Friday, 5 December 2014

Surprises are Nice!

You know one of the things that makes teaching such an amazing job, and what most teachers will look forward to most (apart from holidays) are those moments where students surprise us. Those moments where students are completing the assigned activity at a much higher standard or engagement than you expect. Where they are able to show characteristics like leadership, or teamwork that they normally do not display, or even supporting other students in ways that they normally do not.

I was lucky enough to have one of these moments yesterday with a group of year 8 students. The majority of year 8 are not at school this week, either on a school camp, or choosing not to attend. There were about 10 of them here yesterday, and on Wednesday when I first had the year 8s for the week, I explained that I wanted this group to be the experts for the planned activity next week. So I gave them Wednesdays class to just play and then yesterday we stepped up the 'game' a bit.

I set up some command blocks to detect when any player died and when detected freeze all the students. I also put in a circle of border blocks to limit space and resources. I explained that this would then mean the server would be reset and everyones progress would be lost when the first player died. This meant that they were a team and they needed to work together to survive. Their first attempt was as you would expect, 'little' teams all worked on their own, building their own shelter for the first night. Surprisingly they all survived the first night, but a creeper did what creepers do and snuck up on one of the students and blew them to the afterlife….

Server reset to a new random map after a quick discussion about how effective teams operate. Attempt 2 had all the students in the one 'team' building the same house, it was ginormous, more like a house for 30 people. This time students worked much better, to the point where they were supporting one student who had run out of hunger by going out to get him some food. Again they survived the first night, but a skeleton in the water and students lack of hunger caused the server to reset again.

Attempt number 3 ended in the first night, a student got caught in a cave with a skeleton and died early in the first night. This time however the students made a much more modest house and again, their teamwork and planning was much improved. Food was sought and shared amongst the team, as was the gathering of wood and other resources. Unfortunately many students were relying on the knowledge of others in terms of building tools and other crafted items.

Attempt number 4 is where fantastic things started happening, after a quick discussion about what had happened, and how to prevent it, I restarted the server again to a new random world, and this time set the difficulty to hard, to make food a higher priority. Again the teamwork and planning was excellent, however it was during this run (which is going to continue today) that the sharing of knowledge began. One 'non-crafting' student called out to one of those that knew the recipes, "I need a pickaxe". A third student then said to the first, "You cannot rely on him all the time". Now this third student is probably where the title of this post, and the feelings associated with it come from. This student is normally one who will sit back and let others do the work for them, and yet here he was, in this team situation trying to get others to do their own work.

It was after this comment that this same student began asking others for the recipes to create things, instead of just taking those that were given to him. I think he had realised that being part of a team means that all members of the team need to support each other, and when this other student called out his need, he realised that perhaps only having one or two students with the knowledge of tool crafting was not the most efficient in this situation. This was a nice surprise, and gives me a great deal of hope for next week when I run this with a lot more students with the goal of encouraging teamwork and a less fractured, more cohesive class group.

So on that note, I have decided to just run with this activity, I know I felt that the decision was a worthwhile addition to the beginning of the lesson, but seeing what I have this week, I think it is far more beneficial to complete this activity, and the learning and teamwork that comes out of it will be far greater than a collaborative build with no consequences for a lack of team work. So now I need to work out the right balance of space restriction and life restriction for a whole class instead of a small group.

I am still leaning towards 5 lives for the class, and I think an initial space of a radius 100 blocks that doubles on the dawn of the 3rd day. Given this small group I am currently working with is unable to survive past the second day I think it is a good target and I wish I had more than just 90 minutes to run this program with the students as I think 90 minutes will only scratch the surface of the possible outcomes for this activity.

This brings to mind the video Shane and I produced a while ago, talking about the problem solving process while playing Crash Landings. The goal of that 'series' (we have 2 recorded iterations currently, but more planned) is to discuss the potential for teaching the design process and problem solving processes. Having done this activity I really think there is massive potential for that sort of teaching within this space, be it in modded Minecraft like Crash Landings, or vanilla Minecraft with specific restrictions.

Thanks for reading and as always, feel free to leave a comment below.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Time, My Biggest Enemy.

I am not writing this to complain, more to explain. I have all these great plans of things I could to in MinecraftEdu with my classes. What I lack is the time to implement them 'in' my classes. I can make the time outside of my classes to create the lessons, but I cannot 'make' the time in classes to use the lessons. I find this really disappointing and am struggling with a way to alleviate the issue, the constant battle between time and curriculum.

