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Gamifying the Edupocalypse

January 22, 2012 2 comments

A couple of days ago, I attended an unconference-style “catalyst workshop” on Gamification for Education hosted by Georgia Tech’s Center for 21th Century Universities. I have some thoughts on specific topics that were brought up at the workshop, as well as some musings on games-(in,via,through,above,below,whatever)-education that occurred to me after the workshop, which I will address in future posts. But I first wanted to generally frame the discussion.

I automatically become skeptical and nervous when I hear the word “gamification,” since it often seems to imply applying tropes from games to Thing X, Y, and Z without a lot of focus on the particular nature of Thing X, Thing Y, or Thing Z. In particular, I duck for cover when words like “badges,” “points,” “achievements” (to use Microsoft’s term) and “trophies” (to use Sony’s term) start to get piled onto activities like brushing teeth and exercising. Ultimately everything becomes fungible — eat enough low-fat potato chips, get a free train ticket to Boise!

The clearest — and hence, most terrifying — articulation of the Omega Point of gamification I’ve seen is Jesse Schell’s DICE 2010 keynote, which was likely the tipping point after which the syllables “game-uh-fa-cay-shun” were on the lips of every Mad Man from New York to New Delhi, each one hoping to unleash their inner Skinner. Although Schell’s speech was widely heralded as a blueprint for a brave new cyberworld, and excitedly embraced by a slew of societal actors as a novel way to bring people around to their cause (whether that cause is buying soda or riding a bicycle), I found myself recoiling in horror. If you haven’t seen the talk, and don’t have the full 28 minutes, 19 seconds needed to see it in its entirety, just start at the 20 minute mark. By the 23 minute mark you’ll have an urge to voluntarily douse your keyboard in whiskey and set your computer on fire. By the 27 minute mark you’ll have an urge to involuntarily douse your computer in vomit and set your hair on fire. To be fair, it’s not entirely clear to me whether Schell was saying that his predictions were a cause for celebration, or whether he was merely pointing out that these things are coming, and encouraging his audience to be the Gamifiers instead of the Gamified.

But my visceral revulsion to a future in which every action is recorded, with some actions rewarded, along with questions about which specific powers would want to reward which specific behaviors, is secondary to the critique my colleague Ian Bogost made of Schell’s talk. All this chatter about leaderboards and progress bars neglects the true potential of “games,” which is to get people thinking about the underlying behavior of specific complex systems, whether those systems are dental, defensive, or democratic, and whether the subjects are cavities, castles, or countries. Bogost calls this procedural rhetoric:

Procedural rhetoric affords a new and promising way to make claims about how things work… video games can make claims about the world. But when they do so, they do it not with oral speech, nor in writing, nor even with images. Rather, video games make argument with processes. Procedural rhetoric is the practice of effective persuasion and expression using processes. Since assembling rules together to describe the function of systems produces procedural representation, assembling particular rules that suggest a particular function of a particular system characterizes procedural rhetoric.

Another way to understand procedural representation is in terms of models. When we build models, we normally attempt to describe the function of some material system accurately… Models of all kinds can be thought of as examples of procedural rhetoric; they are devices that attempt to persuade their creators or users that a machine works in a certain way. Video games too can adopt this type of goal; for example, a flight simulator program attempts to model how the mechanical and professional rules of aviation work. But since procedurality is a symbolic medium rather than a material one, procedural rhetorics can also make arguments about conceptual systems, like the model of consumer capitalism in Animal Crossing…

In response to Schell’s presentation at DICE 2010, Bogost wrote:

…games are not primarily comprised of incentives and rewards in the first place, not even the more unusual ones Schell presents in his talk. The heart of games is not points, but process. Games have the capacity to persuade us because they can depict perspectives on how things work, and they can give us insights into the complex and often ambiguous connections between them… the most ironic example Schell presented in his talk at DICE is that of the Ford Fusion dashboard. The growing plant in the dash holds promise not because it offers an incentive to drive in a fuel-efficient manner, but because it reveals the combinations of mechanical, electrical, and combustive processes that lead to fuel-efficient driving.

The Fusion driver does not jump with Pavlovian delight upon seeing a lively fern, but noodles with intrigue over the combinations of traffic patterns, driving, techniques, topology that lead to different results. She might ask questions like “Why does driving a certain way have an impact on fuel consumption,” and “How are neighborhoods and cities designed to encourage and discourage such driving?”

The sentence about “Pavlovian delight,” or I should say the lack thereof, is classic Bogostese. (I’m going to see how many times I can employ variations of the phrase “noodles with intrigue” over the next week.) My wife and I recently bought a Nissan LEAF, so questions such as those mentioned in that paragraph are particularly on my mind. There’s a gauge on the LEAF that tells you how economically (and hence, I suppose, ecologically) you are driving. Unfortunately the car doesn’t provide much feedback into exactly what factors go into that gauge — as far as I can figure out, the LEAF thinks I am driving most economically when I am at a stop light, and least economically when I am pressing the break or accelerator pedals, which I refer to as “driving.”

Wow — there’s actually a company called Badgeville, which calls itself “The Behavior Platform.” Ah, look here! “Reward customer and employee behavior with smart gamification techniques.” Excuse me a moment, I need to go score some Pepto-Bismol…

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“I don’t know how to do a line integral either”

January 11, 2012 2 comments

If you hang around engineering professors — of any sort — for any length of time, at some point one of them will start complaining about how bad students’ math skills have become. The other professors will nod in agreement, and each professor will list some tidbit of math they need for the classes they teach, and bemoan how the students look at them as if they had never even heard of such things. Sometimes this leads to grousing at lowered standards in high schools. (At Georgia Tech, occasionally blame is placed on one of our previous Presidents — to be clear, of GaTech, not the US.) Everyone will agree that the students math skills’ have been declining over time, and that the pinnacle of mathematical educational excellence coincided with the time in which the oldest in this group of professors was an undergraduate. (I’ve confess that I’ve engaged in these conversations myself; at one faculty meeting I complained about how some of my ECE2025 students didn’t seem to know how to differentiate exponentials.) I conjecture that faculty in the “pure” sciences (physics, chemistry, etc.) indulge in similar pedagogical pity parties. Perhaps mathematics professors even kvetch about their own math majors? (Maybe claims of this decline are well supported by solid evidence, maybe not; I suspect the discussion says more about the professors than it does the students.)

In electrical engineering, you’ll quite often hear such complaints from instructors teaching electromagnetics. This is not without reason — out of all the undergraduate EE topics, electromagnetics probably relies on the most sophisticated mathematics an undergraduate engineering student is likely to encounter, namely vector calculus. Electromagnetics also is probably the most inherently challenging subject all EE majors are typically required to study, independent of the complexity of the related math. (It’s the class that our students fear the most — the phrase is “Emag, Remag, Threemag, Management” is a well-worn student slogan.) At Georgia Tech, vector calculus is covered in “Calculus III.” When I was at Washington University, it was part of an omnibus “Engineering Mathematics” class taught by the Systems, Science, and Mathematics department. (Incidentally, SSM majors always complained that their main problem was having to explain to potential employers what an SSM major was.)

A while back, one of my colleagues, who had recently taught electromagnetics, complained that his students “couldn’t even do a line integral.”

I noted, “Well, I don’t know how to do a line integral either. I mean, I’m sure I learned them, and could do at one point, but I couldn’t do one for you now.”

“Horror,” you holler! Here’s Aaron, a professor at Georgia Tech — an professor of electrical and computer engineering — and he can’t even do a line integral?

Well, yeah. At least as of 15 minutes ago, when I got the idea to write this post. Line integrals just don’t show up often in the kinds of research and engineering my graduate students and I do. There’s certainly no shortage of funky math that shows up in my work, and for my work I generally have those funky facts “at my fingertips,” but that’s just because I use them a lot, not because I made any particular effort to memorize them.

One of my other colleagues said something along the lines of “well, Aaron, you may not have needed that lately, but these students have taken Calc III the previous semester.” Yes, but most of what the students crammed into their heads the day before the final exam probably leaked out of their heads the day after. Here’s a thought experiment: imagine the students who took a final exam having to take another final exam a month after the first one, with no warning and no chance of study. How do you think they’d do? (A more practical experiment for my colleagues: give a pop quiz half way through lecture and ask the most basic questions you can imagine on what you just talked about for the last 25 minutes. Try not to weep when you figure out how little attention anyone is actually paying to you.)

So, let me pull up wikipedia and type in “line integral.” (Aaron looks over webpage for a few minutes.) Oh, OK. Scalar line integral, vector line integral… derivative of the function goes here… OK, got it.

I wonder. Did seeing that web page jog my memory? Come to think of it, I do remember looking at these things when studying Grenander’s pattern theory, sometime around 1993 to 1995. Or was the memory of line integrals really lost, and I just relearned it from scratch? Or something in between?

Can I tell you something else?

I don’t know Maxwell’s equations either.

“Double horror!” you exclaim. How can Aaron claim to be a EE professor when he doesn’t even know Maxwell’s equations? Didn’t I take a class in Emag when I was an undergrad? Well, sure I did, and it ended with Maxwell’s equations. I even got an A in it. Emag is taught as a math class, and I was good at the math (well, good for an engineer), and could pattern match sufficiently to translate the homework and exam problems into the math. But I never developed any intuition for the subject at all.

I have a shirt with Maxwell’s equations on it (with the words “And God said…” in front of them, and “…and there was light” after them), and you’ll see me wearing it on campus sometimes. But I couldn’t tell you what most of the symbols on that shirt mean. Well, I know what dot and cross products are (mostly because I’ve been teaching computer graphics lately). But I couldn’t tell you what a “div” or a “curl” was off the top of my head.

