Category: USC

2014 Serious Play Conference July 21-24

Here’s the press release for the upcoming Serious Play Conference:

Sessions for university faculty, school administrators and teachers working to improve student engagement though games-based learning will be featured at the fourth annual Serious Play Conference at the University of Southern California (USC), Tuesday-Thursday, July 21 – 24.

Conference highlights will include teachers already using games as well as game developers, publishers, consultants, analysts and faculty talking about their experiences with games in the classroom, games for home use and teaching students to design their own games.

K-12 teachers sharing their experiences will include:

* Marianne Malmstrom, Elisabeth Morrow School, discussing how students have used a virtual world to help their younger schoolmates adjust to middle school
* Peggy Sheehy, Ramapo Central, exploring why games engage us and how we can harness that engagement for K-12 learning
* Alice Keeler, Cal State Fresno, showing how to use Google Apps in the classroom

Educational software creators discussing their work:

* Justin Leites, Amplify, offering tips on how to improve the quality and quantity of voluntary, outside-the-classroom learning
* John Krajewski, Strange Loop, elaborating on the potential of game-based learning
* Ken Spero, Education Leadership Sims, sharing his thoughts on how simulations can help train and support school leaders
* Peter Stidwill, Learning Games Network, sharing best practices based on research on how games have been implemented to date in the K-12 classroom
* Jamie Anunzio-Myers, PBS, on services provided free to early learners over cable networks

University researchers will also present their findings:

* Zoran Popovic, University of Washington, talking about a worldwide math challenge sponsored by DARPA
* Girlie Delacruz, CRESST, explaining how game assessment can be done and how this data is furthering scientific research
* Chris Haskell, Boise State University, addressing how MMORPG mechanics such as leveling, skill-building and immersion in a virtual world can be applied to education

A pre-conference workshop on Monday, July 21 will offer hands-on instruction for teachers new to game-based learning.

For more information, check out the site:


Full Spectrum Warrior Used to Treat PTSS

We’ve talked a lot about how the military uses video games for training and PR purposes. Here’s an interesting video over at The New Yorker about how a popular military video game is being used to treat post traumatic stress syndrome for soldiers returning from battle. The game is basically a modification of Full Spectrum Warrior, called Virtual Iraq. The basic idea with immersion therapy and other such treatments is to provide repeated exposure to the patient so that the negative reflexes become muted. I was particularly interested to note that smells can be introduced to the regimen, including diesel fumes. The olfactory glands are the biggest in the brain, and can trigger strong reactions and memories. The work is spearheaded by Albert “Skip” Rizzo over at USC.

Modern Prometheus Teaches Ethics & Decision Making

Nichola Groom with Reuters has a nice article on Dr. Doug Thomas’ work at USC.

Doug Thomas, an associate professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication, is developing a game for students ages 10 to 12 that aims to teach ideas and skills not found in traditional textbooks.

“Because games are experiential they might be good at teaching things that you learn through experience, and that are difficult to teach through books,” Thomas said in an interview.

Various ethical dilemmas abound in the game, with different outcomes depending on choices students make. The game takes an hour or so, and Dr. Thomas expects students and teachers to have a debriefing time following game play in order to cement the learning objectives. It’s possible the game may be incorporated in schools using Quest Atlantis:

One challenge for “Modern Prometheus” and other classroom games is finding teachers willing to incorporate them in their lesson plans.

“It’s really hard for teachers to work with an unfamiliar technology that the kids know more about than they do,” Thomas said. “They feel like ‘my job is hard enough already.”‘

He also acknowledges that the game doesn’t quite fit into many established middle-school curricula.

To overcome that obstacle, Thomas is collaborating with Indiana University Professor Sasha Barab, whose “Quest Atlantis” game is used by 4,500 students around the world. Currently in beta testing, “Modern Prometheus” is expected to be in some U.S. classrooms by spring.

It’s good to see games designed for classroom consumption receive positive press like this. I’ll also be interested in reading Dr. Groom’s forthcoming articles on research surrounding the effort.

