Monthly Archives: November 2011

Interactive Fiction: You are in a maze of twisty passages…

by Hap Aziz

My first encounter with text adventure games was back in the fall of 1980 when I got a job with a communications engineering company. The company ran a Data General Eclipse minicomputer, and one of the programs on it was the original Colossal Cave Adventure program written back in the late 1970s. Several of us in the office would stay quite late to sit in the terminal room and explore the virtual world, asking each other for help when the puzzles were particularly challenging. We all spent a fair amount of time typing one- or two-word commands at the cursor hoping we were on track to unravel the puzzles sprinkled throughout the game. Soon after that, I purchased a Texas Instruments TI-99/4A computer, and I was delighted to find a whole series of adventure games by Scott Adams.

It was late in 1981 when I acquired my first IBM PC that I also got my first game for it: Deadline by Infocom. Infocom was a company that specialized in what they termed “Interactive Fiction,” that is, text adventure environments written in sophisticated prose format. (Infocom was the company that produced the Zork series of games.) The game natural language parser was also able to “understand” short sentence input rather than simply two-word phrases. It was then that my taste for text adventures–Interactive Fiction–grew to the point where I began to write my own. The language available to me on my PC was BASIC, and I wrote thousands of lines of procedural code to build my games. Over the years I’ve used BASIC, Pascal, C, C++, Lingo, Java, and even LISP to build my games.

Several years ago, I discovered the Inform software (currently Inform 7) development system. Inform is an environment specifically design to author Interactive Fiction. The language of Inform is set up to support the conventions of Interactive Fiction, which makes it easier to program these types of game. For example, if I wanted to set up a space where there was a Kitchen and a Dining Room, with the Kitchen to the north, I would enter into the Inform 7 engine simply:

> Kitchen is a room.
> Dining Room is a room.
> Dining Room is south of the Kitchen.

At that point, when I run the program I find myself starting out in the Kitchen location. If I then type “s” (for south) at the prompt, I see that I have moved into the Dining Room–and I can type “n” to move back to the Kitchen. Of course, the Inform 7 programming environment supports much more than moving around virtual locations, but the exciting thing is that it takes care of the programming underpinnings while the author/programmer can focus on the logic of the game itself. That is very appealing. One can relatively easily create objects to be manipulated, characters with which to interact, and so on.

It is the simplicity of the Inform 7 development environment that has me thinking that the future of computer games in the teaching and learning environment is in Interactive Fiction. Currently, this is the one game format that has all the compelling benefits of play with an implementation ease that means faculty members and instructional designers would be able to create game modules in short order (and at no cost) in order to directly support course assignments. This is what will make a difference from an instructional design point of view.

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Filed under creativity, education, games, Interactive Fiction

The Value of Game Design in Education

by Hap Aziz

One of the questions that often comes up in discussions of game design related to education is “What makes a good educational game?” I think it can be reasonably argued that there are truly very few examples of good educational games, and that is due to several reasons, some of which I will point out below.

One person that lays out the case well as to why it is difficult to create good educational games is Dr. Seymour Papert of MIT. In the June, 1998 issue of Game Developer magazine, Dr. Papert presents his take on the state of educational gaming in an article titled “Does Easy Do It? Children, Games, and Learning.” A point that he makes is that edutainment software often ends up being a combination of the worst of both the education and entertainment worlds. Having been both a professional game developer as well as an instructional designer, I very much agree with Dr. Papert’s assertions in the article. Here is a link to the article online. In addtion to the original article, the link has a response to Dr. Papert written by an instructional designer. Both pieces are worth reading.

While there are questions and concerns regarding the cost of game development (monetary, time, and technical expertise), there are ways of incorporating game design best practices into curriculum as well as developing games using rapid development tools (as opposed to using lower-level languages–comparatively speaking–such as C++). Flash is one development option, and there are a new crop of tools being produced for the development of mobile applications. Still, no matter the tool, there is required some level of programming skill in order to develop any type of application with actual functional value.

When talking about computer games, most people usually mean something other than the trivial approach of a Jeopardy game. Customizable Jeopardy templates are fine for drill and practice (some might argue that it’s not even suitable for that), but that does not exemplify compelling and deep gameplay of the type that promotes higher-order learning. However, before we begin to consider our design tool options, we would do well to originate some actual game ideas–apart from the underlying technology.

