The Wall

“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” or so the saying goes, and apparently, there’s truth in it.  According to an October 2011 story in The Atlantic, the lack of unstructured play is making our children more anxious and depressed.  When I present on the topic of games and their value for learning, I usually hit this fundamental issue.  Play is valuable.  Powerful learning happens when we’re in that flow state.  I point educators to a great TED Talk by Dr. Stuart Brown on importance of play.  In his talk, he quotes Dr. Brian Sutton-Smith, “The opposite of work isn’t play – it’s depression.”

This wall between play and work is entrenched in our fast-paced, corporate-driven culture.  Play is something we do on the weekends and perhaps in the evenings after we’re home from the office.  What’s frightening me, lately, is that I’m seeing this same mental wall in people’s minds between play and learning.  Our busy, test-driven classrooms allow little room for “sandbox” time, a time for simply exploring a concept of the student’s choice.  Our curricula are formulaic and, of course, time-finite.  We must ensure that all students achieve mastery before the summer.

It isn’t a surprise that the idea of bring play (and video games) into the classroom takes many educators aback.  After all, we’ve been thoroughly conditioned by the rat race.  What really concerns me is that this same division exists in the minds of even our youngest learners.  How do I know?  I’ve been moderating YouTube comments!  Several months ago, I posted a video of our 5th graders sharing their Minecraft creations.  At some point, the video became somewhat viral (as of this posting, over 600,000 views).  The huge majority of comments (over 4,000 so far) are coming from K-12 students.  I’ve been really surprised by the pushback I’m receiving from these kids.  Comments like, “You can’t learn from a game,  you learn at school,” and  “how can you learn while playing a game?” aren’t uncommon.

I often evoke Scott McLeod’s blog title when thinking about things like this.  Public education is barreling full steam down a path toward dangerous irrelevance.  Is what happens in the classroom truly meaningful to our kids?

C’mon innovators!  I know you’re out there.  Let’s reverse this trend, and bring play and exploration back into the learning process.  It doesn’t have to be through video games (though, that’s a good way to start).

-Lucas

NCSLMA 2011 – Gaming Librarians!

I had a fantastic two days at NCSLMA 2011, where I was honored to present on using video games in education.  Sarah Justice did an amazing job of organizing a great learning and networking opportunity.  Of course, anyone who has a Doctor Who Quote in their signature gets big props from me:

 

 

Gwyneth Jones delivered an call to arms for librarians across the state!  Let her passion for learning and “little monsters” (a la Lady GaGa) be an inspiration for us!  You can find her resources here and be sure to check out her blog, The Daring Librarian.

 

During awards, the media center of one NC school was described as “the hub.”  I love this!  That’s exactly what our media centers should be!  A hub of:  learning… inspiration… creativity…  engagement.   What will it take to make your media center that kind of hub?

 

There were so many great educators there, and I didn’t have enough time to meet them all.  The ones who I spoke with and who braved my sessions seemed genuinely passionate about learning and eager to try new things.  Today, some even endured part of my presentation on the street!  (Yeah, there was a fire alarm!)  There were great sessions scheduled during each time slot!  However, that’s the beauty of sharing and the web.  If you missed my sessions and are interested in learning more, all of my resources are here.  Steal… liberally.

5th Graders in Minecraft

I’ve said it before, but here I go again, “Minecraft is probably one of the most valuable games (for the price) available to the education community.” It fosters critical thinking and can be used in so many creative ways. Here’s a quick video I put together with my iPad at the end of last school year. It features some of our 5th grade students talking about their construction and learning in Minecraft. Apologies for the poor audio. I wasn’t aware I was covering the microphone at times. Lesson learned!


 

If you’re interested in learning more, be sure to check out Joel Levin (The Minecraft Teacher) – http://minecraftteacher.net/ and the awesome folks at Massively Minecraft – http://www.massivelyminecraft.org/. There’s also a collaborative wiki set up to foster the sharing of ideas on the use of Minecraft. You’ll find it here – http://minecraftinschool.pbworks.com.

-Lucas

Teachers Playing World of Warcraft

There is a certain thrill for me watching adult learners exploring a totally alien environment.  Maybe it’s the mad scientist in me?  I’m having those very sorts of opportunities in August as Peggy Sheehy and I lead teachers from around the world through quest-based learning experiences in 3DGameLab.  Our group’s quests revolve around the concept of using World of Warcraft (or similar MMO’s) in the classroom.  Our first week has simply been a chance to orient folks to World of Warcraft.  Simply put, we just want them to play the game, immersing themselves in the fantasy world of Azeroth.

