Seeing the Forest AND the Trees

Technology for a better world.

Game Programming Competition & Making Learning Fun May 20, 2008

Filed under: education,energy,OGPC,technology — pdxbob @ 5:11 am

As a former high-school teacher and parent of two children, I have always had an interest in seeing how education can be made to be fun. I’ve seen a lot of different styles and even experimented with some of my own unique approaches, but still the statistics ranking students in the United States indicate that there are many kids falling through the cracks. I don’t need to bore you with those numbers. Instead I want to reflect on a great experience I had this weekend as a judge of the Oregon Game Project Challenge where about twenty teams of high school students presented and demonstrated the computer game they created over the last month or two. For specifics on the competition and the top grand prize winner, see fellow judge (and fellow Corillian-CheckFree-Fiserv-ian) Stuart’s post here.

What most intrigued me about the experience were two things: 1) the students showed a lot of positive team-building skills as they regularly commended each other’s work, accepted a degree of specialization and were proud of their contribution, and in some cases exhibited a synchronicity in their story-telling presentation to the judges. The second thing that intrigued me was that the competition had a theme: energy, which each team was to incorporate in some way into their game. Since I was judging in the category of Game R&D, it was important to me to see how the students obtained information on energy and how they applied it in the game. Just having a theme (that was something other than killing all of the zombies or another worn-out game idea) gave team participants who were not the jedi programmers on the team a chance to apply themselves to research and to creatively incorporate their ideas into the game design.  It was so cool to hear stories about “ethical decisions” that a player had to make in a game, and about “monitoring the pollution level” as different actions were taken in a game.

This was the first programming game competition put on by TechStart and I am looking forward to the second OGPC next year. If you know high-school students who might be interested in this type of challenge, or even teachers who could share the idea with their students, please contact TechStart.

A week or two ago I picked up a book at Powell’s Technical entitled How Computer Games Help Children Learn by David Williamson Shaffer, an Associate Professor of Learning Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I just started reading it yesterday and I am very impressed with his approach. The book is intended to show how we can use game technology to teach children and young adults how to think as if they are in the real world of work. That’s not exactly how the author put it but it comes close. This type of thinking is really close to what I envision as necessary in educational thinking. To give you an idea of what I think really works, I’m going to relate an experience I had as a “seminar” leader way back in 1976 when I led a seminar on the topic of Government & Business for the National Junior Achievement Conference held one week in the summer at Indiana University.

I had attended the conference as a student delegate two years earlier after I had graduated from high school, and returned as a counselor the previous summer. In 1976, I decided to lead a seminar and chose that Govt/Biz topic. All of the seminars that I had attended as a student had been really boring: the seminar leader presented slides or gave a talk with notes. There were questions and answers afterward. Sound familiar? My approach was radically different. I devised a simulated scenario where a company had the right, to a degree, to pollute a nearby river (this was the 70’s ok) and recent studies indicated that there were more environmental effects on the ecosystem than originally thought. The company also wanted to ramp up its production to meet a growing demand. After explaining the scenario to the students in a ten-minute lecture-style address, I walked them to a classroom where they were instructed to form teams of 6-8 to a table and discuss the open-ended questions that had been written on the blackboards (remember, it was the 70s). Ultimately, each team was expected to provide a resolution to the government – business conflict that had occurred.

This “game” as I like to think of it, had no single winning team, but the enthusiasm shown by the kids was at a high level. They loved having the ability to discuss amongst themselves these tough problems and to debate solutions. I facilitated, walking around answering questions mostly by pointing the discussion in a direction. This teaching approach is obviously more adaptable to social sciences and humanities than it is to the hard natural sciences but I’m confident that if the topic were the chemical analysis of the environment that we still could have had a roaring good time debating how to go about doing the research and completing a study (ok, yeah I was quite a nerd in hs).

There are a lot of ways to get students engaged in learning. I see another recent interest of mine converging on the motivational education plane. Within the past couple or few years we’ve seen an explosion of APIs (application programmer interfaces) to gazillions of databases of data or services on the web. ProgrammableWeb is a site that follows the evolution of the “programmable web.” In this article, it proudly states that there are over 3000 mashups in its online repository! Each mashup is an application that uses data from one or more web sites to present it or use it in a unique way. Thirty-nine percent of those, it reports, are mashups involving mapping such as Google Maps. On their “Mashups” tab, you can see what the “Mashup of the Day” is. Today it is one called “ResumeDroppr.” There is a popular mashup called “Follow Oil Money” whose description is

An interactive tool that tracks the flow of oil money in U.S. politics, displaying Federal contributions as maps and drillable tables.

Now, getting back to education. Imagine students creating mashups. There are tools for building them (Sprout comes immediately to mind) so teachers/facilitators/educators have a way to focus the less-tech-savvy students by directing them to easy-to-use tools. I’m personally excited about this as an instructional medium that I might even start working on something for teachers and students to use.

What are your thoughts about using games, mashups, other media, as teaching tools and environments?


Computer Instruction, high-speed access and Cambodia January 29, 2008

Filed under: bethkanter_cambodiacampaign,Cambodia,education — pdxbob @ 5:08 am

I’m writing this entry as a response to Beth Kanter‘s challenge.

What advice would you offer to Mam Sari about incorporating computer instruction on a REALLY slow connection and with one computer connected to the Internet?

If he has time, he can prepare for the class by printing out a Google results page and then annotating with his own comments. For example, he might have (in colored ink) labels for each part of each results item. Going over these as handouts to the class will give them something to study prior to their own practice.