So if I have a look at what has not happened in this latter part of the year that I had planned to do. "Spore" in my senior Biology class to discuss evolution and the process by which that happens and also the Minecraft and money skills unit with my year 8 Maths class. Both projects I was extremely excited and motivated to run. However my Biology class ended 2 weeks ago, and they are now beginning to prepare for next year, starting the new course. Even if I was actually still teaching them I wouldn't be able to, in good conscience, run my planned Spore lesson anyway as the learning is about a different component of the course.

My year 8 class realistically finishes at the end of this week, and while we are covering the same content, there just was not the time available in the classes left to really delve into the learning in Minecraft, as the 'lead' time to learning is longer in Minecraft than via traditional means. The power of Minecraft comes from the long term engagement and once the 'lead' time is over the powerful learning that happens. Unfortunately I did not feel that it was in the best interests of the students understanding of the topic to begin a project that we had very little hope of finishing.

So what now? I feel like I have barely used MinecraftEdu (or much else interesting) in my classes this year. I do have one opportunity left to me that will allow me to use MinecraftEdu in a classroom. In a couple of weeks we do a transition program for years 7-9, in this program the students don't do 'formal' classes, but practice specific skills required to learn. In this program I have 90 minutes with each class of year 8, in Minecraft. So I plan on using this time to try and get students to be a more cohesive group, more likely to work together and support one another.

So I am going to give them a couple of options, option 1, creative mode with a plan to build something, be that something the school, a pirate ship, a truck… whatever. I am also considering with option 1 giving them the opportunity to work in smaller groups instead of one large group, however I would really like the whole class to become more cohesive so I would be leaning towards the small groups building parts of the whole class build instead of something completely different.

Option 2, survival mode, but with a team death count. So I will limit the total number of lives all the students have, and students that know the game will have to support those that do not and work as a team. So it will not be 1 life per student, but the class may have 10 lives, and once those lives are used up the game ends and if there is time, we can start fresh with the idea to survive, as a team, longer than previous.

Now I think option 2 is way more interesting, and probably more fun, so I am hoping the classes choose that option. I am considering just saying that is what we are doing, but choice is also very important, and voting and coming to a group consensus based on majority is probably something that is a worthwhile endeavour to set the scene at the beginning anyway.

OK, I have been sitting on this post for a couple of days wondering what else to write to close out this post, and I finally figured it out. Thanks for reading, if you have any comments or suggestions please feel free to leave them below. :D :D :D

Thursday, 6 November 2014

20 is not much different to 40.

Who would have figured that? Having 40 kids in a Minecraft world is not really too much different to having 20, at least in terms of my energy levels getting drained. I did however have quite a few helpers with me today.

So lets talk about today. I am doing some training at a school in Adelaide. Training a group of students to become world builders (and hopefully lesson designers) today and training staff in utilising MinecraftEdu in their classes tomorrow. This afternoon was an exemplar lesson with 37 year 8 maths students doing a probability experiment that I had half pre-built and the students helped to finish off this morning while talking about effective world design, lesson design as well as using the advanced build tools.

That was 90 minutes in an untested world that was completed about an hour before by the students and me. Also with untested tech, at least untested by me, and also with an untested group of students (again by me). So here I am in a lesson with double the number of students I normally have in a class, a group of about 8 student helpers/builders and maybe 6 or so other teachers. Looking at these numbers stack up, no wonder I walked away with the feeling that it was no different, I had way more support than I perhaps had realised at the time.

So now for the good, the bad, the ugly and the to improve for next time.

The good: The actual map, in principle and practice, would be a good map to use to discuss theoretical probability, experimental probability, sample size, fairness and designing probability experiments.

The bad: We did not cover near half of what I wanted to cover effectively today.

The ugly: This is going to sound bad, but I am not being critical, I work in a school as well and understand how the funding works. The schools equipment was just not up to scratch for running Minecraft. I have the exact same laptops at my school, they are 4-5 years old, the graphics card will allow the computer to launch Minecraft, but it definitely does not give a decent framerate, which makes the game almost unplayable.

To improve for next time: This is a hard one, the map itself would be fine with the right client connections. I cannot, unfortunately, fix the underfunded schools. My delivery could probably use some tweaking, but that is always the case, especially when you listen back to the recording of your own lesson.

So what next? Tomorrow I talk to a group of interested staff about how they could leverage Minecraft in their classes, and provide them with some thinking material for how they could use MinecraftEdu in their classes, ready for them to plan for implementation next year when the school goes BYO. The other part of the day will be spent with the school technician discussing how to deploy a MinecraftEdu install to BYO devices and ensure the school is still following their licensing requirements.

