The Limits of Natural Intelligence: How Smart Might Aliens Be?

by Hap Aziz

If you consume a lot of Science Fiction (like I do), you will see a lot of depictions of alien life, whether it has come to Earth or we have encountered it in space or on other planets. There was the unstoppable Blob, consuming everything in it’s path. The very human-like Klaatu who came here with his interplanetary police robot, Gort. The terrifying Alien, with acid for blood and who planted its offspring inside of people. The cute and mysteriously powerful E.T., able to heal with a touch and carry bicycles through the sky. Master of logic and mental discipline, Mr. Spock from the planet Vulcan. Frail and spindly Martians (not to be confused with Uncle Martin), come to wage a War of the Worlds. Predators here to hunt humans for sport. A fallen to Earth David Bowie. Alf.

I’ve only named a few, but you get the point. There are thousands upon thousands of fictional aliens that we have encountered and gotten to know, quite well in some cases. Some have strange and unusual physical or mental abilities. Others are super-smart. And many are very much just like us, only with more advanced technology to make them appear much smarter than we are. But what about real aliens, if there are such things? How much different from us could they be? And more specifically, since this is a learning blog after all, how much smarter could they be? Obviously there’s no way to test or make measurements at this time. Perhaps some day in the future we’ll come across some real aliens and can ask them, but until then we’ll have to make some assumptions and try puzzling things out on our own.

The first assumption I’ll make has to do with the origins of life and subsequently intelligent life. Let’s break the possibilities into two potential origin stories: creation and evolution. If we go down the creation path, organic intelligence likely cannot be benchmarked. In other words, God (or whatever we want to designate as the creator) could give life any starting level of intelligence. In that case, it becomes impossible to come to any meaningful conclusions regarding the level of alien intelligence humans may encounter in the universe. So let’s put that possibility aside for this discussion. Now, if we establish a premise that says God created life, but God created the rules that life (and the universe) will abide by, then we are able to settle on the evolutionary premise both from the believer’s and atheist’s perspective, and then build from there.

So what is (or should be) the evolutionary premise regarding the development of intelligent life? If we think of evolutionary development, or more accurately natural selection, as incremental or “micro-adjustments” to external circumstances and stimulation, then it is reasonable to expect that these adjustments will rise to the level of response to these circumstances and stimulations but not much further. That’s a complex thought, but let’s think of it in terms of physical evolution specifically, which should provide a little more clarity:

A giraffe’s neck will evolve to the height of the leaves it wants to eat, but not higher.

If we’re talking about intelligence, what this means is that life will self-select to be just as smart as it needs to be in order to be successful in its environment. Now, if we think of natural laws as being the same throughout the universe (and for the most past we have no reason to believe otherwise), environments on planets that would support earth-like life are not likely to be wildly different than our own. Consider this as the first stage of intelligence setting for animal life. (Life that evolves in more challenging environments may be more capable than humans would be in those environments, but I won’t address that here.)

The second stage is not about the physical environment but rather survival competition from other animals. This is where things get interesting, as the most physically successful animal will not be the most successful regarding intelligence. It makes sense that an animal that can run down its prey, kill it with superior strength, and then tear it apart and eat it will not have to go to extreme lengths to outsmart it. And the animal that is on the top of the physical pyramid has the need for only as much intelligence as it takes to find and hunt its prey. It’s going to be those animals below the physical apex that will develop other mechanisms to either take down their prey hunting in packs. or defend themselves using tools or weapons from stronger and faster competition. (It is worth noting that the discovery of tools is also thought to have led to an increase in the size of the human brain. For a much more in-depth dive on this subject, look up Acheulian technology.)

