Friday, July 30, 2010

What Your Identity Has to Do With Learning

What happens if one of your identities conflicts with what you're trying to learn in school? For instance, what if you are a creationist Christian learning science, or someone whose family is just not into school? Or what if you're a woman in a world where women aren't supposed to be good at coding?

It turns out that this can put you at a huge disadvantage when it comes to learning. Now that I've read the explanation in James Paul Gee's book What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, it seems so obvious why this is the case, yet it doesn't appear to be something we pay much attention to when designing the education system.

There is a "tripartite play of identities" involved in learning, explained here in the context of a science classroom:
  • "In a good science classroom, a virtual identity is at stake. Learners need to be able to engage in words, interactions, and actions that allow them to take on the identity of 'scientist'."
  • "All learners in a science classroom bring to that room their real-world identities. ... [T]he multiple real-world identities of learners in a science classroom are filtered through their real-world identities as a learner, a school learner, and a school science learner learning science here and now."
  • "If learners are to take on projective identities in the science classroom, they must come to project their own values and desires onto the virtual identity of 'being a scientist of a certain sort' in the classroom. They must also see this virtual identity as a project in the making."
These three identities are easily seen in many video games (particularly role-playing games). As Gee says, "If schools worked in similar ways, learning in school would be more successful and powerful because it would become the active and critical learning discussed in the last chapter [on semiotic domains]."

It's the second type of identity that really got me thinking. The discussion on this one included the idea that students' real-world identities of being learners may be damaged, and they can't learn effectively until these identities are repaired.
But how can such repair work be done? It is no easy matter. In fact, often this is what good teaching, especially in socially and culturally diverse classrooms, amounts to. However, good repair work is just a more intense version of good teaching and learning for all types of students, including those who have no need of any particular repair work.
One of the identities I mentioned at the beginning was for women in technology. Our culture is one that imagines men being much better at these subjects, so many women, even if they enjoy programming and similar activities, often never see themselves as pursuing the subjects further. Those that do give it a shot tend to have at least some damaged identities, and of course, these are almost never addressed. In fact, many first year computer science classes assume you already have some experience in the domain (contrast this with the ridiculously basic level many computer science departments try to teach to arts and general science students in their 'intro to computers' classes).

The part of good teaching and repairing these identities is a great topic for another post, but I wanted to mention a story and/or game idea I wanted to pursue that I think could help with this before post-secondary.

I used to love books like The Babysitters Club when I was young, and have wondered if I could write a book about middle or high school life that has elements of learning computer science instead of babysitting. I even thought this could make an interesting game, where little puzzles scattered throughout the story were something you could actually try as you went through, rather than just read about.

The main goal (after having a good, solidly written story of course) would be to help readers repair their identities as people who are capable of learning about computers. It could potentially reach a lot of girls - many more than local outreach activities! And who knows... maybe it could even fit into my thesis topic of educational games...

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Work Where You Work Best

Summers can be a bit lonely at universities. Without the hustle and bustle of thousands of undergrads to keep things looking and feeling busy, and with many faculty working from home or taking vacations, the halls can seem awfully empty.

That's one of the biggest reasons that I rarely came to campus during the first summer of my Masters. I tried to at first, and I can still remember a prof asking, "What are you doing here? It's summer!" Because I found I didn't enjoy the commute to campus anyway, I just worked from home.

But there was a downside to doing so. It wasn't that I got easily distracted by TV and other pleasantries; it was that everyone else assumed that if I was home, I must have time to do this, that, and the other thing. I also found that I just wasn't as effective doing certain things at home as I was at school.

This is the first summer of my PhD. I learned a lot from doing my Masters, and this is one lesson that has made me more productive than ever: I had to figure out where I work best for what task, and when that means I'm at home, I don't let anyone pull me away.

You see, there are certain activities I can do much more easily at home. Anything creativity-oriented, for example. Like game design: I just can't seem to do much of it at school. In the lab, I sit, stare at the screen, and feel tired and uncomfortable. Funnily enough, the same is true at home when I'm working on a more literature-oriented project and have to do lots of online searching. It also seems that I'm most comfortable sitting and coding for hours on end while at school.

