Gaming the Educational System

Games in School?

Games in school are, more often than not, a taboo topic.  The conversation has shifted, for sure, due to recent research and gradual changes in educator opinions, but games as learning vehicles in the classroom are generally still not taken seriously.  Isolated educator success has definitely raised interest but also proven difficult to duplicate.  A lot this is due to the chicken and egg scenario of established approaches, research, and, most importantly, administrative support for game-based learning and gamification in the classroom.  As with most things in modern education, a good place to start is the standards.  As far as game-based learning and gamification are concerned, the ISTE standards provide an excellent cornerstone to build upon.

International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) Educator Standard 5

Designer: Educators design authentic, learner-driven activities and environments that recognize and accommodate learner variability. Educators:

  • 5a. Use technology to create, adapt and personalize learning experiences that foster independent learning and accommodate learner differences and needs.
  • 5b. Design authentic learning activities that align with content area standards and use digital tools and resources to maximize active, deep learning.
  • 5c. Explore and apply instructional design principles to create innovative digital learning environments that engage and support learning.

ISTE Educator Standard 5, Designer, provides good guidance for educators in terms of focusing on designing authentic, learner-driven experiences..  By focusing on supporting student learning and learner engagement and then matching that with something like game-based learning and gamification, educators can create digital learning environments that explore and apply instructional design principles in truly innovative ways.  This type of unique approach can both increase intrinsic motivation and overall student learning at the same time.

Essential Question

How can educators explore and apply innovative instructional design approaches to create new unique digital learning environments that increase student engagement and learning? 

Game-based Learning vs. Gamification

In any general conversation regarding game-based learning and gamification, it’s important to clarify similarities and differences.  Game-based learning utilizes games as the primary vehicle for the learning itself.  So students are learning directly through a game.  Gamification is when something other than a game is taken and game-like qualities are added on.  Examples include a traditional lesson or homework where points are added and classroom management strategies where positive behavior choices lead to earning points.  There are countless examples of each and many ways to approach both game-based learning and gamification.  It is a little bit of a spectrum too where sometimes there can be a some blurring of the lines between the two classifications.  Ultimately, while helpful, understanding the distinction between game-based learning and gamification is less important at the outset then focusing on the intended result of increasing student engagement, content retention, and overall learning.

Innovating in Schools with Games

Innovation, by definition, means doing something new, unique, and different in order to more effectively and or efficiently accomplish a task, goal, and/or objective.  In this case, improving upon the traditional educational experience in such a way that students are more engaged, remember more content, and learn more standards-based material overall.  If they have fun along the way then all the better!  Piaget is often quoted as saying that “Play is the work of childhood” so if we can tap into this in the classroom then we can create a naturally more effective means for learning in the classroom.  Game-based learning and gamification tap into play and utilize this as a means to facilitate learning, thereby tapping into how children are naturally wired to learn.  Even simple multiplication games are start toward helping increase engagement and any number of game-focused approaches can help make all content areas more interesting for students.  Even gamification of classroom management can help make the generic class experience more fun for students.  All of these approaches can be analog or digital in terms of the game-based approach.  Digital, or video, games do provide some additional opportunities that weren’t readily available even just a few years ago.

MakeCode Makes Video Games Easy

One platform for engaging students with a focus on game-based learning via video games is Microsoft’s MakeCode platform.  MakeCode Arcade, especially, provides a readily available approach for leveraging this area in the classroom.  MakeCode’s coding environment is very intuitive and user friendly.  I was able to get on, explore, teach myself, and program my first video game via MakeCode in approximately 15 minutes.  The first lesson is a basic environment where a character can be moved around to eat a food item for points with the more items eaten before time lapses then the higher the score (you can play my first MakeCode video game pictured above by clicking here).  There are so many possibilities in terms of utilizing this as a means to encourage students to practice content standards.  Students could easily design a similar game where the main character needed to “eat” the correct answer to a math problem in order to earn points.  Or, students could write a story to go along with the video game adventure and utilize the experience as motivation for a writing prompt.  In social studies, this simple mechanism could illustrate an experience around finding appropriate food sources on the Oregon Trail.  The list goes on and that’s just via a very simple introductory video game.  Very quickly more complex approaches and concepts become possible where students can program to demonstrate their own learning, program games to teach concepts to classmates, program solutions to project-based problems, and much more.  Very quickly, students can make the transition from learning to code to coding to learn.

