September 24, 2008

Learning Games Network and Reading Group

There's a new blog on the block, run by a number of the leading lights in educational gaming, so I recommend checking out .... the Learning Games Network. It's new - in fact, it is in beta - so bear with people as they ramp up.

Meanwhile, here is a chance to experience for yourself the advantages of distance/online learning: the reading group, which is entirely virtual. So distance can't be your excuse not to attend! The first book they are reading is even available for free online. And it is a good one - The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games, and Learning, edited by Katie Salen, game designer and educator (high school level). Not only is the book excellent (I've read some chapters already), but each chapter stands on its own, so you can jump into the discussion group as your weekly schedule allows.

Posted by bjohnson at 5:13 PM

September 23, 2008

Second Life: Distance Education and IT Fluency Among Girls

Shameless plug for my presentation at SLedCC '08 following ....

This was our team's report on the Tech Savvy Girls project's first year in Teen Second Life. The full paper should be published (eventually) in the conference proceedings. Meanwhile, interested parties can read it here or check out the slide show at Slideshare.

In short, the girls gained IT fluency throughout the year. Most encouraging was the way they learned and appreciated copyright protection on digital media because they, as creators, had to draw boundaries. Critical questions arose over how much material could be taken from others, recombined, and called one's own - which is especially difficult when collaborating with other team members.

The year was not without its challenges, but we made the most of those as learning opportunities. Two of the most successful girls had some of the greatest struggles with the technology itself. But they learned about bandwidth, RAM, FPS, etc. through those challenges and eventually became tech support for families and friends. No matter what they will eventually do in life, they know they can master technology in their lives.

Finally, while it may not be obvious in the paper, I have to point out that the people involved in this project were not physically co-located. The girls and one mentor were together much of the time, but not exclusively, while the other two mentors physically existed in different states. Outside of club meeting times (only two hours per week), all other work time was done virtually, at a distance, in Second Life.

Posted by bjohnson at 7:09 AM

September 22, 2008

My Weightloss Coach (Nintendo DS)

This cute, little game provides playful, positive enforcement of healthy lifestyle behaviors that should help most people make improvements gradually. Its major emphasis is on getting you to move more, an essential factor in sustained weight loss and long-term health. Focusing on easy adjustments, such as a gradual increase in daily step count, this product should fit into the life of most American adults. It accommodates a wide variety of pre-existing fitness levels, allowing you to count nearly any movement from housework to karate in your daily minimum of 30 minutes of exercise.

The way it tracks your calorie intake each day is particularly friendly, and a great improvement on most fitness programs I have tried for handheld devices. Tossing aside detailed lists of foods that make recording intake a time-consuming chore, you select foods from categories based on average number of calories for average-sized servings. Nearly any food can be accounted for, even when eating out.

The program is educational in a friendly way and provides customized feedback and suggestions based on your preferences and the results of mini-assessments. You have daily objectives and challenges to meet - some are playful and funny. But every objective met is rewarded in terms of miles traveled to interesting sights.

There are some downsides and places where the game can be improved. The provided pedometer is a little bulky. After I dropped mine for the last time, I picked up a $5 replacement that works just fine; you just enter the numbers by hand. The food lists also do not give you feedback on nutritional value of choices. The program itself reminds you to eat a diverse diet, but you could live on junk food with this game and still make your objectives. Finally, there is no way to correct mistakes, and I frequently have to fudge (no pun intended) what I eat in order to log something close to equivalent in calories.

For the classroom, this sort of game has a major disadvantage: only one user can use any particular cartridge and save data. There is no multi-user capacity with this game, unlike some other education titles (think BrainAge). That's particularly sad since there are mini-quizzes included in the game to test your knowledge about nutrition. It would be fun to compete with other players to improve scores and advance the furthest around the world!

Posted by bjohnson at 11:58 AM

September 20, 2008

Second Life for Critical Thinking

One of the fanastic sessions I was able to attend at SLedCC '08 was done by Dr. Bo Brinkman of Miami University entitled: Using Second Life and Linden Lab as Case Studies to Problemetize the Creation of New Technologies. What follows are my notes from the session. I have not yet found an online copy of the conference proceedings.

Dr. Brinkman teaches undergraduate Computer Science courses. One course he teaches is about the societal impact of technology in which he challenges computer science and engineering students to think critically about technology solutions. A challenge to reaching this objective is that his students grew up with technology and so have trouble reflecting upon the disruption (positive and negative) caused my introduction of new technology.

To help students take a more critical stance, he uses Second Life as a technological phenomenon that is not fully mature. It is a program or platform that is at the initial development end of the adoption spectrum. As such, it is something that is not proven to be valued and necessary - not a household appliance or entrenched communication medium. And it is causing some disruption at various levels in peoples lives and society.

Second Life, in fact, is creating cognitive dissonance throughout industrialized society. It is challenging ideas of what is property, the contexts in which earning money is legitimate, what is communication, what is real, etc. In Second Life, we have fewer traditional ways of enforcing acceptable behavior - in fact, we often find that "acceptable behavior" is a contested concept.

