Pebble in the Pond: Thoughts on PBL and causing ripples

One of the things we strive for in our MPX work are the effects it has on our larger educational landscape – both on campus and off. Somewhere in the last couple of years we adopted the language “pebble in the pond” to both encourage us to think both small and large about our work and the effect it has as it spreads out through the people we touch, the students we work with, and the artifacts that we share. For example, at the Schools of the Future conference (, our MPX led a session Titled “The Devil is in the Details” which was designed for teachers to both learn about and to start applying some of the simple but powerful ideas we use to bring our project-based work to a higher level. Specifically, in the workshop, we had teachers both look at examples of, and then try and develop a means to increase their active exploration in their work, as well as making it more authentic – both in terms of the work they do, and how they share this with their larger community. This terminology comes from the work from 20 years ago by Steinberg on the 6 A’s of project-based learning ( – one of the many excellent frameworks we use to help us strengthen our work. Our session had a standing room only crowd of at least 80 teachers and the feedback was really powerful. It is clear teachers appreciate and desire more contact, conversation and understanding about how to move towards this deeper learning work. (See more about Deeper Learning here

The teachers at our "Devil is in the Details" Schools of the Future presentation.

The teachers at our “Devil is in the Details” Schools of the Future presentation.

What is interesting about the phrase “pebble in the pond” is that it didn’t initiate with our PBL work, but instead came from my doctoral work in educational technology, community building, and instructional design. One of the privileges I had over the time I was working towards my dissertation was to take a class with and get to know Dr. David Merrill, Professor Emeritus
Utah State University. His “First Principles of Instruction” is a thoughtful, deep, powerhouse work that goes very intricately into best practice instructional design principles for learning. One of the articles we read when we worked with him was “A Pebble in the Pond Model for Instructional Design” (

In that model, the critical components include making sure the learners know and understand the whole problem before launching into their learning, that components skills and knowledge need to be broken into a series of scenarios or events that help the deepen their understanding of the parts that will move them towards the whole problem. He also talks about phases of instruction that are very similar to the mantra “tell, show, do” which is the basis of most kinds of powerful learning, but the “do” often gets left out in traditional education.

Centered around the problem, what are the elements of effective instruction. Note that the PROBLEM is in the center!

Centered around the problem, what are the elements of effective instruction. Note that the PROBLEM is in the center!

Dr David Merrill's "Pebble in the Pond" Instructional Design model

Dr David Merrill’s “Pebble in the Pond” Instructional Design model

If one looks carefully at the pebble in the pond graphic from his paper that I’ve attached here, you can even see a considerable similarity to the design process that is become such an important conversation in education today (see IDEO
So where does this take us?

A few thoughts:
– Good design is good design. It isn’t enough to teach component skills. If we want learners to be able to utilize what we are teaching them, we need to put problems in their context, have them understand the whole, and build up the component skills they need in order to successfully utilize that information.
– This kind of pebble in the pond design work is highly compatible with deeper learning practices like PBL.
– As we design our work in our MPX program we should stay mindful of these core ideas since it is highly compatible with and a core set of ideas that we can all agree on

Good Design, Good Projects

Good Design, Good Projects

I spent some time this weekend re-reading Dr David’s Merrill article “Pebble-in-the-Pond Model for Instructional Design” ( I count myself lucky to have been able to take a class from Dr. Merrill and consider him one of the great minds in instructional design. In the day-to-day lives of teachers, there is rarely the opportunity to do a complete instructional design process that is advocated by instructional designers, but the ideas he lays out in this wonderful summary are the same basic structures that we use when designing good projects.

One of my favorite parts of the article is the diagram that he uses to lay out the foundations of good whole problem design:

Phases of Effective Instruction

Phases of Effective Instruction

Dr. Merrill advocates for designers to first start with the whole problem – to both engage and immerse the learners in the “why we need to know”. In much the same way, when we design good projects, we need to back up and ask what’s the essential/driving question that will direct our focus, direct our learning explorations, and give us a reason for wanting to do this work. The next step is to “identify a progression of such problems of increasing difficulty or complexity such that if learners are able to do all of the whole tasks thus identified, they would have mastered the knowledge and skill to be taught.” In other words, we need to identify the scaffolded activities that will allow the learner to build the requisite knowledge and skills to understand how to solve the whole problem. Once we know that, we can provide activities and feedback to learners so they correctly learn and apply the skills and content knowledge they need in order to work towards the whole problem.

In our work in Mid-Pacific eXploratory (MPX) and the ways that we work with other teachers through Kupu Hou Academy ( our work mirrors much of that found in this good instructional design methodology and there is much to be continually learned in order to apply the best design of deeper learning practices around these essential “first principles of instruction”.

