Category Archives: Hap Aziz

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.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:

diagram

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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The Non-Linearity of Learning

thumbby Hap Aziz

This morning, I had the pleasure of giving the keynote address at the 2016 ATMAE Annual Conference in Orlando. (ATMAE is the Association of Technology, Management, and Applied Engineering). My address was titled, “Virtual Engagement: How Gamification Can Improve the Distance Learning Experience.” I admit the title was a bit of a stretch, as I was truly interested in discussing how gamification can improve learner engagement, no matter the modality of the course or program. And to be clear, “gamification” to me means a set of techniques, some technology dependent, that may appear to have very little do to with actual game playing, on the surface.

One of the points I made is that gamification allows for flexibility in the way content is presented to learners for their consideration. That is, games allow players to move forward via multiple pathways, and this is good for a number of reasons, one being that if a player gets stuck in one part of the game, things don’t have to come to a grinding halt. The player can simply move to a different area, and in the interim, a eureka moment may come that allows the player to come back and solve the previously unsolved part. Formal learning experiences tend to be more linear, however, which is one of the great elements of frustration for students. When they get stuck, there is no place else to go in the course. Until they get outside help, they are often left with no choice but to do something else entirely, while they curse the offending course material for being too obscure or complex or both.

I was pleasantly surprised to find corroboration of this gamification technique in an unrelated article that I happened to find while reading Inside Hire Ed online just a few hours after my keynote. The article by Matt Reed is titled, “Going ‘Full Florida‘,” and it is about Florida’s experiment to drop the requirement for remedial classes coming into college. Reed describes how this (i.e., going “Full Florida”) could actually be a good thing:

Having spent nearly a decade as a chief academic officer at two different community colleges, I’m increasingly sympathetic to going Full Florida. There’s something fundamentally broken about developmental education as it’s currently done, and placement has a lot to do with it. Forcing students who have had bad experiences in a given subject to start by re-taking material they’ve had before, on their own dime, with no credit towards graduation, is a motivation-killer. And it’s based on a theory of knowledge that I don’t think holds water.

It assumes that students can only learn material in one order. It assumes that material progresses linearly, and that students have to go step-by-step to make progress.

I’m just not sure that’s true.

Take languages. It’s possible to teach a language in a linear way, but that’s not how people best learn them. They learn languages by being thrown in the deep end and flailing around a while. Anyone who raised children can tell you that their learning is much more idiosyncratic than linear. Yes, that can lead to gaps, but gaps can be filled.  And the fastest way to shut down a kid’s interest is to reduce it to workbooks.

Notice that Reed writes: “It assumes that students can only learn material in one order. It assumes that material progresses linearly, and that students have to go step-by-step to make progress. I’m just not sure that’s true.” In other words, Reed has observed that people tend to learn better if their learning experience is modeled after the way they play. I certainly agree with this, and I’m gratified to see the idea articulated outside of the direct context of game playing.

Students do not learn material in one order, and, indeed, in many cases they cannot learn material in one order because obstacles can become insurmountable when there are no other paths forward. This is a design problem, not a learner problem, and it doesn’t matter if the audience is in need of remediation or perfectly suited for advanced study. The good news is that this is a design problem that is continually being solved in the gaming world. The bad news, though, is that many educators have not yet determined that the gaming world knows more than a thing or two about how people learn.

 

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Filed under gamification, Hap Aziz, non-linear learning, play, Uncategorized

Second Chance for Second Life?

thumbby Hap Aziz

Over at The Chronicle of Higher Education website, Jeffrey R. Young has an article titled, “Remember Second Life? Its Fans Hope to Bring VR Back to the Classroom.” I do remember Second Life, and I actually used in some college courses I taught about eight or nine years ago. It was primarily a tool where I could gather with students for additional lecture time outside of the classroom, and often it was a combination of socializing and course content Q&A. Fortunately, my students were comfortable with technology (the course was on the subject of digital design), otherwise I would not have been able to provide the technical support to get the students signed up, logged in, and comfortable in the environment. The technology is smoother now, but I wouldn’t recommend it for students not confident in their online computing skills.

The history of Second Life is interesting in that it began as a possible game world framework, but the development environment was so robust, SL morphed into an open-ended virtual space that really had no particular purpose. This was both its advantage and its curse, as enthusiastic users that saw potential in the technology worked at finding a purpose for the platform. Many higher education institutions acquired space in SL, and educators used it for lectures, office hours with remote students, and a variety of other activities somehow connected with learning. And while the individual users may have designed unique personal avatars, the education spaces, for the most part, were representation of real campus locations (or at least could have been real). There are a number of reasons SL was unable to sustain itself at its heyday level of engagement, and Young explores them in his article in connection with the latest tech wave of Virtual Reality innovation. Second Life, in fact, is looking to ride the new VR wave with its Project Sansar (indeed, if you go to the SL site, you’ll see that you can explore SL with the Oculus Rift, which is a step in that direction).

