Saturday, April 28, 2012

Game design and rethinking failure in school #change11

I’ll be blogging in response to a webinar series offered by at the invitation of the National Writing Project’s Digital Is.

Katie Salen, executive director of the Institute of Play, offered principles for instructional designers to use in order apply the theories of game design in schools in this web session on Though the session title indicated there were six principles, I got four:

1. Create a need to know

2. Create a space of possibility

3. Create opportunities for authority and expertise to be shared and reciprocal.

4. Multiple, overlapping paths to mastery.

From failure to iteration and prototype

In her explanation and exploration of the fourth point, she made the observation that game designers have to construct games in a way that participants can find success. A game designer has executed a poor design if players cannot find success. This is a distinct contrast from traditional classroom settings, she noted, where the instructional design suggests that not all student will find success and when students do not, schools blame the students more than they rethink design.

Participants in the web session asked Salen how schools built on game design help students with the routine failure that players experience to learn in game settings. She explained that gamer view failure differently. In the schools she works with- one in Chicago and one in New York- educators intentionally talk about failed efforts as iterations, prototypes and proof that approaches do not work. The hope is that students see success as possible. They, like players in a game, learn that risk and experimentation pay off. When students try and do not succeed in game design schools, they can trust that there is a pathway to success and that they are in the process of finding it.

My own failure

During the recorded web session, I paused the discussion to do a little research when I heard a mention of the game Minecraft. Having read recently about classroom implications for games like Gamestar Mechanic and Little Big Planet, I wanted to familiarize myself with Minecraft, a title I’m encountering more and more in my online reading about games in education.

In minutes, I downloaded a free app for the pocket edition on my smartphone. In no time, my little avatar was running over the block landscape and stopping to stack blocks. I had to build a structure that would protect me after nightfall. Entirely too soon, night did fall and hordes of monsters came out of nowhere and destroyed me.

With my short experience with Minecraft, the pocket edition, I gained a new appreciation for the term my students use more and more: “Epic fail.” My epic failure may have hooked me on the game, though. Failure gave me a few objectives for my next experience, too. I know now that I will probably have to explore the terrain more, and figure out how to stack these blocks where I want them to go. Once I learn how to navigate and build, I will need to figure out what kind of structure will impede the murderous monsters. I’m probably going to fail, like, 10 more times before I develop the competency to advance in this game. Luckily, this is a game, though, so the learning is probably going to be fun.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Touring a virtual classroom #change11

I’ll be blogging in response to a webinar series offered by at the invitation of the National Writing Project’s Digital Is.

Last night I had an interesting, 21st Century choice to make: read my newest e-book, Net Smart, by Howard Rheingold, or watch Rheingold’s webinar on

I stopped and thought about how I wanted to learn about technology and education.

As a lifelong bookworm, I have always enjoyed the reading I choose outside of school over assigned reading at an assigned pace. The choice I make to hoard books and binge on texts is constructive personal foible that leaves me in a house with an overflowing bookshelf or book basket in every room. When I choose to grab a book and settle in, I make a familiar choice.

Increasingly, I have a new, less familiar option. With the time that I used to devote to personal reading, I can choose to join, observe or facilitate online learning conversations, reminiscent of class discussions. And I do. More and more, I log in to webinars and find myself using a different implement to scratch a personal learning itch.

So, I might have settled in with a good book and read Rheingold’s latest. Instead, I watched a webinar recording and found the author, the regular host of these sessions, in the role of the subject, talking with a panel of educators, with Mimi Ito facilitating the conversation. He shared the work he is doing in his Social Media Classroom, explaining the way he facilitates cooperative learning.

Watching from the comfort of my workstation at home, I toured his virtual classroom, detailing how these learners collaboratively construct mind maps during their online sessions, sometimes refining these maps individually after the session. Each part of the virtual space has a thoughtful, experimental purpose. The group uses a wiki to define terms and develop a common language. Discussion forums house the questions the group values, while blogs are spaces of personal reflection for the learners, and all the spaces invite participation. In this virtual space, Rheingold experiments online with cooperation and learning. He calls it “peeragogy.”

