Thursday, August 23, 2012

Entry 1: Addendum

So this is not my second formal entry. That will come later once I've actually, you know, done the reading. Instead, I just wanted to bring something up that's been percolating in my mind since class today. I'm just writing this down so that I don't forget. Read or ignore at your leisure.

Today while discussing how the students themselves respond to multimodal assignments, we touched on the idea that, even in groups that are highly tech-savvy and creative, many students tend to be resistant to any exercises that go outside of the usual constraints of the academic essay. The general consensus seemed to be (and please correct me if I'm projecting) that students tend to be nervous about these projects because, in addition to the usual stresses of college work, they have to learn about and wrestle with an unfamiliar form of media. The five paragraph essay doesn't work for them because it's their preferred method of communication, but they're comfortable with it because it's so familiar, and thus they don't need to expend any extra energy on the basic format of their assignment.

This reminded me of a larger idea that I've always had, both about education and about technology in general (hell, you might even be able to apply it to politics/psychology/ethics too!): people take the path of least resistance. This isn't to imply that they're lazy, or even that they actively choose a simpler or less effective path through their work. Regarding technology, though, with the exception of specialists and hobbyists, most people will choose to work with the device that works most intuitively, and with the least amount of energy expended. Like I said earlier, I think that's why the iPhone is creaming the Android: Most smartphone users have a very clear set of functions that they want their device to perform, and the less mental energy they need to exert to make the device perform those functions the better. Some people would fret about this, but I think it's actually a good thing: It gives us a measurable way of determining what will or will not work in the context of a class room. If technology can make a student's life easier, he or she will gladly embrace it and the extra time they suddenly have on their hands may even encourage them to be more creative.

I actually have an example from my own personal experience. Forgive me for geeking out a bit.
Have any of you ever played an educational video game (or "Edutainment" as the industry calls them)? By and large they're awful. I played (well, play) a lot of video games, and so when I was a kid my parents and teachers would try to use video games as a way to teach me and my peers. At my old elementary school, we had computers full of edutainment software, and for recess we'd be given the option to play those games for about a half hour. With three notable exceptions, all of those games were garbage. The "game" aspect of their development was paper thin, and the educational parts were prominently on display. Really, they were just math and grammar quizzes with flashing lights and bad sound effects. We never touched those games. It's not that we didn't want to learn, but dammit, that was our play time! We didn't want to study during play time!

The three exceptions I mentioned before were the games that all of the kids, myself included, chose to play: Number Muncher, Word Muncher, and Oregon Trail. The first two were a little bit like Pac Man. Your character, a little green monster, had to collect power ups while avoiding increasingly quick monsters. The gimmick was that each square that your monster was allowed to move into contained either a math problem or a word depending on which version you played. You could only move into squares that contained a correct equation or a properly spelled word - if you "ate" too many incorrect answers, you would lose a life. You could also move through previously cleared spaces freely to dodge monsters, so it wasn't a constant math or grammar problem, but also a matter of strategy: you could dodge all you wanted, but until you figured out that subtraction problem or verb conjugation, you couldn't advance in the game. I played both games constantly, though I eventually noticed that I got higher scores on Word Muncher, and so made that my game of choice. These two games did more than just help me practice my i-before-es and multiplication: they organically taught me how to think on my feet, multitask, do complex work while under pressure, and most importantly, they showed me that I had an aptitude for language. That high score gave me tangible proof of my success and my growth, and the positive emotions I gained from that motivated me to learn more about that area.

Oregon Trail, unlike the Muncher games, was even less obviously edutainment. It was a simple game whose objective was to get your family from Missouri to Oregon via covered wagon. You could choose three professions at the start of the game: A Banker, a Carpenter, or a Farmer, each of which started off with a different amount of money to buy supplies (the banker, obviously, had the most). The less money you started with, the more points you earned if you successfully got to the end of the game. The game went turn by turn, and it was all about resource management. You had to contend with a variety of obstacles (food supply, wagon repairs, robbery, sickness, etc.) but the only control you had was how fast your wagon went and how you managed your limited resources. This game, I think, was supposed to teach me geography. That didn't work. But what I did learn was resource management, long term planning and mathematics (and a little bit about income disparity). None of these lessons were overtly stated: they simply happened as a matter of necessity towards playing the game.

Of course, these games were designed for children and wouldn't have much place in a college class room (besides, they're hopelessly outdated), but I do think that their success demonstrates how technology can help students learn at any level. If I'd been forced to play those games, or if I had only been given access to the more boring overtly educational games, I would likely have resented the imposition of technology into my already (well, for a kid) busy schedule. My classmates and I would probably have clocked in the mandatory play time, invested a minimum of effort, and then gotten on with our lives without absorbing any lessons. However, because the presence of those games made our lives easier (if nothing else they were a good alternative to the dreaded dodge ball), we approached them with a credulous mind and were able to learn from them without even realizing that we were being taught. I'm still not sure how this translates to the course (if it does at all), but I just wanted to get these ideas recorded before they were swept away by the infodump.


  1. Hi Jacob,

    Your post reminds me of a painful childhood experience: piano practice. When I initially starting playing, I enjoyed the process and didn’t mind practicing for hours a day. After my parents made practicing mandatory, however, it became a complete drag.

    I think asking students to use technology (esp. technology they’re unfamiliar with or that requires a learning curve) is no different. They don’t mind using it for fun, but resist doing so when it becomes part of a teacher’s to-do list.

  2. Great followup (and wondering how you might further explore educational video games in this class...the evolution of them? where they're at today? something something....)