Category Archives: computer games

The Seduction of the Senses

thumbBack in October of 2011, I wrote an almost tweet-length blog entry on the transformation of education through an accident of technology (read it here). While I didn’t provide any details regarding that particular technology, if you have heard me speak on the topic, you know that I’m referring to the invention of  the alphabet.

My basic premise is this: human beings evolved to learn a particular way, which is through the use of all our senses in combination with lived experiences and traditions passed down from generation to generation, usually in one-to-one (or one-to-few) relationships. There were natural limitations to that education paradigm regarding the storage of information, the ability to pass on information without personal presence, and the facilitation of one-to-many teaching and learning relationships. The invention of the alphabet (first hieroglyphic and then later phonetic) essentially removed those limitations over time; however, at the expense of introducing an entirely new barrier to learning content: the requirement to learn how to code and decode symbolic information–the requirement to learn how to read and write before learning actual content.

The invention of the alphabet changed the way in which humans learn, and our model of education reflects the necessary prerequisite of literacy before learning: the first years of schooling is focused on teaching our children how to code and decode the alphabet in order to unlock content stored and conveyed primarily through text. Ultimately, the way in which our civilization has set up the learning enterprise is not the way we humans are built to learn; yet here we are at a point in history where a convergence of modern technologies is dangling the promise of another possible transformation to education. The digital technologies that appeal to our dominant senses of sight and sound have become sophisticated enough to meaningfully engage and (apparently) facilitate learning without the need to code and decode the alphabet. Hand some iPads to a room full of three-year-olds and watch what they learn to do without having to read a word.

This phenomenon hasn’t been lost on educators. There are studies on the use of video games to enhance the education experience (“Effect of Computer-Based Video Games on Children: An Experimental Study” and “Digital Game-Based Learning in high school Computer Science education: Impact on educational effectiveness and student motivation“); there are books and articles published on the subject (What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy and “4 Innovative Ways to Teach with Video Games: Educators from around the Country Share Their Best Practices for Using Educational and Consumer Games to Improve Students’ Engagement and Performance“); organizations have been created and conferences are held to share the latest best practices and even how to secure grant and investment funding for new and innovative learning video games (Higher Education Video Game Alliance and GDC Education Summit); and there are even education games being produced by Nobel Laureates (Nobelprize.org). Intuitively this seems to make sense, and I’m not going to present or argue data here. At the very least there are the educators who feel it might be beneficial to have learners as engaged in course content as players are in their game content.

Several questions come to mind when we consider the use of video games in education. How do we align gameplay with course learning objectives? What technology is required to play games, and how to we ensure access across the digital divide? What is the time commitment necessary to play the game to the point of content relevancy? Perhaps one of the most important questions to answer relates to the cost of game production. The new generation of computer games that is so attractive to so many educators and education policy makers is very expensive to produce in terms of time, development personnel, and funding. Everone seems to want to build the AAA game title in order to excite students about the history of English literature, but who can realistically hire dozens of developers and pay millions of dollars over the course of a year or more to produce that game? How did we get to the point where this is a serious question?

This is all a result of the seduction of our senses when it comes to modern video games. Everyone loves the breathtakingly realistic game visuals and film-like quality. And just like a blockbuster motion picture, the soundtrack and voice talent can tremendously enhance the experience. Make no mistake: these are characteristics that draw in game players, and educators see these as the same characteristics that will draw in learners. However, these characteristics aren’t what make games effective for either entertainment or education.

When imagination is combined with the power of abstraction, the artifact used to engage players (or learners) is a secondary consideration. That’s why a person is able to get as much enjoyment out of reading The Lord of the Rings trilogy as from seeing the films. Or why the same person can play either Call of Duty or chess and enjoy them both as games of war. The power of abstraction is amazingly effective when it comes to experiential engagement.

And it’s that power of abstraction that may allow us to “dial back” on the need for the AAA educational game with the AAA development requirements. As much as I welcome the digital media revolution that is poised to re-engage all of our senses in learning, I would suggest a more technologically humble approach to educational game design that would leverage less resource-hungry production models and recommit to the process of coding and decoding symbolic information: the old-school text adventure game from the genre of Interactive Fiction computer games.

