Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Dressing of Games

I've been reading A Theory of Fun for Game Design by Raph Koster lately. It's a pretty different take on game design, unlike any other book on the topic I've seen so far. It was one of the titles recommended by Blair MacIntyre during his augmented reality games workshop at ISMAR09.

I haven't quite finished it yet, but it's been an interesting read so far. One of the main premises is that games are fun because we, as humans, have a desire for learning. We want to find patterns in things that might be useful to us in other areas of life. Granted, this need stems from our caveman days, but we still seek 'useful' patterns to this day.

Throughout the book, Koster has his text on one page and amusing cartoons on the facing page. I just got back to a couple of cartoons that I remember seeing when flipping through the book before reading it. The first shows a pit that men are thrown into. They have to climb onto each other in order to escape. Although these are stick men, their postures and thoughts are quite tragic. "My wife..."

The next cartoon has the same stick men, but this time with lines drawn around them. It's Tetris, except the blocks contain desperate stick men. The point is about the 'dressing' of games:
The ethical questions surrounding games as murder simulators, games as misogyny, games as undermining of traditional values, and so on are not aimed at games themselves. They are aimed at the dressing.

Although I don't agree with everything in this book (for instance, I think that good stories matter more than is sometimes implied), it's worth picking up for the $20 or so it costs.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Mini-Course: Round Three

I'm super excited to be doing round three of my week-long mini-course for grade eight girls 'Computer Science and Games: Just for Girls!' this May. I've been thinking about what I might change this time around to make it better than ever:
  • Try using Scratch instead of Game Maker. The girls are definitely capable of making some great little games with Game Maker, but I am particularly interested in the fact that there is a community of similar-aged students using Scratch. This community might encourage the girls to keep using it after the course.
  • Do even less lecturing. I want to do even more activities, and maybe even show some games during the lecture portion of the class. I have a couple more CS Unplugged activities in mind that should fit well into the class.
  • I want to tweak my survey so I get even better information about how the course affects the girls' opinions of careers in computer science.
  • I'd like to find an effective way for the girls to keep in touch after the course (with each other as well as with me). This will be even more important during high school when the pressures of being cool might make them look away from computer science.

Monday, December 21, 2009

End of Term Bliss

I finally finished my last projects for school this weekend. In fact, I was half an hour late to our CU-WISE potluck dinner organized for execs and officers because I packaging up my project to send to my professor after waiting all day for some test code to finish running. And now I'm free...

This is bliss.

When you're so busy trying to take care of everything school related, it's very easy to lose track of how good you have it. So I wanted to take a minute and reflect on all that's happened this term so I can be purposely thankful for it!
  • Defended my Masters thesis, submitted it, and finally officially became a PhD student.
  • Attended Grace Hopper with some amazing women from CU-WISE, and presented two very well received talks. Did a good job as Lead Blogger. Got my photos published in Communications of ACM. Fell in love with the saguaro cactus.
  • Attended ISMAR09, where I made a lot of excellent contacts to add to my network, and received positive attention for blogging about the event. Got really excited about augmented reality, and made me even more sure of the direction I am taking for my PhD research topic.
  • Enjoyed great success in my role as TA Mentor. I'm still surprised there were so many attendees to my workshops.
  • Got random emails about cool companies wanting me to work for them.
  • Learned a lot of really cool stuff in my computers and cognition class, which I took for no credit but found it to be totally worth it. Happy with the paper I wrote on cognitive advantages of augmented reality, and hoping to publish some form of it.
  • Made lots of awesome new friends through CU-WISE, especially those who joined us on the exec and as officers this year.
  • Had a great birthday thanks to my husband and some CU-WISE friends.
  • Didn't totally burn myself out during the term and especially at the end of it -- for once!
This is bliss!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Strategies for Lighting the Fire for Learning

On December 4, I attended a public presentation that was put on for the Seminar in University Teaching, a graduate course at Carleton. Popular psychology professor Tim Pychyl gave the talk, even though he is currently on sabbatical. This post summarizes my take on some of the takeaways of that inspiring hour and a half.

You will always feel like an impostor. Especially in the classroom.

Huh? That's an interesting way to start a talk... but, you know, it's not entirely untrue. We all tend to get pretty worked up about getting in front of a class. Will they ask a question I can't answer? Will I remember the main points I wanted to make? Will my group activity go over well? That's why the first lesson is to choose one's words with care and abandon. Learn to trust that your words will come when you need them, and learn to stop worrying.

