Sheltons Organic Turkey

if I empty out all the unimportant stuff here, maybe there'll be more room in my head for important things

name: shelton brett
location: western u.s.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

my first hockey goal

Not a giant proclamation or anything, but I have to announce that I scored my very first hockey goal the other night (in competitive play). Get ready to be bored with a play-by-play of a men's no-checking-league hockey highlight:

It was a rebound goal. I was at the edge when I saw the puck come toward me from in back of the net. I threw my blade at it a few times in quick succession, and sure enough, I got it over the goalie pad which was late in getting over. So.... I stood there. No real celebration, no huge horn sounded or anythingl. I skated to the bench among some congratulations (thanks, Ian, youdaman) and just felt glad to be part of a good thing. So, the thing is that I fully expect that this goal to be the last of the athletic-related feats I'm going to accomplish. I'm getting old, and this is likely the final sport that I'll try competitively. But I'm very happy that I scored, it was quite a thrill, as I got hooked on hockey when I lived in Phoenix and especially when I moved to Detroit. BTW, I kept the scoring streak alive with a nice assist the next game: I took it away from a defenseman the first period and sent one toward the net, and Greg was there to tip it up and over the goalie pad to score. (Yea, Greg!) It was a score to knot the game at 2-2 in the first. We went on to finish 7-2 so the other team was pretty chapped by the end and it got a little chippy (they have a guy named something really cool, some say it's an amalgamation of his last name "pichar" but it sounds like "pie chart" and I really want that to be my nickname since I hate those things so much and I teach data vis. ... anyway)... Assisting a goal is as much or more thrilling than scoring for yourself, maybe because setting someone else up is harder than actually scoring. I don't know, but the assist was just as sweet. It's a great game... I just hope to keep improving the longer I play.

a little more on activity-goal alignment for instructional games

Here, I relate about some of the ideas about "activity-goal alignment" theory for desiging instructional games. which I've tried to implement in my class of instructional games (and the CLE lab):

This is an effort of teaching New Media educational strategies to instructional technologists through interactive fiction. The Instructional Games class I teach is composed of graduate students in Instructional Technology. The students explore the field of instructional gaming through a survey of readings, existing products, and those in development. The class considers:
  • What is the emerging nature of this field?
  • What are the elements of an effective game?
  • What makes for “good” instructional design within a gaming environment?
A large emphasis of the class is in the examination of current research. In-class activity centers on readings and class discussion. Out-of-class activity includes exposure and the playing of games, and the creation of students’ own game design.

The students become teachers of new media. This class is unique in many ways, the most prominent is that I'm teaching students how to create new media resources for education, so at the same time, they need to think like teachers that use new media text in their classes. As Gee noted, “When people learn to play video games, they are learning a new literacy” (2003, p. 16). It is most common for instructional technologists to become mini-content experts in the areas of curriculum they are designing, however, what is new is that they must develop a critical sense of what makes for “good” games, read the game so as to formulate learning objectives that are parallel (or integrated) into the goals of the game, and create instructional products within the constraints of the planned educational environment.

I have them read a lot. A list of research and readings attempts to span the spectrum of learning theory, game theory, and instructional game research that includes Aldrich, Crawford, Gee, Wolf, Kirriemuir, Koster, Miller, Squire and many others (a full list is available at ).

The Case for the Class: Designing and Creating Interactive Fiction
One of the major assignments for this class is the design and partial creation of an instructional game based on Edgar Lee Masters’ work Spoon River Anthology using the medium of interactive fiction (IF). My students experience the medium of IF through play and critical analysis (Zork, Montfort and Granade works, among others) then dive into an unfamiliar computer language in order to transform a classic text into something new. They transform SRA into a new media text aimed at 9th grade English students (and teachers) who may experience and analyze the piece in ways expected (reading comprehension, poetry, literary devices) and unexpected (computer language, confidence and self-esteem, problem solving).

