Tag Archive: Educational technology


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.

As part of the assessment plan for my educational technology course for pre-service teachers, I included the production of a portfolio as a semester-long project for the students.  This addressed several objectives important for the course as well as for the students as pre-professionals.

Introduction to Types of Portfolios

The first objective was to give students an introduction to the theory of portfolios, and the different types of portfolios that might be used in education.  Most of them were familiar with historical, “kitchen-sink” portfolios.  Most students have been shown our university’s standard ePortfolio tool in their introductory writing course.  They get started with uploading writing samples and resumes, but they often forget all about this resource in subsequent courses —- and they forget to continue to save examples of representative artifacts throughout their college career.  I wanted to remind students, especially those who would go into teaching, to keep collecting examples of their work so that they would be ready for graduation.

They also forget the reasons that they might want to save examples of their work — either for reflection, to showcase their best work, or to prepare for job interviews.  So, when I laid out the plan for the term, I spent some time explaining the different types or reasons to keep a portfolio and shared with them the most excellent work of Dr. Helen Barrett, whose presentation and website on eportfolios completely changed my understanding of the role of portfolios in education last year.

Since many of these students will be assessing their own students in a year or two, I also wanted them to appreciate how portfolios can be used as a tool for assessment of a student’s growth over a period of time by seeing this enacted in their own learning.  Hence, their very first assignment for this class was a short term paper discussing what they knew at the beginning of the course about educational technology and to reflect a bit on how they had seen it used in their coursework throughout high school and college so far.

Since they had already done a portfolio for their freshman class, many students rolled their eyes at the assignment.  But, by the end of the term, nearly all of them admitted that they realized, in preparing their final portfolio for me, how much they had grown and learned in 15 weeks.  Many were amazed at their own growth and were even eager to show their portfolio to their family over term break.

Portfolio Tools

Students also rolled their eyes in exasperation over my guidelines for the assignment, which were extremely open-ended.  I let them not only choose what type of portfolio to create (historical, reflective, showcase, or job-hunt), but I let them decide what type of tool to use to organize and present the portfolio.  They could even use a 3-ring binder, although – since this was an educational technology class – I encouraged them to try a digital format from the list pulled together by Dr. Helen Mongan-Rallis on her ePortfolio resources website.  Making a choice, and defending it to me in a final review of the portfolio with each student, was an important part of the learning for this assignment.  By the end of the term, we had reviewed many different tools in terms of accessibility and fitness for purpose; I wanted to see how many students were developing the critical ability necessary to choosing educational technology for their own K-12 classrooms.

Although many students took the easy route, printing out the assignments from the term and putting them in a binder, a number went out and used online tools.  Google sites was one of the most frequently chosen options, offering students a free but customizable option that they could also share with friends and family.  Many also chose the university’s program, ePortfolio, although they found quickly that it has limited options for putting a personal spin on the presentation.

Some other free website hosting options existed, and a few students chose them, but a drawback turned out to be the inability to include “alt tags” to increase accessibility for the visually impaired.  We had included accessibility as a major criterion for choosing technology for the classroom, especially for online materials, and a number of students noticed that they couldn’t create alt tags when adding images and photos to their some of their portfolios.  At first, they assumed that they were overlooking something, doing something wrong, but upon closer examination, we found that some of the free website creation tools simply were not amenable to creating accessible sites.  It was another good learning experience for us all.

By the end of the term, I think the portfolio exercise demonstrated to us all – teacher and students – how much we had learned and how many tools we had experimented with using.  It was a very worthwhile assignment.

I really enjoyed teaching this semester. I think I learned a lot and was able to field-test many of the tools and educational technologies I recommend to educators in higher education and in K-12 settings.  I had some successes.  I had some flops.  But I know, from the debriefing with students at the end of the term, that we all learned a great deal from each other.  Me included.  What a great testimony to the concept of pre-service and in-service learning communities of educators.  To all of my co-learners, I say a hearty and heartfelt thank you!!

