “I’m bored, but what else am I gonna do?”  It’s not every day, you are deified by a swarm of mohawk-sporting gnomes.  The lady Night Elf invited us to a play a quick game of follow-the-leader, and we obliged.  When she walked, we followed walking, when she jumped, we jumped, occasionally uttering a random “Wump!”  She began casting an area effect spell, we marked her as a traitor, and quickly swarmed the nearest player.  Now, this guy, Elladan, was a breath of fresh air.  He engaged us and played along.  ”Are you the Great Wumpus?”  ”Indeed!  Gather ’round!”  Yes!

Elladan began to play along with our antics and before long a crowd had gathered about this strange sight:  a lone Night Elf druid surrounded by over 20 jumping and spastic gnomes.  Things went along until some player dropped a campfire.  Now, here’s where our students really shined.  I told them on Ventrilo, “Type ‘Fire Bad!’ and scatter!”  Within seconds, our little swarm responded and onlookers were laughing and even sending me compliments via /tell.  Elladan even offered to tell us a story, to which we responded with simultaneous “Ooohs! Ahhs!”  If you can recall the aliens in the crane game in Toy Story, you’re pretty close.

wump1_sOur time was drawing to an end, so we randomly jumped up and ran to Goldshire.  We had quite a following trailing behind us, now.  From there, we exclaimed, “The evil Hogger must die!” and ran to the Hogger encounter nearby.  The level 80′s who trailed along made short work of Hogger and we realized that we had about five minutes left.  We began saying things like, “The Great Wumpus is calling us home.”  One student said, “I see a light at the end of the great wump,” and we began logging out on the spot.  Elladan, our new steward, pleaded with us not to forget him, and I assured him he’d be immortalized (Here you go, Elladan!).

We had a blast, and the students very quickly filled in their roles, especially once they realized they had an audience.  It was a great way to wrap up our activities.

-Lucas (aka Garwumpus)

Pwnership

Students are prepping the day before the VWBPE Tour

Students are prepping the day before the VWBPE Tour

I’ve always been told that ownership is a powerful tool in student learning, and I have always believed it.  However, the experiences and observations of the past two days have truly validated that assertion.  Today, our incredible (and I don’t use that word lightly) students in the WoWinSchool Project led a small group of educators from around the world on a virtual tour of World of Warcraft as part of the Virtual Worlds Best Practices in Education Online Conference.

I was approached about a month ago by conference organizers asking if I would like to host a virtual tour.  When I asked if I could have our students lead it instead, they graciously (and courageously?) accepted, and the Know Your Gnomes session was set.  I’m not sure our students fully grasped the implications until yesterday afternoon.  (Perhaps some of the best learning happens in the 11th hour?)  I asked them how they’d like to organize the tour and they decided forming two groups would be best, and probably the most comfortable for them.  They then began to organize themselves based on who felt most comfortable leading a discussion on what topics within those groups.  One would take quests, another would cover movement and navigation, while another would talk about communication and so on.

That’s when I sensed a bit of stress among them.  When it hit them that they would be talking to complete strangers from other countries about this program, they very quickly went from silliness to seriousness.  In fact, in my 10+ years as an educator, I’ve never seen such an abrupt transformation among students.  In their minds I think they were beginning to take ownership of the idea and realizing that they, in fact, would be the experts teaching the teachers.  It was incredibly powerful.

The VWBPE tour is underway and the kids have their "game-faces" on.

The VWBPE tour is underway and the kids have their "game-faces" on.

When I asked them if they’d like to do a trial run, they hastily agreed that it would be a good idea.  It was at this point, I think, that they began to rationalize what would actually take place during the tour.  The “what if” questions began gushing out.  ”What if they don’t understand English?”  ”What if they can’t get into Ventrilo?”  ”What if I misspell something?”  I worked to put their concerns and questions to rest, honestly, not knowing the answers to many, and encouraged them to have some faith in themselves.  At this point they really put their “game faces on.” (Pardon the pun!)

This morning, they literally rushed to the lab and quickly began to help get set up.  Some logged in right away and began greeting the early comers to the session.  I can’t begin to tell you how suddenly professional kids, who are just ask likely to yell “Your Momma!” across the room, become when things got started.  We had participants from as far away as Israel!  It’s at this point that I should probably offer up an apology to the participants from VWBPE.  Your experience in this tour may have been good, but I know it was nothing compared to what I saw taking place.  The real magic was taking place in the lab at the school and I really wish you could have seen it.

You see, ownership is an incredibly powerful tool in student learning.  Teachers, your kids will amaze you if you tap into it, I promise.  I’d also argue that never before have so many opportunities existed for classroom teachers to really share with the world what their students are creating.  ”Creative capital” is something that every child has and it behooves us as educators to tap into it, because in our ever-changing global economy, that’s where they’ll one day shine.

