Top 5 Books on Learning and Education

I made a claim about a book being in my top five favorite books on learning and education earlier today on twitter. To which, my former colleague Teresa DeFlitch asked to know what the other four books were. Now, I should mention that by favorite I mean that these are the 5 books I keep thinking about and talking about and will frequently revisit. I needed more than 140 characters. So, in no particular order here we go.

  1. Experience and Education by John Dewey – Completely amazed at how much depth you can find in such a little book. As far as I’m concerned it’s Dewey’s best book.
  2. Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension by Andy Clark – The examples of how people use their environment as part of thought are fantastic. Worth reading many times over.
  3. What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy by James Gee – More than a great book on games it is one of the best primers on an array of principles for learning.
  4. Reading in the Brain: The Science and Evolution of a Human Invention by Stanislas Deheane – Best synthesis I have seen so far for taking neuroscience research and putting it in dialog with an array of other work on learning and education. Also, the idea of neurological recycling is awesome.
  5. The Educated Mind: How Cognitive Tools Shape Our Understanding by Kieran Egan – I have returned to this work several times. It opens with one of the best descriptions of differences between major schools of thought on learning and cognition and puts forward a fascinating alternative.

What would your top five books about learning and education be and why?

Designing Learning Environments: Lessons from RPGmakervx.net

I am thrilled to announce that the first of a few publications resulting from my research on the RPGmakervx.net community has been published. I’m thrilled that, almost a year-to-the-day after I announced the start of the project the first of the resulting publications is out. Over the last year I had a lot of fun sharing  preliminary results from my survey on this blog and present a poster about the project at Games+Learning+Society conference last June. With that said, it is really exciting to see the results of that work ending up in  peer reviewed journal.

In this particular essay, I try to document the how and what people are learning in the community and try to abstract some principles from the kind of learning that occurs “in the wild” into lessons we can think about incorporating into more formal learning environments.

You can see a screenshot of a screenshot of the forums which I included in the paper below.

The folks at On the Horizon were great to work with. Specifically the guest editor, Christine Greenhow, and the reviewers gave me very invaluable feedback as I refined the essay. I should also note that I am quite excited to dig into the other articles in the issue.

I have included the structured abstract for the article below. Below that you can find links to it.

Trevor Owens, (2011) “Social videogame creation: lessons from RPG Maker”, On the Horizon, Vol. 19 Iss: 1, pp.52 – 61 DOI: 10.1108/10748121111107708

Purpose – Online community sites devoted to RPG Maker, an inexpensive software for creating role-playing video games, have emerged as spaces where young people are developing valuable competencies with digital media. This study seeks to examine the largest of these communities.

Design/methodology/approach – The study uses a mix of qualitative methods including a survey, interviews and analysis of the structure of the site. The study uses discourse analysis and is grounded in work on situated learning.

Findings – The study suggests that the site and community are scaffolding young people into deeper understanding of digital production and the development of practical skills, like programming, as individuals take on identities associated with different roles in game design.

Research limitations/implications – This study reinforces the value of research focused on young people’s social media creation and also suggests that there is still much to be learned about technologically simple but socially rich platforms like web forums. As qualitative research it does not generate statistical generalizations.

Practical implications – This research suggests three implications for the design of online learning environments focused on media production. Designers should: start with learners’ interests and basic skills will evolve; support a diverse range of production roles and identities; and offer simple technical systems that can support sophisticated digital learning communities.

Originality/value – While there is much work on learning in online communities, little of that work has focused on the importance of the role-taking of young people in those communities and on implications of these spaces for designing online learning environments.

If you don’t have access to the very nice looking official PDF you are free to take a look at my personal less nice looking PDF. I should note that I am able to deposit this copy of my paper on my personal website because of Emerald Publishing’s very reasonable author charter.

Designing a Digital History Course: Part 1

This spring I will be teaching a graduate seminar for American University’s history program titled History in the Digital Age. I have been thinking a lot about how I can get the practices of the course to model some of the emerging practices in digital history. As part of that process I have narrowed the course goals down to the list of 4 below.  In keeping with the spirit of collaboration and open communication I hope to make a core part of the course. I thought I would also blog the process of creating the syllabus to refine these ideas in public. I hope to generate some conversation here and use that to refine the course.

