Sunday, July 30, 2006

every parent wants to protect their children

The USA House of Representatives has passed the Deleting Online Predators Act (DOPA) by a 410-15 vote. Source

The struggle for freedom against reaction will always be with us. It is possibly restrictive to see something that has just happened, such as DOPA, as a single issue. Single issues have to be fought but it is useful to see the overall context. The USA House of Representatives vote is not an aberration but part of a huge battle already happening on numerous fronts.

Here is a progression in thinking and doing, which is happening around us all the time:
  • Save the children
  • Censor the adults
  • Make money from passive consumers
  • Treat adults like children
  • Fascist governments who use terror or the threat of terror against their citizens
  • Proprietary institutions who accommodate fascism, eg. Yahoo, MicroSoft, Google
All the above things are related, connected and intermingle with each other

The response from Conservatives / Reactionaries:
The internet / www is under constant attack and threat from multiple sources

Issues to consider:

The ability of obnoxious, disgusting and statistically improbable threats from an extreme minority to dramatically change the behaviour of the vast majority (eg. kidnapping of children in democracies)

Things we don't like about the internet / www (on line predators, hate speech, spam, trolls) being used to destroy the things we do like about the internet / www (dramatically enhanced human augmentation in collaboration and communication)

Not understanding that the internet / www is a radical and glorious experiment in freedom that is corroding and undermining ALL social institutions (School, Parliament, Business, etc.)

For discussion:
  • It is not possible to have the good without the bad
  • No construction, without destruction

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Dennett's creatures

darwins dangerous idea
Daniel Dennett claims that generate and test is the only non question begging way to explain learning.
Learning can be viewed as self design. There doesn't appear to be a more powerful way to think about design than thinking of it as an evolution wrought by generate and test!
He elaborates further on this idea in Ch 13 Losing Our Minds to Darwin, in his book, Darwin's Dangerous Idea (the link is to a critical but thorough review by Danny Yee)

One theme is that it is language that helps make us intelligent, that distinguishes us from other species.

My initial contrarian chess players thought was: "Why not pattern recognition?" And later my evolutionary contrarian thought: "Why not tool use and tool creation?" Why does Dennett place language on a higher plane than these other human features? But he does explain his choice (later).

Dennett presents us with five hypothetical creatures arising from Darwin's evolutionary process. Each of them uses generate and test but the process becomes more sophisticated with evolution.

Darwinian creatures are created by random mutation and selected by the external environment. The best designs survive and reproduce.

Skinnerian creatures can learn by testing actions (responses) in the external environment. Favourably actions are reinforced and then tend to be repeated. Pigeons can be trained to press a bar to receive food.

Skinnerian creatures ask themselves, "What do I do next?"

Popperian creatures can preselect from possible behaviours / actions weeding out the truly stupid options before risking them in the harsh world. Dennett calls them Popperian because Popper said this design enhancement "permits our hypotheses to die in our stead". This is Dennett's enhancement of behaviourism. Popperian creatures have an inner environment that can preview and select amongst possible actions. For this to work the inner environment must contain lots of information about the outer environment and its regularities. Not only humans can do this. Mammals, birds, reptiles and fish can all presort behavioural options before acting.

Popperian creatures ask themselves, "What do I think about next?"

Gregorian creatures are named after Richard Gregory, an information theorist. Gregorian creatures import mind-tools (words) from the outer cultural environment to create an inner environment which improve both the generators and testers.

Gregorian creatures ask themselves, "How can I learn to think better about what to think about next?"

Words / language are necessary to sustain long predictive chains of thought, eg. to sustain a chain or combination of pattern recognition. This is true in chess, for example, where the player uses chess notation to assist his memory.

With respect to tools. Tools may have come before language. The evolution of the hand with an opposable thumb is an early "inbuilt" tool, in combination with erect posture. It has been shown that those things happened before the increase in brain size. See Engels, Gould. This observation, however, does not refute Dennett's proposition of the primacy of language in contributing to intelligence. Tools can be a fundamental building block and language still primary.

Learning from mistakes is an important and hard to learn part of this process. To learn from mistakes one has to be able to contemplate them and language / communication assists that process. For example, by being told by someone else you have made a mistake.

Finally, we have Scientific creatures which is an organised process of making and learning from mistakes in public, of getting others to assist in the recognition and correction of mistakes.

The value of Dennett's account is:
  • he traces a very plausible evolutionary sequence for the development of the mind
  • he extends the core correct concept of behaviourism (generate and test) into the inner environment
  • he has a thought out opinion about the importance of language in human intelligence and its relation to tool use and tool creation (the bits about pattern recognition have been added in by me)

After thoughts / links:
Review of Dennett's Kinds of Minds, points 9,10 and 11 are great:
... we use language to author ourselves, assisted by many co-authors as we grow up
The Role of Language in Intelligence: lecture by Dennett

Tower of generate-and-test comprehensive write up of Dennett's ideas

USA Congress bans the Read/Write web in schools and libraries


The USA House of Representatives has passed the Deleting Online Predators Act (DOPA) by a 410-15 vote. Source. This requires schools and public libraries to bar children from accessing social networking sites like MySpace.

Here's how DOPA defines social networking sites:
(i) is offered by a commercial entity;
(ii) permits registered users to create an on-line profile that includes detailed personal information;
(iii) permits registered users to create an on-line journal and share such a journal with other users;
(iv) elicits highly-personalized information from users; and
(v) enables communication among users.'.
In effect they have banned the Read/Write web

This means that children will continue to use MySpace etc. from home without receiving any training about how to use it safely at School. This irresponsibility is done in the name of responsibility.

School have not done this. Government has done it to Schools. But it seems that the adults in Schools are not prepared to resist this censorship. So, the children will have to find their own way in cyberspace, unsupervised. This is the outcome of risk free mentality and moral panic.

I have earlier published extracts from an excellent interview with Danah Boyd and Henry Jenkins about MySpace and the proposed Deleting Online Predators Act. Read that for a proper understanding of the issues.

Friday, July 28, 2006

design patterns

from tony forster:
learning patterns for the design and deployment of mathematical games

Section one is a lit review about design patterns and goes onto applying that to game design, using an example of a design pattern (producer-consumer)

It made me think that design patterns may be a good organising principle to structure a game making course, as distinct from my rather ad hoc current methods

My feeling is that we haven't got very far yet wrt game design ideas and that the design pattern approach might be a good way to go

Section two starts with a lit review of learning theories and goes onto an examination of some maths games

The lit review is comprehensive and helped me begin to fill in some gaps in my knowledge, although some of the key issues are dealt with only briefly - inevitably in such a comprehensive overview

The distinction b/w teacher as didactic figure and teacher as co-actor is interesting (63)

The whole thing is 131 pp, including more than 35 pages of references at the end.

