Tag Archives: education

Bulletin Board 2.0

pushpins

An article in our student newspaper on Pinterest.com caught my eye this morning.  It is described as an online pinboard for sharing photos, recipes, and other content.  Content is shared when users pin content from someone else’s pinboard onto their own.

In this way, Pinterest is a bit like Tumblr or even Twitter in that content can echo around and be amplified as more users repost it.  Interestingly, most (if not all) of the content is image-based.  In some ways, this is limiting because a recipe is actually a picture of food that you can click on to get to the site that originally posted the recipe.  In effect, Pinterest actually feels more like a different interface for photosharing websites like Flickr.  There are lots of interesting boards that are pictures organized by color or by different topics.

From a quick glance, it seems like Pinterest is a very good internet meme incubator.  I’ve already been sucked into looking at pictures (and the blog posts they link to) that include hilariously ugly knitted shorts and a portrait of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made from over 4000 Rubik’s cubes.  There are also plenty of funny and inspirational signs and slogans as well as the requisite cute and funny pictures of kittens and puppies.

Could Pinterest be useful to ESL students?  Perhaps.  It could provide a way for them to store and organize web content that can be shared within the classroom community.  It’s very smooth and clean and the opportunity to interact with the site-wide community could be interesting.  And the site terms and conditions prohibit nudity and hateful content, which can be reassuring for teachers.  If a course is not using a web-based course management system, Pinterest could be a quick and interesting way to build a community that could generate some interesting discussion.  But is it the next Big Thing?  Probably not.

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Interactive Fiction

The text-based game Zork being played via teletype machine

If you’re like me, one of your first computer game experiences was with an interactive fiction text-based game.  Zork was probably the most popular, but I discovered the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy game first (before I knew it was a book.)  In fact, I had never played Zork until quite recently when I encountered a version of it on Frotz, which I discovered as an iPhone application.  Within Frotz, one can play a wide variety of text-based adventure games.

If you’ve never played one of these games, there really isn’t much to learn.  Players are typically presented with a description of their character’s surroundings followed by a prompt.  Players can type simple directions at the prompt, such as “go north” or “pickup phone.” This process repeats with the game presenting the results of the previous command or a description of the new scene if the player has moved.  From there, the player enters further directions, and the game continues.

Obviously, the focus of the game is the writing as there are typically no graphics involved.  These games also have a rich tradition of Easter Eggs and snarky responses, particularly when commands are malformed or not recognized.  As the player proceeds through the game, objects can be collected (such as a key) that can later be used to solve a problem or make progress through the game (such as unlocking a door.)

These games are now rediscoverable thanks to new technologies.  Not only that, but it has also become very easy to create a game with virtually zero programming involved.  Two examples of tools that can be used to create interactive fiction are Twine and Inform7.

Twine is the simpler of the two.  Resulting stories are interactive in the way that Choose Your Own Adventure stories are interactive, but they use linked texts to allow the reader to progress in a non-linear way.  Examples of stories written using Twine can be played on gimcrackd.com.

Inform7 is much more complex, but the results are actual interactive text-based adventure games.  Elements can be dragged and dropped to create the relationships that form the basis of the story.  Examples of some of the best interactive text adventures can be found in this article on makeuseof.com.

I haven’t used either of these tools yet, but I’m curious about what ESL students might make of them (and make with them).  The process of writing can be a challenge in itself and, if they are not familiar with interactive fiction, explaining it would be an additional difficulty.  But by collaborating in small groups, there might be some interesting possibilities for collaborating and giving peer feedback.  At the very least, interactive text adventure games can provide ESL students with a rich source of input.  And because the syntax for interacting with the game is so simplified, even intermediate level learners can play them.

I plan to give Inform7 a try to see how easy it is to use.  If you’ve used it, or know of other similar tools, leave a comment.

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Video Games as Interactive Texts

These are my slides from my Ohio TESOL 2011 presentation titled “How to use videogames as interactive texts for language learning.”  Comments are welcome.

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Wear Your IWB to Work

cyborgs

A wearable computer won’t make you a cyborg, but it will get you one step closer.  A new project out of Carnegie Melon University allows you to turn any surface into a touchscreen, including your body.  Read the article or watch the video below.

Essentially, the system combines a Microsoft Kinect and a pocket-sized projector for a relatively smooth multi-touch, multi-surface user experience.  The downside?  This is what you have to wear:

wearable computer

Is it worth it?  Probably not.  Yet.  Good luck wearing one of these through an airport without attracting attention.  It probably wouldn’t even be easy to have a natural interaction with another human being without them being slightly distracted.

For those attracted to having your playlist projected on your forearm (instead of on the screen you’re holding in the hand at the end of said forearm) I’d advise you to wait a few years for Moore’s Law to shrink this down to something that will fit into the brim of a baseball cap, which, come to think of it, might be even creepier.

