Monthly Archives: August 2013

Learning in Games

I write roleplaying games when I get bored. Right now I’m working on one called Sufficiently Advanced; it’s a sci-fi game. I want to talk about how people learn it, because it’s not about learning the rules system. It’s about learning the setting, and it’s a very different sort of learning.

For those unfamiliar with tabletop RPGs, you can check out the wikipedia entry (which is accurate but bland) or this essay by Monte Cook, or any number of “what is roleplaying?” sections in nearly any RPG.

One can broadly split the content of any game book into “system” and “setting.” The setting is the atlas/story/travelogue that describes the game world. The system describes how your characters are defined and how they interact with each other and the world. In the best games these two things support each other – things that are described as being possible in the setting are supported mechanically in the system, and things your character can do with the system are described appropriately in the setting.

One learns most RPGs by reading the book, playing some, reading the book, playing some more, etc. Some folks are happy learning by the seat of their pants and playing first; others want to know the system in great detail before even creating their characters. Inherent in that statement is the idea that “learning” means “learning the system.” How do I roll the dice? How do I spend points to create my character? How do I make it so my character casts a spell or makes the jump to lightspeed? All of those are mechanical questions, part of the game system.

Sufficiently Advanced is a little different. The system is very simple; it deals with the outcome of a conflict, not the details, and it does so quickly. The setting in SA, however, is extensive. The game examines technology in many forms, used for a myriad of purposes, in different ways, by over a dozen civilizations. What your character can or cannot do is shaped far more extensively by the game’s setting than by its system.

Sudden flash of comprehension: SA is almost the opposite of chess. The system in chess is everything; the setting is merely painting. You could play it with coins instead of nicely carved pieces. Knowledge of the supposed setting is almost harmful. In SA the setting is king – changes in the system are not nearly as big a deal as changes in the setting. Knowing the system isn’t harmful, but relying on it for everything is. 

I won’t claim that SA has the same depth as chess, but its setting take a lot of work to master, and that mastery pays off in spades. You can see this as players become more familiar with the game. As they become more familiar with future technology and what sorts of things are possible in the setting, they take advantage of it more and more. Meanwhile, there’s not much mechanical mastery to be had. You can’t really build a character that breaks the system, and it’s genuinely hard to build a useless character. You can’t take advantage of loopholes and exploits in the system – you have to find them in the game world. Mastery of the setting is rewarded.

To tie this back into subject-based learning (because I could easily talk about this all day), consider science. I can learn the “setting” of science – current events, historical information, interconnections between fields, personalities, etc. I can also learn the “system” of science – best practices, scientific writing, underlying mathematics, etc. The latter lets me do science, the former lets me appreciate it.

If I want to really understand, both the system and the setting are necessary.

In some fields these may be a little more closely connected, but even in English one can easily separate the technical aspects of the field (grammar, spelling, language change over time) from the context (various authors and their books, historical perspectives). 

I’m not directly going anywhere with this at the moment; I just wanted to bring up some interesting comparisons and parallels. Comments welcome.


Another Games-in-Ed link

An intro-level look at the “serious games” movement in classrooms. The grade-school algebra idea is pretty neat.

Reflections on MIT

In two days I leave MIT.

I wanted to take a little time to reflect on what the place is like. There’s a lot of mythology and legend built up around the place – you can tell from the fact that we have tourist groups from around the world here every day or two. I wanted to give a little insight into the Institute beyond the “we number everything” and “LOL hacks” level.

MIT is a highly “siloed” institution. When you’re working in your group, it’s common to not hear about other groups. Who are doing the same thing. In the next building over. Part of this is due to workload. You spend a lot of time working rather than making connections, which is fairly understandable. Unfortunately, it’s endemic to the culture of the institute. For instance, the network on my floor is run by the same group that runs the network on half of the 2nd floor, but the other half of the 2nd floor and the 1st floor are run by a different group. I think it’s only in the last year that the various education research groups have taken notice of each other. I sort of worry that when I go, one of the big links between our group and the Bio Education group will disappear.

