Sunday, October 24, 2004

Adding Sims and "Serious Games" to E-Learning Now

The recent "Serious Games Summit DC" brought home the fact that simulation, in some form or another, should be a part of all online programs, higher ed and corporate training. This article discusses how to incorporate free or commercially available serious games and sims in one's online courses and programs, and the kinds of instructional strategies that are most effective.

The summit was held October 18-19, in Washington, DC, and it attracted a standing-room only crowd of game developers, military contractors, and representatives from various industries, including health, communications, education, financial services, transportation, and manufacturing. Although the focus of the summit was on developing "serious" games (games that transcend entertainment and are used in industry or the military), there were indications that a sea change has already occurred, and the question is not whether or not serious games (or sims) are effective, it is how to most effectively deploy them. Cost-effectiveness is always a consideration, and many games are now available on pda and gameboys. Case in point is Guidance Interactive's Glucoboy (R), which will be discussed more at length later in this article.

Although video games and simulations have been around for a long time, the interactivity and the fact that they can be multi-player, with the ability to modify the simulated environment makes them more useful than ever, particularly in training teams, or utilizing team-based training. According to Jim Piggot, CEO of
Team-Play Learning Dynamics (TPLD, Ltd.), the ideal "serious game" needs to be multi-player or at least use AI to created a simulated decision environment. Needless to say, this is not very effective if avatars can't be modified or customized, and if cultural beliefs and potential knee-jerk reactions can't be introduced by the players. The game needs to be "smart," with the ability to "learn" (in other words, be trained based on patterns). That said, for team-play to be most effective, there must be surprise elements; which is to say that randomness and unpredictability are vital. Entrepreneurship and safety education were mentioned as amenable to interactive multi-player serious game development, particularly if the goal is to raise awareness of causal relationships, likely outcomes, and potential catastrophes.

One of the most hyped serious game is one intended for children, and is to be played on a Nintendo Game Boy. Actually, to call
Glucoboy a game is a misnomer. Actually, it is simply used as a data collection device, which rewards the user for entering data and for achieving target levels by activating games. The intended users are sufferers of juvenile diabetes, whose behaviors need to be influenced in order to keep them maintaining healthy blood sugar levels. Glucoboy encourages children to check their blood sugar levels, to maintain a healthy level, and to be aware of the dangers of allowing their levels to get outside a desired range. It is an ingenious combination of cognitive and behaviorist strategies.

Based on the level of interest and the types of presentations made and arguments presented, one could start to make a case that serious games (and even not so serious ones) can be incorporated into all kind of learning environments, with positive results. With the multiplayer, distributed aspect of things, it could be possible to have a "sim" unit accompanied by a discussion board, where students share their results, insights, and responses to guided questions.

ER: The Video Game (Legacy Games - PC)

This is a narrative-driven video game based on teh television series. With a release date of October 25, 2004, it one of the latest of games based on television series, including reality television. The narratives could provide students with an opportunity to explore medical ethics, discuss appropriate medical procedures, and explore human behavior under stress.

Cold Case Files (Activision, Inc.: Release September 14, 2004)
Criminal justice courses could be beefed up with content and multi-player interactions as individuals follow the narrative to solve the cold cases. Along they way, they could learn about forensics, legal proceedings, affadavits, evidence-gathering, rules of evidence, abnormal psychology and deviancy, sociology, and creative problem-solving.

Flight Simulator - FS Flight Ventures (Abacus - Release October 5, 2004)
This would provide one with a basic familiarity with instrumentation and the concepts of flying.

Rollercoaster Tycoon 3 (Frontier Developments, Inc.)
Zoo Tycoon (Microsoft)
Tycoon games are great sim games, spawned from the original mainframe computer games utilized in engineering and marketing courses back in the 1970s where teams would manipulate variables to see what the consequences of widget marketing and widget manufacturing decisions would be in a multi-player environment. With Sim City and all the worlds after that, sim games became big, big, big -- especially those that combine fantasy (theme parks are perfect for that) and humor (hence, the zoo). Both of these games would be perfect in entrepreneurship classes, as well as strategic planning, creative problem-solving, and team-building.

The Political Machine
Needless to say, the life expectancy of this game is down to almost nil, but doesn't everyone want to be a virtual Lee Atwater (of Bush / Dukakis fame), or Karl Rove? Political strategy takes a back seat to understanding semiotics, the impact of image, the manipulation of stereotypes and cultural truisms, and media-inflected and constructed reality. This is a great complement to psychology, political science, sociology, public relations, and English (cultural studies / rhetoric & comp) courses.

Law and Order: Justice Is Served (Legacy)
The narrative is this: "A talented tennis player is found dead before the start of the U.S. Open. It is your job to follow the clues, put together the evidence, and convict the killer. You'll be helped by detectives from Law and Order." The easy decision would be to use this video game in conjunction with criminal justice classes to help illustrate forensics, legal procedures, and criminal law. However, it could be a perfect complement to an English composition course which requires individuals to make a case and support their conclusions or hypotheses with evidence.

Virtual U: http://www.virtual-u.org
This is a free sim game, downloadable from the website. In it, the player is the president of a university or a college and must increase enrollments and maintain profitability.

Small Ball: http://www.smallball.com
The players must manage and train a baseball team. Although this is not necessarily multi-player, it could be made collaborative by assigning teams to decide key decisions. Also, each week could have a new scenario, guided by an instructor. For example, the facilitator could require students to sign certain pitchers, or make certain questionable decisions. Then, the players could choose how to compensate for the bad decisions. Discussion boards could allow individuals a place to share.

Mobility: http://www.mobility-online.de
This is an absolutely outstanding free download for courses that require students to understand the complex world of logistics, and how they relate to economic development. The game asks players to make decisions to solve economic and transport problems within a sim city or environment.