Match up a lion and an unarmed human on the open plain, and we know who wins that fight. But try the same match-up when the human has tools or perhaps there are several humans working together, and the outcome is not assured in the lion’s favor. If there is competition between species of similar intelligence and physical prowess, there will be some differentiator that will ultimately give one species an advantage over the other. But again, it will be an incremental advantage (and possibly some luck) that leads one species to prevail. The intelligence competitors will be eliminated, while the physical competitors will be subjugated or kept at bay. At that point, the need for incremental improvements to intelligence are no longer being driven by environment and other species. The top dog is set, and barring a giant asteroid strike that triggers a reset, there will be little brain change moving forward. The refinements that come over the next tens of thousands of years are in the refinement of available tools, including the tool of language, after it is invented.

Going back to the original premise, given an earth-like environment the intelligent species that ultimately rises to the top should be in the neighborhood of human intelligence. It would not likely be too much more, as nature would not likely have created an apex predator of overwhelmingly great power beyond what is needed to overcome environmental conditions. And environmental conditions are set by the laws of nature.

Now, none of the above is to say that there are not environmentally harsh planets floating around with the potential for life unlike our own. There’s the planet K2-141b which has oceans of lava, rains rocks, and experiences supersonic winds bursting to over 3,000 miles per hour. Can it support intelligent life? Likely not, the way we understand it, but who is to say there aren’t lava people there? In any case, that’s beyond the conjectures I’m making here.

So barring life that evolved in conditions vastly different than those we consider favorable, is that it, then? Is there a cap to natural intelligence? Perhaps, but we need not stop the thought experiment. What about intelligence augmented by the inventions of intelligence? In other words, what about all the science-fiction constructs with which we’re familiar such as brain-computer connections? Enhancing the mind and thought processes with cybernetic implants that are tied into some 8G network of the future? Interestingly, that kind of augmentation may be necessitated by the environmental conditions that we humans are creating for ourselves and will need to overcome as a matter of survival.

Consider Artificial Intelligence. Without going into detail here, AI is being recognized as a potential threat to human life. Karen Hao writes about it in the MIT Technology Review here. Steven Hawking believed that AI’s impact could be cataclysmic unless it was strictly controlled, “Unless we learn how to prepare for, and avoid, the potential risks, AI could be the worst event in the history of our civilization.” Elon Musk is convinced that AI is far more dangerous than nukes, and he’s told audiences, “it scares the hell out of me.”

Then there’s the “singleton hypothesis,” that predicts AI combined with a totalitarian government, able to control everything. And if you’re interested in a fictional take on what that could be like, check out the movie Colossus: The Forbin Project (released in 1970!). We won’t go any further down that path here.

It would seem, then, that humanity has created the need to go beyond “simple” evolutionary methods of enhancing intelligence to artificial methods of our own invention (bringing us to stage three). Again, Elon Musk has thoughts on the subject, and he proposes the idea that humans will need to merge with AI to develop a symbiotic super intelligence, preventing us from lagging behind our AI creations. At that point, a potential singularity-like inflection point for human intelligence, it becomes impossible for us to know how far intelligence might go.

But that does bring us back full circle to the original question of how smart aliens might be. My guess is we’ll see cybernetically enhanced biological intelligences that have solved the challenges of interstellar space flight. Imagine the Borg from Star Trek. Whether or not they’re friendly to purely biological intelligence (if we haven’t yet enhanced ourselves) is the big question. And if they’re not cybernetically enhanced, then they’ll probably be a lot like us.

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Filed under aliens, artificial intelligence, Blob, Borg, brain, Civilization, consciousness, direct-to-brain, Elon Musk, evolution, future technology, God, Karen Hao, MIT, planets, Predator, robots, Science Fiction, singleton hypothesis, smart technologies, Star Trek, Steven Hawking, technology, Xbox

Imaginary Mice

by Hap Aziz

If you really want to innovate, don’t waste your time building a better mousetrap. Learn how to speak to the mouse.

In my previous blog post, I took a surface look at the condition of teaching and learning in the modern world, and how it hasn’t changed all that much through the years, despite all the research and the money poured into projects and products that were supposed transform the process and improve outcomes. I made the point that there should be a better way to leverage technology to improve the student experience by facilitating greater variability, and I listed three practices on which to focus: Competency Assessment, Curriculum Customization, and Calendar Adjustment. In this post, I will take some segments of a student’s typical academic journey (focusing on what happens in the United States) and provide examples of what greater variability would look like, asking some fundamental questions to drive my thinking forward.