Succeeding in working where I work best is easiest when I have multiple projects on the go. That way I can work on whatever my focus will allow me in my current setting. (Be careful, though - too many projects can lead to not getting very far on any of them!)

Give it a try. Figure out what types of activities are best for what settings, and don't fight it. Your productivity will thank you.

Monday, July 26, 2010

New Portfolio

I finally have a new portfolio!

When I made the original website, I was in fourth year and expecting to work for industry. But now that I'm in grad school and looking toward a career in academia, the content just didn't suit me anymore. Although I decided to keep a section for my creative pursuits (which I still need to finish up), it is mostly an academic/teaching portfolio.

The old site was also made statically using Dreamweaver. I decided to create my new site in Drupal to make it easier to maintain and change. Although Drupal has a bit of a learning curve, I'm glad that I took the time to understand it. I've now done two sites in Drupal (our photography club site being the other), and although I have only used ready-made templates so far, I feel confident about making more custom sites in the future.

I'll be adding more information to the Research and Creative sections over the next little while, but I hope you'll check it out and subscribe to the RSS feed if you'd like to know when I add new things or have short updates not appropriate for the blog. If you have any suggestions for what to add or change, leave a comment below. You'll also find a quick link to the portfolio at the top of this blog.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Mental Models: What's In Our Heads?

Yesterday I saw a video of Björk talking about her TV. In it she opens the back of the TV and talks about the little city inside, with a cable travelling up from little houses (really capacitors and such) imagined to be an elevator. She later explains that a poet's interpretation of what's happening inside the TV made her afraid of the appliance, but once she read a Danish "scientifical" book, she could feel comfortable watching again.

Also just recently, I was reading up on mental models in the context of human computer interaction (HCI). Informally, mental models are the pieces of information about the world that we store in our head. We can't store every last detail of the entire world's structure, so we simplify our knowledge down to the basics, and store it in a way that makes sense to us.

Sometimes these models are accurate if not complete, but it turns out that, just as happened to Björk, our mental models can be also be wrong. I believe it is much easier for this to happen with computers and electronics since, for many of us, the way they work is like magic at some point in the macro to micro scale.

For example, before I started university, I asked my then-boyfriend-now-husband Andrew how computers did addition. He started on the software level with his explanation, but my mental model already covered that. It even covered the machine code and a teeny bit about the fact there was some sort of circuitry inside the machine. What it didn't cover was how the circuitry could produce addition results given on/off signals that represented numbers as input.

He couldn't give me a satisfactory answer at the time, but fortunately I did get an answer when I took a second year course on computer organization (it covered programming in assembly and digital logic). There we learned about logic gates, and even had to draw diagrams of those gates strung together to create simple adders. Hurray! My mental model was complete! (Note that, even in this case, not all details are technically covered. I'd have to go much further into exactly how electrons travel through wires and so on to get a 100% full picture. But it was what I wanted.)

Software is an even more abstract beast than logic gates and adders are. Well, I suppose even compiled code gets down to gates eventually, but most people have a hard time even understanding the abstract logic happening under the hood in their programs. That's why they can get so frustrated when the program doesn't work the way they think it should, even if it does exactly what it was designed to do. It's our responsibility as software developers to match the actions and outcomes of our programs as best we can to the understanding that our users will have of them.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

What's This Educational Games Stuff All About, Anyway?

As you may know, my research focus for my PhD is educational games and augmented reality. But what is this educational games stuff all about, anyway? Do video games really have the potential to support learning?

To give a general overview of the topic, I'd like to share some of the key points of a literature review on the topic. The review was published a few years ago (2007), but still points to some interesting research. It's called Educational Video Game Design: A Review of the Literature and is by Mary Jo Dondlinger. It focuses on the design aspects of educational games, rather than just what players learn from them.

The first order of business is to sort out the difference between edutainment and educational games. I often wondered why there were so many terms for what seemed to be the same thing. As it turns out, the research world sees these two as being different. Edutainment refers to something pretty linear, whereas "educational video games require strategizing, hypothesis testing, or problem-solving, usually with higher order thinking rather than rote memorization or simple comprehension."