The “not made here” ethic is also big at MIT. People would rather create something of their own than use existing materials. I can’t say that we end up with shoddy products because of it – instead, we end up with products that lack functionality.

It was stunning to see how technologically conservative the school is. Only last year did they start using online course registration, something that RPI implemented when I was an undergrad and UMass implemented when I was a grad student. Naturally, the “not made here” problem was present in that as well. I was also surprised that when I got here, I, who just came from teaching high school for four years, was the tech guy in my group. The stereotype that everyone at MIT is a technological wizard is a little overblown. (There are tech wizards here, just not everyone.)

On the more positive side, it’s very encouraging to see the motivations of the people who work here. Sure, there are curmudgeons who are only in it for their own fame, but the majority – the vast majority – of professors and staff at MIT do what they do because they want to improve the world. These are people motivated by compassion, by their conscience, and by consideration for others. I appreciate their pursuit of the truth, but more than that I admire their humanitarian goals.

MIT is most definitely filled with smart people. It’s also filled with very hard-working people, and the latter who get more respect. Smart people are a dime a dozen around here; you can’t swing a cat (why would you swing a cat?) without hitting one. Most folks are also hard-working, but there are some who really stand head-and-shoulders above when it comes to work ethic.

MIT definitely gets a high level of performance out of its students. The Institute’s basic method for this is as follows:

  1. Recruit the best
  2. Work them like dogs
  3. Provide safety nets

Most people wouldn’t expect the third one. MIT provides a lot of safety nets for its students, from summer programs for underprepared students to “recovery” courses to tutoring groups to special-interest dorms and affinity groups. If someone claims that the institute ignored them, they probably didn’t reach out. There’s no doubt that the workload is intentionally overwhelming, but there is support – free support! – for people who are willing to make the time for it.

When I was a high-school student, I wanted to go to MIT for college. It wasn’t my greatest dream or anything, but it was an aspiration. I ended up at RPI instead, which was a good school for me (at least as an undergraduate – I shouldn’t have stayed for graduate school). In the end I was ok that I hadn’t gone to MIT, because I heard about the level of competition and stress that pervades the institute, and I had enough difficulty dealing with stress as it was. I think I could have handled it here, but I don’t think I would have been happy. I’m glad when I see students who are happy here, because I know that the dream of making the world a better place is alive in them as well.

Paying for the Party

Tuesday link time. Not, as I initially suspected, a book about communism or republicans.

A brief excerpt:

What was the biggest surprise of the research?

We didn’t expect this to be as depressing as it turned out to be.

Education continues to not be the great social equalizer that we would all like it to be… especially when social status alone can prevent people from making it to or through a college education.

Where Am I Going Next?

Somehow I thought I’d have an answer to this question by the time I had to write this post…

Sadly, at this time, I still don’t know. I have applications out to a few places, but no offers. So the question is, what will I do with my time?

I have a half-dozen projects that could easily vie for my attention. Besides some badly-needed catchup time for my martial arts practice and basic around-the-house maintenance, I also write games in my off-time. I’ve been working on the second edition of my game Sufficiently Advanced for a few years now; it would be nice to be able to make the final push on that (or on Praeceps, or Console III, or a bunch of other games I’d love to write). There’s a relativity textbook that I’ve agreed to finish. I could work on developing an online course myself, though knowing the amount of work it takes it would have to be fairly focused. I can put an hour or two each day into finding a job, but there’s only so much I can realistically do with that. There aren’t thousands of job openings at my level, though there are hundreds of applicants for each one.

A lot of people ask me what I want to do. Sometimes I point them at the parable of the apple farmer, but that’s more about what I don’t want to do. There are a lot of things that would make me happy within the field of education, and the more innovation I get to do, the better. There are a lot of things in the field of gaming, and though I’m only qualified to work in a thumbnail-sized piece of that, it’s still something I enjoy. I’d love to do something that combines the two – colleagues and friends alike have gotten me thinking in that direction for quite a while. There are a few research groups in Boston – in fact, 2-3 just at MIT! – who do this kind of thing, and I’m like to see whether they need some volunteer help for a few weeks.