Wall Street Challenge: http://wtc.wallstreet-challenge.com
Virtual Trader: http://www.virtualtrader.co.uk
Although Wall Street challenge focuses on New York, and Virtual Trader is British, both games allow players to explore the intricacies of stock trading, and to understand what various terms mean and how they play themselves out in real or simulated situations. Of course, it's better to learn with sim money than real money, so I'm thinking that this game would be even better than assigning extra points for joining a student stock market association, or something of that nature. One can also start to gain an appreciation of one's tolerance of risk, and trading styles.

Sunday, October 17, 2004

The Dreaded “Sage on the Stage” Comes Back -- In the Discussion Boards!

When you think of a professor-dominated discussion board, do any of the following things come to mind? a) the instructor is a pompous know-it-all; b) I'd better be careful and make sure and say what the instructor wants me to say; c) I don't want to respond to a classmate's question -- what if I'm wrong and the professor sees it?; d) It is time-consuming to read the professor's responses to everything, and I don't have time for my regular assignments; e) I want to be encouraged, not overwhelmed; f) It is boring to read my classmates’ postings because they are simply parroting what the professor has already said, and are not willing to ask tough questions, or make intellectually challenging statements.

One of the most enduring beliefs about online education is that it transforms the passive learning experience one finds in a classroom where the professor lectures while the students sit and wordlessly take it all in, into a dynamic, interactive learning experience that puts the student in the driver’s seat, with the instructor as a kind of driver’s ed teacher seated in the passenger’s side, but with a dual brake – essentially a “guide on the side” to keep you from killing yourself.



But, does that really happen in ordinary practice? Sadly enough, it is not unusual to see cases where the discussion board does not function as a non-punitive environment, nor does it encourage the open exchange of ideas. Instead, I see all the negatives of the “sage on the stage” passive, professor-dominated classroom, along with a few other negatives thrown in, which include learned helplessness, bullying, intimidation, self-censoring, unreflective echoing of professor lecture notes, and other behaviors.

I've tried all sorts of techniques in discussion boards, and one thing I keep wondering about is this: if the professor responds to each posting, does it discourage students from working with each other? For example, I've noticed that the students in certain classes will be extremely responsive to each other's questions, especially when it is posed as "Does anyone know... ?" When I see that occurring, I prefer to take a “hands-off” approach. My thought is that if I jump in and answer the questions, it will discourage students from developing a sense of community. However, am I abandoning or neglecting the students?

I prefer to think that I am fostering creative problem-solving. Others may accuse me of slothful indifference. They may not realize that I’m reading all the postings. I will only intervene when it is a question that no one but the instructor can answer.

I like minimal instructor intrusion in the discussion board area. Of course, math courses and the sciences (physics, chemistry, etc.) are another issue (as you point out). Even though a student may have the problem worked out, he/she may not be able to explain it thoroughly. That said, I still think it is useful to have "virtual study groups."

Some of these ideas are based on what happens in multi-player video games -- instead of waiting for an "authority figure" to solve problems, people become resourceful and develop functional teams and engage in "just in time learning." These thoughts and principles are spelled out in James Paul Gee's wonderful book, What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning. He is a professor holding an endowed chair in the College of Education at the University of Wisconsin and is highly respected in his field. He was a keynote speaker at the International Conference of Educational Multimedia held in March 2004 in Quebec City, Quebec.

What Gee had to say absolutely captivated the audience -- he criticized traditional classroom learning and demonstrated how people learn in video games -- they figure it out & are rewarded all along the way -- and, they enjoy it, because it is a fascinating, tantalizing puzzle, as well as a test of skills and wit in a multiplayer environment. It teaches people to think and to problem-solve, and NOT to regurgitate memorized facts and figures, which are immediately forgotten.

I asked a few students, in a very unscientific survey, what they thought about it. I received some eye-opening responses. Here are a few of them, paraphrased and presented in the order in which the students tended to respond. It is a rather informal indicator of relative importance.

--- A sense of community and trust cannot happen in a discussion board where the instructor intrudes and inserts comments after every single posting.

--- Responding to each posting freezes out real discussion, and turns into "trying to please the teacher.”

--- Students are nervous about answering each other’s postings. "Learned helplessness" sets in as students wait for the teacher to give them the "right" answer rather than relying on each other. It also pits students against each other in a potentially negative environment of competition rather than intellectual exploration.

--- The professor is not “listening,” but pontificating. It is more effective when the professor responds only occasionally to individual postings, and once a week to sum up general trends and issues. If there are specific points to clarify, or to provide additional information, professor postings are welcome.

--- Professor postings that include graphics are effective, especially if they illustrate a point without being shocking or going off in an unrelated direction.

--- Humor and a positive tone are infinitely more effective than a didactic, preachy, “I’m-always-right” tone.

--- Badly utilized thread techniques create cognitive chaos. A nicely-ordered and arranged threaded discussion board is very effective, particularly when color coding is utilized.

--- Including links to lengthy examples (math problems, etc.) or lecture notes is better than putting it in the discussion board itself.

--- Discussion board topics should clearly relate to the course itself. This seems obvious, but it is ignored or disregarded every day. Derailing the conversation and starting to veer off into murky and potentially controversial territory is something that frequently occurs. It is perfectly okay for the instructor to remove irrelevant and improper posts (after notifying the person doing the posting, of course).

--- Rigid scoring rubrics discourage posting. There should be some leeway given to creative “flow.”
I’m going to embark on a literature search and start to develop a survey instrument to address some of these issues. It might be interesting to see how a “best practices” sense emerges, particularly in terms of different disciplines.


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