Wednesday, 25 February 2009

H809: Thoughts on week two

Technically, I guess H809 is in week three, but it seems to make sense to post about the previous works activities (some of which are carrying on) rather than on trying to provide some sort of 'this just happened' account. I thought it would also be worth sharing some wikipedia links that came up in the forums for anyone who was having trouble with the stats reported in last weeks paper - the first concerns F-ratios, and the second ANOVAs. It might also be useful to look at the course wiki (sign in required) to see how some of the students have used it to integrate their different accounts of how technology has been used in education over the years. This activity will help prove useful further on in the course as we start to consider how to contextualise educational research. A link that might be useful for finding relevant articles was also posted in the cafe for Journals in the field of technology enhanced learning.

Week two's reading was ‘Using computer-based text analysis to integrate qualitative and quantitative methods in research on collaborative learning’ (Wegerif & Mercer, 1997). Juliette has a nice summary and some reflections on it here. Some interesting things that have come out of the forum discussions so far include the distinction between quantitative and qualitative methods in terms of their level of abstraction, the strengths and weaknesses of different methods of both collection and analyses e.g. the fact that textual analysis of speech will miss out on non-verbal communication and about how adequate a control group comparison was (not very, it would seem in this case). On a personal level, I think I enjoyed reading this paper more than last week's one, and I especially liked the introduction section for providing a kind of pros and cons to quantitative and qualitative research. The promised solution to the divide between the two sounded promising but as the students discussions have indicated there are some issues about the control group used (where they subject to the same analyses or not) and about whether the computer-based textual analyses carried out really does address all the issues it set out to do.

I think the most interesting aspect of this paper is that it has got everyone talking about quantitative and qualitative methods, with students considering issues such as how different is positivism to evidence-based practice? The debate over quantitative vs. qualitative is a long one and unfortunately not an easy one to jump into. When I was doing the MRes last year, I found it helpful to think about how these approaches differ on an epistemological basis. Essentially, positivists view research as a way to uncover what is already there while constructivists argue that reality is socially constructed, and so "research findings are created rather than discovered" (Badley, 2002). One of this weeks references, Richard Pring's article "The false dualism of educational research" (the link is accessible only if you're signed into OU StudentHome), provides another interesting insight into the debate. The paper provides a really useful outline of the quantitative and qualitative approaches, especially in terms of their philosophical basis, but ultimately argues that this does not have to be an either/or issue. Instead, the author concludes that "the qualitative investigation can clear the ground for the quantitative--and the quantitative be suggestive of differences to be explored in a more interpretive mode" (p. 259; Pring, 2000). This doesn't mean that a researcher should always use both, but that she or he needs to consider methods in terms of what is most appropriate to address the research questions. There is a lot to get your head around in Pring paper, but it is well worth a read as it provides a really interesting account of the debate, and an alternative option. In addition, it was suggested in the forums that next weeks reading by Oliver et al. (2007) also helps to clarify some of these perspectives (specifically positivism and constructivism), though I haven't read this yet.

The reason all this is important from a research perspective is that no matter what area it is you are focusing on, once you've figured out a research question/problem, you're going to have to think about methods. And when you think about methods, you have to be able to defend the choices you make and this means being able to talk about what you rejected and why as well. At the moment it looks like I'm going to be adopting a case-study based approach because I'm not looking to prove a hypothesis, but to explore certain processes, and because I want an in depth account of these process. So I have to sacrifice breadth for depth in terms of my results. It looks then like I will be taking a more qualitative approach since I will be using observation and interviews. However, I have also been thinking about getting some more "objective" data, such as physiological measures e.g. galvanic skin responses. The idea here is to gather a variety of measures to explore an phenomenon in depth, which may eventually lead to a framework of some sort, which could then be tested for it's generalisability. As for whether I think reality is socially constructed or not? I think I've tried to avoid answering that in the past but I guess I do agree, up to a point. I'm going to go with Pring on this one, and say I think I agree that our interpretations of reality are constrained by it's own features, so we can still say that some constructions are more likely than others. Otherwise, a lot of research might seem somewhat futile and I'd be out of a job!

Monday, 16 February 2009

H809: Week one roundup and reading reflections

Well it's been just over a week and things have definitely got going with H809. Students have been busy introducing themselves, and it seems there is quite a range of people on the course, with a variety of backgrounds and expertise (as was last year's group). There's also been a certain amount of becoming familiar with the VLE, I know I'm still getting used to the forums but I am starting to feel less confused about where everything is, and less overwhelmed by the number of posts! There are even a few blogs popping up - I've listed the public ones under H809 on the left hand side of this page, though there are also a couple that are just open to OU users. Not much is happening on these just yet but there have been a few posts e.g. Juliette Culver introducing her research background and her thoughts on educational research, and Mike Protts reflecting on the first course reading. Hopefully, we'll see a few more starting up and some further discussion as the course progresses. It does seem that some people are further ahead than others in their work, such as H809-jm thinking about a for technologies in education, but it is worth pointing out that one of the advantages of doing an online course is that you can go through the materials at your own pace so it's best not to use other people's progress as a marker for your own. Btw, in case anyone missed it, a glossary for key terms has been set up within the course wiki (if you are signed into the OU website, you can access this here).