Effective Game Design

The elements of effective video game design described in the review include motivation, narrative context, goals and rules, and interactivity. These are some of the key points from this section:
  • Some say that motivation comes from narrative context, and others think it's the goals and rewards that give it. Either way, it is agreed that successful educational games incorporate both intrinsic and extrinsic goals.
  • Adventure and strategy games tend to be the highest rated type of educational game as determined by student surveys.
  • “Strategies of design that lead to engagement may include role-playing, narrative arcs, challenges, and interactive choices within the game as well as interaction with other players.” [source]
  • Learning tasks should be tightly coupled with the main narrative context - don't make them secondary.
Learning Theories

In terms of learning theories applied to educational games, the literature seems to focus on contructivism, constructionism, and situated cognition.

Constructivism is a learning theory that suggests knowledge and meaning is constructed from the learner's experiences.
In an article describing the multi-user virtual world, SciCtr, Corbit (2005) underscored the merits of a constructivist approach for analyzing game-like environments. In SciCtr, students create virtual science worlds, such as rainforests or deserts, that other learners can visit and explore. According to Corbit, these worlds, the paths to navigate through them, and content embedded in them, are constructed by the developer/learner through meticulous research and thoughtful design.
Constructionism is inspired by constructivism, but not quite the same thing. It says that learning is most effective when the learner can build some sort of tangible object in the real world. While this seems at odds with video games, it is easy to imagine the many things that are constructed in them. My own first thought is The Incredible Machine, one of the few games I played (rather than watch someone else play) as a kid. Examples in the review include creating instead of playing video games as well as having architecture students model their designs in a game-ready engine.

Finally, situated cognition is a theory I'm more familiar with because of its close tie to augmented reality. As Wikipedia says, "knowing is inseparable from doing" since "all knowledge is situated in activity bound to social, cultural and physical contexts." One of my favourite examples of this is Environmental Detectives, a location-based (and, according to some definitions, augmented reality) training game situated in a real-life setting that is explicitly tied to the game content. "According to ... scholars, the authentic, situated context affords greater content mastery and transfer of knowledge than a traditional classroom learning."

Learning Outcomes

What can actually be learned from playing an educational video game? These are the key outcomes listed in the review:
  • 21st century skills: video games apparently help develop attention, spatial concentration, problem-solving, decision-making, collaborative work, creativity, and information and communications technology (ICT) skills
  • Deduction and hypothesis testing
  • Complex concepts and abstract thinking
  • Visual and spatial processing
So there you have it - much of the literature supports the idea that video games can help us learn. I suppose the next step would be to see why do many so-called educational games are either boring or not deemed to be classroom-suitable.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Cooperative Board Games Take Some Getting Used To

I'm sure getting together every two weeks to play board games and calling it research isn't anything new, but it's definitely something I need to do. I pride myself on work-life balance, but unfortunately this makes it really difficult to find time to sit and play games, particularly those requiring other people. (If that sounds weird, consider that I also just got my second degree black belt in Taekwondo, have a big garden, etc...) That's why I set up a biweekly games afternoon at school so I could do just that.

Last week, we played a game called Pandemic. As a game, it seems like one of those concepts that's somewhat obvious (stopping several diseases from spreading around the world), yet pulled off very well. Now that I've been trying to sort out a game of my own I can appreciate how difficult it can be to get these things right.

The thing that's really interesting about Pandemic is its cooperative nature:
The game is unlike most boardgames as the gameplay is cooperative, rather than competitive. Through the combined effort of all the players, the goal is to discover all four cures before any of several game-losing conditions are reached.
I've never played a cooperative board game before. I'm trying to remember if I've even played a cooperative video game before (other than being the second person in Super Mario Galaxy, where I really didn't have to do much). The experience was really... different.
In a cooperative board game, players work together in order to achieve a goal, either winning or losing as a group. As the name suggests, cooperative games stress cooperation over competition.[1] Participants typically play against the game, and sometimes against one or two other players as well, who take the role of traitors. In many contemporary cooperative games, cards are drawn each turn from a deck of random events. These provide the conflict or challenge in the game, and make it progressively more difficult for the players.
I guess I have a more competitive nature than I realized because I just didn't get into the game as much as the others. They commented more than once that they were feeling stressed when the situation was dire. I didn't feel the same way, even though I was enjoying the experience for other reasons, such as liking the mechanics of moving around the board eradicating diseases.

