Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Possible educational value of using phones in schools

Today, I had a very enjoyable conversation with Dr. Kate Highfield about the roles of technology in early education. I've always been frustrated by school technology use in the US- we complain about not having the funds to support a 1-1 technology to student ratio in classrooms, but then spend countless amounts of time and energy preventing kids from brings cell phones into the classroom. We live in a world in which we are close to 1-1 people to technology ratio, and then we ban that technology from schools, and then try to recreate that 1-1 ratio from scratch. Which is why I was very intrigued when Dr. Highfield described how common the BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) policy was in Australian schools.

Putting aside the utility of greater student connectivity, could there potentially be other benefits to letting students use their phone in the classroom? Hear me out for a second. In my work at Iridescent, I found a real value to giving families in our family science program piles of unsorted household supplies to build their machines with. You can give nice fabricated or branded pieces, or "kits" of carefully measured out proportions of household materials, but either of those options tends to give the impression that you need the "nice" stuff or the "kit" to do science, and leads to less making things after the program ends. Nothing beats a random pile of unsorted household materials for giving someone the confidence to do science on their own, at home.

So would the same thinking apply to technology devices? Consider that whatever we do with phones in school, kids are going to be on their phones when they leave school. Wouldn't it be great if kids were spending that phone time on more productive, learning activities? It might be that using a school technology device, like a labtop or a tablet with some preloaded software, gives kids the impression that they need the "technology kit" to learn on their technology device. Maybe they will think that they need the school's computer that has been specifically specced out for learning apps, or the actual pre-installed applications, to really learn on some technology. Maybe they'll see that they can do some of the same stuff on their home computers, if they have one. But, on their phones? What if students actually needed to use their phones in school, in order to view and later use their phones as learning tools?

So here's my question to Dr. Highfield and anyone else- has anyone researched this issue, particularly in a place like Australia where a BYOD policy exists? Does the type of technology used by students in school affect how those same students use their personal technology devices outside of school?

Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Four Freedoms of Play and Common Core Standardized Testing

This article is cross-posted on the Iridescent blog.

I was inspired by Scot Osterweil's recent presentation at GLS, in which he presented his four freedoms of play:
  • Freedom to Experiment
  • Freedom to Fail
  • Freedom to Try on Identifies
  • Freedom of Effort
What makes this framework most interesting is that to Scot, these are not only the four freedoms of play, but also the four freedoms of learning. Good learning environments also need to contain these freedoms to be effective, an idea very much resonant with James Gee's view on games and learning.

Although these freedoms are not a particularly new idea, it was new to me this year, and it really helped crystalize several previous thoughts I've written about. It definitely resonated with my ideas that agency is not a binary quality of an activity, but that learning activities can contain different degrees of agency. This framework helped illuminate some of those different degrees to which an activity can contain freedom/agency. 

But most interestingly, Scot noted in his talk how school doesn't contain these freedoms, despite the fact that both games and learning do.  His challenge to us was to imagine a school environment that did contain these freedoms. I found it especially interesting to think about in relation to Common Core and standardized testing, which led to the question of this blog post: could a school environment that was constrained by standards ever achieve these four freedoms? Let's try to break down the freedoms and answer that question.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Homemade device to record your iPad with your iPhone using popsicle sticks and rubber bands

This article is cross-posted on the Iridescent blog.

So at Iridescent, we like to live what we preach. We don't just ask kids to make things from scratch, we do it too. Recently I decided that I needed a device to record myself playing games on my iPad (for a separate project to be talked about later). I had done this once before using my iPhone stacked up on a bunch of books and it worked reasonably well. So I decided I wanted the device to hold my iPhone in a position where it could record my iPad. But I also wanted to record myself consistently over the course of a year, so that each time I set it up, it recorded the same way, which meant I needed something better than the stacks-of-books method. It also had to be minimally intrusive in preventing me from using the iPad.

