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Free-range Thoughts

Marinating in the Mooc

When I signed up for the Playful Learning Day on Saturday September 28, 2013 I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was already familiar with two of the big names in educational gaming: Katie Salen and Jane McGonigal . In a former life I worked for Sierra Online (Sierra Studios) makers of the famous game HalfLife. I tried my hand at Minecraft but it made me dizzy. But still I needed to know more. There’s something games can bring to an educational setting — I can’t quite put my finger on it. John Seeley Brown points the way:

“It turns out that understanding play is critical to understanding learning. Play is the basis for cultivating imagination and innovation.”

In the spirit of play, I jumped in and it turned out to be a fabulous day. Much has happened in the educational gaming world since I last checked in.
Three presenters came to share their ideas, products and resources:
• Leslie Redd, parent of Andrew ’16, is on the leadership team of LearnBIG, an internet site that aggregates online games, simulations, videos, and course content making it easy to find online educational learning materials.
• Alex Chisholm, Co-founder and Executive Director of the Learning Games Network, formerly with MIT: Comparative Media Studies; game design trainer
• Allisyn Lecy, Vice President, GameUp at BrainPOP, Senior Director of Educator Experience

The day was a nice combination of theory, hands-on gaming and resource sharing. Alex started out by sharing the four deep structures of a good game. They are simple and powerful. A good game allows the player to experiment, fail, and to be in control of effort expended. A fourth structure is found in some games: the ability to control identity. Can school assignments be designed to take advantage of these engaging structures?
By the end of the first hour we were playing our first game: Lure of the Labyrinth: Employee Lounge. No instructions…a page of comics…press go.  Now what…?

Employee Lounge

Employee Lounge

It was apparent to me that adults are more timid about exploring, more risk adverse. Eventually we solved the game and discovered, to our delight, that we were learning algebra. It just snuck up on us. We solved the game by continually asking the mother of all questions: “What if …?”

Leslie Redd introduced us to her start-up company LearnBIG, which launched just last month. It is a web service to help explorers everywhere to locate just the right resource for their learning projects. Six major website filters (including dozens of sub-filters) help to narrow down the list of possible resources. LearnBIG is very selective with the resources they enter into their database. The service is intuitive and easy to use and better than any curriculum database I have seen – ever! If you can’t find what you are looking for – it probably means it does not exist. In that case, and should you accept the challenge, you have a DIY project on your hands. (See the Game Design Toolkit below.)

No one wanted to leave for lunch, but eventually our appetites got the best of us. (And thank you to the Gates Foundation for providing lunch.) Upon our return we divided up into groups and worked to integrate a game into a lesson plan. My group worked with a math assignment: polynomials. We did not find a suitable game and were coached to use the Game Design Toolkit to have the kids design a polynomials game – a nice creative solution. Not every game one needs is out there yet. Apparently there is a lack of games for English and Literature topics and there are more games for the primary school grades, because that level of content involves fewer variables (i.e. the games are easier to make). I hope I am not overstating this but it seems to me like the educational gaming field has yet to bloom. But I must add it has come a long way in the last couple of years.

Allyson from the GameUp portion of BrainPop explored the BrainPOP site with us pointing out these free sections in particular: GameUp and the GamePop Educators community. Seattle Academy parents: your students can show you the subscription site as they have access to the id/password. I love BrainPOP because it is such a fun diversion from the typical databases that libraries offer.
The last section of our day consisted of all three presenters sharing major gaming resources with us. If anyone would like to have that list, please email me: kjohnson@seattleacademy.org

I am convinced that we are on the cusp of a revolution in thinking that will involve more fluid, dynamic, iterative and social processes with an emphasis on problem solving. Having run-of-the-mill, static knowledge at our fingertips frees us up to move into this new cognitive territory. Gaming – educational or otherwise – trains us to get comfortable with the ambiguous, to react in the moment, and build upon new knowledge as it is revealed. We can practice seeing patterns. Constraints become challenges. The player is empowered and in the right game, supported by the team. So I think you can tell, I was energized by the day and by the possibilities. I look forward to exploring and sharing more with anyone who is interested.

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