Nov 202009

I’ve recently been reading quite a bit about games in education. The ECT program at Steinhardt has an entire course on games, and I have to admit I’m not all that keen on them (simulations are, in my mind, a different but related genre, by the way). It’s not because I don’t think they have value; I absolutely do. And it’s not because I dislike playing them; while I would never colour myself with the Gaming Crayon, I definitely like to play, but rarely for extended periods. After an hour I tend to lose interest, and I’m not sure why. However, I will admit to having spent more than my fair share with the Nintendo Wii (which I specifically did not buy because I knew I would never study), and my all-time game definitely has to be Tetris. I’m also a big fan of the classic ’80s Atari games like E.T., Frogger, and PacMan. I like playing games more with other people than by myself, and I definitely see their social value. Many of the articles I’ve been reading for Frank’s class have lauded educational games because of their problem-solving features, their adept story-telling and story-weaving, their promotion of positive emotions, and many other features that help explain, on a cognitive psychological level, why games help foster learning. And I understand that games can be totally, wildly fun and involving and still teach. I get all of this, and for the most part, I agree with it.

If you had asked me a few weeks ago why I don’t think games will be big in schools, I probably wouldn’t have been able to tell you why. I simply haven’t been able to articulate the reason why I don’t think they will ever really be incorporated and integrated into schools.

Until now.

I read this article by Constance Steinkuehler at the University of Madison-Wisconsin and Dmitri Williams at the University of Illinois: “Where Everybody Knows Your (Screen) Name: Online Games as ‘Third Places’.” (BTW, you can see the article with my highlights and annotations via Diigo here, in case you are interested.) The article is about how online games, in a social-networking kind of way, provide “Third Places” for users to hang out, share, explore, and learn. I totally agree with this comparison. The article goes into depths comparing various games and users to the definition of Third Places as defined by Ray Oldenburg in The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community.

The epiphany happened for me when I read this quote (emphasis mine):

First and foremost, third places are defined as neutral grounds where individuals can enter and leave as they see fit without having to ask permission or receive an invitation (as one might in a private space) and without having to “play host” for anyone else. Compare, for example, weekday attendance at the workplace to happy hour attendance at the neighborhood tavern. The former is a second place, marked by financial obligation and rules that structure who is expected to be where and for how long; the latter is a third place, marked by relative freedom of movement. [. . . ] To oblige any one person to play requires that explicit agreements be entered into by parties (much like making arrangements for a recreational team sport), since the default assumption is that no one person is compelled to participate legally, financially, or otherwise. Unless one transforms the virtual world of the game into a workplace (e.g., by taking on gainful employment as a virtual currency “farmer” for example, Dibbell, 2006; Steinkuehler, 2006a) or enters into such agreement, no one person is obligated to log in.

Do As I Say by Viewmaker
Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs License

And then it hit me: I think this is why we will never see games take off in current schools. The game cannot be the Third Place because school is a Second Place. Students are required to be there, required to participate, and marked by rules that structure it.

So, it’s my current belief that until schools are reformed into neutral grounds marked by relative freedom of movement, we’re not likely to see games become something big within them.

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Nov 132009

How would learning look if we applied this principle to everything that had to be learned, anything that was “good for you,” but that wasn’t fun? Is it possible to apply “the fun theory” to all learning? Can we be creative enough designers to do this?

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Oct 202009

We’ve been asked to critique the Sesame Workshop’s Panwapa site, a “global awareness curriculum site” for 4- to 7-year-olds, according to Sesame’s press pageScreen shot 2009-10-20 at 1.42.55 PM

When you first arrive on the site, one of the characters instructs you to click the globe to explore, and so I did. This led me to a place where I could create my own Panwapa kid, apparently. I did not know what this meant, but I signed up anyway. I created my own Panwapa kid and my own house, too. Both were pretty-customizable. However, even a 7-year-old would have had difficulty with all the choices, and most certainly would need guidance from an adult while doing this. (It turns out this thought would reappear throughout my short Panwapa experience.) I also was struck with the thought of how many of the customizable items — food, crafts, and clothing, for example — were rather stereotypical. And I further wondered about the value of these stereotypes in an interactive game for pre-schoolers. Do we want all 4-year-olds to think that everyone in Asia eats only rice? Perhaps I’m over-simplifying, but it is worth considering.