For right now, the answer to “where am I going next” is still “I don’t know,” but at least I have a lot of options ahead of me as long as I can bring in enough money to feed myself.

Games in Education

This summer I attended not only LINC (as mentioned on Wednesday) but also the AAPT/PERC conference in Portland, OR. I could spend quite a while talking about things that I saw there, but I want to focus on one particular item: games in education.

The last session, on the last day, included a roundtable discussion entitled “Learning in computer games, learning in the classroom: Making important connections.” David Brookes of FIU and Ian Beatty of UNCG were the moderators.

The discussion was primarily focused on the question, “What can we learn about learning from the way that video games teach people to play?” Imagine that we had all taken the standard teacher complaint about “If only I could get my students to spend as much time on their homework as on video games” and followed it up with, “No, seriously, how do I actually go about doing that?” Topics ranged from the way Super Metroid teaches you how to play, to the nature of flow, to why Diablo III is less addictive than Diablo II, to the need for immediate feedback and failure tolerance. Beatty shared a framework for describing games and other phenomena, which he also discussed at his MIT talk earlier this year.

Gamification in online courses is often extremely shallow. You can get badges for doing certain things – big deal. Gold stars are nice, but they’re not serious motivation for me. I care much more about the approval from my teacher than about the gold star that signifies it. That’s gamification on the same level as Achievement Unlocked. It’s not even on the same level as Math Blaster (gah – what happened to Math Blaster?), though I suppose I do prefer it to “edutainment.” What about gamification on the same level as Magicians, a roleplaying game that helps you learn Korean – because the magical language in the game is actually Korean? What about Rocky’s Boots, which was a coding exercise disguised as a kid’s game? Where are the attempts at the Mind Game? Where are there some really deep uses of games in education, or games that teach real-world skills?

In the same spirit as the original roundtable, I’m not just making conversation here. I’d love to get a big pile of links from my readers.

I love these kinds of discussions. Cross-pollination is good for every academic discipline.

High school to college

An article about standardized schooling:

This quote struck me:

If you, as a higher education professional, are concerned about the quality of students arriving at your institution, you have a responsibility to step up and speak out. You need to inform those creating the policies about the damage they are doing to our young people, and how they are undermining those institutions in which you labor to make a difference in the minds and the lives of the young people you teach as well as in the fields in which you do your research.

Notes from LINC

This year I went to the LINC conference at MIT. This year’s theme was “Realizing the Dream: Education Becoming Available To All. Will the World Take Advantage?” I was officially there to present a paper about our course, but also to learn about other parts of education. I love conferences; you get such a mixing of ideas. Sadly I had a lot of work to do while I was there (this was in the early days of the online course, where more attention was needed) so I didn’t get to see as many talks as I would have liked.

The parts of the conference I did get to see were a mixed bag.

On the positive side, I saw a lot of efforts to improve education and make it more accessible. It was also great to see that this was coming from many different places in the world. For example, there was actually a talk where an audience member had to ask what a lahk was, because all the numbers in the talk were in that unit.

On the negative side, I saw a lack of actual research results. People were talking about the changes they had made, but rarely about the measurable impacts of those changes. Those who did have results rarely talked about them in the language of statistics.

One really excellent talk was at lunch the second day, from Cliff Missen of (among other things) the eGranary project. Missen started off the talk by saying that online courses are great when you can worry about whether or not people have internet access, but he more often has to worry about whether they have water. It really put things in perspective for me.

Overall I preferred the AAPT conference, but LINC’s more international view was definitely something I appreciated.

Support Staff

If you’re going to run an online course, the first, most important thing that you need, and I cannot stress this enough, is to have a team.

