May 20, 2010

Online Support for Amputees

This is a short video about how the military is using Second Life to help manage the social and psychological needs of amputees --- including finding ways to let them be with their families virtually during recovery.

I really enjoyed seeing a soldier read to his daughter via Second Life. Reminded me of the days when I traveled a LOT for work and read to my daughter over the telephone ... using a book at each location.

So what does this mean for education? Perhaps that social workers and psychology majors should start getting used to tele-therapy options.

Not that I think they will replace all face-to-face interactions. (Why, whenever we talk about adding a virtual or computer-based tool, do people assume that we intend to use it to replace co-presence interactions??) But it may allow us to bridge distances in situations where being together is not practical. Think about specialized care consultations that could save on travel time - or even become possible where economies of scale would not allow a specialist to be consulted locally. Or where abusive spouses could talk to family members without any risk of physical harm. Or where families who are scattered due to military service or work requirements could be together.

Being virtually co-present is different than talking on the telephone. You can do things together in a game or a virtual world beyond just talking, providing the common experiences so necessary to maintain or (re)develop relationships. But unless tomorrow's leaders, teachers, and therapists have experience with these media, they won't have any idea of how to navigate the differences successfully.

We should be exposing our students to these developing tools now and working with them to help them succeed in whatever media is available to them as they live and work in a world of mixed interaction modalities.

Posted by bjohnson at 10:09 AM

April 20, 2010

Foursquare

I hate to start out blogs with this .... but this blog is about a concept that is NOT ready for education ..... yet. Before I could require students to use a social networking application for class, I would HAVE to ensure their privacy and allow students to control who sees different types of information. And, I'd also have to include some sort of statement on my syllabus about the fact that harassing another student using the tool would be grounds for disciplinary action. *Sigh* You can teach students content, but you'd think their parents or kindergarten teacher would have taught them to be human beings ... but onto the tool ....

The tool, as it says in the title is Foursquare. This social networking app for the iPhone, Droid, and the Blackberry makes use of the ability of smart phones to know where they (and presumably you, the owner) are located (called "location awareness"). By combining your location with information (created by others) about where other things (businesses and other people) are located, you can record where you are over time and broadcast that information to others nearby. In the social world, that lets you find your friends on a night out. It also lets you see where your friends have been, giving you some indication of places that you might find fun and interesting too. That's assuming that you enjoy the same things that your friends do ... or are extremely open to new experiences.

As an educator, I get excited by this because of the "tip" and "to do" feature built into some apps, like Foursquare. This could allow me to map out an experiential tour of a city or a building or ecosystem for my students, using the "to do" feature. For each location, I could have them look for something specific or do something ... like take a water sample or a picture of a building. And they could also make notes of their own at each location, uploading the results of a water sample, for instance.

Once done with the tour, I and the class could access the notes each student put up. By combining observations over time, we could show how research teams actually DO analyze samples, show the variations in data and how we use statistics to assess them, map results, etc. This is not a new idea - researchers such as John Martin and Kurt Squire have been working on augmented reality games for science inquiry for several years. The stunningly wonderful thing is that these simple apps made for social networking could be re-purposed for education. And given the number of students who already have these "phones", we rapidly loose the need for specialized, expensive single-purpose devices ... needing only to address how to provide access for students without the means to own a smart phone.

And while I cannot argue that smart phones are inexpensive, they are still often much cheaper than the laptops we have been requiring them to purchase through various laptop initiatives. Plus, the phones are significantly more resilient as well as able to access data much more effectively in the field.

Something to think about ... and for some bright developer to create for Foursquare. If you want to see an educational use of this program, check out and follow the History Channel's excellent list of tips in Foursquare. They even have a tip to see the Minnehaha Falls!

Posted by bjohnson at 9:05 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

December 28, 2007

Review: PeaceMaker

OK, educators in history, social studies, Middle-East culture, and political science, here is a game for you! You'll need to do some work to fit it into your curriculum, but this game has all the marks of a useful educational game that remains challengingly engaging while fitting in both content and episodic/experiential learning.

The game is PeaceMaker by Impact Games. It is a single-player, stand alone turn-based-strategy game available for both the PC and the Macintosh computer platforms. With 3-D graphics and stereo soundtrack, this serious game competes effectively with current commercial entertainment games in look and feel, which adds its appeal among current and new gamers.