Course goals

After the course students will be able to:

  1. Independently discover, evaluate, and implement novel digital tools and resources to support traditional scholarship, public projects, teaching and scholarly communications.
  2. Develop proposals for digital history resources with detailed plans for  project management, design, outreach, and evaluation.
  3. Synthesize analysis of born digital and digitized materials, (datasets, algorithms, spreadsheets, maps, video games, web sites, social networks, text corpora, etc.) with existing approaches to analysis of traditional primary and secondary source material to develop novel historical narratives.
  4. Thoughtfully and purposefully engage in dialog about history on the public web with a range of stakeholders in digital history; historians, archivists, museum professionals, educators, and armatures, etc.

To get at the first goal I intend to have students demo tools to the class and make case for what a given tool, for example voyer, could do for research, teaching, outreach, etc. The second two goals are going to be covered by writing short proposals (one for a paper and one for a digital tool or resource) and then following through on one of those proposals. I am still working on the details of those assignments, which I will share later, but I am on my way to articulating the assignment that gets at the last goal, students participation in a public course blog.

Here is how I am framing this assignment:

The course blog: Engaging in online public discourse about digital history

We are not simply going to learn about digital history in this course, we are also going to do digital history. That means we need to engage with the public web. To this end part of our course communication is going to happen in a public course blog.

On the first day of class I will show you how to use the blog. You are expected to post a minimum of two times, once about one of the readings and once about one of the digital tools or resources. We will sign up for who writes about what on the first day of class. These are blog posts, and as such they should not written like term papers. Part of the goal of this assignment is to become familiar with the genera and format of discourse on thoughtful blogs.  You need to get in, say something interesting, and get out. Ideally telling us what the thing is, why it is, what is particularly interesting here, and ending with an invitation to discussion. You should think of your posts as mixing the features of a well composed academic book review and the well conceived blog post (Do read those links). Posts for a given week must be on the web the Sunday before class (yes, if you want you can post it at 11:59 on Sunday).

Do not assume your reader has detailed knowledge of the thing you are writing about. One of the goals of the blog is to invite interested third parties into a conversation with our course. If we are doing this right you can expect comments and dialog with historians, humanists, librarians, archivists, curators, and bloggers who are not participating in the course as students but who are participating in the public conversation we initiate through the blog.

First decision: Your identity and the blog

This is public so one of our first considerations is going to be personal identity. While this is a practical matter it is also, very directly, part of the subject matter of the course. I would encourage you to blog with your real name, it is a good idea for you to start building a web presence for yourself. It has even been suggested that in this field you can either “be online or be irrelevant.”  With that said, if there is any reason that you are uncomfortable with sharing your name publicly, you should feel free to use a pseudonym.  If there is a reason that you do not want to share your work on the web please send me an email or meet with me after class. I feel that this public dialog is an important course goal, but I will of course understand and accommodate anyone that needs a different arrangement. If at the end of the course you would like to continue blogging I will be happy to show you how we can pull all your posts out and into a new blog of your own. We will talk about this identity decision on the first class day.

Keep the conversation going

Posting is not the end of the assignment. After posting you need to foster the discussion you are initiating. When people comment you need to give substantive responses. Try to engage everyone who comments in some fashion and try to use the comments to sustain a conversation you began at the end of your post.

Commenting is also an assignment

Beyond posting you are expected to contribute substantive comments to a minimum of six of your peers posts. Your comments should extend and contribute to the conversation. Good comments are an a important format unto themselves. Read profhacker’s guidelines for comments for a sense of the kind of comment ecosystem we are trying to produce here and then read how to write a great blog comment for some suggestions on the format for comments. Comment early so that others have a chance to read them (your comments need to be up before midnight on Monday).

The course blog is the required reading we write ourselves

Beyond posting and commenting everyone needs to read everything on the blog before class each week. This is the part of the course readings that we write ourselves and in all honesty this is the most important springboard for our in-class discussions.

Review of linked readings:

David Parry. 2010. Be Online or Be Irrelevant – academhack – Thoughts on Emerging Media and Higher Education. academhack. January 11. http://academhack.outsidethetext.com/home/2010/be-online-or-be-irrelevant/.

Grammar Girl. 2009. How to Write a Great Blog Comment. March 20. http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/how-to-write-a-blog-comment.aspx.

Patel, Neil. 2009. How To Write A Blog Post. July 21. http://www.quicksprout.com/2009/07/21/how-to-write-a-blog-post/.

Profhacker People. n.d. About ProfHacker – Commenting and Community Guidelines. http://chronicle.com/section/About-ProfHacker/439/#guidelines.

