Monday, 20 May 2013

Learning with games, a visit to the 3DHive

I had a chance to spend an afternoon with developers and researchers from Playware Studios, a Singapore based company that includes UWCSEA Dover alumna Akshay Maliwal as Head of Strategy.

I really enjoyed the experience for a few reasons:

-The team that went included myself (Digital Literacy Coach), the High School Principal, and a Middle School Humanities teacher. Having the multiple perspectives was really powerful as each of saw the presentation slightly differently.

 -I was expecting to go in for a product demo, but was pleasantly surprised when we spent the first hour entirely discussing the role of games in learning and working on a concept for our own game. It was especially nice having the perspective and guidance of Richard Sandford to take us into the mindset of developing and using games for learning.

Here's a look at 3DHive, a game development environment from Playware Studios.

Students can make games, not just play them.  

We had quite a lot of debate on the value of these games for learning. Is this the most efficient way to learn? Do teachers have the time to make them? Do students learn the intended concepts? All of these were good questions raised by colleagues, and they're all assuming that games would just be played by students. I realized that I was thinking about the value of games not just from the perspective of the student as player in a game created by teachers, rather I was thinking of the students designing and building games to show their understanding.

The demo game we played illustrated energy flow in the ecosystem and predator-prey dynamics as it pitted a group of lions against a herd of zebras. To build a game like this that accurately models the dynamics of grassland ecosystem, you've got to have a solid understanding of the Ecology and systems-thinking ability. Students tasked with building such a game would have to learn the Ecology in order to build a game that works like a real ecosystem. Game designers also have to consider the experience of the players which links strongly with our goal of practicing metacognition by thinking about the thought process, emotions, and likely actions of the players as they play your game.

The 3DHive software appears simple enough for anybody to pick up and create a simple game. You build your world, add characters and assign attributes to your game. I'm quite confident that a majority of our students 9 and older could create a game to show their understanding.

Letting go, students control their learning.

A big tension for people considering doing something like this, incorporating games in learning, is that you have to be prepared to hand over control of the learning to the students and you don't know exactly how the game is going to end up.
It's most comfortable when we deliver known content in a well-practiced way that takes a pre-determined amount of time followed by an assessment that gives results that fit a normal distribution.

Using games for learning allows for nuanced conversation between players along with the teacher. These conversations and analysis of the game are where the deep learning occurs, not so much during the play.  This is really no different than during a traditional lesson. Students need opportunities consolidate their learning after a series of activities.
I really liked how the software allows the teacher to control aspects of the game during play including a pause button where you can draw attention back from the game and have mini debrief conversations where students analyze play and game dynamics and even have peer-team meetings to plan strategy. Once the games ends, the teacher has access to analytics including video replay of the game that can be used to make points linking back to the learning objectives.

It's time we take a serious look at playing to learn and how video games fit in our instructional ecosystem. I really like the possibilities of using 3DHive, Portal 2 and Minecraft worlds built by students because they demonstrate their understanding clearly based on how well the game is designed.

What other game environments should we consider for learning?

Monday, 13 May 2013

Three things Turnitin can tell you about your writing

Photo Credit: lanuiop via Compfight
Our students are just submitting a draft of their Extended Essays to the Turnitin database. Turnitin is a writing tool that we're beginning to use in our secondary school as a way to support student writers. It includes an easy way to have students peer-review each other's writing, a nice workflow for teachers to provide feedback and mark work against a rubric, and and originality check tool that flags up passages that match writing on the Internet and past papers submitted to the database.

The aim here is not to catch students cheating. Rather, we believe it's a very useful way for them to see potential errors in their writing so that they can fix them and learn from the process. Here are the top three things we're learning from the papers submitted so far.

Unless it's in quotation marks, we assume those are your words.
When you are writing and you use somebody else's words directly, you need to quote them.

This is what the Turnitin Originality Report shows us:

In this case, you can see clearly that there are entire sentences used from a source that are direct quotes, but are not enclosed in quotation marks. This is directly plagiarising, or stealing, someone else's work. The school views this as a serious breach of academic honesty and follows through with serious consequences. (Since this paper is a draft, no consequences are necessary in this case)
Don't go overboard.

These quotations were not flagged on the Originality Report because you can create a setting to exclude quoted material and bibliographic material. However, Turnitin notifies you in the list of submissions of papers that have more than 30% quoted material.

At the same time, we do expect to see some significant synthesis (this means taking in several sources and combining them to make new meaning). In this case, you see the majority of the writing is just quoted material from other sources. This shows that significant research was done, but doesn't demonstrate that there was any new learning by the student. There's no added value to the body of work on this subject.

Attempts to paraphrase can be tricky. 
One of the most difficult things we face when writing an article based on research is that we remember the things we've read, seen, and heard. Often, unintentionally even, we bring in phrases from other in our speech and writing. The challenge we have it to recognise this and draw a clear line between material we're borrowing and things that we've synthesised into our own words.

When you paraphrase or write a synthesis of research you've read, you need to cite the sources. We follow the MLA style guide when referencing sources.

Here, you can see that the student is attempting to paraphrase a resource they've read by changing things like "more prevalent" to "higher." Turnitin originality check points out these paraphrase attempts to the students so that they can fix them with original writing and phrases. 

Sometimes the items flagged up are actually common phrases that lots of writers would use and in those cases, we'd expect the student to recognise that and not really worry about it, but it's important for them to know the difference.

Wikipedia is not an appropriate source for academic writing
I actually love Wikipedia. I tell our students to start their search there, but not to end up there. It's a great way to get acquainted with your topic, learn some of the key terms, and even jump off into the sources cited by the Wikipedia authors as a way to start.

In this case, you can clearly see that Wikipedia is being cited (never appropriate), but at the same time, language directly from the article is used and isn't quoted (see point 1). Wikipedia is a great way for you to learn who the "major players" on your topic are. You have to look at the references.
Wikipedia, scroll down for references

With tools like this available to our students, we've got another way for them to improve their writing. We're hopeful that it will make a difference.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Obvious to you, amazing to others: iPhone as a wireless document camera

Today I had one of those "why didn't I think of that?" moments as I was visiting a teacher. He asked me about a way to allow a student or two to mirror their screens through his laptop to project to the class. We tried a couple of options including Reflector and Airserver without great success (laggy, froze the AirPlay receiving computer) and decided to do some updates and try again another day.

As we were having a bit of banter afterwards, he mentioned that he's used Reflector a bit in his class. So I said, "Oh? How do you use it?"

and then he dropped it on me... one of those obvious ideas that just ticks a lot of boxes with me because of it's simple, yet really effective for learning. He, of course thought it was no big deal.

Turns out, he's been using his iPhone, mirroring with AirPlay to his MacBook running Reflector as a wireless document camera! Brilliant.

He walks around the room and monitors students as they're solving problems. When he sees one he'd like to display, he turns on AirPlay mirroring, opens his Camera app and just holds it above the paper as the student is working. The image is projected clearly on the board in the front of the room.  Sometimes he also simultaneously records video of the process or snaps a photo at the end that he'll later post to the class Google site.

There's loads of potential for this to be used in just about any setting including students who have their own iOS devices showing their own work. I'm just grateful that he mentioned it to me, even though it seemed obvious.