What makes Interactive Fiction (IF) so appealing in the context of education are the same things that are problematic in using more multisensory intense simulation-like games. IF games are less difficult, resource intensive, and costly to develop. As a result, they can be customized for specific learning scenarios, and it is conceivable that micro-teams of instructors and storytellers might build IF game scenarios for individual assignments, tightly aligned with course learning objectives. There is existing research that addresses the learning efficacy of IF games (much of it dated from the mid- to late-1980s mainly because that was when IF games peaked in popularity), and the findings are largely positive regarding learner engagement.

While the traditional IF game was truly a text-only experience, the genre has expanded to include simple illustrations that supplement the narrative experience. In this way, a visual component is added, and the development effort remains low. The result is something that might be more akin to an Interactive Graphic Novel (IGN) rather than the traditional IF game. Consider the IF game 80 Days, designed by Inkle Studios. In a field of games dominated by 3D simulations and fast-paced shooters and RPGs, 80 Days is a testament to the power of abstraction and solid narrative. In a review of the game published in PC Gamer magazine, the reviewer (Andy Kelly) wrote the following:

80 Days can be funny, poignant, and bittersweet. It can be sad, scary, exciting, and sentimental. It all depends on the path you take and the choices you make. The story deals with issues like racism and colonialism far more intelligently than most games manage. Every trip is a whirlwind of emotions, and by the end you feel like you’ve gone on a personal, as well as a physical, journey.

And because there are so many branching paths, it’s extremely replayable. I’ve gone around the world seven times now, and every journey has felt like a new experience. Every time you complete a circumnavigation, additional stories and events unlock, giving you even more incentive to try again. It’s also brilliantly accessible and easy to play, making it the perfect game to share with someone who never, or rarely, plays them.

In other words, this IF game is exactly what we look for in an engaging game experience. What’s interesting to note is that the game was widely praised and recognized for the quality of gameplay. The New Yorker magazine listed it as one of The Best Video Games of 2014. Not only did 80 Days make Time magazine’s Top 10 list, but it it was ranked as the number 1 game for 2014. The fact that 80 Days garnered so many awards and accolades is a strong indicator that the IF genre doesn’t need to take a backseat to AAA titles.

I am not advocating an abandonment of the use of AAA games in education. Rather, it’s important that we use development resources wisely, matching gameplay to learning outcomes. It may make complete sense to pair robust multimedia experiences with particular capstone courses, for example, or in classroom settings that ultimately touch a large number of students. And as the cost in time and development declines while the capability of the production technology improves, we’ll no doubt see more opportunities to integrate AAA games into curriculum. In the meantime, graphically-enhanced Interactive Fiction is a tool that can help educators provide engaging and pedagogically relevant gameplay learning experiences to their students in relatively short order at relatively low cost.

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Filed under computer games, digital divide, education, education course content, education funding, education technology, future technology, games, gamification, government funding, grant funding, Hap Aziz, higher education, instructional design, Interactive Fiction, Interactive Graphic Novels, learning, learning outcomes, narrative, play, simulation, text adventure, Text Adventure Development System, text adventure games, Uncategorized, video games

Playing Action Games Can Boost Learning

Here’s an interesting article on how video game play can influence learning. I’d give a deeper analysis, but, uh, I need to get back to my game of Destiny on the PS4….

http://www.rochester.edu/newscenter/playing-action-video-games-can-boost-learning-78452/

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Filed under computer games, games, Hap Aziz, learning, video games

A Research Project on Interactive Fiction in Education

Are you an educator using or possibly interested in using Interactive Fiction in the classroom? Take a look here:  http://goo.gl/dtu5ix

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Filed under computer games, education, education course content, games, Hap Aziz, Interactive Fiction

The Joy Stick Is Mightier Than The Pen: A Case For Gaming As An Academic Tool

JT Hudnut headshotby Jason Hudnut
Chief Coordinating Consultant: www.theturnpiketeacher.com

(Note: The following article text is the full version of an incomplete copy inadvertently published originally on April 30, 2013 under the title “The Educator as Parent.”)

I have spent my life immersed in the field of education.  I was raised by educators and it seems as if I may even be raising future educators.  But this is not my defining characteristic.  My time spent as a parent is in my opinion, the true nature of what I have become in my adult years.  Parenting in these modern times has allowed me to introduce the lessons learned during my time in the academic profession into the framework of philosophies that I utilize while raising my family.  Tonight, this blending of my personal and professional life was on exhibit in my household.  My oldest child had to leave school early today due to an illness.  He desperately wanted to make up his missed classwork and find out what his assigned homework for the night was. This shed a tiny yet telling light on the modern and technology based world we live in as parents and educators.