Watching Rheingold’s tour of his virtual classroom and hearing his discussion with the panel, I was reminded of the 21st Century choices I have when I leave the comforts of my personal space and go to work in schools. I get to decide about how to approach learning with colleagues and students. I, too, might engage with learners in some of the ways he modelled. My colleagues and I might construct our own mind maps, engage in asynchronous discussions and publish our reflective writing online for a larger, global audience.

As these 21st Century choices start to add up, I think about another affirming choice I have: How will I frame my own experiments in rapidly-evolving contexts like the Internet? (And school.)

Saturday, April 7, 2012

An elephant of a sandbox #change11

I’ll be blogging in response to a webinar series offered by at the invitation of the National Writing Project’s Digital Is.

In last week’s webinar, Philipp Schmidt, Co-Founder and Executive Director of Peer2Peer University (P2PU), spoke with host Howard Rheingold and a small panel of doctoral students who study connected learning.

P2PU, a grassroots online open education project, strives to provide high-quality, low-cost educational opportunities. Currently, P2PU offers a myriad of free, online courses.

Schmidt offered three questions to begin the discussion about scaling online learning:

How do you scale online courses that don’t stink?

What are new ways to recognize achievements?

How do you assess 21st century skills?

Now, days after the webinar, having viewed the archived session and consider these questions, I have the found the answers and they are ready for publication in this blog.

The correct answer to all these questions is: YES! (Any lower-case response, or response not in bold should receive only partial credit.)

My confidence in this answer comes from hearing Rheingold say to Schmidt about learning online, “It is still early.” 

It is worth noting that someone of Rheingold’s long experience hesitated to draw conclusions about online education. At this stage great questions serve to guide thoughtful inquiry.

The interchange made me remember the tale of the blind men and the elephant. In the old Indian tale, each man touches only a small part of the elephant, and therefore describes the elephant as something consistent with the part he can feel.

Having completed my second P2PU course in their school of education, I can look back at my experiences in those courses and talk about the excellent facilitation and the community building I experienced in the courses online sessions. To me, that is online learning.

Having participated in a couple of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), I can point to those experiences, all exploratory and positive, and say “that is online learning.”

But it is early. So, I remember the blind men and the elephant. In my passionate interest to explore and discuss online learning, I may just have a hold of this elephant’s tail.

Still, from my vantage point here at the tail, I  found myself disagreeing with the doctoral students in the discussion when I watched the archived web session. One of the participants made the claim that unless the courses offered certificates that academic institutions or employers recognize, time spent in open courses is akin to time spent watching soap operas. This is certainly not the case from my side of the elephant. The doctoral students in the webinar have their own position on this elephant of open online learning. Whatever appendage of the beast they have their hands on, the student researchers in the discussion seemed to think that certification is the most important thing in online learning. I feel confident that many of my “classmates” in the #change11 MOOC and my most recent P2PU course would disagree.

Maybe these doctoral students, working to complete their own certification requirements in varying education contexts, have a view of the world right now that says learning is pursuit of certification.

In the web session, Schmidt acknowledged the importance of thinking about learners and their motivations and pushed back on the notion that open learning must yield tangible rewards, saying, “It is great to be a sharer.”

Here are some other questions Schmidt posed for the group’s consideration:

What are good pathways from interest to learning?

What support mechanisms are needed?

What is the role of content?

The challenge for educators exploring online learning is to answer these questions by asking question. When I begin to draw conclusions, I will remember that it is still early. Again, a correct answer to these questions is “YES!”

The great invitation of online learning, especially in open virtual spaces like P2PU, filled with discussions, challenges and communities, is that the whole thing feels less like the elephant of traditional education and more like a sandbox. Educators can take their questions about online learning into the Schmidt’s sandbox where, through play and exploration, they might arrive at some answers. Or maybe better questions.