Tuesday, March 23, 2010

I am always myself in this life or the Second Life

Whether you're combating illegal immigrants at the Canadian border, fighting dwarves in WoW, or combating the scourge of Whypox, immersive virtual worlds have a way of sucking us in and making us feel like we're really in a distant place even though we're wedged behind a computer screen. MUVEs like Second Life or Whyville enable us to recreate phenomena from the real world that is otherwise unsafe or unsuitable to replicate in the real world. In doing so on a large scale and with a very diverse bank of possibilities we are able to emulate highly infectious and dangerous disease outbreaks or the high stakes of dealing with unscrupulous individuals at a border crossing without taking any risk to ourselves. "But it's just a game" you might say. Well sure, it CAN be just a game. But it can also be a fully immersive, self contained, teleportation device to another time or place.

The level to which students became enveloped within Second Life and Whyville to study their respective subjects was highly interesting in the ways that students interacted with each other and the system in such a realistic and thoughtful way. It seems a good part of this came from the sheer number of possibilities that could come out of any particular situation, much like it would occur in real life. While it is understandable that both groups would readily prefer playing in a MUVE rather than simply role play in their classes the reasons behind them are somewhat disparate. With the Canadian folks in Second Life it was a necessity for them to receive the most true-to-life training as possible. Of course after 9/11 this was only feasible through the use of Second Life. However, the children playing in Whyville would not have to necessarily use Whyville to express scientific inquiry through infectious diseases. They could much more readily continue to use the Think Tags that they had been using. However, I do not disagree with using MUVEs in either case.

What I found extremely interesting in the examples was the amazement at the group participation in discussing phenomena that happened in the MUVEs. For example in the Second Life example the inactive participants critiqued and created discourse about decisions that were made in the MUVE. This discussion led to much greater outcomes and more opportunities for learning than would have occurred in just classroom role playing alone. Similarly in the WoW example with the forums the volume of discussion that came out of gameplay and the level of participation that cut through the strata of game experience. It seems that in such environments there is far more inquiry because the environment is not wholly like the real environment that we live in every day. With investment in a MUVE growing with daily gameplay, so (seemingly) grows an interest in learning how to master the MUVE's environment.

While players are still themselves within online environments, it could seems that without the face-to-face interaction (such as the WoW example) there isn't a fear of being seen as a fool for asking "silly" questions or giving "silly" answers. Perhaps this is why there is such a wide range of participation. This and the fact that everyone in the world can share, at one time or another, a similar experience by following the instructions of others that have "been there and done that". However, in the other examples involving MUVEs and face-to-face interactions, the depth of the simulation coupled with the already established classroom interactions seems to have freed students to readily express their thoughts about the happenings within the MUVE. This seems to be particularly possible because of the lack of repercussions from failing within the MUVE.

It seems that the use of MUVEs within the classroom has great potential to not only make learning fun, but also to situate the learning as close to the real thing as possible. This is a great opportunity for classes where phenomena cannot easily or safely be replicated in the real life classroom. Similar to what the Canadian folks did with their border crossing in second life, perhaps one day when the only airplanes that fly are pilotless (like predator drones) we'll be high-fiving all those folks who spent countless hours playing Microsoft's Flight Simulator. Needless to say, with the right MUVE it seems that there can be endless educational possibilities for these types of simulations. And if you've seen the movies Surrogates, by the time we wind up like that, we've certainly taken MUVEs way too far.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The World (of Warcraft) Is Not Enough

Reading the articles for this week raised a "chicken or the egg" question for me. Are we dragging eduction kicking and screaming into the world of games and gaming or are we dragging the world of games and gaming into education? It seems like either direction would yield valid arguments as educators pose objections to bringing games into the classroom, fearing a disconnect between the game and content, amongst other things. While on the flip side, the gamers might find games in educational settings as forced rather than fun. This is how my drawing for this week came to be: showing a juggling act between the game, the use of it to bridge our world and "theirs", and the usefulness as an educational technology.

The use of QA readily allows for players to interact within and outside of the virtual environment with the game being a go-between medium. It also allows for and encourages interpersonal interaction within the game with both players and NPCs. The use of player homepages involves a shareability of user experiences and achievements which not only showcases users' "work" but can also serve as a poster of possible experiences that users can take part in while playing the game. Additionally, the fact that a user has to register both with QA and with an organization (such as Boys and Girls Club, or a school) makes the system secure enough for safe educational use.