The (constraint?) process I have them follow for design/development is one of activity-goal alignment, meaning that they must design the game-like activity so that it integrates the instructional goals of the product. How do they do that? Well, it's a challenge. But the point of it is that they can't simply insert game-elements (presumably to increase motivation to play, as that's what game-like elements do) just for the sake of increasing the engagement of the game. Eventually, these game-like elements will distract from the learning. At the same time, they can't simply insert instuctional techniques (for instance, a "reflection" activity) without having it be involved with the game activity. This will keep it from being boring and create those cognitive "shocks" that take someone out of "flow" like states of activity. With this premise as a guide, they must design and develop with the game activity aligned with the instructional goals in order to make a successful educational game.

The students will eventually implement a New Media pedagogy in instructional Technology.
Specifically, I'm teaching a class on how to theorize about and design/create instructional games, with the class project aimed at designing a work of IF to teach a classic book for use in high school English classrooms. How do instructional technology designers need to become mini-experts in various subjects, and share successes and pitfalls of the students in my class? Something to consider. Portions of the game they develop will be available to be shared, I'll make sure that gets posted when it's ready.

interactive fiction as a text book

So, these posts have to be getting boring. "Too academic, not enough laughs." Yeah, well who asked ya? Just kidding, but lately stuff's in my head that is academic so that's what I must blog.

So I had this idea, based on the project I've initiated with my Instructional Games class, about taking Interactive Fiction (IF) to other domains. I mean, I know other people have taken IF to all other areas, so no big whoop. I'm not the inventor here. But I mention to my partner-in-crime David Wiley about my idea of using IF for a textbook for a class, and he thinks he already invented it. Whatever, doooode.

Anyway, wouldn't it be crazy to have students enter a domain and walk around exploring things, alluvasudden, an NPC of David Merrill comes out and starts talking about the first principles of instructional design. Well, wouldn't that be cool? You're typing text to speak to him: he's telling you about pebbles in ponds. Fantastic! How about if you get two or more of them into he same space and have them speak to each other. This is perhaps the most important benefit of MOOs and MUDs, I think. You get people in these things that can interact with you, have conversations with you, and you begin to scratch the surface of the persona....

Well, perhaps David and I can pull off this project with some funding. We have the basis for IF from my project in the Instructional Games class I'm teaching. Dr. Wiley is innovative as hell (yeah, I said it) in making an online book that contains a whole bunch of characters (all eventually, written by himself) discussing the issues at hand for his class. This is going to be a great book (also a TEXTBOOK) to read, and you can count me in on the readership. Anyway, I don't know if people will respond to it like I have, but in the same spirit, the IF textbook should have the same kind of impact. Imagine, interacting with content and characters as the book author intended, yet having some feeling of narrative, story and autonomy as you move through chapters. Interact with characters from the past, present, and fictional in the same space. Survey an entire fields (Instuctional Technology) by typing commands to "go north", "turn on lamp" and "kill Wiley with knife." Cool stuff.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Learning, Complexity, and Simplicity (II)

See, there's this heater between our offices that lets communication pass through the vents, so I hear his Barry Manilo and he hears my Supersuckers, but the conversation normally never gets this far, which is why we must blog. Gotta blog, people. Dr. Wiley reflects on many things here, including why "learning" playing Sims 4 may be valuable, but let's just say that I stub my toe quite often and don't like it. Does that mean I've learned to stop stubbing my toe? Show me the learning.

Okay, let's start a little earlier. David writes that the order in which things happen make all the difference, in terms of "stimulus-response" vs. "probe-gather data," and that humans work in both modalities. His perspective is that we are "learning agents with goals and purposes" who are able to grab control of this experimental mechanism to meet certain circumstances. I think based on purposeful action and motivation certainly it seems that both happen, but that's where the "cyclical" part comes in. I think that where ever the cycle "begins" it doesn't really matter (tomato-tomahto), these perception-repsonse cycles happen extremely quickly. If David wants to argue that purposeful, meaningful action always begins at the "probe environment" level then that, to me, is an argument that dodges the idea of making complex connections about our world. Again, the stimulus-response mechanism is for dealing with our immediate environment, and no doubt it plays a role in our understanding of complex concepts. However, because it's a cycle, it's less useful to argue when we enter/exit that cycle but rather how what new experiences we have mesh with our previous understandings.

