Thursday, August 6, 2009

Madison - Pre-conference workshop

The first day pre-conference featured two workshops, one of which I left early as we hadn't moved past introductions after an hour. It's never a good sign when you are almost half-way through your presentation and you are still saying "In this presentation, we're going to...".

The other workshop, however, was very interesting for me. Entitled "GameQuest: Designing and managing educational game projects", it was held by Les Howles, David Gagnon and Cid Freitag from UW-Madison. The three serve as eLearning and Infotech consultants for the university, and described their work as working with professors to take content from their courses and to create games and simulations to enhance learning.

While it is at the university level, it is interesting to see the process in motion. They showed a game on material engineering, where the user needed to construct a structure that cryogenically secured liquid hydrogen. Choosing different compounds to build the structure's containers, struts, etc., the user got to experiment and see the result. They also showed a simple simulation of dropping a ball down a pyramid of pegs to understand the concept of probability (and what happened to that probability if you tinkered with certain variables).

First thought I had was how this can expand our thinking of educational gaming. They mentioned the following distinctions:
  • Simulations = artificial scenario set up to test or demonstrate natural or artificial phenomenon.
  • Game = activity that is rule-based and has an easily-identifiable goal to motivate the user.
  • Simulation-game, or "serious game" = one that combines the features of both, becoming a bigger project with more potential uses.
Second, they gave an excellent overview (by no coincidence through a simulation-game that the audience took part in) of the project management of simulation-gam development. This overview mimicked what their process is, everything from RFP's from college professors for possible products (and the accompanying selection criteria they use to select one), to how to assemble a team and handle the most pressing issues, which were more group dynamics than troubles with technological bugs or pedagogical uses. They showed the delicate balance in weighing those group dynamics with building quality, and yet, meeting deadlines.

They mentioned a 6- month timeline with a group consisting of 1 instructional designer, 1 graphic designer, 1 programmer, a teacher assistant, and the content expert (the professor who provided the RFP). And they came away with a dynamic educational game that met the professor's objectives.

We should do this in Iowa. Putting together a project team of people working part-time on the project, we could output 2 quality simulation-games per year that would fully align with the Iowa Core and could be used for free by all of Iowa's teachers.

Think about it. A simulation-game where students are colonial explorers setting up in the Massachusetts Bay Colony and trying to survive. A simulation-game where students create a species and experiment with different structural features to evolve and thrive. A simulation-game where students analyze real MRI data from other individuals and make diagnoses, and then compare their conclusions with conclusions drawn by doctors from the same data. A simulation-game that shows the effects of greenhouse gas, as well as the adjusting of carbon emissions by different policial or business-related proposals.

The constraint to this, I believe, is ultimately not money. If we are ahead of the curve, a well-built gaming project could save districts from purchasing other software, and these projects become costly only if you lose the focus on the educational objective and get too engrossed in the immersive nature of the game. As the person sitting next to me (himself an educational gaming designer) mentioned, once the game reaches the point of complexity where it is more of a movie than a game, the learner becomes passive. Cheaper 2-dimensional graphics and cutting out audio synchronization and graphical effects puts more focus on the user's interaction in the game itself.

On the contrary, I feel the constraint is vision. It is understanding, and then communicating to others, the importance of this type of learning, which is considered "playing" by many disapproving teachers. If a vision is established by Iowa's leaders, this can be done, it can be done immediately, and it can be done well.

BTW - hashtag for the conference on Twitter is #DistEd09.

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