As we move into week two, we’re asking our participants to look at the game through the lens of education and instructional design.  World of Warcraft is an incredibly complex game.  This first week has reminded me of just how much I take for granted:  the jargon, game culture, and of course the technical side of things.  We have a range of prior knowledge among our participants from those who have multiple level 85 characters, the highest level in the game, to those who have never experienced any virtual world, much less a game-based virtual world.

One of the first quests for our explorer-teachers this week is to examine how the game’s designers essentially are instructional designers.  The game has to teach you how to play the game.  This requires a great deal of thought, planning, and testing on the part of the designers.   Blizzard Entertainment, the makers of World of Warcraft, have become masters of this, as their subscriber numbers (around 12 million) indicate.

We asked our teachers both newcomers and veterans alike to reflect on their first experiences in the game and to consider what lessons we might apply to our classroom instruction.  The first responses coming in are very telling:

After a couple of unhappy days, something happened that turned it around for me. People started helping me – not only that, but on two different days, very advanced players went on quests with me. What a totally different experience it was! I loved playing. It was so much fun, and I was learning a tremendous amount by following their lead and asking questions. It’s lonely to struggle by yourself, and many times I thought that this must be how students feel when they get stuck and are not allowed to work with anyone else.

This response really highlights the value of the social component, something that good games typically foster but too often our classrooms discourage.  Another teacher shared this observation:

Each quest would expand the area you could investigate. Each quest would introduce you to more and more challenging obstacles to overcome. Some quests taught you how to fish, earn money with a trade, and use different talents. You were not tossed in the middle of the pool with all your skills in place, you had to learn them one or two at a time. New skills built upon previous knowledge.

This mastery-based approach is not common in our schools, primarily because time for learning is a set constant.  The mentality is, “if you don’t get it, sorry, we have to move on.”  Keeping your experiences within your “regime of competence” is a concept also reflected by this educator:

WoW is good at starting you off small – just a few spells, easily defeated baddies, and quests that let you go practice your skills without aggroing mobs. The game is also good at keeping you within your skill realm. You won’t find any level 30 foes in the level 1 areas so you’re usually pretty safe from biting off more than you can chew.

On the concept of feedback to the player (what we might call assessment), one of our educators shared this observation:

I could see that I was making progress, and that was motivating. Also the frequent advancing in levels at the beginning stages. I was so happy when my level went up! I’ve rarely seen this technique done in education, but it could certainly be borrowed.

I was so impressed by the thoughtfulness and reflection of these educators I had to go ahead and share it.  There are many more educators who’ll be sharing their reflections on exploring World of Warcraft this week.

Are you a gaming educator?  What parallels can you make between game design and good instructional design?

Want to do a WoW-Based Project in Your School? Here’s Everything You Need…

Over the past two years I’ve been approached by several people from around the world inquiring about our World of Warcraft in School Project.  Yet, despite the numerous contacts, I’m only aware of two other schools/school systems who’ve started similar projects.  Of course, there are many potential barriers from costs to people-barriers.  Craig Lawson (@midlawsondle) and I have worked over the past year to create a full-year, standards-aligned language arts course that is based on World of Warcraft.  We have several goals in doing so:

1.  We want to demonstrate that there is value in considering commercial, off-the-shelf games for curricular integration.

2.  We want to share our work with anyone else who might take it on, and in doing so, expand the network of educators who are exploring the potential that games like this hold for the classroom.

3.  We want to create a model (using the term loosely, here) upon which similar projects, perhaps using other games might be built.

4.  We hope that others will look at the work and expand on it, improve it, and share it.

5.  We want to show that, “Yes! You can do this.”

Last Friday, we decided to kick it out of the nest.  It’s a work in progress and we sincerely welcome your feedback.  If you want to start something similar in your school, it contains most of what you need to get started.  For what’s missing, well, that’s where the power of networking comes into play.  Contact me, especially via Twitter (@PCSTech), and I’ll do my best to fill in the gaps.

If you’d like to download the .PDF of the curriculum, you can find it on the project wiki or preview it below:

WoWinSchool: A Hero’s Journey

-Lucas

Good Learning Is Always Messy – Minecraft Project – Day One Reflections

pickaxeSo, just a quick post reflecting on Day One of our Minecraft project.