Like most turn-based video games, PeaceMaker differs from the stereotypical video game in that it does not sport a lot of blood, shooting, or explosions. The only violence seen comes on the news footage used to illustrate the results of poorly-timed moves. These increase the level of tension and violence in the game, which also generally decreases the player's score and lessens the likelihood of winning. In short, violence is not overtly or covertly rewarded.

There is a lot to like about this award-winning game. The player takes on the role of leader of either the Israeli or Palestinian leader, but the goal of the game is really to find an solution acceptable to not only the player but the opposite faction as well. This is a win/win or lose all game. Neither side can decimate the other if the player wishes to win. While one side or the other can be unhappy about the status, the dissatisfaction of either side cannot dip beyond a certain level before the game is declared lost.

The game itself educates the player about the history and the various competing factions in the Middle East without being didactic, embodying procedural rhetoric effectively. The game's introduction is brief but ends with an interactive time line of the major events that lead up to the status, in 2007, of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. More in-depth information can be requested by the player as he or she weighs options, and the game's feedback system provides additional information about the current situation and probable outcomes as the game progresses. One of the most interesting aspects of this game is the number of factions (local and international) whose opinions must be heeded (to varying degrees) and whose needs must be met in order to achieve peace in the region. The complex interplay between these groups illustrates beautifully how processes can be used to make a point. In this case, the point is that balancing these competing needs over the long term is an extremely difficult task. While it is easy to write that, it is difficult to play it, and I repeatedly lost while trying to find a way to manage the opinions of local and international organizations. That is the difference between rote and episodic learning - and I will never read the paper in the same way again.

Content-wise, players quickly learn where the major cities and regions are located, who are the major factions involved, where holy sites are located, and what barriers hinder a peaceful co-existence. They also must learn - and remember! - historical facts in order to progress in the game. There are too many choices and configurations to allow random guessing, so students will be motivated to learn and quickly recall information.

There is also no one right path through the game, and some random elements will prevent any two gaming sessions from working out the same way. Hence, your students can't use each other's solutions, although they might be able to share strategies to see how well they generalize to different game sessions. From this, educators can make use of game debriefing time to see if students can form theories about conflict and conflict resolution - or turn it around and see if specific theories about what should be done in the Middle East would work under the game assumptions and rules.

Further, the game can be played from either the Israeli or Palestinian perspective, and the game designers encourage everyone to try the game both ways since each leader has different challenges to meet. Even if you do not have time to let everyone play both sides, the competing faction in the conflict is not demonized. In this game world, your opponent is someone with whom you need to cooperate and with whom you share some goals. This is a refreshing look at conflict that is worth bringing into the classroom for its own sake.

You can try it out for yourself for free, although you can only make a limited number of moves before you need to buy a license. At under $20, it is not particularly expensive, and a good deal cheaper than most commercial titles these days. With a promise of lesson plans under development, this game is worth considering as an addition to your spring semester.

Posted by bjohnson at 10:09 AM

December 10, 2007

Food Force

Food Force is a single-player game about global hunger and the complex multi-stage process of getting food relief to needy areas.

Developed by the United Nation's World Food Programme (WFP) for a relatively modest price of $350,000, Food Force had been downloaded and played by an estimated 4 million players by 2006. An impressive 1 million players had played it within the first 6 weeks of its release. Through this game, the WFP hoped to generate interest among children in the so-called developed countries about global hunger.

This non-violent video game, specifically designed for children aged 8 to 13, has been so highly successful, in part, because it incorporates key features of successful, commercial video games. Six action-packed missions must be completed in a specified amount of time and are scored – with room on the game’s web site for players to post their top scores. The quality of the game itself is a major factor in its popularity. With full-motion video cutaways, 3-D graphics, and a narrative story in which the player is cast as the hero figure, this game looks like many modern commercial games.

Despite the adoption of features common to the action game genre, Food Force still is a game with a message. Through the game, the player is introduced to the various aspects – and difficulties – of food aid operations. The player must pilot air craft, negotiate with rebels, rebuild food production infrastructure, design optimum ration packets, and decide what assistance offered by various countries will actually help in the effort. Through playing the various missions, players come to understand that food aid is a complex, multi-stage process.

Sections of the supporting web site can aid educators who want to integrate the game into their curriculum, with links to related educational sites. The game is a free download from the associated web site and is available for both PC and Macintosh computers.

