Tag Archives: wired

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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How Safe Are You?

dog

My dog, whose name is "12345."

The photo above is from a poster I see around Ohio State once in a while.  The caption reads, “Someone stole my password… now I have to rename my dog.”  I think it is an elegant way to state what is a very important message: choose a strong password.

What is a strong password?  One that cannot easily be guessed.  It’s easy to find lists of the most common passwords used online and, invariably, password and 123456 (or similar) is at the top of every list.  When I see this, I’m reminded of the movie Spaceballs, which was released in 1987.  In one scene from this Star Wars parody, Dark Helmet learns that the combination to the air shield around planet Druidia is 12345, which Dark Helmet observes is the kind of thing an idiot would have on his luggage.  The punchline, below, occurs when the air shield’s combination is revealed to President Skroob (Mel Brooks).

Besides being a chance to insert a gratuitous Spaceballs clip, what is the point?  Well, even before we’d ever heard of email, 12345 was a bad password.  Adding a 6 didn’t make it much better.

But even the brightest among us — celebrities — haven’t learned this lesson.  It seems like every couple of weeks, there is a story about how Paris Hilton’s phone, Sarah Palin’s email, or Lindsay Lohan’s MySpace, Blackberry, and Gmail accounts have been hacked.  All of these attacks were due to weak passwords, or easy-to-guess password reset questions (according to Wired, Tinkerbell – password reset answer, Wasilla High – password reset answer, and 1234 – password, respectively.)  Startlingly, trying the top 10 or 20 passwords (and their variants such as 123, 1234, 12345, etc.) could unlock as many as 20% of online accounts, according to John P. on One Man’s Blog.

So, maybe you’re not Lindsay Lohan, but you probably still have information you want to protect.  And gaining access to one account can probably lead to access to all of them.  So even if your Facebook isn’t important enough to warrant a strong password, what information in that account could be used to access your email and then your online bank account?

What makes a strong password?  When students set up their OSU email accounts, I direct them to OSU’s password policy, which requires passwords to be at least 8 characters and some combination of alphabetic, numeric, and punctuation characters.  Also, an OSU password cannot contain the same character three times or more in a row, fewer than four different characters, or easily guessed phrases and words.  You can even rate your new password at the top of the page to see if your password is acceptable.  1234 returns the message “Unacceptable – Your new password is too short.”  (Sorry, Lindsay Lohan.)

Still having trouble?  John P. has some good tips in his article.  One approach is to substitute numbers and punctuation in place of some letters in a word.  This can make your password exponentially tougher to crack.  For example, gobuckeyes could become g08uck3y3$.  But even a n00b knows we could do better.  Instead of starting with a word, consider taking the first letter of each word in a phrase or song to create an easy to remember, but seemingly random string.  For example, the first letter from each word in the first two lines of Carmen, Ohio would give us oclsopastamr.  Now substitute  numbers and symbols for a few of these letters and you have a pretty robust password: 0c1$0p4$t4mR.

(Incidentally, I wouldn’t recommend using that or any of the passwords you read here because any one of the tens of people who read this could then guess your password, but you can see how a strong password could be generated.)

Not feeling creative enough to make your own password?  Another approach is to use one of several password generators available online.  For example, grc.com has a page that generates strings of random characters each time the page is loaded.  Take as many as you need to create a strong password.  Another resource is onlinepasswordgenerator.com which generates 10 passwords at a time and can be configured to include numbers, punctuation, and capital letters, depending on your needs.

One final concern is having to remember passwords for so many different accounts.  Consider creating a simple algorithm that will alter the password slightly for each account.  For example, once you’ve committed 0c1$0p4$t4mR to memory, you could use 0c1$0p4$t4mRe for your email account, 0c1$0p4$t4mRb for your bank, and 0c1$0p4$t4mRfb for your Facebook account.  By adding the letters to the middle of the word and including the number of letters in the name of the account, each individual password would seem even more random, but all of them would be easy for you to remember.

I hope this post helps to make the internet a safer place for you.  If you recognized any of the passwords I’ve included here (especially the ones near the top), go update your accounts.  Or, change your dog’s name.

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Google Yourself

haystack

Can you find the needle? Google can.

This is going to sound a bit like one of those motivational books targeted at business managers, but I was struck by a couple of points in a recent article in Wired magazine on Google’s search algorithm (“How Google’s Algorithm Rules the Web“).  It’s got me wondering how I can Google myself: not in the sense of searching for my phone number and website, but in the sense of approaching my work in the way that people at Google have approached theirs.

Many people know the story of Google’s original innovation in web search, namely ranking pages by the number of links to them.  But this article details many tweaks that have been made since the original 1997 version.  These tweaks include weighting links from experts, personalizing results, and universalizing the search across many media including blog and Twitter posts.

In addition to some of interesting linguistic challenges Google is presented with in its search queries (note the differences in meaning in each word in New York, New York Times, and New York Times Square, for example), Google is using the data it gathers in searches to tweak its algorithm and constantly make improvements.  If someone searches for dogs and then searches for puppies, the algorithm learns that these words have a similar meaning.  If these words are found along with leash, fetch, and train on enough pages, the algorithm learns from that association as well.  Even more impressive is that Google is working on making many of these improvements all at the same time without shutting down.  One of Google’s coders likens this to changing “the engines on a plane that is flying at 1,000 kilometers an hour, 30,000 feet above Earth.”