As is common in the game industry, we should brainstorm first and worry about execution later. Consider games in the genre of the Civilization series of the Age of Empires collection. Those games have true depth and high production values… can we build similar games primarily for the education market? That is the $64,000 question, and I’ll over a one-word answer: “no.” The development resource hurdles (monetary, time, and technical expertise) are too high to overcome for individual instructors. And until an instructor is able to develop game applications and content without help, in short order, customized to the instructor’s particular curricular needs, the concept of gaming will remain a solution in the abstract.

In subsequent posts, I will discuss a more practical solution to gaming content development in the teaching and learning environment is Interactive Fiction. More on this topic in subsequent discussion forum posts.

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Direct Evidence of Learning

by Brooks Doherty

Just a few days after my last post, which advocates for greater attention to instructional quality in higher education along with greater learning outcomes transparency, The National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment released a report detailing the state of such transparency at our colleges and universities. While the overall findings are rather promising, I want to focus on one tiny but critical moment tucked quietly into the middle of the report.

In 2010, the NILOA spent many hours combing through the websites of hundreds of colleges and universities, analyzing the level and nature of learning outcomes transparency. Which colleges publish what their students were learning? Were these colleges providing data that could be directly linked to teaching and learning, or simply indirectly? In short, are colleges providing prospective students, families, elected officials, and the public-at-large information that helps us understand what a degree from your institution means?

The nugget on which I would like to focus: This 2010 study showed the 200 institutions assessed provided “more information with indirect evidence of student learning than was found in 2009 but less evidence of capstones and portfolios.” In other words, colleges and universities were more likely to provide (indirect) evidence surrounding graduation and persistence rates, or student and alumni surveys versus (direct) evidence of student learning such as results from internships, capstone projects, portfolios, state or local standardized tests.

I am encouraged by the movement toward transparency since the Spellings Commission pointed out its scarcity six years ago. Building upon the publicizing of these data loosely connected to the classroom, it’s imperative now that colleges and universities begin to better understand how to measure and show the public what learning with them looks like: tell them what your degree means. This need not necessitate widespread standardized testing at the post-secondary level, but will need to focus equally as closely on the learning process as it does currently on the learning product.

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Prediction: Commercial Applications Will Drive Education Use… Yet Again

by Hap Aziz

I very much enjoy my Fox 35 Orlando segments, largely because I have an excuse to research currently trending consumer technology topics (and sometimes I’m even able to rationalize a purchase or two for “further research”). Regardless of the technology I’m focusing on at any particular point in time, I’m always mindful of the potential applications of that technology in the teaching and learning environment. As I’ve said numerous times elsewhere, the technology that is truly transformational within the education landscape usually finds its origins in the commercial/consumer sector of the marketplace.

This morning, the topic for discussion was the categories of smart-device applications that would be useful for gift-giving during the holiday season. I broke the topic down into three basic categories: e-Books, mobile applications, and e-Coupons (for product and service discounts). Here’s the clip:

So what would those product offerings look like in terms of the education space, not too far out into the future? I’m happy to make some quick predictions.

  • Category 1: e-Books

The majority of the current e-Book formats are a repackaging of traditional text content in a high-tech wrapper. And that’s par for the course: whenever we invent new forms of media technology, we typically take older forms of media content and do a direct port. That lasts about as long as it takes for producers and consumers to learn that we can accomplish better things. But make no mistake, for all the high-tech attributes of the various e-Book readers and smart devices out there, today’s e-Book largely does not add to the format. As a result, e-Books so far are squandering an opportunity to push the technology and evolve the format. The future e-Book is not going to be a primarily text-based medium. Rather, there will be a framework of interactivity sitting atop a foundation of multi-media source materials that will turn out to be content compelling enough to re-engage a generation of reluctant readers. Not quite full-fledged mobile applications (see the next category), the e-Book will replace the static text book as a dynamic repository of course content material, perhaps even capable of customizing itself in the format most appropriate for the reader’s particular learning style. While the traditional book format will continue to exist, especially for recreational reading (just as television never quite replaced radio), e-Books in the educational context will become a much more active part of the learner’s tool kit.