I've printed off some sections to look at more closely:

p.11 great diagram showing perils of single perspectives
pp. 42-59: design patterns as applied to learning and games
pp. 61-68: theoretical framework (environment, teacher, instruments)
pp. 89-93 descriptions of maths games, equity, conclusion

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Piaget and Vygotsky

Today I read a paper by Paul Chandler that stated that constructivism was "central to the works of theorists such as Piaget and Vygotsky"

I think this might be too much blurring between the legacies of Piaget and Vygotsky. Piaget was an individualist constructivist, Vygotsky was a social constructivist.


Idit Harel's PhD thesis (Software Design for Learning) offers me a clear summary of the similarities and differences between Piaget and Vygotsky.

Piaget emphasises internal, self directed, individualist development:
In order for a child to understand something, he must construct it himself, he must re-invent it. Every time we teach a child something, we keep him from inventing it himself (- Piaget, quoted in McGee, 105. btw McGee is critical of Piaget here)

... what the child learns by himself, what none can teach him and he must discover alone (- Piaget, quoted in Harel, 32)
By contrast Vygotsky is more social, people oriented with more emphasis on communication and language. Sometimes speech plays a vital role:
A child's speech is as important as the role of action in attaining any goal ... Speech and action are part of one and the same complex psychological function, directed towards the solution of the problem at hand ... The more complex the action demanded by the situation and the less direct its solution, the greater importance played by speech in the operation as a whole (- Vygotsky, quoted in Harel, 34)
Harel goes onto outline the outlook of Vygotskian researchers:
... Vygotskian researchers focus exclusively on the important role and processes of scaffolding (by the use of language), the role of adult mediation in children's learning, or the imitation and internalization processes in children's cognitive growth. These researchers usually do not collect data or describe, even as a possibility, the learner as someone who sometimes acts as a constructive and efficient independent inventor and builder of his own knowledge, without the help of the "scaffolder" adult.
What Papert and Harel go onto do with their Instructional Software Design Project is to integrate the ideas of Piaget and Vygotsky into one project.


Papert "objects to think with": the logo turtle (Papert advocated a richer object environment than Piaget)
Vygotskian people to think with: the cross age tutoring situation, classmates, the teacher

Scaffolding can be supplied by rich learning objects as well as people. Maybe the legacies of Piaget and Vygotsky have become blurred because learning theorists have come along after them and integrated their ideas, in a good way? Is there blurring and if so is it a good or bad thing? We now have a new learning theory (Siemen's connectivism) in which learning is seen to occur outside of the learner, which could be a mirror image of the Piaget quotes above. See Inside / Outside.

More information about Vygotsky at wikipedia

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

buying 'first person shooter'

I reviewed the excellent "First person shooter" video on my old blog, which I can no longer write to. Read the review to find out how good it is.

A couple of people have written to me asking where to obtain (buy) a copy in Australia. So, here is the URL:
first person shooter buy

the brain is not a computer

Ray Kurweil argues that exponential growth will lead predictably to a singularity, when humans transcend biology, technological change so rapid and profound it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history (the law of accelerating returns)

Technology and science are developing at an exponential rate. If this sort of progress doubles its rate every year then in 25 years (2030) we will have enhancements in the order of 1 billion fold compared with now.

Energy is not a worry because nanotechnology combined with solar power will solve that problem.

People will live much longer and poverty and pollution will continue to decline.

In response, Rodney Brooks challenges the idea that exponential growth in itself will automatically produce the dramatic changes envisaged by Kurzweil.

For example, AI has been working on generic object recognition for 40 years but still can't do it.

We don't have a conceptual model of how the brain works. Theoretical, conceptual breakthroughs are required. Growth itself, even though exponential, is not sufficient.
A long time ago the brain was a hydrodynamic system. Then the brain became a steam engine. When I was a kid, the brain was a telephone switching network. Then it became a digital computer. And then the brain became a massively parallel digital computer. About two or three years ago I was giving a talk and someone got up in the audience and asked a question I'd been waiting for — he said, "but isn't the brain just like the World Wide Web?"

The brain is always — has always been — modeled after our most complex technology. We weren't right when we thought it was a steam engine. I suspect we're still not right in thinking of it in purely computational terms, because my gut feeling is there's going to be another way of talking about things which will subsume computation, but which will also subsume a lot of other physical stuff that happens.
- Rodney Brooks

Sunday, July 23, 2006

we need good learning theories

I'm involved in a conversation with Plunkers on the importance of learning theory, in response to his allow-me-to-over-simplify post. Go there for the full discussion.
I think good behaviourist teachers are good in part because behaviourism is a good learning theory.

Ditto for good constructionist teachers ...

I think there are good aspects to many learning theories - I know a teacher who grouped their class according to Gardner's Multiple Intelligences and did v. interesting lessons

My argument at school is always to accept what good teachers do, learn from it and broaden, diversify, not narrow down. I have learnt a lot from good teachers and am amazed at their skills.

So in that sense I agree with you - good teaching, good relationships are more important than learning theory in the abstract

But I think the problem with the Department is that they dress up curriculum documents which are about controlling teachers, not working with them, in learning theory and then pretend they are doing something useful. eg. SACSA claims to be constructivist but I used constructivism extensively before SACSA and don't recognise it as true constructivist

This is bad theory which is divorced from grass roots practice. It's people in a hierarchy doing the theory for the teachers who do the real work. Part of the assumption here is that teachers are not capable of picking up on their own theory so it has to be done for them. That is what worries me about your comments, it sounds like you could be discounting theory. It's a strong trend for teachers to be grounded in practice, do what works. I understand that and feel that pressure myself but I think it's a limiting outlook ultimately.

I hope your not suggesting that theory itself is not important - good behaviourism, good constructivism, good multiple intelligences is informed and enhanced by good theory.

We need radical change IMO and its v. hard to achieve that with just a pragmatic, empirical approach. We see the world through theories in our head, that have been well established. eg. we look at the horizon and understand that the world is round, we look at stars and understand that they are a v. long way away and fueled by nuclear explosions. I am saying that our everyday perception of things is theory laden. It would be a pity if we couldn't bring that general truth to education because of the confusion wrought by misapplication of theory.

I am hoping to setup a learning theory wiki this term to try to get my head around it more.

little fish in a big pond

I am a teacher by profession but I'm hoping that my blog does not read like a typical edu blog

I am interested in philosophy, futures, politics, history, health, computer games, the internet, chess, psychology, programming languages and other stuff.

Isn't it potentially narrowing for teachers to focus on other teacher blogs? It's better to broaden out, to step out of the pond and learn to swim in the big ocean.

Here are some non edu sites and blogs that I try (unsuccessfully) to keep up with:





Meat thinks

Great thought experiment by Scifi writer, Terry Bisson.

Meat thinks. What an unusual idea.

But imagine if more advanced aliens, with a different unspecified substrate, were so surprised and repelled by this discovery that they decided to give us a miss.

"Oh, there's a brain all right. It's just that the brain is made out of meat! That's what I've been trying to tell you."

"So ... what does the thinking?"

"You're not understanding, are you? You're refusing to deal with what I'm telling you. The brain does the thinking. The meat."

"Thinking meat! You're asking me to believe in thinking meat!"

It's a 1991 story now available as a video with well disguised meaty looking aliens. Thanks to arti for the links.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

the end of School as we know it?