This juggling of the 3 areas that make a game like QA a success is the fact that the game, the use as an educational tool, and the bridging between the real world and the virtual world work in a synergistic to promote the continuation of the process, much like nuclear fusion would be a self sustaining process of ongoing energy. To keep the process going it will be interesting to see how the QA world adapts and develops to changing phenomena within our world. As a side thought, and of particular interest (to me that is), was the incidence of female players within QA. The fact that roughly half of the players are female and that they have contributed to around half the activity within the QA environment speaks volumes to the viability of QA as a persistent learning object. However, one thing I am curious about is whether the interest in QA by female participants has increased their interest or willingness to participate in other gaming experiences or whether it has made them more critical consumers of games in general.

Oh, and if you hadn't noticed the title, it's a ripoff of a James Bond movie title (and subsequently a Garbage track).

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Domo arigato kindergarten roboto

There never seems to be any shortage of complaints that younger and younger kids are gaining access to more and more technology. However, the articles for this week push that giving access to relatively complex technology to very young children (starting around age 4) and used in directed and scaffolded ways can be highly productive in early education learning. In all 3 instances, young children were able to successfully utilize the technology used to better understand abstract ideas from the life of bees to physical manipulation through visual programming. I like that Bers et al. point out that what they are doing is different that turning the computer into a TV set or use video games that do not invite creativity.

Instead, the children in all articles are sort of participating in an AR/PS type of simulation. Since the children are concretely grounded in the physical world, they are using robotic manipulatives or digital representations of the real world to enact experiments that would not be feasible in the real world so that young children could participate in them. To me, this resembles very closely the notions of AR/PS activities that were discussed last week (and in my previous blog post). If you take a look at my drawing it includes my first 2 models and integrates them into my third. So from the original model the emphasis is on the educational technology itself. It depicts educational technology needing to be easily accessible/usable, secure, remixable, and shareable. Model number 2 depicts what happens in using AR/PS activities. It show the real world on one side and the alternate world on the other side; a wormhole of technology connects them (symbolizing that technology is at least partially used to bridge the real and alternate world). Above the technology wormhole is either Kang or Kodos beaming down students' prior technology use as an effect on the technology wormhole. The third model incorporates these 2 models as weights on a barbell that an individual is trying to balance as they walk across a drooping tightrope between cliffs. The idea here is that there is a balance that needs to be struck between the technology itself and the use of it as an AR/PS environment for learning. In some cases this balance is going to require scaffolding as a means of achieving the balance. This was particularly evident in the Bers et al. article as there were several instances where the goal of using the technology became a bit distant as the students using the technology were finding it hard to use due to a disconnect between the technology, their knowledge of the technology, and that the topic being taught in the lesson was generally difficult for young students. Similarly in the Montemayor article the use of StoryRoom involved some scaffolding with the students before they were able to successfully operate the digital manupulatives. The takeaway for me was that technology needs to have reared its complex and confusing head sometime prior to the actual "launch date" that it will be used in the classroom as the crux of a lesson. Otherwise students are trying to learn a high level technology skill AND a highly abstract concept (or multiple ones) all at the same time which for anyone can lead to a little frustration and failure. Granted failure can be a positive thing in the use of AR/PS environments. But what I would like to see is the technology be introduced in advance of the lesson and see if the students come up with the connection between the technology and the learning of an abstract concept rather than having the technology and the abstract concept slammed together into a single tsunami of new information and expected learning.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Virtual simulated real-world situated participatory learning...with computers

Ok, I'd like to address a couple of things before I get started. First, I hope that you got a little chuckle from the title--that was my intention. Second, my model incorporates references from the TV shows Coach (because it's an old favorite) and The Simpsons (because it was on while I was reading the articles for this week). That being said, let's get into this week's model on participatory simulations (PS) and augmented reality (AR). At first thought, this unit sounded like Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (AD&D). Interestingly enough I wasn't too far off in that assumption.

The idea behind PS and AR is the idea that learning is situated and takes place within the real world yet involves a type of role playing with data or other malleable factors to create a simulated experience allowing students to experience real world situations that would be unrealistic for them to participate in in reality and lack any negative consequences that would otherwise be a concern in such an actual situation. Now, rather than just pretend that students are modeling let say, virus infection patterns, they are able to use hand held technology like a Palm, netbook, or even an iPod Touch to realistically emulate such an experiment. In my humble opinion (and somewhat mirroring what Klopfer et al. concluded) students are more willing to interact with and enjoy technology that is more interactive and visual rather than technology like "analog" digital nametags. When playing a game (or participating in a simulation) the more feedback that can be offered to the user the more ensconced and immersed the user becomes in the experience (again loosely illustrated from Klopfer et al.). I believe that this also ties into the situated nature of the activity. The more immersed the player is in the experience the greater the buyin to the experience as situated learning rather than an activity to illustrate a real life situation.