Groom, N. (2007, December 6). Universities bring video games into classrooms. Washington Post. [Online]. Retrieved December 6, 2007 from:

Where the MacArthur Foundation Grant Money has Gone, So Far

Education Week has a nice article (registration required) on the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s $50 million initiative funding digital media and learning (including educational gaming research). A little less than half, about $23 million, has been funded so far to 36 grantees. Article author Andrew Trotter breaks down the expenditures:

• Examining how young people are changing as a result of digital media AMOUNTS AWARDED TO DATE: $6.2 million

• Exploring the development of new learning environments AMOUNTS AWARDED TO DATE: $8 million

• Studying how social and civic institutions could change in the future AMOUNTS AWARDED TO DATE: $4.8 million

• Helping build the field of research and development in youth and digital media AMOUNTS AWARDED TO DATE: $4 million

Constance Yowell, director of education for the MacArthur Foundation, is quoted extensively. Other prominent mentions include Sasha Barab over at Indiana (Quest Atlantis); Nichole Pinkard, director of technology, Center for Urban School Improvement, University of Chicago (Chicago charter schools and Remix World); Barry Joseph, director of the non-profit after school organization Global Kids (efforts in Teen Second Life); Katie Salen, director of the Institute of Play (New York City Game School); and Mizuko “Mimi” Ito, over at USC (ethnographic studies of digital media consumers).

Trotter mentions another project Salen is involved in:

Katie A. Salen, the director of the Institute of Play, in New York City, is a partner in two projects supported by MacArthur grants. One, led by game researcher Jim Ghee and involving a commercial game company, is creating an online, narrative game in which teenagers are game mechanics who learn to fix and modify broken games in a game-driven world.

I’m wondering if “Jim Ghee” is a reference to James Paul Gee?

Regardless, it’s a good article and well worth the read. The $50 million in grant funding from the MacArthur Foundation will no doubt continue to yield important findings on educational videogames and other components of digital media for years to come.

Trotter, A. (2007, December 5). Projects probe new media’s role in changing the face of learning. Education Week, (27)14. 10.

Went to a Fight and a Conference Broke Out: Instructivism vs. Constructivism

One of my stat profs loved academic arguments. He enjoyed reading journal articles arguing different points of view. He especially enjoyed going to conferences and watching other stat profs fight over the minutiae of their field. One of his anecdotes centered on a conference where the book The Bell Curve was a featured topic. “People were screaming at one another,” he noted with glee. Good stuff!

Academic arguments, my professor maintained, are where new knowledge and ideas are tested, refined, and eventually accepted or rejected once the dust settles. Like a schoolyard brawl, people come running far and wide just to watch. Well, at least those in that field of academia do.

Currently an academic skirmish is in full swing over a paper published a year ago that strongly attacked constructivist learning. I have to speak in broad generalities here, but basically constructivists believe learning can be facilitated through the student creating her own knowledge. A constructivist would say: you can tell a student something all day, but if she discovers it on her own it will hold a much more powerful impression. Also, learning by doing will always be stronger than passive approaches.

An instructivist believes the teacher must guide the child in learning. An instructivist would say: you have to tell the student what he needs to know. Otherwise, how do you know he’s learning what you want him to know? He can’t get there (at least, not efficiently) unless you show him the way.

Probably most learning takes place somewhere between the two camps, and in truth many people likely fall on a spectrum between the two extremes. Nonetheless, slavish adherents exist on both sides, ready to rail against the other side’s philosophical position.

Constructivist learning is generally promoted in university education departments. In K-12 settings, where high stakes examinations at the state level are so important, instructivist learning dominates. The thinking here is, if students are to pass the state exam they must be directly taught what is on the state exam. So, instructivism dominates in schools.