Is the face of revolution a boy in a baseball cap, which hides his face?

Is a virtuoso performance on youtube - the boy in a baseball cap in his bedroom playing his electric guitar: Pachebel's Canon Rock - by a 13 yo (guess) with 6.5 million views , 14.3 thousand comments and favourited 39 thousand times an implied condemnation of School as we know it and a harbinger of a new education system?


Of course. School as we know it can't compete with this. We are as relevant now as a handful of monks copying out the Bible by hand, about to be swept aside by Gutenberg's printing press.

Thanks to Tony Forster for spelling it out at arti's blog:

What is school?
School is primarily about crowd control, school is also the gatekeeper of learning and knowledge. An urban industrial society needs a mobile workforce. Children can not be cared for by their parents at the workplace. The extended family and the village cannot provide child care and education.

School is mostly about placing groups of children under the care of a single adult. The teaching profession attracts those personalities which are comfortable with control. If a school is failing, poor crowd control is the most visible symptom.

If schools are about power and control, it is not surprising that they absorb innovation and recast it in their own image.

The two way web is an innovation that schools cannot control. It will chew schools up and spit them out. They have lost their power and relevance as the gatekeepers of learning and knowledge. Are they just crowd control?

A most significant development has scarcely made a ripple on the edublogosphere. Bill Kerr’s blog tells us of Funtwo, a young man who’s moving performance of Pachelbel’s Canon has been seen by 6.5 million people. That’s more than the populations of

Israel 5.7m
Denmark 5.3m
Finland 5.1m
New Zealand 3.6m
Ireland 3.6m

This gifted young man’s parents could have sent him to a school where kids “do music”, they could have bought him a private tutor, they could have sent him to the best private school where he would have performed an “appropriate piece” on speech night to impress 500 parents. They could have hired the town hall, advertised in the newspapers so he could perform to an audience of 2000.

Instead they bought him a $20 web cam. That webcam has motivated him in a way no school could ever do. His performance also inspires a million others to achieve their potential. If the quality and amount of learning that kids are doing at home on the internet exceeds what schools can achieve, where are schools going to?

I suppose Funtwo had “sufficiently high prior knowledge to provide internal guidance” and that’s why this minimally guided, self-directed, project based learning worked for him.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

africa map game progress 2

I've written a small prototype to solve the name pop up problem for the smaller countries. Still not finished but here is a draft. It's probably best to put all the names onto the countries programmatically. This is an essential feature for the small countries. I've updated the country array 2D (countryObjectName, countryName) to help achieve this. Have made the mouse pointer change into a hand when it passes over a country. I have just one small country on the prototype (Gambia)

Further challenges / problems:
  • Mouse pointer does not change to hand if you move from one country to another touching or overlapping country
  • For the small countries I need two versions of the name, one for the final map (the position of the name depends on where the country fits into the final map) and another for when the user is moving the country (pops up above the country)
  • the country borders on verson 6b are messy. I plan to make all the countries again using the template showing borders as a clean starting point.

I had problems achieving some of the above.

Setting the Depth of the country name so that it appears in front of the country. You can set the Depth of Objects but I can't find a way to set the Depth of programmed text independent to the Object Depth on which the text is programmed. In the end I had to program the drawn text on a new object which is in front of all the other objects.

I felt rusty in my programming skills - one of my goals in the africagame project is to overcome this rust by programming more regulary and setting myself some real challenges. It took me a while before I decided to solve the small country name problem by creating a prototype to just focus on this. Things moved a lot faster once I had setup the protoype.

The african border template looks really good (clean). I now realise that I can make better versions of individual countries by starting from this template, rather than cutting out from the original map. So I've wasted some time here.

I suppose that some time wasting is inevitable due to lack of experience but it does pay to think ahead and get an overview of what is required and the best way to do it.


Tuesday, July 18, 2006

the emotion machine

Marvin Minsky's new book, The Emotion Machine, is due for release in November this year. You can download a draft copy from the link. I've read his earlier book, Society of Mind and it has long been a favourite. Minsky is a painstakingly clear writer who makes heroic efforts to communicate IMO.

Recently, I was very interested to find that some of Minsky's ideas have been challenged by Rodney Brooks (here). I have ordered a copy of Brooks book, Flesh and Machines, from amazon to find out more. Brooks claim is that Minsky erred in not putting the concepts of situatedness and embodiment onto the AI research agenda.

One of Minsky's long standing claims is that common sense is very hard to explain or program. Here is an excerpt from a recent interview (thanks to Al Upton for the link) :
Back when I was writing The Society of Mind, we worked for a couple of years on making a computer understand a simple children's story: "Mary was invited to Jack's party. She wondered if he would like a kite." If you ask the question "Why did Mary wonder about a kite?" everybody knows the answer -- it's probably a birthday party, and if she's going that means she has been invited, and everybody who is invited has to bring a present, and it has to be a present for a young boy, so it has to be something boys like, and boys like certain kinds of toys like bats and balls and kites. You have to know all of that to answer the question. We managed to make a little database and got the program to understand some simple questions. But we tried it on another story and it didn't know what to do. Some of us concluded that you'd have to know a couple million things before you could make a machine do some common-sense thinking.
He goes onto explain that emotions enable us to swap between different modes of thinking depending on the situation:

The main idea in the book is what I call resourcefulness. Unless you understand something in several different ways, you are likely to get stuck. So the first thing in the book is that you have got to have different ways of describing things. I made up a word for it: "panalogy." When you represent something, you should represent it in several different ways, so that you can switch from one to another without thinking.

The second thing is that you should have several ways to think. The trouble with AI is that each person says they're going to make a system based on statistical inference or genetic algorithms, or whatever, and each system is good for some problems but not for most others. The reason for the title The Emotion Machine is that we have these things called emotions, and people think of them as mysterious additions to rational thinking. My view is that an emotional state is a different way of thinking.

When you're angry, you give up your long-range planning and you think more quickly. You are changing the set of resources you activate. A machine is going to need a hundred ways to think. And we happen to have a hundred names for emotions, but not for ways to think. So the book discusses about 20 different directions people can go in their thinking. But they need to have extra meta-knowledge about which way of thinking is appropriate in each situation.

Minsky also expresses disappointment about "how few people have been working on higher-level theories of how thinking works", that too many "people look around to see what field is currently popular, and then waste their lives on that. If it's popular, then to my mind you don't want to work on it."

chess / sims comparison

Summary: I compare chess to sims with a view to understanding what is unique to sims. Some things are unique to sims, eg. Units (AI bots), chess is ahistorical, there more ways to alter players thinking in sims. But on most criteria chess holds up well. Chess is more of an individual activity (but not exclusively) so wrt developing things such as teamwork, leadership, stewardship sims might be better. Sims are more open ended than chess and a bigger variety of things such as maps, relationships and paths can be programmed into a sim.

