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 21, 2010

Camtasia Relay - Recorded Mini Lectures for Online Learning

When I started teaching Research Methods in the Master of Education cohort, senior colleagues convinced me that constructivist teaching was the ONLY way to conduct online classes for adults. In fact, attempts to conduct direct instruction online were seen to be nearly the work of the devils - U of Phoenix and Capella. It wasn't respectful of adults as self directed learners who had expertise of their own.

And I bought that argument for a while, but it made me uneasy. After all, there are many technical aspects of research theory and practice that are not easy to discover on your own ... just look at seasoned researchers who make mistakes and end up in the news! "Guidance" via more words and redirection to students' own experiences and the textbook (none of which really meet our needs for this class fully anyway) did not work very well for two semesters.

Then, I discovered Camtasia Relay.

This little program allows me to record mini-lectures over PowerPoint presentations. In 15 to 30 minutes, I can give direct information and guidance to my online students ... every week. This keeps them on track, reassures them that I'm still really "there" as their instructor, and has significantly raised the comfort and satisfaction my students have for the course.

It also allows me to use my computer display, with voice over, to show students many of the tools and techniques that I use in research and analysis. Using dummy information (gathered from the class on non-personal questions), I can demonstrate how to calculate statistics or used thematic content analysis to answer a research question. In theory, you could use this capture technology to show and talk about any subject matter you could show on your computer - with or without Power Point.

One of the best things about the software is that it works for both Mac and PC ... a rarity in the ed tech world. And with Camtasia Relay 2 coming out, many of my concerns may be addressed.

Up to this release, I'd been concerned about what I would do when I had a hearing impaired student in my class (which has happened in prior terms). But Relay 2 promises voice to text - something I need to verify.

I'd also been bothered by the fact that I have to unplug my second monitor whenever I did a recording. The new version manages multiple monitors and multiple microphones!

It also promises better integration into Moodle, which is currently my CMS of choice. Heaven!!

So, if you teach online and feel that your voice and expertise is missing from your classes, check out Camtasia Relay!

Posted by bjohnson at 8:43 AM

April 20, 2010


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

March 19, 2010

A use for crowd sourcing

Take a moment to pop over to Luther College's library and information services blog and read their description of what is essentially a focused, online suggestion box.

This little college in the middle of no-where gets it. Social media is not the enemy of academia unless we make it so. Maybe they understand the future roaring down on us because they must reach out and intentionally use communication tools to connect with the larger world. As I well remember from summers in Le Sueur, MN, you appreciate communication when it is a break from isolation. But for whatever reason, they are leading in directions we should consider adopting.

So why is this little crowd sourcing tool use so cool?

1) It is virtually (pun intended) any time any where place to jot down creative ideas to a problem. Rather than wait for one meeting a year where we frantically brainstorm and vote, this service allows people to record their creative ideas soon after they have them, whenever they have them. And as anyone who works on creativity in business (and yes, a university is a business) knows, people are creative thinkers at the strangest times. In the shower, upon waking up, when they go to sleep, when they exercise, etc. This sort of tool allows them to be creative 365 days a year instead of one. Think of the great ideas that could be captured in volume!

2) It is open to the stakeholders as well as the providers. If there is one thing that the U is very bad at, it is including the people who are affected by decisions in making them. Crowd sourcing would not only get new ideas from them but also allow them to vote on the ideas that would affect them most. This gives the service providers some idea of what to tackle first or where to invest the most effort and resources. While we often think we know what the biggest problems are, we are often wrong. Or we overlook the little nagging things that don't seem to be important (like dripping pipes) but that add up over time.

3) It puts this information in one place. Right now, we have no single place (at least at UMD) for feedback and suggestions that relate to computing services. Depending upon who you know, you might email the Director or call the Help Desk. Or talk to your friendly neighborhood tech -- centralized or college-based. But these ideas get scattered across numerous departments and lodged in the memory of many people ... most of whom are not allowed to attend strategic planning meetings because that's above their pay scale.

I've suggested centralized systems in the past without success. It would cross too many boundaries and threaten power silos, I suspect. But there are places where these emerging tools are being used successfully to get work ... and yest teaching and learning .... done. Like fire --- they can be threatening, but they could help us do our jobs too.

