The importance of play: what universities can learn from preschools

There’s a nice piece in The Conversation, by Professor Nicola Whitton, titled as above. It’s not a long read, though the final third has some interesting links you may wish to explore for a while.

Microsoft purchase MinecraftEdu

As reported in a thousand newspaper articles, a million blog posts, and seemingly a billion edtech tweets, Microsoft have now bought MinecraftEdu, the, well, education version of Minecraft. They seem happy, TeacherGaming seem happy, edtech commentators and journalists have something to write about, and future uses of Minecraft in schools especially seem more likely.

As the website now says:

Microsoft will release an entirely new version of the game called Minecraft: Education Edition that will have many features inspired by MinecraftEdu. Microsoft will also use their impressive resources and reach to bring Minecraft into far more classrooms than ever before. We believe that Minecraft’s educational potential has barely been explored and that there are exciting times ahead.

THE journal digs a little deeper on this and mentions the enhancement of OneNote to make development within Minecraft a little smoother. Which sounds like a good thing; one of the enduring problems with game, simulation and virtual world use in classrooms is the fragmented timetable, and lesson blocks of an hour or even less. The pupil or student needs to be up and quickly progressing with something on-point, relevant and constructive, rather than spending a significant proportion of each lesson block undergoing initialization routines, or using laborious tools and routines that suck time away from useful activity.

How will Minecraft sit within the roll-call of digital games, environments and simulations used within education?

Thankfully, we should be getting a clearer picture by now. The early days of speculation-oriented writing on the use of this specific technology have given way to an increasing proportion of articles, papers and reports containing data of Minecraft use in formal and informal learning situations. I’m looking forward to seeing quality research and meta-analysis of these works over the next few years.

Five hopes for 2016

A new year is upon us, and who knows what it will bring. Global peace, or global chaos? Advances in medicine and science, or pandemics and problems?

However, this is a game research website so I’m restricting my hopes to game-related ones. Here’s five.

1. Google Scholar is still around at the end of the year. I’ve come to rely on GS a lot – though not exclusively – in recent times for picking up on game research articles and papers. Google Scholar Alerts in particular is a nifty thing for being rapidly told when a cool researchers work has appeared. While it’s not the only service of its kind – there’s also academia.edu and researchgate, as well as databases researchers inside a university can use – it’s still a pretty useful source of materials and notifications about materials. The problem is that Google has a habit of shuttering niche services (Reader was far more popular and that didn’t survive), but I’m hoping they won’t take the axe to Scholar, especially as the tiny number of GS staff – less than ten – means it costs very little to maintain. Plus, looking at own citation graph which is starting to tail off is a good nudge to publish more.

2. Let the next Zelda game be a classic. Whenever it appears. Everyone has a different view on the Legend of Zelda games franchise. I really, seriously, enjoyed Ocarina of Time on the N64, to the extent that work was neglected for two months while exploring it as much as the internal system allowed (and occasionally, progressing the main quest). Since then, other Zelda games have fallen short. I didn’t like the constant moon-crashing-into-you time pressure of Mask, and the sailing of Windwaker, though initially lovely, soon became samey. Thus, a classic Zelda game would be most welcome. With just some elements of previous ones, such as shooting arrows while riding a horse, though original enough not to be a total remake. Also, it would be nice to see it available actually in 2016. While Nintendo do the quality-perfectionist-finished-when-its-absolutely-finished development thing more than most, there are limits and many other distractions for expectant gamers.

2.1 While we’re in Nintendo territory, a new Animal Crossing game for the Nintendo 3DS, please. There’s next to no chance of getting that, and I’m not picking up any 3DS-AC vibes so am not counting on that as a hopeful hope. Alas.