This was a useful transfer exercise for me (transfer is v. good for learning) but I'm bound to be missing some important stuff because my knowledge of sims is fairly tenuous.
Clark Aldrich has developed a SimWords Glossary whose purpose is to:
acknowledge that learning practitioners are developing new tools for capturing domain knowledge, as well as new language for describing how they engage the world.
Since I'm not very good at computer games but am good at chess I read through the list with a perspective of figuring out which words are unique to sims, not covered in chess. Follow the link for a fuller description of the SimWords, I have abbreviated heavily.

Actuators - turn one resource into another. In chess you have pawn promotion, normally, but not always, to a queen.

Units / Constituents - an AI bot which plays a specific role within the game. UNIQUE.

After Action Reviews - post mortem out of real time play. Chess, yeah, strong players love the post mortem. This is an example of inventing a new term when there is a perfectly good old one.

Big Skills / Soft Skills - eg. communication, conflict management, decision making, leadership, negotiation, nurturing / stewardship, researching, teamwork, turning around a bad situation (incomplete list). Schools are terrible at teaching these important skills. Some of these are covered in chess (eg. decision making, researching, turning around a bad situation) but many are not covered very well (eg. leadership, stewardship, teamwork) although they can be in the context of putting a chess team together. Chess tends to be more of an individual rather than group activity.

Communities - although there are specific unique, interesting and valuable features of on line communities (eg. avatars, public / private messages) there are lots of other ways in life to build community. On line community has unique features but the concept of community permeates many activities.

Habituation - make someone used to something (and then maybe change the pattern?). James Gee talks about this too. You might have to learn one routine skill to pass one level and then that skill needs to be modified at a higher level. In chess you have to learn this sort of thing too. eg. Fools mate will work against a weak player but it exposes your queen too early against a strong player. At a higher level strong chess players examine a range of moves that look routine but they look deeper for a subtle twist, so that if your opponent responds in a routine unthinking way they will be punished.

Hero - as a paradoxical concept, learn the rules, then break them successfully. This happens all the time with chess combinations, where mind triumphs over matter. Even more so for the positional material sacrifice, where a pawn or the exchange might be sacrificed for space or time advantage.

Higher Level Patterns / Emergence - eg. "new technology is always overhyped", "success breeds success", "tragedy of the commons", "escalation". Patterns such as these are only appreciated in context, not really understood when taught through a diagram or as linear content. Sims are more open ended than chess and a bigger variety of such patterns can be programmed in. Chess, however, has a lot of patterns which can be learnt from books and practised in context where they become very meaningful. You win and lose depending on your ability to visualise the common chess tactical patterns - forks, skewers, pins, ties, nets, double attacks, discoveries - and combinations of these.

Lines and Relationships - what sort of relationships (including graphs) connect things, eg. linear, bell curve, the price / demand relationship. Once again, Sims are more open ended than chess and a bigger variety of such relationships can be programmed in.

Map - eg. maze (find something), territory (control), ecosystem (interdependencies), etc. There are more maps in chess than non experts might realise - the struggle for territory is an obvious one but less obvious is the way the map changes in the endgame, each type of endgame can have its own unique characteristics. But once again, Sims are more open ended than chess and a bigger variety of such maps can be programmed in. I'll just say ditto from now on.

Paths (player created) - eg. bidirectional, one way, between different groups, reorganisation of paths. I think most of this is contained within chess. Some pieces only go one way (pawns), others can jump over (knights). In a game between strong players there is a lot of manoeuvering / reoganisation going on as each player strives to co-ordinate their pieces and thwart the co-ordination of their opponents pieces.

Playing out information - eg. in halflife2 creatures with long tongues hang from the ceiling and try to eat you. Computer games are more subtle than movies in informing the player of the danger. Well, in chess the whole idea is to threaten your opponent in such a way that he is not aware that you are threatening him.

Primary variables / balanced scorecard - there is conflict / optimisation between different criteria for success. For example, for a walk in the woods, the primary variables might be fun, safety, low cost, and exercise. If the main learning thing here is the conflict / optimisation process between competing resources then that is a big part of competition chess - time management with the clock, which opening to play depending on what I know of my opponent, co-ordinating / optimising the mobility of different pieces are some examples.

Probe - we don't know what we don't know, what am I missing? This is a core ability in chess. If you miss something important you are likely to lose.

Real time - yes, competition chess is played in real time. Research, including looking at master games, and post mortem is also a significant time element amongst strong players.

Rubber banding - the rules are bent to keep things exciting and close, eg. in a car race. There are equivalents in chess - handicap games, the lower rated player starts with a material or time advantage.

Rush / Tank Rush - RTS, build a large mobile army and attack early. Definitely part of chess. Play the Kings Gambit, sac a piece, go for the jugular early. Rush, describes it well, although not a chess term.

Scramble - to recover, with resolve from a bad situation. In chess, one of the defining characteristics of a strong player is how hard it is to defeat them if you are lucky enough to obtain an early advantage.

Scoring - scores are mainly motivational, not instructional, not scientific. Too much reliance on scoring subverts learning. In chess, scores count for a lot and mean something.

Situational awareness - sims can force people to see the world differently. Becoming good at chess does make you see the world differently, eg. teaches you to plan ahead and anticipate possibilities. However, sims may be UNIQUE in that the designer can program different ways in which the player will see the world differently.

Tech Tree - eg. the alphabet comes before literacy. Possibly UNIQUE. Chess does not incorporate human history.

Throttle - how hard to you push for ? This is part of chess. If you go all out for a wild king side attack then you leave yourself open for a counterattack if not successful.

Tracking quests - that layer on top that makes things easier to understand. It includes charts and advice, as well as pre-reading and after action reviews. The chess equivalents are chess books, magazines, the post mortem and the coach.

Triggers - all or nothing events, the opposite of primary variables. Yes, in chess, we have the mate in one, or two, or three ...

Monday, July 17, 2006

MMORPG: Aldrich's critique

I'm not much of a game player (mental block) so I'm trying to organise an interview with some young World of Warcraft experts to get some idea of what they are learning from it.

In preparing for the interview I came across Clark Aldrich's reasons for deciding to develop a single player educational simulation, rather than a multi-player.
Multi-player simulations have all of the problems of role playing:
  • Role-playing environments are highly public. Most participants do not have the confidence or desire to try new behaviour that might be more successful. Instead they resort to the risk-adverse patterns where they are most comfortable.
  • People in a role play don't act "normally." People typically won't act petty, or territorial, or power hungry, when acting in front of a group...
  • The logistics of getting people to meet at the same time is hugely expensive and time-consuming... Training has to be flexible because the real world is not.
  • Groups of people act differently from one another. Some groups take it seriously, others joke around. ...
  • There is no repeatability... Human participants become exhausted and frustrated and bored. Computer characters (bots) never do ...
  • Real people act erratically ... the point of a simulation is to focus on key relationships, not on the entire range of human behaviour ...
These are all educational reasons for not opting for a multi-player simulation. Having said all of that, there are many non-educational reasons, including competition, buzz and sheer fun, that a fair number of educational simulation designers will choose to create experiences with multi-player components.
- Simulations and the Future of Learning by Clark Aldrich, p 101
Is Aldrich right? I'm not sure but feel he has made some strong points.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

inside / outside

The inside / outside distinction (dialectic) might be a fruitful place to integrate a variety of learning theories and where they stand. What sort of structures exist at the boundaries of inside / outside? Are those structures breaking down the boundaries and transforming the inside / outside relationship?