I informed my son to call his classmates to find out this information that he required.  It did not take long before I realized we don’t do it this way anymore. As my child sent texts and contacted friends on social media sites, then asked me to go on the teacher web page and find out if the assignments were posted, I realized we have evolved.  My boy has developed an entirely different way of thinking.  He solved his problem in a modern way and soon he was working on ratios and fractions and writing an essay that his teacher emailed to me in mere seconds after I contacted her.  This led me to thinking of some articles that I had read regarding how today’s young students may be influenced to solve problems and develop a unique set of social skills and strategies that may be influenced by the tools they implore while interacting with peers and playing video games.

Hap Aziz, in his article: “Bringing Computer Games into the Teacher and Learning Environment”, posted on January 04, 2013 in this blog, states,

“Computer games have potential educational value. Computer games have been identified as useful instruments that facilitate the acquisition of knowledge through the adoption of specific learning strategies (a cultural characteristic of the information society), and that computer games present immersive experiences in which learners—the players—develop abilities to solve complex problems in a variety of situations.”

I must give credit to the gaming world as my child’s first major experience in which he needed to utilize a technology based skill set. Not only did he begin to build abilities to solve complex problems within actual gaming situations, he developed knowledge of social media and on-line interaction when he was finally allowed by us, as parents, to enter the multi-player gaming experience via the internet. This was a big step to take and allow as a parent.  But as an educator, I knew that I would guide him with the proper and appropriate etiquette needed to gain knowledge and have fun while also maintaining measures of safety and good conduct.  Not to mention the curiosity that has been sparked and the fact based education he has received while role playing in some of today’s most modern historical based games.  I have since found him often times researching American and world history and even building worlds and reenacting with his Legos and other toys.

My newly rediscovered interest in how gaming could benefit education led me on a web surfing journey.  On this journey, I discovered some insight provided by Agnieszka Wetton on www.Scoop.it, who provided a wonderful statement within her Gaming in Education blog introduction on September 29, 2012.  Wetton stated,

“Over the past decade, the use of digital gaming in education has prompted considerable attention in exploring how and why games might be powerful tools in the classroom. As a result of this interest, there is a considerable body of resources available on Game-based Learning (GBL) and its potential benefits for education and learning.”

I certainly was thrilled to find this information and followed the leads presented on the Scoop.it! web pages.  I have obviously been aware of gaming tools in the classroom and have certainly applied several in my 20 years of teacher and education administration. But this new web surf opened up my eyes to the most modern conversations that will hopefully lead to a modern approach and application of these tools in the classrooms that we teach in and that our children learn in.  Two articles in particular jumped out at me. Both were “scooped” by Wetton. The first one is from: http://trove.nla.gov.au, and is dated September 29, 2012. This scoop referred to a wonderful book titled, What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy by James Paul Gee.

Gee takes an in depth look at how video games benefit individuals.  He investigates the effects on cognitive activity and improvement.  Gee looks deeper into the development of identity building and perception of self in society.  He even presents information regarding the increased ability to follow directives and grasp specific concepts and meanings within the community as a result of gaming and how this improves and enhances the learning process.

As I researched the concepts presented by Gee, I felt as if I had won some sort of court case.  Not only as an educator but as a parent, I have been making a case for the positive benefits that gaming, technology, and on-line interaction have had on the students and children of today.  I found at last, some validity to fuel my stands on the debates over such matters.  But I wanted a bit more proof to make my case.  And I found it as I continued to follow the leads that Wetton scooped on her blog.  My next stop, also found on  http://trove.nla.gov.au, from September 29, 2012 opened my world to the concepts of Marc Prensky.

In his book, Don’t Bother Me, Mom, I’m Learning! : How Computer and Video Games are Preparing Your Kids for Twenty-First Century Success and How You Can Help, Prensky also builds that case that gaming on computers and game systems can be beneficial to modern children.  He does maintain that a limit needs to be established regarding certain appropriateness and time constraints, but Prensky does believe that in order to be prepared for the 21st century; children stand to make significant gains from the concepts learned in the gaming realm.  He contributes increases in the abilities to collaborate, take and assess risks and build and follow through with strategic planning.  Prensky even goes so far as to show how parents can build on individual ethics and value based growth is attributed to the time spent learning the guidelines, structures, and relationships necessary  while navigating in the gaming world.