Where Educational Games meet Pedagogy

Okay, this is great and all, you may even have gotten excited about trying out some sort of game-based learning or gamification in your classroom, but where to begin?  I recommend thinking about your current teaching context.  Are there any other teachers in your building that have experimented with either?  If so then ask them what’s worked in their case.  How does your administrator feel about this?  Is it better to ask in advance in case s/he walks in or is it better to ask forgiveness?  Is there anything in your existing curriculum that resembles game-based learning or gamification?  Or, can you start with something as simple as classroom Jeopardy?  Your teaching context and experience is incredibly relevant when considering your starting point.  Teaching basic coding before attempting to teach any sort of computer game programming is also important.  By starting with activities that are clearly standards based and connected to existing curriculum, an educator can build a track record of gradual transition and implementation into more in-depth game-based learning and gamification where the learning involved will be more obvious to all that observe the educational progression.

References

  1. International Society for Technology in Education. (2019). ISTE Standards For Educators. ISTE. Retrieved from https://www.iste.org/standards/for-educators
  2. Microsoft (2020). MakeCode Arcade. Retrieved from https://arcade.makecode.com/#reload 
  3. Farber, M. (2020, January 22nd). How to Find Games for Classroom Learning. Edutopia (George Lucas Foundation). Retrieved from edutopia.org/article/how-find-games-classroom-learning
  4. Farber, M. (2014, October 9th). Games in Education: Teacher Takeaways. Edutopia (George Lucas Foundation). Retrieved from edutopia.org/blog/games-in-education-teacher-takeaways-Matthew-farber
  5. Gee, J.P. (2012, March 19th). James Paul Gee on Learning With Video Games. Edutopia (George Lucas Foundation). Retrieved from edutopia.org/video/James-Paul-gee-learning-video-games
  6. Samueli Foundation. (2020). North America Scholastic Esports Federation. Retrieved from NASEF.org
  7. Nazerian, T. (2019, January 31st). Can Designing Video Games Help Kids Gain Hard and Soft Skills? Edsurge. Retrieved from https://www.edsurge.com/news/2019-01-31-can-designing-video-games-help-kids-gain-hard-and-soft-skills
  8. Nazerian, T. (2019, January 22nd). Educators Share How Video Games Can Help Kids Build SEL Skills. Edsurge. Retrieved from https://www.edsurge.com/news/2019-01-22-educators-share-how-video-games-can-help-kids-build-sel-skills
  9. Noonoo, S.  (2019, February 12th). Playing Games Can Build 21st-Century Skills. Research Explains How. Edsurge. Retrieved from https://www.edsurge.com/news/2019-02-12-playing-games-can-build-21st-century-skills-research-explains-how

Pivoting from In-Person to Virtual PD

Live and In-person to Virtual, Remote, & Online Learning

Every year as part of my job as a learning designer, I help to design, host, and train teachers that will be running professional development training over the coming year.  We do this training in person over the course of a long weekend. So what happens when that training suddenly has to pivot to being done online? How do we adapt? What does that even begin to look like?  So many questions! And, not a lot of answers. In some ways, I feel fortunate because I’m trying to figure out how to host online training for adults as opposed to many of my k-12 teacher friends that are currently trying to figure out how to approach a similar shift with kids.  All the same, I think there are some similarities, and right now is a good time to share thoughts around what’s sure to be a common challenge faced by many educators across the country and even around the world. In some ways, this is much bigger than any of us as individuals or as educators and is a question of citizenship because the root cause is a global pandemic.  Since we’re taking this online, it’s a good opportunity to review digital citizenship as outlined by the International Society for Technology Education (ISTE) Standards.