Then a tour. This school is amazing, like nothing I have ever seen before. It is an agricultural school, it has heavy ties to a TAFE college as well and the grounds are not only enormous, they have their own wetlands, farms, fruit orchards and who knows what else I will find on an official tour rather than a drive around the outside. I cannot think of a school that is similar anywhere in Victoria (not that I have travelled everywhere), but wow, I am blown away by the grounds.

Also the library space we were working in today is amazingly resourced. It is at least 4-5 times the size of my library at school, it is a light, open, inviting and vibrant place. At break times students are in there playing board games, card games, reading, playing computer games and soon to be enjoying a 'maker space'.

OK enough for now, I will try to take some pictures of the amazing things I see tomorrow and will probably write another post tomorrow (or soon after) reflecting on the teacher training side of this trip. Thanks for reading, if you would like to leave a comment, please do so below.

Monday, 13 October 2014

Blend Elfie, Blend!!

So, welcome to a new post. I was going to post regularly about my current project, I was even going to include you in all in the planning stages. Which means I have been procrastinating about the whole thing, including writing a blog post to update you. Which is interesting, but not interesting enough to write any more about.

So where am I with the project? I am thrashing around ideas at the moment mostly, but I came to a somewhat amazing realisation last night, hence the blog post today. So I have been trying to work out activities in game to help students understand the concepts I want to cover, and last night I asked myself a very important question. Why? Not why am I doing this project, not why do I want to use Minecraft to help my students, but why do I need an in-game activity to cover each concept?

Now this might seem silly, but I was genuinely scratching my head trying to figure out engaging, worthwhile activities that covered the concepts. However the realisation I came to is that I don't need an  in-game activity for each concept. I can have out of game activities for some concepts, and offer in-game rewards for these 'real world' tasks.

So my new plan.. BLEND!!! I want in-game options and out of game options for my students to explore, I want students to be able to choose their rewards, hopefully in-game ones, but I am considering real world rewards also.

So time to share what actual planning has been done thus far. Not much, but I have 3 key activity types I want to include, ECAAS (multiple choice quiz areas), estimation station and exploration activities. So the ECAAS is pretty straight forward and I might keep this for topic review quizzes and rewards associated with that kind of review.

The estimation station activities will be about building, or perhaps purchasing items (considering it is a unit about money) and delivering them somewhere. As far as the exploration activities go, I am not entirely sure how to get this tied in, but I do want some random bonus loot areas that students can find and get rewarded for being proficient in a particular topic. With my hope being that they will find the area, go and do some learning about it and then complete the area, which means I think I will have to make it a one attempt per student system. To prevent them just random guessing until they get it correct, or repeating the task and getting too many rewards from one area, and not covering more concepts.

So what sorts of rewards am I planning? Well I am throwing the idea around of having a reward room, where particular doors open for students who have completed certain activities. These rewards I think should vary from basic survival tools/food to diamond equipment to basic building supplies to 'hard to get' building blocks and maybe even some potions. It really depends on which direction the students take. Of course the rewards could just be in-game cash for students to purchase what they want, but that means that they are going to have to 'know' how to play.

So since I know that many students in this class do not play Minecraft (hopefully they will after this project) I am thinking I can 'lead' them through the beginnings of play by choosing appropriate rewards that will encourage them to explore the survival side of Minecraft and hopefully enjoy their time in-game more because of it.

Hopefully the updates here will become more regular, I will stop procrastinating, and will share more details about my planning and building process as the next few weeks unfold. Thanks, as always, for reading, and feel free to leave a comment below.

Monday, 4 August 2014

On Rewards, Progress and Challenge.

In my last post I mentioned a discussion I had with a non-gaming colleague. This discussion occurred while I was writing my last post, and after she had read the 4 previous posts to that. It was a very powerful discussion for me as to what makes games engaging for her, and what makes her keep returning to a game.

There were two very interesting points, the first being the comment "I know exactly how your wife feels." So we followed that path for a while and discussed why she was thinking about abandoning Dragon Story. The main reasons were the same as my wife's. She did not see that she was making progress, or that the progress was far too slow.

This led to a discussion around her needing to see that there are 'goals' or that she is making visible progress. However she then shared another story as to why she stopped playing a different game advertised in Dragon Story. She was making heaps of progress, up to level 60 or something after only a few days and she still deleted it. The reason was that she felt there was no challenge, it was too easy. So it seems there is an interesting interplay between feeling challenged and making progress. 