These are rough incomplete notes, which I'll transfer later and expand to a learning theory wiki.

Inside / outside can be applied to the learner (the boundary is the skin) and it can also be applied to the learning institution (eg. School)

Some boundary structures are sophisticated and enhance productive flow both ways. The internet has this potential when not censored. Other boundary structures are crude and are in place to restrict the flow of information, some of which is seen as risky or harmful. School rules which completely ban the use of mobile phones might fit this category. Some firewalls are necessary, some cause more harm than good.


One significant aspect of a variety of learning theories is the structures they hypothesize as existing at the boundary of inside / outside.

Papert's constructionism as an enhancement of Piaget's constructivism. Piaget's term for children's continual balancing of existing cognitive structures with new experiences is equilibration. Constructionism combines (integrates) building internal mind structures, facilitated by sophisticated external "objects to think with" (logo program, LEGO robotics)

Dennett's enhancement of Skinner's behaviourism, with the idea of a dynamic programmable inner environment.

Siemen's radical idea that in the age of the network learning exists outside of the learner. Your brains literally fall out when the internet is down or your mobile is stolen. Expand later.

Brooks AI revolution about the significance of situatedness and embodiment, on the importance of sensory devices and using the real world as a model. Expand later.


The boundary between inside School / outside School has become an increasingly active and problematic place.

Curriculum documents. These are both plausible and deformed frameworks of control, the way in which the centre controls the workers. cf. Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Perhaps the critique of centralised, abstract documents attempting to control teachers is similar to Brooks elevating the importance of situatedness and embodiment in AI research. ie. teachers are the embodiment of the Curriculum. A curriculum not developed in close conjunction with teachers is like a Mind without a body.

Kids do not leave their social background at the school gate

Internet is corroding and creating problems the School boundary - an increasing trend with the growth of hundreds of wonderful web applications many of which require Read/Write access to the www.

Google search (active exploratory education) is the opposite of sit and listen (passive transmission)

Censor-ware builds the castle around the School moat. Mobile phone use at recess and lunch tear it down again (not to mention the impossible dream of getting them switched off in class)

It has become harder to police and enforce boundary violations. In the sense of harder to justify clearly as always bad for learning. Many students are outraged by demands that they check in their mp3 players and mobile phones after they have "broken the rules". eg. you can use your mobile as a calculator in maths class.

Computer games are banned in many schools. Yet significant learning theorists such as James Gee are presenting powerful arguments in support using game playing as part of the learning experience.

Open Source software is developed collaboratively on the internet (outside School) and enables the learner to look inside at the code whereas Proprietary software conceals the source code. Open Source acts as both a model for good learning (collaborative, low cost) but Education Departments do deals with MS which extends their monopoly position, setting up a dependency on software in which the user interface is dumbed down.


Digital Rights Management - technology is crippled on the inside, restricted to protect an outdated business model

Net neutrality threatened - the fundamental most wonderful thing about the internet (untrammelled P2P) is now under threat

Copyright Law

technological change and systemic change

Technological innovation does not equal systemic or cultural change. Systemic change is much harder. Technological innovation can be used by "progressives" (not defined) to promote systemic change but in itself will not achieve that goal. It helps but is not sufficient.

In the end this may be why revolutions or other forms of dramatic change are necessary - because the gap between what is possible and what the system allows to happen becomes so great. This may build up to a point where the critical mass of those crying out for change snowballs sufficiently that change must happen.

We are not at that point. We are at a point where technological educational reform (blogs, wikis, podcasts etc.) are simultaneously both encouraged and discouraged by the system. Encouraged because innovation is seen by some as good and necessary. Discouraged (eg. by censor-ware) because innovation is seen by some as dangerous and faddish. Yes, the system is schitzophrenic.

This introduction situates some new points raised by Leigh Blackall in April on the TALO list:

1) new technologies, blogs, wikis (the read write web) are relatively simple cf. programming languages (remember logo), CSS, HTML etc.
2) new technologies are close to emergent youth culture, such as mobile communications, video games etc.
"By doing so we believe teachers will rediscover the relevance in their topics that their students need and crave. By doing so we believe teacher's live's, attitudes and moral will improve. By doing so we believe teachers will discover ways of integrating those "distractions" such as mobile phones, MP3 Xbox, PSP and television players and laptops, into their classroom activities. By doing so we believe teachers will learn how to communicate better in our digitally networked world."
So, to ask for school reform along these lines - incorporating blogs, wikis, mobile phones into the curriculum is not asking a great deal.

Leigh raised this in the context of native web systems being better than custom made school Learning Management Systems (such as Moodle)

Leigh raised and was critical about two excuses made by teachers for not learning new technologies:
1. teachers too busy
2. show me the evidence that it will help learning

I suspect Leigh is correct on the LMS point (I go that way myself) but I haven't fully investigated it and until I have I decline to be critical of those who use moodle etc. The reports I hear are good.

Since then Leigh has further refined his ideas around the slogan, Teaching is dead, long live learning. Bad slogan IMO. But that would be another essay. It might be fair to say that Leigh no longer adheres to the views being critiqued here. Nevertheless, the viewpoint is worth critiquing as a viewpoint.

In this essay, I'm addressing the broader question of the slowness of the "computer revolution" in schools and some reasons for that.

SHORT ANSWER (on the TALO list last April)

In so far as you (Leigh) are not asking too much (blogs and wikis are not hard) then you will not achieve too much - to integrate any new things into learning successfully does require real knowledge, insight, effort, belief, passion - if it is done mechanically then it won't work very well

In reality you are asking for a lot, that schools adapt to integrate modern youth culture, such as mobile phones, into their curriculum - for schools that is a big change (huge) wrt their established power relationships. That change is highly desirable IMO but it's not right to suggest that it is not asking for a lot

You have started by saying that this technology is relatively simple (true to an extent only) and then allowed that to slide into the suggestion that systemic change of power relationships in schools could be simple (not true)

The danger of the oversimplification is to invite the sort of comments that Bronwyn has made (on the TALO list) about teachers, suggesting stridently that in general teachers who don't adopt these technologies don't care for their kids (which is far from the truth)


1) The "IT revolution" - the transformation to "being digital" is happening but slowly, at a snail's pace really. Some people want it move a lot faster (me included), others want it to move much slower and the majority are content to jog along at the current rate (not too threatening).

2) Teachers. There are real and significant reasons why many teachers don't change as rapidly as we would like

3) Systems. There are real and significant reasons why School (capital S, as social institution) resist change

4) Learning theory. Why should the high tech path be the best way forward? Some thoughtful educators are not yet convinced.