International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) Standard 2

ISTE Standard 2, Digital Citizen, students recognize the rights, responsibilities and opportunities of living, learning and working in an interconnected digital world, and they act and model in ways that are safe, legal and ethical. Students will:

  1. Cultivate and manage their digital identity and reputation and are aware of the permanence of their actions in the digital world.
  2. Engage in positive, safe, legal and ethical behavior when using technology, including social interactions online or when using networked devices.
  3. Demonstrate an understanding of and respect for the rights and obligations of using and sharing intellectual property.
  4. Manage their personal data to maintain digital privacy and security and are aware of data-collection technology used to track their navigation online.

As we look at being good citizens overall during a challenging time, thinking about what good online citizenship means is a good review and preparation for better overall interactions and guiding of learning online.  Acting in model ways that are safe, legal, and ethical are important ideas to keep in mind. As educators, we should model the type of choices and behaviors that we want to see from our students. Online actions are much more permanent because there’s a digital record so being cognisant of this is important.  Assuming positive intent is especially important because tone and body language are often hard to communicate online. Additionally, a genuine understanding and respect for intellectual property is important online as well as a general area for improvement in education in general. Finally, managing personal data as an educator means not only monitoring your own personal data but protecting that of those whom you work with and teach as well.  All of these things are natural extensions of good citizenship during the best of times let alone during challenging times, and extending these critical ideals to an online learning environment will make for a much better and overall more productive experience for everyone.

Essential Question

How do teachers shift from in-person professional development to virtual online learning for their own edification and what are the andragogical versus pedagogical implications?

Shifting from Face-to-Face to Online Face Time

Synchronous Video Chat Programs with Chat Rooms: Transitioning from face-to-face in person to face-to-face online is not as straightforward as one might imagine.  It is difficult to engage a large group via video chat. Some programs support up to 9-10 in a group well but once you grow beyond the “brady bunch” frame then it’s extremely difficult to have small interactions that normally occur in an in-person large group setting.  So this medium cannot just be approached as a substitute for in-person but as its own unique thing and as a different way to engage a group of people. For example, one difference that can be an enhancement is the back-channel chat that allows more voices to be heard without interrupting the presenters and also allow for more interaction.  This combined with breakout rooms for smaller chats that can instantaneously become small group discussions or work groups which can then regroup with the large group. Some examples of common video chat programs are Skype, Google Chat, Zoom, WebEx, Teams, Big Blue Button, and Google Meet, but there are definitely many more options out there.

Asynchronous Video Chat Programs: This is where online gets more interesting, in my opinion, and it can truly augment in-person interactions.  The ability to record short videos that can then be shared with a group, interacted with, commented on, and viewed or saved for later enhances in-person as well as remote interaction adds quite a bit to the learning experience.  There are many options and programs that can be used for this approach, including many of the common video chat programs. The one that is most common and launched this kind of interaction to the mainstream is called Flipgrid.  Approaching online interaction with unique tools and approaches helps to make the time more engaging and compensate for some of the aspects lost from being all together. Whether live or virtual, at the end of the day, it all comes back to relationships and a sense of community among participants and the instructors.

Online Professional Development Beyond the Video

Interactive note-taking applications: This is one type of tool that allows for a fair amount of asynchronous interactivity online but is not a huge shift for users. These are not too different from current computer word processing applications except that they add an interactive collaboration component.  Google Docs, Word 365, and OneNote are all great examples of spaces where people can share their notes together and add information while watching the same presentation, in a meeting, or working asynchronously on a particular problem.

Interactive annotation applications: A slight variation on interactive note-taking is digital annotation web applications, which are becoming common.  These allow for a commonly selected text to be shared and then both highlighted and commented on in such a way that all participants can interact with the information and grow the interactive annotation into a more global conversation.  Perusall and Edpuzzle are great examples. Edpuzzle even allows the usage of digital media with questions inserted by an instructor for a slight variation on the task. This is also an excellent way to practice digital citizenship in terms of both honoring and emphasizing intellectual property.