If we think of a student’s academic journey, we need to consider how and when it begins. There are a few variables already here, but for the most part, there is a consistent time frame and age range. Typically, children will begin their student lives at about 5 years of age, entering kindergarten. Which brings me to my first question:

Why do we start nearly all children at about the 5 year-old age group? Interestingly, other countries do not all start kindergarten at this age. In Denmark, for example, they wait until the year in which the child is to turn six before enrollment. The study, “The Gift of Time? School Starting Age and Mental Health,” by Thomas Dee (a Stanford Graduate School of Education professor) and Hans Henrik Sievertsen (of the Danish National Centre for Social Research) demonstrated that inattention and hyperactivity was reduced by 73 percent by delaying kindergarten for one year–at the point when the child was 11 years old. While learning outcomes did not appear to be significantly different, there were some important findings related to mental health. And this raised some other questions. Did the later school start date allow for greater mental development through unstructured play (those of you familiar with my blog know my enthusiasm for play as a learning catalyst)? Play does, after all, aid in the emotional and intellectual maturation process for children.

Back to the question about at what age children should enter kindergarten, we may want to consider waiting longer… but not necessarily for all children. Children should begin school when they are emotionally and intellectually ready to begin, and that presents an opportunity for a technology-assisted assessment solution to help in making the determination of readiness.

Once we have made some decisions regarding age-appropriate school enrollment, we can turn our attention to the time of year that school starts. Under our current system, the start of the school year is the same for all students in all grade levels in a school district (and often across much broader geographic regions). Within the United States, the school year generally starts in the fall and ends in the spring. Which begs the question:

Why is the school year the same for everyone at every grade level? When you think about this question from the standpoint of children going to school for the first time, the developmental differences could be tremendous with just a few months’ differential in birth dates. But there is much more to this than the start date of the school year. Consider the length of the year along with the amount of subject matter covered during that time. Both of those elements are not subject to adjustment, which means that no matter the student’s situation or ability, every student has exactly and only the same amount of time to complete the materials. What happens if a student finishes (or masters) the material before the end of the year (or term/semester)? There are management techniques that can help here. Extra material can be assigned. The pace of the assignments can help prevent students from speeding through the material (which, as a practice, is not meeting the student’s needs). These are not ideal strategies, but they work to a degree. On the other hand, what if a student is unable to master all of the material in the allotted time? Here the solutions are far from ideal, and they are a form of lowered expectations and a willingness to accept (sometimes much) less than mastery of the material. In this case, we accept the lack of mastery and simply award lower grades all the way to “D,” while a grade of “F” will require repeating.

The logistics of managing individual calendars for students learning would become quite complex, but again this is an opportunity for an edtech tool to fill the need. Time on task for learning should not be dictated by a single, inflexible calendar for all students. Rather, there should be a “Goldilocks” solution where the amount of time a student spends on a subject is not too much or not too little, but just right.

There will be a cascade effect that pushes all subsequent grade levels “out of sync,” as it were. With students working on subjects for varying lengths of time, trying to line up grade levels and school years loses meaning. And that brings us to the next question:

Why do we have grade levels? (We could tie this question back to the previous two and ask why we have age-based grade levels.) This isn’t a completely new idea, as there are educators already testing the idea of school without grade levels. Perhaps the best example of this approach is the work being conducted at the Northern Cass School District in Fargo, North Dakota. The district began an experiment to provide students with “personalized learning” untethered from standard grade levels as implemented across the country. In an interview published November of last year, Jessica Stoen, Northern Cass’s Personalized Learning Coach had this to say:

We’re meeting kids where they’re at. In a traditional system, you typically would have all of your seven and eight-year-olds come to your room, because that’s the age they’re at. And you teach them those state standards. Although some of them may already know them or not need them. And others might not be ready for them. Now, it’s – well, if they can prove they’re proficiency, why are we going to make them sit in the class that they can already prove to us that they know that content or understand that?

