Tuesday, April 8, 2014

A "Cool Tool" Award

We have a soon-to-be shared post on the horizon. But first...

Just wanted to share a rather shameless plug here to say that simCEO was awarded a "Cool Tool" Award by EdTechDigest in the Academic Gaming Solution category. So if you could see us, we've got a big smile on our face. :)
You can read more about the contest and see other finalists here.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Students as Creators - Moving Beyond Recall and Decision Making

OK. It's been awhile since I explored the combination of PBL and GBL, by further developing one of the eight characteristics of these New Learning Environments. So, with a new year, it's time to pick things up.

Earlier, the importance of social learning was explored as one important characteristic that is unfortunately not naturally integrated by our school system or most educational games.

Social learning provides a good connection to the characteristic we'll pick up in this post:

  • enabling students to be creators of solutions - moving beyond recall and decision-making

Although these posts are centered around the opportunities for designers of games-based learning resources, the technology aspect is irrelevant. Good learning is good learning - with or without technology. And our only challenge should be in designing environments for students that meet these characteristics. Certainly, technology and GBL should be able to help.

Our early educational games focused on content recall. Think, for example, of all the great games to practice math skills. Later (and current) versions add badges or points to reward students. Many current versions now embed these math skills within a quest of sorts which may or may not be authentically math related. (Correct answers allow the player to continue on the quest.)

Another version of games allowed students to make decisions - usually multiple-choice decisions - within a specific environment. To the degree which that environment was authentic, this was a big step forward. I can recall many an hour playing Oregon Trail. In many ways, these games represent the online version of the "Choose Your Own Adventure" books. The environment provided an authentic context to allow students to make decisions.  Soon, users become (at least partially) focused on "outsmarting the programming" instead of assessing and learning from the situation.

Both types of games are useful and serve a purpose. But if we're trying to establish new learning environments, they fall far short. They help students and teachers "run the school race" faster and and with more fun - but the finish line still ends with correct answers, and I believe we need more than that. I believe our world (and even our students) are demanding more of us.

The idea of putting students in a position where they must create and present solutions is nothing new to PBL advocates. I believe (and hope) GBL designers are at the beginning of opening this idea up. This is where the connection with social learning comes in.  If our primary task for students comes from the open-ended framework of PBL, we have an environment - online or otherwise - where students are challenged to come up with unique solutions. Collaboration in such an environment is encouraged; social learning is almost a necessity. We won't see (nor want) students covering up their papers in fear of someone copying the work. We'll encourage the opposite.

Certainly, we're all familiar with a few of the drawbacks to PBL.
  • The planning is time consuming: for the individual teacher.
  • Difficult to assess: It's more difficult (compared to right/wrong questions) to properly assess student discrete knowledge (as opposed to applied knowledge) within a large PBL project.
  • The learning is time consuming: PBL is most effective in collaborative, social learning environments. The time constraints of a classroom can't facilitate this kind of collaboration. Teachers can get from "Point A to Point B" much faster.  (Needless to say, we might be aiming at the wrong Point B here, but that's not the teacher's fault.)
But games-based learning resources, set up to have students addressing the right kind of task, can help solve the PBL drawbacks. Game designers can:
  • design the environments and tasks - perhaps even allowing teachers to customize them to suit their preference.
  • provide ways to record student solutions (and even their thinking to get there)  to assess students more easily. Savvy designers can even integrate discrete (right/wrong) assessments inside the game itself if authentically presented.
  • take advantage of tech tools which facilitate and record communication and feedback. Compared to non-tech PBL, this exponentially increases the social learning as students learn from and with one another.
With or without technology, we won't see student creators unless we set up the right kind of learning tasks for them.

I'll leave with a shameless plug for [full disclosure alert !] our award-winning simulation, simCEO. It's a solid example of this type of learning and free; so what have you got to lose. 

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Are our games taking advantage of social learning?

Games-based learning strategies are engaging, fun, and effective. The most-utilized games fall into the Cooney Center’s definition of short-form games, focused largely on content recall with one player interacting with the software - and (hopefully) the teacher in the background monitoring progress and adjusting teaching. But that's only one aspect of what games can accomplish.

In my earlier post, I shared 8 characteristics of  transformational learning environments needed in Games-Based Learning. Let’s explore one in more detail.

Respect that people are social learners. They make meaning from, with, and for each other.

The premise is rooted in social learning, which could be an entirely separate post. But suffice it to say, that social learning emphasizes the role of others in how we make meaning. Others provide models; we learn from and with them. Much of what we learn and share is for others.  It’s how we validate, amend or reject our ideas.  Social learning is highly dependent upon the structure of the environment in facilitating others in the learning process.