Interactive brainstorming: This is another take on web collaboration and allows everything from a virtual whiteboard to an online mind map to virtual sticky notes.  Virtual whiteboards, like Miro, allow for people to virtually interact in a Whiteboard space. The disadvantage is the lack of kinesthetic movement in the space and interactivity but the advantage is that the work is instantaneously saved and people can work on the project asynchronously from any location.  If mind mapping is the focus then Coggle is a great resource for quick and efficient mind maps outlining ideas, workflows, and similar tasks.

Additionally, padlet allows for interactive usage of sticky notes and is a great way to conduct online group interactions, thinking, brainstorms, and reflections.  Again, the information is automatically saved for later review and accessible to any group members at a later time for reference.

Less Obvious Online Interactions

While somewhat less obvious, online simulations and interactive coding opportunities provide new and unique ways for participants to experience a virtual version of hands-on learning.  Freely available PhET simulations from the University of Colorado are a great option for both math and science simulations that can be done via a computer, tablet, or phone. Block-based coding software makes computer programming much more accessible and can be both quickly learned and shared via platforms such as Code.org, Scratch, MakeCode, and Polyup to name just a few.

Completely Synchronous to Asynchronous and Beyond

When pivoting from in-person synchronous to online synchronous and asynchronous, I think the main lesson to learn is that there are very few direct substitutes or replacements.  Most interactive online learning tools have their own advantages and disadvantages when compared with in-person learning. Most importantly, there are many ways in which these online tools can also be used to augment and improve in-person professional development.  This is probably the best of both worlds where both tools can be used to supplement, complement, enhance, and amplify learning together. In this way, tools such as Google Office and Microsoft Office 365 can be used both in person and online. These traditional office tools now have several options for online collaboration and can make working together digitally more seamless when done both in-person and virtually as well as synchronous activities combined with asynchronous activities.

How then does the average classroom teacher apply this?  This is a question that’s been in the back of my mind as I prepare to adapt adult professional development and many of my peers prepare for their students to learn remotely.  In some ways, this means looking at where the andragogical aspects end and the pedagogical implications begin. In other ways, it means simply jumping in, trying whatever you can, doing your very best, and giving yourself permission to struggle, fail, and try again with different approaches.  Normally, I’d recommended starting small and just trying an activity here or there but recent events mean many educators are going from all in-person learning to completely online learning environments virtually overnight. This is a challenging transition in the best of circumstances, and so I hope my colleagues will give themselves and their students grace while they try to learn in a brave new virtual world that’s familiar only to some and foreign to most.  I know it can be done, though, I believe in my fellow educators, and I hope that somehow I can help support them as we all work through these unique circumstances together.

References

  1. MIT. (2020). Scratch. Retrieved from https://scratch.mit.edu/
  2. Code.org. (2020). Hour of Code Full course catalog. Retrieved from https://studio.code.org/courses
  3. Microsoft. (2020). MakeCode. Retrieved from https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/makecode
  4. Polyup. (2020). Poly Challenge. Retrieved from https://www.polyup.com/
  5. International Society for Technology in Education. (2016). ISTE Standards For Students. ISTE. Retrieved from https://www.iste.org/standards/for-students


Encoding Creative Communication

Creating Creative Communicators

Communication, Collaboration, Critical Thinking, and Creativity are often referred to as the 4 C’s of 21st Century Learning.  These so-called “soft skills” are different from the “hard skills” of math and science” but essential for success in applying math, science, engineering, and technology in our modern society and, arguably, harder to teach. The Battelle Foundation’s Partnership for 21st Century Learning highlights these 4 C’s throughout its “Framework for 21st Century Learning Definitions”.  Another organization in this space, the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), provides us with multiple references to these modern “soft” skills throughout the ISTE standards. One example is ISTE standard 6, Creative Communicator, which addresses all of these in one standard for students.

International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) Standard 6

ISTE Standard 6, Creative Communicator, students communicate clearly and express themselves creatively for a variety of purposes using the platforms, tools, styles, formats and digital media appropriate to their goals. Students:

  1. Choose the appropriate platforms and tools for meeting the desired objectives of their creation or communication.
  2. Create original works or responsibly repurpose or remix digital resources into new creations.
  3. Communicate complex ideas clearly and effectively by creating or using a variety of digital objects such as visualizations, models or simulations.
  4. Publish or present content that customizes the message and medium for their intended audiences.

