Monday, 30 March 2009

H809: Week 6 update

I had thought about combining this post with a week 7 entry, as it is a little overdue, but the forums have been a bit quiet so I thought I'd focus on week 6 and wait a little longer to give people a chance to discuss the relevant activities.

The theme of week 6 was audiences and ethics, and while there was no set reading to discuss, students were asked to listen to a podcast - which anyone can listen to from here (thanks to Juliette for posting the link). The podcast was discussion between James Aczel, Eileen Scanlon, Cindy Kerawalla, and Chris Jones about the impact of different audiences on the process of research and how it is reported. Discussions in the forums highlighted the importance of pitching proposals to funders in such a way as to justify the research planned (including a consideration of any ethical issues), the need to be cautious of distorting the findings by oversimplifying the message (e.g. when reporting to a non-technical audience), and how there can often be a tension between what the funders and the researchers want. The latter point is especially true of dissemination activities, as funders will often want publicity straight away, while researchers will tend to want to mull things over a bit and consider the implications. If anyone is interested, this link was posted in the forum cafe to a Guardian discussing the government's interest in "evidence based research". Another point that came up, was how it is common to disseminate the same research findings to different audiences. This reminded of conversations I had when working as a research assistant on the Racing Academy project, where we talked about dissemination in terms of both academic audiences and practitioners, because we also wanted the findings to be useful to teachers who wanted to use game-based learning in practice. In general, the discussions within H809 seemed to suggest that thinking about your target audience should happen quite early on in the research process, because it helps you address the issue who is likely to benefit from your research. This doesn't mean that you should tell funders or other audiences what they expect, but by considering what they might find most useful from the start, you won't have carried out a piece of research that no one wants to hear about! Meanwhile, Juliette and Sonja have both used their blogs to consider how the issues of audiences affect their own research.

In terms of ethics, a lot of the forum discussions focused on the ethics of carrying out research online. Part of this was about the "racial ravine" e.g. only 5% of Internet users are African-American and so a researcher has a duty to note that results may be influenced by inequalities in power relations (be they due to race, class, gender, sexuality etc) or cultural issues. Other issues raised were how to go about getting informed consent from participants (see Juliette's post on ethics for some examples of consent forms and information sheets) and how you can know whether someone online is who they say they are. Linked to the latter point was a suggestion that the Exploring online research methods website might be a little out of date, as there is little consideration of Web 2.0 technologies in terms of ethics. An article was also linked to about the failure of Captcha systems (which I seem to have to deal with everytime I buy gig tickets or post a blog comment) to distinguish between computers and humans. Students have also begun to think about how to address ethics in their own research by posting case studies to the wiki (which you can access here if you are logged into the course website) including JM who has posted her case study online. Finally, there was also some talk about the difficulty of maintaining the anonymity of participants. Changing someone's name is not always enough, as they can be identified by other information. For example, it was pointed out in the forums that while Hiltz and Meinke (1989) did not refer to participants by their real names, they did make a potential breach of privacy by informing us that not only did the Upsala college's ice hockey team take part in the project but also hat some of them failed to show up on-line on a regular basis. It is worth noting however, that even if care is taken to anonymise identifiable information about participants, they may still find it somewhat uncomfortable to read about how their behaviour is interpreted by the researcher(s). One way to avoid this is to make sure your participants get to read your interpretations before you publish them, but this also runs the risk of them withdrawing their consent during the final stages of your research...

As usual, I've been trying to think about my own take on the topics being addressed in H809. In terms of audiences, I think I'm probably focusing on an academic audience at the moment as I'm not looking at anything that directly relates to educational practice just yet. However, studying games and learning means there are a variety of academic audiences I can address as I seem to be some sort of psychology, computer science, education type crossroads which I can also talk about in terms of HCI (Human Computer Interaction) user experience evaluation. I think this will be especially obvious when it comes to writing up my findings, and is something I have already become aware by submitting papers to different types of conferences. In terms of ethics, I don't think I'm going to have any major problems as it looks like I'm going to be using adults (keep in mind that when children are being used in research projects, there will be even more ethical issues to consider and processes to complete such as a Criminal Records Bureau check), and won't be asking them to do anything that could cause them serious harm. That said, if I do end up using these gaming vests, there may be some potential for physical injury that I will need to take into account and justify my reasons for wanting to look into. I should also say that even though I didn't need to get ethical approval for the studies I carried out last year during my masters, filling in the OU ethics proforma was still quite a useful exercise as if helped set out what I intended to and made me think about all sorts of issues that need to be considered if you want to carry out an ethically sound piece of research that your particpants won't regret taking part in.

Monday, 16 March 2009

H809: End of block 1

This is just a quick post to wrap up the last of block 1 so we can all start afresh for the next part of the course.