Will the addition of 3D VR breathe new life into Second Life? As a technology, there is no question that VR has great novelty out of the gate. But I still believe that without some sort of meta-narrative point to drive engagement, SL could go through another bubble-burst cycle. By “meta-narrative,” I mean that Second Life itself needs to have a point, rather than offer itself up as an environment where users can do anything they want. Why enter a virtually real world to “just hang out and look around” when we can much more easily accomplish that in the really real world?

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Filed under avatars, colleges and universities, education, emerging technologies, future technology, games, Hap Aziz, higher education, higher education institutions, holograms, narrative, simulation, technology, virtual classrooms, virtual college, virtual reality, virtual worlds

The Quality of Learning

thumbby Hap Aziz

I find that in the never-ceasing stream-of-consciousness that represents my current and evolving thoughts on technology-enabled education, the theme of quality is a constant. In all sectors of the education enterprise, there seems to be a consensus that quality (whatever that might represent) must be an essential component of learning content and experiential process. Even before I thought to quantify the characteristics of quality in education, I had a strong sense that there were indeed characteristics to be measured. But as Hamlet might say, “aye, there’s the rub!” The challenge is in determining what those characteristics are before we can begin to consider how to measure them.

Which brings me to my second Shakespearean reference in as many paragraphs. In Act IV, Scene 1 of his play The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare wrote the following lines:

“The quality of mercy is not strained;
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes”

Yes, there are two definitions to the term quality. The first, which I used in the context of learning, is the idea that quality is a measure of how good or bad something is. The second definition as used in The Merchant of Venice is that quality is an attribute of something, and in this case, Bill is describing an attribute of mercy. Reread the passage above, substituting the one instance of the word “mercy” with the word “learning.” Now consider the line “it blesseth him that gives and him that takes.” It doesn’t take a great shift in mental perspective to think of quality not as a measure of the learning experience, but rather as an intrinsic attribute that blesses both the teacher and student alike. All we need to do is optimize conditions for this attribute to be revealed.

There are several components to learning that may function as a blessing–or as a curse if poorly executed, and the following are just a few:

  • The facilitation of the relationship between teacher and student
  • The manner in which content is organized and made available
  • The kind of support provided to teacher or student when technical difficulties arise
  • The ability to leverage additional tools that may enhance the learning experience

What level of resources or commitment of effort does it take to optimize these conditions in any particular learning environment? I probably needn’t point out that there has been much relevant research performed. But it is important to remember that we can lose sight of the big picture when we dive into the weeds of data, and that it is always a good idea to revisit key principles on a regular basis. Probably the biggest of the big picture views is the concept that the entire institution must be aligned from top to bottom and side to side on the core mission of learning. In fact, the institution should commit itself to the ideal of being learning-centered. (While I won’t explore the implications of terminology here, I will point out that there is a significant different between being learning centered as opposed to being learner or student centered. See the work of Terry O’Banion with the League for Innovation in the Community College.)

Quality as an attribute provides a basis for agreement on a common philosophy regarding the learning experience; “it blesseth him that gives and him that takes.” Once this is understood and adopted as a foundation construct, then we may begin to articulate the idea of quality as a measure of the learning experience. This is where we enter the world or metrics and assessments with the intent to execute an effective feedback and improvement cycle. Fortunately there are tools that may assist us in this process:

While these tools are extremely valuable on their own, I would never recommend adoption as an excuse to breathe a sigh of relief as though the quality question has been answered. These tools may be integrated in whole or in part into the overall governance and strategic planning process that subsequently drives day-to-day decisions regarding how learning activities are conducted. Human intelligence in the learning enterprise is still the prerequisite to data-driven decision making. Or at least it should be.

One of the reasons that it’s difficult to answer the “quality question” is that quality can be categorized in multiple ways, each with multiple considerations. The following diagram depicts a possible model.

Quality of Online (or Technology-mediated) Learning

diagram Copyright (c) 2016 by Hap Aziz

The four columns represent the categories in which we might assess quality attributes.

  • 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.

The horizontal themes are representative of characteristics that are common across all the quality attributes.

  • 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.

