Tuesday, June 21, 2005

mmorpg's: the future of online education?

Ever played an mmorpg (massive multiplayer online roleplay game)? Although most of these games, such as Everquest, World of Warcraft, Dark Age of Camelot, and Star Wars Galaxies, emphasize pvp (player vs. player) combat, not all mmorpg's do.

Yesterday I had the opportunity to explore in A Tale in the Desert II; an mmorpg based in ancient Egypt. The designers have this to say about their game:

Have you ever wondered how it would be to live in Ancient Egypt? To be part of the civilization that built so many wonders? Well, now you can! In "A Tale in the Desert", you can relive those times and unravel their secrets. Build your own pyramid, help rule the country by passing laws and advising the Pharaoh, see how far you can make the civilization advance, or just explore the land and make new friends.

A Tale in the Desert (ATITD) is a groundbreaking MMORPG with rich variety in gameplay, that lets you build kingdoms from the ground up, actively interact with your fellow-people, and live in a diverse society where you can do almost anything; be a merchant, a courier, a builder, an artist, a cook, an explorer, a strategist, a king... or all of these--and more!. In fact if you find your very own part that hasn't been provided for, pass a law to do it! Whatever you decide, Egypt awaits you in "A Tale in the Desert".

Here's the beauty of mmorpg technology as I see it. First, it's 3-dimensional, graphic-based, rich audio, includes the ability to interact, move within a virtual environment, chat in either text or audio. Mmorpg's are usually quest-based, where the user has to complete a quest, a series of taks, directions, etc. in order to gain an item or improved status in the game. Most mmorpg's include guilds or clans, wherein members join together over long periods of time to support one another in the questing process. The social component is emphasized in the design of the game and quests. So where's the potential for education?

Let's break it down piece by piece:

  1. 3-dimension, graphics, audio -- appeals to multiple sensory modalities, encourages long-term retention due to combination of visual with text and sound. This approach to learning also supports Gardener's theory of Multiple Intelligences.
  2. Ability to interact, move within virtual environment -- a user can travel to many different lands, over different terrains, using various vehicles. This form of virtual field trip allows users to experience a variety of environments, such as snowy mountains, baked deserts, wooded forests. Quests can be designed to fit within an appropriate environment under study. For example, students in a Spanish I class could meet and talk in an environment replicating portions of Mexico. They could buy products, build a house, go to the mercado, etc., essentially "living" in Mexico and speaking Spanish to do so.
  3. Chat in text or audio -- mmorpg's are text-based in their chat tool, allowing users from around the world to meet and chat in the same environment. However, many mmorpg users also integrate external chat tools such as Roger Wilco or Battlecom to add live chat to their gaming experience. As discussed in #2 above, this live chat feature could be used by students studying a foreign language, by those who might be too young to type effectively for communication, as an adapative technology tool, or just to aid in learning by providing audio along with text.
  4. Questing -- in educational terms, team-problem solving! Quests are designed to motivate users by engaging them in harder and more complex tasks over time. As one progresses through the quests, they require the use of more complex skills and the ability to work as a team to progress through various components of a quest. There is great reward for the mmorpg player to complete the quest, both psychologically, socially, and in the final reward--either a new piece of equipment, armor, a tool needed to complete a more advanced quest, and/or an increase in rank in the game. In my thinking this approach to questing mirrors life and work in general. Educational game designers can take advantage of questing to design tasks that engage learners while rewarding them in the end. For example, in A Tale in the Desert II, early quests are individual. You are required to collect grass, mud, and sand to make bricks. Once you learn to make bricks, you are then able to begin building structures with your bricks. In essence, you learn by doing, not by reading a text or seeing a slideshow about brick making.
  5. Social interaction -- the social interaction in mmorpg's is often required in order to complete the game--hey, just like real life! Players come together on a short term (groups) or long term (guilds or clans) basis. For those of us that support learning as a social process, the current design of mmorpg play is excellent for promoting social interaction.

So let's imagine you are a high school or college student who is taking a class in Ancient Egypt. Would you prefer to learn in an online class in Blackboard, or an mmorpg such as A Tale in the Desert? How about an mmorpg for chemistry, art, band, business communications or personal finance? The technology exists today--moving it into educational realms will take funding, and an understanding of the power of mmorpg technology for educational purposes.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

taking off on weekends

Good morning. It's Saturday and there's coffee brewing on the stove. This morning I was contemplating the lifestyle of online teachers, and how the phrase "24/7, anywhere, anytime, anyplace" has affected the way I teach. I'm left with the question, "Can I take off on weekends?" The logical part of my brain says, "Of course. Everyone deserves a weekend off." Another part of me, however, gets a little anxious if I don't login over that time when many students are completing their work.