Perform some searches before class and use the forward and back browser buttons to shorten the wait time between pages.

Use the “wait” time effectively. This is where pre-written or printed materials are helpful. Go to Google Help (available through the About Google page) and use some of the pages, printed, as material to expand the students’ understanding of what Google offers.

Are there any web resources or books that you think I should send over to him to read?

We in the developed world, have access to high-quality printers, plotters, etc. Having some color charts and handouts would be helpful. I don’t know what your budget is, and if the students can read English well, but providing how-to books for the students would be great.

Dream a little dream with me, if we had a fast Internet connection, what are the possibilities?

What do the students need to be successful? Do they need money to go to school? Having access to a high-speed connection gives them the ability to participate in the person-to-person loans that are becoming more common on the Internet (e.g., fynanz). Actually, I’m not sure this requires a fast connection but it would certainly allow students to do a lot more exploration, to see how they can get additional help, even virtual tutoring.

Just today, a friend suggested that it would be cool to have a microfinance-like site similar to Kiva, which instead of providing money for a business, provides money in the form of loans for education. I think it’s a great idea, although to get it to work effectively in countries like Cambodia will require some facilitative or management presence in the country. Making sure that the students have the support of their family, who may see education as a drain on their economic needs, to align students with programs and make sure the funds get to the school, etc. Sorry, I may be getting off topic a bit but the more that the everyday person in Cambodia can access the web as an extension of the market, the more likely such ventures will happen.


Cambodian Children’s Education – thank you Nhuong Son December 31, 2007

Filed under: Cambodia,children,education,Nhuong Son,Sharing Foundation — pdxbob @ 8:33 pm

Beth sent me a link to Nhuong Son’s blog and in particular the entry about his support for the Sharing Foundation. After reading this you will see why even a little bit of aid for children in such a poor country means so much. Truly inspiring! Thanks Nhuong and Beth! If you agree, consider giving to the Sharing Foundation using the widget on the right side of my blog.


Papert-style education and locative media devices November 18, 2007

Filed under: constructivist learning,education,Papert,technology — pdxbob @ 11:11 pm

Seymour Papert, formerly an MIT professor and now at the University of Maine, is famous for his studies and publications on enhancing students’ creativity in education with the use of technology. He professes the use of constructionist learning as opposed to instructionist learning. See this Papert speech for more information.

I just came across an interesting project named Frequency1550 by Waag, an organization in the Netherlands whose original mission was

“to make new media available for groups of people that have little access to computers and internet, thus increasing their quality of living.”

Frequency1550 is a mobile game uses 3G cell phones and GPS devices to transport students back to medieval Amsterdam where they compete with other students to find answers about the city in those days. Although I love the idea of putting the control in the hands of the students, this is part of the constructivist learning strategy, I was surprised that students can sabotage other students by planting bombs to go off in particular locations.


Healthier Food in Schools August 14, 2007

Filed under: citizenship,education,health — pdxbob @ 11:31 pm

How to educate our children is a question answered in a multitude of ways, and there is enough controversy over it that it is often difficult to get clear information on the results of applying different educational techniques or systems. But one thing that I firmly believe is not controversial is that our children should learn good habits while they are in a formal school system. The diet of school-age (K-12) children is something that schools can teach through the practice of providing healthy meals and snacks. Soda machines and highly-processed foods have no place in a school.

To this end, US citizens have an opportunity to promote healthier food delivery in schools through a couple of measures currently going through the US House and Senate. Please follow these links to learn about these measures, sign the petition and send a note to your senators and congressmen. Thanks.


Kudos to Allan Classen of The NW Examiner August 8, 2007

Filed under: blog,blogosphere,education,journalism,news — pdxbob @ 4:31 am

I look forward to getting The NW Examiner, a free monthly newspaper covering northwest Portland. Reading about new businesses in the area, local events and politics gives me a feeling of community in the rapidly privatized world we live in. Allan Classen, Editor and Publisher of the paper, pleasantly surprised me with his view on the blogosphere. At first I thought he was going to rant about how non-professionals are taking away the attention of readers who should be reading what the professional journalists write in brick and mortar (and paper) publications. Instead, he praised blogs because they are so up front with their opinions and do not attempt to walk an objective point of view to satisfy a theoretical standard. Classen states that

“While most of the conventional news stories I see serve only to spark speculation about what’s happening between the lines, some local bloggers are steps ahead: pursuing angles I haven’t even thought about.”

And the different points of view that he gets in the blog replies adds to the enjoyment and the variety of points of view.

Kudos to Mr. Classen for his article (which appears in the Editor’s Turn column on page 3 of the August issue)!

This evening while in my car on the way to a walk in northwest Portland, I heard Bill Moyers on the radio railing about the establishment media and their control over Americans’ minds. It made me realize how lucky we are to have the Internet and the blogosphere. Blog proliferation has given us many places from which to gather news, hear opinions and learn. Maybe too many places but better than too few.

I believe everyone needs to learn how to analyze competing points of view and how to effectively absorb knowledge. When I was growing up, it meant paying attention in school, reading, having discussions. Formal education is still a valuable vehicle for training young minds. But the Internet, composed of the blogosphere, academic, non-profit and commercial sites and both known and anonymous interactions, provides a goldmine of information and opportunity to become educated, effective stewards of our planet and of our communities, local, regional and global.