Older Gamers (Level 50+) & Summer Gaming MOOC

I have signed up for this summer’s Games Based Learning MOOC which is examining the use of ‘gamification’ in educational settings. I have been thinking about running a class that looks at online gaming for ‘older gamers’ as well as the many wild and wonderful claims that are being made about the benefits of ‘brain fitness games’.

To launch this post here is a short definition of Gamification as supplied by Wikipedia:

“Gamification is the use of game thinking and game mechanics in a non-game context in order to engage users and solve problems. Gamification is used in applications and processes to improve user engagement, return on Investment, data quality, timeliness, and learning. The word was coined by Nick Pelling.”

Gamification.Wikipedia

Background
I taught Second Life for several years to small groups of 6 people at a time. these classes ran in sessions of 2 hours a week for 8 weeks. Student’s ages ranged from 50 to 90+ and the average age was around 72.

The classes were enormous fun to teach and sometimes quite challenging. I touched upon what I perceived were the positive implications of playing Second Life for brain health back in a 2010 blog post titled: Second Life – Why Would You Go There? #8 – To be a dancing banana. The classes were arranged with everyone sitting at a PC in the computer lab snd my instructor PC screen was projected in front of the class. This often caused an initial ‘perception-in-a-swirl’ moment for people, a visual shock that required conscious deconstruction and (if all went well!) perhaps even a speeded up ‘learning moment’. This was because many in the class were more used to TVs and their single viewing vantage point on screen. In class students saw each others monitors revealing various angles of the same scene generated by each avatar’s own camera view.

Two avatars sitting on the roof top drinking herb tea
Two avatars (students of Second Life) sitting on the roof tops drinking herb tea

So the students sat side by side in a room full of monitors which in turn simultaneously portrayed each student as represented by their avatars in a parallel virtual world. They collaborated with each other and shared many funny moments together. Students had to accept that everything was somewhat unpredictable and out of control. Technical glitches and quirks would cause us to suddenly have to adapt our declared plans for the day and see us switching destinations and activities in-world at the last minute. Despite the technological balancing act students appeared to enjoy and feel safe exploring the virtual world together. They helped each other to problem solve and remember repetitive actions (important for older gamers) while I assisted anyone who was more challenged by the activities in hand. Beyond providing basic technical training and assistance; I saw myself as their guide in a foreign land, helping them avoid the tasteless and rather daft and dubious ‘adult’ areas whilst seeking out educational, beautiful and fun locations.

It was a ‘happening!’
Over time I began to see the class had more in common with a ‘happening‘ than anything more traditionally educational. Students tended not to go ‘in-world’ from home. I did set up two times a week when I was available to meet them online but only a small number of students ever found their way into Second Life by themselves. The majority clearly enjoyed the classes with the group and guide and did not see themselves going off and exploring alone.

Those few who managed the computer set-up, online connection, application download and virtual world login did become independent virtual world citizens in their own right. Unfortunately, Linden Labs proceeded to make a number of peculiar business decisions that ultimately deterred most of these adventurers from using Second Life. In particular the SL viewer went through a wide range of updates and changes (ironically aimed at making the application more user friendly…) that meant people had to keep relearning the dashboard and menus. Perhaps if Second Life had kept support up for the older standard viewer with upgrade and downgrade options they would have sustained interest? Google allows this upgrade/downgrade option for its products and keeps this option for some time before fully switching to its new (thoroughly tested) dashboards. An approach like this would have dramatically helped my students (and no doubt other Second Life users?)

Golden Oriole freebie TV created by Oriolus Oliva
Watching TV in the virtual world. Golden Oriole freebie TV created by Oriolus Oliva

What next?
Eventually, Linden Labs cut their subsidy for educational institutions and educators packed up their inventories to migrate to new smaller worlds. There are now so many virtual worlds available in the educational virtual world universe that it is comparable to making a choice on what to watch and where to go on American cable TV. This seems to be an exciting, yet somewhat unstable period for virtual worlds and education. Technological stability is a necessity for educational settings and often the best applications require powerful up-to-date computers. As I look at options for the those who have leveled 50+ years in the area of fun, educational and challenging games it is important to stay in touch with the fact that many are using computers that are more than 3 years old.

Working on Kunst Himmel's iMak 3.0 computer
Working on Kunst Himmel’s iMak 3.0 computer getting ready to launch WOW

This is just a quick summary of my experience of working with Second Life and older gamers, this is my stepping off point into new learning. This brings me to one of the aspects that intrigued me about this summer’s Game Based Learning MOOC and that is that it appears to be particularly geared towards World of Warcraft (WoW). This seems to be a highly structured virtual gaming world. However, I cannot judge this virtual world / game without finding out more about it first. Inevitably exploration in WoW will cause comparisons to be made with Second Life and before seriously contemplating introducing this game to a class of older learners/gamers I need to play it myself. So wish me luck!

Fear of the ‘Stopping Point’

Head in water by Rose Borchovski
Head in water by Rose Borchovski

There is an awful lot to know. According to my old copy of the Shorter Oxford Dictionary the word ‘know’ made its first appearance in the English language in 1592: “The act of knowing; knowledge”. The very earliest reference to ‘knowledge’ in the Shorter Oxford Dictionary dates back to 1477 when it was used to describe “The fact or condition of being instructed; information acquired by study; learning.” I wonder, when ‘know’ initially appeared was it viewed as a bit of slang used by trendy young Elizabethans?