Posted by bjohnson at 7:05 AM

March 17, 2010

Can Gaming Make a Better World?

An interesting talk about how WoW and other games are impacting our world --- and what they are making gamers good at can be found at TED - look for Jane McGonigal's talk "Gaming can make a better world".

As a gamer who is also interested in using virtual worlds and video games as educational tools, I naturally like to hear ways in which games are helping society instead of signaling its tragic end.

Take a few minutes (about 20 of them) to listen to her argument and tell us what you think! In particular, at the end, she talks about some of the games she is creating that actually may train players to think strategically about real world problems and make real, lasting life changes.

Posted by bjohnson at 4:47 PM

August 26, 2009

Maslow's Hierarchy in Second Life

I'll be the first to admit that I struggle to find ways that Second Life may be used to convey and construct knowledge in ways that justify the cost of learning to navigate the world let alone learn to build in it.

So, when I find installations such as Maslow's Hierarchy, a build described in The Educator's Second Life, I am very glad to see creations that go beyond mere content distribution and move into creation of an experience for the visitor.

This installation is a walk through of the levels of Maslow's classic model ... literally. The learner starts at a basic ground level point (meeting physical needs) and literally walks an obstacle course to get to the self-actualization level in the sky. The course is not difficult, although I did find myself confused at one point since the path is not always clear, and the middle levels seem to blend into one another. Still, the idea of rising in virtual space as one ascends the pyramid hammers home the concept.

Fortunately, this installation goes beyond what many such educational builds do. Instead of just handing out note cards, the build does encourage some interactive participation ... such as building a shelter out of Lego-like blocks and beating a drum with others in a Native American circle. By the time the participant reaches the top of the course, he or she is exposed to numerous tools used by educators to aid students in self understanding and reflection.

It is worth visiting this place, to begin to understand that the classroom can be stretched and expanded ... an that the online course can contain experiences like this, which are not exact duplicates of what one might do in a physical classroom, but that can be used to increase understanding and retention beyond what can be achieved with mere words.

Posted by bjohnson at 10:40 AM

July 31, 2009

Dr. BlackBerry: Eight Apps Making Medicine More Mobile - - Business Technology Leadership

As a group, physicians almost define the need for accurate, up-to-date information at your fingertips combined with an understanding of multiple, complex systems.

But if they are moving away from the old school model of "memorize everything you'll need for the future while in school", what does that tell us about our current, banking model of school?

Posted by bjohnson at 9:06 AM

July 30, 2009

Educational Technology Bridge Wiki

To foster more give and take, I started a Wiki page associated with the bridge between education and technology. See the experiment at: Educational Technology Bridge Wiki and contribute freely.

I think it is helpful for many faculty -- and students too -- to practice these new tools in low-stakes environments.

Posted by bjohnson at 1:12 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

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

September 11, 2007


Travian ( is a browser-based multiplayer real time strategy game with simple, straight-forward game play. Basic memberships are free.

Each player is the chieftain of an evolving community, developing resources and buildings and gaining territory. The number of choices is limited, which makes it easy for new players to be acclimated quickly. There are three types of civilizations, four resources. The types of buildings and fighting units are significantly higher, but players have time to get used to those details during the first few days as the core village develops. Many aspects of game play should appeal roughly equally to male and female players, which can be a tough balance to juggle.

Activity reports may involve violence (opponents raiding villages to carry off resources and kill military personnel), although there is room for diplomacy and negotiation with other players. Violence is never seen, however. The player is far removed from the action, getting letters and reports about results without actually seeing conflicts. Depending upon the player’s inclinations (and actions of other players), the focus of the game can be upon creating a flourishing civilization or military strategy or both. There seem to be few, if any puzzles or mysteries in the game, so the tilt of the game play is more to the male-attractive side of the spectrum, but with opportunities for both genders to enjoy the game.

Travian requires socially oriented play since no one can avoid the actions of other players in this game. The top players on each server are in wide-flungalliances. The quality of the interaction between characters is entirely up to the players. Think Civilization but with people behind the other players rather than a good artificial intelligence program.

