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Game Design as Project Based Learning

2016 still sounds more like a made up year in the distant future than that time “a couple of years ago.” Nonetheless, a couple of years ago, Scott Wurdinger came out with a book called The Power of Project-Based Learning

There is a great deal of debate over how to define PBL. Wurdinger recounts how John Dewey had a falling out with his student William Kilpatrick when Kilpatrick (1918) said that a project could be just about anything as long as it was initiated by the student, including just sitting and listening to music (p. 14). Dewey insisted that a teacher needed to be involved to guide learning.

Kilpatrick eventually acquiesced, but we are still left with a broad definition of PBL as projects initiated by students and guided by teachers to achieve desired learning outcomes. Projects can be more or less narrowly defined to fit the subject content of a particular class or a desired final product. A math teacher might ask students to use protractors and planes to build a birdhouse, instructing students along the way to identify the various angles of the walls and their combinations. The staging of a play can be used to discuss the history of food, clothing, politics, and gender roles. Such projects bear a family resemblance in that active students engage for a prolonged period in something that is hopefully memorable, meaningful, and authentic in the contextualization of skills and knowledge. Additionally, project-based learning challenges students to deploy a variety of real-world skills like project management, teamwork, research, design, goal-completion, and on and on.

In this blog and more generally in my work with Keegan Long-Wheeler, I have talked a good bit about using games in the classroom to bolster learning. As with PBL, I think games offer memorable experiences that help to contextualize knowledge.

However, game play is in some ways closer to traditional lecture or text-based instruction than to PBL, in that game play relies on the consumption of a media produced by others. My ‘reading’ of a game, my particular experience of it, is of course grounded in my own experiences and can’t be separated from them. The active playing, especially in terms of the social elements, creates a unique or at least specific experience, but so too can reading when accompanied by a good discussion.

Instead of game based learning (or even gamification) as a parallel to project-based learning, we are working through the concept of game design as project-based learning. Rather than having students play games designed by the teacher or third party games like Civilization, Minecraft, or Reacting to the Past, what happens when students design new games?

Project-based learning and experiential learning more generally rely on feedback loops. The various schema used to describe these loops are all derivative of Dewey’s “pattern of inquiry:” 1) identify a problem; 2) pose a solution; 3) test the solution against reality; 4) reflect. David Kolb adapted this model into his schema for “experiential learning:”

David Kolb's 4-part experiential learning cycleSimilar wheel-type schemas have been designed for project-based learning:

This PBL diagram from the Buck Institute for Education suggests a more proscriptive approach certainly than what William Kilpatrick would have wanted. In the modern age of narrowly defined grade-level standards in K-12 schools and integrated learning objectives in higher education curricula, it can be difficult to give up class time and control. Nonetheless, the prompts for projects, the problems being addressed, can provide direction for both the subject matter and skills that the project will develop.

Game Design as PBL

There are several models for game design, but many are variations of an iterative/looping cycle:

As with project based learning, game design starts with a problem or prompt for the students to address. In an English course this past fall, Prof. Honorée Jeffers challenged her students to design a choice-based story (game) that retold a classic children’s story. Students brainstormed alternate plot lines and endings. Then, Keegan coached them on how to build out these games in the text-based game software Twine. The students then built a minimum playable game. Play-testing and modification fed an iterative design loop until the project was finished.

After submitting their games, students reflected with Prof. Jeffers on the structures of their narratives, identifying the inflection points in their alternate plots and the choices that authors make as they write.

Prof. Jeffers’ original writing assignment was already a project-based learning approach to understanding literature. Rather than just reading and dissecting classic children’s story, students produced their own modifications as way to practice the skills they were studying.

The added dimension of game-design helped to further highlight the choices the students were making in their stories. Rather than distracting from the focal content and skills of the English class, the game-design project foregrounded that material. In addition to highlighting character choices in a reading or even creatively writing new choices, the game-design project asked them to map out these choices and figure out why they would be interesting and fun for a game player. Game-design thus reinforced the learning objectives and also introduced students to further skills like project management, multimedia asset (images, audio, & video) sourcing, and some coding.

