Students Crash-land on Mars

Using the RITE method to learn: testing the Mars game prototype. [i]

GUEST COLUMN | by Barbara Freeman

CREDIT Barbara FreemanThe purpose of the Mars Game project is to build a game that is ‘fun’ (meaning that it is immersive and that students want to play it), and to evaluate the potential of a digital learning game to effectively teach STEM content. This is the first in a series of research studies in which we are testing the Mars game with ninth and tenth grade students for whom the game is intended.

One student captured the reason so many game designers and researchers want to prove that aspects of gaming can enhance learning.

The gameplay takes students and transports them to Mars, where they crash land on the inhospitable planet where they need to work through a series of programming and mathematical challenges to stay alive. The math challenges are derived from the Common Core State Standards.

In this formative study, we tested the Mars game prototype to understand students’ initial reactions, to see if the developers were on the right track, and to make modifications to the game that would improve students’ experience moving forward. We used the RITE (Rapid Iterative Testing and Evaluation) Method[ii], a form of usability testing in which the researchers and the game developers work collaboratively with the end-users to identify problems and then work together to make rapid iterative changes to the game and confirm the effectiveness of those changes through further testing with a different set of students. Fifteen students of diverse backgrounds participated in the study. Students completed two levels of the game and were asked to think aloud as they played to describe their experience. Eighty percent of the issues were identified within the first day of testing. With the game developers working late into the night and early morning they were able to make rapid changes to the game, which were put before a different set of students to understand if these initial fixes resolved the problems that the students identified. This intense cycle of testing, fixing, and validating was repeated over five days.

By jointly working through the RITE process, the researchers and developers gained a shared understanding of the major issues and prioritized the changes that needed to be made to eliminate the “game stoppers” (so to speak). Most importantly, an analysis of the surveys[iii] that students were asked to complete showed students’ ease of using the Mars Game going up and their frustration going down over the course of the week. We also garnered initial evidence that showed the power of engagement with learning that emanates from gameplay. Even on day one, as students struggled to figure out how to use Blockly—Google’s visual programming language—to navigate the Mars terrain and the challenges of repairing a crashed spacecraft, the game could be seen to exert its magic. Once the tasks were mastered, students asked if there were more levels that they could play.

The magic appears to result from the problem-solving pull of the game with its embedded instructional challenges. Even though math and programming concepts are embedded in the game mechanics, some students said, “(the game) didn’t feel like math.” We think that’s a good thing, because the game is able to present concepts to students in a manner that is not intimidating to students.

For many, this was the first time that they had written a computer program, and they didn’t even realize that this was what they were doing. They were surprised and delighted when we pointed out to them that they had written their first ever program to get the rover to move during play.

One student captured the reason so many game designers and researchers want to prove that aspects of gaming can enhance learning: “at first you struggle, it is confusing, so you play around and get closer and closer to your goal and it makes you want to try again and again, and then you get it and you are happy.”

Our observations indicate that the experience was most intense for those students who were working within their zone of proximal development[iv], while those students who already understood the game’s content were least absorbed. We also learned that it did not take much to jolt students out of their immersion in the game environment. For example, many students withdrew when they heard the game voiceover mention the word “function.”

We came to understand that our mandate as game researchers and developers was to find a judicious balance that provides adequate supports without weakening the problem-solving pull of the game or students’ immersion in the virtual world. The game provides students with an experience that requires them to solve difficult yet tractable problems. Students work through the game’s challenges through exploration and experimentation, often collaboratively or with hints provided by the game, but without anybody explicitly telling them what to do. Through the process of solving these problems, students come to more deeply understand the material.

The fun is there: It lies in the problem-solving challenge; in the “aha” moment when students realize that they were actually coding. Next we will tell them they were also learning math!

[i] Barbara Freeman, Kevin Dill, Leslye Arsht, Kevin Oden, Mark Torpey, & Juan Benito

[ii] Medlock, M.C. Wixon, D., Terrano, M., & Romero, R. (2002). Using the RITE Method to improve products: A definition and a case study. Usability Professionals Association. Orlando, FL.

[iii] Surveys included a student self-assessment, the NASA Task Load Index, and the System Usability Scale.

[iv] Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Barbara Freeman, Ph.D., is the principal research investigator on the Mars Game project, which was funded by the Advanced Distributed Learning Colab of the Department of Defense. She is a consultant and visiting scholar at U.C. Berkeley, and has over 25 years of domestic and international experience in technology, education, research and development, analytics, and risk management, and has established businesses and products for Blue Chip clients and government agencies globally. This article was co-authored by other members of the RITE research and development team, Kevin Dill (chief developer), Leslye Arsht, Kevin Oden, Mark Torpey, and Juan Benito.

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Trends | Music as a Teaching Tool

When you think of a classroom singing a song together, you probably envision a kindergarten class learning the alphabet or counting. But a new generation of classroom songs has arrived, and this time they’re helping older students learn difficult topics or concepts in math, English and just about any other subject you can think of. Through videos, interactive games, and online courses, teachers are integrating songs and music in general directly into their lessons and classroom activities, giving students the chance to join in. By using a song as an introduction to a new topic or to support the understanding of various topics being discussed in class, students are able to familiarize themselves with the relevant terminology and concepts in an easily, memorable way. Since most of today’s digital natives grew up learning through catchy YouTube videos or watching cartoons on their parent’s iPads, even older students are comfortable with musical lessons. For example, the song above, “Mean Median and Mode”, pulled from a course offered through Learning Upgrade’s online curriculum, is often used by math teachers to introduce basic measures of center to a class. It can keep students more engaged than a traditional lecture, and embeds the melody (and the facts) in their minds so they’ll continue to think with it long after they’ve left the classroom. Try it out for yourself, above.