Students have split into groups are sharing with VWBPE attendees.

Students have split into groups are sharing with VWBPE attendees.

There are so many tools out there for classroom teachers to use, too.  Have the Skype chat to show off their work.  Have them create a wiki and share their creations.  Publish a book of their writing!  Trust me, show your students that the world is watching, and step back and watch them perform.  They’ll PWN the learning!

-Lucas

Diving Into Deadmines

rhahkzorMonday marked our first day back on the project following our Christmas break.  Though I was out sick with a cold, I was able to log in from home and work with some of the students in the project.  Four of our highest leveled players wanted to do their first dungeon run into Deadmines, and they wanted me to take them.  So, I logged into my hunter, Weyr, and met them at the meeting stone in Moonbrook.

As we jumped into the instance, things began to get interesting.  We ranged in levels from 12 – 15, so we were a bit low, but the kids were determined.  What really amazed me is that before we began fighting, the students were discussing strategy!  ”Who is going to tank for us?”  ”I can do heals.”  ”You should get full mana before we start.”  Before we’d encountered our first foes, the students were thinking critically about what would happen and how we might succeed.  Another observation is that the students are readily adopting the game’s jargon and using it properly (tank, mana, aggro, heals, etc.).

Our first pulls were chaotic affairs.  Due to our lower level the Defias Miners and Overseers were coming out of the woodwork for a chance to beat on us.  Whether they realized it or not, students became acquainted with the concept of “aggro radius,” or the imaginary radius around a character at which aggressive creatures will come after you to attack.  After a few wipes, we made it to the first boss, Rhahk’Zor, a particularly hard-hitting and tough Ogre.  At this point, the students had decided that my pet dragon hawk was the best tank, so they discussed how we might beat the boss.

“I can heal as a Paladin and you can heal as a druid, so maybe if we both heal, we can do it.”  As a former science teacher, that sounds a great deal like a hypothesis to me!  So, we tried it, and Rhahk’Zor made short work of us.  The students were determined, and though our time was running short, they wanted to take another stab at it, again, with similar results.  ”I don’t think I have enough mana to heal this fight,” one said.  ”Maybe we need be higher level.”

Again, the collateral learning is huge here.  One, the students are using trial-and-error approaches to overcome a difficult situation.  The amazing part about it, is that they are doing this in a completely virtual environment in which they are not clear about the underlying rules and their mentor is working with them from his home 20 miles away.  The learning is completely non-threatening and the reward is clearly defined:  the satisfaction of beating the boss.  Another thing they’re learning here is teamwork.  They must rely on each others’ strengths and trust in their teammates.

I can’t wait to go back.

-Lucas

First Contact

wowinschool_1st_meeting

Earlier this week students from Cape Fear Middle School and Suffern Middle School had their first in-game contact with each other.  In some ways it was similar to the kinds of interactions you might expect if you put a random assortment of middle schoolers together at school dance.  There was a  little mingling, a few timid “‘Sup’s?” and a few silly emotes.  Then, they ran off to complete a few more quests before the day was over.  Could this be the beginning of a guild?  Yeah.  I think so.

-Lucas

Lore Keepers – Always Watching

weyrYesterday, several students met Lore Keepers.  Who are the Lore Keepers?  They are characters that the teachers in this project have created that will give assignments to the students.  Yesterday was my first attempt at using them to interact with the students.  First off, you should understand the setup.  The lab where we’re playing has a sort of side-by-side U-shaped arrangement of computers.  I was not playing in the same “U” that the students were, though I was sitting right across from some of them.  I logged in Weyr, leader of the Lore Keepers and began contacting students via private messages (/w).

Observation #1 – Students are either not reading or are ignoring WoW’s chat system.  (Considering trade chat, this could be a blessing!)  It took me sending five or more messages to about four different students playing Night Elves before I got any response.  Craig who was actively helping students, finally had to point it out to our first group to get them to respond.  Keep in mind, the students had no idea it was me.

Observation #2 – Most students have little to no concept of online chat etiquette much less roleplay.  No surprise, really, because that’s one of the goals of the project is focusing on digital citizenship.  Our kids desperately need this.  For those of you who are ever on X-Box Live, you know the kids I’m referring to!  Again, for all the students knew, I was some other player (and some thought I was the game itself).  Several of them communicated in very broken street-slang, text message style in their responses.  I even had one student use foul language.  Eventually, they decided to take my “quest,” though were quite reluctant.

Observation #3 – So far, they are not good at working collaboratively in game.   My initial quest was to simply have them form a group and bring me bean soup.  The soup was sold by a vendor in a building about 100 yards North of my position.  I promised a handsome reward and each of them had to give me at least one bowl.  This took the first group nearly 45 minutes to complete, and then, only two of them followed instructions and received a reward.  One girl, who was actually polite and encouraged her male counterparts to be polite received two rewards.