3. Reasonable reporting and consideration about Virtual Reality hardware, software and systems. Especially in academia (where you would think that cooler heads would and should prevail) we’ve often seen the “Tech X will disrupt education” vs “The Tech X is dead” polarising divide which doesn’t help anyone. Social media and its tendencies to be a platform for shooting off, and amplifying, pithy soundbites, is not always a great help either; edtech is often complicated and nuanced – like it or not. There is going to be a lot of ephemera around VR for the remainder of this decade at least; too many venture capitalists and companies have sunk too many dollars into this particular tech, and they want their investment plus a bit of profit back. But, as it does, this is leading to a giddy numbers headline race while not answering the reasonable issues educators have (note you can swap out VR for another tech in these questions):

  1. How much will VR cost (that’s the total cost of everything, including time to learn, set-up and run the tech in a educational situation)?
  2. Are there relevant and independently analysed examples of VR use in education?
  3. Is there independent research showing it works in education i.e. VR gives “better” results than using other tech, or no tech at all, in comparable pedagogic scenarios?
  4. How supported and sustainable is VR tech? Will the same kit still be relevant, useful and actually usable across several academic year cycles?
  5. Can the robust and relevant pedagogic evidence for VR to date be summarised in an easy-to-read manner?

…and not uncited “Look, LOOK, at my massive bar chart!!” graphical sales guesses I mean forecasts for 2019.

4. Running on from that last hope, it would be good to see Jisc and similar organisations in other countries more fundamentally commission and update reasonable, useful, timely and evidence-based guides and reports on gaming and other technologies. Yes, there’s an element of self-interest here as I am one of those people who occasionally writes a few of these. But they are needed, especially – as in the previous point – where educators otherwise just encounter polarising arguments and grandstanding while looking for more relevant materials. In the recent case of Jisc it is pleasing to see guides gradually come back to the foreground as something open, free and useful that they provide. Having an explicit guide search option for reducing costs is also pretty useful in these times; the most feedback I received about the gamification infokit compiled last year for Jisc Digital Media concerned the low-cost options as opposed to expensive shiny systems (see 8.5 and 8.6). It would be good to see many more such guides commissioned and updated regularly, not just for games, gamification, virtual reality and augmented reality but for the wider spectrum of other technologies which educators may consider investing in and using.

5. Please: just one decent regular TV series on video games. The UK hasn’t had one since BITS and that was a very long time ago. It’s a weirdly strange thing, this almost total lack of intelligent game analysis on TV, especially as this particular medium outsells most other in the wider entertainment sector. The BBC in particular has a regular film review show, and book review and author programs, and even regular gardening programs – but no games show. It can be done on mainstream TV; Charlie Brooker hosted an excellent documentary on games not that long ago…

…but it was just a one-off, not a series or regular TV slot. So we’re back to games being pretty absent from terrestrial TV, and predominantly mentioned in the mainstream media for some negative reason, whether accurate or just blatant opportunistic bandwagon joining. Just one, weekly, fifteen minutes show that considers the wider range of digital and analog games which a large proportion of the viewing audience choose to indulge in, doesn’t seem much to ask. Or maybe it’s really too late and the audience has already gone to other places.

Anyway; that’s my wishlist. I wish all games researcher, developers and players everywhere a great year of great games, no matter what else happens.

Minecraft in Northern Ireland schools

BBC News has a short piece today on the use of this particular software in schools:

Fifty-thousand schoolchildren in Northern Ireland could soon be playing one of the world’s most popular video games in class. Minecraft will be made available to every post-primary school as part of an innovative technology project.

The Guardian follows up with Minecraft free for every secondary school in Northern Ireland:

Minecraft will be given to secondary schools in Northern Ireland as part of a project organised by the annual CultureTECH festival and funded by the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure. The hugely popular building-block game will be supplied to 200 schools and 30 libraries and community organisations, which will all receive download codes for MinecraftEdu, the educational version of the game.

(Update: August 2015)

More from BBC News: Northern Ireland teachers to attend training school in Stranmillis:

Topics covered in the camp include classroom leadership, e-safety, helping pupils with dyslexia, using Minecraft in teaching, pastoral care and effective science teaching.