First off, from a technical standpoint, the program and the server worked perfectly.  We didn’t have any issues and the server practically yawned with boredom as we connected our 20 elementary and three teacher accounts.

Initially, I prepped the students with a brief introduction telling them they were literally pioneers and some of the first students in the world to ever do what we were doing.  It’s awesome to observe their facial expressions as they consider that.  Our students’ first experiences with Minecraft consisted of them logging into the world and learning the fundamental mechanics of the game (movement, breaking and placing blocks).  They were also introduced the chat system and we quickly discussed some basic limits on how much information we should share about ourselves.

A few more observations:

  • The students were abuzz with excitement when they came into the lab.  One particularly inquisitive student had spent quite a bit of time researching Minecraft on Youtube prior to Friday (See where they go to learn?).
  • Our 45 minutes flew by entirely too quickly and the kids realized it, too.
  • I think our administrators, who were there to observe, would agree that the speed at which the kids adapted to the controls was amazing.
  • Engagement was through the roof.
  • Students were very willing and eager to share what they were learning with their classmates.
  • In most cases, I refused to give them direct instruction about how to deal with the first problems they encountered, the most common of which was, “I’ve dug myself into a hole… How do I get out?”
  • I only used admin commands once to get a student who’d fallen into a deep and lightless cavern out because the glare of florescent lights on the screen made it nearly impossible to orient himself.
  • Adding the “shipwrecked explorers” element to the story helped provide a context for their overall challenge of cooperatively building a town.
  • One of the first thing that many of the students did was try to hit other players in the game.  My advice to them was “Go ahead and get it out of your system and see that it’s a waste of time so we can get on with our real challenge.”  This is normal gaming behavior.  You test the boundaries, limits, and rules of the game world.  That’s probably really important in sandbox games, where those limits are not well-defined.  I did, however, inform them that we won’t be harassing or destroying another student’s work and if they insisted on engaging in behavior like that, we could easily find a replacement.  …I don’t anticipate any issues there. 🙂
  • Especially due to our short time frame, a little more up-front guidance is going to be required if we are to achieve our end goals.  This has caused my anticipated direction for the second class to shift slightly, so, I’ll be headed to the store this weekend to pick up some graph paper and small composition notebooks.
  • Communication between schools will be a  challenge if we limit it to in-world chat.  We may integrate Skype in the coming weeks.
  • Feedback at the close from students was positive all around the room and they were reluctant to leave.

I felt really good about our initial outcomes.  When you try something new like this, it’s difficult to guess what it will look like.  You have to be flexible.  Having other educators on board can help you capture some of the “amazing” that’s going on around you that you might overlook.  My best advice, assume it will be messy.  Good learning always is.

-Lucas

10 Great iPod/iPad Learning Games For Christmas!

So, a colleague of mine asked for suggestions for great apps for her nephews’ upcoming Christmas gift – a new iPod Touch!  (Someone has been very good this year, huh?)  After some consideration of my own personal favorites,  here’s a list of  iPod Touch games that will not only get them playing, but may also get their brains engaged, too!  Note that the links I provide are for the iPod Touch version of the game, but many have an iPad counterpart.  Happy gaming and learning!

spore_originsSpore Origins – Based on the popular Spore series, developed by master game designer, Will Wright, Spore Origins is a creative, make your own creature and survive game.  Modifying and upgrading your creation is fun and surviving the harsh environment makes for challenging game play.

sims3SIMS 3 – Another entry from the mind of Will Wright, SIMS 3 allows you to create a virtual person and watch as they respond to the events of everyday life.  Will they get a job?  Get married?  What are their hopes and dreams?  This is a great fishbowl-style game that allows the player to create situations and see the outcomes.  Note:  This game is not recommended for players under 12.

touch_physicsTouch Physics – Touch Physics is a puzzle game that let’s you “draw” your way to victory, while having to deal with the effects of physics (gravity and inertia for example).  Both fun and challenging, this game forces you to account for these natural forces when working toward a solution.

whizzballWhizzBall! – Remember the classic board game, MouseTrap?  WhizzBall! from the Discovery Channel, brings back that classic Rube Goldberg feeling with this unique puzzle game.  What’s really exciting for learning, is that users can create and share their own Whizzball! puzzles.