There are benefits to grouping students of similar ages together, and Northern Cass does so for activities such as field trips and classes such as gym. This is a thoughtful approach, no doubt adding to the complexity of schedule management. (For a deeper read into the Northern Cass journey, read this article in The Hechinger Report.) The Northern Cass experiment was meant to run for three years through 2020. I don’t know if COVID-19 has caused any change or disruption to the work going on there, but I have contacted the district Superintendent in order to know the current status. I will provide an update when I learn more.

The idea of “personalized learning” as implemented at Northern Cass is definitely a big step in the direction of reinventing learning. It’s possible to go even further in this direction (resulting again in added complexity that will required additional edtech support and much greater curriculum development resources). Without getting too far into the weeds here, education research has revealed two related themes: 1) learning outcomes are at least in part dependent on student engagement with the content, and 2) engagement is enhanced when there is a narrative framework woven throughout the content. Much of the student experience currently is about the assimilation of data with minimal narrative “glue” to tell the underlying and engaging stories. This presentation by Hans Roling is a wonderful example of sharing data through storytelling.

This leads to the final question:

Why don’t we create educational materials specifically tailored to each individual student, wrapped inside stories that are relevant and resonate with the student’s life and place in the world? The answer to this question is simple: to do so would be too cost prohibitive, too resource intensive, and too time consuming. But the simple answer is not the right answer. That’s the answer for today, and not for tomorrow or perhaps the day after. And this is where Dr. Porcaro at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (referenced in my previous post) can step up and go big with edtech. Building curriculum with connections to the student’s own narrative could be accomplished through the use of interviews, assessments, and AI. Pre-developed curriculum templates based on different story scenarios can be populated with details of the student’s interests. The resulting curriculum path can map out a journey to a set of life circumstances that the student feels invested in and pursues based on a desire legitimately cultivated.

But that’s only possible if we skip mousetrap design and start speaking to the mouse.

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A Failure of Imagination

by Hap Aziz

I strongly believe that most of the world’s challenges go unanswered not because of a deficiency of skills or lack of resources, but because of a failure of imagination. Clearly, I like to channel my inner optimist, but am I convinced that with enough brainwork and sufficient time, people are at least able to conceive of solutions to the problems they face. That’s not the same as implementing a solution, especially if there are significant risk barriers–for example, it’s not a stretch to think that a COVID-19 vaccine could be released in the next several months, yet the majority of the population might refuse to take it. But the larger points still stands, that solutions are there to be discovered or invented.

The challenge of effectively teaching something while also continually improving the teaching process is one of those challenges that seems to be stuck in neutral, spinning its wheels faster and faster and going nowhere, or at least not very far. For the past several years, standardized test scores have either stagnated or dropped in both the reading and mathematics domains. However, this isn’t an outcome issue as much as it is a process issue in the way we (society) approach the teaching and learning endeavor. If the definition of insanity is continually banging your head against a brick wall and expecting a different result, why should we continue educate future generations pretty much the same way year after year and expect improved results?

Perhaps that is a controversial question, but it shouldn’t be. For a bit of perspective, compress the timeline of learning history and look at the past 200 years, from 1820 to 2020. What has fundamentally changed? Smartboards instead of chalk boards. Computers instead of quills. Kindles instead of books. The Internet instead of libraries. It would seem that our new inventions are purposed to mimic our old tools, for the most part. Sure, there have been some “new” developments: virtual reality, computer simulations, and online learning. But they have not had any significant impact in either practice or outcomes. Consider the framework that hasn’t changed: Basing academic cycles on the calendar year. Grouping students of the same chronological age together for content mastery as though they are all at the same point of their cognitive development. Building one-size-fits-all curriculum for all students. Even with the forced changes as a result of COVID-19, at-home schooling for many students appears to be little more than a broken and sub-par classroom experience, with “teachers” often ill-equipped to provide any true learning support. Keep in mind that this comes after decades upon decades of education research and hundreds of billions of dollars spent. What has all the time, effort, and money bought?