So, the next time your kid, or one of your students states how much they would rather be gaming instead of doing homework or studying, you can rest assured that there just may be some benefits to the specific choices that can be made in your response.  We have learned that gaming can be used in the classroom as a powerful academic tool.  Much more work is needed in this field, but the advancements of the home gaming system consoles and personal computer game structures is blazing a trail towards this work.  We can, as parents and educators, make specific choices to perhaps slip a bit of beneficial growth into the pleasure that the modern youth gets out of gaming.

It is necessary to limit the time spent playing as well as being very proactive when it comes to censoring the content that is allowed to be viewed and presented.  But we can all feel comfortable, that…YES…there are unique, and very specific as well as appropriate benefits to the worlds that are introduced to our young ones as they sit in front of that screen and dive into their favorite dream world.  Think about it, most of us only had video games with an X competing against an O in some form of sports of space combat.  We have come a long way as I sit here watching my son role play a character and making tactical decisions during the ride of Paul Revere or The Cuban Missile Crisis, in full three dimensional life-like movie quality graphics.  Hey, can daddy have a turn buddy?

Sources:

Aziz, H. (2013). Bringing Computer Games into the Teacher and Learning Environment. Retrieved from                 https://hapaziz.wordpress.com/2013/01/04

Gee, J.P. (2007). What Video Games have to Teach US About Learning and Literacy. Basingstoke:                           Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. Retrieved from http://trove.nla.gov.au

Prenksy, M. (2006). Don’t Bother Me, Mom, I’m Learning! : How Computer and Video Games are           Preparing Your Kids for Twenty-First Century Success and How You Can Help. St. Paul, MN:                Paragon House, 2006. Retrieved from http://trove.nla.gov.au

Wetton, A. (2012). Gaming in Education. Retrieved from www.Scoop.it!

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Filed under children, computer games, education, education technology, games, Hap Aziz, Jason Hudnut, technology

Are Indie Games an Answer for Curriculum Development?

HapBlogThumbnailby Hap Aziz

PBS has produced a mini-documentary titled, “The Creativity of Indie Video Games.” This seven-and-a-half minute exploration into the phenomenon of the independently-produced video game raises some interesting questions regarding the potential development of games specifically as education content tied directly to learning outcomes. While the mini-documentary itself does not address the education issue, watching the piece while keeping in mind education needs will trigger some pretty interesting “What if?” ideas. I invite you to have a look and post any thoughts you might have.

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Filed under computer games, creativity, crowdsourcing, education, education course content, games, gamification, Hap Aziz, Indie games, learning outcomes, simulation

Bringing Computer Games into the Teaching and Learning Environment

HapBlogThumbnailby Hap Aziz

In conversations regarding the use of games within contexts of education, there is often great enthusiasm for the transformative potential of integrating computer games in the teaching and learning environment. Kurt Squire has observed that good games allow students to explore a wide range of knowledge areas by motivating them to understand rather than to memorize content—and even to expand their understanding to other related knowledge areas. In fact, the potential for computer games to positively effect learning outcomes has been observed and commented upon by numerous researchers. Even more broadly, entire educational environments can be built using game frameworks to improve learning outcomes by promoting elements of challenge, collaboration, and engagement.

In order to better comprehend the complexities of infusing educational activities with computer game content, it is instructive to consider the more generalized challenges of leveraging computer software and related technologies in the classroom. There are significant difficulties for faculty when it comes to utilizing new and continually-evolving technologies. The “technology-adoption cycle” described by Patricia McGee and Veronica Diaz depicts a timeline in which a faculty member requires about three to four academic terms to comfortably adopt a learning technology solution, and that it takes additional time to actually produce improved teaching and learning outcomes. In part, this is due to the hesitancy among faculty to experiment with the multiple tools that are concurrently available (which to choose?), and therefore faculty move much more slowly by examining a single tool or solution at any particular time. Ultimately, the relentless pace of change among available tools along with the relative lack of information regarding the best practices for tool adoption acts as a de-motivator to the use of any tool—computer games included. It has been further pointed out that students adopt new technology tools much more readily than faculty, and that institutions of higher education (particularly) suffer from limited budgets with which to support faculty, move courses online, and otherwise integrate the new tools.