In terms of the first paper,"Teaching sociology in a virtual classroom" (Hiltz & Meinke, 1989), most of the tutor groups have been getting on with the activities and sharing their thoughts and opinions about it. I think one of the first things that people noticed about the paper was the date that it was written - I mean we're talking pre-internet (something I have real trouble imagining as I've never had to do any academic work without it) so it's important to try and put this in context as there wouldn't have been much CMC related literature around at the time. However, the novelty value of the Virtual Classroom (VC) didn't really seem to be something the researchers considered but it is something I really should think about in relation to my own research, especially when dealing with novel game-play interaction techniques.

Some of the other things that seemed to come up in forum conversations more than once were the fact the study tried to cover an awful lot of ground, the colleges that took part in the study were very different (as were the modes of delivery) and that the institutions attitude towards having to use the virtual classroom was not always favourable. The latter point was quite interesting to me, as it reminded me of my work at the University of Bath where I was a research assistant on the Racing Academy project and one of the things we had to evaluate was the organisational impact of implementing the use of the game within different HE and FE institutions. We ended up using Activity Theory (I think this is coming up later on in H809 anyway) as a way of describing all the factors that seemed to have an impact, and I'm sure we would have missed some of the most interesting findings if we hadn't tried to take organisational issues into account. In the forum discussions, it was pointed out that while Hiltz & Meinke (1989) mention the fact that there was resistance to the use of the Virtual Classroom, we have no idea how the students were affected by this, or even why it occurred in the first place. I guess that to me at least, these seem like questions worth asking. It was also good to see how everyone is starting to consider the methods being used, and coming to terms with the distinction between quantitative and qualitative methods, something that I think the next reading will place more emphasis on.

My own research is beginning to take shape at the moment, and there are certain key words circling round my head as I try and formulate my research question. One of these terms is engagement, and I couldn't help pay attention when Hiltz and Meinke began to talk about interest and involvement. You see one of the key reasons for the academic interest in digital games is that they are seen to be engaging so researchers want to know how we can harness this motivational power (p. 4; Kirremuir & McFarlane, 2004). As such, I was especially interested in Hypothesis 2.4 which suggested the VC would be superior to traditional teaching in terms of "Increased level of interest in the subject matter, which may continue beyond the course" (p. 436; Hiltz & Menke, 1989). How were they going to evaluate this? Turns out through self-report questionnaires, and I'm not sure they even did ask about "beyond the course". So, the measure of interest was actually how interested the students thought they were, with no recognition of the possibility that the novelty of the VC might be a contributing factor. I guess I was hoping for something a bit more objective, though I'm not sure what exactly. In terms of methods, I know I won't be using some sort of pre-post test experimental design either as I will be focusing on much more informal learning. Still need to think about how I'm going to assess this though...

Going back to the paper, I think (and this is something else that kind of came up in the forums) the references to procrastination and self-discipline are a little bit worrying as they seemed to come across like students were being blamed for not being interested enough in the first place. If the VC is supposed to raise interest in the course, but not all students feel the same way, then surely it's not doing it's job (in this respect at least)? Big surprise, but the students who participated the most in the VC were the ones with the highest levels of reported interested i.e. the students who described the experience as "fun" (p. 440) were probably already highly motivated to begin with. The authors even go on to conclude that students who have problems with motivation, verbal skills, and/or access to computers are more likely to drop out of an online course - which suggests to me that the VC really doesn't increase "level of interest in the subject matter". I have a suspicion as well that when it comes to games, a similar thing is going on. I mean, it seems likely that the people who would get the most out of game-based learning are the ones who are already motivated to play games which seems quite obvious now that I've written it down...