If you read books on online teaching, you'll get some fairly common advice that teachers should visit their online classrooms several times a week. If you talk with online teachers, you'll find a wider range of approaches--teachers who login everyday, those who login 2-3 times per week, and those who login once a week or less.

I suppose what interests me most are students' perspectives on how often their teacher should login, how immediate they should receive feedback on their work, how quickly their posts should be responded to. The newer a student is to online education, the more quickly they will want and expect feedback on their posted writing/work. Now, mind you, I can't cite this claim from any research; this is based on my own personal experience. I've questioned what causes that expectation. Why? Well, let's say I'm teaching on campus, a 3 hour class that meets once per week. A student hands in a paper. When do they get that paper back? A week later, at the earliest, sometimes two weeks if the writing is intensive or I'm overloaded that week. However, to wait a week or two to give feedback in an online class gives me butterflies--not to mention my students. What is it about online learning environments that creates the need for instant educational gratification?

I've explored a variety of informal approaches to assist my students with the expectation of my availability. In my syllabus, I discuss my availability (that I login 2-3 times per week), that they can email or call if they need more immediate assistance, and I provide an instant messenger address that I try to keep open whenever I'm online. If I'm going to be offline for more than two days, or out of town, I'll post an announcement letting folks know about it in advance. Part of my professional responsibility, I believe, is educating online learners about the nature of online learning, and setting the tone for how my online classroom operates.

Now, I'm going to finish up my cup of coffee, post this blog entry, and head off for some fly fishing this weekend. Hope yours is a good one, too.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

assessment in online education

Today I'm thinking about assessment approaches in online education. As soon as I start talking about assessment, I'm often brought back to the notion that's ones underlying philosophy of education is the ultimate influence in design, teaching, and assessment of online education. So I'll take these in two parts: first, assessment; second, educational philosophy.

At the current time, I'm not too impressed by the assessment tools included in most LMSs (learning management systems). Why? They all emphasize traditional forms of student assessment--multiple choice, quiz, essay exams, etc. I suppose these types of tools have their place in learning, and indeed some students report enjoying the ability to take these types of tests and get immediate feedback. Often, these tools can be combined with links to additional reading, materials, etc. if the student gets the answer wrong. I admit that when I taught elementary school, I definitely used these forms of assessment. However, since I started teaching in higher education 13 years ago, I have yet to assign a traditional assessment to my students. Yes, you've guessed it. I'm one of those folks who enthusiastically believes in authentic assessment approaches, especially for adult learners in graduate school.

As a supporter of authentic assessment, I design curriculum that uses multi-levels of assesment: self-assessment, peer assessment, as well as instructor assessment. Each of these levels of assessment serves a different, but important purpose, in the learning cycle. I've written a slideshow on this topic, so I won't go into a lot of additional depth here on that topic. I will say that I use such assessment strategies as online portfolios, project-based learning, problem-based learning, self-reflective journals, peer feedback using rubrics, etc. I'd like to see LMS software companies begin to design their systems to provide tools that allow me to assess in alternative ways. Many new online educators, who can be confused by the structure of the online environment, will automatically use whatever assessment tools are provided in their design of instruction. Thus, the tool mandates the teaching approach--not a great idea, especially when those tools have their limitations and are based in an educational philosophy that one might not support.

So, Part 2: educational philosophy. I could go on for days on this topic, so I'm going to try my darndest to be brief. Here's the big idea, don't miss it: A teacher's underlying educational philosophy determines the design, instruction and evaluation used in his or her classroom. Period.
  • Thus, if I'm a behaviorist teacher, I'm probably going to lecture and then quiz my students on the mastery of material. Why? Because I believe that learning is about obtaining knowledge from others.
  • Now, if I'm a social constructivist teacher, I'm probably going to have my students work in small groups to investigate and answer some problem that they've been given. They will present their findings to me and other students in the class as a form of evaluation. Why? Because I believe that learning is a social process, and that the purpose of teaching is to assist students in their own knowledge construction process.
  • Let's say I'm a cognitivist teacher. I'm probably going to illicit my student's prior understandings on the topics, and then provide them some graphic organizers, visuals, and othe reading material so they can continue to build their schema on a given topic. They might then develop a slideshow illustrating key points on a given topic area that they've learned about. Why? Because I believe that there is declarative and procedural forms of knowledge that I can assist my students in developing by relating materials to concepts they already know.
  • Finally, let's say I'm a critical theorist, and I emphasize the importance of understanding cultural differences as part of the learning process. If my students are studying Columbus, I'm probably going to ask them to investigate the causes of the downfall of the native American people around the time of the Spanish infiltration. They will investigate the differences in cultures, and the impact that the cultures had one another, including such things as disease, warfare, etc. I might then have my students create an online report about the consequences of the Spanish infiltration on native Americans, and share that report through online news channels. Why? Because I believe that learning is about empowering students to understand the role of race, gender, sexual preference, etc. as a major influence in our culture.