After creating my own Panwapa kid, I was shown the map of all other Panwapa kids. I did a bit of exploring, but that got boring really quickly and so I decided to click the “Treasure Hunt” button. This invited me to a game where I had to find other Panwapa kids who liked certain things. There were three rounds:

  1. Find a Panwapa kid who likes traditional American dolls.
  2. Find a Panwapa kid who likes sharks and ice cream.
  3. Find a Panwapa kid who likes sharks, ice cream, and tennis.

For each level, I had to click through many (like, more than 10) kids to see if they were a “match.” I am not sure if there was an easier way to do it, but I did so by clicking on the “Activities” and “food” buttons, and then scrolling through the kids to see what they liked. It took some time, and wasn’t all that engaging, except that I was praised by the character every time I got something correct, which was kinda nice. And at the end of it all, I got a Panwapa card for my collection. It wasn’t clear to me, however, what I could do with that card later.

I also viewed the movie game, as per Frank’s request (clicking on the little bug’s film projector). This was so confusing to me. I did not realize until the end of the film that the goal of the film was to garner appreciation for learning another language, and going to school. I thought, as I was watching, that the film was more about the marginalization of the Maasai people in Tanzania. After all, Moses says, “We are not allowed to speak our language in school” and he talks about how learning this second language was hard, but it got easier. Yet, the little bug character at the end says something to the effect of, “Did you see that? Moses learned another language to teach his community!” as if this is the coolest thing since sliced bread. What I was thinking was that obviously Moses was sent to school as a fortunate one in his village — I doubt all kids in Tanzania are going to school, especially minorities like the Maasai. And he was probably sent because he is a male, and there was probably an expectation for him to teach his community because he is probably one of only a few in the village who get to go to school.

At the end of the film, the “game” begins: watch the film again and whenever you hear Moses speak Swahili, click on the Panwapa button. What??? I gave it a shot. Apparently he does this 4 times, but I only heard / saw 3. And I am an adult who speaks 4 languages! How on earth would a 4-year-old be able to get that? If the goal of this section was to teach appreciation for other languages, I definitely think it could have been done differently.  Further, I wonder if this “appreciation” lesson is age-appropriate for 4- to 7-year-olds.

It was not until after I played these games and clicked around did I find out what Sesame Workshop’s goals were for this site, and I have to say I was really surprised. Apparently Panwapa is meant to :

[help] children gain empathy for others while encouraging a broader international perspective.

You can read more detailed information about Panwapa’s educational framework here [pdf].

Frank asks, “Does it hit the mark?” My answer, as an educator: No.

It does, however, do a few things well. I identified the following problem-solving features in my brief (20 minute) exploration:

  • question posing (these were peppered throughout the treasure hunt)
  • identifying relationships (implicit in the treasure hunt)
  • gathering information (definitely actively used in the treasure hunt)
  • interpreting data (at the end of the film there is a graph provided about where other Panwapa kids go to school)
  • scanning for clues (in the film game)
  • ability to explore (this is huge, especially on the home page — and it should be, as almost all learning for this age group should be exploratory, in my opinion)
  • identification of pattern and sequence (in the film game)
  • choices – multiple answers (in the question at the end of the film game)

Other things it does well: in terms of affordances of the interactive technology — this is quite good. It was almost always clear as to what the interactive features do. E.g. if I click on the globe I will go to a map; if I hover my mouse over a character, he will speak; etc. In this sense, I did not find it difficult to navigate. However, I am not sure I could say the same for a 4- to 7-year old. In particular, I wonder about the home page, as there is so much to look at and click on. I wonder if it is too much for a wee person of that age; it could be overwhelming and end up being disjunct with no lessons learned at all.

I guess I’m not saying that Panwapa is a total failure, but no, it does not hit the mark.

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