One of the things that this can lead to is moving away from teaching knowledge and skills as discrete items that we might use, and instead become necessary components that one must know in order to work on the whole problem. This year in our 10th grade class, we’ve been talking about ways that we can make a difference in the prevailing issue for this generation – climate change. In the areas of transportation and energy, there are things that we can do to have an impact. We started the year with visits to sustainable buildings and Hawaiian Electric, and are breaking down this big task into components that we need to understand in order to be knowledgeable and capable enough to propose possible solutions. That means understanding motion,energy and electricity, as well as understanding the mathematics of modeling and analysis. Those are the component skills that we are developing in order to propose and create solutions to help make a difference in the big issue of our generation. By anchoring our activities in the “need to know” we create a more powerful learning experience that will stay with learners far beyond the life of this course.

Building Knowledge and Assessing Learning

It strikes me that three things converged on the same professional question over that past month or so.

In a previous blog post, I mentioned how we at MPI are engaged in the act of developing more purposefully conversations with students about the criteria used for assessing learning. We call this “co-constructing criteria”. Since I’ve talked about this before, I don’t want to go into detail, but I do want to point out that it implies there is a big difference between assessment and evaluation – assessment in the service of learning is a conversation with a student about learning targets, level of completion, and mapping out a pathway to get there. It draws the student and the teacher onto the same side of the table to ask the question “How will WE know when you have reached a sufficient level of proficiency or reason mastery?”

Over the past two months I’ve been taking my data from online conversations, coding them and now I am making meaning of the data in order to finish my dissertation about knowledge building in online communities. One of the key aspects of my research is trying to more closely look at knowledge building principles as a means to evaluate the value of an online community of practice (CoP). (Etienne Wenger defines a CoP as “groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly”).

In “A Brief History of Knowledge Building” by Scardamalia and Bereiter, they state:

“Knowledge building has several characteristics not shared by constructivist learning in general, although common to organizational knowledge building. Two of these are:

Intentionality. Most of learning is unconscious, and a constructivist view of learning does not alter this fact. However, people engaged in knowledge building know they are doing it and advances are purposeful.

Community Knowledge. Learning is a personal matter, but knowledge building is done for the benefit of the community.”

Scardamalia, M. and C. Bereiter (2010). “A brief history of knowledge building.” Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology 36(1).

I believe one of the tangible benefits of good project-based learning is a sense of both purposeful knowledge building in our community, and intentionality in how we address looking at our work as a part of our community to strengthen our own personal learning.

Deeper Learning Network:
In the #dlmooc Deeper Learning MOOC last week, the topic was on assessment. Much of the conversation focused on assessment in the service of learning – that is, assessment that happens during the learning as a means to give students feedback, direction, additional strategies to support their building of knowledge – which is happening in conjunction with their peers in their teacher as a conversation. This to me has much of the same hallmarks as knowledge building mentioned above. In the end, there can be different assessments at the end to evaluate learning, but the act of formative assessment is an application of knowledge building principles and it’s exciting to see how it is the most significant step in the learning process.

“How do you know that?” In my training back in the 1990s on the Modeling approach to learning science (, that question of how do you know something became a critical one for us to unpack students’ thinking. To me, it ties together these ideas of knowledge building, and assessment in the service of learning that seem to have converged in the last couple of weeks.

On Organizational change and the “vision” thing for MPX

I recently responded to a request from a colleague as a part of his masters program to talk about our work with MPX this year – perfect chance to add to the blog this morning… his questios and my answers below

1. What influenced/inspired you to head up the MPX program?

Philosophically, it was in line with where my professional work was going – more emphasis on how we teach and how curriculum is delivered. Although the past 20 years of my life have been spent more than the role of technology in the classroom, I always believed that it was to support a more progressive learning approach, this was a perfect opportunity to put it into place. 
Professionally, it was a new challenge for me as I have not been in the classroom for a long time. I believe fundamentally that we must practice what we preach, and if we wanted to see more folks at the school adopting these ideas, I needed to live this as a part of what I did.

2. What is your philosophy of Project Based Learning?

Ultimately, I believe in the same basic ideas John Dewey supported: learning by doing. We often times in education spend so much time doing skill development with students but never giving them the whole problem to understand why they should learn something. I’m a firm believer that the cognitive science makes clear that when we first give students the whole problem in context, the skills and knowledge that are needed are grafted into their learning more powerfully and therefore gives them a reason to learn and a passion to understand.

3. What challenges have you faced with students that are not used to the “lack of structure” in a Project Based Learning class?

It is very common for students that have been raised to not do project-based work to spend time waiting to be told what to do. Reading other school stories have confirmed this occurrence. The challenge, therefore, is walking a thin line between explicit structure (do this, then this, then this…) and implicit structure (in order to get to the end, what things need to be planned and attained to get there? What drafts, resources, models, interviews, practice sessions so you can show proficiency?)
There is inherent tension in a  structure so students keep doing work, not so much structure that it’s being driven by the teacher, not by the student. That kind of puppetshow “ignore the man behind the curtain” scaffolding is a challenge to make sure that it works effectively and the students are productive. Most importantly, they need to feel that work and the structure came from them as they need to solve their problem, not set on them by an adult without them understanding why it needed to be done that way.

