sleeping alone and starting out early

an occasional blog on culture, education, new media, and the social revolution. soon to be moved from http://jennamcwilliams.blogspot.com.

Archive for the ‘video games’ Category

how Jim Gee and I soothe our guilty consciences

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on June 8, 2010

In the video below of a presentation to the Education Writers Association 2010 Annual Conference, Jim Gee says this about how to introduce innovative ideas into education:

There’s a choice of strategies here…. One strategy is: Let’s take our innovations to the center of the school system and spread them as fast and quickly as we can. People believe that this current school system as it is will just co-opt those innovations and make them … just better ways to do the old thing. Another strategy is: Let’s make these innovative learning and assessment tools and put them at the margins, in places that will tolerate innovation, and then show it works. Now if you think about it, in technology outside of schools, going to the margins first and then to the center–that’s always been the way innovation happens. The only place we’ve ever tried to keep putting the new thing right in the center at once is in schooling, and it’s never worked. What i would love to see is that we hive of some of the (Race to the Top) money for a national center that would trial these new assessments, show they work in places that tolerate innovation, and then spread them there, just the way you would want if we have to keep coal and oil–let’s at least have something trying out new forms of energy, so that we’re ready for these markets but also we can prove they work. if we don’t do that, we’re just gonna get a better mousetrap.

I absolutely agree with the sentiments in the quote above, except for the BP oil spill. Let’s say there’s some innovative energy research going on in the margins, ready to prove it works and to take over where coal and oil left off. That’s fantastic, and it doesn’t do a single goddamned thing to help the birds, the fish, the sea mammals, the tourist industry, the ecosystem, the fisheries, and the human residents of the Gulf Coast. Those are simply casualties, not a single thing we can do to help them now no matter what awesome innovative fuel source we finally embrace, no matter how much more quickly we may embrace a cleaner fuel source as a result. Even if tomorrow’s birds are safe from Big Oil, today’s birds are drowning right in front of us.

Working at the margins of education is a fantastic way to innovate and offer useful evidence that innovations work. I fully support this approach–but not at the expense of the kids who exist at the center of our education system today. Yes, the school system can and does and maybe always will co-opt any innovation we try to introduce. But that doesn’t excuse us from trying anyway. That doesn’t give us license to give up on today’s children, even if it keeps tomorrow’s children safe.

And of course this isn’t what Jim Gee wants to do, anyway. But the Jim Gees of the world who urge us to work at the margin live in symbiosis with the Jenna McWilliamses of the world who believe we must also work from the center, where–ironically–the most marginalized kids in education commonly reside. I can’t innovate as much as I’d like from the center, maybe I can’t help tomorrow’s marginalized kids as much as I’d like either.  And Jim Gee can’t help today’s marginalized kids as much as he’d probably like from the edges. So we need each other, if for nothing else than to assuage our guilty consciences for being unable to do more of what we know must be done.

I should probably also note that Jim Gee is one of my absolute all-time heroes, so I hope he’s not mad at me for this post.

This video also stars Daniel Schwartz, who I believe is one of the smartest guys thinking about assessment and learning these days. I had the great luck to attend an assessment working group with him and a big crew of assessment-focused researchers, and I was amazed and blown away by just about everything he said.

In a recent publication, Choice-Based Assessments in a Digital Age (.pdf), Schwartz and his co-author Dylan Arena make this argument:

Educational assessment is a normative endeavor: The ideal assessment both reflects and reinforces educational goals that society deems valuable. A fundamental goal of education is to prepare students to act independently in the world—which is to say, to make good choices. It follows that an ideal assessment would measure how well we are preparing students to do so.

I can’t remember when I’ve agreed more emphatically with the introductory sentence of a scholarly article about education.

Here’s the video, which is well worth a watch.

Posted in academia, assessment, education, Jim Gee, journalism, learning sciences, public schools, schools, teaching, technologies, video games | Leave a Comment »

on virtual worlds as petri dishes

Posted by Jenna McWilliams on September 12, 2009

avoiding the pitfalls of researching games

Yesterday I attended a talk by virtual worlds economist Edward Castronova.

