Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Leveling up: Best beginner tools for taking game design to the next level in the classroom?

This is not a guide. This is a conversation. Hopefully the comments on this post will be more useful than my ramblings. With that said, let me hit you with the premise.

The Premise

Game design is a great jumping off point for introducing STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) learning through the lens of systems-thinking and user-centered design while stopping short of providing any real foundation in coding, programming, or engineering, areas covered in the realm of game development. I would like to find a way to begin the transition from game design to game development in my classroom, in order to move from STEM theory (ideas and concepts) to STEM skills (concrete practice).
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  • Game Design is concerned with studying the concepts behind the basic elements of a game, and how the balance of fun and challenge in games creates flow. It is also concerned with the iteration feedback loop and how games are a complex system designed around creating a satisfying user experience.
  • Game development deals with concepts like sequences, loops, parallelism, events, conditionals, operators, and data storing... You know, computer programming.

Moving from one to the other, particularly at the introductory level (I teach 7th and 8th grade computer science) can be frustrating due to a decided lack of good tools at the right price for education (In today's climate the right price is "free").

Teachers, Let's fix this PowerPoint thing

“PowerPoint doesn’t kill meetings. People kill meetings. But using PowerPoint is like having a loaded AK-47 on the table: You can do very bad things with it.”
Peter Norvig, Google Director of Research
I'm going to take a break from talking about games and project-based learning and focus instead today on design. Specifically, I want to talk about a tool that is in most of our boxes these days: presentation software. You know, PowerPoint, Google Presentation, Impress, Keynote, Empressr, etc. We all use it to teach. Many of us use it as a tool for student projects. Most of us love it and hate it. In most circumstances, presentations are fun to make, awkward to give, and terrible to watch. What's going on?

Show & Tell

The main key here is Show & Tell. The presentation tool shows and you tell.

My Show & Tell notes on my new murse.
I often illustrate this point by having my students access prior knowledge of Show & Tell with a think-pair-share. Students are encouraged to re-live their favorite Show & Tell memories while boiling down the process.

After students seem to have a good grasp of Show & Tell, I summarize for them by demonstrating. I do a Show & Tell presentation. Instead of showing what I'm telling about, though, I hold up written notes (in bullet-list format, of course). Students can't hold it in. They get indignant about how that is not Show & Tell. Some yell, "Where is it? You're supposed to show it!" Sometimes I have a very small picture of the item I place on the side of one of my pages of notes. This really frustrates the students. "I can barely see that!" shouts one student. One student even yelled, "That's just Tell & Tell! You're not showing anything!" I thought that that was very perceptive... brilliantly so. Kids are so darn smart.

Bonus History Lesson

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Simply put, slide presentations are complex Show &Tell. The thing is, if you're trying to show something that you can't bring to your presentation, such as a building or a country or a massive chemical reaction, you need pictures. In the past, this was accomplished with everything from presentation boards to old-school slide projectors (pictured on the right). With the advent of personal computers, we (or, more specifically, developers like Dennis Austin and Thomas Rudkin) realized we could make software to replace the old slide deck, and we could present from our computers. Since text was still easier to add to computer-generated slides than pictures back in 1988, PowerPoint and similar applications morphed from Show & Tell to Tell & Tell, basically becoming an overpriced and over-powered whiteboard. Meanwhile, we humans still prefer Show & Tell to Tell & Tell, and as a result, we've all come to loathe PowerPoint presentations.

Some background

Typically, I don't talk about things as mundane as PowerPoint in my class. As I've mentioned in previous posts, my course focuses on projects and problem solving rather than specific apps or techniques, and I'm certainly not a fan of teaching the typing / office curriculum to secondary students. I have, however, had a lot of complaints. Colleagues often complain that when they assign students or groups of students to do a presentation project, the results are not what they had hoped for. I'm often told that "these students make bad PowerPoints." I typically reply that just about everyone makes bad PowerPoints. Either way, as the tech teacher, it is incumbent upon me to fix PowerPoint for all future generations. After having some students "make PowerPoint" presentations for me (they could actually use whatever slide software / app they were comfortable with), I quickly reached three conclusions:

  1. Many of us have created this problem ourselves.
  2. This is a design problem (that goes way beyond presentations).
  3. There are some very simple things we can all do in our classrooms to get better presentations out of our students (and ourselves).

Hey, Computer Teachers, stop wasting students' time! (Part 2)

In my previous post, I argued that mandatory computer courses, particularly on the secondary level (7th grade and beyond) should move beyond a myopic focus on keyboarding and Microsoft Office.  I did note that a curriculum steeped in keyboarding and productivity applications is quite appropriate and often essential at the 2nd through 5th or even 6th grade levels. By grade 7, though, if we're not moving students forward and addressing the actual standards for our grade level, rather than reiterating elementary school, we're doing our students a serious disservice. In that post, I promised a Part 2 that would share ways that you can "transform your computer classroom into a relevant, standards-compliant, juggernaut of 21st Century STE[A]M-tastic awesomeness." Talk about over-promising! Okay, I'll do my best. On to glory...

Beginning with the end in mind.

If you don't know where you're going, you'll never get there. This is why we have objectives and standards in education. In my classroom, I am to adhere to the ISTE NETS as my official standards.
ISTE's NETS for Students (NETS•S) are the standards for evaluating the skills and knowledge students need to learn effectively and live productively in an increasingly global and digital world. 
Simply being able to use technology is no longer enough. Today's students need to be able to use technology to analyze, learn, and explore. Digital-age skills are vital for preparing students to work, live, and contribute to the social and civic fabric of their communities. (NETS-S)
If you don't follow the national standards, you likely focus on your State's standards. Pennsylvania, where I reside and work, has Computer Information Technology Standards for grades 6-8 and 9-12 among its secondary computer standards. These standards focus on many of the same core STE[A]M-based concepts as the ISTE NETS. They look for students to be able to "interpret and apply appropriate social, legal, ethical, and safe behaviors of digital citizenship", "create advanced digital projects using sophisticated design and appropriate software/applications", evaluate online sources of information, and "create multimedia projects using student-created digital media."

In either case, there is a clear focus on Technology Fluency, Technology Skills (as opposed to rote technology knowledge), and ultimately Project [or problem] - Based Learning. Technology fluency is an idea I discussed in my last post, which is essentially a term I've stolen from Vicky Davis. Davis defines true technology fluency as "the ability to determine and use the appropriate technology tool(s) for the task at hand in a manner that allows seamless transfer of created objects and documents to flow easily between the selected tools without outside intervention." Basically, we want kids to learn to apply technology skills in the myriad, fluid ever-shifting ways they're going to have to in life. A class that builds those skills is going to revolve around project based learning by default.