As I thought about this, I realized I had a well-defined design challenge that I needed to solve. Which meant to make things more fun, I decided to use the rule in we use in all of our design challenges: use only low-cost materials.

Additionally, I was always impressed with a Leonardo Da Vinci segment that Bobby Zacharias used in our Be an Inventor program in spring 2012. In the first weeks of that program, students had to design some kind of invention using only the tools and technology available to Leonardo. This meant no glue or machine screws could be used to make connections--things had to be lashed together or connected by pin joints. I always thought that sounded fun, so I decided to put the same constraint on my device.

So, where did that leave me? With a handful of popsicle sticks, rubber bands, and a bunch of ideas in my head.

The final result! Now, how did I get here...

Thursday, November 13, 2014

5 Signals that an "Educational Game" Isn't Really a Game

This article is cross-posted on the Iridescent blog.

Kids love games, but why do they hate educational games? The short answer is that most aren't truly games, because being gamelike means a lot more than having flashy graphics and a point system. As an educational game developer, I think one of the most damaging aspects to this industry is when people call things games in order to get kids to play them when they clearly aren't games.

How can you spot the fake games masquerading as educational games? Here are a few signals I've picked up on over time.

1. When walking through a demo of the game, the game designer stops to say "And this part is where the learning occurs."

The learning should be everywhere, not in one part of the game. If you can compartmentalize the part of the game that is about learning, you did something wrong. One such example would be breaking up the game to show a player an instructional video- if you are using a video to teach, then you are not using the gameplay to teach.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Function vs. Aesthetics in data visualization

This article is cross-posted on the Iridescent blog.
To me there are two aspects to data communication: aesthetics and functionality. Aesthetics is obvious, it’s the visual appeal of a graphic, but functionality is less obvious. Graphics have a functional purpose, which is to highlight patterns and trends in data in a visual way. A graphic is functionally successful when it is easy to understand the patterns in the data. This seems arbitrary, but in fact it can be quantified-- you can measure the time it takes someone to process different graphical representations of the same data set. From this, you can derive principles that lead to graphics that have high functional value, or short interpretation times. For more info, read Tufte (on the Iridescent reading list!).

Given my background, I’m of course approaching the issue as a scientist, and as you might guess, science is almost entirely concerned with graphic functionality. Scientists are commonly working with extremely complex and inter-related data sets, and determining patterns from such data can be tricky. Using default graphics options can lead to visual clutter when dealing with complex data, and so many scientists take a lot of care in thinking how to present their data in ways that highlights the patterns they wish to emphasize. That being said, scientists place little care in aesthetics, often providing very ugly, but easy to understand graphics.

This is something I cared a lot about in grad school. I felt that someone’s ability to understand my data and take something away from my presentation was highly dependent on my ability to present that data clearly. I could have done an absolutely stellar research project, but with poor visuals few people would be able to understand or appreciate what I had done, so I put a lot of time into understanding data visualizations. (This desire to have people understand research is not common to all scientists-- some just want to do really interesting research and could care less how many other people know about it). I took several courses in science communication, had a great advisor and fellow grad students who gave great data visualization feedback, read a lot of Tufte, made science posters with Ioana, and still spend a lot of time learning how to use data visualization tools like R and Illustrator. Anyways, I don’t always nail it, but I try to do the best I can in finding the best functional way to present data.

That being said, I have very little understanding of aesthetics. I still cringe when I look at outfits I picked out for myself as a kid in old pictures, I’ve always had a horrible color sense. What this means is that I might do a really good job figuring out what elements of a graph should all be the same color to aide pattern recognition, but choose a god-awful color to represent them.

But is there a conflict between an aesthetically pretty graphic and a functionally useful graphic? Not necessarily, and I can certainly think of graphics that do both effectively, like Napolean’s march:

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Similarities between Communism and the Common Core

This article is cross-posted on the Iridescent blog.