I wasn’t as impressed as I had hoped to be, given how much I love Castronova’s writing–though my friends later told me not to judge Castronova too quickly. The talk was intended, they explained, as a presentation to a general audience, so Castronova perforce needed to simplify and streamline his big ideas.

Okay, fine, so I won’t perform my typical Final Judgment on Ted Castronova. But I do want to take up one point that I found problematic, not only in the context of his talk but in the larger context of research into games and virtual worlds.

The talk was called “Virtual Worlds as Petri Dishes,” and it was linked to his recent paper, “A Test of the Law of Demand in a Virtual World: Exploring the Petri Dish Approach to Social Science.” Castronova’s basic argument, in the paper and in the talk, was that virtual gaming environments offer a rich space for researching a wide range of social issues. Because Castronova is an economist, his focus is on how economic principles apply (or don’t apply) in virtual worlds. In his talk, he argued that many people refuse to consider the possibility that human behavior in game spaces can offer us insight into human behavior in the “real” world–even though it’s clear that at least certain key human traits carry over into virtual environments.

It’s an interesting point, and one well worth exploring. But where Castronova went wrong yesterday was when he made this point, paraphrased below:

Game makers and policy makers are basically the same–they both need to create worlds that work for the people operating inside of them.

I shot my hand up.

“This point,” I said, “seems fairly central to your research” (he nodded) “and it also seems fairly simplistic–especially since if you’re a game maker and I don’t like your game, I can just go play another one.”

“Well,” he answered (and remember that I’m paraphrasing in an effort to avoid misattribution–though I’m fairly certain I’m getting the points right), “the same thing is true in the real world–people can invest internationally, or they can relocate to another jurisdiction.”

“Yeah, if (my voice was shaking; I was nervous) they have the money to do that–but there are tons of people who don’t have the choice to just move to another country if they don’t like the one they’re living in.”

“We say the same thing about Mexico, but lots of Mexicans who don’t like where they’re living leave every day.”

“But lots don’t,” I said. “Lots (my voice was shaking; I was mad) stay right where they are.”

Castronova ultimately ceded the point, kind of, but the larger issue isn’t whether I got him to admit I was right. The larger issue is the sweeping claim that the choices people make in games are the same sorts of choices they can make in real life.

They’re not. For one thing, people choose to play games, or not to play games, and they make choices about which kinds of games they want to play, and when, and for how long. We don’t, by contrast, choose to be alive–and almost without exception, being alive means living in a society whose rules were created outside of your influence. You don’t get to decide whether to play; you only get to decide how to react to the rules of the game. You can’t choose not to play the game at all.

Sure, tons of people relocate, looking for a game whose rules suit them better. The wealthy can move to Switzerland or Casablanca or Canada; the most desperate poor can sneak across a border and live each day at risk of being sent home. But everybody in the middle is kinda stuck where they are, and if they’re not happy with the game they’re playing, they can try to game the system right back. Or they can try to crash the game, if only for a short while.

It may very well be, as Castronova argues, that human behavior in virtual worlds mirrors human behavior in the “real” world. But if we agree that virtual worlds can serve as research petri dishes, then we also need to, as Castronova himself said yesterday, “test the test tube.” We can’t ignore the fact that games are worlds that people enter by choice, often as a refuge from the compulsory “games” they play every day, regardless of their physical location. We can’t ignore the difference in stakes. We can’t ignore the differences in mindfulness, attention, and choice. We can’t ignore the fact that gamemakers’ primary goal is to make a world fun enough for people to want to stay, whereas policymakers’ primary goal is to make a world livable enough for people to want to survive.

I agree with Castronova that research into games and virtual environments holds enormous promise. But as a believer in games research, I get anxious when people make sweeping proclamations that don’t hold up under closer scrutiny. If we want our work to be taken as seriously as we believe it should be, then we have a responsibility to present it in serious ways. Games research is as complex, nuanced, and knotty as any other kind of social research, and we owe it to interested publics to explain it as exactly that.

Posted in culture, human rights, video games | 3 Comments »