First Class

Had the first class and it was exciting.  As soon as I used Lee Sheldon’s opening line “You all have an ‘F’ right now…” I had their attention.  🙂  Then, when I explained about gaining experience points and leveling up, my group of 10 boys (14-17) started getting excited.  It was the last period of the day, but for 60 minutes I had their full attention and everyone was engaged.

The major concern was how we’ll deal with the semester grade in December, since the class is structured as a full-year game. My initial thought was that we’d simply apply a scaled translation of points-to-grade-ladder based on the half-way point.  But after some thought, I’ll have to spend some time looking at how many points are possible by the grading deadline and build backward from there.  It may be easier next year to build this as two separate games, each semester on it’s own, or perhaps building story-on-story but have scoring separated…we’ll see.

For now, it’s been an exciting and invigorating start.

Scaling back

For the moment, since I have not spent enough time to really develop the theme of this game idea, I’ll be scaling back my efforts.  Although this feels like a cheat, I don’t want to implement a half-baked game and have it flop.  Instead, this semester will be a simplified game that will include what I consider the essential elements:

  • XP points and leveling up – helps reverse the usual thinking from “I hope I don’t screw up this ‘A’ I start with” to “I’m going to get an ‘A,’ just see how many points I’ve accumulated so far!”
  • Avatars, including both name and image – allows anonymity on the leader boards.
  • Leaderboards – add competition element for those who are more motivated by that
  • Guilds – add collaboration element for those who are more motivated by that
  • Choice – very few or no required activities for individuals; each assessment point has multiple options from which to choose.

I’m also planning to tell the students that I am going to turn this into a more thematic and structured game and solicit their input about that.  I’ll post here about what we come up with.

WASP – narrative first draft

Here is my first draft of the beginning narrative for the course game for Introduction to Programming:

Students receive a letter from the directorate of WASP, the Worldwide Association of Security Professionals. This is a secret organization originally formed to allow cryptology, security, and intelligence agencies in multiple countries to pool their knowledge and resources. Most government officials, employees, and even most in leadership positions are unaware of the association’s existence.

The directorate have evidence that all of their member agencies, including
the National Security Agency of the United States,
the Government Communications Headquarters of the United Kingdom,
the Communications Security Establishment of Canada,
the Defence Signals Directorate of Australia, and
the Government Communications Security Bureau of New Zealand
have been infiltrated and for security purposes are compromised. However, the directorate does not know why nor by whom. They are, of course, very concerned about finding the perpetrators and eradicating the infiltration.

The various national agencies have hired hackers who were previously criminals. Some of them returned to criminal activities after working. Some few regular employees have left the agencies to become hackers themselves. Occasionally, the agencies even re-hire some of those who turned or returned to criminal activities. So the lines between who is on whose team are blurry, at best.

The only people who have seen the evidence that WASP has been compromised are the Minister (currently the head of GCSB of NZ), Under-minister (head of CSE of CA), and their secretary. They have initiated a program, unknown to anyone else in WASP, to recruit a corps of previously unused agents in order to filter through the evidence and discover who is sending classified information outside the agencies, how, and to whom.

They decided that in order to ensure they have an uncorrupted corps, they’ll need to recruit from top international schools, but below the college level (evidence is strong that recruitment into hacker communities starts in force in college – good coders below that education level are not common). They’ll work with newly learning coding students.

Students who are interested in the mission must choose an avatar (name and image) by which to be known, to keep all private identities secret. They must sign up for anonymous (eg Gmail) accounts using their avatar identities. All future communication will be via these anonymous accounts and will, except in very rare circumstances, be encrypted. Please review some options and choose an encryption technique (do this as a class – we need just one system, if at all possible).

To begin with, your basic coding skills will be tested. Once you have shown that you have all the basics understood, you will be given access to the main mission logs and will be able to start working on coding missions to assist in the work of uncovering the criminals behind this plot…whatever it is.

– Matthew

A Hole in the Wall inspires

I just discovered the Hole In The Wall Experiment by Dr Sugata Mitra, who just won the TED award, $1M, to take it further. If it’s new to you, too, what he did was put an unsupervised but remotely monitored and well protected) computer in a kiosk in a Delhi slum and left it for children to discover and play with. The result showed clearly that they learned how to use a computer and the internet with no adult intervention at all. Subsequent placements in other cities & slums have had similar results.

From this, Dr Mitra formulated a “minimally invasive education” strategy: kids do quite well learning when we adults facilitate it and then get out of the way. Setting up the environment becomes the critical factor.

I can’t trace back where I found this today (it may have been David Wees); if it was your blog or tweet, thank you!

– Matthew

Taking game course About game course

While researching for the course–about teaching as a game (or gameification, which isn’t as extensive)–I ran across the GamesMOOC (MOOC = massively open online course), which is a course about teaching using a game structure, set up online and using many of the pedagogical methods they cover in the course, especially community.

Woohoo! I am excited to get started, but will have to wait until March 18th before the next round starts. The best part is that it’s free and semi-self-paced, so it will work into my budget and time excellently.

This will be the third round; it looks like each time they run it, they refine the program and the model to improve. I highly recommend a look if you’re interested in running a course game in your classroom.