There are very good - brilliant - teachers who have computers at home which are rarely switched on

Teachers have a subculture within a broader system consisting of department culture, teacher culture and student culture. I have discussed this previously in the context of Disadvantaged schools. The basic teacher priority is to survive in what is an incredibly complex and demanding job. Steering a path through conflicting and contradictory demands of the system takes up a lot of energy.

Teacher priorities can often consume all energy - behaviour management, the workload of 5 lines, the marking etc. etc.

Teachers are too busy. That is not an excuse. Teachers are too busy.

Another argument used for not learning computing is that the Department should provide inservice time for teachers to learn these new things. The reality however is that only IMMERSION works and no Department can ever provide that. The desire to master computers must come from within.

Access to computers in schools is still limited. The slow uptake of open source wastes money. The MicroSoft agreement slows down this process.

Real real world communities have very different cultures to real virtual world communities. The internet is still a new frontier. School is the last cottage industry.

There are significant generational issues, the average teacher age is 45+ which puts most teachers outside of the inner world of the digital native.

Teachers have a reflexive opposition (part healthy, part unhealthy) to the evangelical / strident note that some reformers strike. We have heard it many times before.

What teachers respect is leadership by example. Not polemics. Not philosophy. "Come into my classroom and show me how it is done".

As part of this discussion on the TALO list, botts came up with a great fear list:
  • fear of the unknown;
  • fear of looking stupid;
  • fear of new technology;
  • fear of loss of power;
  • fear of loss of control;
  • fear of not knowing as much as the students;
  • fear of change;
  • fear of getting it wrong;
  • fear of peers;
  • fear of the speed of change;
  • fear of losing all the work we do;
  • fear of others stealing our work;
  • fear of students cheating because they can do hacker stuff;
  • fear of the expectations that may be created by taking up this new way;
  • fear of not being good enough;
  • fear of those who are "experts";
As well as fear there is reticence which is just as important, maybe more so


The system (institutionalised education, School for short) has some or all of these characteristics / ways of thinking and doing:

The computer is just a tool (WRONG), not a new medium for the sharing and manipulation of all human knowledge for everyone

The curriculum is used as a blunt instrument of control over what is taught in schools. Teachers fiddle at the edges all the time but major transformation (what is needed) is nullified by this instrument of control

The Department thinks: "We control". Teachers think: "We shut the classroom door and do our thing" The reality often is that each is thwarting the vision and hopes of the other.

Computers are integrated into the curriculum. This is like using the piano for firewood because the average teacher does not have the required skills in use of the computer. "School Education is an invitation to a banquet and then you are served the menu" - Murray Gell Mann

Schools have a social function. (1) Production, churning out productive citizens (2) (Social)Reproduction, churning out compliant citizens. That is the bottom line. Schools have dual and contradictory purposes. Thinking about Schools, technology and change needs to start from understanding this basic point.

Schools are well managed ship wrecks designed to select the best swimmers

School as an analog system resists digital change and incorporates the computer into itself and remoulds the computer in it's own image. Not vice versa. There is a very nice Papert quote about this from The Childrens Machine:
... an innate intelligence of School, which acted like any living organism in defending itself against a foreign body. It put into motion an immune reaction whose end result would be to digest and assimilate the intruder. Progressive teachers knew very well how to use the computer for their own ends as an instrument of change. Schools knew very well how to nip this subversion in the bud.

Within schools there is turf war over the curriculum and time allocations. Turf war, not what is good for overall development of schools, computers, children.

School admins vary considerably in attitude to technology. Management skills do not correlate with technological readiness and even less with the epistemological transformation that could be rendered through a radical uptake.


Why should anyone accept that this particular new thing (new technology) is better than any other particular new thing? This point was raised by Seb at a PowerHouse Museum discussion about the Marc Prensky visit.

Maybe there are other great, excellent learning theories / ideas that are going to transform education radically. Seb raised the example of Kieran Egan. Maybe there are dozens of such theories? Why on earth should technological innovation be regarded so highly?

I think similar discussions have already been had 20 years ago wrt the promises and disappointments that grew up around the programming language logo

Papert eventually was forced to respond to the critique that logo was not delivering the goods because they could not be measured clearly and he accused his critics of being "technocentric"
"Consider for a moment some questions that are "obviously" absurd. Does wood produce good houses? If I built a house out of wood and it fell down, would this show that wood does not produce good houses? Do hammers and saws produce good furniture? These betray themselves as technocentric questions by ignoring people and the elements only people can introduce: skill, design, aesthetics. Of course these examples are caricatures. In practice, hardly anyone carries technocentrism that far. Everyone realizes that it is carpenters who use wood, hammers, and saws to produce houses and furniture, and the quality of the product depends on the quality of their work. But when it comes to computers and LOGO, critics (and some practitioners as well) seem to move into abstractions and ask "Is the computer good for the cognitive development of the child?" and even "Does the computer (or LOGO or whatever) produce thinking skills?"
Substitute the word LOGO in the above with "blog", "wiki" and you have a similar argument about Leigh's call for the transformative power of modern technology.

My criticism Leigh, is not that your position is wrong (I believe it is right) but that you have over simplified something that is quite complex. Your argument sounds like a technocentric magic bullet.

Friday, July 14, 2006

africa map game progress

The screenshot shows me dragging Nigeria to its correct location. Click on the image for a larger view.

I've been working on an african map game today. Making the countries in GIMP and then working out their co-ordinates for the game can be tedious. There are 54 countries in Africa. So far I've completed 20!

Most of the programming has been done by myself and Mitch with some help from Tony Forster.

More details of the africa game project at the africagame wiki.

power of 10

power of 10 java applet

Yesterday near Federation Square (Melbourne) I saw the Eames display of the power of 10. It's a series of posters that take you from looking at galaxies from a distance at one end (10^23 metres) to a representation of quarks at the other end (10^-16).

Each picture is actually an image of something that is 10 times bigger or smaller than the one preceding or following it.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

behaviourism and the inner environment

Behaviourism won't go away.

This has been theorised by Daniel Dennett, philosopher, in his essay, Why the Law of Effect Will Not Go Away. Chapter 5 of his book, Brainstorms. By the Law of Effect he means actions followed by rewards are repeated.

It takes two to invent anything. The two refers to a birfurction within the one individual. One makes up combinations, the other chooses from the combinations.

This can be compared to Darwinian evolution by natural selection.

Skinner's behaviourist approach presupposes a materialist world view. We live in an absurd, pointless world without higher meaning.

Skinner was looking for non question begging explanations of learning. One starting point was his rejection of question begging "intentional" or "mentalist" vocabulary such as belief, desire, expectation, recognition, action. All of these terms beg the question of explaining behaviour because they imply a self interested agent within the human, who "believes", "desires", "expects" etc. Nothing is really explained.

Skinner had valid reasons to reject mentalist explanations that only created an illusion of explanation.

Skinner's principle of operant conditioning (an operant is a new learnt behaviour, such as a bird presses a lever and is rewarded with food, stimulus -> response learning) accounts for a lot of learning but not all of it!

What is right about the Law of Effect? From an evolutionary standpoint behaviour such as a bird making a nest or a spider making a web can be explained through Darwinian natural selection. Tropistic, instinctual, innate hard wired, rigid behaviours such as these provide a survival advantage.

The next evolutionary step requires some plasticity, more capacity to learn. Humans have adaptive soft wiring, undesigned temporary interconnections that can be programmed. A new connection is formed (a reinforcer) linking a given stimulus (press the lever) to a given response (food appears). The capacity to be conditioned in this way has survival value.

However, humans and monkeys seem to be able to think out and select adaptive actions without any external feedback or reinforcement. At this point Skinner's explanations grind to a halt.

Dennett's wishful thinking: If only thinking could have an environmental effect.

It can! Creatures have two environments: an inner and outer environment.

The inner environment can provide feedback for events in the brain. That feedback can be rigid or plastic (learnt). However, inner plastic feedback is faster and safer!

"Selection by inner environment" can explain learning and learning to learn.

Dennett further enhances behaviourism by introducing ideas from Artificial Intelligence (AI) research into the mix.

AI programmers characterise problems intentionally, they use the language of cognitive psychology - maps, beliefs, expectations, concepts, preferences, plans of action.

They view the computer andropomorphically and then proceed to break the problem into bits. AI programs, programs that are designed to learn, generate possible solutions and then test against criteria. The criteria are part of the inner environment. Natural selection and the Law of Effect are a guideline to this process.

Learning can be viewed as self design. There doesn't appear to be a more powerful way to think about design than thinking of it as an evolution wrought by generate and test!

Generate and test is only a powerful and efficient mechanism provided that the generator is highly selective about likely, plausible candidates. Invention requires both fertility of imagination (in generation) and a critical eye (in testing).

This is also a reason for Skinner's unpopularity. He doesn't make us feel creative. Where do the ideas come from? Either the generator of ideas, the unconscious self has some discernment. Or the generator is a blind automaton. Neither alternative does much for our self esteem. Usually clever people (Poincare, Mozart) are not able to explain how their great ideas originated.

gee interview

Extracts from a long interview with James Gee about game playing and learning.

This made me think that there are distinct advantages to the co-creator approach, that the scaffolding extend into supplying substantial pieces of the code. Otherwise it is not practical to produce a good conversation, "Shooting is an easy form of interaction to program; conversation is not". I write this from the perspective of someone who has always favoured the building the game from the ground up approach.

In extreme summary, using games fruitfully in learning is all about:
  • being a producer or co-producer, not just a consumer
  • how to think about complex systems
  • allowing the participant to input into the design process (co-design)
  • that knowledge can often imply moral values
  • conversation, rather than killing (also a gender issue)
Not so much about about:
  • teaching content (game can be good at that but it's not their main potential)

I would not want to claim that "video games have positive effects,"...I argue that video games can be good for children and adults when played actively and thought about at a meta-level in terms of their design features and the sorts of interactions they allow or encourage.

What is most powerful about video games, I would argue, is that the "consumer" (player, learner) is also a "producer." Players actively co-create the virtual worlds of games by the decisions they make and the actions they take. In opened-ended games, the game is different for every player. Further, they can fairly easily build extensions and modifications to many games

The biggest thing limiting games in education in my view is the lack of good artificial intelligence to generate good and believable conversations and interactions (and we really don't have to solve fully the probably intractable conversation problem to get good verbal interactions going in games). Shooting is an easy form of interaction to program; conversation is not. We need games with expert systems built into characters and the interactions players can engage in with the environment. We need our best artifical tutoring systems built inside games, as well. And we need to have these systems used "just in time" and "on demand".

We don't want to rush too soon to ask questions like "Is this game teaching (academic) history or biology?". Games are first and foremost teaching the player how to play the game and ultimately master them. But a good game -- and Medieval Total War is a great game -- are teaching players (if they are playing them reflectively) how to think about complex systems. Thinking reflectively and well about complex systems is a crucial skill for the modern world where workplaces, communities, government, global institutions, and the environment are all complex systems. In such systems a great many things interact with each other and the consequences of local actions can readily radiate outward to have quite unanticipated consequences. Another thing good games are about -- and this, too, is crucial for the modern world -- is design. A game is an intricately designed world that encourages certain sorts of actions, values, and interactions. At the same time, the player co-designs the game's world by the actions and decisions the player takes. The player brings the world alive and in open-ended games every player ends up with a different world and having played a different game. Players can also use software that comes with the game to design new scenarios, levels, and even make modifications to the game. Many of the complex systems we interact with in the modern world (e.g., new capitalist workplaces) are designed to encourage certain sorts of actions and interactions, for better or worse. So, first of all, whether dealing with children or college students, we want to encourage them to think reflectively and act reflectively in regard to both the design of the game and the complex system that the game's world constitutes. Games like Rise of Nations, Civilization, Morrowind, and StarWars: Knights of the Old Republic already lend themselves to this sort of reflection.

One area where games have great potential is in creating worlds in which people can reflect on and know what it is like to act on certain sorts of moral ideas. Churches and ideologically-driven organizations (like the Neo-Nazi organization, National Alliance) already use games to embed people in worlds that reflect certain sorts of moral views. We educators are badly behind the curve here. I would love to see a game that got players to reflect on the sorts of values and decisions embedded in the work of being a scientist. Too often our students fail to see knowledge production as morally laden, but it is and that is what gives it value. (By the way, StarWars: Knights of the Old Republic can lead to a good deal of interesting reflection on identity and responsibility for past deeds.)

Many women play games, but I think one reason some of them don't is that games are not yet really strong in conversation and human interactions. This is changing, in part in massive multi-player games, where there is a great deal of conversation and interaction. I believe that many people -- not just women -- want to live in fantastic worlds where a lot happens and where they can explore and make decisions, but where killing is not the primary object.

Games can teach facts well and certainly could be used for this without much change in schools. But the real potential of games is to get people to think, value, and act in new ways. A game like Civilization can get the player to see that history could have happened in different ways and that what happens happens for lots of different reasons that interact in complex ways. The player can also see that a history game could be designed in different way to focus on a different theory of history. To me, this is the heart of history as a knowledge domain, not mere facts. To use games in school, we need teachers who actively scaffold thought about the game and its content and who actively tie it to an enhanced curriculum. The real issue for the future will be: Are we going to use games just to get schools better at skill-and-drill, or are we going to use them to get students to think deeply about the meaning of knowledge in different domains?

Let me say something about "basic skills," as well. Of course, when you learn to play a game or a genre of game (e.g., first-person shooters or role-playing games), you have to master both basic and less-basic skills. If you look at a game like Rise of Nations, you will see that good games always "teach" basic skills as part and parcel of playing the game or a simplified version of the game. They also always introduce skills not in isolation, but together in sets that constitute strategies for accomplishing certain goals and tasks that the player clearly wants to accomplish (and knows why). This, too, is a far more effective way to teach "basic skills" than is on offer in some schools.

Video games most certainly represent the emergence of a new form of multimodal "literacy", a new way of integrating words, images, sound, actions, values, decisions, and interactions. It is a way that many young people today find natural. It is also a way that creates fairly optimal conditions for learning, even learning tied to written texts.