4. What has been / is your greatest challenge in defending the purpose and success of your program to “non-believers”?

We all see the world through the lens of our culture and our accepted practice. When we use words like school, teacher, curriculum we all already have experiences in this and therefore expectations of what that should look and feel like. One of the phrases that came out of students thinking early last year was “but I don’t think I’m learning anything”. It took us a while to unpack this statement, and we realized that students thought learning only occurred when the teacher told him something and they memorized it, or completes a worksheet following the instructions.
There is also the challenge of a standard curriculum and tests. The work we do does not lend itself naturally to the delineated scope and sequence and the testing regimen that is part of traditional schooling. If we think broadly about education, we want students to be better thinkers, better problem solvers, better writers & communicators, better readers and critical thinkers. In many ways, the work we do supports this easily, but it does not always map back to the scope and sequence charts that are in the disciplines that are prescribed for our coursework.

5. Your program has just completed its first two years.  What types of challenges do you foresee, if any, your original students will face in mainstreaming back to a traditional teacher-centered classroom?

In a perfect world, we would be able to keep our students to the end of high school, then the transition would only be going to college, which is a very different experience and from other PBL school’s history is not a major concern. Our biggest challenge is taking students out of 10th grade after adopting one way of learning, and forcing them back into a seven period Day in which six or seven teachers have different expectations in which more than not work is still teacher centered. Although our students that have left the program have said it takes a little while to transition on this, I wish it wouldn’t have to be that way. Hopefully, the positive of this is students are more critical (in the actual sense of the word) or maybe a better word is discerning, about the curriculum that they see in front of them and ask hard questions about why do we need to know this? How does it fit into what I need to know the real world? Where is this taking me for my future? What are things I need to take away that I will find exciting and useful?

6. What letter grade would you give your program after its first two years of existence and why?

I would much rather give narratives than letter grades. In much the same way that a letter grade does not really paint a full picture of  an explanation of learning that happens in our program, a letter grade for our program as a whole doesn’t begin to cover what we have done. Much the same as our elementary school gives narrative assessments, and places students on a continuum of learning, I feel we need to do the same with our program, and frankly should for our high school in general. One of the ways that we measure doing good work in our program is whether we hold to the 6 As of good project design: 

The Six A’s of Designing Projects

• Academic Rigor
• How do the projects address key learning concepts, standards or help students develop habits of mind and work associated with academic and professional disciplines? 

• Authenticity 
• How do the projects use a real world context (e.g., community and workplace problems) and address issues that matter to the students?

• Applied Learning 
• How do the projects engage students in solving semi-structured problems calling for competencies expected in high-performance work organizations (e.g., teamwork, problem-solving, communication, etc.)?

• Active Exploration
•  How do the projects extend beyond the classroom and connect to work internships, field-based investigations, and community explorations?

• Adult Connections 
• How do the projects connect students with adult mentors and coaches from the wider community?

• Assessment Practices
• How do the projects involve students in regular exhibitions and assessments of their work in light of personal, school and real-world standards of performance?

Using this as our framework for assessment, we made substantial strides this year in developing projects that more closely aligned with the six tenets of good project-based learning – which we argue is the best kind of learning.

7. Where do you see your program in two years, five years, ten years from now?  How many students participate in the MPX program and do you see it growing in numbers or remaining status quo?
The initial vision of this program was always an incubator to help inform the entire high school about ways to adopt more authentic learning experiences in their curriculum. To that end, I see the work we’re doing as continually feeding into the whole school as a means to develop ways to help everyone adopt more engaging in effective learning activities in their classes. It certainly challenges our ideas of testing, curriculum, and what should be our core knowledge and skills as a high school. We debate a lot about how big this program should be – if we take it in context of what the intent was (what I just mentioned above), the size is not nearly as important as the purity of work that we do – if we can continue to do exciting state-of-the-art curriculum ideas that are based on authentic problems, then they will lend themselves to the adoption of others looking at ways to improve their practice.
Personally, in my “fantasy world” all learning should be like this – shouldn’t it? In other words, in a  perfect world, students would work on projects that they choose and are  inherently interesting, and adults would help shape that learning so that it may map to appropriate content areas. I fully understand that is no small order given the current culture and context of education, but if we really want what is best for students, rethinking the whole enterprise about learning is worth considering. I might add, that our elementary school more than not already teaches this way.