  • Category 2: Mobile Applications

It’s this category that seems to be garnering all the predictions across the education industry, and justifiably so. Like traditional software applications, mobile apps are capable of tremendous utility in terms of tools that support the teaching and learning endeavor, from word processors and presentation engines to virtual lab and scientific apparatus simulators. Yet mobile applications offer two things that commercial software products from Microsoft or Adobe have not yet provided: 1) portability in terms of app footprint size and ability to run with a robust feature set on handheld devices, and 2) extremely low (and sometimes no) cost. As a result, end users are able to mix and match from their own selection of mobile apps to serve their own particular set of needs. Consider that once a person purchases the Microsoft Office Suite, he or she is not particularly inclined to run out and buy a copy of the latest thing in spreadsheets from the XYZ Startup Software Design Company. While the old model has resulted in expensive, often bloated software containing a multitude of features rarely fully utilized, the mobile app model presents a development environment in which feature set experimentation will be commonplace, as the cost for app acquisition will be extraordinarily low. Mobile applications in the education market space will afford learners solutions that can be customized to fit particular learner needs (bringing us one step closer to the EPS construct, in fact).

  • Category 3: e-Coupons

This is an unusual category to consider, as we rarely think of education as a shelf-style product that can be purchased a la carte, along with soap, potato chips, and six-pack of your favorite beverage. Thinking about Groupon or LivingSocial, it’s not a natural conclusion to think of students looking for “sales” on course content that they might purchase to fill in credit requirements. Yet this is not such a far-off possibility. The infrastructure of the Internet has already made it possible for students to take courses from any number of institutions–not simply the ones within their range of driving. At the same time, organizational constructs such as the National Student Clearinghouse are allowing students to be the center of their own education universe, and equipping them with the tools to reach out to multiple institutions simultaneously. It’s not difficult to see a path forward for students to leverage group buying power and, as a result, select their own courses from a number of institutions simultaneously in order to build their own custom schedule path to their particular academic goal.

In all three of these categories. we see a potential future where technologies that first have taken root in the consumer space have an impact in the education landscape, such that they change the way education is both offered and provided. In the consumer space where competition drives innovation and cost efficiencies, this is not surprising at all. As educators, those of us that recognize this and move to take advantage of the coming waves of change are the ones that will be best positioned to guide the next stages of transformation in teaching and learning.

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Filed under education, Educational Positioning System, mobile technologies, technology

Facebook Cyberjacking: Some Implications for Colleges and Universities

by Hap Aziz

As a regular contributor to Fox 35 News in Orlando on topics related to technology, I often have the opportunity to comment on current events that not only have a direct impact on the “individual consumer,” but also effect those involved (students, faculty, and whole institutions) in the teaching and learning environment. This evening I was interviewed by Sonni Abatta, and I provided some brief commentary on the recent occurrences of cyberjacking that have been spreading on Facebook along with some ways to minimize the risk of becoming one of the victims. (I’ve posted the interview clip on my YouTube channel, and you can see it by clicking on the image below.)

What I wasn’t able to discuss during the interview were the fairly serious implications that this latest hacking activity could have in the long run for colleges and universities. For context, we should be aware of a few statistics:

  • Approximately 50% of the U.S. population is on Facebook.
  • Over 85% of students in the U.S. have Facebook accounts.
  • If we consider all social media, 91% of college faculty use social media as a part of their work.

These three statistics are indicators of the current level of importance of social media plays in the teaching and learning environment, as well as a comparative measure of the penetration gap between higher education and the general population. Clearly, higher education is adopting social media at a faster rate than the general public (perhaps not surprising considering the origins of Facebook). So what are we to understand from Facebook’s latest in a distressingly active string of privacy/security/hacking “challenges”?

To answer this question, it’s necessary to understand the movement by institutions toward making much greater use of social media tools for a variety of purposes: admissions and student recruitment, student communications and outreach, event planning and marketing, and even some movement into the more traditional areas of Learning Management and Student Information Systems. Many institutions see social media as a powerful tool for student and staff engagement–and rightly so, given the widespread use outside of the classroom.