Dave goes on:

To stand on a soapbox I have almost broken with use, effective instructional design is a radically interdisciplinary undertaking. “Message design” is Brett’s term, not mine, but to work with it I would say that a more sophisticated understanding of message design would include considerations like the sociocultural context in which the messages are being sent / received, the mode of their communication, and the artifacts in which they may be reified.

Actually, message design is not my term at all, but one that has a long history of studying how we make meaning from our world, covering areas from semiotics and cogntive science to learning and instructional design. I think message design experts do attempt to take into account sociocultural context, and is very much an interdisciplinary pursuit. I was merely attempting to delineate what level of importance David was making in studying the "messages" being passed back and forth between learner and her environment, and the role of instructor/designer. I was arguing that the role is much larger than carefully formulating "messages" themselves, so now it feels as if he is backing off of his original idea. Or, there are two more possibilities--either I'm not getting his point or we actually agree (land-sakes! there's oil in them fields!).

So here is the crux of the conversation, I think. David then goes on to disagree with me somewhat on the value of "learning" with something like Sim City. He says that managing individual components of a game, like zoning, parks, taxes, civic infrastructure, are somewhat simple but that the complexity lies in the interactions of these components. Understanding collective patterns from these components is difficult.
Yes, the learning is definitely secondary. Should we devalue it because it is secondary? Do we look down on the amazing learning of history and culture one gains by becoming proficient in games like Civilization III? Who would you rather have for the Mayor of your town - someone with a degree in management or someone who has mastered Sim City?
Interesting how the word "secondary" made David feel as if I were writing about the value, or lack thereof, of interacting with a sophistocated system (yes, I think Sims is somewhat sophistocated). Secondary, in this case I meant "unintended" rather than "less valuable." { This is great, I'm the guy who teaches instructional simulations and games and now I have friends arguing to me about how valuable they are. It's almost like when I told Dr. Wiley that the faculty is the department. ;) }

But this is the interesting assertion that parents and scholars alike seem to conclude, and David is certainly not the only one. Do kids have "amazing learning" about history and culture from their gaming experiences? Not that I can tell from nearly all of the literature (check out DeJong and Jooligen's piece on scientific discovery learning, for example). But you say, "But I can see it! I can see the learning!" Well, show me the learning. Show me that a Sims expert makes a better mayoral candidate than a business graduate. Show me that because I can do an activity, and be successful at achieving the ends of that activity, means that I've learned something valuable, complex, important and applicable.

Was that activity a designed learned activity meant to teach me something meaningful? Great! Still, prove to me I learned. Well, you say, I can do that any number of ways, most of which include an assessment exercise. Okay, I'll buy that. But now prove to me that I learned something meaningful from a game, designed to be a game. Oh, but that's not what you mean, this "other" learning from my activity is also valuable, things like social skills or confidence. Well that's okay too, I'm just saying that let's say what those games are good for, and stop assuming that anyone who runs a Sims town is ready for public office.

But wait, let's assume that David's right, and that kids learn about culture and history from Civilization III. It's then my assertion that they learned these things from game-based activities that were closely aligned with learning objectives teaching culture and history. Could these learning objectives be implicit rather than explicit? Highly possible. Did it feel like a learning objective was being met during game play? Probably not. But I would argue that it was there, even if it was integrated seemlessly into game-like features of the player's activity. And really, that's my whole argument for intructional game design. If it's designed properly, then perhaps the gamer learns while playing, and the learning doesn't take away from the motivational elements within the game that makes so much educational software disengaging.

