Friday, 30 January 2009


As a kind of introductory H809 post (though most of this will probably apply to anyone who is thinking about setting up there own blog), I wanted to talk about some of the blogging tools that are out there for people to use and what sort of questions you need to ask yourself when deciding what to use. I figured the easiest way to go about this was to try and compare some of the tools available so I'm going to talk about the OU blogging tool (available as part of the VLE), Blogger and Wordpress. Note: there is also, where you can download a bit of blogging software and need your own domain name to host your blog, but I'm going to be discussing where they host your blog for you.

Obviously, I am most familiar with blogger, but I did have a play with the OU tool and a chat with another student at in IET, Anesa Hosein, about her experience with With respect to the OU blogging tool (you can find this via the StudentHome website, under the tools section) it is convenient and easy to access in terms of the course. The other main advantage with this tool is that you are able to choose whether to keep your blog completely private, only available to OU users, or completely public. On the downside though, it seems some people have experienced spamming problems, and there is a distinct lack of features available. Of course you can post entries, edit them, add tags, access the html editor, even embed photos and videos (though I didn't have much luck trying to post a youtube video when I was playing around with it). There is also an option to post links on the side and subscribe to RSS feeds, but in comparison to what's available with other tools, the choices seem a bit limited. Also, as far as I am aware, there is no search function for looking through your own blog.

In contrast, Blogger and Wordpress offer a range of widgets that you can add, plus a large number of templates for you to customise the look and feel of your blog. So you can add things like I've got on the sidebar - blogs I'm following, an archive of posts - and anything else from a Wikipedia search bar to a dodgeball game! One of the things I like about Blogger is how I am able to access it from my google account, and also how it automatically adds the blogs I'm following to google reader. However, if you want to keep track of how many people visit your blog and various other stats, you will need to use something like Google Analytics or StatCounter and insert a piece of code to keep track of this for you. In contrast, Wordpress keeps a record of a lot of the same information for you. Additionally, it also allows you to decide which of your posts are public or private, which turned out to be a deciding factor for Anesa. Oh, and I just found out that there is a Wordpress plugin for Zotero (thanks Katherine!) if you're thinking about how to integrate referencing tools to your blog.
At the end of the day, there is no one tool that is going to work for everyone. It's going to depend on what you want to use your blog for and what features you think are best going to support this use. If anyone has any comments about their own experiences or advice for others, I'd be interested to hear them.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

BETT exhibition, SGI workshop and my own research

There were a couple of things I went to last week that I thought were worth mentioning. One of them was BETT, which I went to with my supervisor James Aczel who has already blogged about it here. The picture on the right is me playing with Microsoft's surface, which was definitely pretty cool. So we saw a lot of cool bits of technology, but I think what I'd like to add to James' commentary was that we saw very little in terms of innovative gaming approaches.

There were a fair few simulations on offer, and a lot of interactive software but in very little in terms of actual games. There was a stall for Serious Games Interactive, who were promoting their Global conflict series where students take on the role of reporter in either Palestine or Latin America. I'd already heard about the company at ECGBL, when Simon Egenfeldt-Nielsen did his keynote so it was nice to see they had a presence at the exhibition, albeit in a little stall in an upstairs corner. ConnectED had a stand with PSPs on it, but these mostly seemed to be used as portable recording devices more than anything else. We found out later though, that they are also being used as augmented reality viewers and while it will be interesting to see how this might be used in education, it's not exactly using the PSP as a gaming device either. Then we came across the Cyber Coach - Dance mat system. As far as I could figure out, this is essentially allows you to connect multiple dance mats to a single system, gives you access to virtual (i.e. taped) instructors and has thrown in a few extra games to get the kids moving. All for about £6000... I was told that most schools didn't buy dance mats for all the children, but that's ok because the ones who don't have them tend to try and copy the steps anyway, and also some places are making extra money by charging adults to use the system in the evening. Is it me or does this all seem a bit, well, gimmicky? I mean, apart from being able to connect several mats to one system (which the students don't seem to need anyway)... you seem to be paying for a set of really expensive aerobics videos. Perhaps I'm simplifying things a bit - there are several different types of classes you can access (Tai-Chi, Royal Marines training, Salsa to name a few), you can customise these clips, and if you buy more software you can create your own videos/classes etc. Who knows, maybe I would have liked P.E. more at school if we'd had a Cyber Coach. I mean it's got to beat running around a track right? And while I don't think it's particularly innovative, it's not like I have a better idea for how to use games to promote physical fitness. Still, I'm just not convinced this would be the best use of a school's budget.