Fear of Sleeping by Rose Borchovski
Fear of Sleeping by Rose Borchovski

My father inherited a small library and his study was lined with books organized in tall dark bookcases that scraped the ceiling with their pointed gothic trim. Most of these books caused me to feel quite faint with the stunning dullness of their long winded (picture-less) yet at one time (at least) solidly knowledgeable texts. Hidden amongst these musty books there were some gems; one was Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary which contained words that have long since fallen out of use. Interesting to consider that the eventual standardization of the English language actually caused words to vanish. The classifications of Johnson’s Dictionary trumped earlier dictionaries and 173 years later the Oxford English Dictionary trumped Johnson’s. It is a funny thought that we lost words as we tried to organize and standardize their spelling and meaning.

These dictionary knowledge-games sprang to mind recently when I heard a NY Tech Council talk given by David Weinberger author of the book Too Big to Know: Rethinking Knowledge Now That the Facts Aren’t the Facts, Experts Are Everywhere, and the Smartest Person in the Room Is the RoomWeinberger observes that we have conjured up some successful strategies for managing the infinitely unknown amount of things we may one day need to know. We have developed these strategies because, as he says, the world is way bigger than our skulls and our skulls simply don’t scale; in truth, as we learn more and more, we do indeed find our skulls don’t get bigger. (In fact, they have got smaller when compared to Cro Magnon‘s skull.)

As Weinberger says, we manage the infinite amount of things that there are ‘to know’ by breaking off brain sized chunks of the world, we get to know this chunk, master it, and in due course become expert. If we need to find answers to certain questions (beyond our ken) we can go off and find someone who knows the answers (because of their particular chunk of expertise) and see if they can resolve our questions.

The Smaller Spectacles by Rose Borchovski
The Smaller Spectacles by Rose Borchovski

Now (suggests Weinberger) this is a very effective system, it gives us a mechanism where ‘experts’ know what we don’t know so we can stop asking the questions! This is what Weinberger calls a ‘stopping point’. He also suggests that this idea of containing knowledge is not natural; knowledge finds itself stored in libraries, folded within dictionaries and other learned tomes where it might end up laced through 8pt font footnotes. The result is that knowledge is rationed out, compartmentalized, freeze dried and re-packaged. Knowledge is manipulated through good intentions and attempts are made, by generally well meaning people, to carefully control it. (I am not including overt manifestations of political censorship here just actions done with the kindest of intentions.) The result is that experts, libraries, dictionaries, books and footnotes turn into stopping points for ideas and imagination. Education itself, the honorable dispensary of knowledge is a stopping point. Schools and universities and libraries are stopping points, good ideas themselves can be stopping points! All quite alarming when you stop to think about it…

Rather Puzzled by Rose Borchovski
Rather Puzzled by Rose Borchovski

Knowledge found at a stopping point is:

  • Settled
  • Scarce
  • Orderly
  • Clean
  • Perfect in its organization.

On those occasions when we avoid, or fail to contain knowledge i.e. when knowledge has not been forced into a stopping point it is characteristically :

  • Unbounded
  • Overwhelming
  • Unsettled
  • Messy to its core
  • Disorganized
Why by Rose Borchovski

Weinberger observes that knowledge ‘unbounded’ shares the same characteristics as the Internet and (perhaps more profoundly) also shares the same characteristics of what it means to be human. He rounds out his talk by identifying some new methods of knowledge management and education via our messy Internet. He gives an example of how education in the future might avoid stopping points when he describes how software developers act as if education is a public act. I think he is referring to the open source community where software developers ask their questions in online forums, and help each other out by posting code for all to use. Through this process they communicate the very act of learning across their networks and reap rich results by developing rapid learning environments tailor made to meet their needs.

Perhaps online educational experiments such as CCK MOOCs demonstrate another avenue for the open sourcing of knowledge? I am also wondering whether online dictionaries of slang might allow knowledge (and the words we use to describe it) to expand into infinity and beyond?

Eyeball and butterfly net by Rose Borchovski
Eyeball and butterfly net by Rose Borchovski

Images of the work of virtual world artist Rose Borchovski taken in Second Life at her exhibition The Susa Bubble Story located at http://maps.secondlife.com/secondlife/Cariacou/97/113/22

Article about Rose Borchovski (aka) Saskia Boddeke.

Son of a MOOC! (Or, what happens when you swallow the red pill.)

I located the MOOC Guide with an introduction written by Stephen Downes today. It is a very helpful potted history of MOOCs.

Screen shot of MOOC 2011 introduction
Screen shot of MOOC 2011 introduction
Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig's AI Course run from Stanford University
Section 13 of the MOOC Guide introduces the successful AI-Class run by Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig at Stanford University.

Below you can see a video of Sebastian Thrun describing his experience of co-teaching the AI class with Peter Norvig, over 100,000 people pre-registered for the course. Sebastian Thrun has received a lot of press for resigning his position at Stanford University following this spectacularly powerful teaching experience. He has turned away from the traditional teaching methods of academia so that he can concentrate on his new educational venture at Udacity.com where he states:

“We believe university-level education can be both high quality and low-cost. Using the economics of the Internet, we’ve connected some of the greatest teachers to hundreds of thousands of students all over the world.”

The talk in the YouTube video is about 24 minutes long but it is well worth listening to (especially if you are an educator). The talk gives a quick glimpse of the future of education and it makes you realize that education is going the way of the music and newspaper industries (to name just two fields irrevocably altered by the web). Here is a quote (somewhat paraphrased) from near the end of the talk by Sebastian:

“I feel like there is a red pill and a blue pill and you can take the blue pill and go back to your classroom of 20 students. But I have taken the red pill and I have seen Wonderland where we can change the world with education, if we can make education free for the world, accessible everywhere, we can help the developing world to become much better, much stronger… Along with using the digital medium I really want to stop empowering the professors, I want to empower the students.”