Scheinfeldt, Tom. 2009. Brand Name Scholar. Found History. February 26. http://www.foundhistory.org/2009/02/26/brand-name-scholar/.

Schrag, Zachary. 2003. How to Write a Review. historyprofessor.org. September. http://historyprofessor.org/reading/how-to-write-a-review/.

LMGTFY, Shame, and Collective Intelligence

Let me Google that for you (lmgtfy) is a snarky way to respond to someone asking an obvious question. It was created “for all those people that find it more convenient to bother you with their question rather than google it for themselves.” Lmgtfy has become a relatively popular way to respond in any number of web forums, but more broadly, I think it speaks to the kind of literacy that search is beginning to represent.

To break this down a little bit, when someone responds to your post asking how to pivot tables in excel, or how to tie a bow hitch on a web forum by posting a link to lmgtfy you are being told that the question you asked does not require a human to answer it. It has already been answered on the Internet and with a very simple search query, as demonstrated here, you could have found that answer. At the core of the idea of lmgtfy is the notion that a savoy digital citizen should be able to make specific assumptions about the kind of knowledge the web puts at their fingertips. Lmgtfu is supposed to be a shaming experience, and the possibility of that shame is predicated on a kind of literacy of collective intelligence.

Collective What?
Collective intelligence is a mushy term, in this case I am referring to Pierre Lévy’s notion. In Collective Intelligence (1997) Lévy proposed a vision for the kinds of changes the internet could generate in culture. Lévy suggested that in online culture “The distinctions between authors and readers, producers and spectators, creators and interpreters will blend to form a reading-writing continuum, which will extend from machine and network designers to the ultimate recipient each helping to sustain the activity of others.” (p.121) I think the shame lmgtfy is intended to evoke demonstrates a limited form of this collective intelligence.

Now lets be clear, while proponents of the idea of collective or distributed intelligence and cognition are often accused of proposing some magic brain in the sky that’s not what I’m referring to. Instead, the idea is that parts of the thinking process are always mediated by tools, pen and paper, print media, computer, or mobile device, each is embedded in the cognitive process of individual agents.

On one level, this is rather obvious. Many are advocating that search and google mean that trivia and facts are less important than the ability to find and interpret information. The point I am focusing on here is that there are few key elements involved relating to thinking like a search engine and generalizing from your experience to understand if the specific question is something the Internet should know.

Thinking like Google and Thinking like the Crowd
Who was president in 1832? What’s the best way to steam carrots? How does !important works in css?  Which iPhone 4 case is best? Where can I find some good Indian food in Fairfax, VA? All of these questions have relatively straight forward online answers available. In each case, we have developed a sense of specific, limited, notions of collective intelligence and our internal representation of the kind of information that should be out there to help make a given decision. The successful individual searcher has internalized a representation, a map, of both the way a database organizes information (search terms, where google maps data comes from, etc) as well as what kind of people would share that information (the kinds of folks that review restaurants on Yelp, the extent to which a given problem would be shared, the biases of reviewers of bargain hunters on a given do-it-yourself home improvement forum). Effectively, information literacy is developing this model. In essence this is about knowing three things.

  1. Knowing what kinds of knowledge should be out there on the web. (This is a assumption about the generality of your problem and the nature of information that is put online)
  2. Knowing what kind of search query will get you there. (This is about understanding a bit about how search works, knowing what kind of keywords will get you where you need to go)
  3. Knowing what the limitations of that kind of information are both in terms of kinds of questions one can ask and the biases of the sources one encounters. (This is the interpretive part, and it is once again about your theory for why someone would post this information online)

At the core, each of these are about developing 1) a sense of how computers, and more specifically databases and search engines, structure and organize information and 2) a sense for the kind of people that share specific information in a given context.

Knowing online is internalizing  the machine that is us/ing us
The two points, internalizing a sense of how a computer searches and internalizing a sense of what things people should have shared online to be searched is effectively internalizing a working model of the internet and it’s users in your mind. It is not that the internet is itself an intelligence, but instead that we are constantly updating our mental model of the web and its users through our own search experiences.

The following example of interpreting ratings on Yelp offers a furhter demonstration of how I am thinking of this and also offers a place to consider the idea of general notions of competence and their relationship to individual sites.

