In late April I attended Northeastern University's Teaching with Technology mini-conference. The event was sponsored by Northeastern's Ed Tech Center, run by director Alicia Russell. Alicia has always been generous with her time and her staff to help inform the development of educational technology both in Boston and beyond and this conference was no exception. In addition to some great faculty overviews of technology usage and some great poster sessions by faculty and staff, the conference hi-light was the keynote by author and educator Katie Salen, renowned expert on games and learning.
Katie Salen is Director of Graduate Studies in the Design and Technology program at the Parsons School of Design. She is co-author along with Eric Zimmerman of Rules of Play (MIT Press, 2003), co-editor of The Game Design Reader (MIT Press, 2005), and editor of The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games, and Learning (MIT Press 2008). She is also a recipient of a McArthur Foundation digital media and learning initiative grant (an article on how the monies are being disbursed can be found here). She is Executive Director of the GameLab Institute of Play and is also co-editor of the forthcoming International Journal of Learning and Media (IJLM), an e-journal to be published quarterly starting Winter 2009 by MIT Press.
Salen started by suggesting that a better question than "What is school?" might be "Where is school?" The emerging learning spaces within current students' lives are very different from those of the past and they span local and global communities, online and offline spheres, etc. Traditional "school" is only one node in the network. Her focus is more about the navigation and connection between these spaces rather than design of any single space or node.
Games and Learning, Games and Teaching
She sees 4 primary drivers of change of which gaming is one:
- Sociability of learning
- How can we leverage social conditions that lead to learning?
- Networks of information
- How do students navigate across complex sets of information networks?
- Participatory/convergence culture
- Young people are within a culture that requires participation of a different kind: convergence of media, productive culture (kids produce things). She referenced Henry Jenkins' work on convergence.
- Digital, Non-digital, Pervasive, Mobile
Regarding games, Salen sees a new kind of literacy around data because of the ways games handle data. As an example of how games elevate students to new ways of dealing with data rich environments, she showed a sample of the complex visual scores that gamers share related to the Dance Dance Revolution game. She also referenced the data-rich visual interface that users navigate when playing games like World of Warcraft.
Salen believes that good teachers act like good designers. Good games and good teachers both do these things well:
- Create a need to know in students
- Pose scaffolded challenges
- Games do this very well -- move a player through a scaffolded space - anticipate what a user needs to know at any given time
- Create contexts rich with feedback
- Playing a game assumes being concerned with performance within that space, so young gamers naturally find ways to make their performance more clear to them and this is akin to fine-tuning assessment
- Create cyclical opportunities for revision and reflection
- Games allow you to make mistakes in a safe environment
- In gaming you produce something, get feedback, revise and make it better
- In gaming it is EXPECTED that early attempts will be bad. In education we need to stop looking for perfection and ask "How do we create opportunities for revision?"
Salen went onto describe how the Institute for Play, in collaboration with the New Visions for Public Schools organization, will be launching a new Game School for grades 6-12 in New York City that will focus on math and science (see Wired article on the school.)
The premise is that this new digital age requires new literacies above and beyond traditional literacies, and gaming -- both playing and designing -- could be an excellent vehicle to build and hone these literacies. Game designing requires lots of writing (narratives), math, etc. Kids are given complex problems, allowed to explore them, scaffolded along the way, and then given the space to theorize and create proposed solutions. They will work collaboratively and individually and use game-making as part of the process. Ultimately she hopes the school can both prepare kids for standardized tests (out of necessity) but also develop parallel alternative assessments.
The aim is to use gaming to bridge literacies:
- Systems thinking
- Understanding how systems work - this is huge for 21st century across any number of disciplines. Give kids the ability/toolsets to think in systemic ways.
- Designing play
- Lots of people talk about kids playing games - but designing games is even stronger
- Intelligent resourcing
- This is a kind of literacy - kids today don't need to know everything. All knowlledge does not need to be in their head. We need to equip them to FIND information where/when they need it (whether that channel be online, library, another human, etc). Allow them to figure out what they know, what they don't know, how to then fill in the gaps in what they don't know.
- Producing meaning
- Want them to be expressive and produce work that demonstrates their ideas
- This is coming back from Dewey -- give kids spaces that allow them to test, theorize -- scaffold it so they can move around and test ideas
- 21st century ways of housing knowledge:
- Sensibilities -- games don't organize knowledge within 'disciplines" -- players are required to synthesize around multiple disciplines
- Methods of thinking and doing
The conditions that they will try and create within the school environment include:
- Fostering a need to know
- Situate the problem
- Fostering a need to share
- Leverage and enable the sociability of learning. We can expand the knowledge base of kids if you give them opportunity to share what they know. Peer to peer sharing but also kids becoming teachers and helping others.
- Deliberately building occasions to share
- You need to build an infrastructure to enable this
- Recognizing the importance of cross-channel context
- Kids need the ability to disemminate and share across a variety of contexts
One of the primary game-designing tools that Salen is already using is Gamestar Mechanic, a massively multi-player online (MMO) environment where kids build and then share games. The effort is part of the MacArthur initiative grant and is a collaboration between GameLab and a set of learning scientists head by James Gee at Madison, Wisconsin (an overview of Wisconsin's work related to the MacArthur initiative can be found here). Salen was formerly the lead designer for the game.
The game is set in a narrative world and has a social network component as well. The storyline involves a virtual world where protagonists are trying to develop the perfect game, but the world has divided into multiple factions each with their own philosophy. As a player the kids have been recruited to be a game designer with the goal of re-unifying the world. They earn points by making, playing, and sharing games.
Kids don't have to be programmers to build their games using the game editor, but the system does involve manipulating variables and hence models the classic programming system. And discipline or topic-specific learning objectives can be achieved based on how the assignment is framed (for example, you could assign kids to "design a game about the environment").
Gee and the Madison group have been developing rubricks around systems-based thinking and are using those to analyze what kids are learning from the game. The product is in 'closed-beta' (invite-only) while the beta players are studied. The public release is slated for January 2009.
Next steps include combining goal-oriented games like Gamestar Mechanic with more wide-open drag-n-drop game design tools like Scratch and Squeak (like Gamestar Mechanic, these are developed using the SmallTalk language). She also recommended folks look at the GameMaker tool which requires a bit more programming knowledge but is used for developing games at the university level.
For more information, also see Peter Hess' writeup on this same keynote at the EduMatic blog.