Here’s the thing. I don’t use Maxwell’s equations, or most basic Emag, in my work. This may seem odd since radar is one of my specialties. But I study the algorithmic side of radar, and much of the Emag-ness has been abstracted out of the kinds of mathematical conventions that are typically employed in radar signal processing.

But here’s Wikipedia. And I picked up this fantastic little book called A Student’s Guide to Maxwell’s Equations at our campus bookstore a while back. It’s waiting for me if and when I need it.

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It’s 15 minutes past the end of class, and nobody has noticed

January 8, 2012 1 comment

“Aaron, I hope you’re going to be home soon. Z [our three-year-old] has started LabVIEW on your computer and says he wants to program the robot.” – my wife, on the phone, a few months ago

This past semester, I taught a section of ECE1882: Introduction to ECE Design, which revolves around labs and projects using Lego Mindstorms robotics. My class was split into six teams, each with three people. The “design challenge” occupies the last 2/3 of the class periods. (One of my students took pictures of various robots that the teams had built — some showing the robots performing their “mine”-clearing task — and posted them to his blog.)

This was my first time teaching ECE1882. I experienced something I had never seen in my previous decade of teaching: we’d regularly go 15 to 20 minutes past the end of class, and no one would notice because everyone was so deeply engaged. I wouldn’t notice and the students wouldn’t notice. I had to start making a special effort to pay attention to the time and make announcements like “sorry, if you have a class right after this, you really need to go soon.”

Typically, students are obsessed with the clock for one of two reasons: they’re bored out of their skulls in a lecture and wish the minutes would tick by faster, or they’re frantically trying to finish a high-pressure lab that must be completed by a certain time so they’re praying the minutes won’t come as quickly. ECE1882 is constructed so the labs have a good mix of guided activity and open-ended exploration, and sufficient time is allocated so that the students don’t feel rushed. The students are learning while having fun. We cannot make every class like that –- but image what we could accomplish if we would at least try!

The class was quite unlike any class I had previously taught. I use the word “taught” somewhat loosely — for most of the labs and especially the final design challenge, I mostly just made supportive-sounding noises while the teams unleashed their creativity. Although I “lectured” about various topics here and there, the setup of the room — a set of tables with chairs around them for each team, instead of the usual rows of desks all crammed together — made it feel quite weird to do the usual professorial blab-things-while-writing-on-the-white-board schtick. Even when I’m lecturing in a usual rows-of-desks room — that is, every class I’ve taught except this one — I like to bounce around a lot. In this format, I had a difficult time staying by the board at all. I’d find myself at the other side of the room, wishing there was a board there too. Come to think of it, having every wall be a whiteboard would have been cool. Or maybe they should just yank out all the whiteboards altogether!

This was my first time teaching freshman, and it was a blast. But, I had the advantage of teaching freshman who had signed up for a class that they thought would be interesting. ECE1882 is not required of ECE majors, and is largely geared towards “undecided” students; it hopes to show students that ECE is fun. (In the case of my class, though, it seems that most of the students had pretty much already decided on ECE.) It counts as a fairly generic elective credit; several students told me they were using it as an alternative to GT1000, which as far as I can tell is “introduction to college” and probably easier than ECE1882. I’m sure if I was teaching freshman calculus or English composition, my experience would have been quite different. (Also, independent of the inherent interest of the material or its location on the required-to-elective spectrum, I had the advantage of a class with 18 students instead of 180.)

I’m still mentally processing some of the experience; I will probably have more to say about it in the future. In particular, it’s made me more skeptical about “graphical” programming languages (and I was already pretty skeptical), but that’s a topic for another post.

Honesty time: For everything that went well for my section, I must give credit my colleague Jeff Davis, who ran the section before mine, and who made up this semester’s material. Any blame for things that went not-so-well in my section falls on my shoulders. Jeff had taught the class before, but this was my first time, and I am thankful that he didn’t mind me leaning on him so much. I don’t just owe him one; I owe him many.

(It was something of a fluke that I wound up teaching it last semester; Doug Williams, who had originally created the course several years ago, was scheduled to teach it along with Jeff. But when our School chair, Gary May, got promoted to the position of Dean of Engineering, Doug was appointed interim chair, so Joe Hughes, who schedules our classes, needed to find someone else to do it. While I was finishing up ECE2025 grades for the summer, Joe wandered by and said something along the lines of “Aaron, I know you need another teaching assignment in the Fall or the Spring, and I know you like these hands-on kinds of classes…”)

If any Georgia Tech freshmen happen to be reading this during the week the first week of the Spring 2012 semester, David Anderson is teaching ECE1882 this semester. He is a great guy and a fantastic teacher, so go sign up!

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