It’s at the intersection of each column and row that we might explore some questions regarding quality, such as what the ethical issues around the use of particular course content might be, or how we might go about measuring the user experience. Some of the questions might point to best practices that could be applied to most institutions under most circumstances, while others might be very specific to individual institutions, programs, or courses. I’ll be facilitating this discussion, in fact, at the Online Learning Consortium Collaborate regional conference in Las Vegas on June 10th this year, and the result should be a list of questions and considerations around those points of intersection in the diagram. I’ll follow up with a subsequent blog entry, so watch this space!

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What Do We Really Need to Know?

thumbby Hap Aziz

For much of my life, I’ve been fascinated by the process of learning; how people come to know what they know, why some people are able to learn some things more easily than others, and what might influence people to want to learn or not want to learn about particular topics. This fascination is what motivated me to study Artificial Intelligence through the lens of Marvin Minsky’s own reflections regarding the human mind, and how we might understand how the mind works by examining machine models. Ultimately, I came to the field of higher education where I would be able to consider the mysteries of learning as part of my daily work and life’s passion.

It seems ironic to me that when students choose to continue their academic journeys past high school is the question, “Why are we learning this?” so often expressed. Formal education after high school graduation is pretty much a voluntary decision (certainly in the United States), yet there is so much push back against the curriculum that students themselves decided to take. Of course, I can understand much of this push back in the context of the outcomes expected by many of today’s students. Marketable skills leading to good jobs is often the end goal, and with that destination in mind it becomes easier to see why students might hold up different pieces of their curriculum and wonder how, precisely, those pieces move them closer to where they want to be. And that thinking is not unique to students themselves; with the cost of education becoming such a concern, even the Federal government has weighed in and added concepts such as “gainful employment” to the conversation.

In any event, there are a number of apparent reasons for students to be so focused on particular outcomes that they question the wisdom of what has been part of the traditional liberal arts education process. Students continue to ask why they need to learn things that they do not see as relevant to their acquisition of skills, and educators look for ways to convince students to buy into the broader theme of education. Socrates told us that the unexamined life is not worth living, yet how can we even begin to examine our lives without broad knowledge of the human condition as a basis for comparison?

With every generation of students transitioning into higher education, the question continues to come up, and educators continue articulate the value of a liberal arts education. Richard Muller, Professor of Physics at UC Berkeley addresses the issue in a post on Quora, specifically talking about what students could (or should) be learning by studying both Shakespeare and Geometry:

In my mind, Shakespeare and Geometry teach the most essential lessons needed for a productive and successful life. Properly taught, they teach you to think, to take in the evidence, to analyze, and to deduce.

While I agree with Prof. Muller in principle regarding the value inherent to Shakespeare and Geometry instruction, there are two points of exception I’d take with his premise.

  1. Shakespeare and Geometry are too narrow. To suggest that there are particular subject matter areas that serve as keys to unlocking the mind does a disservice to the idea that learners are individuals that enter the teaching and learning environment with their own strong preferences. Prof. Muller isn’t explicitly stating that Shakespeare and Geometry are the only paths for students, but his argument does imply that it would be wise to route students through particular subject matter areas, if not these in particular. Why not Heinlein instead of Shakespeare? Why not Computer Science instead of Geometry? That leads to my second point:
  2. Shakespeare and Geometry are too late. By the time students have the requisite background education and cognitive maturity to contextualize Shakespeare and Geometry, they are old enough that their learning preferences have already been formed and quite likely solidified… which means they’re already going down the path of deciding what subjects have relevance in their lives. The love for learning needs to be kindled much earlier, and the lesson that all things are relevant needs to learned in a non-academic framework.

When I first started teaching undergraduates in the mid-1990s, I had the opportunity to conduct a seminar on the creative process for the incoming students. I shared with the students that the essence of the creative process was in taking seemingly unrelated ideas and bringing them together in new combinations. It was the combination of those ideas that marked eureka moment and invention took place. And in order to have those opportunities to combine ideas, the creative individual had to have a deep repository of ideas to begin with–which meant learning a lot about as many things as possible.

That line of reasoning appealed to many of the students, but I wanted to break it down into something perhaps easier to understand, and that’s when I hit upon a justification that would make sense even to–or perhaps especially to–younger learners. I talked about the structure of comedy, and how it was all about juxtaposing ideas that seemed to have no relation with each other. The joke often was a set up that introduced the component ideas, and the punchline was the mechanism that connected those ideas. Therein lies the humor, and that resonated with the students. It’s not difficult to see younger learners have a natural grasp of the essence of humor–even if they haven’t mastered the mechanics. Listen to a 4-year-old tell a knock-knock joke:

Child: Knock, knock.
Adult: Who’s there?
Child: Elephant.
Adult: Elephant who?
Child: Elephant with an umbrella! Hahahahaha!