Flipping the chocolate-covered broccoli

Last month I was in a distinctly middle class English supermarket which shall go nameless. In the confectionary section, an oddly vegetable-like display required closer examination. And this is what it was:

Milk chocolate with a sprout wrapping

Chocolate balls (image: yummy) covered in surprisingly realistic foil wrapping to make them appear like small sprouts (image: getitoutofmymouth).

Which is a reminder of the metaphor, or analogy, of chocolate-covered broccoli. Here, the theory goes, learning is not fun (like eating broccoli) but if you wrap a video game around it which is fun and attractive and enticing (like eating chocolate) then learning will take place (the broccoli will be eaten).

It’s kind of a bit weird as an example, being so extreme. Though that’s what makes it a simple and clear example. But, although widely used, it’s also never one I’ve been totally comfortable with as on analysis it doesn’t hold up very well:

  1. It reduces the game player, or broccoli eater, to someone who is gullible or not very bright. A person able to literally swallow the broccoli, or learning, without realising. In this respect, it’s a somewhat patronising analogy.
  2. In fact, it reduces the player, learner, broccoli consumer to a sub-human level, like a pet. A dog being made to take a pill from the vet by covering it in dog food to disguise the appearance and taste. And some dogs manage to detect the pill and avoid it anyway.
  3. Not everyone likes chocolate – not everyone likes video games. Those who do like different kinds of chocolate. I like plain chocolate, but not milk chocolate (too sweet), for example.
  4. Not everyone dislikes broccoli – not everyone dislikes learning. It depends on the person, and what is being learnt. And those who like broccoli prefer it in different ways. Some steamed, some boiled, a few raw. That’s possibly a better analogy for learning, albeit more nuanced than a simplistic yummy/vile one.
  5. Once the player, learner, broccoli eater realises they have been “fooled”, they may be forever wary of the dispenser of chocolate covered items. Trust is broken.

Anyway, the sprout-appearance chocolate balls in the posh supermarket reminded me of this last night. I suspect there will be a lot of these severely marked down in sale price just after Christmas, so that may be a better time to buy. After remembering that it’s chocolate, wrapped in leaf-effect shiny green foil. But still, just chocolate.

A digital games in learning infokit

May in this year included the lunch-launch (or launch-lunch?) of the Jisc Digital Media infokit on Digital Games in Learning. You can find From Flappy Bird to furthering learning on their website.

Why? Because lunch.

Infokit and cheesecake

Why the infokit? Because it’s needed. Digital (and analogue) games in learning have been around for decades. Like skateboarding and the Internet, they are not a new concept, and whether people like them or not, they aren’t going to go away.

Which presents two related problems:

  1. How do people use games to “help” with teaching and learning?
  2. And, based on increasing experience, how do people avoid using games that don’t help with teaching and learning?

The second problem is as interesting as the first, and is becoming more pressing as a new wave of Gamification consultants and companies work their way around UK academia, looking for opportunities in some cases to do good work, but in others to tarmac a layer of league tables and points over learning systems in exchange for large bags of cash.

Mobile tech

With the demands of learners to, well, learn quicker, faster, better, the effectiveness of salespeople and vendors, the buzz around Games in Learning often obscuring the more nuanced research, the popularity of gaming, and the pressures on teachers and facilitators of all ages of students, it’s easy to be seduced by the allure of digital games. Unfortunately, though there isn’t (yet) a large hole in the ground filled with copies of a disastrous edutainment game, there is a long history of academia throwing a lot of money at digital games and not getting back what they wanted, needed, or thought they were getting in return.

Pizza

But … there are also been success stories. Digital games and environments which have been, or are, used either accidentally or deliberately as education facilitators. Over delicious sourdough pizza, the Jisc Futurist and I conversed on the uses of Minecraft in particular, and how it compared to Second Life from an ease-of-use-in-academia perspective.