Games will work well for many people 35 and under. For older people I think they need to be used in a different way. Games force older people -- like me -- to confront new ways of learning and thinking. They really bring home the ways of learning we have ritualized and taken for granted and been rewarded for in the past, ways which often don't work that well in the modern world. Games also really confront us with aspects of our own personality and ideas about learning and who we are. When I started playing games a couple of years ago as a 52-year-old, I found it the first really hard, really new form of learning I had done in years. We middle-aged people ride our experiences and skills for all they are worth, but often don't have to learn really new things in new ways. But the world is changing and everyone is going to need to learn new things in new ways. Games are a great site for this -- but older players may need support and help. I found learning to play games brought back the sort of excitment I had in graduate school when I was learning syntactic theory. In both cases, you really feel new mental muscles growing.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Games in Learning symposium

Outline of a ACEC Cairns 2006 symposium in which I am involved, along with Mark Piper and Tony Forster:

This Symposium is structured to discuss the interplay between learning theory and games in learning.

Many and varied voices have come forward recently advocating the use of computer games in learning.

There is a steady proliferation of software in both the game playing and the game making arena. Games are simultaneously becoming both more complex to play and easier to make.

Marc Prensky has delivered provocative speeches to educators advancing slogans such as “engage me or enrage me” and has drawn distinctions between “digital natives” and “digital immigrants”

In his writings James Gee has used games to explore new definitions of literacy … rather than read / write we now have recognise / produce … the latter is much broader and we need it to describe all the various multimedia genres that have become our new learning environment

Clark Aldridge has argued that computer simulations will be the next innovative wave of e-learning.

How do these newer approaches compare with the constructionist approach advocated by Seymour Papert with respect to the programming language, logo? Papert’s approach included the Instructional Software Design Project championed by Idit Harel, where students built software for other students to learn with.

There are still divisions between those who see games as good educationally and those who see them as bad or dangerous educationally (violent, addictive, another fad, edu-tainment)

There are also inertial (established curricula) and bureaucratic blocks (eg. filtering systems) in place making it hard for some teachers to implement games in education

There are also divisions amongst those who support games in education about the best way to go

Richard Van Eck has advance three possible ways in which games might be introduced into the curriculum:
1) have students build games from scratch;
2) have educators and/or developers build educational games from scratch to teach students;
3) integrate commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) games into the classroom

Bill Kerr and Tony Forster favour the first approach, students building games from scratch. Mark Piper favours the third approach, integration of COTS games into the curriculum.

The first approach does teach higher order thinking because students have to learn a programming language. The main block here is the difficulty in training teachers up to the skill levels required to facilitate this process.

The second approach is limited by the cost of developing educational games, particularly if they are to have the polish of commercial games. Do educational games need to be as polished as commercial games to be accepted by students? What would a good educational game look like? Would it concentrate on content or would it impart more generalised skills?

The third approach risks doing "more of the same" with the game being used to dress up otherwise boring and irrelevant content? Can COTS games really provide an environment which is dense with learning or are they only "add ons" with the real learning occurring in a conventional way?

With rapid changes in the lifetime of the relevance of the body of knowledge, some educators have recognised that generalised cognitive skills are becoming more important than content. This has been acknowledged in the Essential Learning Standards (ELS). Can game creation help students develop the generalised cognitive skills they will require?

How can a classroom teacher be expected to do all the learning and research required to achieve competence in a Games in Learning approach and to convince school administrations to facilitate such an approach? What level of competence is required of teachers, do they really need to be more advanced in their understanding of technical content than their students? How do teachers gain the confidence to face a class where the students know more than they do?

Bill Kerr (South Australia)

Bill Kerr has written and taught courses at Year 11 and 12 level in South Australia designed to teach programming and multimedia through the use of the Game Maker program. He has developed extensive Game Maker resources and makes them freely available for others at Articles theorising the interconnection between immersion in a programming language and learning can also be found at Bill’s site, He maintains an active blog at which regularly discusses games in education issues as well other questions. He is a member of the ASISTM Game Maker cluster.

Mark Piper (Queensland)
Mark Piper has worked at Nambour State High School as the Head of Department Information Communication technology, where he has developed a curriculum based on a Games in Learning framework. He has also taught IPT and computer studies for over 20 years. As the Project Officer for Games in Learning he is committed to developing programs, supporting schools and facilitating professional development in the integration of games in learning. He is currently Project Officer responsible for the Games In Learning project for the Queensland Department of Education and the Arts based at the ICT Learning Innovation Centre on the Sunshine Coast.

Tony Forster (Victoria)
Tony Forster is the parent of a student at Haileybury College, Melbourne. He started Haileybury Computer Club in 2003 ( . Computer Club is open to years 1 to 8. It is based on constructivist learning principles and students are encouraged to make their own games using Gamemaker. He believes that this provides an effective environment for the development of higher order cognitive and metacognitive skills. He has written on this at He has presented at a number of seminars and PD sessions on Gamemaker.

In 2005 he led a successful cluster application for funding under the Australian School Innovation in Science, Technology and Mathematics (ASISTM) Project. The cluster held the inaugural Australian Game Programming in Schools Conference in 2005 ( and organised the national computer game programming competition Screen It! 2005 in conjunction with the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (

the importance of remaining marginalised

... an alternative model of education requires an organisational envelope, so that it can remain isolated and not become assimilated into the government model. Could an alternative model of education be developed in a single place? The more I think about this idea the more it makes sense. All successful innovations start in a single place. A big problem with the government model is that it is global, it is grandiose. It makes a single site look small and insignificant.
- Invitation to Immersion (1997)
I have thought this for a long time and it is reinforced by a recent Paul Graham essay, The Power of the Marginal

Paul Graham associates these advantages with being marginalised, an outsider:
LESS - work on a small scale which has more personality, is more fun, involves more learning and is inexpensive
CONTRARIAN - to be more willing to embrace variety, newness, that it's Ok to be contrarian and to risk being undignified
RISK - it's good to churn out a lot of ideas, many of them foolish, if that process generates the occasional really good idea
TIME - if you are not known you won't be bothered much by others, you have the opportunity to work for long uninterrupted blocks of time ("obscurity is good for you")
INAPPROPRIATE - when someone criticises you in this lame way you are probably doing something right!

On the other hand the eminent insider is weighed down and thwarted by:
RESPONSIBILITY - which prevents focus on real work
GRANDIOSITY - the pressure to work on large, "important" projects
FOCUS - by focusing on what they are good at, not being alert for the new innovations
TIME - the pressure is to become a manager, removing self from real productivity

I like this Paul Graham quote about the perils of the insider project:
This little thought experiment suggests a few of the disadvantages of insider projects: the selection of the wrong kind of people, the excessive scope, the inability to take risks, the need to seem serious, the weight of expectations, the power of vested interests, the undiscerning audience, and perhaps most dangerous, the tendency of such work to become a duty rather than a pleasure.
The one real insider advantage was audience. But now with the ascendancy of the Read/Write web the outsider can capture their own audience.