I also went along to the Serious Games Institute (SGI) in Coventry for their Second Wednesday workshops, this one focusing on Education. Highlights include hearing about the Winning Game project in Scotland from Matt Seeney of Team Play Learning Dynamics, Martyn Ware from the Human League and Heaven 17, talk about Illustrious and their unique 3D Audioscape surround sound system, meeting people like Sara de Freitas, who is the Director of research at the SGI. It was quite an interesting experience and got me thinking. It seemed a lot of the people there were from industry, so had actually produced something (or were in the process of doing so), and wanted to know how to get funding, publicity etc. So there was less of an academic focus, and less on an interes in how this was all being evaluated. The emphasis was on getting these games, or supporting hardware, out there and in use. Which is great and entirely necessary in order to educate people about serious games and how they can be used but I guess that's not what I'm doing, and that's what it got me thinking about.

So what am I doing? Good question, and I'm not sure I have a suitable answer yet. I know that I want to look at commercial games, specifically the latest generation of console games as the initial question was to assess whether they can offer anything different in educational terms. I attempted to explore the link between engagement and learning during specific instances of play (through observation and interview) as part of my Master's and I think want to continue along similar lines. But I am looking at informal learning - i.e. what goes on as the player learns to progress through the game - not at what happens with games in formal educational environments. I have a feeling that the link between engagement and learning in games is taken for granted could do with further explanation. Maybe I'm not convinced a lot of serious games are as engaging as commercial games (even Simon Egenfeldt-Nielsen seemed to recognise this at ECGBL) but is that because of how they are designed, or because of the context they are being used in? Perhaps just saying this game will help you learn reduces your desire to play it? Some games are obviously more engaging than others but how can you compare them, especially when it seems to depend on who's playing them and why? How can you even measure something like engagement anyway? After coming across Regan Mandryk's research, we've been considering using some sort of bio-sensors to measure stuff like heart rate and galvanic skin response to answer the last question but it might be quite a complex thing to do. So there is lot to be reading and thinking about, but at least it looks like I've got something to discuss at my next supervisor meeting!

Monday, 19 January 2009

Practice based research in educational technology (H809)

In good news, I have managed to get myself some part-time work! I'm quite excited about it not just because it's a chance to gain some useful experience and earn some extra cash but I think the post is going to be a bit of an experiment in and of itself. I'm going to be helping out on a 20 week OU course called "Practice based research in educational technology" (H809), which ran for the first time last year. The course aims to help students locate, understand and evaluate empirical research within the area of technology enhanced learning in order to answer questions such as "How strong is the evidence for claims made about the use of ICT in edcuation?", and "How can we use theory to improve things?". It can be taken as part of a masters program or seen as a stepping stone to further study (e.g. PhD) and is aimed at teachers, lecturers, and education professional who have an interest how ICT is being used and evaluated within education. You can find out the details and register here, though be quick as there are only a couple of weeks before registration for 2009 ends.

What is it I'll be doing exactly? Well, I'm going to be a course blogger. Uh huh, I hear you say, and that means...? The H809 blog has a pretty good description of my main tasks and responsibilites, but the gist of it is that I will be keeping an eye on students' blogs (and elsewhere on the web), leaving comments and encouraging participation in order to coordinate the discussions and keep track of the main points that come up during the course. I'm also going to be thinking about how the course readings relate to my own research so I expect you will be seeing something about that here, as I will probably end up using my own blog to do so. The post is really quite an innovative idea which fits in very nicely with the course itself, so I think it's going to be really interesting to see how it develops. We're not sure exactly what to expect, but at the very least we might get some ideas about how to do it in future! If anyone has come across anything similar, I'd love to hear about it.