At this point it may be prudent to note that, broadly speaking, folks involved in educational gaming tend to fall in the constructivist camp. One of the underlying assumptions of serious/educational/instructional games is that the whole videogame structure is one offering high engagement for potential learners. Thus, while some games are designed to “trick” players into picking up knowledge or skills (the hidden agenda approach), others are more overt in their pedagogy while couching objectives in an experiential gaming environment. But, they all assume players will engage in the game rather than passively consume information such as that transmitted in a lecture.

So with that as background, we come to our current fight. The paper in question is by Paul A. Kirschner, over at the Educational Technology Expertise Center, Open University of The Netherlands and Research Centre Learning in Interaction, Utrecht University, The Netherlands; John Sweller over at the School of Education, University of New South Wales; and Richard E. Clark, over at the Rossier School of Education at University of Southern California. The paper’s title is a shot across the bow of constructivist teaching: “Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching.” It appeared in Educational Psychologist last year, but as in so many other things with educational publishing, its impact is only now being fully felt.

Clark was involved in the famous Clark-Kozma Debate. This academic argument played out in the pages of Educational Technology Research and Development (ETR&D) and elsewhere, with Clark stating that, all things being equal, information transmitted via whatever media would not result in significant differences in outcomes at test time. Thus, info transmitted during a live lecture, or via videotape, or via audio recording, or through text … all would result in similar scores when subjects were tested on the information. Clark called this the delivery truck metaphor. Media is essentially the delivery truck, and it affects content no differently than real delivery trucks affect theirs. Kozma, for his part, felt Clark was painting with too broad a brush.

Clark has joined Kirschner and Sweller in the current debate. Several academics have taken exception to the arguments outlined in their paper. The most prominent is Stephen Downes over at the National Research Council Canada, Institute for Information Technology. Downes has linked a video of a lecture he gave addressing identified shortcomings in the paper on his main site, In addition, on his Half an Hour blog, Downes has posted the back and forth between him and Kirschner over debated details. He lists his arguments against the paper here. Finally, he has a long post called Kirschner, Sweller, Clark (2006) – Readings, that lists an extensive set of comments from people across academia and the blogosphere who have opined on the paper.


We’ll see what happens when the dust settles. Personally, I’m a fan of constructivist teaching when possible and practical. Many times when teaching to the test as required in our schools these days, a constructivist lesson is not the most efficient way to impart knowledge. But, there are times when a constructivist approach leads to profound and life changing lessons. The constructivist approach is especially useful for those “fuzzy” lessons that defy standardization such as on ethics, leadership, and social factors.

I’ve also noticed, especially with computer programs, few people want to “take the time” to read the manual. Instead, they’d rather jump right into the program and start figuring things out. I would say these people are eschewing the instructivist approach in favor of a constructivist one. In fact, one is hard pressed to find a substantial written instruction manual included with software programs these days. There may be online help included, or a brief “getting started” document. But, instructivists must resort to buying separate books for extensive program manuals. There is a lesson there, somewhere …

Clark, R.E. (1994). Media will never influence learning. Educational Technology Research and Development, 42(2), 21-29.

Kirschner, P.A., Sweller, J., & Clark, R.E. (2006). Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: An analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching. Educational Psychologist, 41(2). 75-86.

Kozma, R. (1994). A reply: Media and methods. Educational Technology Research and Development, 42(3), 11-14.

Slay a Dragon, Learn a Language

I’ve long felt MMORPGs can provide the sort of immersive environment that is so conducive to learning a foreign language. The military apparently feels the same way, and the DARPA-funded Rapid Tactical Language Training System, developed by USC’s Viterbi School of Engineering’s Center for Research in Technology for Education (CARTE) paved the way for advanced MMORPG use in language and cultural acquisition starting in 2004.

Now, other universities have professors conducting research on the benefits of using MMORPGs for second language acquisition. Since some of the biggest MMORPGs, like World of Warcraft (WoW), already have English as their default language, some of the most intriguing research derives from efforts to help Asians learn to speak English while playing in these MMORPGs.