The setting is marginally fantasy-based, being an idealized medieval setting. This is not a Tolkein-ese world, nor is it a neighborhood you can imagine living in. The neutral color scheme for the cartoon-quality graphics is easy on the eyes and should appeal to a wide range of players.

Some aspects of the game will probably appeal more to boys than girls, however. The lack of a female character (the only identifiable individuals are all various types of male fighters) with whom the player can identify, trial and error early game play, and the real time strategy genre itself may turn some girls off the game. The core point of the game is to control and develop territory – which will not appeal to all kids.

Educationally, it is potentially useful for teaching ratios and change over time. Planning community development can fit into many lessons on math and information technology, social studies, or history. Players need to consider the effects of upgrading a wheat field vs. another resource, for instance, in order to keep their people fed and secure. It is also good practice for negotiations, team building, and may shed light on points of history (such as why cities where build where they were).

For schools, the two biggest challenges will be getting around the network firewall to access the site and explaining to parents that this game is an educational experience.

However, he pace of the game may also be a problem for some players and schools. Building up resources takes many hours of time in real life. The good news is that a player does not need to be logged into the game – this process takes place automatically in the persistent world. It has the potential to teach patience and planning, and get around the frantic pace of many console games. The bad news is that, since the game is active 24/7, players may feel a constant need to check up on the situation in their village.

Travian is a fun way to engage some basic planning skills over a relatively long period of time in which short bursts of activity are focused on the game. It could be used to reinforce concepts like ratios, cost-benefit analysis, team work, strategic planning, It is a game in which choices make a great deal of difference, and a player can definitely go backwards in the standings unless he or she learns to play well, which should give players an incentive to understand classroom concepts in order to achieve their goals.

Keep in mind that this, like any game, will not teach concepts and skills. It may pose the problem statement that will get kids interested in learning some concepts. Or it can be used to reinforce and get them to practice skills to which they've been introduced. It should be integrated into a larger lesson plan. And always plan for the worst - which in this case would be that a game server would be unavailable during your lesson or class time.

If you try it and like it, let me know. Better yet, spread the word to colleagues!

Posted by bjohnson at 8:09 AM

December 11, 2006

Advent Calendar Concept: Mini-games

Mini-games are small video games, usually distributed online, that are easy to play in a short amount of time. They have been used most typically in advertising (Volvo) or getting across a political message (Howard Dean's campaign in Iowa).

Here is a cute concept used by Nintendo to organize a collection of mini-games with a similar, unifying story: Mission in Snowdrift Land.

This is cute advertising, and not terribly intrusive at that, but the real reason to share it is to point out how a semester's collection of concepts and practice games could be grouped in a unified way.

Think about a set of games used to illustrate how to organize a kindergarten or pre-school setting should be run. Or how to cope with on the job problems such as racism, information confidentiality, or sexual harassment.

We do not need to invest hundreds of hours in programming time, although we may need to sharpen our story-telling skills, to make engaging games.

Think about how you organize a semester's course. What is the unifying theme? Can you make it fun??

Posted by bjohnson at 7:20 AM

October 11, 2006

Games as a Pain Management Tool in Hospitals

Here's a nice little tidbit about using games in hospital pediatrics units:

Those games that make time "just fly by" in my world also help hospitalized children manage the pain (and boredom!) of long stays.

Get-Well Gamers and Child's Play charities operate throughout the country, providing consoles and games to children in long-term hospital-stay situations. They need donations, especially age-appropriate games, so check out the article at Joystiq and consider donating items you no longer play.

Posted by bjohnson at 5:52 PM

October 8, 2006

Theraputic Uses for MMOs

Recently, Lisa Galarneau of Terra Nova asked a question near and dear to my heart: are virtual worlds good for the soul?

While it is certainly easy to fall prey to the tendency to over-hype the "serious" uses of games, Lisa points to both research and anecdotal evidence that indicates ways in which video games and virtual worlds encourage players (using the term loosely) to develop abilities ranging from increased literacy, effective communication and teamwork, and (despite stereotypes of anti-social gamers) greater sociability.

Admittedly, research in this area of "soft skills" is at a beginning stage, with much of the evidence in the form of anedotes, but the increasing volume of data is encouraging. Read Lisa's blog for more details and check out the latest issue of Games and Culture for more articles on how massively multiplayer games are having a positive impact on our lives.