All too often, however, we see stories of social media systems being compromised for a variety of issues ranging from non-secure software to end-user naivete, leading to problems occasionally as mild as user inconvenience, but too often, unfortunately, as severe as loss of personal identity information. Sometimes the issues arise due to software defects, but often there are systemic issues based on end-user behavior that allow exploitation of legitimate software features. It’s difficult to make the case that users should not click on that interesting photo link or video clip, when one of the main reasons for the existence of social media is to share interesting photo links and video clips!

As institutions request and receive software systems that incorporate social media features, they will need assurances that the solutions implemented to serve their populations are secure and free of the types of attacks that Facebook suffers. If not, the integration of social media into education will result in a set of challenges that will largely invalidate any benefits gained.

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More Research on Children and Video Game Play

by Hap Aziz

There’s no shortage of opinion around the effects of video games on children–especially regarding the more violent kinds of games. Researchers from Michigan State University have recently published research indicating that video games (even the violent kinds) have a positive impact on the creativity of 12 year old children. In a paper titled “Information Technology Use and Creativity: Findings from the Children and Technology Project” (purchase article here) published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, researchers L. Jackson, et al., found that children that play any kinds of video games tend to be more creative than children that do not play video games. In addition, their study showed that there was no relation to creativity when the same age group of children played with cell phones, browsed web sites, or performed other non-gaming related computer tasks.

This should give parents some hope, as the research appears to be reliable: it was funded by the National Science Foundation, and 491 middle school students took part. Whether or not video game “homework” could be used to systematically and deliberately improve children’s creative capabilities is another discussion, but the idea no longer seems to be completely out of the question as it might have been back in the era of Tipper Gore and video game ratings.

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Value in Higher Education: Addressing Skepticism

by Brooks Doherty

As Steve Kolowich recently wrote for Inside Higher Ed, “One of higher education’s biggest exports is skepticism.” It is certainly ironic, then, that skepticism is also the leading threat to American higher education: skepticism about the value of a college degree, skepticism about what students are really learning, skepticism surrounding the amount of classroom effort put forth by faculty and students, and skepticism from all sides as to whether vocational degrees or liberal arts degrees benefit society more.

As this skepticism emanates from college and universities, Capitol Hill, and millions of American households, leaders in American higher education must ask themselves and their constituencies what can be done to prove the process and product of are both currently effective and continuously improving. In other words, what steps may be taken to alleviate the skepticism?

Two steps may be taken to help show skeptics that America’s colleges and universities, which so much of the world has admired and modeled for so long, remain dynamic laboratories of learning committed to evolving as quickly as our world community:

  1. Universal emphasis on quality instruction and instructional development for all teaching faculty, and
  2. A data standards movement.

While human beings are certainly capable of learning alone, we know that good teachers contribute to learning through their ability to place students in situations that promote critical thought. To teachers, I add the qualifier good because the great educational theorists such as Knowles and Skinner tell us that learners, particularly adult learners (college students), need to be active – as opposed to passive – in the learning process. In short, the traditional college lecture is a poor and ineffective teaching practice, yet it is commonplace at many if not most American institutions of higher learning. If colleges and universities whose faculty focus more on teaching than research shift focus to quality classroom instruction for both the face-to-face and online classrooms, student outcomes and experience will improve.

When student outcomes improve and (here’s the hard part) colleges and universities figure out a way to ensure all their data repositories begin to talk to one another, full data transparency is a next step toward alleviating public doubt. Currently, online education faces an even more uphill battle than brick-and-mortar institutions, on top of the need to navigate the following conundrum: Increasing skepticism about the effectiveness of online learning and increasing public demand for online learning opportunities. There is ample data that show well-designed online classes can be at least as effective, if not more so, than face-to-face learning, but – because of its youth – online learning is not fully accepted. Once today’s children, who grew up surrounded by screens, begin to populate tomorrow’s academy, all that will change. In the meantime, however, outcomes transparency and better faculty development will help build public trust.

Colleges and universities can take a cue from our K-12 schools by improving how we communicate with the public exactly what and how students are learning. It is then that employers, parents, and elected officials will more clearly understand – and trust – that the degrees which represent our intellectual growth do mean something important. And they always have.

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