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Geo Games

globe puzzle

I have friends and family who really enjoy the boardgame Risk.  We had the game as a kid and I would play with it, but not by the “rules.”  I made my own game by moving pieces around and rolling the dice from time to time.  The map both fascinated and confused me (Alberta goes all the way to the Pacific Ocean?) and the colorful little pieces inspired several different games.  A map is a natural game board.

Fast-forward to the present: computer games have become ubiquitous (Ever kill time playing a game on your computer or phone?) and we rely on Google maps and GPS devices to get us to where we want to go.

Fast-forward to the future: Computer applications that we interact with are beginning to mash up GIS and other data.  (Ever check in to a real place using Foursquare or Facebook?)  Games are no exception.

Imagine playing Risk with the borders and armies from 100 or 1000 years ago.  Or Monopoly based on real utilities and real estate values.  Or Farmville with real agricultural data.  Or Oregon Trail with weather and census data from specific dates throughout history.

Ola Ahlqvist, a professor of Geography at Ohio State, is involved in a project to build the infrastructure to make these kinds of games possible.  I’ve talked with Ola several times about his games, but his presentation below is a pretty good summary of the process.

This is a great example of learning through games and simulations.  Players can see how different factors affect the outcome of the game — develop hyphotheses, then change their strategy for playing the game to test them.  Of course, this is how learning occurs outside of games, but by making a game out of a real map, the learning becomes more compelling.

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Data Visualization: Attendance vs. GPA

Above is a plot of students’ attendance versus their grade point averages (GPAs).  See any trends?  Obviously, students with higher attendance tend to have higher GPAs.  While this is not particularly surprising, it’s nice to be able to support this notion with actual data.

(I should say that this “actual data” is not actual data, but it is based on actual data.  I’ve taken the actual “actual data” and randomly added or subtracted up to 5% so that the general trends remain, but none of the actual data points are the same, except by chance.)

In addition to the general trend that GPAs correlate positively with attendance, I can say that no student who had 100% attendance got less than a C+ (2.85 GPA) and that no student who got a 4.0 GPA (straight As) attended less than 96% (at least in the “actual” data).

Can I claim causality?  Not exactly.  I don’t know that higher attendance causes higher grades, or vice versa, but I think it could be claimed that low attendance causes low grades — if you aren’t in class, you can’t get an A.

Admittedly, this isn’t the most cutting edge visualization — it’s just a graph I made using Microsoft Excel — but I think it represents a relatively simple set of data effectively.

I plan to show this graph to all of our students at our program-wide meeting at the beginning of the academic year.  If nothing else, it should get them thinking a bit about the importance of attending class if they want to be successful.  This isn’t a big issue for most of our students but, as you can see, it is an issue for some.  And if it helps them to have me connect the dots, I gladly will (see below, click to enlarge).

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A Unique Game

usb drive

Have you ever played Chain World?  I didn’t think so.  I haven’t either.  Only one copy exists and you can only play once.  It’s based on Minecraft, which is an open-source sandbox-style game in which players build things out of textured blocks.

The important distinction is that Chain World exists completely on a USB drive.  The rules of the game are essentially build what you want (though explicit signs are forbidden), save the game when you die, and pass it on to someone else.  After you’ve played, you are forbidden to discuss your experience or to ever play again.

These rules, if observed, would make for a very compelling gaming experience.  In most games, the stakes are relatively low because you can always restart and, in many cases, continue where you left off.  In most games, death is not final.  In Chain World, it is.  This heightens the overall experience tremendously.

The complete story of this game, as well as the discussions that the game fostered around religion, charity, following the rules, and how seriously gamers take themselves, can be found in Wired Magazine.  It’s a compelling read.

How does the story of this game relate to the ESL classroom?  Clearly, the religious debate is likely beyond the scope of most classrooms (and this blog), but the question of whether to follow the rules is an interesting one.  The Chain World experience was designed with a specific set of rules that create a very specific and unique experience.  But if a player breaks a rule, or plays the game in a way that the designer did not intend, can it still be a valuable experience?  Imagine the first person that put checkers on a chess board.  Did someone say, “That’s not what that board is for!”?

In your classroom, do your students ever break rules or react in ways that you did not plan for?  Of course they do.  While this is frustrating, it can occasionally lead to very valuable learning experiences.  I’ve had lessons go off track right from the beginning when a student asked a question that was not related to the lesson, but turned out to be something that the whole class wanted or even needed to know more about.  These unexpected and unplanned classes are some of the most interesting I have every taught and some of the most appreciated by students.

When I use games in an ESL classroom, I occasionally encourage students to find out what happens when you break the rules or even break the game.  (Not in the sense of throwing the computer across the room, but in the sense of going somewhere that is officially “out of bounds” in the game.)  This exploration is part of what makes learning through games so exciting, which can increase motivation for language learning.  This same exploration of the boundaries of a language can also be an exciting part of language learning.  (Can I use this word this way?  How about this way?)

Languages, like games, have specific rules that speakers, and players, choose to follow.  Chain World, although a relatively simple game in execution, provokes some very interesting discussion on lots of engaging topics, including how to figure out what the rules are as well as whether and when to follow them.

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