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 a 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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Filed under computer games, eSports, games, Hap Aziz, high school, higher education, Uncategorized

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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Filed under Bill Gates, blended learning, cost of education, Hap Aziz, higher education institutions, online education, online learning

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.


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.inklestudios.com/inklewriter/ and your screen should look something like this:

Click on the Start Writing button. When you do that, another tab will open up in your browser, and you will see this on your screen:

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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Filed under games, gamification, Hap Aziz, Inklewriter, instructional design, narrative, play, simulation, storytelling, text adventure, text adventure games

Where Online Learning May Lead

by Hap Azizthumb

Several years ago, I attended a CIO conference in Orlando, Florida, and the topic of the day’s sessions focused on the development and delivery of online education. The keynote speaker had done some research on Gen Y and Gen Z student attitudes regarding the online learning experience, and he had brought 14 students for a Q&A session with the CIO audience. While I wasn’t a CIO, my role at the time involved working with CIOs to help them design and implement both the systems and process infrastructures to support online learning initiatives at higher education institutions representing a variety of strategic enrollment and learning outcomes goals.

After a number of questions that skirted around the core matter of interest were asked, someone got directly to the point. “How many of you think online learning is effective?” Of the 14 students sitting on stage, one student raised her hand in the affirmative.

I looked around the room and read the overall reaction to be surprise on the mild end of the spectrum to what I’d most charitably identify as confusion on the other end. The students’ response was unexpected, and I’m sure there were more than a few people rethinking their investment of time and treasure in the online market. I thought to ask a follow-up question.

“How many of you use the Internet to learn new things?” Fourteen hands were raised in response.

My insight was that I understood the difference between “formal” online learning experiences designed according to some theoretical framework and the more informal approach of using the Internet to find information presented in a variety of formats that engage the learner across multiple learning styles. What was revealed in the subsequent conversation was a very simple message. Institutions often develop online learning with very little consideration of drawing the learner into a meaningful interaction.

Learners have discovered how to leverage content on the Internet to construct their own learning experiences. Google, YouTube, Instagram, Facetime—all of these are services and content repositories that provide immediate access to an almost limitless amount of information as well as instruction on how to make use of that information. Do you want to know how to tile a floor? Watch any number of YouTube videos. Need help visualizing the Golden Ratio? Look it up on Pinterest. Interested in finding out what Leonardo da Vinci’s top 10 inventions were? Check out the Stuff of Genius blog.

It’s important to remember that institutions of higher education are not simply “How-To” resources, and applying measures of quality for online courses is an essential way of achieving the outcomes that we educators desire as well as the outcomes that learners deserve. In my blog entry “The Quality of Learning,” (https://hapaziz.wordpress.com/2016/04/20/the-quality-of-learning/) I take the Online Learning Consortium’s Five Pillars of Quality Online Education and modify them slightly into these four categories:

  • Framework – Here we consider the quality of technology infrastructure and support across an institution. How well equipped, for example, is the academic technology group in order to provide exemplary levels of service to the various end users?
  • Content – The quality of course design process has a direct impact on the actual materials and media that both educators and learners will interact with during the duration of a particular course. You might think of the difference between a well-curated academic journal and a tabloid pseudo-news publication.
  • Experience – When we think of the quality of faculty and student end-user experience, we need to consider both the end-to-end experience as a service as well as a product. What will students say after they have taken the course? The answer often comes back to how they felt about what they experienced throughout.
  • Design – Program design quality includes components of the three other quality measures, but it is also an overarching theme that spans an entire program of study rather than individual courses. This means that individual course quality measures “interact” in the learner’s mind–so a single poor experience might negatively impact the whole program experience.

On top of these vertical pillars I superimpose four horizontally-spanning themes that are common across all measures of quality:

  • Ethics involves topics from intellectual property policies and considerations to online harassment and bullying.
  • Resources addresses the way in which institutions provision their online operations, hopefully positioning themselves for success.
  • Constituents is all about audience: who is participating, and what is important to them.
  • Measurement is the ever-present need to understand how well we are executing to our goals at every level of the institution from leadership to department to individual instructor.

The resulting composite model looks like this:


Once we’ve established a way of ensuring (and measuring) quality, we can take a look at some of the characteristics of online learning that add value to the learner such as accessibility, the ability to present content that aligns with particular learning styles, and the capacity to provide a multisensory learning experience for improved engagement. In fact, since online learning is a specific flavor of technology-mediated learning, the advantages that technology brings in general to learning are often specifically addressed by online learning and the expansions educators have made to the modality.

In another one of my blog entries, “The Seduction of the Senses,” (https://hapaziz.wordpress.com/2015/12/24/the-seduction-of-the-senses/) I discuss how “traditional” education has been limited by the technology of the alphabet. That is, we have developed a system of learning that first requires mastery of coding and decoding of symbols that represent the real world. While this model has brought education “to the masses,” it has forced us to adjust the way we learn into an artificial process. Online education (along with its variations of blended learning and supplementation of face-to-face learning) offers a pathway for people to learn as we were originally built to learn: through the simultaneous application of all our senses. We’re not all the way there yet, but despite the professional skepticism, the immature state of data-sharing standards, and the uneven application of tools across the K-20 education landscape, online learning brings us a step closer to an ideal state.

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Filed under Hap Aziz, online learning, Online Learning Consortium