Her ending thoughts in this part of the discussion, after getting onto many of the other games she had discontinued playing was something along the lines of "There needs to be achievable challenge, it cannot be too easy, or impossible. I don't mind repeating something 8-10 times to 'get it' and I get a good sense of achievement when I do, however too much more repetition makes it feel like you are making no headway."

Now skip forward to Sunday evening. "I JUST GOT A DIAMOND DRAGON" rang out just before we went to bed. The real interesting part about this comment is the chat I had with my wife after it. I asked her how she felt, she said she felt pretty darn good. I then asked her if she felt this might get her back into playing the game a bit more, her response was that yes it probably would. So here is something she has been trying to achieve for a few weeks, to gain an elusive, ultra rare diamond dragon. I think one of the reasons she was becoming disengaged was because I have had a diamond dragon since very early on and we started playing together, and while I was very lucky to get one early on without even trying, she had been actually trying for quite some time.

This leads to the second interesting point from the discussion on Friday. "I don't mind some luck being involved, but it cannot be all luck, there needs to be some 'skill' involved." This is why my colleague plays Bubble Witch still, but has moved away from Candy Crush. She feels that Candy Crush is all about being lucky, especially in the 300+ levels, however Bubble Witch has some element of skill.

Now I am not sure about this, since I have also given up on Candy Crush, but I would think that there is some element of 'skill' in it, but it is so far hidden behind the 'luck of the draw' that it feels non-existent. I have not played Bubble Witch myself, but have seen others playing it, and agree that there is a much more visible element of 'skill' in the placement of your shots. This of course prompted me to ask about Angry Birds, knowing that she used to play it and did not anymore. This led back to the first point, the levels just got too hard to feel like she was getting anywhere.

When I shared the diamond dragon story with my colleague this morning, she also quite happily shared her story of 'elation' over achieving a goal over the weekend that she felt was impossible on Friday. So I know that this subject is taking up an awful lot of my blog space at the moment, but it is a very interesting perspective to take on games, gaming and gamers, one that I have never investigated before.

Now if we try to apply this to an educational perspective, not just about using MinecraftEdu in my class, or the project I initially started this investigation for, I think we get something which is probably not new or groundbreaking at all. To engage students in learning we need to have it challenging but achievable, with visible progress and some level of skill involved, it cannot be just pure chance that learning happens. So here you are, 5 or 6 posts into my discussion on an upcoming project and you are not sitting there going "Elfie, you idiot, as if you didn't already know this."

Well if that is indeed what you are thinking you would be right, of course I 'knew' this, but I have never been 'slapped in the face with it' until now. So where to from here? I still want to focus on including as much of this into the upcoming project in MinecraftEdu, with the aim of doing some real serious reflection on what components I am including, why they are there, and then hopefully what impact they have on student engagement and learning outcomes.

I am trying to think of MinecraftEdu as an instructional tool for this project, forget about the game, I never made it a 'game' in my classes early on, I always just used it as a tool to help me teach my students. This may mean a slight deviation back towards some teacher directed activities within the virtual world, I think I have been doing myself, and by consequence my students, a disservice by removing the teacher interactions.

So now you may be sitting there going, "Is it going to be fun for the students?" My response, FOR SURE!!! I am not going to ignore the information I have come across over the last few weeks about what makes games fun, for gamers and non-gamers, I still want this to be a really fun learning experience for students, I just think that if we are all having fun together it will be better for all, instead of me standing on the side trying to 'force' students to follow the path I have laid out for them. 

Well that is another pretty long post, thanks for reading and feel free to leave any comments or suggestions below.

Friday, 1 August 2014

A Non-Gamers Perspective.

So with all the making things engaging by investigating what makes gamers play going through my head lately, Last night I had the opportunity to have a relatively in-depth discussion with a non-gamer about a recent game they have been playing. My wife is the one that started playing Dragon Story a couple of months ago, so I started playing 'with' her. Last night we had a chat about why she had given the game up and was no longer interested in playing it, or at least why she was clearly not as interested as she was at the beginning.

Now my wife is definitely a non-gamer, she will say it is because most games require some form of hand eye coordination, but given our chat that may not be 100% true. Here is a brief summary of our chat.

What made you keep going back in the beginning?
The dragons were cute and I could collect dragons I didn't have easily.
I felt like I was getting somewhere.