And we discussed – and persistently came back to – DuoLingo, the free online language learning system which is addictive compelling to use, without the need for external motivations. Why does it work? How does it work? What are the makers of it getting out of it (that one’s interesting)? How can DuoLingo be used within formal teaching, or even UK FE or HE? How can elements of DuoLingo – either concepts, systems or the more “feel good” attributes – be put into other game-based learning systems?

Dessert described

Anyway; have a look at the infokit. It’s tilted towards academics who have little or no experience of games – those perhaps more easily seduced by their apparent and actual uses – so experts may not glean so much of use from the texts.

The dessert, by the way, was an orange cheesecake (chosen because of the logo color of the infokit funders). It was delicious. Thanks to Martin for an enjoyable lunch, and to Karla, National services director of Jisc Digital Media, for her considerable help and professionalism throughout the development of this infokit. By the way, you might want to check out the other guides they have funded and host; there’s quite a few.

Cheesecake

Once more unto the gamification breach

(How one word can ruin a classic phrase, any phrase, but I’ll come back to that)

It’s the first of December. The shortest day is soon here; the earliest sunset, for those of us who like walks in the woods, somewhat earlier. Christmas saturates the TV, the High Street and the online Street. My gym is quiet, never a wait for the rowing machines, for one more month until the New Year resolution people make an appearance or two.

And today I’m starting a new piece of work, in the tricky, controversial and sometimes deeply annoying niche of Gamification in Education. Over the next few months I’m synthesizing existing and emerging research, and actual examples, with some critical leeway. The format of the completed and public work is not strictly cast in stone but is currently slated as ten lumps of text as headlined in this snapshot from the contract:

snapshot

I’m glad I’m doing this work. It snugly complements a larger framework of Games in Education research, with a defined timescale, that I’m knee-deep in. And there’s a long-term itch, this gamification in education issue I’ve been wanting to scratch, now that there’s a substantial amount of contemporary research to read. Some of which so far has inspired, some has left me with an empty nihilistic feeling, and a fraction has made me quietly despair for either the future of humanity, or education, or the notion that the end-point of research is no longer to add to the sum of human knowledge.

But of the better research in gamification and the related-but-not-the-same field of games in education, Nic Whitton‘s excellent “Digital Games and Learning: Research and Theory” book concludes, in part, with:

“…I believe that the current hype over gamification will die down, as it is shown not to be a motivational panacea, and the market will become saturated with points, badges and leaderboards. However, there may be a gradual shift towards more sophisticated models of gamification…”

…and I have a gut feeling Nic will be proved right. Ian Bogost, a game culture critique and digital cow curator, entertainingly (with a point) takes a sceptical stance on gamification:

“More specifically, gamification is marketing bullshit, invented by consultants as a means to capture the wild, coveted beast that is videogames and to domesticate it for use in the grey, hopeless wasteland of big business, where bullshit already reigns anyway.”

At the other end of the tech-in-ed spectrum are many who fly various pro-gamification banners, including the problematic badges for everything brigade (an early title of the 3,000+ word specification for this work was ‘Badges are not the only fruit’). No, badges. Everywhere. Personally, I’ll be curious as to how much my feeling on gamification has shifted come the end of this work. It should be more nuanced; if not, I’ve done something wrong. Whether it’s more pro- or anti-, and whether the feeling is the same with gamification as applied to (or forced on) education, is another thing.

As a side-point and conclusion here, a small part of the problem with gamification is … the word gamification. It sounds horribly artificial, something dreamt up by the marketing team from hell. Perhaps it was? Some find it difficult to say. And it’s five syllables so it really slows down a piece of writing or monologue, and trips up the speaker or reader, pointlessly. Say ‘’gamification’ fifteen times (no badge for doing that) and see how annoying it is by the end.

Those three factors, combined, possibly prejudice and pre-load much impartial discussion. I’m also not looking forward to reading it, and writing it, many times a day for a few months so one of the very first things that will be done – partially to offset bias, and partially to maintain sanity – will be to try and find an alternative or workaround.

Wish me luck (or, at the least, the retention of objective sanity).