Successfully addressing ISTE Standard 6, Creative Communicator, requires aspects of all four C’s from the core set of 21st Century Skills.  Creativity is obviously required in order to be a creative communicator, as are communication and collaboration essential skills for creatively communicating with others.  Lastly, and perhaps less obvious, is the need for critical thinking as creative communicators (i.e. students) evaluate tools, mediums, and resources to use effectively in order to accomplish their goals as supported by this standard.  This last part comes out through the third component of the standard to “communicate complex ideas clearly and effectively…” and forms the basis for my essential question and the focus of this blog post.

Essential Question

How do teachers empower students to communicate complex ideas in creative ways so that they use a variety of digital objects such as visualizations, models, and simulations?

Computer Science for the Non-Computer-Science Teacher

Encoding is a means of transforming information into a format that is easily transferred or communicated.  Encoding creative communication is one way to think about transforming student abilities so as to transfer information in more unique and creative ways such as visualizations, models, or simulations.  What better way to do this than computer science and programming? Not a coder? Not a problem. We need to move beyond the traditional definition of the computer science teacher and expand the communication medium to all classrooms and thus create computer science opportunities for the non-computer-science teacher.  Block based coding is an equalizer in this area and empowers everyone to approach and learn to write computer programs in an easily understood and transferable environment. This opens all sorts of doors for everyone to explore creative communication and to communicate complex ideas creatively via a variety of digital objects because those objects can be programmed by students as young as 1st grade and in some cases even kindergarten.

MIT, Scratch, & the Rise of Block-Based Programming in Education

MIT’s Scratch Website: The Logo computer programming language, otherwise known as the “turtle programming language” is what essentially launched accessible programming but MIT’s Scratch is what truly made block-based programming mainstream (it’s worth noting that Logo led to Lego Logo which was a precursor to Scratch).  Scratch is an accessible block-based language that is especially user friendly when it comes to animating a character, otherwise known as “sprite”, and assigning dialogue or interactions via code. This becomes extremely useful for integration opportunities across Language Arts, English language learning, and art among other areas.  Scratch is compatible with a wide-range of products and browser-based so it’s easily accessible (like most modern block-based programming languages).

BootUp: Scratch’s curriculum for educators has not historically been one of the more user-friendly resources. The newest iteration appears to be a definite improvement although still a little text heavy at times.  Those looking for something a little different may want to check out BootUp’s freely available Scratch curriculum which utilizes a variety of short student-friendly video vignettes to support instruction.  BootUp bills themselves as “what’s next” after initially jumping into computer coding via Code.org or some other introductory platform.

Google CS: This is arguably the newest block-based coding curriculum for mainstream k-12 computer science.  Google has created a series of introductory lessons that utilize Scratch as a means to teach basic computer coding strategies.  Google CS’s selection at this point in time is somewhat limited compared to other resources because it’s newer but new lessons and resources are being added on a regular basis.  Google CS’s choice of Scratch is an interesting one given that the block-based programming language, Blockly, is also created by and a project of Google.

Block-Based Coding with Blockly & Code.org as the Gold Standard

Code.org: “Hour of Code” was popularized by Code.org which essentially launched somewhat of a k-12 computer science revolution in a relatively short amount of time.  Code.org uses Blockly and is the current gold standard of providing student friendly lessons for all grade levels. Once students have progressed through the highly formulaic, structured, and scaffolded lessons then they can apply the basic computer science skills they’ve learned in couple of different settings such as Code.org’s Play Lab.  This is a fun environment for students to try out their newfound skills but slightly more limited than the more open forum provided by Scratch. To date, Code.org remains arguably the most user-friendly introduction to programming.