David writes:

We might rightly argue that all meaningful learning always is secondary - it is not learning for the sake of learning, or for the sake of a grade, it is learning in the service of accomplishing some goal which helps an agent meet some purpose of their own.
Well I think that is what we strive for in education, isn't it? Making learning meaningful to people? I can't tell if David's being cynical, or indicting our school system, but to me "secondary" learning is not unvaluable learning, but rather learning besides what the instructor/designer intended. I'm in favor of designing valuble learning, and I'm pretty sure David is too. So let's design for intended learning objectives, shall we?

Show me a game that you argue has valuable "secondary" learning in it for implementing in schools, and I'll show you an entire curriculum of Space Invaders and a group of graduates that can't tie their own shoes.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

lest we forget, learning is complex

So this would be a continuation of Wiley's comments on my previous entry about games, learning activity and the alignment of objectives. First of all, I can't write as articulately as Dr. Wiley, and I appreciate his views. A few of my thoughts on some of what he brings up...

Let me first relate to what David thinks of the action-feedback loop that underlies all learning. This is what I first learned as basic schema theory, in that the way we interact with our environment is through a mechanism of perceiving our world, adjusting to what information we get, modifying what we know, then making an appropriate action. This is in slightly different order in what David mentions them, but basically its the same idea. What he calls "pattern-matching" and "purposive" on the part of the acting "agent" remains as some sort of black-box internal mechanism within the learner. Is there cognitive recognition and alignment on some cognitive level? Probably. Is an assessment made of how important this "new" information is to the learner? Almost assuredly. Okay, I can buy this, sounds very similar to most traditional cognitive theory.

The part I get lost in is his leap to the assertion of how an instructor, or the designer of instructional materials, has very little import/impact on the way information becomes learned, rather, that it is the "crafting of the messages" that are sent to the learner where the greatest contribution lies. The act of learning, in my view, is much more complex than the message design (although I don't doubt that the way information is chunked, packaged, and delivered can effect the way it is understood). To me, the complexity of learning lies in numerous other factors, such as the social context in which it is experienced, the way the information is experienced (was it through passivity? Activity? Reflection? Application?), and the artifacts that share, contribute, and distribute what is "understood" (just to name a few). To me, an explanation of the action-feedback loop, on the most basic level, helps inform how we interact with our immediate environment, but does very little to inform how we as human beings gain complex understandings of our world and of each other.

I wish that we could follow a model of singular instructional strategy that worked for everything, but I have yet to see one. Which brings me back to Gagne's assumptions that different types of learning exist and different conditions would lend themselves to different types of learning. I don't disagree with these assumptions, as to me they genuflect an assertion that instructional models better wield high flexibility and serve as a guide, rather than a solution for complex instruction (though, I'm definitely not an instructional designer, rather I'm an instructional technologist, so I don't claim to be a Gagne expert). This idea, too, as Wiley expresses it would seem to miss the point of having instructional games meet a determined or defined "pre-condition" deemed suitable for gaming, unless Wiley's claim is that a suitable condition is one in the learning objectives completely align with the gaming objectives. The example of trial-error learning within Sims environment is simply misplaced: the Sims games are not created for learning, and the learning that takes place during activity has proven to be of secondary importance if people are learning at all (see BECTA report, Kuirrimuir reports, among others). Why? The game doesn't have learning objectives, other than to be engaging (motivational) and to make money for the producers. Games not intended for learning have met with uninspiring results inside and outside the classroom; learning games based on reward systems without goal alignment tend to be boring and off-task. There could be excellent message design within the game, but they consistently fail to afford meaningful complex learning outcomes.