wordswithfriendsWords With Friends – What’s better than playing a word game?  Playing a word game with other people!  Words with friends adds the social element into this Scrabble-based game beautifully.  Play with someone you know or start a game with a random opponent.  Strengthen your vocabulary and spelling skills in the process!

osmosOsmos – One of the most aesthetically pleasing games, I’ve ever experienced, Osmos puts you in the role of a single-celled organism (?), called a mote.  Typically, your job is to simply become the largest mote on the screen, but clever use of Newtonian physics by the games’ designers make that particularly challenging.  The ambient music in this game is incredible, by the way.

civrevCivilization Revolution – The Civilization series has long been a staple of computer-based strategy games.  Recently, Sid Meier’s masterpiece has been ported to the console and the iPod/iPad ecosystems.  This game not only encourages strategic thinking, but you’re likely to pick up a historical fact or two in the process.

wordfuWordFu – Here’s another exciting word game that encourages quick spelling and an expanded vocabulary.  In WordFu, you square off against the computer or another player (over WiFi) and spell as many words as possible from a random assortment of letters.  Be sure not to sling your iPod when “chopping” a word!

tapreefTapReef – Start with a new coral reef and a few fish and build a thriving underwater aquatic community.  As you grow your reef, you can add new types of fish.  Though free, this game does encourage a micro-transaction format encouraging you to purchase the game’s “currency” to build your reef faster.

fantastic_contraptionFantastic Contraption – “If you build it… will it run?”  That’s how the developers of this imaginative physics-based game describe it.  Based on the popular Flash-based game, you can spend hours devising new designs to overcome the game’s challenges.  Will your design work?  Press the START button and see!

Do you have a game that’s both fun and encourages learning?  If so, leave a comment!

-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

I Don’t Teach Lessons – I Give Quests

Dwarven PriestStarting next week, the WoWinSchool Project will become a reality.  We have a great group of students lined up to participate in the project and they are in for an exciting adventure.  From the beginning, I’ve suggested that World of Warcraft, and many other popular video games today, are at least at some level,  potential models for instructional design and delivery.  Today’s games are incredibly complex intellectual pursuits that our students consume with a ravenous appetite.  They are very focused on achievement and support the players’ progress with in-game help and game play that builds in complexity cumulatively.  And, this learning is highly individualized and customized in most cases.

Why can’t our lessons be like this?  I believe they can be.  How often do students struggle for a semester to learn a complex, vocabulary-intense subject like Biology only to fail at the end?  And when they fail, do they pick back up where they left off and attempt to re-master those concepts?  No.  They have to start back over at the beginning the next semester.  I wonder if World of Warcraft would have 11.5 million subscribers if it adopted a similar model?  If I worked hard to achieve level 79 and then failed a quest sending me back to level one would I keep playing?  I doubt it.  The game designers know that would be a disaster, and no one would pay for the game.

With the WoWinSchool after school project I’ve decided I won’t be giving students lessons on math, literacy, leadership, etc.  I’ll be giving students quests for those things instead!  Which would be more effective, to give the students an assignment in the classroom or give them quest, in-game, that revolves around the rich story world that Blizzard has created?  The outcomes, pedagogically, will be the same:  they’ll be writing, they’ll be doing math, and they’ll learn the 21st-Century skills.  The method of delivery, however, will be immersive.

Here’s how it may work:

  • The teachers working with the project will create characters and put them in a guild.  This guild will be known as something like “Keepers of Lore” or “Lore Masters.”  There has been much discussion in gaming circles lately that the next great virtual world/MMO will have to include player generated content.  This would be something akin to that.  We would have students interact with these characters as though they were NPC’s (Non-player characters), but they would, of course, be much more interactive.  We would give quests (assignments) that may involve out-of-game things such as creating machinima, writing a story in a forum, etc.
  • Their work could be rewarded with in-game rewards such as bags, companion pets, mounts, etc.
  • All of this would be handled in roleplay sort of environment perhaps even integrating existing themes current in the World of Warcraft storyline.  Students would also be encouraged to reply/respond in-character.
  • The Lore Master character would support the student learning throughout the process through in-game communication or even through responses in forums to student work.

So, what do you think?  Do you have ideas about how we might blur the lines between assignments and quests, between in-game and real-life learning?  If so, share your thoughts and comments!

-Lucas