– Matthew

The beginnings

A few weeks ago, I ran across a reference to the work Paul Andersen is doing in Montana in turning his class into a semester-long game. I started tossing ideas around in my head and ended up getting pretty excited about the idea.

Last week I sat down with my colleague in Idaho, Andy Johnson, who has been both a Humanities/English teacher and a curriculum coordinator (among other things) to explore the possibilities. Both of us got excited by the potential to create a very fun, deep and cooperative learning experience.

What we’re beginning to envision is a pair of otherwise unrelated classes coming together via opportunities for one set of students to create materials the other uses. At least one of the courses (mine) will be structured as a semester-long game along the lines Paul Andersen and Lee Sheldon have pioneered.

My course at Cairo American College will be Introduction to Programming. I’m starting to see it structured around a scenario involving a (fictional) U.S. agency that needs to recruit programmers outside its usual circles because hackers/crackers have infiltrated and the agency cannot determine who has and has not been compromised. The students will assume pseudonyms/avatars and act on the agency’s behalf in various assignments, restructured as missions, that will take them through the basics of programming in Java. Some of the missions will be centered around basic cryptography, which is where one tie-in to the Humanities classes comes into play.

As a result of cryptology assignments, the students in Cairo will create coding and code-breaking algorithms and programs that will work on ciphers used in WWII, which the Humanities students in Boise will be studying. They’ll send their programs to the Boise students to use in enciphering and deciphering messages for their assignments. Boise students will be asked to provide feedback to their Cairo peers on the usefulness, ease-of-use, and accuracy of the programs.

In reverse, Boise students will be studying various cultures and conflicts during their semester. As part of their assignment load, they will be creating “briefings” for their Cairo peers about these culture and conflicts, which will contain data peripheral to the actual coursework, but essential to the mission the Cairo students will be engaged in. We are planning to leave how the briefings are structured and presented to the Boise students, through we’ll offer suggestions if asked or if we see the students floundering. The Cairo students will be asked to provide feedback on the usefulness, thoroughness, comprehensibility and professionalism of the briefings, for the Boise students.

– Matthew

Location:Boise, Idaho

About Me

My love of learning, teaching, and technology took me on a quest through three continents, in and out of schools, and almost over two decades. Originally, I studied teaching at Boise State University in the early 1990s with the intention of becoming a high school science teacher. Student teaching confirmed that I definitely enjoyed teaching and also showed me that I’d have a hard time being a teacher because of the focus on processing students (vs. coaching them to learn). Instead, I went into jobs in technology and learned to use, support and network computers.

After obtaining our Masters degrees, my wife captured me with the idea of an adventure so we jumped continents to spend two years in Russia as Peace Corps volunteers. In St. Petersburg I taught English and American Culture and learned Russian and Russian Culture. I practiced training and building instructional materials. I met some outstanding trainer-teachers who really broadened my idea of what teaching could be with the idea of MindJazz.

After our return, I went into business with a couple friends.  We built a moderately successful small business supporting other small businesses with network, computer, security, helpdesk, and other technical services.  Eventually, it became clear that I needed to choose between being a good father, husband and person or being devoted to building the business with my partners.  My family won that battle easily and I’ve never regretted the decision.

That choice resulted in a turn back toward education.  I became involved with Riverstone International School, an unusual Boise area school that uses the International Baccalaureate curriculum (IB) and focuses on building students with an international, inquiry, and creative mindset.  This catapulted me into the international school sphere, a world in which I had no prior experience but which I was entirely happy to discover.  I immersed myself in this opportunity and learned as much as I could about international schools and the IB.  I also worked extensively with the school’s faculty in various educational technology efforts.

My experience at Riverstone lead to a short-lived opportunity to teach abroad in Zimbabwe.  Although that was truncated, my wife and I decided it was the kind of opportunity we wanted to pursue, so we attended the London job fair once it was clear that Zimbabwe wouldn’t issue us work visas.  We were hired for positions at Cairo American College in Egypt and have been quite pleased with the result.

All this travelling around resulted in quite a variety of experience and exposure to different educational systems, approaches, and ideas.  What I’ve collected and synthesized from this is a pedagogical view that is rather at odds with current practice in public schools in America–as predicted during my student teaching time–but is quite in line with current research and best-practice knowledge about teaching.

I believe:

  • People are born wanting to learn and equipped to engage in learning throughout their lives
  • The proper role of an educator is that of a coach who observes the student’s performance as a learner and helps them improve that performance through suggestions, encouragement, and guidance.  (notice particularly the complete absence of any reference to content in that statement)
  • Education occurs most readily and most effectively when it is
    • under the control of the learner,
    • based on mastery (or competence, or whichever buzz-word version of done-or-none is preferred today),
    • related to a much larger context (ie: bigger than student, class, or school – real world) and
    • within a context of relationships.
    • The quick version of this is RAMP: relationships, autonomy, mastery, purpose (with a nod to Dan Pink’s DRIVE).
  • Games are the most effective and efficient learning systems currently known to man, so let’s use them and learn from them.

These principles are currently what guide and frame my work as an educator.  I’d welcome your comments about any of this!