Site Specificity and Domain Generality of Collective Intelligence Heuristics
Like all knowledge domains there are idiosyncrasies of competence that are narrow and specific which are nested within broader notions of competence. For example, try this word problem on any Yelper. You want a sandwich, your Yelp search pulls up a restaurant with 4 stars and a restaurant with 5 stars. Which is the better restaurant? Answer: Insufficient information, I need to know how many total reviews there are for each establishment. In short, if the 5 star restaurant has that rating as the result of 3 reviewers and the 4 star restaurant has its score as the result of 124 reviewers it is likely that the 4 star restaurant is well established, and hey, your a Yelper, you know that for every 10 reviewers out there who give a great restaurant 5 stars there will always be a few snarks out there that feel like they can only give a 5 star review once every six months. Now, even if you are not a Yelper, but you are familiar with how reviews work on Amazon, you might have come to the same set of conclusions. In all likelihood the Yelper would have a better sense of how to read individual reviews, and reviewers profiles, in the process of making restaurant decisions. However, the individual with experience with Amazon’s similar system of reviews would transfers and translates that experience into a more general competence about interpreting online ratings and reviews.

Outreach and Scholarly Software

A few months ago I had the distinct pleasure of sharing some of my experiences and thoughts on outreach and community building for scholarly software projects with the One Week One Tool team as part of the first two days of the summer institute. I was excited at the prospect of sharing my experience, but intimidated by the fact that so many of the participants had already done a considerable amount of work in this field. I like to think our outreach conversation went well!

With a little bit of time distancing myself from the actual event I thought I would work through some of the ideas I put forward to the group. My goal here is twofold, first I would like to share some of our discussion of software and community with folks who were not a part of the event and second I would be interested to hear from the participants about how my ideas did or didn’t resonate with the work they engaged in on anthologize. So below you will find 5 principles and 5 roles I see as critical to scholarly software outreach. I don’t by any means claim to have invented anything here, just trying to share my thoughts on practices. If you’re interested in a more extensive run down of the project I would suggest Tom’s interim report.

Trevor’s 5 Outreach Principles

  1. Outreach sounds like it starts at the end, but it should be a bit more ever present. It starts with a conception of audiences. Who are the end users? Who can I get to promote this to those end users? Make this part of your upfront planing process.
  2. Understand outreach as a value proposition for your end users. The more time and energy it takes to get your tool to do whatever it is supposed to do the better it’s payoff should be. Your competing for the end users attention and time. Those are scarce resources. Your tool’s site should establish the problem the tool solves and why this is a great way to solve that problem in as concise a way as possible.
  3. If possible, leverage existing communities. At this point, whatever you are trying to work on has already been worked on. Are there some interesting open standards that have some solid work behind them? Are there some abandoned tools who’s users you could pick up? If you can offer a clear value proposition to an existing group you don’t need to start from scratch.
  4. Spending time convincing people who convince people to use your tool can be far more effective than spending time convincing people to user your tool. This has always been the strategy on Zotero. The most effective parts of our outreach have been developing workshops to train folks to use the tool. There is a value proposition here too. If a tool really makes it, being able to teach someone how to use useful software is a credential.
  5. Look more reputable. People are scared that software will eat their data. Aside from making sure that doesn’t happen, you should try your hardest to make people feel like you are going to stick around for a while. This means that the design of your site matters. Things that look slick, that have active news feeds, that identify who funded them and what the plan for the future is are going to make folks more comfortable. Having a solid reputation is a great goal, but you need to start somewhere, you might even consider connecting the project with things people trust.

Trevor’s Five Components of Outreach

I like to think about outreach as building and engaging with existing communities of software users, evangelists, and potential code contributors. In this view outreach involves at least five very different roles/tasks. Other folks might cut these up and organize them differently, in a big project there could be a range of folks taking on these roles, in a small project they might all fall to the same person.