Probably the most pleasurable part of this game was simply spending time with colleagues whose company I enjoyed. In other games we'd played in the past, I got quite excited about actually trying to win as well. This reminds me of why I wanted to make a hybrid iPhone/card game (which is currently in progress, by the way) - I wanted that face to face interaction, but with a game that could be complex without so many pieces.

Really, though, I think the honest truth is that I just have to get used to the cooperative game idea. I have to make the outcomes more important in my mind, even though I can't be an individual winner. Luckily, I'll have another chance during our next games session, when we'll apparently be playing another cooperative title. ;)

Monday, July 12, 2010

My Favourite Grace Hopper Memories

My fellow Grace Hopper Communities Committee members wanted to share our favourite Grace Hopper memories over the next few days, and we hope you'll do the same! It's so much fun reflecting back on what has made Grace Hopper so special to me. I'll pick just a few aspects to share here.

One of the things that has made Grace Hopper so exciting is the opportunity to travel to new places. I never would have imagined visiting Keystone, CO in 2008 or Tucson, AZ in 2009. We arrived early both years so we could look around and enjoy the surroundings. Lazing in the lake 11,000 feet up in the mountains in Keystone was beyond relaxing.

And getting to meet the saguaro cactus in Tucson was surreal.

Grace Hopper Celebration-39

But even more important than the scenery was who I got to enjoy it with. Both years, members of the CU-WISE executive managed to scrounge together enough money to make it to Grace Hopper (getting scholarships last year certainly helped!). The group of us got a suite of rooms both years because, believe it or not, doing so is actually cheaper for that number of people. The bonding that took place was so wonderful, and we learned more than we ever knew we could at the conference talks. I can honestly attribute the smashing success of our WISE group to our ability to attend Grace Hopper together.

I can't wait until Atlanta!

Do you have a favourite memory? Check out the sister post on the Grace Hopper blog to see how you can join in the fun!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Negative Social Stereotypes and Deep Learning

The next chapter to cover in my series of reflections on Ken Bain's What the Best College Teachers Do (started here and here) is on what teachers expect of their students. The opening story for this chapter should resonate with many readers here: it's about how negative social stereotypes affect student performance.

One of the interesting things that Stanford social psychologist Claude Steele found was "that the negative stereotypes sometimes had the strongest influence on the students who had all the confidence in the world, had not internalized any sense of inferiority, often had excellent preparations, and really cared about doing well academically." This, of course, would apply to the whole 'women in computer science' issue we talk a lot about.

It seems that a big factor in helping tackle these stereotypes is simply expecting the right level of performance from students. Don't go too easy on them and forgo learning just to get good reviews, but also don't pile on the homework and leave students feeling overloaded and alienated for the sake of increased difficulty.

More specifically, there are some tendencies underlying the best teachers' practices:
  1. "Look for and appreciate the individual value of each student."
  2. Have "great faith in students' ability to achieve."
  3. Focus on the outcome and represent authentic goals with "trust, rejection of power, and setting standards." Replace the notion of power with the creation of opportunities.
In other words (or at least in my understanding), whether or not any stereotypes have affected students in the past, you start from scratch, assuming that each is capable of the very best. Yet you don't give up on them if they can't achieve it right away; rather, you mentor them, and help them get there.

All of this is said to "rest on an even more fundamental bedrock of ideas about the nature and meaning of learning." They key point from this section was that learning is not filling your head with information but rather constructing models of reality.

How can computer science be taught in this way?

I suppose I've touched upon my answer before, particularly in my teaching reflection. There are so many opportunities for activities ranging from the interactive CS Unplugged style to a construction of reality through carefully planned participatory code creation in class. Rather than be given information about how something works, let students slowly piece it together until the light bulb (hopefully) lights up. (And if it doesn't, more mentoring and helping is key, as mentioned above.)

I wonder if a shift in classroom practices for computer science would help retain more minorities? The research presented in this chapter suggests that it would, and fits with many of the other things I've read on the topic.