Student Choice in Canvas Modules: Notes from #PaintCanvasOU

Today, we are kicking off a new mini-conference called Paint Canvas. Prepare All Instruction, Now Teach (PAINT) is a half-day Canvas training that showcases the best of Canvas in the classroom to inform and inspire educators. PAINT is organized into 45 minute rotating stations that focus on various Canvas features including pedagogical approaches and technical examples. In this series of blog posts, I’ll share my notes on the talks I attend in each session.

In the third session, we had six presenters:

Topic Presenter Room
Student Choice Modules Jennifer Shaiman LL 118
Hypothes.is Collaborative Web Annotation Nick LoLordo LL 118
Student Engagement Math Assignments Jonathan Epstein LL 123
Life Design Small Groups Clay Wesley LL 123
Collaborative Mind Maps Andy Vaughn LL 123
Piazza Amy McGovern LL 123

I attended Dr. Jennifer Shaiman‘s talk on Student Choice Modules. Dr. Shaiman teaches in Expository Writing and has integrated games and gamification into her courses. In this course, she used Canvas modules to create student choice in a course.

By creating a large number of modules presenting students with different types of content and assignments, Dr. Shaiman allowed student to choose those topic sets that most interested them.

This is a really similar approach to what I’ve tried before in my history of science courses. I think that many humanities courses are trying to get students to grapple with themes, but without needing to dictate specific content. For my history of science courses, I want students to think about the relationship of science and religion, but it doesn’t matter to me whether they want to use examples from the history of biology, physics, astronomy, or the social sciences. If I can allow students to pick the particular historical episode that most fits with their own majors or their own interests, hopefully they will engage more with that theme that I care about.

In Dr. Shaiman’s case with expository writing, she wants students to understand the structure and rhetoric behind various kinds of arguments. The particular subjects that they are arguing don’t matter, creating room for student choice of topics. Even the question of what medium the student is writing in (old fashioned paper, blogs, tweets, etc.) can be flexible when the medium is not part of the message.

Using a Canvas Course as a Portal for PD #InstCon

This morning, I attended a presentation called ‘Pack Light for Performance’ by Nichole Lemmon and Bruce Douglas, both from Springfield Public Schools (SPS), MO.

The tl:dr summary of the talk offered by Nichole was ‘Needs vs Solutions.’ Rather than focusing on big, long range solutions, she emphasized focusing on the needs of the school district and instructors and finding light weight solutions that can be changed or updated whenever needed.

The presentation was targeted towards K-12 people, so some of the solutions developed in the SPS system aren’t applicable for my school, the University of Oklahoma. However, a couple of their ideas are universally applicable.

The first was their focus on student voice. In choosing an LMS, Springfield Public Schools sought student input. They had the students attend the LMS demos and provide feedback. The inability of many of the LMS providers to connect with their students and demonstrate the advantages of their systems ruled them out. Canvas’s sandbox platforms on the other hand allowed students to get into the system and evaluate it.

At OU, Mark Morvant led a ton of town halls and sought as much input as possible from students as we evaluated LMSs. Student sign-off was a big factor for us in deciding to make the move from D2L to Canvas.

The second idea that really struck a cord for me was the way that Springfield Schools uses Canvas to organize their PD. They have constructed a portal course with all of their PD courses nested inside of it. They also integrated videos within their own instructors to demonstrate various PD principles. Nichole noted that paperless PD is both effective and cost efficient in that simply moving away from reams of printed material for PD saves a good bit of money.

I really like the idea of using a single course as a portal for PD. One of the hurdles that I see in Canvas is a proliferation of courses that will make discovery difficult. The idea of a big course hub for PD may provide a single, course that lives in an instructors course portfolio from which we can push notifications about new initiatives and new PD. This might also allow for a sufficient user base of instructors and ID folks for an active, centralized discussion board.

A third idea that I need to look into more is the use of mobile hot spots. SPS uses Kajeet hot spots, both for instructors and for any student who doesn’t have internet access at home.

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