  1. Usability: If people are going to use the software you need to get a sense of how folks understand it. In my experience, starting with something like user personas in the initial design phases and pushing out functional software for public use and testing is great. In other cases it might make sense to do much more extensive testing.
  2. Marketing and publicity: This part is what a lot of folks think of as core outreach activity. Spreading the word about your tool, trying to get it mentioned in the right places, giving talks at the kinds of meetings and conferences your potential users go to, getting coverage of your tool in the kinds of publications your potential users read. This is great stuff, you can’t ignore it. On the most basic level its about crafting a message and getting it out there through a blog or news section. If you pitch your story right you could get picked up by some real big deal blogs and generate some traffic to your tool.
  3. User Guides and Documentation: After taking a quick look at your homepage the next stop for a lot of users is going to be your documentation. I think one of the biggest problems I see in different projects is that folks think of documentation as technical information and not as part of their outreach efforts. No matter how much you invest in getting people to visit your site, how much you put into getting an attractive homepage, it can all be for naught if you don’t make it as easy as possible for people to figure out how to do what they want to do with your too. The key point here is that documentation is not about describing what the software does it is about telling people how they can do what they want to do with your tool. While you might think the homepage of your site is the front, remember that web search means any page could be the first page someone sees.
  4. User Advocacy: Once a project has users it also has people outside of the development team that want the tool to do something. Now, a lot of tools don’t ever get here, but when they do it is critical to try to role their interests and voice into the project. If you want users to stay around and become advocates you need to need to have someone advocating for their needs.
  5. Sustainability: It’s a great word, and in the world of grant funded work it is, for good reason, THE big idea. If anyone is going to fund your project they want to know that they are not signing up to provide you with funding till the end of time. It is easy to gesture toward a user community as part of a sustainability plan, but it is much more difficult to turn people into users, users into promoters and coders, and those folks into a network that ultimately ensures a sustainable future for a tool.

So what do you think? Is this a reasonable way to think about outreach and scholarly software? Are there things missing from the picture? Are there things in here that you think shouldn’t be viewed as part of Outreach? For folks who participated in the One Week event, how did or didn’t these ideas come into play with Anthologize?

Works that shaped my ideas on users, software and community
  1. Brown, D. (2006). Communicating Design: Developing Web Site Documentation for Design and Planning. New Riders Press.
  2. Garrett, J. J. (2002). The Elements of User Experience: User-Centered Design for the Web. Peachpit Press.
  3. Jin, L., Robey, D., & Boudreau, M. C. (2007). Beyond Development: A Research Agenda for Investigating Open Source Software User Communities. Information Resources Management Journal, 20(1), 68-80.
  4. Krishnamurthy, S. (2005). Launching of Mozilla Firefox – A Case Study in Community-Led Marketing. URL http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/summary?doi=10.1.1.59.687

Teaching with RPG Maker: Interview with Caleb Gentry

I had a ton of fun talking to folks about my research on RPG Maker at the Games Learning and Society Conference last month. I am a big fan of the opportunity for conversation that poster sessions provide. I expected most people that visited my poster would be unfamiliar with RPG Maker and the community. That was true for about half of them. The other half consisted of people that had been using the software themselves and educators that had used the software for teaching computer programing or game design.

I was thrilled to have the opportunity to ask one of these educators, Caleb Gentry, some questions about teaching with the software. Caleb teaches some very cool courses on digital media and programing at Sequim Middle School in Washington. His reflections on teaching with the software offer some interesting points of comparison and consideration for thinking about working with the software in a completely informal learning space.

Where did you first find out about RPG Maker? What were your first impressions of the software and what made you think it could be a teaching tool?
I was already teaching game design to middle school students and a few of them wanted to make RPG style games and the product we were using (Multimedia Fusion 2) to make our games wasn’t very efficient for this task. I began to look online for new software solutions and I came across the RPG Maker series. There are quite a few versions that I evaluated and some lacked essential features that I needed such as network folder support.

How did you first use the software in a classroom? What were your learning objectives? What kind of curricula did you develop around it?
After I tested RPG Maker VX myself I installed it for a single team of students in order to test how the students would react. They picked up on how the software worked quickly and easily and so I allowed them to continue to use it for their team game design unit. I now have a simple RPG unit in the game design class that is required. This summer I began testing Gamestar Mechanic and I think it fits well as a unit following the Gamestar Mechanic training. Moving middle school students of various levels of proficiency through the game design process can be challenging but I think there are great off the shelf products at this point that make it a legitimate choice as an elective class or as a unit in a core class. You can check out TexasGames.net for more reviews of software.

How did/does it work in a classroom? What kind of reflections do you have on using RPG Maker to teach and how would you compare and contrast it to other tools?
The product is a great fit for my needs. It is easy enough to use quickly yet complicated and flexible enough to keep the students engaged for months. In caparison to other tools we use I would say the basic programming is a bit easier, it really works for students who want to tell a story through their game. Girls usually excel with RPG Maker…probably because they tend to not care as much about shooter games.

At the poster session I was able to tell you a bit about my research on the RPG Maker VX community. Using the application in a classroom is clearly very different from this community, but I am curious to know what kind of similarities and differences you saw between students learning to make games with the application in your classroom and the individuals from the web community we discussed?