Dr. David Porcaro, Director of Learning Engineering at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative was recently interviewed on the topic of “Learning Science” and why investing in it is a good idea. If you’re wondering what learning science is, Dr. Porcaro says this:

Learning science research helps us to create tools and resources that do what we really hope they will-—improve students’ ability to learn. And in an increasingly noisy world of edtech, products that really help will be those that teachers, parents and students adopt.”

The premise behind learning science is to take the data from how learners interact with edtech products, and use that data to build better edtech products. That’s one way of operationalizing the CZI mission to help individual learners achieve their potential. As Dr. Pocaro frames it, learners vary, and that variability needs to be accounted for in edtech and in teaching practices. I emphasize the phrase and in teaching practices because Dr. Pocaro does not address what I consider the broader teaching practices which have gone fundamentally unchanged, as I mentioned above. And it is the broader teaching practices that that would significantly address student variability. I would suggest examine three particular practices if student variability is a consideration.

Competency Assessment
When the typical student begins kindergarten, the lesson plan is the same for all students, as though they all have the same or very similar academic skills. However, this is not at all the case–some students may be able to read while others cannot; some may know simple math facts while others do not; some may have difficulty recognizing colors and shapes while others do not. Yet all students start in almost the same place. A better practice would be to assess student competency, and then provide a custom curriculum from the beginning allowing for variation in student competency. (More on this below.)

Curriculum Customization
No matter the grade level and the class, the curriculum is the same for all students (with larger groupings for advanced or developmental classes, for example). Not only should curriculum be customized based on competency assessments, it should be customized based on student interests, longer-term goals, and so on.

Calendar Adjustment
The standard academic calendar is based on a school year, divided into semesters or terms. The model says that whatever subject matter mastery a student has after the allotted time, this is where the learning switches to the next topic and moves on. Rather, there should be mastery goals, and students should be able to stick with the subject matter until the desired mastery level is obtained. Some students will move quickly through content at some points, while other students may take more time. The result will be variation in what students learn over specific time intervals, but the interval is not the defining metric; mastery is.

These three practices would work in combination to provide a very rich and customized experience for each student. Competency assessments would take place frequently throughout a student’s academic career to ensure there is sufficient feedback on where the student is, and so that appropriate “course corrections” may be made during schooling. The type of edtech tools required in these situations would be able to customize the curriculum and the calendar individually. Some students may master the desired subject matter in 10 years. Other students may take 13 years. Some students may spend six months on Trigonometry, and other students may need a year to work through the same material. The idea is that at the end secondary education, students should all be closer to mastery on all the subject matter areas they covered.

There is actually quite a bit more space to explore in these three practices, and I may do a deeper dive in a future post. In the meantime, though, I wanted to present these ideas as some thoughts for consideration, and to touch on the idea that it’s the practice and not the education technology that will need to change if we are going to see real changes in the way students learn.

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Here’s to Accountability

And you know who you are.

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What We Learn from Science Fiction

This morning I had the pleasure of being a guest on the radio program To A Certain Degree which airs on WPRK in Winter park, 91.5 FM. Hosted by Nick Georgoudiou, the show covers a lot of offbeat ground that tends to interests geeks like me. Today’s topic involved Science Fiction concepts and tropes, and it did not disappoint. (I’ll post the podcast here when it becomes available.)

Interestingly, there was some cross-talk between Science Fiction and learning (even touching on the recent admissions scandal involving a number of players including celebrity parents). The topic intersection is significant to me from the  perspective of how Science Fiction can fire the imagination and inspire some fairly lofty human endeavors. As such, the genre holds a promise of moving humanity forward from multiple perspectives. Science Fiction serves very much as a testing-ground for a wide variety of “What If?” questions, and these questions often get to the core of what it means to be human. How do we treat “the other” from our own cultural perspectives? What right of life and existence to other life forms have if they do not echo my own values? Sure, Science Fiction is well-positioned to show us the future of our existence, but it’s also really good for revealing what’s currently in our hearts by telling us stories we might not listen to if they’re told in relation to every-day life today.

