Tag Archive: Education


I have been neglecting this site for this past year because, frankly, I got tired of being on the computer!!!  Since I’ve been teaching, both face to face and online, a good portion of my day is spent in creating materials, reading online discussions, and grading digital assignments.  And by the end of the day, just about the last thing I want to do is do some more sitting – either in front of the computer or one of my game consoles.  Hence …. few hours playing games and even fewer opportunities to review selections for educational purposes.

I have, however, continued to explore serious games, digital gamification, and online fitness communities.  FitBit and LoseIt have joined HabitRPG and Nerd Fitness as part of my self-improvement suite.  I’ll write more about these old and new favorites, but I would first like to introduce a mobile game that has become my new – healthy – addiction:  Ingress.

What It Is

Ingress (Wikipedia entry) is an augmented reality game for smartphones.  It uses your phone’s GPS feature to associate your real life physical location with a place in a science fiction world where exotic matter is leaking into the world through portals.   You play a member of one of two opposition factions among the world’s human population and attempt to control portals and regions of the Earth’s surface on behalf of your faction.

Game play at the basic level is pretty straight-forward.  You drive, bike, or walk around with your smart phone – and use your phone to interact with the game world.  When you find a portal, you use your phone to interact with it, supporting or trying to destroy the portal’s control system (and then gain control over it for your faction).  In essence, it is a world-wide game of capture the flag …. with millions of flags scattered on every continent and in every city.

But like any good game, there are levels of complexity available for the interested participant.  The game has a complex back-story and a current events mystery unfolding in a series of episodic online stories and organized, real life events in select cities.  And if the narrative is not of interest, the strategic creation of links between portals and subsequent control of areas is reminiscent of a game of chess played on a grand scale.  While it is fairly simple to learn to play, playing it well will take some time and experience.

The Good

There is a lot to like about this game.  For one thing, it gets me up and away from the computer.  When I talk to parents and educators about computer games for learning, one of the first objections is that kids spend too much time sitting already.  Trust me …. this game will get them out of their seats and searching for portals to control, particularly if their friends are also playing.  I introduced my husband to the game, and now one of our favorite Saturday outings is to go take a long walk in order to play Ingress together, and we are often walking a few miles in order to get “just another one.”

Portals are also placed – deliberately by the game makers (Google) – to coincide with real life points of interest, such as museums, libraries, historical markers, memorials, and scenic outlooks.  And players are rewarded with badges if they visit a large number of unique places.  This feature has prompted me to visit sections of cities – and points of interest – that I had no idea existed.  It’s been a fun way for me to get out of my routines and go some place new for a walk.  And it encouraged me to go exploring on a recent, out of town trip.  I can see this used by parents …. and maybe teachers ….. to encourage kids to go visit culturally important locations and learn more about their neighborhoods and cities.  Carefully, of course.

With the science fiction back story to the game, and the continually evolving mystery, this game could also be very helpful in encouraging students to read and write.  The narrative is engaging in itself, and students could be asked to propose theories about what is happening based on the clues that are dropped periodically in the game’s news releases.  I’ll admit that I’m usually more interested in walking around and gaining control of territory, but I can see the potential for the language arts in this game.

With two teams working to control sections of the world, there is also, naturally, room for teamwork.  Each faction has its own Google group as well as a way to chat from within the game, and teams in many locations arrange for meet ups to socialize and plan strategy.  Teams need to work together to mount strategies to control territory …. and also to block the opposing team’s strategies to gain control of the same spaces.  It is generally a lot of fun, and so far, I have not had any negative encounters – even when near an opposing team as they were trying to wrest control of a portal from me.

Cautions

That being said, as I mentioned earlier, parents and teachers (and everyone else) should use caution in playing this game.  Just as with geocaching, it can be easy to leave your comfort zone for areas that are not safe.  You need to remain alert and aware of your surroundings, not stepping off of cliffs or balconies in an effort to reach a portal …. don’t laugh.  There is a portal in my city that is barely reachable by carefully stretching over a railing.  I’m not sure how it got there, but it is a lesson in caution.

Given how the game is played, it is easy for kids to get involved and play as peers with and against adults.  As a relatively new player, I’ve probably been schooled by more children that I would like to know.  But do be aware that the game is one of competition, and new players will be at a disadvantage for many levels, having their hard work destroyed by higher level players who see an advantage …. and who don’t know that they may be playing against a kid. So long as players understand that the game really is one of shifting control back and forth …. daily  ….. it is fun.

Drawbacks

While the game does encourage movement, a lot of players – myself included – simply drive from portal to portal.  Most locations are readily accessible from the street or a convenient parking lot, and it is easy to be lazy or in a hurry …. trading a seat in front of the computer for a seat in the car.  For people who are mobility challenged, this is a blessing – you can play with the best of us.  But it also sorta defeats one of the big draws of the game.

The game also puts quite a strain on your smart phone.  I am still running an older model iPhone, and the battery does not last very long while playing this game.  My husband’s new iPhone holds up far longer, and I have simply gotten an auxiliary mobile power source to support longer gaming sessions ….. when I’m not in the car with the iPhone plugged in.

And … of course …. it does require a smart phone … or an iPad.  Originally released only for Android, it’s been out for about a year for the Apple platform.  But the requirement of a fairly robust device will put the game out of reach for some students.

Summary

On the whole, I really like this game.  It is encouraging me to get out and explore new sections of the city and to walk a good deal more than I have been during the cold winter.  I’m looking forward to reading more of the narrative and getting to know some of my team mates ….. and even members of the opposition …. in local Ingress meet ups.  If you are an educator or a parent, this game has potential to be an engaging alternative to the traditional computer or videogame, and it would be a lot of fun to do as a family.