There you have it: elephant and umbrella, two unrelated items combined in an unexpected way. Hilarity ensues, at least from a child’s point of view. But it is the essence of humor, even if it’s not that humorous to those of us old enough to tie our own shoes. The argument for learning things you think you don’t need to know becomes fairly straightforward, then, and it doesn’t depend on making a case for particular subject matter areas in order to understand logic or the human condition. It really comes down to fact that the more you know, the more likely you are to get the joke–no matter what that joke might be. No one wants to be the person who doesn’t get the joke, after all. And to be able to go through life seeing humor everywhere is one of the keys to examining life. I’d be willing to bet that Socrates was probably a pretty funny guy.

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Filed under artificial intelligence, gainful employment, Hap Aziz, higher education, humor, Socrates

The Power of Pretend

thumbby Hap Aziz

My daughter is a pretty typical 8th grade student. She has her friends, and her interests range from anime to archery; from Tom Sawyer to Twenty One Pilots. Her mother and I consider ourselves to be fairly active in her academic life, and education is a strong family value in our home. Her grades are good as she earns mostly A’s with the occasional B every now and then. Like most students, she has her most favorite subject areas and her least favorite. While she usually brings home A’s on her report card and is a good student in both, her favorite class is History and her least favorite is Math.

“In History you can pretend to be anybody,” my daughter says, explaining her preference. “Who wants to pretend to be a plus sign?”

I like to use this anecdote when I discuss the importance of narrative as an essential element of engagement for learners. People aren’t computers, and telling stories is much more effective than performing a data download.

In my last blog post, I wrote about approaching higher education website implementation in different ways, and I made the assertion that an institution’s website should be another tool used for student engagement. Interestingly, the folks over at Usabila have linked the topics of storytelling and website engagement together in a brief article titled, “Storytelling for a Better User Experience.” I especially like this statement from the article:

Stories unify and clarify often complex ideas into something tangible and universally understood because they appeal to something more than just intellect, they appeal to our emotions. Building a real human connection is the best way to engage your users and is the strongest motivation for action.

Considering that in my last post I wrote about a different model of institutional website management, why not explore a different model of institutional website design and implementation? Currently the websites are built according to a rather common format. There is information to be offered to an audience. With a (hopefully) sensible architecture and interface, visitors to the website should be able to find the information they need and move on. Not the most exciting activity, but this is information access based on a transactional paradigm.

How might a website operate if it were designed to interact with users from a storytelling perspective? I might imagine a very simplified interface to begin:

HapSchool
It’s really very simple. The user needs or wants some information, and the website is able to make a query, letting the system do all the work. We already have some indication how such a system might work in the real world: Siri, Google Now, and Cortana. There are some obvious challenges with this design approach, most notably that this doesn’t do a great job of providing information to users other than what they specifically request. Sometimes we don’t know what we should know, and as a result, we don’t know how to ask for it. Bottom line, while this is an interesting approach, website exploration becomes somewhat of a chore. Okay, it becomes more of a chore than it already is. Which brings us back to the idea storytelling and game development as a possible way forward.

In her book Reality is Broken, Jane McGonigal talks about an online game called Chore Wars that turns doing household chores into a competition in which people can earn experience points and ultimately be motivated into doing more chores. McGonigal writes about Chore Wars:

Individual success is always more rewarding when it happens in a multiplayer context, and this is part of Chore Wars’ successful design as well. The game connects all of my individual activities to a larger social experience… I can see how I measure up to others and compare avatar strengths to learn more about what makes me unique. Meanwhile, as I’m working, I’m thinking about the positive social feedback I’ll get in the comments on my adventure, whether it’s friendly taunts from a rival or OMGs of amazement for getting such a herculean task done.

Can interacting with an institutional website become a competitive task that in which you can compare your browsing and information-gathering experience with other visitors? I don’t see why not (and I also don’t see why elements of the traditional web paradigm can’t be provided alongside). There’s a story in there; a quest, perhaps. Some narrative scenario that sets up the user’s interaction with the website. The narrative may drive the user’s actions or it may simply provide a colorful context for exploration. In either case, it allows us to pretend that we’re doing something bigger or more exciting than figuring out how to sign up for the new semester or where to go for parking passes. That’s gotta be worth at least a few XP, right?

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Filed under Android, colleges and universities, Cortana, experience, games, gamification, Google Now, Hap Aziz, higher education, higher education institutions, narrative, play, Siri, storytelling, website