What made you stop enjoying it?
The time taken for no reward, now that I have a fair few of the dragons, I wait hours for them to breed, and then hours for them to hatch, only to already have that dragon, and have to sell it for a ridiculously low value.
What is the 'end game' what am I aiming for, how does it end? I mean with Mario you get to the little flag and "insert attempted Mario flag raising music here".
The cost and time to do things that are not getting me anywhere, what is the point.

What would make you go back to playing it?
Being able to 'gift' the dragons I don't need to others, instead of having to sell them for next to nothing.

So I stewed on this a bit last night in my sleep (my best thinking happens while I sleep) and clearly she has a different 'need' from games than I do. She wants to feel a social connection, which is definitely missing in Dragon Story, I however am a collector, I want the dragons and don't really care that much about social interactions as long as I am getting new dragons.

But what really interests me the most about all of this is the initial 'hook' that made a non-gamer play. I am now also talking to other non-gamers that play these kinds of games, Candy Crush, Bubble Witch and Dragon Story to name a few. There are many of my colleagues, who will readily say that they are non-gamers, that play these games through Facebook. Are they chasing the social connection like my wife, or is that just the beginnings, and then like it did for me some point does it switch from the social, conversation starter (which is why I started Dragon Story, so I could talk to my wife about it) to the collector or achiever types playing and those wanting the social connection stop playing as they need something else to keep them coming back, which Dragon Story is missing, at least in the eyes of my wife.

So how does this apply to my upcoming project? Well it appears that there may be a 'grace' period where even those gamers (or non-gamers) who crave particular things from a game will play the game to see if it meets their needs. How long this grace period lasts I think would be dependent on how alluring the game is to the other needs that the person playing has, even if it is not their main gaming need. So given that this is a relatively short term project, I may not need to hit all the 'gamer' needs exactly from the start, but instead give a 'sniff' of them and allow students to find them on their own.

More discussions have been had since I started writing this post 3 or so hours ago, but I have written enough for now, and need to think about these conversations more before I write about them, so stay tuned for more, I feel like I am on the verge of a big shift in my teaching practice. As always thanks for reading and feel free to leave a comment below.

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Where Does it Fit?

The three topics I have remaining this year for my Year 8 Maths class are;

Linear and Non-Linear Graphs.
Geometric Reasoning.
Money and Financial Maths.

So where is this project going to fit? I think it would fit best in the Money and Financial Maths unit, and with my experience in the Pre-CAL Numeracy world I already have some pretty good ideas of how to design a project in Minecraft around things like this. I have, however, been doing a bit of reading on the gamer psyche, mostly from about the 4 types of gamers and their needs.

So how am I going to get an activity that suits the killers, as well as the explorers, achievers and socialisers? I could almost guarantee that I have at least one of each type in my class, just reading about the sorts of things they value I can clearly see where some students will be. I will still get them to sit the test and give me their results, but I am sure I will need to have all four catered for.

So I am beginning to think of activities.

Killers: Running a store, charging what you want for items that are rare. I think this would fit with the implying ones will unto others and making them 'suffer' that gives these students the desire to continue to play. I am also considering adding a PvP arena where students who want to fight to be the best in a tournament type thing can do so.

Explorers: Have the opportunity to purchase a plot of land to explore, maybe a time limit would work best. You can purchase a set amount of time 'outside' the designated area in which you can explore as much as you like.

Socialisers: Have a central 'town' area where interactions can occur. Maybe these students would like to build the central town together, including a hotel of sorts and perhaps other buildings for the community.

Achievers: I am thinking I need a list of achievements and their rewards from the start. Similar to what I tried with the Pre-CAL Numeracy project to fulfil the needs of the achievers.

So, the more I think about this, and where I want to head, and think back to the buy-in I got with that Pre-CAL Numeracy project, that it actually (accidentally) fulfilled a lot of the needs of gamers of varying types. So using that as a basis I think I can more formally address these needs and also develop a much clearer path forward.

I still need to think of the outcomes in the designated unit, and how I can ensure that all students can buy-in at their level and meet these outcomes in the time we have. My real disadvantage is that this unit will be run for 4 weeks or so at most, which means less than 20hours total in the game. So I am seriously considering opening up to the outside world just for my students, to allow them to access from outside school hours and see if they do in fact buy in and see how the project progresses.

I will not be setting up a pay system like I did for Pre-CAL, but I do need to figure out a way for students to gather resources and barter/trade with each other or with NPCs for either cash or other resources. I am not quite sure how to get the 'secret' information to assist in moving forward in the game into my plan just yet, that is what I am thrashing about at the moment.

Thanks for reading, feel free to leave a comment below if you have any suggestions or ideas I have not yet considered.