Posted by bjohnson at 6:33 PM

December 7, 2007

Fifth Graders Developing Video Games in the Classroom

Admittedly, not everyone is ready for this step, but I pass along this article about an elementary school teacher whose class is developing games as a learning activity.

Giancarlos Alvarado writes candidly about the successes and challenges of using games to teach while keeping an eye on meeting state curriculum standards and staying within a budget. But his class is creating some interesting non-combat games. The program they use for development is RPG Maker, which is one of a handful of development tools accessible to non-programmers for game development.

One of the things I find most exciting about this article is that the teacher, while working on his masters degree, is not an outside researcher coming into a classroom to test a theory. This is an in-service teacher who has decided to incorporate games into his classroom. Encouraging, no?

Posted by bjohnson at 8:57 AM

April 24, 2007

Civic Engagement In Virtual Worlds, Digital Video Games, And Fan Fiction Sites

Black and Steinkuehler quote a common concern regarding the increased engagement with electronic media: that civic engagement is declining as a direct result (Black & Steinkuehler, forthcoming). It is beyond the scope of a short blog post (or even a long one!) to question the findings of this report, but I can offer examples of intensive civic activity centered on the running of some fan fiction sites.

No doubt it has been noted elsewhere that these fan sites, groups in virtual worlds, and guilds (or their equivalent) in multiplayer games are generally self-organizing. This may be a trivial task in the case of small fan movies created by one or two people, but it often becomes necessary to reflect upon the challenges of organization, control and authority as endeavors become large. Text-based fan fiction sites can become as large as the Gungan Council ("The Gungan Council," n.d.), which still boasts over 8,000 members. Such numbers spark a need and an interest in making some sort of explicit governance to maintain order, provide direction, set rules, and enforce them. Such a monumental task is often beyond the abilities of the founders (usually a core of 1 to 6 members), overwhelming them and causing some sort of decision to spread the administrative load. Such decisions often spark debate and reflection about the topics civics instructors only wish their students would take seriously. Questions such as how to organize the community and how to select leaders are often only the first round in grappling with the challenges of community governance. Questions of security and methodology in running elections arise, effective transfer of power is often not a simple matter, and coping with legacy rules and practices once a new set of leaders is in place vex even the most dedicated new leader.

And this call for a fair system in running a community does not always arise from within, prompted by an internal need to off-load responsibilities. It can come from outside the leadership circle of a reasonably popular site, which was the case with the Jedi Temple ("The Temple of the Jedi," n.d.). When the membership of this group approached 200, pressure from active members forced the ruling group of seven to eventually declare democratic elections. This lead to them to restructure the ruling Council, establish a transparent set of rules for admittance and advancement through the membership levels, and establish firm rules for acceptable behavior on the discussion board as well as rules for dealing with infractions of those rules. Over the course of nearly a year, the public debate on these topics was certainly engaged and often heated as members debated the best forms of government, the ideal qualities of leaders, how to grant sufficient power to leaders but restrict them from inappropriate use of such power and so forth. While the quality of these discussions varied greatly, some members showed exemplary rhetorical technique and ability to reason clearly on issues from the domains of philosophy, sociology and political science.

Admittedly, this is a somewhat dramatic example, but it is indicative of the level of group organization that occurs with any fan fiction site. What many people miss in looking at fan sites of all types is that, whenever people come together to achieve some goal, they must organize themselves in some fashion to achieve that goal. This is civic engagement at its most fundamental, grass-roots level. It is reminiscent of the agora of Plato in which every man present has a voice in running the community. Members of these fan sites take voicing their opinion very seriously and are often willing to be involved, over long periods, with an endeavor that is by no means fun but is otherwise rewarding.

Perhaps, if we believe that traditional civic engagement is faltering, we need to examine why voters are not interested in the ballot box but will spend hours structuring communities built around their hobbies, interests, and popular media.

References
Black, R. W., & Steinkuehler, C. (forthcoming). Literacy in Virtual Worlds. In L. Christenbury, R. Bomer & P. Smagorinski (Eds.), Handbook of Adolescent Literacy. New York: Guilford.

The Gungan Council. (n.d.). Retrieved April 24, 2007, from http://p099.ezboard.com/bthegungancouncil

The Temple of the Jedi. (n.d.). Retrieved April 24, 2007, from http://www.jeditemple.freehosting.net/


Posted by bjohnson at 12:17 PM