8. What types of barriers have you encountered when trying to initiate changes?  

One of my favorite quotes from the last few years was by Calvin Taketa, the head of the Hawaii Community Foundation. At a conference about transforming schools, he used the line “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. We have in education the problem of “that’s the way we have always done it”. More than not, school and curriculum is based on the concept of conformity and uniformity. These barriers are tough when we look at what it takes to really design engaging curriculum that builds students into a model of active learning. This is not a mid-Pacific Institute problem. It is an organizational problem. All organizations develop a culture in which ideas that go outside of the norm are challenged, and typically dismissed because they would mean making substantial changes to the structures in place. Clay Christensen’s research in “The Innovator’s Dilemma” spells this out and it is what led to his work “Disrupting Class”. A couple of examples of this in our case are the inability to support students about their work because of graduation requirement conflicts, programming our schedules so that we have access to the kids more regularly in a row, the fact that we have to set minimum entry points because when our students leave our curriculum they have to fit back in to the schedule, the need to map against some of the core concepts that really need to be rethought for everyone, but we have to play to that specific set of standards, designing inherently exciting and innovative curriculum takes time and coordination – we have very little time as a team sit down and really think about the work we are doing.

9. How have you overcome these barriers?

We haven’t overcome all of these yet, but in some of them we have been able to get a little more time for our teachers, we’ve been able to negotiate ways to have less stress about covering every core concept that is not in the traditional courses, we try and help our students in leaving our program choose wisely so they are in courses that more line with their interests and abilities, we continue to try and add more teachers to our conversation to help us build the bridge so that our kids are not perceived as different than others…

10. What has contributed to your and your program’s success?

Most importantly, our team for our program has been outstanding in our vision in their willingness to work in these Muddy Waters that we have been traveling through to build the program that we have. I can’t speak enough of, or praise enough, their willingness to continually make the adjustments needed so that we can work and build exciting learning experiences for our students together. Our administration has been fantastic about trying to support this program, in understanding that we need to create some space and time to give this an opportunity to succeed. They also know that the goal of the program was not to make it separate, but to use it as a lens into powerful ways of learning, and they continue to lead us to make sure that others have an opportunity to learn from the work we are doing to make it a vehicle for incubating ideas.
One of our surprising findings was that our parents have become one of our best advocates, as they have seen very exciting results for the child that is positive and they have been excited about it. We also have been blessed with community partners who have been excited to work with our students. This created the opportunities for authenticity and community involvement that we so greatly aspire to.


The more things change the more they stay the same…(Ruminations on Alice)

In the process of looking for interactive, educational gaming environments we’ve explored Scratch (see post from previous week) and recently Alice, which is done out of Carnegie Mellon University. It is striking to me that these tools are not so much new, although they certainly take advantage of the advancement in computing that has occurred in the last 20 years. What is striking is how they draw on a long legacy of student centered, constructivist philosophy that reaches back to Dewey and before.

Education is not a preparation for life; education is life itself.”
John Dewey

In so many ways, the efforts to create learning environments that are focused on the learner, and not teaching or content specific issues stem from Dewey’s philosophy 100 years ago. The development of the computer and its implications for education continued this philosophy and supported it. In the 1970s the computer language Logo was one of the central products from this philosophy of how computers could support constructive learning and education. One of the central figures in this movement was Seymour Pappert, who became identified through his work at MIT Media Lab through Logo amongst other writings and projects. History of Logo here:

“The role of the teacher is to create the conditions for invention rather than provide ready-made knowledge.”
Seymour Papert

So here we are now with a World Wide Web connected citizenry who easily see themselves in conversation with the world, and creating in a community. The philosophy is not changed, but the tools and what they are capable of doing have become richer, more connected, and understand better the workings of the brain. Here is Mitchell Resnick, one of the founders of Scratch, talking about the ideas behind Scratch:

Think about this again: Pappert over 25 years ago had something to say about the kinds of tools that we could enable through computers for learning:

…they [the children] become producers instead of consumers of educational software. (p. 107)

I am convinced that the best learning takes place when the learner takes charge… ,(p. 25) 

(quotes lifted from from:

And so along this evolution comes another tool: Alice – which was designed with a slightly different cause — helping students learn computer programming (unlike one of the founding ideas behind Logo which was mathematical thinking). The numbers of students who are interested in working with object-oriented computer languages has not been very high, and particularly has been gender biased dramatically towards boys. This platform teaches the basics of object-oriented languages, through a interactive 3-D interface that is highly engaging, and has been shown to retain as well as teach boys and girls effectively. It was interesting that in the Alice blog, there was conversation about rationale for using Scratch or Alice in education. A couple of quotes from the design team on Alice on their blog (
“The general observation is that students find Scratch to be very accessible, and can do many cool things very quickly. The downside is that they will hit the limits of Scratch relatively soon. Alice has a richer set of capabilities but that students need a lot more initial support and training to fully utilize its capabilities.”
“The distinction between informal and formal educational settings is interesting and important, and yet we are finding that Scratch is starting to be used in more formal settings (as the ap-cs listserv thread clearly illustrates), and we are also finding Alice being used in more informal settings (such as the Citizen’s School project in New York City last fall.)”
I found it particularly interesting in the second quote that they distinguish that Scratch was a more informal tool and Alice was a formal tool, but they have bleeded over from both ends so that they are used in both settings now. I agree with the general idea that Alice requires a bit more tutorial on the front end, but quickly gets one up to speed in the terminology of object-oriented languages: methods and classes and the structure therein. Here is a short movie that the second tutorial walks one through creating to understand the role of methods in sequencing behaviors in a programmed environment:

So where does this take us? It is 2009 and we have moved from Dewey to Pappert to Resnick and we are still talking about ways to create self-directed, constructive learning environments. If the next 20 years play out anything like the exponential curve we see from the last 20, the opportunities for personalized, rich, powerful learning environments will only become more likely to influence education and learning. With that said, tools like Scratch and Alice offer us a wonderful place to begin now with students.
Papert, S. (1993). The children’s machine: rethinking school in the age of the computer. New York: BasicBooks.

Welcome to the Age of Exponential Miracles. Our Credo is “Meh.”

A typical Sunday. Take the dog to the beach for a round of play catch. Come back read some of the paper, make a quad cappuccino, make breakfast, play with the boys, and spend some time with course work. Near the end of the day, I read the comics from the Sunday funnies and absolutely love this one from Retail:


Why? Specifically, about three hours today I spent playing and creating with the free software called Scratch, from MIT media labs to create a prototype for a game we are designing for ETEC 697, Educational Technology in Informal Learning Environments. I’ve played with Scratch before, but never sat down to really tackle a project that had been defined through a game brief. What struck me was how many ways I could attack the problem to bring in graphics, to create animations, to design interactive elements. The end result of three hours of work was either remarkable or work at a seven-year-old could do, depending upon how you look at. My seven-year-old sat at the table while I designed the project, and understood most of the interface and the feedback in the design and even the programming aspects of the game. Let me say that again: a seven-year-old watched me go through the process of designing a game that had backgrounds, sprites, scripts, imported graphics, audio files, and programming errors and found it engaging to work with me and give feedback into the process. That’s why I found the Retail comic strip so funny. We have reached a point in technologic development that surpasses our ability to appreciate the amazing things we are doing (in this case on my kitchen table wirelessly with a computer more powerful than a 1990s supercomputer) and our generation of young students assumes this is the way the world has always been. It reminds me a lot of the Arthur C. Clarke quote:

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”

I believe we have come to an age where either it is magic or the response is “Meh.”. When go back and look at my Sunday I marvel at the layers of technology that I applied without thinking. I had a iPhone by my bed that both act as a alarm clock and a telephone in case an emergency scheme during the night. When I came back from the beach, I grabbed my iPhone to help finish off a crossword puzzle (six letter word for Island in the Bahamas? Bimini). While I was at it, I scanned my personal learning network, checked out the start times for NFL football games, then check the up-to-date news. A few hours later, I was on my laptop using Skype to connect to my cohorts in Colorado and Honolulu, where we planned through Google docs both a written document and the presentation to give in about 10 days. I then downloaded the latest version of Scratch from MIT media labs, and using the web to look for tutorials, taught myself enough to develop interactive elements in a game in less than three hours. While I was doing that, I was also watching the live New England Patriots game which was being broadcast through a streaming website. Meh.

Let’s look at Scratch a little more closely. A free, cross platform, easy to learn programming environment designed for primarily middle and high school students to design interactive games and media. When you are finished, there is a “share” tab that allows any author to create and publish their idea for free. Think about this… anywhere in the world, Macintosh, Linux, Windows, your creation can be shared via their website for free, or others can look for and enjoy it and give feedback. Meh.

Now, I readily agree that having access to a programming environment is no different than having access to a pen. Without assistance and good mentoring (teachers, facilitators, other means of building knowledge), the product will likely be weak and ineffective. With today’s technology, it is possible to easily find many free tutorials to learn how to do just about all aspects of the program. More importantly, there is a whole community of users who write about their experiences with the program. Think about that — resources that I can reach from my kitchen table, experts that I can find, video tutorials (screen casts) that others put up to help ME. Why? Because that is how users in this new frontier see themselves – as contributing community members for a world of users. Meh.

here is the game, btw (simple, yes – the goal for this prototype is to guide the butterfly to the flower – if you touch the flower and hit the space bar, it increases the energy level of the butterfly)

Learn more about this project

So where does this take us? Everything we see today is at the bottom of the exponential curve of technological change as we look into the future. What awaits us is even more connectedness, more access, more personalization, more ways that we can look back and wonder about a time that we didn’t have these resources. For educators with the right focus — who really are in the game to help students learn — the opportunity to help students appreciate both where we are, where we have come from, and where we are going makes this a marvelous time to try and drive away the “Meh” culture that surrounds us. Peter Vail in his book “Learning as a Way of Being” talks about Whitewater Learning as a metaphor for a dynamic approach to changing times. In Hawaii, we talk about getting on the wave as a way of dealing with the dynamic of the ocean as a metaphor. All educators need to recognize that the world is changed, and is continuing to change exponentially, and that the only way to stay relevant is to adapt and adopt to the changing frontiers in front of us, lest our classroom experience be regarded as “Meh.”

online learning and teens

I gave a talk at the fall HAIS conference on the topic of Online learning and teens. I have attached the pdf version of the keynote I gave. I used a lot of video for the use of telling the story through case studies. Most of the graphics on the slides link to video stories that set the context for how teens learn with online media.

