Wednesday, June 12, 2013

GLS 2013 Conference Report, Day 1

I'm in beautiful Madison, Wisconsin, for the 9th Games+Learning+Society conference. My wife and I decided to make it a family trip, so we arrived Monday and took in some of the sights yesterday. We particularly enjoyed waking around the capitol building and the Henry Villas Zoo.

This is my first time at GLS, and I wasn't completely sure what to expect. I had heard that the conference would have a healthy mix of educators and researchers. My plans to attend last year's did not pan out. This year, I am presenting a paper entitled "Empirical Research on the Effectiveness of Morgan's Raid," which was coauthored with Lyle Franklin and Ronald Morris. It is based on Lyle's work on his undergraduate honors thesis, and I'm proud to be presenting it tomorrow.

There are two seasons on university campuses: winter and construction
The morning started with a few comments from Steve Schoettler, who is most famously a co-founder of Zynga and is now involved in the start-up Junyo. He started by sharing some stories from his background. My favorite was the story of Zynga's first game, a poker game that became popular enough for there to be a black market for chips. Schoettler and the rest of the team recognized this as an opportunity, a statement from the players that there was a valuable feature to be had if only they could create it—and, of course, monetize it. The talk was generally interesting, though he meandered into making broad claims about education reform that did not sit well with the audience. In particular, he had a direct assault against teachers' unions that drew the ire of many in the crowd. I suspect he will be remembered more for this than for anything else, which is a shame, but also a good cautionary tale to know your audience.

I want to highlight two calls for action that Schoettler included in his keynote. First, he called for a concerted quantification of learning. Given the broad and successful use of play analytics used at Zynga, it follows that if one could similarly quantify learning, one could apply similar data mining techniques. He did not mention the role that badges-for-lifetime-learning play here, and I remember learning at MeaningfulPlay that one of the goals of an open badge framework is to permit academic study of human learning activities. Later, however, he made a call to answer the question of what students actually learn. This strikes me as a complementary but contrasting point to the first, and it dovetails into what I want to bring up in my talk tomorrow. Quantitative methods can only ever answer the question "how much?" In fact, all the statistical techniques I know can only answer "probably how much?" By contrast, "What did they actually learn" is necessarily a qualitative question: each person learns based on his or her unique situation and history. I was hoping that he might recognize and comment on this difference, but by this point, the crowd was too busy cheering for unions and teachers. (And, in truth, it was probably not the right venue for this kind of discussion.)

I attended research-oriented talks all day, and I enjoyed it. The general quality of work was good, in my opinion. In the first session I attended, Douglas Clark presented a meta-analysis of a large body of learning games. I like to see this kind of work, and I was hoping to catch him and ask about how many of the studies address validity and reliability of their instruments, but I didn't have the chance. I was disappointed when an attendee brought up some qualitative studies that he referred to them, offhandedly, as not methodologically rigorous enough to fit into his meta-analysis. It's a shade of this same problem that's been bothering me, of a blind trust in statistics for statistics' sake, as if the quest for statistical significance is really the heart of the problem. Of course, if you're reading my blog, you've probably already read "The Earth is Round (p<0.05)", but I find it doesn't hurt to re-read it and occasionally re-recommend it.

An intriguing part of Clark's talk was an observation that most of the papers they studied either (a) spent a lot of time explaining and justifying their methodology, with almost no discussion of the actual game being used, or (b) described the game design in detail, and only lightly addressed research methodology. He encouraged attendees to consider which of the two groups they tended towards, and to consider the other audience as well when writing papers. This seems like sound advice.

Another speaker in the same session was Michael Lavine who discussed the Games and Learning Publishing Council. Looks like they're not quite ready from prime time yet, but I look forward to following the group.

The sessions are structured so that there are three speakers, and their three talks are given in sequence. Then, the moderator ("discussant") makes some general comments—which seem to often run much longer than necessary—before the audience is invited to ask questions of any of the presenters. I do not care for this model, since it seems that the attempt to put all the talks under one tent rarely works, and usually, the best presentation simply gets all the question. I prefer the approach taken at most of the conferences I frequent, which is 15 minutes to talk, five minutes of Q&A, and then out. One interesting tidbit from the Q&A this morning, though, was from a teacher who suggested that YouTube videos would be the best way for her to consume lesson plan and curriculum ideas for a game. This was interesting and surprising—I am not sure I would have thought of it on my own—and so I wanted to make a note of it here.

In the next session, Scott Nicholson gave a great talk about his playful courses, which is the term he prefers over "gamified." A few good ideas here that I need to think about as I revise my courses for Fall: don't use the word "optional" to describe assignments; multilevel badges (bronze, silver, gold) with unlimited attempts at improvement; and individualized learning contracts were useful.

I was glad to hear a talk by Dan Hickey later in that session. I had previously only known him as the author of one of my favorite education blogs, so it was good to see him in person. (I have not yet walked up and introduced myself as a fan of his blog, but that's on the agenda for tomorrow.) He was reporting on work related to Quest Atlantis, but I think it was his comments on the side that I found most interesting. Here's the best: "All this blah blah about '21st-century skills' is just that: blah blah. The 21st-century skill is writing." He also called for an end to studies that ask whether giving students autonomy increases their motivation: we know it does, so we don't need to keep checking in different contexts. He referenced another scholar, whose work is not familiar to me, in a claim that competition in education is not bad per se, but rather, it's the lack of feedback in competitive environments that hinders learning. His study showed that with good feedback—that is, feedback that is meaningful and that is used—competition can enhance learning. The key thing, it seems, is the feedback. I will have to read the paper to get a better understanding of the supporting research, which seems up my alley.

In a presentation, someone referred to Lord of the Rings Online as a "generic fantasy MMORPG." What does that mean? It's based on the property on which practically all other fantasy settings have their roots. Minor thing, but odd to me that someone who takes games seriously would belittle a game like this as "generic."

The provided lunch was a tasty Indian buffet, an unexpected treat. Dinner included a range of hors d'oeuvres, some pasta stations, very nice desserts, and wine and beer, all around a poster session. I talked to a few poster presenters, and I noticed a high concentration of non-student-presenters. The most interesting conversation I had was around a poster describing a restructuring of Bloom's Taxonomy for game-based learning, a collaboration between Second Avenue and University of Rochester. Sadly, my photos came out all screwy, otherwise I would share them as well as the names of the researchers. We had a good discussion, and I learned that Bloom's Taxonomy is taught quite rigidly as "true" in conventional teacher education. They use teacher's familiarity with this model in order to help them contemplate how game-based learning shakes up the status quo. Our discussion made me realize that my interpretation of Bloom's Taxonomy may not match with many others—particularly those trained in the teacher education tradition. This is good to know as I continue to frame my own ideas.

The conversations, posters, and free booze were all good,  but it was about this time that I got an email from my wife that she was feeling poorly, so I decided to call it a night. Turns out, I got back to the hotel right as a storm was breaking, so the timing was good. Now my wife is resting, the boys are in bed for the night, the blog post is written while ideas are still fresh, and it's time for me to turn in. My talk tomorrow is the last one in the 4:00PM session, so I suspect it will be a coffee-achiever day.

[Day 2][Day 3]

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