Observation #4 – Giving a new player a Netherweave Bag as a reward is like your grandmother giving you socks for Christmas.  They simply didn’t understand the value this early into their experience.  Noted.

At the end of the day’s session we closed with a chat and I reiterated our behavioral expectations.  As word spreads, there are students lining up to get into this program and I only have 15 slots and the students are aware of this.  Today, we’re taking an approach that will be a big turn-off to many of them:  silent play.  No, I’m not one of those teachers.  The idea here is to allow them to communicate all they like as long as they are using in-game chat.  We’re also using a seating chart today.

Their first real challenge is coming soon:  Deadmines.  Deadmines will be their first, grouped, dungeon experience, and to be successful, they’ll need to begin to work cohesively and in balanced groups.

For now, the Lore Keepers will continue to interact with the students.  Some will get rewarded, others will not.  I don’t think any of them are reading my blog, so my “secret identity” is safe for now.  Let’s see what happens.

-Lucas

Explorers From Different Worlds

Yesterday, Principal Edie Skipper took her first steps into a virtual reality.  Around her, 13 – 15 year-olds were eagerly exploring new areas, taking new quests, and discovering the wonderful world of slash commands (like /dance).  Edie’s initial foray into Azeroth, however, was much more calculating and intentional.  Observing the differences in the way our students and their principal approached their first taste of WoW was incredible.  When it came to race selection, our students seemed more influenced by what their peers thought was popular rather than considering the story elements that contribute to each race.  No surprise there, really.  As for choosing a name, well, let’s just say the Sisters of Elune player community (a roleplay community), will be glad that we were “guiding the process.”   Edie’s actions were considerably more intentional than the students.  She spent a considerble amount of time perfecting the look of her Dranei mage and choosing a name she felt suited her new blue-skinned self.

The differences in approach, here, are fascinating to watch.  I’m no student of psychology, but there’s no wonder the field is focusing considerable energy studying the way we interact with and project ourselves into virtual environments.  If you haven’t explored it yet, Nick Yee’s Daedalus Project details some of his work doing just that.

The unfolding of this process and how a student approaches it compared to how their principal approaches it will be exciting to see.  Eventually, I believe the game will begin to put greater and greater pressure on the students to tighten up their game, their cooperation, and focus.  On the other hand, watching an adult educator’s approach, and how they support their own learning will make for an interesting comparison.

-Lucas

I Feel Like I’m Raiding With A Bunch Of Middle Schoolers

WoWinSchool Day 1 Reflections

dwarf_rudeI am reminded of the sort of cliche’ scene from a military movie where you see the new recruits arrive at boot camp and their drill sergeant, sputtering and screaming, has a short time to whip them into a cohesive fighting unit.  Yesterday was our first day of the WoWinSchool Project.  We had about ten students and expect a few additions in the coming days.  For the sake of time, because I have to be at work shortly, I’ll share a few reflections:

  • I was reminded today why I went into education.  The interaction with students was something I’ve missed since leaving the classroom to take the Instructional Technology Coordinator position for my district.  Working with this after-school program will fill that gap.
  • Throughout the development of this project, I’ve tried hard to keep my expectations in check.  Yesterday I was reminded why.  These are middle school kids.  They are not necessarily the most academically motivated ones nor the stereotypical teachers’ pets, either.  That has to frame everything that comes out of this experiment.
  • The number one challenge, yesterday, was encouraging students to be thoughtful about choosing their character’s class.  Normally, a player simply picks a class and starts playing, but thinking long-term, we’ll need balanced groups for grouping and raiding later as the students advance in level.  In the same way everyone can’t be the quarterback on a football team, everyone can’t be a mage or rogue.  We started by giving the students the game manuals (yeah, I know, no one reads game manuals), and asked them to spend about ten minutes reading about what each class can do.  Did they do it?  Nahh…  Perhaps a better approach would be to simply put all the needed choices in a hat and have them draw them out.  Then, you could let them trade as needed.
  • Having Arik, our high school senior, who’s volunteering with the program as part of his senior project, was a huge help.  The kids seemed to respond really well to him.
  • While we were explaining the project, the expectations, the idea of choosing your class and such, the kids were chatty, giggling, and largely not paying any attention.  Really, who can blame them?  They’ve been talked at by teachers all day.  However, once they got into the game, their attention transformed.  It was really remarkable.

So, going into day two, I remind myself of this:  learning is messy business.  The best laid plans become something altogether different when you’re in the trenches.  Remember, this is a grand adventure.  I can’t wait to see them form groups and run their first dungeon…

-Lucas