Running an online course can take as much of your time as you let it. I’ve seen people try to run classes ten times smaller than ours (in terms of enrollees) who ended up with no free time. They spent not just most of their work day, but hours every night and most of their weekend trying to handle the course. Those folks had a small team (or no team), and were working just a few days ahead of the deadlines. We didn’t do that this summer. By having a strong team and having the material ready before the course started, we had a stronger course and I had most of my weekend free.

I think of the organization as sort of a pyramid structure (though the bottom layer isn’t actually the largest). At the bottom of the pyramid were Community TAs, then Master Teachers, then On-Campus Staff, then me at the top.

The Community TAs were recruited from the course as it ran. This is a common practice in edX courses. We did two recruitment drives, one in the second week and one later on. The TAs have no official obligations except to be professional and courteous. Most of them are the kind of folks who would be contributing a ton to the discussions anyway. They get little green badges around their names in the discussion boards, so that people can tell who they are. They have some powers to moderate the discussion boards, such as editing or deleting others’ posts, and they had access to the system that we used to track issues. We had about 15-20 of them by the end of the course.

Our Master Teachers were a stroke of genius on the part of one of my co-workers. What we did is e-mail the top 15% of our students from last year’s course and say, essentially, “Hey, you folks did awesome last year. We’re running the course again this year and if you have 20 hours to help out over the course of the summer, we’d love to have help. What can we do to make it worth your time?” And from that we got 30 people, many of whom were public school high school teachers (thus the name). The most common thing they asked for was Continuing Education Units, which we were glad to provide.

I cannot say enough about how awesome these folks were to us, day in and day out. Many donated far more than 20 hours of their time in the discussion forums. They helped us scope out the unreleased material for bugs and typos. They were supportive and friendly, and I would never want to run a course without this kind of help.

Our On-Campus Staff consisted of four people: one high-school intern, two undergraduates, and a postdoc. The intern checked through the entire course from front to back, and caught a ton of errors. The undergrads helped out on the forums, but their main job was handling issues that were reported through our tracking system. The postdoc was my right-hand woman, and she tackled just about everything, from checking the course to writing new problems to being our Spanish voice on the forums. These folks had two major things that separated them from the rest of the course staff: First, they were paid full-time or part-time employees, and second, they had access to change any item in the course. They could actually make changes to the text or the homework problems.

I was the Course Coordinator. My primary job was executive decision-making. I handled issues that no one else felt they had the authority to respond to, or alterations to the course structure (removing bad problems, swapping the order of things, etc.). I also spent time on the forums and checked the problem tracker, but that’s because I had time, not because I was needed to handle day-to-day items. I could spend my time on higher-level considerations and weighing what was best for the course.

The setup might not have been ideal, but it was very good. People with  If I were to run another online course, I’d definitely try to have this sort of setup again.

Demographic Divide

Physics has a few issues in terms of demographics. Look at any college department and you’ll see it.

  • There are almost no poor students.
  • There are very few women, either as students or as faculty.
  • Most students and faculty are white, asian, or indian. Other ethnicities are much less common.

Online education is often touted as “education for everyone” or “education for the masses.” Unfortunately, the demographic divide remains.

  • Every student could afford an internet connection, which in many countries is a dear expense.
  • Our course had only 17% female students. The percentage was fairly constant across countries. Women are being repelled from physics in droves, everywhere people speak English (and likely elsewhere). I won’t speculate on why; there’s plenty of solid research on that.
  • The edX intro survey asks about race and ethnic group,  but no one has analyzed it for minority status yet. The fact that we reach other countries does not mean that we reach minorities in those countries. Let’s say “not enough data” here.

It seems that simply providing education online (or in any other forum) isn’t enough to break down barriers. It’s clear that online education is not “education for everyone” yet, but it also seems that many of the barriers are put in place at younger ages. If an online physics course attracts roughly the same low percentage of women as an on-campus physics course, we must be doing something wrong before students even get to that point.