Just like an online community a learning community within a classroom has individuals that step up and lead the way. There are usually a handful of students who “get it” and assist others with figuring out the complexities of the software tools and process of game design and development. I think that it’s easier for most students to share face to face…mostly because posting to online communities requires more effort. The biggest difference is in the fact that in my classroom all the students are one age and in the online communities people of all ages can contribute. There are risks involved of course when people of many ages coexist in virtual space but I think it’s important for students to realize that they can become an expert in something at a young age and contribute to a larger community.

If there was one piece of advice you would give to someone that wanted to use a game making application, like RPG Maker, to in their classroom what would it be?

I think it would be to try and not worry about not being an expert of the software to begin with. Eventually you will need to be at least competent with it but at first you can figure it out together with the students. Obviously if an online community exists for help it’s a big plus so it should be a variable that you should consider when choosing game design software. I was extremely fortunate to have support early on in my teaching career from other teachers in the TexasGames.net community who made it possible to not only learn how to use the software but it figure out the best approach to teaching such a dynamic subject. I’ve tried as much as possible to give back to that community.

Divergent Design Competence in the RPG Maker Community: GLS Presentation

I am thrilled to be back in Madison, if only for a few days, for the Games Learning and Society conference. Now in it’s 6th year, it is very cool to see how much the conference has grown and matured since I worked on the first two years of the conferences organizing committee. This year I am excited to be presenting a poster on some of my RPG research. Along with presenting my poster in person I wanted to put it up to share with everyone who isn’t at the conference.

I have included the brief text from my poster here too.

Abstract:
The RPG Maker VX Community site provides its more than 40,000 members a space to collaboratively critique and design PC role-playing games. This poster presents preliminary results from a qualitative study of this community. Analysis of interviews and discussions on the RPG Maker site, combined with information gathered through a survey suggest that the RPG Maker Community is scaffolding young game enthusiasts into a deeper understanding of game design and allied digital art perspectives. The study proposes a model for how members join, advance, and develop new literacy competencies through participation in the community.

Conceptual Context:
Online affinity communities are increasingly being explored as places where young people are acquiring new literacies (Gee, 2004). Through extensive ethnographic fieldwork Ito and others (2010) found young people “geeking out” in web based affinity communities where individuals are “learning to navigate esoteric domains of knowledge and practice and participating in communities that traffic in these forms of expertise” (p. 28). Studies of Flickr (Davies, 2006), fan fiction sites (Black, 2005), and Civilization fan-sites (Squire & giovanetto 2008; Owens 2010) support the idea that young people are acquiring critical new literacy skills in these communities.

The communal and cooperative nature of these informal learning communities suggests that they be understood as communities of practice (Lave & Wenger 1991). Community members develop competence and refine their skills toward mastery through interaction and engagement, and encouragement from expert community members. The RPG Maker community offers a space to further examine these kinds of interest and affinity driven spaces.

Research Design:
This poster presents part of a larger multi-method study of the RPG Maker Community. The larger study uses a randomized survey of participants to chart general demographic information and involvement in the community, in-depth interviews with a purposeful sample of ten community members to document participant reactions and understanding, and analysis of forum discussions and rules posted on the community site to examine the actual interactions of community participants. This poster reports preliminary results from these three data sets, focusing primarily on articulating a model of community engagement and the competencies community members develop.

Model of Individual Community Engagement and Competence Development:


Snippets from Interviews:
The poster format does not really provide an extensive space to analyze data, but I did want to give a sense of the kind of materials I have been working with to develop this model. In the future I will do some more in depth analysis of these kinds of materials. With that said, this does provide a flavor for the kinds of data I am drawing on.

Conclusions:
Analysis of the interviews and discussions on the RPG Maker site, combined with information gathered through a survey suggest that the RPG Maker Community is scaffolding game enthusiasts into a deeper understanding of game design and art and allied art and design perspectives. This work supports the following theory for engagement in the community. Members join to gain access to the resources, character sprites, maps, scripts, and other artwork. Some then engage in a cycle of critical dialog with other community members. The evidence suggests that those who persist in engaging in this dialog develop a range of critical competencies 21st century skills and new literacies in art and design.

Read My Article On Civ Modders in the Journal Simulation & Gaming

I am excited to announce that an article I wrote about how the game Civilization modders, players that edit and alter the game’s code, is now available as OnlineFirst through Sage. The project was a ton of fun and I hope it sparks some good conversations. You can find the abstract bellow.