When I was on my high school debate team, we would discuss all kinds of philosophical principles "in theory." I remember several discussions about Communism in which the common tagline was: "It was a good idea in theory, too bad it didn't work in practice." That phrase always bothered me. To me, a good idea was something that worked. If something couldn't be put into practice, it just wasn't a good idea, in theory or practice.

Understanding human nature is a vital component to an idea being good. If you have an idea for how people should interact with each other, but that idea doesn't respect aspects of human nature and psychology, then it's just a plain bad idea. And that was the problem with Communism to me, it didn't respect how people work. It didn't respect our intrinsic needs for agency, competency, and ownership. If you are designing a solution for people, it has to work for people, it can't just be "good in theory," in some abstract, idealistic sense of the word.

More recently, I've come to understand a similar sentiment in Silicon Valley entrepreneurial world. Venture capitalists aren't just looking for a good idea. They are looking for someone who has a good team behind them and can lead them to success, someone who understands the market and how to reach users: in sum, they are looking for someone who understands people, both internally in building their team, and externally in getting users. Great ideas are a dime a dozen: great realizations of great ideas are rare gems worth funding. In other words, you can't get funding with a great idea in theory: you need to have a great idea in practice.

Now, let's shift to the Common Core. First a distinction- I want to distinguish between the Common Core framework, and the system of high stakes achievement tests used to determine whether students have passed the tests. Sidenote: by high stakes, I mean there are consequences for both students and for teachers based on the results of the tests- a low stakes test can evaluate how smart students are, but low and high scores have absolutely no consequences for students or teachers, they simply give feedback on how well the system is doing. When states "adopt" the Common Core, it typically means they adopt both of these things, they aren't just giving their teachers a new set of standards to teach, they are also implementing a system of high risk testing.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

MozFest: not the typical conference

As I'm reeling from a combination of jetlag and mental exhaustion, I've been trying to figure out what made Mozfest so special of a conference. I've been to many conferences at this point, but my experience this past weekend was different, and I think I've been able to pinpoint 5 reasons why.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Introducing Movable Game Jams

This article is cross-posted on the Iridescent blog by Maggie Jaris.

When you hear the phrase “game jam” likely you’re picturing a room full of adults working, hacking, playing through the night to push forward the latest version of a game. A Movable Game Jam is not that.

For starters, a Movable Game Jam is designed for youth, not adults. It’s designed to foster deep learning in design thinking over a short period of time, and to do so by using games. Each Movable Game Jam has (you guessed it) many moving parts--multiple educators, organizations, and individuals coming together to put on an event to introduce youth to game design. The “Initiative” part is these same organizers--and new ones!--coming together multiple times to host different events, in different places (there’s that movability again) with different content (and one more time). Organizers of MGJs also come together virtually, adding the lessons they’ve learned and the modifications they’ve made to the overall Game Jam Model to a living document, the Movable Game Jam Guide. This document serves as a guide to anyone interested in running a Movable Game Jam, and as the movement grows, it will too.

The idea for the Movable Game Jam Initiative emerged out of Hive network pop-up events, a game jam held at the Museum of the Moving Image run for youth by youth, and Iridescent’s experiences running collaborative game jams. It was clear in all these experiences that a collaborative element added an extra spark to events, making them more valuable not only for the attendees, but for the organizers.

Making Simulation Games for Education: Emergent Systems

 This article is cross-posted on the Iridescent blog.

What makes an educational game work? What keeps the wheels spinning in a player's head, keeps them engaged and learning? Well, if you've read my other musings, you'd probably be quick to suggest it's the same principles that make commercial games successful. While this is certainly true, it's not the most informative advice. I thought it would be useful to get a little more specific and concrete by reflecting on my experience designing Iridescent's newest physics simulation game, The Gravity Ether.

So we'll talk about simulation games, the genre which seems to have the most educational promise.  And we'll talk about the principle key to making a simulation game work: emergent complexity.