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Image representing Google Docs as depicted in ...

Image via CrunchBase

One of the tools cited by students as most helpful was the free set of tools provided by Google, known colloquially as “Google Docs“.  If you haven’t run into them yourself, these free, online tools include simplified word process, presentation software, a spreadsheet, and form creator (often used currently for short surveys), and a drawing program.  In most cases, they do not have the sophistication and range of features found in commercially available tools such as the Microsoft Office Suite, but their feature set often does the trick for most basic uses of these tools.  The word processing program, in particular is a perfectly adequate tool for producing term papers.  But the biggest claim to fame I found for my classroom use was the ability for groups to edit documents collaboratively and simultaneously.  This is a feature that I’ve been employing with co-writers for more than a year — freeing research groups from purchasing special access to systems such as Basecamp or Huddle.

The Good

When I introduced this set of tools to my students, I was extremely surprised to find that nearly all of them were entirely unfamiliar with Google docs, despite the adoption of Google apps by our campus more than a year ago.  They used commercial software in their freshman composition course, which costs each student about $40 under our campus agreement, but they were unaware that a free set of tools were an alternative that they could use now …. and more importantly, after they have graduated.

As college educators, we constantly ask ourselves how much do we need to teach the so-called digital natives about new developments in digital communication.  We assume that students will be ahead of us in adopting these tools, but as Joanna Goode pointed out in a recent article (Goode, J. (2010). The digital identity divide: how technology knowledge impacts college students. New Media & Society, 12(3), 497-513.), many students are not exposed to essential tools informally.  Hence, instructors need to check with students and be prepared to point them in the direction of computer tools and techniques that will aid them in achieving academic success.

For my students, the suite of free tools was perfectly adequate for most assignments – and it allowed them to do more collaborative work with fellow students.  Several reported during the term that Google docs had allowed their groups to succeed in completing assignments for different classes, encouraging more participation from the whole group instead of the tendency for one or two people to do all of the work because they alone could meet face to face to do the assignments.

For my class, we often used these tools for small group engagement over readings as well as preparation for group teach-backs and practicing instruction with educational technology.

The Problematic

Some tools in the Google apps suite are still in development.  While the word processor was robust and full-featured, the spreadsheet and drawing programs could not complete with the commercial solutions.  Microsoft‘s Excel still has more formulas and a stronger graphing feature set that make it a better choice for creating spreadsheets even for simple tasks like creating a course grade book.

The Solutions

A small number of my students had difficulty throughout the term in using Google docs, especially in logging into the suite, even with their official campus ID.  Since mine was a course on educational technology, I used these situations as an example of how to do problem-solving to resolve technology glitches.  In some cases, we had to make do by creating an alternative, new log in for these students.   But many cases were occasions for patience and persistence … the willingness to find a work around to try later is an essential disposition in education, especially whenever trying out new techniques or tools.

Students generally found that the advantages of Google Docs …. especially the ability to edit a document by several people simultaneously …. outweighed the drawbacks.  But they also learned to do quick tests of concept to see if a feature set for a specific tool would be adequate for the assignment.  In my class, this was an important learning objective!  For professors using this suite for class, you probably should double check the feature set of any tool before you suggest it to students.  Since they often wait until the last minute to even start an assignment, this will lessen the likelihood of a “gotcha” situation and much frustration on the part of the students.

Overall, I look forward to seeing how Google extends their application suite.  If it remains free and readily accessible, many recent graduates will be able to keep using technology in their classrooms even with thin (and getting thinner) school budgets.

A few students have asked for instructions for uploading to UMD’s official ePorfolio system, so I created this short page of instructions.  I think uploading is not hard, but organizing the vast amount of material (much of which is uploaded automatically by the system) is confusing for many students.

It’s a constant game of give and take, trying to find solutions are that robust, easy to use, and appealing to users.  I recommend that our students at least use this a place to store artifacts and materials during their school years, although they may want to use a different solution to share and present their public brand to future employers.

Second Life

Image via Wikipedia

Yea, I’m slow.  The announcement that Second Life would be adding a user-selected display name came out months ago, but I am just getting around to logging pixels on the topic of what this means for educators.

While I’m preparing to duck here, I have to say that, as a teacher, I actually welcome the idea of having display names and user names.  I realize that there are issues to work out, especially during the transition.  However, I think it would be particularly useful to be able to greet a student in world without having to sort through a cheat sheet to try to line up a bizarre Second Life name with a name on my class list — a list that is, inevitably not handy at the moment when I need it.  For class purposes, I would be able to require a student to use his or her real name when doing school-related work … at least if the student wanted to get credit for course participation for that day.  It might be useful to be able to switch that name more often than weekly, since I’m sure many students do not want to be identifiable when not at my educational build, but for selfish purposes, my aging mind welcomes the ability to remember one name per student.

My current work around has been to use the various roleplay combat system attachments or roleplay name changers, which bring about their own issues such as scripting lag and the association of school with gaming and roleplay activities.  The display name option is, you have to admit, more elegant.

It will no doubt take time for us to adjust.  I am fortunate in that I do not have any scripts currently that rely upon user names for security or other reasons, since I base my scripting on active group membership.  But, I am looking forward to this, and other recent updates announced over the summer.  For good or ill, Second Life remains one of the more accessible and usable user-created content platforms available to the average user.