One aside – I tried the iphone app Keynote remote – it was marvelous – love it!

Thoughts on the what drives game design, lessons learned and a few emergent technologies that apply

So, this week for ETEC 697 (Ed Tech in Informal Learning Environments), we were talking about two topics in particular:
Where the idea for a game comes from (chapter 3 from Rouse)
Getting the gameplay working (chapter 15 from Rouse)

Rouse, R., & Ogden, S. (2004). Game design theory & practice, second edition (2nd ed.). Plano, Tex.: Wordware Pub.

To start, some quotes from his text that I found particularly interesting:

Regarding the initial ideas for games:
“… computer game ideas can come from three distinct, unrelated areas of the form of gameplay, technology, and story.” (Page 41)

“often a game developer will have enjoyed a game in one of these genre and will want to apply her own spin to it.” (page 42)

“sometimes the designer will have both the stories she wants to tell you the type of gameplay she wants to explore, and will attempt to do both in the same game, even if the two do not go well together.” (page 43)

Regarding starting with a specific technology:
“Going into a project with a large portion of the game’s technology already developed is also fairly common occurrence” (page 43)
Of course, this makes me think of the iPhone as a platform that is already very robust, and well developed. It is no wonder, therefore, that so many developers have moved this platform — sometimes exclusively — to create content.

“When technology is handed to a game designer who is told to make a game out of it, it makes the most sense for the designer to embrace the limitations of the technology and turn them into strengths in her game.” (Page 44)

“For the greater good of the game, the story and the technology must be compatible with each other.” (Page 45)

Regarding starting with the story:
It is surprising to me that it seems that this is the least common of the three paths to get to a game. Perhaps it is the altruistic side of me, but as humans, we have lived primarily through the stories we tell, and it is the stories that are most compelling. This is not to say that games developed with technology or gameplay do not have compelling narratives, it just seems counterintuitive that the story comes after these other two areas frequently.

{{I find it interesting as a sidebar, that Rouse is clearly a fan of the rock band Rush, since phrases like “if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice”, and “those who wish to be must put aside the alienation, get on with the fascination, the real relation, the underlying theme.”
Just an intriguing way to view some of the ideas and gameplay…}}

In chapter 15, which is “Getting the gameplay working”, some quotes here:

“by concentrating on getting a small piece of the game fully functional and enjoyable, the developer can get a much better sense of whether the final game is going to be any fun or not. If the gameplay does not turn out to be as anticipated, the prototype provides an early enough warning that the game needs to be either redirected in a more promising direction or, in the worst cases, aborted entirely.” (Page 283)

“looking back, if we had focused on making the gameplay fun before making a large number of levels, we could have avoided a lot of extra work and wasted effort.” (Page 285)

Regarding starting small, and prototyping early on:
“Besides, a playable demo will make the game easier to sell to a publisher or a green light committee.” (Page 286)

“It is very easy to lose sight of your gameplay goals when your game languishes in an unplayable state for much of the time. Certainly the game can be broken in many ways, with various components that do not yet work as they are supposed to…” (page 288)

“It is often a good idea to start developing your content from the beginning of the game. Early parts of the game need to be at the highest level of quality possible, so you want them to represent your more seasoned efforts, while levels at the end of the game will often tend to be more atypical and hence will not represent the “regular” gameplay that you want to have working first.” (Page 289)
It is interesting here, to think about the comparisons and differences between game design and lesson development, therefore. With good lesson design, we typically are not changing our knowledge fundamentally as we are developing our content, activities, and instructional plan after setting our end goal. If we know our goal is to have the students understand simple machines through an activity that involves building racecars out of popsicle sticks and rubber bands, we know as we design the lesson that we will not understand Popsicle sticks much differently at the end of our process than when we started. This is very different in game design, where the platform that we develop our content in will become easier to use, better understood to apply, and potentially evolve as we work on our design. There is also the time frame involved. In lessons, we typically design over a few days, although there is iterative design that occurs year by year as we go back and revise and improve lessons we’ve used in the past. For game design, the period of development which may be months or over a year, almost guarantees that changes in our understanding of the platform, or the platform itself will happen. Yet, there is a common idea here — the start (think Gagne’s first event: Gain Attention) and the end (culminating activity) both need to be powerful to best ensure their success.