MakeCode as the New Kid on the Block & Physical Computing

MakeCode: Microsoft’s entry into the foray of block-based programming is only a couple of years old but has some powerful partnerships.  MakeCode’s main strength is through these partnerships and both the virtual and physical computing that this allows. Current partners include micro:bit, Circuit Playground Express, Minecraft, LEGO Mindstorms Education EV3, Wonder Workshop Cue, Arcade, and Chibi Chip.  The micro:bit partnership in particular is powerful because students can program a microbit: simulator on a computer web browser and take turns testing their programs on the relatively inexpensive physical micro:bits themselves (a basic microcontroller). The same is true of the Circuit Playground Express simulator as well as the LEGO Mindstorms EV3 simulator which provides a rough but workable simulated example.  Long story short, students can write programs for physical devices but test them virtually which increases accessibility and stretches limited physical resources further. With the notable exception of the Wonder Workshop Cue, the remaining options can all be programmed via any browser and have a series of accessible tutorials provided below the programming environment. The micro:bit in particular has a robust set of curriculum available as well as a significant number of accessories.

Coding in Mathematics with Polyup

Polyup.com: Polyup is a drag and drop website that allows the user to program via math and what is essentially a math-based functional programming language.  The platform gets around the challenge of doing this with order of operations by utilizing Reverse Polish Notation. Students can then use math to write basic programs, solve unique problems, and even code motion into objects.  All of this is done via Polyup’s gamified computational thinking and mathematical coding online platform. There is also a real-world model for this approach to programming with math via the Wolfram Alpha search engine which uses a similar computing language and algorithm approach to Polyup.  All of this bridges math, computer science, and a broader fundamental approach to applied computational thinking in a problem-based learning setting.

How Then Does The Average Classroom Teacher Apply This?

Again, think computer science for the non-computer science teacher.  A classroom teacher interested in incorporating computer science should consider his/her objectives and what s/he is hoping to accomplish with students in the classroom setting.  Is the focus on teaching basic programming itself? Problem solving? Content integration? Physical computing? Some combination thereof or something else all together? Additionally, gauging individual comfort level and available resources is important.  Code.org empowers the average teacher without any programming background, knowledge, or support to sign up students and get them started together on mostly self-paced programming lessons as well as detailed offline computing lesson plans. The more comfortable or advanced the teacher’s ability then the more robust the example they might try such as programming stories in Scratch from scratch, designing video games in Arcade, writing programs for micro:bit microcontrollers in MakeCode, or even exploring entirely new avenues like programming 3-dimensional shapes in Minecraft for virtual interaction or Tinkercad for physical printing via their respective coding environments.  The hardest part is starting but the journey of a thousand programming steps begins with that very first coded “Hello World” program. From there, the possibilities are infinite and students will no doubt exceed any expectations.

References

  1. MIT. (2020). Scratch. Retrieved from https://scratch.mit.edu/
  2. BootUp. (2020). BootUp Professional Development Curriculum Overview. Retrieved from https://bootuppd.org/curriculum/
  3. Code.org. (2020). Hour of Code Full course catalog. Retrieved from https://studio.code.org/courses
  4. Google for Education. (2020). Google CS. Google. Retrieved from https://csfirst.withgoogle.com/
  5. Microsoft. (2020). MakeCode. Retrieved from https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/makecode
  6. Polyup. (2020). Poly Challenge. Retrieved from https://www.polyup.com/
  7. Wolfram Alpha. (2020). Reverse Polish Notation. Retrieved from https://mathworld.wolfram.com/ReversePolishNotation.html
  8. Battelle for Kids. (2019). Partnership for 21st Century Learning Frameworks & Resources.  Retreived from https://www.battelleforkids.org/networks/p21/frameworks-resources
  9. International Society for Technology in Education. (2016). ISTE Standards For Students. ISTE. Retrieved from https://www.iste.org/standards/for-students 
  10. Computer Science Teachers Association. (2019). Computer Science Standards. Retrieved from https://www.csteachers.org/page/standards
  11. Microsoft (2020). Minecraft. Retrieved from https://www.minecraft.net/en-us/
  12. Autodesk. (2019). Tinkercad. Retrieved from https://www.tinkercad.com/