Sunday, October 30, 2016

GHC16 / Building a Better Classroom: Lessons from Ed-Tech

One of the panels I attended at this week's Grace Hopper Celebration featured women from various companies engaging in ed tech, whether as their sole purpose or as a smaller part of their mission. Panellists included Prachie Banthia (moderator, Google), Lauren Janas (Microsoft), Stephanie Killian (Knewton), Jen Liu (Quizlet), and Sha-Mayn Teh (Teachers Pay Teachers).


The panel began with a discussion of the challenges in getting classrooms to adapt ed tech. Unsurprisingly, cost and difficulties in rolling it out topped the list. Then each panellist discussed what problems specifically they are trying to solve:
  • Learning can be static, tedious, and boring. Quizlet makes it more fun. Most users are middle and high schools using it for language learning, math science, etc. Some adults use it too, for things like med school and even bartending. Today, their focus is on K-12.
  • Knewton focuses on the problem in ed of 'one size not fitting all.' Standard models of education treat everyone the same (curriculum, pace).
  •  Some teachers were really focused on using tech in the classroom, e.g. to scale learning to class sizes of 45. Google Apps tries to support and reach the majority of teachers that aren't currently doing this.
  •  MS Office Mix supports developing materials for flipped classrooms. You can record yourself talking over a PowerPoint presentation, include quizzes, and distribute to students. The software provides analytics to improve lessons and see how well students are learning.
  • Teachers Pay Teacher helps teachers search for the right resources quickly.
Another one of the challenges faced by creators of ed tech is surviving the peak time of back-to-school. Advance planning is required to figure out how to scale the load capacity based on projected numbers of students. Launching any time after August 1 is really like launching the following year on August 1, because you've missed the critical window for adoption. The holiday season is the down-time, and that's where fixes and be made.

So how do these panellists view adoption of ed tech? They say tech in schools is fragmented, and so it is difficult to target a particular platform. It is very important for a company to earn the trust of teachers and administrators. Teachers are reluctant to test things on students. Too much setup time will make adoption harder: class time is precious. You have to make the barrier to entry as low as possible. And, of course, there are many issues around school networks / wifi. 

When it comes to the fear that ed tech might be trying to replace teachers, the panellists say this isn't the case; they want to empower teachers. Some call themselves teacher-preneurs and they all have such passion, and find creative ways to use technology to make their point with students.

A controversial question: are larger companies like Google and Microsoft more likely to succeed than the smaller companies, thanks to their resources? Having a lot of spare resources does give bigger companies a leg up. Smaller companies with education as a core product need to find a revenue model, which is challenging. Enterprise partnerships can help. All agree that it is good having the larger companies there, but also the smaller disrupters. Large companies have scale, and people already know how to use their products. Even still, monetization is hard for everyone (even Google struggles with this still). Smaller companies have the advantage when it comes to the ability to disrupt: Google can't take a pedagogical stance (65 million users whose trust can be lost), but smaller companies can.

Friday, October 21, 2016

GHC16 / Lyndsay Pearson on Valuing Inclusive Game Design

Invited technical speaker Lyndsay Pearson spoke at Grace Hopper this week about inclusive game design. Lyndsay has, as she puts it, grown up with The Sims, having working on the game in various capacities since nearly the beginning of the franchise. She shared some universally applicable advice on inclusive game design while sharing examples from The Sims.

By Dinosaur918 (Own work)

The first lesson, of course, is that the players are out there. Long gone are the days of believing all players are high-volume males in their late twenties whose central hobby is gaming. With such a huge diversity in players, there's an opportunity to develop games for even more inclusive audiences. To do that, we need to expand beyond the current factors most values in games: time, money, and number of games played.

So what can we do? Respect all players, invite different opinions, and intentionally build relatable experiences.

Respect All Players

Respecting players means truly recognizing them and their diversity. Coming to a game for a different reason that "most" gamers doesn't make you less valuable. Designers should ask themselves: how can I continue to connect with that player and relate to them? First impressions matter, which is why The Sims offered more options for body type and so on in their character creation.

Invite Different Opinions

The thing is that you have to do this even when it's uncomfortable. "We need to help bring people in and help them not bounce out," as Lyndsay puts it.

One example of this is ensuring you tune yourself to cultural sensitivity. For example, the Sims team learned that women were not allowed on game boxes in Saudi Arabia. Despite the fact they really didn't want to, they created a box with all men so that the game could be sold, and still be accessible in all the same ways to people in that country (especially women!).

Another example is religious sensitivity. They thought The Sims was good at avoiding overtly religious objects, but they later realized that the ghosts and voodoo dolls they included in the game also have religious origins. Thus, they realized were actually consistently inconsistent in this area. They had to own the fact they had no clean line and try to make decisions as consciously as possible.

The bottom line is that you need to get uncomfortable with these kinds of conversations. Do know that you get better at it the more you do it, though.

Build Relatable Experiences

Connect, relate, and interact with current world experiences. What's going on in the world that can be incorporated into the game? A nice example is finally incorporating women's team into the FIFA game. When they decided to do that, they became fully invested, considering all kinds of new possibilities, like a player leaving partway through a season to have a baby. The Sims also now has much more fluidity in its gender selection, helping break gender norms as we are trying to do in real life.


Lyndsay gave us a lot to think about when it comes to designing inclusive games, but as she pointed out, the lessons apply to all software design. Let's all make sure to keep these things in mind in our own endeavours.