Regarding prototyping: “observe how easily they manage to pick up the controls and mechanics. It is much simpler to make a game harder than to make it easier.” (Page 290)

“As you work on a project, you’re likely to become overly familiar with some of the content you have created, and familiarity can breed contempt.” (Page 291)

“Always try to remember how you first felt when you play a level or tried to pull off a particular move” (page 291)

Regarding the role of programmer versus designer — assuming that you have a team working on the project: “nevertheless, a designer who cannot program will be beholden to the talents and inclinations of her programmers, which can be eternally frustrating.” (Page 292)

Although not all of these ideas apply directly to instructional design outside of gaming, or certainly a few ideas in here that are significant whether we are looking at games, educational games, or just classroom instructional practice. A few thoughts that came into my mind through the reading:

One of the emerging technologies that still are in their early stages are virtual worlds. Specifically, second life is a platform that has no content at a starting point, but gives developers ample opportunity to construct openly in their environment. Is Second life is a technology looking for a story? There are certainly examples of projects that are creating virtual worlds with a story embedded — World of Warcraft, Runescape (quote of the day from my seven-year-old this morning “dad — someone ‘jacked’ my identity — can I make a new one?” I had to ask him what that meant, and then realized identity hijacking was a fairly common phenomena in that virtual world). These MMORPG (Massive Multi-player Online Role Playing Games) have story built into them, and a social community as a significant element. The numbers involved in these worlds attest to their viability, and as informal learning environments, we can use that as a learning laboratory to best design from.

Regarding multi-touch interfaces, I’m usually most intrigued with iPhone, but I saw this video recently that provided another window in game design: Microsoft surface D&D project

So here is a example of a powerful multi-touch technology, where the game play, the story, and the technology all Weave together. Perhaps that is the best view of where the future lies in game design — a happy mix of all three.

Towards designing educational environments and games

We’ve begun to investigate the underlying ideas behind game design. As always, my reflection stems from considerations of learning environments, and how they are emerging, with a lens on schools, and education in general.

We have been reading from:

Rouse, R., & Ogden, S. (2004). Game design theory & practice, second edition (2nd ed.). Plano, Tex.: Wordware Pub.

In particular this week, topics on storytelling (Chapter 11) and multiplayer (Chapter 13).
As it turns out, today, I was visiting the Honolulu Academy of Arts, because it was family Sunday, and the topic was medieval times.
I had in tow my seven-year-old and 12 year old, who enjoyed the swordplay, the Lego castles, the catapult building, etc. While I was there, I was thinking about the relative simplicity of their visitor design. Placards next to artwork, introductory walls to explain areas of exhibit, then the relative minor influence of technology and museums to visit. Short video of one exhibit room:

The readings from

Braverman, B. E. (1988). Toward an Instructional Design for Art Exhibitions. Journal of Aesthetic Education, 22(3), 85-96.

make the case that visits to spaces that have a focus on aesthetics have a very different mission, and displays and design are very different with that kind of focus. In most art museums, the focus is not specifically content, but more appreciation and development of the right brain part of our experience: creativity, context, beauty, passion.

In places like the MET school in Providence, there is a movement away from content as core and the movement towards directed interests, creativity and context as a starting point. In spaces like museums, there is a shift from content as core and more an effort to wrap in context as the main experience. In the midst of this, I am reading

Willingham, D. T. (2009). Why don’t students like school? : a cognitive scientist answers questions about how the mind works and what it means for your classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Early in the book, he talks about the concept of prior knowledge as a significant determinant in meaning making. Essentially, when we learn and experience, we first draw on our prior knowledge to help us make sense of what we are seeing. In a museum, we may see an exhibit with a surrealist painter, and without any prior knowledge, we would just see objects on a canvas, a bizarre mix of shape and form, but if we have some background knowledge of the historical setting that it comes from, when we have other artists from that time that we already know, we have an easier time both appreciating and understanding the work for what it is.
In Rouse’s book, in the chapters on storytelling and multiplayer, he still lays out the significance of drawing in the player, explaining the importance of not overwhelming or killing off a new player as a significant design element. There is an inherent tension in designing games to either get to the content, in the case of educational games, or the story, in the case of more fun/experience focused games, and there is a challenge here for educators. When the environment is designed too closely around the content, the engagement and interest will likely go down, and there will be the inherent problem with matching learners incoming, prior knowledge so as to best set up the learning environment. As a result, many games that try to focus on educational concepts, have either elaborate introduction or simple sequences that are not very interesting or rewarding, to lay a foundation of prior knowledge. One of the strengths in the engaging single and multiplayer games is the ability to start right into the story, and bring in information as it is needed to help the learning experience. This kind of scaffolding experience is more highly engaging, but often does not have nearly the educational depth that most teachers and schools would find a prerequisite for usefulness in a learning setting. As an example, we played Halo this week in class, and although it was highly engaging, I’m not sure I would replace my physics class (yet) with this virtual world.
The challenge then, for the major project that will be due in this class (ETEC 697), is to marry the best of what cognitive research shows works in the brain to build knowledge, and to structure it in such a way so it feels engaging and appropriate for the user. One of the ways to take advantage of that is through the social, multi-user interface that is emerging in game design.