I can imagine that everyone has been very busy getting the first assignment in (due today) so things have been a little quieter. In week four, there was some discussion about referencing tools and bibliographic software. It's something I have to keep reminding myself to do - keep track of what I'm reading and where to find it - but I have to admit I don't always stay on top of. But, once you get to grips with the tool you are using, it's one of those things that will actually save you time in the long run and well worth it. The main tools that have come up in the discussions include Refworks, Endnote and Zotero (which is the one I actually use). I did have a go at Endnote but Zotero just seems easier - I love the fact I can add references just straight from my browser, though you do need to be using Firefox to do so). Plus, if you use it in combination with something like Dropbox (suggested in one of the forums) you don't have to worry about only having access to it on one PC. Oh, and Zotero is also free, unlike the other two. In general, while using any of this kind of software does have a bit of a learning curve, the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages since they allow you to keep a record of what you've been reading, attach notes about this, create bibliographies in specific styles and avoid having to repeatedly search for the same document. Another link posted on the forum is to a review paper on blended learning, which shows how powerful things like using the keyword function can be (see appendix 1).

The last paper to be read in Block one was "Learning by Collaborating: Convergent Conceptual Change" by Jeremy Roschelle (1992). Unfortunately there wasn't a whole lot of discussion going on about this one, but it is rather heavy going and in combination with the upcoming TMA1, I suspect people had less time to get into it. Mike Protts did post his own reflections on the paper though, and relates them to "extreme programming". One of my supervisors gave me the paper to read last year, and I remember thinking at the time that it was an incredibly detailed account of a single case. While this obviously imposes limit on the generalisabilty of the claims made, the claims are often supported by referencing other studies, and the paper does provide a really interesting account of the processes that occur when trying to come to a shared understanding about scientific concepts - which are notoriously difficult to get right (see this link from the forums about how it can all go very wrong). I liked how the author discussed the findings in terms of theories of learning including constructivism and situated action. If pairs are learning through convergent conceptual change then it illustrates that collaborative learning can occur without the need for asymmetrical pairs (Vygotsky) and/or without cognitive conflict (Piaget) in order for the participants to achieve mutual understanding. By referring to situated action as well, there is a further emphasis on the context within which the interactions take place, because the environment is seen as an integral part of our cognitive processes. The reference also reminded of when I did my Human Communication and Computing MSc at the University of Bath, where we did an awful lot of talking about how technology can be used to support the process of achieving common ground during collaborative activities.

How does this relate to my current research? I'm not really sure it does to be honest, as even though I may be using a case-study approach I'm not sure I want one this detailed! While learning through collaborating is something I definitely want to keep in mind, I'm not focusing on formal learning of scientific concepts and I'm not sure I'd be comfortable enough to use a discourse analytic approach (in the form of conversational analysis) to analyse co-located game play interactions. But I guess it's an option! At the very least, it's given me something to think about in terms of methods and theories that concern collaborative learning.

So that's it for block one. I hope everyone got their TMAs in ok and that you're all looking forward to block two. It starts this week with a focus on audiences (something Sonja Tack has already been thinking about) and ethics.

Monday, 9 March 2009

User-generated content

So, what is user generated content then? I've been thinking about this sort of thing for a while now I think I first mentioned it when I was writing about Spore. In relation to games, it means you not only get to play them but you get to have some input into the game, by designing your own levels, for instance. This is beyond being able to customise your avatar in an RPG, as it influences the gameplay itself. The concept is quite similar to modding, which has been around for ages, with whole communities built around it e.g. for Counter-Strike (which is itself a mod of Half -Life). But though modding tools are sometimes made available for certain games, the process was usually quite technical. There has been a more recent move though, towards encouraging this sort of user-generated content by making it easier to do, with games like Little Big Planet (LBP) allowing players to design, build and share their own levels. The video below is an example of a player created LBP level, based on Takeshi's Castle:

The reason I'm interested in all this, is because I think it says a lot about different player motivations. There seems to be a certain type of player who is not content with the experience of playing but wants to create as well. Things is, I'm just not sure I'm one of them. And as much as stuff like Sporn and my mate creating a phallic shaped rocket ship in Little Big Planet can amuse me, it's just not what I want to be spending my time doing. Don't get me wrong, I know people can come up with some pretty impressive creations (as the video above illustrates) and I actually really enjoy games like SimCity where you get to build your own city. I'm just not that fussed about being able to design the landscape I'm going to build the city on. In Spore, I felt like I had to push myself through the creature design stages in order to get to the good bit (and I was so relieved when I realised I could just use the games own designs and other peoples for stuff like planes and buildings in the later stages). In Little Big Planet, I watched my sister sit through boring tutorials to get to grips with the level editor controls so she could start producing her own - as an artist I think this really appealed to her, though I have a suspicion she was more interested in creating a novel visual experience, rather than in thinking about it in terms of 'good' game design. It's all really fascinating from a research perspective - I can ask what drives these players to create, something Bartle's 4 types of gamer categories do not account for (I guess it would need some sort of creator/designer category), or I could ask what sort of other skills they develop while they are creating whatever they are creating. But on a personal level, I think just want to play already!