This is an environment that schools (and most of our games) - despite having lots of people - do not naturally foster. Learning in schools is largely a conversation between one student and the teacher (or one student and a game-designer). Models for learning - even the rare student exemplar - are generally reluctant to be shared because in rote learning situations these models are seen as a stepping stone to copying and regurgitation - and that’s correct… and also where the problem lies.

When we don’t set up experiences where students can see each other’s thinking, results, and rationale, we’re not taking advantage of all those collective learning experiences. Instead, we have 25 one-way conversations with teachers (or game-designers)  - where Student A is largely ignorant of how Student B approached the problem.

One solution is Problem-Based Learning. PBL advocates know this, and structure environments where social learning is encouraged.  The next step for Games-Based Learning advocates is to establish these types of naturally interactive environments:  
  • where the intelligent application of content is required,
  • where multiple correct answers are possible,
  • where students can learn from one another, and
  • where students are intrinsically motivated to find the best solutions to authentic problems.  

Now educators (and game-designers) can rightfully argue that most accountability metrics measure fragmented learning, and therefore throw up their hands and revert to the teaching the testable content. But certainly there’s some room where we can apply all the benefits of GBL (engagement, fun, clear sense of purpose) with the open-ended PBL approach - an approach where we ask ourselves, “How can I approach this content in a way that has “students practicing skills and thinking like a _______?”  (INSERT YOUR FAVORITE ! historian, mathematician, physicist, writer, etc.).  That’s our next step - for educators and game-designers.

These are the environments that foster social learning, where students can explain and test out their ideas. And, in the process, learning becomes a lot more relevant.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Three Want Ads

SCENE: Three strangers at a coffee shop, reading the same page of the want ads.
(This post was originally shared on ASCD's SmartBrief.)

Business leader seeks educated students who effectively work independently and collaboratively to problem-solve by applying information in new ways to produce creative solutions. Contact: pie-in-sky?@possible.com

Educator seeks a new set of priorities where my content is secondary to the 21st Century skills and attitudes my students will need in the future. I want to be judged by my results on the latter, not my test scores on the former.  Email. nice2dream@possible.com

Student seeking a relevant education. I am more than my test scores of recall on ubiquitous information; With the wealth of information and tools in my grasp, I am capable of creatively producing with knowledge today. Contact: Hello21stcent@possible.com

We're losing the battle for relevance in education, and it's getting worse.  The 2013 Gallop Poll found shows that only 44% of high school students find school engaging. That's down from 61% in Middle School and 76% in Elementary. The longer they're with us, the less involved they are. What's wrong?

Coincidentally, the same poll shares that 45 % of students plan to start their own business - that's "plan to" not “are interested in” starting a business.

Business and Financial Education classes are electives, if they are offered at all. And classes in entrepreneurship are like bicycle horns - rarely seen and offered as add-ons.
"Ninety-three percent of Americans believe all high school students should be required to take a class in financial education. While a handful of states have adopted varying degrees of financial literacy curriculum, only four states require high school students to take a semester-long course in personal finance."

That's disappointing for a few reasons.

To function in today's world, we needs students who are equipped with skills in entrepreneurship and financial literacy. According to Brian Page, an award winning educator and working group member of the U.S. President’s Advisory Council on Financial Capability,  " Inequality has skyrocketed, and economic mobility, that is the likelihood of a child moving “up” an economic tier, is now worse in the United States than most advanced economies throughout the world.
We need a modern education system with equitable funding and opportunities for every child that prepares our next generation of everyday Americans for the complex reality of our new financial world."

Again, Page notes, "K-12 financial education is in the infancy stages, the catalyst is often legislation mandates of the integration of financial literacy concepts rather than a dedicated course of study. As schools in impoverished areas are being defunded, the limited resources they have must be focused on new and high stakes federal and state education legislation and testing that rarely include financial education."

As an elective class, this mean that most students will never be exposed to these concepts. But it also means that we are taking engaging topics that are holistic, multi-disciplinary, and authentic experiences and breaking them down into subsets of skills, taught in isolation of other subjects to a few students.

We need to foster entrepreneurial thinking; this goes far beyond business and financial literacy. Entrepreneurial thinkers apply the four Cs of 21st Century Learning (creativity, communication, collaboration, and critical thinking) as they:
  1. find and define problems, opportunities, and potential within an open-ended context
  2. display creativity and adaptation in their solution
  3. recognize the dynamic nature of situations. There is no "correct" answer that applies everywhere.
  4. learn skills, content, and entire disciplines for the purpose of action in an authentic arena
  5. are motivated to improve

For better or worse (and I would say better !), students have dreams of opening their own company and are asking to learn more about controlling their own financial destiny.   While we wait for legislation to catch up to reality, we have an opportunity to tap into that desire to make schools more relevant, provide an authentic context to learn traditional content, and produce a generation of entrepreneurial thinkers.  