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Spore (PC)

It's time to talk about Spore. Designed by Will Wright (who gave us Sim City and The Sims) and produced by Maxis there has been a lot of hype surrounding this game, partly because it took so long to develop. In Spore, the player gets to follow and make choices about the evolution of their species through a series of phases: Cell, Creature, Tribal, Civilization and Space. Now I got the game back when it was released in September and got through the first four stages relatively quickly, but then I hit Space. I'm not even sure you can compare the Space phase to the previous ones because it is ridiculously huge. In the earlier phases, it is fun to watch your creation evolve, but it also feels like there is a lot of repetition going on e.g. in terms of how you interact with other creatures, plus I don't get why things like the camera controls seem to differ at each stage. But anyway, once you get through all that and unify your civilization, you discover space travel and the game is suddenly huge. Honestly, I've only had time to seriously play it over the holidays but it's only since reaching space that I really began to enjoy it. Maybe I'm just not that excited by creature creation (see pic below), or designing my own buildings and vehicles, and perhaps I just prefer being able to explore space and communicate with other races. But I think I can also blame the massive scope of the game for how long it's taken me to get into it - there is so much to learn and get a handle on, especially within the Space stage, I guess I felt like I didn't have the time to give it the attention it seemed to require.

The experience has also made me wonder about what my longer term motivators are for playing too. I mean, the game obviously requires quite an investment from players in terms of both time and energy, which doesn't pay off straight away, so why did I bother? It's reminding me a little of why I kept up with Portal - I think part of it in my case was because the hype, and later conversations with friends, made me want to know what all the fuss was about. I guess knowing about the various stages in advance also meant I kept wondering what would be next. I think the Space stage might be the game I wanted to play all along - but I do think it really is quite overwhelming when you're not convinced you have enough time to get the hang of it.

As much as I've enjoyed playing the Space stage though, I've not been entirely satisfied with my experience of playing Spore. There were a few little things - like having trouble keeping track of missions that were in different parts of the galaxy, getting confused by the wormhole numbers and having no way of noting within the game which wormhole would take me where etc. But what really annoyed were the Grox. SPOILERS AHEAD! (in case you wanted a warning...). After a playing while you encounter the alien race known as the Grox. As far as I can figure out, they're just not very nice. They attack your planets randomly for no apparent reason, and they have colonised hundreds if not thousands of planets in a belt around the seemingly mysterious centre of the universe (see pic below), so their space ships just shoot at you when you try and get through. I assume they've done this just to be annoying and to stop you from getting to centre. I realised pretty quick it would take forever to try and defeat the entire Grox race, and since my Dodos are quite a peaceful race anyway, war didn't seem like the best idea. But they are also ridiculously hard to make friends with and anytime you enter their space to even have a conversation they just don't stop shooting at you!! Frustrated, I turned to Spore Wiki for some advice. I decide I would just make a break for it - stock up with loads of energy and health packs and keep going till I reached the centre. Which I did, and it didn't take that long (though your ship moves a lot slower the closer it gets to the galactic core).

And what happened next? A strange yet amusing encounter with someone called Steve, 42 (in a nod to Douglas Adams and the Hitchhiker's guide), enlightenment (nothing specific, you are just told you have achieved this) and a gift - the Staff of Life. The staff sounded kinda cool but I didn't know what it was supposed to do, so I went back the wiki and was told it could terraform a planet to level 3 in just one go - but only up to 42 times (and so now I'm annoyed by the limitations imposed by the Hitchiker's refernce) . Meanwhile, I'm in the centre of the galaxy and the goddamn Grox are still shooting at me! So I used my get home in one jump ticket and quit the game. The way I see it, reaching the galactic core wasn't enough and there are now only two ways I feel I can achieve a sense of completition with this game - ally with the Grox (at the expense of making every other race hate me) or wipe the Grox out (which is going to take forever). So paradoxically, wanting to make friends with aliens everywhere has led me to think that I'm going have to resort to ethnic cleansing...

But my holidays are pretty much over, and it's back to the UK tomorrow so I'm just not sure I'm going to have the time and energy to keep playing. I'm just not sure the feeling I get from eradicting the galaxy of the Grox is going to be worth it. I'm not sure I ever expected an "ending", I knew Spore wasn't that kind of game, but I think I wanted something more like Civilization where you get a score or something. I mean, have I done well or not? I'm trying to remember if I felt a similar way when I used to play Sim City games? Have I just got less patient with games that demand more from me? And does it matter when I have deBlob, Sam and Max: Episode 1,World of Goo and Braid to play? I'm either more easily distracted these days or just have too many other games to play...