As such, Second Life was very successful in creating cognitive dissonance with his class (better than with videogames). It helped students challenge folk wisdom (which he calls "myth") and understandings. Since most students don't have emotional ties to it, they can look at it more critically than they would at something they trust such as Facebook. Once they HAVE developed a critical stance, it can be turned also to things that they trust such as Facebook, MySpace, etc.

His method:
- post a common myth or misconception or point of controversy and have them discuss
- check to see if it is really true
- critical writing: pick a point of controversy and have them analyse a point of view on it
- take a point discussed regarding SL and extrapolate to similar first life situations

Critical thinking is one of those difficult points that we often desire to instill in students of all ages, but I hear it frequently mentioned at the university level. Think of what reflective, critical learning can be done in the area of business, ethics, epistemology, law, etc. in a world in which the "residents" are from many cultures throughout the world. It is a fertile ground for questioning one's point of view - and that of society.

Posted by bjohnson at 3:02 PM

September 17, 2008

iTouch Education

I may have found a way to wear my computer on my sleeve - almost.

I picked up the new iPod Touch on Sunday and am exploring it's potential as personal assistant, education tool, and portable entertainment. That's quite a lot to ask from a device that is smaller than a deck of cards, but I think Apple's latest product in the incredible shrinking computer contest is up to the challenge.

For my initial results, read on ....

First, the known tradeoffs

I did not get an iPhone because I decided to split the functionality of a telephone from the rest of the tricks this little baby can perform. I intend to run and play with this device - and I don't want to take phone calls while doing so. 1) That means that I do carry two devices when I am reachable by cell phone and 2) I have to be in Wi-Fi range to connect to the computing cloud and get updates. Those are two things I can live with, but be aware that you may want to think about the new iPhone if the trade offs don't work for you.

Second, the good points

And most of my initial response to this device is good.

1) Good screen resolution - even with aging eyes, I can read web pages (in landscape mode). The video quality when watching movies is excellent, and most of the apps I have downloaded so far are very readable in a variety of locations - even outdoors.

2) Easy to use - if you are familiar with a Mac and iTunes, getting this set up and running is a breeze. Even installing new applications is easy. Got to love Apple's iTunes store.

3) Wide range of applications - between iTunes and apple.com, I see too, too many temptations, including educational ones, that will keep me blogging for months on this topic alone. So far, I've succumbed to yet another way to organize my time (OmniFocus trial), Nike + running application, and a meditation timer.

4) Content - between iTunes, YouTube, and the web itself, I have more information at my fingertips (provided I'm on a network, of course) than I could possibly search in a lifetime. Check out iTunes U - which is downloadable and portable for hours spent studying on a plane or a bus. This means I can spare my aching back (and the weight limits of airlines), ditch the textbooks (in some cases), and learn nearly anywhere in multiple modalities. I hope distance educators are paying attention - the content pipeline is widening rapidly!

5) Beautiful - sleek and small. It fits nicely in the hand with rounded, solid comfort. Who says technology can't be pleasing?

Third, the not so good points

Or rather --- point --- singular.

I am having a bit of trouble figuring out how to sync the PowerBook, Mobile Me, and the iTouch. Any time you have three pieces that need to communicate with one another, you have the potential for challenges. This one should work out - after all, they are designed to work together. It just is not intuitive (there is that magic word!) to me. So be forewarned if you decide to go this route as well.

Posted by bjohnson at 8:04 AM

September 10, 2008

Time Management for Students

I had wanted to teach a section of our Introduction to College Learning class, but I was assured that they already had all the well-qualified instructors they needed .... ah, well, such is life. So, I'll have to share my bits of wisdom to a MUCH larger audience via the Internet (or the "Interweb" as it was called on an episode of "House" --- seriously).

Today's lesson is about time management and how to procrastinate while looking like you're doing something productive. What's better than sitting down with your syllabi, planning out when things are due, and watching your favorite TV show? Very effective multitasking, which puts you well on your way to surviving in the modern world.

Unless you already have your paper planner (I'm assured they still exist) or use Google Calendar, check out this online software: StudyRails. Seriously. Many first year students get into trouble because they haven't had to work very hard before college and suddenly have what looks like an even lighter load than senior slide ... until they get hit with mid-terms.

So, plan ahead, block out time now for studying and playing both. You'll thank me around Halloween when you can still go out with friends, play your favorite videogame, and tell your parents that you're getting a "B" with a straight face.

Posted by bjohnson at 1:02 PM

September 9, 2008

SLedCC '08

I'm just back from SLedCC 2008 in Tampa, Florida, and I promise that I will type up my notes from the sessions and post them here. I promise.

The most exciting thing about SLedCC (the Second Life Education Community Conference) was the fact that we made up half of the encompassing SLCC conference this year. Half of the presentations, at least. I'm not sure how many attendees self-identify as educators, but we rather prominently filled the conference with ways in which we are using Second Life as a serious tool. I met quite a few educators and researchers who are doing very exciting things with this virtual environment, and I can't wait to share some of them with you.

Posted by bjohnson at 7:43 AM