This also relates to how games can be used within education. Teachers can get their students to play games (be they designed to be explicitly educational or not) and try an integrate this into some part of the curriculum or they could get them to build their own games. This isn't that new an approach, Llyod Rieber and colleagues carried out Project KidDesigner back in the late 90s, and you can probably trace it's constructivist roots back to Seymour Papert and LOGO in the 70s. The basic idea is that kids will learn more effectively and acquire a wider range of skills if they are actively constructing something. And with the development of free software tools such as GameMaker, that make designing your own game a relatively simple matter, its become a lot more common than it used to be. If anyone is interested in this sort of thing, Jake Habgood carried out some relatively recent research that looked at the kinds of games children made in after school clubs, while his website contains a whole host of information about the resources out there that teachers and children can use.

I'm doubt a specific approach is better than another, as usual it will depend on the context and how well integrated the approach and context are (if anyone from H809 is reading this post, what I just said definitely relates to the Laurillard (1994) paper from Week 3!). I do find it interesting though that in terms of learning theories you can label this approach as constructivist, while you could talk about massively multi-player online games tends under some sort of communities of practice heading. Plus, it's made me think about what I want from my gaming experiences - and it seems that I don't want to actively engage in an online community, I just want to get on with some actual game play when the mood strikes. But is something I want because it requires less effort? What does that mean for the learning that results from the experience? Is it somehow shallower or less likely to transfer? Maybe I'm just impatient, but I have to admit I don't want to design parts of a game myself as it feels like a lot of work (and even though I am studying games, I still see playing them as a break from 'proper' work). And also, if I've just spent x amount of money on a game, I definitely want to be rewarded by an experience that has been designed for me to play. But that's just me, and I'm beginning to realise that there is a whole range of reasons why people play, and create, games. If we're ever going to be able to truly tap into the educational potential, of using games, I think we're going to have to recognise that and understand these motivations a whole lot better than we do now.

Saturday, 7 March 2009

H809: Week Three reflections

I had been meaning to get this post out earlier but have been busy this week trying to submit a conference paper. But it's all in now, so will have to wait and see how it goes.

Students were asked to use academic search engines such as Google Scholar and ISI Web of Science (which you need to access through the OU library page, under databases but remember to sign in first) to find papers and evaluate their impact by checking how many times the papers had been cited. It seems that while this turned out to be a rather time consuming task and that not everyone got the same results, most people concluded that the last two readings didn't seem to have a huge impact and some students started to question whether number of citations was the only way to measure impact - surely having to read them for the course means they have an impact, despite not adding to how many times they have been cited?

There were two readings for this week; the first of which was "How can learning technologies improve learning?" (Laurillard, 1994). The main point that came out of the discussions about this was how important it was to consider the relationship between the context in which learning takes place and the outcomes which result from this learning. It isn't enough to simply ask whether technology x improves learning, but under what conditions does technology x improve learning, something H809 tutor Rhona highlights in her post and links to how to approach TMA1. JM has also posted on how the paper relates to the use of wikis. Another issue that came out of the forums is that technology can sometimes be an obstacle to learning, as students could end up spending too much time getting to grips with the software and not enough on the content they are supposed to be learning. This is actually quite relevant to my topic of research, because there does seem to be a distinction between learning how to play a game i.e. in terms of controls, and other skills that develop as a result of continued play e.g. problem solving, decisions making etc. Another interesting point raised about the paper was how the arguments within it are still valid today with respect to newer technologies (e.g. Web 2.0, virtual worlds), with a link being posted to a New Scientist article about the impact of podcast lectures.

Less was said about the second paper "Knowledge, society and perspectives on learning technology" by Oliver and colleagues (2007). I suspect part of the reason for this is that it continued the epistemological debate over positivism and other social perspectives, and also because we are getting closer to the first assignment deadline. Juliette Culver has posted quite a nice summary of both the papers, and her thoughts on them - from this and the forums it seems students appreciated how the paper outlined different perspectives and gave actual examples of how these would influence research in practice. There was also the suggestion that while quantitative approaches might be good for examining whether an effect takes place, qualitative approaches are probably more useful for explaining why the effect occurs (or not). The discussions on frameworks also link to the final activities for this week concerning the podcast about the impact of ICTs in education (you will need to be signed in to access this link). The podcast seemed to get people thinking about how important it is to consider philosophical perspectives, in addition to the other questions suggested in Week 1, when reading about research, as the approach adopted is quite likely to affect the methods and conclusions of the paper.

I think that covers the main events of the last week or so. If anyone has anything to add though, do please let me know. I'd also be happy to receive any feedback about how useful (or not!) these posts are, what I should be including in them, and about the timing of them.