Posted by bjohnson at 9:04 PM

September 30, 2006

Decisions, decisions, decisions

Slowly, ever so slowly, we have begun to look - seriously - at what games teach. And it's not necessarily what you think.

Generally, the point of game-based learning is not about the content, although many supposed "games" for very young children are simply about memorizing facts with accompanying bells and whistles. For anyone out of the first few grades, when it comes to the value of teaching via games, the most valuable (or the most scary) items taught are the less tangible skills. Take a look at David Sirlin's article on how World of Warcraft teaches a particular worldview ( or Marco Visscher's article on the educational value of games in Ode ( for examples of what we learn from our favorite digital games.

In part, these two articles hint at a major attribute that games in general provide - training in making decisions, especially in an environment of uncertainty.

Slowly, ever so slowly, we have begun to look - seriously - at what games teach. And it's not necessarily what you think.

Generally, the point of game-based learning is not about the content, although many supposed "games" for very young children are simply about memorizing facts with accompanying bells and whistles. For anyone out of the first few grades, when it comes to the value of teaching via games, the most valuable (or the most scary) items taught are the less tangible skills. Take a look at David Sirlin's article on how World of Warcraft teaches a particular worldview ( or Marco Visscher's article on the educational value of games in Ode ( for examples of what we learn from our favorite digital games.

In part, these two articles hint at a major attribute that games in general provide - training in making decisions, especially in an environment of uncertainty.

If you think about games you know, digitally based or other, you'll notice how decision-making plays a central role in playing many games. While a few games, particularily for young children (such as Chutes and Ladders) are entirely deterministic (for instance, you can only move the number of squares rolled by a dice and have no decision to make in the matter), most games beyond this level require some choice, if only to decide if you'll land on an opponent to send her back to the beginning. Turn by turn, decisions need to be made in order to take some action associated with the game. Unlike many parts of "real life," you can't choose not to decide - in order to stay in the game, you have to think about your choices, take one, and act. Failure to decide means that you are literally out of the game.

(types of decisions: incremental vs. this turn only, degrees of uncertainty in a range of games, pace of decision-making)
But not all game-based decisions are the same. There are different types of decisions to be found in games, depending upon the genre. Many strategy games (including action, adventure, and role-playing games) feature decisions that are incremental. That is, at each decision point, the options are determined by the outcome of the previous decisions. For instance, in chess, once you have played your opening gambit, your next set of potential moves is limited based on the new configuration of the board. Likewise, with a complex role-playing game such as World of Warcraft, all decisons are limited once you have determined the gender and profession of your character. This puts a premium on making good decisions throughout the game since it can be difficult to recover from a particularly bad one - or a string of mediocre ones.

In contrast, some games feature a decision-making type where each turn is essentially a new start. In cribbage, all hands are equally possible every turn with no influences lingering from the previous hands. While your progress on the board matters over the course of the game, every hand is a new opportunity just like the opening hand. A mistake in a decision with these games may not have far-reaching impact. Hence, the cost of every decision is lighter - and more open to a casual gaming feel.

Also, games differ greatly with the amount of uncertainty associated with each decision. In chess, for instance, each player holds equal and complete knowledge of the board and every possible move. What alone remains unknown is what the opponent is planning. But that is an extreme example. Most other games involve some unknowns - such as the cards held by the opponent (cribbage, poker, etc.), the roll of the next throw of the dice (backgammon or Monopoly), the likelihood that the next opponent beaten will reveal a necessary item (World of Warcraft or Star Wars Galaxies), or the configuration of the next dinner rush (Diner Dash).

The pace and pressure of decisions is also a factor. You can play chess either at a leisurely or breakneck pace, depending upon your fancy. And you may face both speeds in a very complex role-playing game in which you can plan your strategy for tackling a challenge but have to adjust it moment by moment as the action unfolds. And you can choose to play things like Tetris or Diner Dash in which the speed is rapid at its slowest and absolutely frantic as you advance levels.

