Category Archives: high school students

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

Michelle Rhee, and Superman’s Long Fall from the Clouds

by Hap Aziz

Given her role as he chancellor of schools in Washington, DC, from 2007 to 2010, I am somewhat disappointed in this article on Michelle Rhee in the New York Times. This, especially after having seen and appreciated the documentary Waiting for Superman. It is important to know that the Inspector General in the Department of Education under Arne Duncan’s has been investigating whether Washington school officials cheated to raise test scores during Ms. Rhee’s tenure, but that does not mean that A) any cheating had actually occurred, or B) that Ms. Rhee was involved in the cheating. Still, it leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth for a number of reasons.

Two things trouble me from a fundamental perspective about our education system personnel infrastructure. The first is the whole concept of integrity (or lack thereof) when it comes to reporting actual performance measures for student outcomes. Is the thinking among the cheating educators so skewed that they don’t see that inflating test scores hurts the students moving forward? Surely, that must be clear. The other troublesome thought is related to compensation: are our educators concerned about pay increases so much that they are willing to commit wholesale fraud for it? Even being charitable and admitting to the possibility that cheating is done primarily to preserve their own jobs in a more “competitive” environment, that simply leads me to question the educators’ faith in their own ability to do good work.

One of the underlying themes to the whole issue is the idea that teacher evaluation either should or should not be in some way tied to student performance. Is it possible to evaluate teachers in some objectively fair manner, or should seniority be the sole (or primary) driver for security of employment? That question is certainly worth a deeper discussion, and perhaps we’ll approach the topic here at a later date. Let me know what you think!

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Filed under accountability, education, Hap Aziz, high school students, learning outcomes, standards

Innovative Online Education: Bringing the College to the Student when the Student Can’t Come to the College

by Lauren Gosnell

Finding new, innovative ways to further online education allows colleges and universities to reach out to students who may have thought obtaining a college degree impossible. Large demographic groups in this country are underrepresented at universities, not because they don’t have the ability, but because other life factors prevent them from being able to attend college the way a traditional student might. Online programs have the ability to become more specialized and appeal to those groups who are currently not obtaining degrees. Making groups such as high school students, women and minorities, single mothers, prisoners, and Spanish speakers more aware of online education programs could open new possibilities for both these potential students and the universities.

A growing problem in many areas such as East Valley School District in Washington is the increased rate of students dropping out of high school. If more students are not graduating high school, colleges and universities can hardly expect their graduation rates to increase. Many of these students do not drop out because they can’t handle the curriculum, but for a variety of other reasons such as needing to work, being bullied, or just feeling that sitting in a classroom all day isn’t for them. East Valley School District has answered this problem by making online classes available to high school students so that they may obtain their degrees from home on their own time.  This program is free for students and they are even provided with laptops so that the financial challenges of online learning will not be a hindrance. Since being implemented, this program has helped hundreds of students to graduate who otherwise would have dropped out.

Introducing students to online learning early on makes sense in a growing technological world.  Online education is becoming more popular, and familiarizing high school students with it on some level could better prepare them for college and make them more comfortable with this mode of learning. Some colleges such as Brown University, University of Pennsylvania, Oregon State University, and California State University-Dominguez Hills offer online classes for credit to high school students to introduce them to online learning, give them a head start on obtaining their degrees, and better prepare them for the rigors of college. All of these advantages available through online learning make these students more likely to graduate from college.

A website called MentorNet, discussed by Laura Newberry, seeks to help women and minorities looking to enter career fields in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics; fields disproportionately low for these groups. While this website is geared towards these groups, it is available to all students. Universities previously were required to pay $5,000 per year for students to utilize this site, but it is now being offered free to anyone with a university email address. These interactions take place completely online and help students with networking, dealing with work place discrimination they might face, and any topics not covered by college curriculum for their chosen field. While many of the coaches are white males, they are given training to be sympathetic to the plights of women and minorities. Over 100 schools currently participate in this program and 95% of students graduate. Online learning should not only be restricted to the academic experience, but it can also be used to help students prepare for life after earning their degree.

In Child-Friendly College Programs for Parents, Katy Hopkins discusses ways for people, mostly single mothers, to attend college. One excellent program is provided by the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. This blended degree program serves as a compromise for students who crave the college experience, but who can’t spend too much time away from their kids and jobs.  This allows single mothers to complete their degrees entirely online if they wish or partially online and in the classroom if their schedules allow. “You can do it while the kids are asleep, while you’re at the playground with the kids—at any point in time,” says Ingrid Bracey, the program’s interim director. “It’s at your convenience.” This online program is available to anyone, but by marketing it especially to single mothers, they are reaching a group who may have never considered online learning as an answer to their demanding schedule and opens new doors to these women and their children.

The number of people incarcerated in this country continues to rise. A 2003 report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics on Education and Correctional Populations shows that 68% of inmates have not completed high school, but that 26% had completed their GED while incarcerated. This shows a population who could be motivated to better themselves through furthering their education. Utah State University recognized that around 97% of inmates will be released at some point in their lives and will be unprepared for the world facing them. This university was one of the few to offer an online education program to inmates. These programs are rare in general, but because so many prisons restrict prisoners’ computer access, it does take effort on the university’s part to implement a program. Utah State University unfortunately had to cut this program in 2007 due to budgetary constraints, but hopefully more universities will attempt to reach out to this population in the future. The Education and Correctional Populations report also found that prisoners who earn a college degree are less likely to return to prison and are more likely to find and keep a job. By offering online learning to prisoners we could curb the prison recidivism rate and decrease the number of ex-convicts who stay dependent on the state after their release.

The International Hispanic Online University offers a full range of online courses, using Spanish as the primary language of instruction. As more and more students begin taking online classes it is becoming more important for institutions to set their specific programs apart, and this one effectively does so by reaching out to the increasing Spanish-speaking population as well as those who hope to use Spanish in their career field. According to reports by the Pew Hispanic Center, Hispanic students are shown to be more likely than other ethnicities to attend two-year colleges and find it increasingly difficult to graduate. Offering online classes in Spanish could be appealing to these students and hopefully increase the number of Hispanic students who seek and obtain college degrees. This program is designed to make Spanish-speaking students more comfortable with learning. By offering online classes, it should help them complete courses faster, thereby increasing their chances of graduating at rates closer or equal to those of their white counterparts.

As online education becomes more standard, it is up to colleges and universities to use the technology and mode of instruction in better, more innovative ways to reach out to people who may have otherwise never been able to achieve a post-secondary degree. By finding and appealing to groups such as women, minorities, including Hispanics, single mothers, and prisoners, who are less likely than the general population to obtain degrees; the U.S. could boast a more educated population in the coming years. By offering online education to high school students to help them graduate or begin earning college credits, universities can also better prepare its future students for the online technology now available to them. And by maintaining the standard of online education and making it appeal to specific groups, while still being available to the general population, online education could become more effective as a tool of engagement in higher education. The technology is here, and now is the time to explore methods of engagement so that larger groups of people will be motivated and inspired to succeed in obtaining their college degrees.

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Filed under high school students, Hispanic students, Lauren Gosnell, online education