I may revisit this thought in more depth later on, but I wanted to mark it now for some public consideration. It’s a lot easier to see ourselves in others, if the other isn’t someone we already hate.

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The Commonalities Between People Should Be the Easiest Things to Learn

Sometimes many of us living in the formal and professional worlds of education tend to lose sight of the fact that most learning takes place outside of classroom environments, and the most important lessons to be learned are not necessarily about the subjects found in school catalogs. It is important to revisit and reinforce this understanding regularly. Even as the circumstances of cultural frameworks may change and as our technology certainly will, people remain the same no matter where on Earth we go. Which brings me to this topic about how we learn about each other as fellow travelers in life’s journey.

In the summer of 1985, Sting released his first post-Police solo album entitled The Dream of the Blue Turtles. I remember that it was one of the first CDs I purchased, as CD players were relatively new back then. Being an idealistic young man at the time, one of my favorite cuts on the album was the song “Russians,” which was about the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, and the potential that it could lead to an actual, devastating nuclear was between the two superpower nations. You can find the lyrics of the song here, but the basic underlying theme was fairly simple: while the ideology of the two nations may be completely opposed, neither side could be completely correct, and the individual citizens of each nation have enough in common to transcend the posturing and rhetoric of their leaders. Consider this verse:

There is no monopoly on common sense
On either side of the political fence
We share the same biology
Regardless of ideology

The Cold War was at its peak. Both countries had enough nuclear warheads pointed at each other to completely destroy the world multiple times. The United States and the Soviet Union were enemies in almost every sense of the word. Yet Sting encouraged us to see that neither side could be the sole arbiter of what was good and right in the world.  The point on which Sting’s entreaty rests is the song’s refrain telling us that there is hope because just like us, the Russians must love their children too.

What was the takeaway for us? Yes, it was the lesson that the people of a country that had posed the greatest existential threat to the United States loved their children as much as we do, and that commonality was enough to offer hope to the world that we could step back from the brink of nuclear war. What is the implication here? That a people is not simply a reflection of its leadership or ideology, and that our commonalities bind us together more strongly than political differences may work to pull us apart.

In the years since, we haven’t seemed to have learned that lesson. Take a look at our internal political conflict now, and we see a level of rhetoric, acrimony, and even violence that eclipses what took place during the Cold War. Neighbor against neighbor. Family members against each other. Hate and condemnation against the “other side” as though each individual is directly responsible for the impending “end of the world as we know it.” What happened to our commonalities? What happened to the fact that our same biology transcends our different ideologies? Give that some serious thought. We are more angry today at those we are convinced voted the “wrong” way than we were at the country that was poised to wipe us off of the face of the planet.

I wonder what changed. Because as far as I can tell, we all still love our children.

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Using eSports to Drive Virtual Engagement outside the Online Classroom

In my previous blog entry, I made the statement that it is a mistake trying to replicate the on-ground classroom experience in the online learning environment. Generally speaking, that’s a good statement. So it might seem contradictory to present the rise of eSports as an example of positive trending in online education–if one were to think of eSports as a replication of traditional team sports and sporting activities. There are, in fact, a growing number of colleges and universities with eSports programs (here is one list).

One of the reasons eSports is effective at improving engagement is that it acknowledges the importance to the learner of what takes place outside of the virtual classroom. The majority of efforts to raise learner engagement (and ultimately retention) in online classes focuses around addressing issues directly related to the classes. A lot of faculty training things like participation in discussion forums or grading in a timely and thoughtful manner. Providing tech support so learners’ time online (in class) will not be interrupted.  But there is little done to engage the learner outside of their virtual classroom environment. Leadership likely wonders, “what would be the point?”

The point, certainly, is that educators have long acknowledged what happens outside the classroom is important to learners. It’s part of the reason behind all the extracurricular activities. The beautiful landscaping. The dining experience and varied menu of food items. The bookstore. Student Union. All of that. Oh, and yes, the sports for both student athletes and student spectators. What are the analogs to these activities and facilities for online learners?