So let's break down my model. The picture shows 2 worlds, one on the left and one on the right. The left illustrates the real world where students reside while the one on the right illustrates a parallel universe where data or other hypothetical factors can be drawn from. Connecting the 2 planes of existence is a wormhole based on technology used in the PS or AR. Through the use of this technology (and dependent on the quality of the technology) the 2 planes of existence are bridged into a single experience through which students are situated into a merged plane of existence where learning can be done that would otherwise be unrealistic for them to practice in the real world alone in a classroom or lab. The alien in the spaceship above (a likeness of Kodos or Kang) is disseminating a beam of students' prior experience and use of technology that augments the technology wormhole making it more or less effective dependent on several factors. These factors include but are not limited to students' lack of technology use, students' love of technology, students' own agenda of technology.

In a best case scenario, students are able to take a wide variety of technologies and utilize computer fluency/flexibility to achieve an optimal AR/PS environment bridging the real and parallel universes and yielding a strong situated learning environment. While the worst case scenario involves students either rejecting or becoming frustrated with the technology or using it subversively due to their personal agenda of how they want to use the technology, both resulting in a struggling learning environment.

As a side note and a shout out, a lot of what was in the articles and my personal feelings on the ideas leads me back to Jeff's Tweeting Characters work as a PS/AR. So ask him about it if you're interested.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Model of risks and technologies

In the article The Risky Promises and Promising Risks of New Information Technologies for Education chronicles 3 viewpoints of technology and its implementation within the educational setting. It goes through the viewpoints like stages of grief: first the option is use technology as an all or nothing, end all be all way; the second is that technology is but a tool to be wielded and the user is responsible for it's use; the third is a zen-like balance between the two. My apologies, but isn't this obvious--much like it would be with anything else?

I would love to say that I don't have to restrain myself from the "computer as panacea" viewpoint, but I just love technology and bright, shiny new stuff way to much to not dabble in that school of thought albeit momentarily. This mentality takes technology in a way of inherent necessity much the way that someone who engulfs any food that does not have transfats without any regard to other factors simply because the FDA says foods without transfats are better for you (this is a loose reference to a King of the Hill episode).

I loved this portion of the article:
"Rather than acknowledge the inherent difficulty and imperfectability of the teaching-learning endeavor, rather than accept a sloppy pluralism that admits that different approaches work in different situation--and that no approach works perfectly all the time--educational theorists and policy makers seize upon one fashion after another and then try to find new arguments, or new mandates, that will promote widespread acceptance and conformity under the latest revolution."
To me this quote embodies our lifestyles in such a way that we are always looking for a silver bullet that will make our lives easier, do all the work for us, and not have any drawbacks (kind of like what they first claimed for the diet drug Alli). As consumers of technology we are always looking for that perfect program or device that does everything for us. With such a high demand placed on inherently (and always) flawed technology there is hardly a moment where we are not let down and discouraged by technology rather than accepting of the realistic limitations of something that enables us to do far more than we could without it.

The next viewpoint is the "computer as tool" where technology is an implement and what the computer does with it makes it a valuable component or a dreadful hindrance. Being that I am about to be a father I latched onto the quote "if you give a kid a hammer, they will see everything as needing hammering" (ah, to be 5 again). While this viewpoint is not wholly untrue in that if you give someone a computer, everything must be Googled (this is a generalization). This of course has some lacking that tools all can be used differently by each user for productive or unproductive means and it is in the proper use of tools that this view would be more correct (in my mind).

The last viewpoint is a "level headed" one which kind of mixes the first 2 together. Of course this would make a great deal of sense that going to far one way or another can lead to nothing but chaos. There is an understanding that there are unintended consequences, good, and bad that are involved in all new technologies and that these will grow as technology continues to grow and the possibilities become more and more infinite.

Within the spectrum of my model showing technology needing to be (in order of importance) accessibility, security, remixability, and shareability this article hits on the first two and very little to none of the last two. The last few pages discussing censorship of the internet and the technologies available and their shortcomings exemplifies accessibility and security extremely well. It shows that accessibility can be hampered in the name of security and as a result this can also hamper remixability and shareability in the sense that (and I hated this line in the article) what cannot be seen cannot be seen. Of course if resources are not viewable to me, I cannot see them, but this does not inherently mean that they do not exist. It simply means that technology is flawed and I have to wait to go home to look for what I want to look for. Uh-oh...now I'm free thinking. This is why I agree with the idea that rather than shielding students from every teensy tiny shred of anything that can be mistaken as indecent, why not just simply tell them the rules of the road? Similarly you wouldn't just assume that the police are going to keep your teenager from driving recklessly, instead you teach them how to PROPERLY use the item (which in the sense is a car). The same goes for the now limitless possibilities contained within technology and the entire world at our fingertips through the internet.