Sid Meier’s CIVILIZATION has been promoted as an educational tool, used as a platform for building educational simulations, and maligned as promoting Eurocentrism, bioimperialism, and racial superiority. This article explores the complex issues involved in interpreting a game through analysis of the ways modders (gamers who modify the game) have approached the history of science, technology, and knowledge embod- ied in the game. Through text analysis of modder discussion, this article explores the assumed values and tone of the community’s discourse. The study offers initial findings that CIVILIZATION modders value a variety of positive discursive practices for devel- oping historical models. Community members value a form of historical authenticity, they prize subtlety and nuance in models for science in the game, and they communicate through civil consensus building. Game theorists, players, and scholars, as well as those interested in modeling the history, sociology, and philosophy of science, will be inter- ested to see the ways in which CIVILIZATION III cultivates an audience of modders who spend their time reimagining how science and technology could work in the game.

For those of you outside the great paywall, I have a copy of the article here on my personal website.

The Interest Driven Curriculum and Online Affinity Communities

The more I explore informal affinity communities, like the Civ modder community, or the RPG Maker Community, the more intriguing I find them. While the communities are themselves interesting, I think there are lessons in these spaces for rethinking more formal learning environments. This post is an attempt to refine some of this line of thinking. For the last few weeks I have been trying to put my finger on exactly what that something is. There are lots of individual things, for example the way participants in these communities learn to give and take criticism is important. But, I think there is something much bigger here too.

Here is what I have for the moment. The most important thing that happens in these spaces is that participants experience what it feels like to commit to a project, invest in it, and over a long process, see it grow. At the heart of these communities, I think the real value is in their ability to let a participant chase their own interest and get a feeling for how pleasurable that interest chasing experience is.

Everyone needs to find Flow
This is fundamentally about experiencing a kind of motivation. Csíkszentmihályi calls these experiences flow. It’s a terrible name, but a critical concept. Flow is a kind of single-minded immersion in a task. It is a pleasurable experience, and it is a fundamental part of developing competence and eventually expertise in a domain. The idea of flow can get rather squishy, but it does describe the generic experience of developing competence and mastery across a wide range of domains.

What troubles me, is that I think many young people never get to experience flow in school, and if they do, only experience it in a single domain. I think places like the RPG Maker Community, and Civ Modders sites could serve as tools for schools to use to help give this experience to all students.

I will borrow an argument from my high school gym teacher as an example of what I think schools need to do in this area. My gym teacher frequently explained to the class that the real value of gym class was for for every student to feel what it is like to exercise frequently enough to be healthy. Without that gym class, many of the students would never have felt what being healthy/ fit was. Without that frame of reference, many students who never exercise would not have any idea of how good it feels to be healthy.

If students are not experiencing flow in schools there is a good chance that they will never have a frame of reference for how good it feels to develop competence in a domain they are passionate about. Schools do a reasonably good job at demonstrating some kinds of motivation to students. Every student experiences extrinsic motivation (do your homework or you fail the class), and many students internalize that carrot and stick, (If I do well on this assignment I will go out for ice cream). However, I don’t think many students get to feel what it is like to feel the kind of intrinsic motivation that comes from flow, and without ever knowing what that feels like, what it feels like to get lost in your work, what do those students have to compare their later experiences in work and life with?

There are places in schools that provide these kinds of experiences, like music and art classes, and theater and athletic programs. However, when students experience flow in a single domain, they are likely to attribute the positive experience associated with flow to the domain. For example, a student that experiences flow as a violinist may well become convinced that playing violin is the only thing that makes them feel that way. In this case, they become convinced that there is one thing that they can do. Beyond the need to have this kind of flow experience, I think we need to think about helping young people find that experience in a range of fields.

The Interest Driven Curriculum
When thinking about the value of the Civ Modder’s space, or the RPG Maker Community, what I find most striking is that these spaces and communities provide a powerful means to engage in flow experiences. There are a wide range of other interest driven communities like these. Flickr has hundreds of active photo pools where budding photographers can engage in the same kinds of experience. Galaxy Zoo has a very active community of participants exploring and teaching each other about astronomy. Places like fanfiction.net provide the same kind of experiences for writing about a range of characters from popular media.

Imagine if, for an hour or two a day, schools told students to chase their interests. Facilitators for this kind of experience could well send kids interested in making video games to explore the RPG Maker or Civ communities, Flickr for those interested in photography, fan fic for the kids excited about their pokemons. I think the best way to get students to experience flow is to let them chase their interests. These kinds of web communities provide a great place to get to feel that. At this point, those interest driven experiences of competence are only available to the students that discover them on their own. If we think that equity is one of the most important values of our education system I think we need to seriously think about how we can get these kinds of experiences in the schools.