While studies have made use of commercially available software as well as software developed by design for specific learning environments or applications, there is little research that applies to the specific scenario of game software created by individual instructors for use in their own classroom situations. The field is not completely unexplored in terms of research, but the work is spread over a wide variety of academic disciplines (including psychology, anthropology, sociology, history, and literature) with few linkages between them. This is due largely to the fact that the modern computer game software so highly prized by students for entertainment value and praised by educators for engagement potential is extremely time consuming, resource intensive, and cost prohibitive to develop. The amount of time available for the development and modification of gaming scenarios that can be used in the classroom as well as the availability of computing resources greatly influence the manner in which computer games can be utilized as a component of education.

We do know, however, that computer games have potential educational value. Computer games have been identified as useful instruments that facilitate the acquisition of knowledge through the adoption of specific learning strategies (a cultural characteristic of the information society), and that computer games present immersive experiences in which learners—the players—develop abilities to solve complex problems in a variety of situations. Further, faculty themselves attribute value to the use of computer games. In a 2002 study by McFarlane, Sparrowhawk, and Heald of opinions regarding the potential as well as the limits of computer games, faculty involved in secondary education reported very positive views of adventure games in particular (as a subset of the simulation computer game genre).

The opinions captured, however, were tempered by the admission that using these types of computer games in secondary teaching is made difficult by the lack of time to complete complex games and by the need to cover specific educational curriculum, for which the games are not tailored. Kurt Squire asserts that the main disadvantage of using computer games in the classroom is the time-consuming nature of thorough game play for both students and faculty. Begoña Gros further refines this sentiment by observing that developing the sequence for appropriate activity within a commercial game is a time consuming instructional design exercise in itself. Certainly, this is a significant challenging to utilizing off-the-shelf computer games for instructional purposes.

There appears to exist, then, a challenge and an opportunity for the education community to develop computer games that address both curricular specificity and resource-demanding characteristics. A Problem Statement for more in-depth research might be fashioned like this:

While there are indications that computer and video games may have positive impact on learning outcomes among secondary students, integration of game content within assignments and exercises is problematic due to 1) the lack of “off-the-shelf” games that align well with existing curricular standards, and 2) the great difficulty of developing game content specifically for particular content needs.

The key is to construct engaging computer games specifically to meet curricular needs, and to provide faculty with the tools to be able to develop the game content themselves (or with minimal assistance) in a time frame that is comparable to that for the development of other course content; i.e., in a matter of weeks and months rather than over the course of months or years (as is the case for commercial games).

In regards to developing games to meet curricular needs, educators and game developers have partnered to build content that might tap in to the vast potential of the education market. However, these efforts have yielded titles focused primarily on early childhood audiences such as Reader Rabbit, Math Blaster, and the Magic School Bus, to name a few. Unfortunately, there has been little progress in the development of games for the more sophisticated late-adolescent (secondary school) student. This is unusual, since this age group can be considered to be the core of the multi-billion dollar game market. While there have been some successful game franchises of greater sophistication, including the Civilization, Sim City, and Railroad Tycoon franchises, these titles regrettably do not meet the criteria of “ease of development” for faculty, nor are they inexpensive to produce.

The seemingly insurmountable obstacle to the concept of small-scale computer game development—at least for games that will engage students meaningfully—is that the quality and narrative complexity of these games dictates development cycles that go well beyond reasonable instructional design time frames. But must this always be the case? Fortunately there are other game genre options that are fit-for-purpose, customizable, and relatively inexpensive to develop and produce. Several researchers point to the Alternate Reality Game (ARG), which is a type of Interactive Fiction game that unfolds over a period of time, and that includes a series of puzzles to be solved collaboratively in order for the players to progress to subsequent stages. There are advantages in working with Alternate Reality Games: primarily, they are lo-fidelity (which means they do not require the resources for development as do typical high-end commercial computer games. As a result, the games are much less expensive to design and implement, and they can be aligned with curriculum to ensure that specific learning outcomes are met.