It’s exciting that adoption of eSports in higher education is starting to grab hold and grow. It’s still a new cultural shift, though, and it’s not something with which even online students are familiar. That’s why the news that eSports is gaining a foothold in secondary education is so exciting. If learners are exposed to something in their high school years, they’re more likely to bring that with them as a cultural expectation, and it will give them greater comfort with their education experience. This article in Engadget is a good read. The author points out that “Many teachers (and parents) still see video games as a waste of time.” What’s not a waste of time is the effort made to increase engagement for online learners. That represents tremendous value. With the technology being as widely available as it is, along with the ubiquitous familiarity that many online learners already have with the content, the value can be realized with a very low cultural cost.

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Leveraging the Online Learning Space for Actual Benefits

One of the quickest ways an institution can fail in online learning is by trying to replicate the traditional on-ground learning environment. This mistaken approach disregards the strengths of digital technology and asynchronous modality. It’s like trying to turn a book into a movie without leveraging the strength of the visual story-telling medium. (See David Lynch’s Dune.)

The good news is that not all institutions are going down that path. Many institutions are doing great work in the online learning space, and the University of Central Florida could be considered a poster child for success. Late last year, Bill and Melinda Gates visited the UCF campus in Orlando (my backyard), and he had some positive recognition for the work going on there. His blog entry is worth the read.

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It’s Not What You Learn, It’s How You Learn

Here’s a piece I wrote for the Adventist Health System Careers Blog. In this blog, I list some strategies for being a better learner.

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Beginner’s Guide to Inklewriter

by Hap Aziz

I developed this brief tutorial to help people get up and running in Inklewriter fairly quickly. (If you’re not already familiar with it, Inklewriter is a web-based authoring tool that lets you create Choose Your Own text adventure games. It can be used for many purposes, especially prototyping simulations based on branching choices.

Introduction

Inklewriter is a web-based software that is used to create Interactive Fiction in the Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA) format. Interactive Fiction (IF) is a type of computer game that lets the player read a story and make choices that can change the direction and outcome of the story. Using Inklewriter for education purposes, abstracted (text-only) simulations may be created for a variety of learning assignments.

Because IF games are mainly text-based, IF games were among the first kind ever written for computers. CYOA games are a type of IF that give the player specific choices at the end of each section These types of games are also a form of branching scenarios. The player chooses what he or she would like to do, and the branching scenario moves forward based on the player’s selections. Although no longer at the height of their original popularity, CYOA branching scenarios are still quite engaging, and they can be used on their own, or they may be developed as proof-of-concepts for more graphically-intensive simulation.

There can be many different outcomes in an CYOA branching scenario, or the story can lead the player to a single ending. It is up to the creator to decide what the player is able to accomplish. To direct the player’s path through the scenario, the creator must develop a “map” of the story. The map is an outline of the story narrative along with the decisions a player is allowed to make and the places in the story that those decisions may be made. More instruction on this will be provided later in this document.

Inklewriter is freely available. To get to Inklewriter, all you need is a computer with access to the Internet using a standard web browser. You will go to the URL http://www.inklewriter.com and your screen should look something like this:

You will be able to create your own account by clicking the “sign in” button to get to the following screen.

Here, you will click on the Create New Account link.

Once you sign into your Inklewriter account, you will see the screen below.

This is your “blank sheet of paper” for creating your branching scenario. You will learn how to create a basic scenario using Inklewriter, but first we will talk about planning the scenario. It is very important to have an outline of how you want your scenario to “flow” and the choices you want the player to be able to make.

How to Design a CYOA Interactive Fiction Game

The key concept behind creating a CYOA branching scenario is that you must give players the opportunities to make choices during the scenario. These choices should in some way change the actual flow of the scenario. In a traditional story (such as in a book you might read), the story flows in one direction (linearly) from start to finish, like this:

There are no choices to be made, because the storyteller, author, or instructional designer has already decided what will happen and in what order everything takes place. In a CYOA branching scenario, however, certain places in the story allow the player to choose the direction.