So Who Are the RPG Makers? Preliminary Survey Results

I am excited to report that i have finished gathering data from my RPG Maker VX community survey and am well on the way toward finishing interviews with a subset of the respondents. For more information about this project see my previous post. At this point I thought I would share a cursory overview of some of the interesting preliminary survey findings. For those survey research junkies out there I should make clear that this survey is part of a qualitative research project. It was developed strictly as a means to gather descriptive data to provide a broader context for analyzing discussions on the site and interviews with community members. For details on the survey methods and response rates jump down to the last section of the post.

This is a community of young people:
Most of the community members are between the ages of 16 and 24, and of those most are between 18 and 22.  As I will document through analysis of discussions and interviews the members of this community are developing sophisticated practices for taking and giving criticism as well as working collaboratively. In this space young people are both the teachers and the learners. While critics frequently lament students motivation and hard work it is clear that this communal space is providing a place for young people to cut their teeth as artists, designers, critics, and producers of digital media.


This is a global community:
45% of the sample reports living in the United States. The rest of the group is spread across Europe, South America, and Asia. A majority of community members reported English as their native language (64%) the remaining 36% represent a smattering of other languages, including Spanish, French and Japanese.

These young people are not just playing around
Most of those surveyed have been involved for more than a year and report spending a considerable amount of time each week on writing, design, and art projects for their games. Group members show significantly different amounts of time spent on different parts of projects. Some spend the bulk of their time writing others spend the bulk of their time creating game artwork.


This is a place where young people are first exposed to programing

RPG Maker VX includes a scripting system, Ruby Game Scripting System, which extends the Ruby Computer Programing language. Nearly all (83%) of the community members report that they have used the games scripting system, and 35% of the respondents reported that working with RPG Maker was their first experience with computer code.

These young people strongly identify with hits from the “RPG Cannon”
When asked about their favorite video games participants cited a mixture of current and “classic” games. To get a quick sense of the kinds of games which appeared most frequently, scan the word frequency chart I generated with Wordle bellow. This is just the raw frequency of individual words, but it is easy to see the trends which emerge around some of the most famous super Nintendo role playing games and franchises. The Final Fantasy series, Chrono Trigger, Legend of Zelda, Secret of Mana, Breath of Fire, all appear prominently on respondents lists of favorite games. It is worth keeping in mind that many of these games were original released around or before the majority of these community members were born.

As RPG Maker allows players to make these kinds of games, it makes sense that these kinds of games are also part of their list of favorites. While some might think of the kinds of graphics and formats for games which RPG Maker creates are a weakness of the software, there is good reason to believe that these gamers love for SNES RPGs connects them to a kind of game and experience which they find deeply engaging.

Surveying a community without boundaries:
It is best to develop a survey with a specific population in mind. Part of the difficulty of surveying a diffuse community like the online community associated with the RPG Maker VX site is in defining the boundaries of that community. The site has over 40k members, and during any given visit to the site nearly twice as many non-members are viewing the discussion boards as members. It would be impossible to accurately sample non-members who visit the site, there is no trace of their visits. With that said, instead of setting upfront criteria for who counted as a community member (based on post count, or number of visits, or the length of time they have been involved in the community) I decided to create a sample of individuals who had logged in within the last week. While this will inherently sample more frequently involved users it would also include a sizable segment of other more infrequent visitors. To sample a cross-section of community members in a given week I used the sites member search system to sift through the total number of folks who had logged in over the proceeding week, in this case it was 1740 members.  From there I sampled a randomly selected group of 160 members. I have received 85 responses, giving me a respectable 53% response rate.

Limitations with the sample
In accordance with George Mason’s human subjects review boards requirements I did not contact anyone who either did not list their age or listed their age as less than 18. In the process of creating the sample I rejected individuals that fell into these categories. Most individuals did list their age and only 10 of the randomly selected members listed themselves a under age 18.

While the response rage is acceptable, I will note two reasons for why members may not have responded. The community message system has used as a mass emailing system for bots. In many cases potential respondents required me to offer a range if kinds of evidence to demonstrate that I was in fact a human before they would click the link to take the survey. Aside from fear of bots, in two cases I heard from individuals who were uncomfortable taking a survey in English because it was not their native language. This suggests that the survey may not fully capture the international character of the community.