Ok, now on to the lighting that fire. The official title of the talk was actually this:

Psychology of Student Engagement and Self-Regulation: Strategies for Lighting the Fire for Learning

This fire has to begin with the us, the teachers. Students aren't going to light it themselves. The retired school teacher in LA who continues to work for free knows this. He had students from way back in the 1960's come to his retirement party.

Interest is an emotion, just like fear. It has motivational properties, causing people to approach or avoid a situation, or engage or disengage. Contrary to what some people may believe, it's our job, as teachers, to interest students. Besides, we have the best jobs in the world - why not share the interest we already have in what we do? In fact, one of the biggest differences between teachers with low and high ratings is their enthusiasm. We have to know the content, but we also have to remember who is in the classroom (the students).

Good teachers focus on the nature and process of learning. As poet William Butler Yeats said,
Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire.
We have the power to create the conditions necessary for a fire!

Here's what's needed: Skill, Will, and, at the intersection, Engagement. It's a juggling act to balance all of this, but it's doable. Here are some things to think about in terms of generating will and skill in a way that results in engagement (this is the part that's based on psychology).

Will (Interest)
  • Need for achievement. Can be fostered with moderate challenges and high expectations. Show students how to achieve success with these challenges.
  • Expectancy times value. Create the expectation of success and the value of learning by giving value and purpose to lectures.
  • Autonomy. Students need autonomy, but not too much. Foster it with choice.
  • Attributions. Model positive attributions, give alternatives (e.g. when someone attributes success to luck, suggest that perhaps it was a result of their hard work).
  • Mastery and performance orientation, intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. These don't have the polar opposites. Show students what they can get out of the course, give context, internalize with their values. Start lectures with an interesting hook.
  • Social goals/motivation. Students want to connect with people in the class. Fulfil their goals in the name of learning, or else they'll fulfil them themselves (for example, by texting).
Skill (Understanding)
  • Existing knowledge. Think about preconceptions, previous ideas, etc. Are you drawing on these experiences at all? Get at it through class discussion.
  • Goal setting, strategies, and self-monitoring. Students don't know how to do these things right away, so we need to teach them. Make them explicit, and state what should have been mastered by now at various intervals in the term.
  • Discipline differences. What is different between disciplines? Why is it different? Vocabulary? Make it explicit, for example, when you teach them how to write a journal paper for their discipline.
  • Meta-cognition. Let students get into your head and see how you think. Make it explicit. Show how you work through problems.
My plan is to take these ideas and make them concrete in the context of computer science. I hope to incorporate this into a TA Mentor workshop on lecturing next semester. I'll be sure to post what I come up with here.

In the meantime, take a look at these books recommended during the talk (which, incidentally, are now on my Wish List):

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Line Game at Design Tomorrow's World

This post was written originally for the Carleton University Women in Science and Engineering blog.

I just got back from Design Tomorrow's World. The event is very engineering focused, so being a computer scientist, I wanted to give them a bit of an idea of what CS is all about. I was invited to do an ice-breaker activity for ten minutes.

Normally, in these situations, I would use CS Unplugged activities. Unfortunately, I didn't have enough time to plan how to do these in only ten minutes, so I thought back to what I learned at an excellent outreach session at Grace Hopper 2008.

I ended up doing an easy little ice breaker called "the line game" some of you might be able to use one day. Basically, you have the group arrange themselves in a line based on how well they agree with a particular statement. This forces them to move around, and to talk to the others so they find the right spot (you can probably even bring in some sorting theory into it). I used three statements that lead into a bit about what computer science is all about:
  1. "I like playing video games." For those who really loved them, I talked about my school's computer science games stream. For the others, I explained that not everyone in CS is into games (basically trying to show that it's not a bunch of male, nerdy hard-core gamers).
  2. "I like math." I explained how algorithms are like mathematical thinking, but that you can focus more on design of interfaces and people etc if you want to.
  3. "I have programmed or would like to try it." Everyone has to learn to program in computer science, so I said that it's worth giving a try since they might like it (then I plugged my upcoming mini-course they could sign up for - Computer Science and Games: Just For Girls!).
The activity seemed to hit the spot, as I had some educators get my contact info afterwards so I could come tell their gifted students more about computer science. I think the girls also appreciated getting up and moving. ;)

Monday, December 7, 2009

Creating Your Academic Portfolio

I recently attended a workshop put on by our school's career services department about making an academic portfolio. Now that I'm a PhD student, I really want to redo my current website to better suit this type of portfolio. I made what's there now when I was still an undergrad planning on going to industry, and have been shoehorning all the research and teaching stuff into one little section doesn't highlight what I want it to. Here's what I learned from the workshop that I'll be using when I work on this (hopefully) over the holidays.