Granted, few of us have the technical expertise or vast resources of a corporation like Google.  But, and this is the business-book-like part I promised, what are we doing in our personal spheres of influence to assess and improve what we are doing?  Is there data we can gather about our students’ experience?  How can we manipulate that data and what might it reveal to us?  How are we acting on the information we find?

I was recently talking to a student about the perception that students’ time is better spent on preparing for standardized tests than classwork.  My explanation that the best way to improve test scores is to do the classwork often falls on deaf ears.  But the good news is, we have the data to determine if that’s true.   If I can pull those numbers together and present them to these students, will I change their minds?  Maybe not, but it’s worth a shot.

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Students Are Writing More

Our students are writing everywhere.

Our students are writing everywhere.

I recently came across an interesting article in Wired magazine about student writing: “The New Literacy” by Clive Thompson. The beginning posits that the new school year brings the usual fretting about how students’ writing is getting worse and worse. But Thompson then presents the most convincing counter argument I’ve seen yet.

Research conducted at Stanford University suggests that students (and people in general) are writing more than ever. All those text messages, Facebook updates, blog posts, and even classroom essays really add up. In fact, professor Andrea Lunsford is quoted as saying, “I think we’re in the midst of a literacy revolution the likes of which we haven’t seen since Greek civilization.” A generation ago, after leaving high school or college, how many people wrote more than a paragraph? Sure, there were some who were letter-writers, but we’re all emailers now.

The study also found that students are acutely aware of their audience and, in particular, adapting their writing to get their point across. Interestingly, students judge writing to be good if it has an effect on the world — if there is debate and interaction.  Essays are given less attention because the only audience for whom students are writing is the professor.

I don’t agree with all of the findings reported in the article (you may not either if you’ve ever received an email from a student that was startlingly informal — where is the audience awareness there?) but it does point us down an interesting path.

How much more attention do students pay to their assignments when their writing can be viewed by the whole class?  Or the whole world?  Collaborating on a blog or wiki for writing assignments makes this process relatively easy and straightforward.  What kind of feedback can they provide each other?  If the teacher adjusts her role to coach and helps guide this process, some feedback can be crowdsourced, giving students more responses.  Of course, student feedback would not be the same as teacher feedback, but both could be valuable.

Having students use new technology to share their writing is not a cutting edge idea, but this shift in perspective gives some insight into how blogs, wikis, and the like can increase production and, possibly, motivation.  Instead of lamenting students’ sloppy penmanship, maybe we should be embracing this revolution in writing and getting our students to write even more.

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Teach Like a Dandelion Not a Mammal

(cc) http://www.flickr.com/photos/28481088@N00/434872938/

Teach like this.

I was still thinking about Connectivism when I read “Tech Is Too Cheap to Meter: It’s Time to Manage for Abundance, Not Scarcity,” Chris Anderson’s article in Wired magazine. The article is an excellent interpretation of how the increasing ubiquitousness of technology has changed our relationship to it. The central metaphor here is how two very different organisms, dandelions and mammals, reproduce.

Dandelions reproduce by scattering as many seeds as possible, a tiny fraction of which will take root and grow. Fish, and many other kinds of animals, reproduce this way too. By contrast, mammals in general, and humans in particular, typically produce far fewer offspring and work much harder to ensure each one survives. Technology has become so cheap that it, too, can be scattered everywhere. This has the potential to change everything from business to education.

One example from Anderson’s article is the medium of video. Broadcast television, the traditional way video is viewed, operates like a mammal. Each television show is research, cast, scripted, piloted and refined before it airs because media companies need to be certain their shows will be watched millions of viewers in order to attract advertisers. But YouTube, which is free, behaves like a dandelion. Countless videos are posted, the best of which are viewed millions of times, while others may never be viewed at all.

Anderson inludes lots of other examples, but I really got to thinking about how to teach like a dandelion. This brought me back to Connectivism. One issue that I think Connectivism addresses nicely is that students can make connections to knowledge that are appropriate for their own individual learning style. For example, listening to two people talking on a YouTube video may be very useful for auditory learners, while visual learners might prefer to see a chart outlining a topic or idea.

I often use a course management system (CMS) with my classes and post links to a variety of resources for my students. For example, when teaching grammar, I often post copies of my presentation materials, notes I make in class, practice quizzes, YouTube videos, and other resources. But what if I posted more? And what if I encouraged my students to post more? Maybe we could break out of the CMS by devising a common tag based on the course number, and we could all tag resources using a social bookmarking tool like Delicious.

Another important aspect of Connectivism is that the teacher should teach students how to evaluate resources. In a dandelion-like world, where countless resources come floating at you on the wind, this will prove to be an essential skill. The technology that will enable this shift in teaching already exists. But will teachers and students, most of whom are mammals, be ready for it?

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