OK enough of this soapbox for today. You get the idea. WebCT, Blackboard, eCollege hear my plea. Give me some tools that allow me to provide some alternative forms of assessment! Become leaders in education by providing structures that support emergent trends in education, instead of dusty, old-school types who force online learning into a mold where we no longer need to be.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005


Serendipity. Last night I log into my online teaching class, and continue reading introductions from my new students. Rick Weinberg, a technology professional developer for BOCES in Pennsylvania, introduced me to ISafe.org. Isafe.org offers planning and a curriculum for teaching internet safety, free of charge, for kids K-12. They also provide a chatrom for kids under 18 that is monitored by the i-SAFE Safety Trained Awareness Team. What a great way to introduce kids to safe chatting.

As more K-12 schools go online, or integrate online components into live classrooms, internet safety will continue to be a critical issue that needs ongoing consideration. Cyberdating, cyberbullying, identify theft, pornography, plagarism, or meetings with online friends, wanted or not, are some issues being faced by today's kids. As educators, when we are proactive in our teaching to educate kids or adults how to most effectively use today's internet technologies, while understanding how to deal with some of the problems mentioned above, we empower learners to become responsible and safe in their own learning process. Thanks for sharing, Rick.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

blogs & kids & safety

Happy Tuesday all. I'm so intrigued with my new blog that I introduced my fiance's daughter, 14, to blogging last night. Just for fun we sat down and started creating her own personal blog together. As we worked our way through the template together, I started getting those alarm signals that go off when we engage kids with internet technologies that expose them to the world, literally.

I began to worry about who would see her blog, whether she should post a picture of herself, how much personal information she should share, whether others could email her. I talked with her about the need to not disclose her identity--she was already very aware and savvy. After creating her site, we worked through each of the settings, deciding together how much access she wanted others to have.

I was pleased to see that blogger does offer some security for younger users. For example, the ability to comment to her posts is restricted to her members only--those she has invited to her blog. All her family has access to the blog--great for monitoring blog activity. She chose not to make her email address available, and has not included a picture of herself or mentioned her last name.

While all her choices were right, I'm still left with that slightly uneasy feeling about introducing her to blogs in general. Annette Lamb has a great reference site of blogs used for a variety of purposes with kids and otherwise http://escrapbooking.com/blogging/bloggers.htm I'd love to hear from other teachers or parents who have experience with blogs and kids. What are your thoughts?

Monday, June 13, 2005

power tip: starting off on the right foot

I love this online teaching tip. During the first week of class, I ask students to post personal/professional introductions. I then post an individual reply to every student. These are quick and easy to do, a great way to make an initial connection between the instructor and student. In my reply, I typically address four topics:

1. Welcome the student to the course
2. Discuss or mention at least one personal topic they have introduced
3. Encourage them to seek me out for assistance as needed during the course
4. Let them know I value the upcoming contributions they will be making to the class

This one teaching tip opens up a door for communication and personalization. Students have more than once mentioned this one tip as being a positive influence in their overall course experience. Try it out!

If you have online teaching tips you'd like to share, send me a note and I'll be happy to include them in the blog.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Welcome to OnlineEducator!

Hi, welcome to my blog about all things of interest to online teachers. Last year, I started RiverWithin, the Center for Online Educators. That site is now being integrated with a new Center for Online Educators at Boise State University. We hope the new site will be up and available in August 2005.

I've been teaching online for approximately seven years. That's a lot of typing! I'm quite fascinated with online teaching tools, as well as working with teachers to understand the power of those tools in creating and facilitating instruction. I learn so much from my students. Last year, one of my creative students introduced me to blogging in the classrom. This semester, I was introduced to podcasting and podclips (blogs in the form of audio and video clips) by Todd Seymour who runs EdTech Musician, a podcast for educational musicologists. I spent the day looking at education podcast sites on PodcastAlley.com . I'll be discussing future adventures on podcasts in education, for sure!

Stay tuned for the latest news in online teaching, and welcome aboard!