Looking deeper specifically at the Interactive Fiction component of Alternate Reality Games, we are able to identify a tremendous opportunity. There already exists an established form of the Interactive Fiction computer game genre that facilitates meaningful and engaging interaction with the player (student), and this type of Interactive Fiction (IF) game is simple enough for a single faculty member to develop compelling experiences. IF games are straightforward for players to understand the format and immediately engage in play, and IF games have the added benefit of being able to maintain the full form of the original text (on any topic) that is being implemented in the IF format.

The good news is that there are a large number of available game production middleware and gaming engines that have been developed by the industry in order to mitigate the rapidly growing costs of development. These game engines are available to educators at greatly discounted rates, and often free of charge. Inform (http://inform7.com) is one such game engine that has been created in order to facilitate the development of robust Interactive Fiction titles. Quoted from the Inform website:

Inform is a design system for interactive fiction based on natural language. It is a radical reinvention of the way interactive fiction is designed, guided by contemporary work in semantics and by the practical experience of some of the world’s best-known writers of IF…. Inform is used in the classroom by teachers at all levels from late elementary school through university. Playing and writing interactive fiction develops literacy and problem-solving skills and allows the development of historical simulations.

Given the cost of the Inform software tool (free), the learning curve for the game engine itself (fairly low with the program code grammar and syntax primarily English-based), and the relative ease with which custom game scenarios may be developed in short time frames by small teams or individuals, creating Interactive Fiction-based curricular activities for students at the secondary level and above is a strategy worth exploring further. There are other Interactive Fiction game engines such as Text Adventure Development System (TADS, http://www.tads.org/), Curveship (http://curveship.com/), and Adrift (www.adrift.co/) that may be utilized effectively as well, though they require more knowledge of computer programming conventions to varying degrees.

Interestingly, there may be a resurgence in Interactive Fiction taking place from the standpoint of computer entertainment. Leigh Alexander argues that the penetration of smart phones and tablets into the consumer market is creating a broad field of devices ideally suited for IF content. Additionally, Alexander states that the publishing industry is looking for new ways to leverage the ebook format, and IF fits the criteria of engagement and interactivity. In his article “Interactive fiction in the ebook era,” Keith Stuart makes a similar observation regarding IF and ebooks. At the 2011 Open Source Conference (OSCON) in Portland, Oregon, Ben Collins-Sussman presented “The Unexpected Resurgence of Interactive Fiction” (http://www.oscon.com/oscon2011/public/schedule/detail/19193), making the case that the development tools now becoming available are positioning IF for mainstream acceptance once again.

There may yet be a perfect storm forming for the development of games suited to the teaching and learning environment, and Interactive Fiction does appear to be a very likely genre for curriculum integration. The IF game engines are available and very accessible to the non- or novice-programmer. The format is well-suited to be an ebook replacement for the traditional classroom text book. Perhaps most importantly, IF game scenarios can be readily authored to meet specific learning objective needs, even to the assignment level. This is where potential for computer games in the classroom may ultimately be fully realized.

Just for fun, here’s a brief Inform tutorial.

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Filed under Alternate Reality Game, computer games, creativity, Curveship, eBooks, education, education course content, education technology, games, gamification, Hap Aziz, high school students, higher education, instructional design, Interactive Fiction, learning outcomes, narrative, smartphones, tablets, technology, Text Adventure Development System, vintage technology

Identifying Great Video Games for Education

by Hap Aziz

In her blog post “10 Surprising Ways to Spot a Great Video Game,” Shira Lee Katz lists 10 characteristics of video games that have value for learners. Additionally, she provides two example video games for each category, and she provides a brief description of each game along with the intended player age range. Though the game examples are all for learners in elementary school, the characteristic categories can be applied to all age groups at any education level. It would be quite instructive to build such a list for the college-aged population.

Now, an article I would really like to see would be “10 Surprising Ways to Spot a Great Course.” A great hurdle to overcome, of course, is that we do not have a convenient mechanism for learners (or other educators, for that matter) to try out or review courses before actually taking them. Until there is better visibility into the course experience (whether it is online, face-to-face, or any combination in between), it will be exceedingly difficult to compare courses on a wide scale and develop a true rating system that allows the learner-as-consumer to make informed choices about course selection.

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Filed under computer games, education course content, education technology, face-to-face instruction, games, Hap Aziz, online education