Given that you can find a game with just about any decision-making attributes you can name, why do we care about this feature of games at all? Because decisions are the stuff of life. Reflect for a moment about your life as an adult, especially a working adult. How many decisions do you make in a day? Dozens? Hundreds? How important are they? Depending upon your profession, they may literally be life-and-death decisions, or they may be worth many hundreds or millions of dollars. In all but the most menial jobs, there are some decisions to be made, and we become expert in them over time.

Now, contrast this with the number of decisions made in school, by students, daily. While it would certainly be unfair to suggest that students don't make decisions in school, a moment's reflection should reveal how few they are allowed to make. Everything from schedule to mode of assignment completion is dictated to them. Very few assignments allow creative thinking or choice. Lunch is a given. Aside of choosing what to wear and whether or not to comply with the rules, students of all ages have few opportunities to practice meaningful decision-making in school.

This is particularly worrisome when we consider how important effective decision-making is to the professions and information-age jobs we hope our students will enter upon completion of college or graduate school. We will ask them to step into jobs where their ability to make decisions, often under pressure and with limited knowledge, is a key requirement - and they will have little comparative experience with this way of operation.

So, as teachers, parents, and students, we should take a closer look at the valuable experience games can offer us. Practice with decision-making is just as important as memorizing facts - perhaps more so, since facts can be looked up, but effective decisions are hard to pull off the Internet.

Posted by bjohnson at 11:27 AM

November 5, 2004

Example Hybrid Class

Mark Harvey (Theatre Department at UMD) has an example of a hybrid class he would like to share with others.

This course meets face to face on 2 days each week (Monday and Wednesday), but the third day originally scheduled is moved to online threaded discussions.

Take a look at Introduction to Theater Arts (Hybrid Class) to see the logistical and pedagogical adjustments that allow this class to be such a success!

Posted by bjohnson at 3:01 PM

October 22, 2004

A Use for Blogs

Imagine it is Sunday night. Tomorrow morning, you will go into your classroom and announce a group writing assignment. You want your students, in small groups of 3 or 4, to put together a series of essays on a given topic. Each essay can be done individually or jointly, but they should all be related to a common sub-theme that you will allow the groups to choose.

Since your school is trying to bring technology into the classroom, you want to involve computer technology SOMEHOW, but you don't want to spend a lot of time teaching technology since there already are not enough hours in the day for writing let alone teaching 20 or 30 kids (or more!) how to publish electronically. Heck, YOU don't even know how to do anything more than a boring web page.

If you leave the choice of publication medium to the students, you know you will be barraged with questions about how they are supposed to do this. They all have different schedules and cannot all get together at any one time to meet let alone work together. They don't all own computers or the same software, and you know you really don't want to read their scrawled copies of hand-written notes. They don't know how to publish things to the web, and if they do, they don't want to share their personal pages with other students.

So, what do you do? You blog.

No, "blog" is not a synonym for "cry in a corner". It is a way to publish content to the web quickly and easily.

A blog is usually defined as a collection of writings (called "posts" or "entries") on a theme arranged in chronological order on the web. The term "blog" is short for "weblog" or "web log" - which gives you some idea of the origin. "Blogs" were once ongoing web logs arranged by date as would any other type of log file. Now, as we enter the 21st century, they can be used for announcements, travelogs, personal journals, and informal personal publications.

Blogs are often hosted by blogging companies, although your technical staff can install blogging software such as MoveableType fairly easily and at low cost. They are easy for a host (such as yourself) to configure and make look reasonably good without knowing anything about web publishing whatsoever.

The best thing is that blogs can be set up so that a single author controls it or allows collaboration of a group, much like publishing a magazine. But unlike a printed magazine, blogs allow readers to make comments about the entries they read. It is like having an immediately available editorial page!

Blogs can be set up with various levels of restrictions, especially if you install it on your own system, so this can be tailored to the classroom's needs. While the tradition of blogging is for wide-open spaces and nearly anything goes, you may not want just anyone coming in to comment on little Johnny's work. On the other hand, it can be an incentive for learners to write well if they know they can share their achievements with family and friends. It might even help them clean up their spelling and grammar when the audience includes more than their teacher or professor.

But this is not to say that blogging is the answer to all of your collaborative or publishing needs. You should also look into related technologies such as threaded discussion and other collaborative software. Always start by looking at your needs and those of your students before selecting a tool!

Posted by bjohnson at 12:14 PM