What is it?

An academic portfolio (also known as a teaching dossier as far as I can tell) is a way to evaluate teaching and research; there is no single standard, making it rather subjective. It is a moving collection of artifacts.

Why do you want it?
  • It can help you prepare your future and ground yourself.
  • It allows you to reflect on your research, teaching philosophy, and methods of teaching.
  • You need it for job applications, tenure review, or promotions processes.
  • It gives you a way to document teaching and research abilities over time.
Steps to getting started
(or, a nice artsy rhyming list of verbs)
  1. Project. What do you want your portfolio to show about you?
  2. Collect. Begin to identify the materials you need to accomplish this.
  3. Select. Choose only those materials that will be most effective in presenting your strengths, or start developing new material.
  4. Reflect. Think about why you've selected each document. What does it say about you? Does it fit with the vision in step one?
How is it evaluated?

Some of the things that may be assessed include:
  • knowledge of subject
  • preparation
  • enthusiasm
  • ability to foster participation
  • setting of high standards for oneself
  • methods of evaluation
  • effective communication
  • accessibility
  • reputation
  • innovative methods
  • adequacy of evidence
Your academic biography
(or, the first 'what')
  • career goals, mission statement
  • teaching philosophy
  • research prospectus (recent, current, and future research interests)
  • thesis abstract or chapter
  • academic writing samples
  • grant proposal and funding applications/approvals
  • transcripts, academic awards
  • certificates of honour or awards
  • copies of evaluations from workshops and presentations you did
  • list of courses taught, course syllabuses
Career development
(or, the second 'what')
  • copy of CV/resume
  • demonstrated list of skill sets/competencies (use SAR: Situation, Action, Result)
  • letters of recommendation from previous employers, volunteer work, co-op placements, etc
  • teaching evaluations
  • company announcements of promotions, awards, achievements
Special talents
(or, the third 'what')
  • writing samples
  • videos of displays of your work
  • teaching or coaching lesson plans, etc
  • posters from presentations
  • audio/video of teaching
  • research skills: project descriptions, papers, lab reports...
Co-curricular activities
(or, the fourth 'what')
  • newspaper articles: volunteering, project organization, community, ...
  • professional memberships, committees
  • letters of recommendation, thank-you notes
Philosophy statements
(or, the fifth 'what')
  • first person, 1-2 pages
  • beliefs and view of purpose and power of teaching
  • teaching goals
  • learning goals for students
  • where to improve
  • new areas/approaches/styles you can bring to the table
See a great example of a teaching philosophy from a Carleton prof.

Recommended book

I haven't read this myself, but it was recommended in the workshop: The Academic Portfolio.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Cognition All Around Me

Today was the last day of classes for Computers and Cognition, a course that's inspired a couple of posts here, and that I signed up for, for credit, even though it can't count towards my degree (how else was I going to make sure I actually bothered to do the work?). I'm sad it's done, but on the other hand, I won't miss those 8:30am, three-hour classes.

Ok, it's not entirely done - I still have to write my term paper. Other than my Master's thesis, the 8000 words required of me are the most I've ever had to write for school. Luckily, I finally settled on a topic that I think will keep my interest until the end: cognitive advantages of learning with augmented reality. This is something that will help me with my general research interest of educational entertainment and augmented reality.

While researching this topic, I started to notice the presence of cognitive theories in unexpected places. For example, I picked up Augmented Learning and have been devouring it in the last few days. Although not used extensively, cognitive theories like activity theory, situated learning, and constructivism are at least mentioned. I also bought Theory of Fun by Raph Koster to fill my Amazon super saver shipping quota, and found that he spends a lot of time reflecting on cognitive processes. It's as though everywhere I turn my newfound knowledge is coming in handy. ;)

I'm really glad I took this class. Thinking about games and especially learning through the lens of the theories I've now been exposed to is going to come in handy. I already have a much clearer idea of what makes augmented reality special, for example, and will be thinking of applications that take advantage of this rather than showcasing the coolest new technology advances for the sake of it. This also again reinforces the importance of learning things outside your own discipline - you will gain something from the experience, no matter how small.