Another experience this weekend gave some insight into this. I was at the Kapiolani Community College farmers market, and was struck by the sense of community that exists at this weekly event. Picture below:


There were hundreds of people, almost none of whom knew each other, but there was a common sense of purpose about being there that brought a true sense of community and shared experience to the event. As a result, people were more likely to interact, share stories, and drop their guard in order to the part of the experience. As I think about Second Life when it is at its best, I am struck by that same possibility: being in a place where a community can form around a good idea, and the nature of common mission and presence would allow conversation and knowledge building to happen as the users interact. We are not there yet, as the places that exist are still either too forced by their nature to specific goals, or experiences are too general to really be powerfully educational, but next-generation interactive design has the potential to go there. One effort towards this road is a emergent virtual world designed for educational experiences, but with a first look and feel as a engaging social community: Blue Mars. Time will tell if spaces like this will rise to the needs of learners AND schools.


A few gratuitous shots of my boys in medieval garb:
kaio gloves
aukai helmet

Gaming, Problem Based Learning and Assessment

This is a short blog post this week that’s more reflective about the beginning of next area in ETEC 697: Educational Technology in Informal Learning Environments. We are beginning to get into talking about games — specifically computer games and a great multitude and the ways that they support learning. Two particular things strike me as a reflection point to begin this quest:

Gee, J. P. (2009). Pedagogy, Education and Innovation in 3-D Virtual Worlds. Journal of Virtual Worlds Research, 2(1), 3-9.

In this article, Gee, a well known advocate and researcher on games and their possibilities in education reflects on the similarities between construction of knowledge in gaming experience and a similar research thread in science education termed modeling. Much to my surprise, he quotes and uses extensively the thinking of David Hestenes, who spent the last 20 years at Arizona State University developing a pedagogical approach to science education termed modeling. In the “it’s a small world”, I spent two summers at Arizona State University in 1995 and 1996 under the tutelage of Hestenes learning the modeling method for physics teachers. sense that experience, I have been a huge advocate for rethinking the way we teach and learn — initially science, which is what I was trained to do, but more broadly education in general, as the ideas of modeling are applicable across all domains of learning.
So it was with no small amount of pleasure, that Gee took on the notion that good game design creates opportunities for internal models to be constructed by the gamer. Like any instructional approach, there are better examples than others that indicate this, but the notion that a well-designed game requires the learning of, and the application of some framework about the virtual world that must be applied has some real basis at its core.
Chris Dede At Harvard University spent a decade developing a virtual world called River City, in which students were immersed in a virtual medieval world that was facing a health crisis. The students needed to collect data, interview individuals, test samples, build a internal model for what was going on in this community so as to propose possible causes and solutions to the crisis. The underlying goal was for students to develop an understanding of the scientific process, with an emphasis on public-health. There were two aspects of River city that I always found particularly powerful — students were engaged with the rich science problem, that required building knowledge, as well as social exchange in order to accomplish the task. Secondarily, there was a real emphasis on assessment, learning outcomes, to understand better how students learned in this environment. This is a topic for another blog post, but probably the most exciting thing I heard Chris talk about was their efforts to measure learning formatively as the students were playing the game. Programmers found ways to measure where students were going, what objects they touched, the ways that they built resources, so that instead of stopping the students in the midst of learning to see what they knew, it was possible to measure that without interrupting the flow of learning.
There is no doubt that students find games engaging. The thinking of Gee and the potential offered by Dede give two merging pathways to better support these tools and learning.
In the process of thinking about this article, I stumbled across a PBS website that has interviews with Gee and Prensky, amongst others, talking about pros and cons of games in education. The website is:

here is an example of Gee talking about whether games might be educational:

The second topic, which is just a brief reflection, was the recent visit I had at High Tech High in San Diego California with a group of 60 Hawaii teachers from independent schools, looking at transformative models of education. High Tech High has built a reputation as a leading project-based school with a strong school culture on learning communities. In the process of talking to Ben Daly, the chief academic officer, the subject came up about expanding their program to a online environment. They are looking at creating a online Academy, for the students who cannot come to their school — either because it is too far away, or they could not accept any more students. They are fine tuning what an online environment might be like, and I found it striking that a school that values group work, authentic problems, and rich, deep thinking might not succeed well with traditional online classes. Games and virtual worlds, however, provide an opportunity to more than not mimic the kinds of problem-based, engaging, social learning that they value so highly. It will be interesting to see how they adapt their model online, and what tools they develop or utilize to support their philosophical core.