Hiltz and Meinke also tie motivation to the concept of cognitive maturity - the authors claim that students who have attained a specific "level of cognitive maturity or writing skill" are actually predisposed "to active and highly readable engagement with ideas and new skills" (p. 434). I guess this is an attempt to explain why the VC does not appeal to everyone, which is fine, except that there is no consideration for how the situation might be improved, apart from cutting out the VC entirely from the academically weakest course. The notion of cognitive maturity reminded me a little of some reading I did last year on approaches to learning (see here for brief introduction) where much research has focused on how to promote deeper approaches to learning within education. So maybe that's why I was expecting something about how to improve the situation, rather than the conclusion that the VC is just not suitable for less academically able students. As for my own project (and for where I'm going with the link to games-playing) I think this has reinforced my thinking in terms of how important it is to take student characteristics (or game player expectations and long term motivations) into account if we are ever going to come up with a clear understanding of how motivation, involvement and learning interrelate.

Monday, 9 February 2009

Social gaming

I had a couple of friends come round last weekend so we could have a go on a some games I'd been wanting to try out. The first one was World of Goo, which I already knew I was going to love as I'd already played the PC demo. At first we were looking for some sort of multi-player mode, but then realised that all you had to do was point another wiimote at the screen to join in the puzzle solving. World of Goo is seriously easy to pick up, and we enjoyed it pretty much from the start. It follows the usual approach of starting you off with relatively easy tasks which get grow more and more difficult the further you progress - achieving a nice balance between your developing skills and the challenges you have to face. I also really like how you gradually start to become more and more curious about the goo and what exactly is going on in the game world. Who is the mysterious Sign Painter who leaves cryptic clues around the place? What are goo balls used for? What's with the random giant frogs? And so on. While I quite like this sort of randomness, one of my friends did point out the self-referential humour employed by the game might get annoying after a while. It was quite interesting to try and solve each puzzle with someone else though, especially since the experience seemed to have much to do with who you are playing with! While it made sense to cooperate and establish some sort of strategy together i.e. "you do the bridge and I'll do the balloons" (see image below), there was also the occasional competitive moment of "stop stealing my goo balls!". We didn't try it with three wiimotes but I have a suspicion it would have been quite hard to break down the puzzles into different tasks and it would have just turned into who can solve the puzzle fastest!

In contrast, de Blob supports multi-player play with a party gaming mode. The game is essentially a single-player adventure where you have to bring colour back to Chroma City by acquiring paint and bumping into things. It's amusing enough but not very engaging in the long term to be honest - I think I'm more intrigued by World of Goo's Sign Painter than the de Blob story. I had hoped the party mode would be a bit more interesting, but it essentially consists of three mini-games (which you have to unlock by playing the story mode) where you can compete against another player (actually up to 4, but while I do have 4 wiimotes, I've only got two nunchucks). The image below shows the split screen for two-player mode. We played it for a bit and it was entertaining but to be honest there wasn't much there to keep us going for long. The party mode just ended up feeling like a bit of a simplistic add on thrown in to try and tap into the Wii's success as a party console. Which is fine, if you don't want to invest much effort into it, or if you're playing with people who don't have much gaming experience.

If you want something a bit meatier though, there is Little Big Planet on the PS3, which I would seriously encourage anyone to have a go on. I'm going to ignore the user-generated content side of things for the moment as I think I want to do a separate post on this later on, and focus on the going through the levels, which you have to do anyway to unlock materials to design your own levels. I have played it on my own, and while it's incredibly cute and you could spend ages customising your little sack person, I found it a lot more fun to play it with someone. I first tried it back home at Christmas with my sister, and it brought back memories of how it used to feel playing together on my Mega-drive as kids - a sort of nostalgic bonding experience! The game encourages you to play with someone else by providing challenges you can only solve with the help of another player. I didn't realise until I was helping out at the Digilab stall in the Learn About Fair on campus a couple of weeks ago that you can play with up to four players. This was quite cool in terms of getting as many people to try it as possible but did get a little complicated trying to keep multiple sack boys and girls on screen at once (if your character disappears off to one side for too long you end up losing a life).

So, I think two-player mode works best, but while the game starts out easy enough some of the later levels can be quite difficult! Or at least they require a level of coordination and timing from both players that isn't always easy to achieve. The fact that there are frequent save points throughout each level means reduces the consequences of falling off a cliff or into crocodile jaws, being burnt to death etc but you essentially get four chances at making it to the next checkpoint, and that's between the number of people playing. So if there are two of you, and one of you has died twice, and the other once, the pressure is on for the second player to make it to the next check point in one piece, otherwise you have to go back to the start of the level It's an interesting mechanic, but it can get a little frustrating when things don't go very well. Plus, I tend to want to rush into everything when presented with a new level (I'm going to blame this on growing up playing Sonic...) when perhaps a bit of patience would work better. I also think that while de Blob and possibly World of Goo could quickly be picked up by any player, and played quite happily by a single player, Little Big Planet requires a bit more investment from two people to really reach it's potential as an engaging platformer. At the end of the day, I guess what you choose what you want to play based on the energy you want to put in and the experience you want to have.