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Digital Bridges

A new collaboration between Grinnell College and the University of Iowa.

GUEST COLUMN | by Erik Simpson

CREDIT Grinnell CollegeTo sustain collaborative digital projects in undergraduate teaching, we need to cultivate a kind of pedagogical improvisation, to borrow a metaphor from Jesse Stommel. Effective improvisation requires a culture of shared skills and expectations, a culture difficult to maintain in undergraduate education, where students’ experiences are shaped by the boundaries of departmental curricula, academic terms, and the rapid turnover of the student population. With the help of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, we at Grinnell College and the University of Iowa are working to foster such a culture by bridging our two campuses and sectors of higher education and producing well-supported exchanges of ideas and practices.

The students of each generation working on the project edit and build on the work of their predecessors, and understand their own work to lay foundations for their successors to build upon. 

A New Direction for the Mellon Foundation

The Mellon Foundation grant, “Digital Bridges for Humanistic Inquiry,” will last for four years and will focus on fostering work with digital tools and methods in the humanities and humanistic social sciences. Although the Mellon Foundation has supported work in the digital humanities at many colleges and universities, this is the first grant to focus narrowly on a partnership connecting a private liberal arts college and a public research university.

Like many other colleges and universities, Grinnell and the UI have seen many faculty incorporating digital tools into their teaching and research, along with some efforts to consolidate those efforts into larger initiatives such as Digital Grinnell, a project based in the Grinnell libraries, or the UI’s hiring cluster and new graduate certificate in the Public Digital Humanities. The grant will enable us to expand and support these efforts, building on the practices of collaboration that already define much of the digital liberal arts.

With the support of the Digital Bridges grant, Ph.Ds from the UI with digital skills will become postdocs at Grinnell; Grinnell faculty will become scholarly fellows at the UI; workshops and institutes will bring potential partners into conversation; pedagogical projects and student exchanges will allow faculty, staff, and students from both schools to experience each other’s cultures of teaching and learning.

A Network of Interdisciplinary Nodes

The organization of the grant involves connections among centers and programs that already foster interdisciplinary activity, including the UI’s Obermann Center for Advanced Studies, Digital Studio for Public Arts and Humanities, Center for Teaching, and graduate certificate program in Digital Humanities; Grinnell’s Data Analysis and Social Inquiry Lab, Center for the Humanities, and Center for Teaching, Learning, and Assessment; and both schools’ galleries and libraries.

In this context, interdisciplinary activity is the starting point rather than the result of our collaboration. The grant thus draws on the experience and skill of people on both campuses who have already focused most intently on the flow of ideas across and to the side of disciplinary structures.

Beyond the Academic Term

These digital projects may challenge the structures of higher education in an even more fundamental way, however, by weakening the boundaries of the academic term. When my students work to create web resources for readers of Ulysses, for example, they join a community that not only brings together the librarians, technologists, and interdisciplinary faculty who collaborate on the project but also involves an inheritance of classroom culture. The students of each generation working on the project edit and build on the work of their predecessors, and they understand their own work to lay foundations for their successors to build upon.

Already, I see digital methods making their ways into our classes without explicit training of students in digital skills. When my colleague Timothy Arner assigned his Beowulf seminar the creation of a music video as an exercise in translation, his students worked together, finding that the class included excellent singers, an experienced video editor, and some actors. They produced this piece and, in the process, preserved the challenge of translation and energized it by adding elements of publicity and performance. In other classes and dorm rooms, students who have already learned some topic modeling or network analysis, digital art or interactive theatrical design, talk to their classmates and hallmates.  As a result, our students come to our classrooms and office hours with ideas and questions that we were not hearing even five years ago.

Our new projects must maintain the traditions of analysis, critique, and inquiry that lie at the heart of the humanities and social sciences. Building a culture of skilled creativity with digital tools allows us to expand on those traditions, emphasizing the sharing of skills, distributed authority, and public engagement. In such a culture, we can approach our teaching not only deciding on readings for a syllabus but also asking the questions of improvisation: what will we make together, and for whom?

Erik Simpson is professor of English at Grinnell College and principal investigator for the “Digital Bridges for Humanistic Inquiry” grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

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Trends | Blending Education and Technology

etd-trends-MNU-Feb2015In this guide, learn more about the gap in technology skills in teaching, how technology is enhancing the learning revolution, what future educators need to know about technology in the classroom, and what future trends may be on the horizon for technology and education. With this information, students looking ahead to a career in education will be equipped to begin their own learning journey and understand how they can use technology to enhance their students’ learning as well as their own teaching methods and value. Some interesting statistics, graphs, perspectives and edtech trends. Check it out.

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Trends | International EdTech Conferences

CREDIT CSEDU 2015Outside the U.S., the concept of education technology isn’t exactly a ‘foreign’ idea. There’s plenty happening in the area, what with the BETT show in the U.K., with pioneering efforts in Australia, and with a smattering of conferences exploring where next with edtech, including beautiful Lisbon, Portugal. CSEDU 2015, the International Conference on Computer Supported Education, aims at becoming a yearly meeting place for presenting and discussing new educational environments, best practices and case studies on innovative technology-based learning strategies, institutional policies on computer supported education including open and distance education, using computers and, more generally, e-learning. CSEDU 2015 is expected to give an overview of the state of the art as well as upcoming trends, and to promote discussion about the pedagogical potential of new learning and educational technologies in the academic and corporate world. Visit Lisbon, or visit:

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