The above diagram is an example of a story that branches after the beginning into two different paths. The player may select one of two options, and the result be a different ending. It is possible to have many options in the middle portion of your branching scenario, and this may result in more possible endings. Below is an example.

We see that after the beginning branches into two paths, those two paths branch into two more paths before getting to the four possible endings. You can imagine how big this map could become if you added several more levels that branch in between.

Your map can be as simple or as complex as you like. And it is even possible to have the branches of the scenario come back together instead of always separating. On a map, that might look something like the following:

You can see in the above diagram that there are multiple paths that will take the player to the different endings. Although this is a more challenging scenario to create, it is often the most satisfying to play because of all the choices a player may make.

Planning the Story

When planning your story for the scenario, you will need to do the following things:

  • Gather your materials, just as you would for a formal report or presentation. You will want to find good sources, especially those that might depict a narrative regarding the subject matter you expect to cover.
  • Since your scenario will be in the form of a story, you may want to identify key figures with whom your scenario player might have “conversations,” such as an HR manager, professor, or characters from an historical event.
  • You may want to think about a particular event or activity for your story, such as an employee review, a meeting between colleagues, or even a past war.
  • You will want to decide the location in which the events of your game takes place. That location may be inside a building like a library, a government building, a city, or even a combination of places.
  • You will want to identify objects that might have significance to the story you want to tell. For example, there may be a set of forms that contains information you want your game player to know, or there may be a policy manual to be reviewed.
  • You should create a navigation map on paper first, outlining the story and the action choices where the story branches. Index cards might be a good tool for you to use.

As you write your branching scenario, the places where the story branches into different paths are where the player chooses different actions to take. For example:

You are in a field of rolling hills on a sunny day. Not too far in front of you, you see a jet fighter that has crash landed. The canopy of the jet is open, and the pilot was able to get out of the plane safely. He is sitting on the ground next to the jet.

  • You ask the pilot what happened.
  • You turn around and run to find help.

The paragraph of text “sets the stage” for this part of the scenario. This particular scenario might be about describing historical actions taken during the Six Day War. After encountering the pilot, the player has two choices to make:

  • You ask the pilot what happened.
  • You turn around and run to find help.

For each choice, you must decide what happens next. Let’s look at how to do this in Inlkewriter.

On the “blank” Inklewriter page you would type a title for your scenario (“A Pilot’s Tale” in this example), your name, and the paragraph of introductory text. Then you would click on the “Add option” button to type in your action choices:

  • You ask the pilot what happened.
  • You turn around and run to find help.

To enter text that should be connected to the particular action, you click on the arrow button on the right side of that action. That will bring up another text box for you to enter the next section of your scenario.

To continue the story after the choice of “You ask the pilot what happened,” you should think of the next part of the story and compose the text in a way that makes sense. For example, this could be the next section (as shown above):

The pilot looks up at you and says, “We saw that Egyptian forces were being built up on our border along the Sinai Peninsula. Our air force was given the command on June 5th to launch a pre-emptive airstrike.” He pauses for a moment, and you notice that his lips are chapped.

  • You offer the pilot your canteen.
  • You ask what happened to the Egyptians.

As you build out the different areas of your scenario, you may want to check the progress of your navigation by clicking on the “map” link at the top of screen. This will bring up a visual representation of the flow of your scenario such as the one below. The map that Inklewriter displays as you create your scenario should closely resemble the outline you first made when developing your scenario idea.

From here, you will continue to add branches and narrative blocks in the same manner. You may add as many branching choices as you like to each section, but more than three or four choices becomes difficult to manage. You will continue this process until all your branching paths lead to a conclusion in the scenario.

We have only touched upon some of the most basic functionality within Inklewriter so that your first experience using the system is straightforward. There are a number of resources for Inklewriter available, and within the Inklewriter authoring system there is a “tutorial” link in the top menu bar that provides a lot of helpful information.

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