John K. Waters, a freelance writer in Palo Alto covering high tech developments and Silicon Valley, wrote the cover story for the most recent issue of THE Journal. Waters discusses various efforts to offer ESL and language learning within modern MMORPGs. He begins by discussing the work of Dr. Edd Schneider over at the Dept. of Information and Communications Technology at SUNY Potsdam, and grad student Kai Zheng, who has designed games and written for videogame magazines in China.

Dr. Schneider notes, as I have previously, that Asian parents in general and Chinese parents in particular strongly dislike videogames. They are seen as a waste of time, and generally disruptive to the well-being of children. On the other hand, acquisition of English speaking skills is seen as desirable. Consequently, combining MMORPGs and their “forbidden” (and therefore appealing) aspects with language acquisition may well make for a winning pedagogical formula in Asian countries. Dr. Schneider’s key quote: “I really believe that if Blizzard [WoW’s parent company] started an ESL server of English in China, they would make a fortune.”

Additional academic research covered by Waters in the article includes work by Dr. Bruce Gooch while at Northwestern (he is now at U. Victoria over in B.C.), with grad students Yolanda Rankin and Rachel Gold, using MMORPGs for ESL. The team used EverQuest II, which offers more text labeling and more scripted audio feedback from NPCs than WoW, in a pilot study exploring potential benefits. The key quote from Dr. Gooch: “We know that learning is accelerated if we have an emotional response to the learning. We believe that’s what might be going on in the game. I want to defeat an opponent. I’m worried, I’m scared, I’m excited—I’m interested. You tend to remember things that strike you this way.” How true; this emotional aspect to learning in MMORPGs may well provide a rich field of research in the future.

Dr. Gooch plans to continue work at U. Victoria; Yolanda Rankin plans to continue work at Ole Miss. One key benefit uncovered in their preliminary efforts was the fact that mistakes were perceived as being made by the students’ avatars, not the students themselves. This allowed a measure of face-saving that evidently is deemed important by Asian students.

In a sidebar, Waters also notes efforts at language studies in Second Life. He brings up a research project at non-profit SRI International’s Center for Technology in Learning called Lakamaka Island in SL. Efforts are spearheaded by PIs Valerie Crawford and Phil Vahey from the Institute. “Learning Technology Engineer” John Brecht has a key quote: “Rather than running students through exercises in the abstract, practicing words and phrases from a textbook, the virtual world allows you to engage students in a virtual role-playing exercise.”

Finally, John Nordlinger from the Microsoft Research Group is given wrap up comments. One potential argument, that language learners might pick up various sword and sorcery terms in these medieval fantasy worlds that are not commonly used in everyday English, is countered by Nordlinger. He notes that such uncommon terms in everyday usage are also rampant in popular English literature such as the Harry Potter novels.

Nordlinger surmises that MMORPGs will not completely supplant foreign language teachers, but may well offer powerful supplemental vehicles for language acquisition. This is an assessment with which I heartily concur.

Waters, J. K. (2007, October). On a quest for English. THE Journal, 34(10). 27-32.

Humana Jumps Into Health Video Game Fray

A bandwagon seems to be forming among health insurers concerning serious medical video games. I blogged previously about Re-mission here and here. Recall that CIGNA was one of the major forces behind the Re-mission effort, partnering with HopeLab’s Pamela Omidyar, wife of eBay founder Pierre Omidyar. Now, it appears other major health insurance companies are poised to encourage development of video games that promote good health.

In particular, insurance leviathan Humana’s Integrated Consumer Experience Division is partnering with Digitalmill and Touchtown to develop and research health and exercise games. It appears from press coverage that students over at U. Southern California will do much of the coding. USC already has a strong relationship with DARPA surrounding military training games, and has deep roots in the Hollywood special effects crowd which is all computerized these days.

With both CIGNA and Humana now behind serious games in the health sector, look for increased development of products with low profit motivations, but high health ed expectations. Results will be measured in fitness rather than bucks. Hopefully some good research will come out of these efforts as well.

Business Courier of Cincinnati. (2007, September 7). Humana to reach consumers through video games. [Online]. Available: