Saturday, March 24, 2012

Where Have I Been Lately, Anyway?

While I managed to get back on the blogging bandwagon in February, I've had a pretty big gap here in March.  So where the heck have I been?

I'd love to blame my absences on the baby, but it's not entirely her fault.  She's been quite good so far.  The last few days she's been more fussy, but I think it's because of the 3-month growth spurt, so hopefully that will be done and out of the way soon.  I've been able to balance getting some work-like stuff done while she plays happily beside me or snoozes.  I have even mastered the art of browsing and sometimes even typing on the laptop while she nurses.  Yay!

The bigger reason I've been busy lately (and probably will be for a little while yet) is that I'm interviewing for a job.  I'll tell you all more about it once the interviews are over and a candidate is chosen.  I've spent a good chunk of time preparing for this.

If I am successful, my plan is to finish the PhD part time.  This may sound insane, but I'm hoping that because the job lines up rather well with my research interests, I'll be able to have a lot of overlap in terms of time and effort spent.  To show it's possible, I point to Steph, who has a young kid, works full time at a job that overlaps in a sense, and manages to do a pretty kick-butt job at her Masters research.

Other than that, I've been working on our book for CS beginners, projects related to Gram's House, and thinking about the PhD project I want to focus on.  I'm looking forward to a fun summer with camping, gardening, and time spent with Molly!

What cool things have you been up to?

Friday, March 23, 2012

Bear 71: The National Film Board of Canada's Interactive Narrative

How do you get people to care about the diminishing natural habitat of wildlife in Banff National Park and surrounding area? Telling an emotional story from the point of view of a resident bear helps, but The National Film Board of Canada takes it one step further.  They produced Bear 71 as an interactive documentary formally lasting 20 minutes but with the ability to explore as long as you wish.

I found this interactive narrative through author and game designer Lorraine Hopping Egan.  This is what she had to say about it:
The National Film Board of Canada keeps pushing those storytelling boundaries.

I just took an interesting and emotional stroll through Bear 71, an interactive digital story told from the point of view of a real bear who was tracked through Canadian forests for eight years. The clever part is that you, a human with a number, become one of many tracked species as you navigate across a digital landscape, encountering other animals, while the bear tells its story. Animals are shown in short, grainy videos—taken by covert, motion-triggered cameras.

In terms of technology, the approach is again simple (I've noted before that I think we need creative breakthroughs right now more than technological ones).  The main story line was narrated by a bear named Bear 71 for its tracking number.  You can start and stop the main narrative with controls at the bottom of the screen.  At the same time, you can explore a map of Banff National Park, as seen in the image above (behind the images of the bears).  When you click on the markers of various animals recorded in the park, you see short videos captured of them with motion cameras and the like.  The trail of Bear 71 as it fits with the main narration is also visible as big black dots.

Personally, I really liked the main story being told.  The ending succeeded in making me feel sad and had me reflecting on the effect of humans on wildlife habitats (especially when they said something about humans being able to create smart phone apps but not being able to remember to close the lid on a bear-proof garbage can).  When full-screen videos popped up during the story, they were interesting and timely.

At the same time, I am not sure how much the interactive part of the documentary actually added.  Don't get me wrong - it was well done, and had a certain cool factor, but more than once I was actually distracted by it.  I was paying too much attention to clicking the animals around me and chasing after Bear 71 to fully listen to the main narration.  I was also distracted by the fact that the video shown for Bear 71 was always the same even as her marker moved through the park.  I honestly think I missed a lot because of these things.

I also didn't clue into the idea of being not just a tracker, but also a trackee.  Lorraine described it like this:
As I recall, you are an avatar "human 17142" or something and can encounter other humans who are in the game (MMO-style) and they can follow you and you can follow them and click on their tag for more info.

I mostly went out of my way to avoid them so that I could concentrate on the story and my own exploration, but I also wondered if my actions were being recorded, perhaps anonymously or tied to my IP, which would make me a "tracked animal" in a sense.
This is really fascinating.  I had my webcam on, but I did not see any other humans on the map when I played.  I think if I had noticed this notion of being tracked, the interactive side would have had more impact for me as clever procedural rhetoric.

Overall, I like the direction the NFB has taken with this project and hope that they can keep pushing the creative boundaries of interactive storytelling using tools we already have available.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Building Better Rubrics Using Game Design

Game-like grading systems, a sense of playfulness, and more.  Ian Schreiber gave a talk for AltDevConf on using principles of game design when teaching and showed us that it's about more than just gamifying education in the reward-happy marketing bandwagon sense.

One of the first things Ian talked about is his own experience implementing a game-like grading system.  Even though he is decidedly against that marketer's idea of gamification I alluded to earlier, he figured he'd try two ways of making grades seem more interesting.

First, he tried making the final grade out of a million points, giving something like 50,000 for each assignment.  This made the points more like what you might see in a game, but otherwise did not affect the grading system.

Second, he had everyone's grades start from perfect, but used the concept of 'health.'  He had a chart of hearts such that after you lost, say, three hearts, you'd move from an A+ to an A.  Lose four more and you'd be at an A-, and so on.  This was an interesting experiment since, as Ian mentioned, most similar approaches have students work up from a fail as they complete coursework, similar to  gaining XP.

The funny thing is that while even Ian didn't think this should work, it worked really well.  The students liked these schemes a lot.  He figures it has less to do with the idea of changing a grading system and more the fact that it was playful.

Turns out that playfulness is a really powerful idea that Ian was able to use in more than one context.  For example, instead of giving a standard formal final exam, he had his students design a game in groups within a two hour period.  It wasn't an easy challenge for them; they received new (and changing) constraints every fifteen minutes! But it made them relaxed, so Ian was able to evaluate them based on their true knowledge, not on what they could recall under stress.

I am really looking forward to trying some of the ideas in this video the next time I teach an undergraduate course.  I'm also looking at James Paul Gee's (and others') ideas about applying principles of game design to education very carefully.

Have you tried applying game design principles to your grading schemes or other areas of your courses (at any level, not just undergraduate)? What went well, and what didn't?

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Bastion: Narrating Your Every Move

Who knew that having your every move narrated back to you could be so satisfying? Far from annoying, the compelling nature of the voice-overs in Bastion demonstrate once again that you don't need complex technology to produce a truly great storytelling experience.

Bastion box art obtained via Wikipedia

Right from the very start of the game, a rustic voice belonging to a sage old man describes your actions and the game world.  The wording would probably be suitable for a short story, it's that good.  Not only that, but it's varied enough that you don't feel like you hear the same thing over and over.

And the technology to make it happen? Certainly nothing complicated.  The logic would be pretty straightforward, especially given the constrained nature of the isometric 2D play space.  When the player falls off the edge, a related quip is spoken.  As the player moves into a certain area with predefined enemies, background on why he is there is given.  Small mementos left in the world can be gathered, and the player can ask for a piece of their back stories later on.

It doesn't hurt that the voice acting and, like Skyward Sword, the music are top notch.

Have you played some or all of Bastion? What was your experience? What other games have fantastic storytelling that was likely accomplished with relatively simple technology?

Monday, March 5, 2012

The Little Things Matter When Learning Math

I recently started tutoring someone for grade 11 college prep1 math.  Our first topic was trigonometric equations for solving triangles.  When my student got stuck on solving a right triangle after finishing several problems involving more complex triangles, I was surprised.

Turns out the problem was one of notation.  In most of the problems the student encountered, angles were labelled as A, B, C and the sides opposite those angles as a, b, c.  The formulas written down for right triangles, on the other hand, used theta (θ) as the angle and opposite (O), adjacent (A), and hypotenuse (H) for the sides.

So after getting used to one way of looking at angles, the student was stumped when faced with θ; they just weren't sure what they were solving for.  Once I explained that θ was another way of labelling angles, the rest was easy.

It really goes to show that the little things matter a lot when learning math.  If you don't have the language down pat, a little change like this can throw you off.  Although it would have been easy to make a formula sheet with consistent labelling of angles, it is something easily missed by a person with a long history with the language of math.

I imagine the same is true of computer science.  How often do we use multiple synonyms when teaching beginners how to program? How often are our students thrown off by terms that appear to be completely unrelated to them? Definitely something to watch out for.


1 This is a term used in the Ontario curriculum. College prep courses are intended for students who intend to take a college diploma program rather than pursue a university degree.