RIP: Apps and initiatives that are no longer with us.

Okay, I'm going to need you to bear with me while I rant a little bit, whine some, and cry out for help and advice.

Engaging Middle School students is hard, even in the computer lab. Most of the garbage out there that is marketed to teachers, particularly in the technology department, is not only teaching antiquated skills, but is also incredibly "edukitschy". Every once in awhile you find a gleaming diamond in the rough that is awesome and free. This rarely happens for teachers, and when it does, it becomes all the more heart-breaking when it suddenly goes away. Sometimes we only get to greet these things at a distance, and due to our circumstances never get to enter the promised land before the world has moved on. 


Project Spark

Project Spark was a game creation / simple programming environment for Microsoft Windows 8.1, 10 and Xbox One, which was the very beautiful child of it's homely parent, Kodu. Kodu is a visual programming tool which builds on ideas begun with Logo in the 1960s and other current projects such as AgentSheets, Squeak and Alice. It is designed to be accessible by anyone. Don't get me wrong, Kodu is / was an awesome tool, but Kodu looks like education. It's like the kid-friendly, rounded-edges, Fisher Price version of game design. Middle School students hate it.

Spark looked awesome, like a real game! It used the exact same building and programming principles as Kodu, but the games you ended up with actually looked and felt like a game you would actually buy in the store.

I honestly believe that Spark never took off in education because it required Windows 8 or Xbox One. It will run on Windows 10, but by the time IT departments FINALLY moved from Windows 7 (due to Microsoft finally winding down institutional support), Microsoft Studios was ending the initiative. In essence, by ignoring the current platform in most schools, Project Spark totally missed its primary audience. I for one begged for an OS upgrade when it came out, bought an Xbox One for my classroom so that some kids could use it, and waited... and waited... and waited. We moved from Windows 7 to Windows 10 at the beginning of this school year (2017-2018), and I totally missed the Spark boat. Microsoft doesn't even have it available as a download (like they do Kodu), so you can't get it from any reputable source. The sad part is that Microsoft hasn't released anything new in this department, and there's nothing to fill this void. That is unless you count Minecraft Edu. The problem there is that I would imagine that most IT departments, like my own, are afraid of it because it's "Minecraft". It also cost $5.00 a seat to try. Spark was free to install with upgrades available. I hope to get a copy installed to see how this differs from vanilla Minecraft. Does it even scratch the same itch? It may be more of a replacement for the next app I'll be eulogizing. It's certainly not able to provide the range of game styles Spark was.

So, Team Dakota, are you working on anything cool for us?  Fellow CSK8 peeps, is there anything out there to replace Project Spark? So far the only thing capable of making games that look that good that I can find is Unity, and my 8th graders are struggling with Unity. I would love to hear your ideas and suggestions below or shoot me a message on Twitter.

Teach with Portals

This was simply the dream of any Middle School teacher of game design (and probably many high school physics teachers). I loved this and used it for many years. This allowed students to study a truly great game (Portal 2), gave them the opportunity to build in a 3d environment without needing a certification in Unity or Unreal Engine, and it made building games that weren't about killing cool and engaging. This sucked in even students who were difficult to reach and engage and was a staple of the game design curriculum in my class.

For whatever reason, Valve decided to end this initiative, and even though we had downloaded the game, and installed it locally to each workstation, it stopped working near the end of last school year. In this era of DRM and apps like iTunes and Steam, a company can just end a project and the content you have already stops working.

Again, I have nothing to fill this gap. This may be a good spot for the Minecraft solution that I discussed above. Does anyone out there have any hidden gems like this that you can recommend? Is anyone talking about continuing this initiative anywhere? How is Minecraft Edu? Comment below or Tweet at me.

Game Kit

Game Kit was an awesome resource from Institute of Play that I often shared with colleagues and folks who attended my workshops over the years as well as students who were designing their own board games. There's really no substitute for this resource, and I wish I had archived all of the challenges to PDF files to use with my students. It had great activities to get teachers and students thinking about the elements of games and game design to make activities more fun. It also had awesome challenges you could use with colleagues or students, such as remixing a board game by modding the rules.

Does anyone have any leads on whether or not Institute of Play has rolled these challenges into their web site or another resource? Did anyone archive the challenge packs? Comment below or hit me up on Twitter.


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