This reflection …. and some subsequent posts …. will attempt to debrief current and near-current practice (along with some mention of theory) in educational technology for pre-service teachers.  The good.  The problematic.  And the adjustments I would  make for future courses.

The Good

The course met in one of the University’s teaching labs, naturally.  This was a boon to just-in-time instruction since I would show the students a technique or tool which they could immediately implement on their own.  Great experiential learning.  Good way to bridge the well-known digital divide that does impact some of our students (some of whom had non-functional or inadequate personal computers) with state-of-the-art hardware and software.  And I did ask them to run some substantial programs such as Photoshop and Second Life.  So having reliable computers for experience and completion of assignments made the course a success.

The Problematic

And yet, those huge monitors on top of rows of tables definitely posed numerous challenges.

They did made it difficult to establish rapport between teacher and student by blocking the faces of the back half of the class.  I was not able to read their expressions to see if they were engaged, confused, bored, tired, or thinking hard.  While I could “read” the students in the front rows, we all know that students tend to self-select into regions of differing engagement with the material and the teacher.  I knew I was missing the feedback of half of my students …. and often the harder-to-engage half at that.

The computers hampered the ability of the students to see me and the visual portions of my instruction.  I still tend to use the whiteboard while talking, especially to draw charts, give the correct spelling of terms, and reinforce major ideas.  Even when I used the SmartBoard and computer combination (typing up notes or showing how to use a piece of software), I had to remember that the back half of the class literally could not read the bottom half of the projected screen.  This was a frequent problem whenever I was demonstrating a technique to the class.

The computers, and rows of tables upon which they rest, hindered interaction among students.  I tend to use constructivist methods in teaching, but getting students moved into groups for discussion was a chore.  The tables could not be moved, and so groups larger than three usually could not move around enough to actually talk to each other.  As the semester wore on, and coats joined backpacks in choking the aisles, I reduced the sizes of groups and the amount of time we spent in group break-out sessions.

The Solutions

  1. The flipped classroom.  I intentionally lectured less and made classroom time centered on student experimentation, small group discussion and production of learning artifacts.  I used our course management system, Moodle as an organized repository of class readings, course assignments and resources, online tutorials and resources, and copies of all of my notes.  That way, if someone could not read what was at the bottom of the board or screen, they could go back and get the details after class.  This was especially important because I had students with visual impairments …. they could participate in class knowing that they would be able to listen to anything I wrote when they accessed the material in the course website.
  2. Twitter backchannel.  While students did not make much use of it, I did create a twitter backchannel for the course.  That way, they could send me a quick note during class if they desired to give me feedback.
  3. Google docs.  Once they grasped the concept that every member of a group could edit a single document, students became enthused about using Google as a collaborative workspace.  I turned group discussions into sessions where small groups collaboratively created opinion papers or summarized readings together.  Once done, they could share results with me and …. depending upon the assignment …. with the whole class.  This made group collaboration feasible in a room built for individual work centered around a computer screen.
  4. Online discussion.  I used this sparingly since many students already are burned out by the frequent use of online discussions used to augment face-to-face classes.  I do enough reading of these discussions in my research and hobbies anyway (e.g. the Jedi Temple forums as a – now defunct – example).

Future

If I had it to do all over again, and could not change rooms, I would be more explicit with the students about the changes required by both parties (teacher and student) in the flipped classroom.  While most students made good use of the freedom, some struggled and simply considered any time that I was not lecturing as “free time” with which to do what they wanted.  And Facebook generally trumped self-directed learning of educational technology.  (Not that Facebook wasn’t one of our technologies …. but that is for a later post.)  Some students needed more framing and guidance to be successful in this new teaching environment.  Given that some states (such as Texas) are encouraging teachers to lecture less and encourage group work more, it would behoove pre-service teachers to become more conversant with the theory and practice of this change in pedagogy.