If we take advantage of this opportunity, we might just find that those three strangers in the coffee shop have more in common than they think.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

"PBL and GBL Sitting In A Tree..."

(This post was originally shared on ASCD's SmartBrief.)
“Hello Games-Based Learning; this is Problem-Based Learning.”
Like two pandas in a zoo, we need to do all we can to ensure that these two find a soul mate in one another.
Games, by definition, are meant to be fun. But, in the race to transform schools, we’re missing out if the goal of games-based learning is to help us run that race faster or provide students with more fun while they run. We’re running towards the wrong finish line.
Games transform education and learning. The question is: transform “towards what end?”
If our goal for games is to take traditional school content — multiplication tables — and spice it up as more fun for students, then we are missing a golden opportunity.
In the recent research from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center on short-form games  (quick tools for practice) versus long-form games  (higher-order thinking skills better aligned to the common core), they rightly advocate that there is significant potential for these long-form games to transform education. Long-form games focus on the 21st-Century skills we all know our students need. These games hold more promise, but are also more complex to integrate. The Center advocates that game designers “affiliate selectively with school reform leaders to help move schools towards content-rich, deep curricula that foster critical thinking and problem solving.” [my emphasis]
We've all heard the familiar student refrain, "Why are we learning this?" Short-form games can decrease this cry, but only temporarily.
Any game, by definition, has a context.  But if games are only taking our same-old learning outcomes and making them fun, then we're missing out.
Game have the potential to set a context and purpose for this learning that is rich, complex and authentic — something followers of problem-based learning have been advocating for years. This is element of game design we need to better leverage.
Like pandas at the zoo, we need to foster collaboration between the philosophies of Games-Based Learning with those of Problem-Based Learning. 
Games-Based Learning
Problem-Based Learning
dynamic environmentscontext rich, authentic, real-world environments
immediate feedback, where failure is a natural part of the learning processopen-ended solutions with no “correct” answers
multiple decisions / choicesauthentic audiences for student work
clear goalsrecall not sufficient, application of content / skills is required
meta-cognition (“How am I doing?”)naturally holistic and cross-disciplinary

The best games — with or without technology —  can set a context for learning that can combine the characteristics above to strive to create new environments for learning.
New environments for learning will:
  • Empower teachers to customize the environment dynamically, so that content can be specialized and individualized as needed.
  • Enable students as creators of solutions — beyond recall and decision-making.
  • Encourage students to be environment evaluators — aware of each others’ creations/ solutions.
  • Allow students — and the teacher — to act within an interdependent environment, where the actions of one user affects others.
  • Respect that people are social learners. They make meaning from, with, and for each other.
  • Provide a context where the game is not the teacher of “content” but rather it is the “context” through which learning happens.
  • See learning and assessment as individualized. The teacher — not the game — is in charge of the learning and that happens at the teacher-student level. The game is simply the introduction to that interaction.
  • Strive to mirror the real world by giving students multiple roles and goals which sometimes conflict. Students are not simply an all-out pursuit of a single goal as they strive for points, badges or rewards.
This does not mean that all games need to fit into this category to be useful. Creating games that get us to the very limited goal of content recall can be one piece. But we should distinguish this from the nature of what games can be and the role they can play in transforming education. Otherwise, we’re just running the race faster to an out-dated finish line.
As we gamify our schools, we’re missing a huge opportunity if we’re not considering “games” in multiple perspectives. Certainly, the combination of PBL and GBL elements has vast potential for changing the way we prepare students with the 4 Cs of the 21st Century. It needs to be on our radar; we need to use our limited time, energies and money to to scrutinize our understanding of games to create these new, transformational learning environments.
There is no silver bullet. Creating games like this can’t be done with every topic and it’s not always the most efficient way to get students from A to B.
Not every panda-romance is a match made in heaven. But, for the propagation of the species, we need to encourage this budding romance to grow.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

"Hey I'm learning. Anyone there?"

I'm a big fan of constructivist learning. We want students creating their own meaning. 

But do any of us really construct our own meaning?  It sounds a little lonely.

Continuing the theme of setting up strong learning environments that align with the characteristics of team sports, that's a pretty central question if we want to put students in a situation where they
need to create and regularly be able to adjust that creation to solve a specific problem.

Team sports naturally do this. They make for great learning environments. 

If our classrooms better resembled these environments, we'd be laying a strong foundation for engaged students constructing knowledge. Games like MineCraft are obvious examples of this but we shouldn't limit ourselves to technology.  We have many opportunities to allow our students to construct knowledge in this way, and Problem-Based Learning advocates like the Buck Institute are out in front in this regard.

While most PBL exercises ask students to solve a problem.  With just a little more imagination we can add a bit more to the environment so that they are not only a creating a solution (great !) but able / encouraged to adjust that creation (even better !) as the environment changes. This is where games like MineCraft and basketball game excel. They allow students to create,  but they ask students to be continually evaluating the actions taken by their fellow participants along the way. 

The work isn't done in isolation to be turned into the teacher. 

Student work is a piece of the environment and the goal within that environment remains constant even while the pathway changes.

It's what makes games-based-learning so fun.

Which helps us answer the question:  
Do any of us really construct our own meaning?
Do we even want that?

Imagine a basketball player who continually constructed her own meaning and disregarded the conditions of the environment and the input of those around her.  She repeatedly catches the ball, turns around, and tries to shoot over a much taller player. Despite those around her (and the repeated blocked shot) telling her otherwise, she continues this method because she has read it's "right".  Meaning gets constructed pretty quickly during this game. And there are 4 teammates 5 opponents), and 2 coaches who are making simultaneous meaning - and adjustments - based on this scenario.

In reality, none of us learn in isolation. We construct knowledge and we put it to the test at some point by sharing that knowledge. Social learning folks know this to be true - we truly learn for, with, and by our interactions with others. That is when learning is at its most profound. 

How often do we structure classroom experiences to maximize the chances for social learning by having students create and potentially adjust those creations in an inter-dependent environment?  
Those experiences are likely alive with learning. 

Think of it as game-like practice for the game we call the real world.

I received some feedback/dialogue regarding my earlier post which I've paraphrased below.
1. "Games shouldn't be the outcome. Learning should.
Agreed !  Games give users a purpose, but if that purpose isn't important or not connected to relevant content, it has minimal uses in the classroom.  (My June 27 post says that too.)

2. "It's not just team sports. Individual sports have these learning characteristics too."
Agreed. But team sports do add an extra layer of meaning-making by adding complexity to the social learning network. As today's post indicates, we are on the lookout for expanding these opportunities. It doesn't mean that team environments stress the same components as or are better than individual sports. But generally, schools give plenty of opportunities for students to showcase their individual skills while the real world is becoming increasingly dependent upon individuals who can interact within a more complex, team-oriented network.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Combine PBL and GBL. The software (and learning) we need.

In the last post, I explored the idea that creating quality Games-Based Learning resources aimed at real-world skills our students will need to succeed could be better understood by trying to integrate five essential elements that are essential in team sports.

  • Students need to create and regularly be able to adjust that creation to solve a specific problem.
  • Students are simultaneously evaluating the actions of each other and making adjustments accordingly.
  • The player's actions effect the entire game and all who are playing. 
  • The game is dynamic, constantly changing due to the actions of the other players and the outside factors.
  • There are multiple and competing goals with no right answer.

So, the next question: How do we create and structure these types of experiences?

We don't need to re-invent anything here; we know what good research tells us about quality learning. But we do need to consider those factors when we design software (or any learning classroom learning experience) for our students. 

Research tells us what students need to experience in order to be engaged in learning where they are constructing (and remembering) meaning.

The table chart below comes from a presentation I shared at ISTE advocating the combination of Problem-Based Learning, Games-Based Learning and common Best (Classroom) Practices.  I plan to talk more about these elements in future posts - especially in relation to the elements of team sports. But in the meantime, I share the chart below with a few concluding thoughts.

1. The left side (PBL, GBL, and Best Practices) include the characteristics of effective learning. If we structure experiences like this in school, would we feel better about our ability to prepare them for this future where they will be creators and social learners solving unknown problems in unknown environments?  

2. Notice that the right hand side represents that topics that we need to focus upon. If we want engagement, then we need to structure problems that are relevant for students and for the 21st Century.  That's a tall order - but it's important.  With simCEO, we've  chosen to do that by tapping into the topic of entrepreneurship and financial literacy. It's a vital topic - both in the business sense and "mindset" sense, producing students who can create and solve problems. And, it's a topic that sadly is squeezed out of the traditional school day at a time when it's never been so badly needed.  If you want to see more about how we are using entrepreneurship to integrate the left-hand side characteristics, check out this presentation from the SIIA conference. But other topics are certainly possible (see chart). We want to explore more applications with this kind of learning, and hope others are too.  Collaboration welcome.

3. Are there characteristics missing from the model?  The better the model, the better the student experiences we can develop.

4. The more I share, the more I'm aware just how much great stuff is happening already. If anyone   out there shares this interest in changing the way we learn, are using or developing similar resources, or simply want to be involved in the process, I'm always looking to expand my network. Share this and connect.