So if goal alignment is equivalent to "game-like instructional conditions," then I'm down with what Wiley is writing. This will include what type of interactions the learner has with the game, because it's the activity of the game that provides the necessary complexity, and therein lies the meaning the learner makes from the game (with help from all of those other handy ID tools that drive the "matching" to previous experiences and lend "importance" to the information presented). If the interaction relies too much on collecting coins or building zoning areas to learn electromagnetism, or Crime and Punishment, or Van Gogh, then it's not going to be effective. And I think the perspective we should take lies far beyond a description of messages sent back and forth from learner to instructional artifact. We should have loftier goals.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

confirmation on the importance for simulation "alignment"

Yeah, that's a horrible title, but whatever.

So, this isn't really going to mean a whole lot to people out there who might be reading this (although, since I don't think too many people are reading, I think if you bear with me, it'll be okay), but I got all excited today because I was reviewing a piece by Andy Gibbons about how a critical check during "waves" of simulation design should be looking for alignment.

Specifically, the Instructional Alignment of the simulation to the learning objective is a check-point to make sure the design is on the right track. "Does the simulation environment and model structure match the performance and knowledge goals of instruction? Will solving problems in the environment provide the right types and amounts of practice and the needed instructional feature support?" (Gibbons & Fairweather 1998 Chapt 22 Computer-based Instruction: Design and Development).

Well, by golly, this has been my approach all along for the design of instructional games (yes, simulations and games are different, apologies to Rob Foshay who told me games are just simulations with fuzzier focus on outcomes and are therefore necessarily less effective learning tools--huh I say--the approach to simulation design and game design have been as different as a tennis ball and a piece of fruit, so there's more than just adding game-like elements to make it better-and-worse at the same time, but I digress, actually I have a lot to say on this). Back to my point.

I have been pounding on my students that when the goals of the instructional activity are closely aligned with those of the game activity, that you can have an effective mix of learning and gameplay. The result? An activity that looks and feels engaging (dare I use the term "high flow"?) while instructional too. Of course, this is easier said than done. And hardly ever put into practice.

The game studies that make it into my field still look at commercial games (NOT designed for instruction) used in classrooms to teach [whatever--"problem solving" or "resource management" or "social skills" insert a side-show learning effort example] it all really doesn't work in terms of directed instructional objectives. There's just anecdotal influences of social learning or more enthusiasm in the activity (duh, it's a game folks, do we have to revisit why games continue to engage people? They're fun. It's ad naseum already!) The side of the spectrum stands the games designed to teach something, that don't turn out to be all that fun. Why might that be? Because they're so focused on traditional instructional design "strategies" that they disengage the learner from the game activity. I use "strategy" in quotes here because I'm not at all convinced that many of the activities that are associated with ID are necessary, interruptive assessments being one of them, but others that are important like reflective exercises or application of principles, again I'm going tangent here.

... And then there's the few instructional games in the middle that use gameplay elements in a learning activity that aren't aligned with learning objectives at all, they're just game-like elements attached to another unrelated activity in order to make the activity more engaging. (Actually, I'm not sure if those are "in the middle of the spectrum" or not, I haven't drawn that up yet.) For example, putting students in a 1st person shooter maze and asking them to race to the finish line through correctly modeled organic chemistry pictures on the doors (see Bradley's work at Drexler). Or moving through a MUD collecting points/coins so that I can get to enhance my character, even though I'm there to study why all the people in the town are dying out (see River project at MIT). So, I'm not saying that getting a cookie for doing a good job can't be effective for learning some things, but not so much the complex activity that involves transfer of learning to new situations, contexts, cultures, yadda yadda yadda. It's for practice. It's giving motivational rewards for being good. I really think that can only take the learner so far, and not into complex learning arenas. Eventually, the motivation will only take the learner t h i s far, but not the whole way.

The alternative? Alignment, my friends. Align those goals with the goals of the game and work to integrate those other pesky instructional elements that help support the learner, provide reflection on activity, follows some sort of assessment strategy, all within the confines of the game's objectives. Impossible, you say? Perhaps, but we're giving it a run by making our Interactive Fiction piece to experience a classic text. What new ways might people interact with early 20th century American poetry? Let's find out!...