Wednesday, 27 May 2009

CALRG conference

Last week, CALRG (Computer and learning research group) had it's annual conference in the Jennie Lee building on campus. Unfortunately, I had to miss 30th anniversary celebrations on the Monday as I was coming back from Cyprus but Dave Perry was kind enough to photoshop me into the photo below so in a few years time, I'll probably think I was there! (It's a scanned copy of the photo so it's not too clear but I'm at the end of the top row next to Josie. If you look closely though, you might notice one or two others who have been added...).

From the sounds of it, I missed a good day. For a breakdown of the talks given, Doug Clow seems to have live blogged the entire event, separating the day into sessions 1, 2, and 3. You can also access the twitter archive and cloudspace for the event here, where each talk given has a cloud (thanks to Patrick McAndrew for putting up summaries of these). I did have a poster up based on my MRes work for last, and apparently, Tim O'Shea reckons I had the best research questions - though also the most difficult to answer... So that was pretty cool. Oh, and just for reference purposes, the questions I posed were:
  1. How can we identify the learning processes that occur during play?
  2. How can we describe the involvement that players experience during play?
  3. Is there an identifiable relationship between the learning that occurs and this experience of involvement?
I did attend the conference sessions on the 19th and 20th though, and even presented myself. I have to say, it was a very supportive environment for my first PhD related talk (I think I even enjoyed it a little!). I was basically presenting a summary of my work in progress - which was pretty much based around my probation report. I think the slides are going to go up on the knowledge network at some point but if anyone is interested, I'd be happy to pass them along. I got a fair amount of feedback in terms of suggested reading that might be useful including looking at the sociological literature for research on learning through play, looking at accessibility literature for research on what different physiological signals might represent, and some suggestions for looking at work on presence and motivation. All interesting stuff for to search for and read so I can add to what feels like a never-ending literature review!

While it was great for me to feel that my ideas and questions came across as valid and interesting, the conference was also a really good opportunity for me to see what other people in my research group are up to. Again, Patrick has done a good job of summarising the gist of the talks here, but in terms of my own response, I guess the most obvious thing for me was the emphasis was mainly on formal learning and assessment. The theme of the first day was argumentation, where the focus was essentially on exploring way to teach students how to argue effectively with the aid of various types of software e.g. Talk Factory, InterLoc, Second Life. The discussant for the day (and my old boss) Richard Joiner, summed it up quite well, when he suggested that there seems to be a fine line between learning how to argue, and using argument to learn. There was also a presentation on tools to might help annotate and map arguments online, and another on reading group discourse that looked at naturally occurring talk and how you might analyse argumentation and collaboration through corpus-based analysis. The latter talk was especially interesting for me, partly because it focused on informal learning but also because it used a case-study approach (where they attempted to study a wide a range of groups as possible) and gave me some ideas about how of the tools available to analyse the data in terms of trying to find patterns across these groups.

On day two, the themes were far more wide ranging, so I'm not going to try and review everything. It was good to find out a bit more about OpenLearn though and the English in Action project in Bangladesh. I think it's sometimes very easy to nod and smile when people are mention their research, but going to something like this makes it a lot clearer. So now I have a firmer grasp, for instance, on what my fellow PhD students Pauline and Eunice are doing! I'm not sure how relevant a lot of the talks were in terms of my own research, but going to the conference has also got me thinking about the conferences I'll be going to in August/September. I'm going to EARLI in Amsterdam (presenting a roundtable discussion at the JURE pre-conference) which is very much education focused, and then HCI in Cambridge (presenting my very first paper!) which is much more technology focused. I'm already beginning to think I have a bias towards the latter as though I'm interested in how technologies can be used for learning, I'm just not sure how inspired I am by education - as it seems to revolve around learning outcomes and assessments. Hopefully, going along to these events will give me a better feel for both these areas (whatever my preconceptions might be) and will also help me in terms of thinking about what direction I want to go in as a researcher...

Monday, 25 May 2009

H809: Block three update

First off, apologies to H809ers for my absence over the last couple of weeks. I'm afraid that submitting my probation report, going back home for a family wedding and presenting at my research group conference (CALRG; a post on the conference to follow soon) has meant that H809 has had to take a bit of a back seat.

So I haven't been doing the reading for Block 3 but for excellent summaries and commentary on the last few weeks, please have a look at Juliette Culver's blog. In week 11, she raises some wothwhile points about how candid (or not) people are when filling in surveys while also discussing the notions of validity and reliability (where she notes "reliability is about whether you can consistently achieve the same results using methods, validity is about whether your methods tell you what you claim they do"). I think she also raises some interesting issues surrounding the concept of ethnographic research in weeks 13&14, especially in relation to virtual ethnography and the divide between the virtual and the real. I think the blurring of this divide is something we are seeing more of these days, and in terms of my area of research at least, we do need to be aware that this is not necessarily a binary distinction (if you want tto read more about this see Gordon Calleja's paper called the Binary Myth, 2008). There is also research going on within online gaming communities - virtual ethnographies within virtual worlds I guess - where an ethnographic approach has been adopted. For instance, Bonnie Nardi and colleagues has done some work looking at learning conversations in World of Warcraft. Though not really related to ethnographic study, I did consider some of the ethical issues of purposefully blurring these sorts of distinctions in my entry on alternate reality games.

Jansh has also been updating her blog regularly, reflecting on the week 11 podcasts, and has produced a really interesting post on the Browne (2003) "Conversations in cyberspace" reading, where she relates it to her own experience as an AL with the OU. She also discusses her ideas for her final H809 project, looking at how the teacher's wiki she has set up is being used. Her and James have also engaged in a discussion about wiki etiquette and how to encourage collaborative learning. As the reading and activity portion of the course comes to an end and the focus turns to your own research projects, I would just like to say that this doesn't mean that you can't blog about your own ideas. I'd be happy to try and give you my own take on your proposals, though it's probably best to think of me as another student commenting, rather than as a tutor since I won't be marking any of them! So even if you haven't been blogging throughout the course, now might be a good time to get some of those ideas out there for others to see.

Unfortunately, I have to echo some of Sonja's concerns about the lack of communication within the forums on H809, since discussions seems to have become less and less frequent as time has gone on. As such, there isn't a lot to report in terms of what's been happening on the forums, though there have been some interesting discussion about the difference between reviewing vs. consuming (in relation to the notion of peer review), the issue of trust and ethics when using CMC (in relation to the Bos. et al., 2002) and - from the sounds of it - some very legitimate concerns being raised about the research carried out by Davies and Graf (2005) on student grades and participation within an e-learning community. The latter discussions will be especially relevant for those finishing off their final TMA.

Right, I think I would like to end this post by urging students to respond to each others concerns (whether within forums or through blogs) as you are all part of a diverse community that can support each other through the trials and tribulations of online learning. Contributions don't always have to be profound - sometimes it's nice just to know someone else is out there going through what you are - but without any communication the whole experience can be quite frustrating and really wouldn't be taking advantage of all the potentially useful resources that are available. So please do get involved and I promise I'll be around till the end of the course to try and provide another perspective - if you want it!

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Low budget games

This is going to be a quick post, so I can bring your attention to the Professional Gamer's (or Costas from LostInGames) post on some smaller budget games he has been playing. I can thoroughly recommend "Today I die" which is free and essentially some form of interactive poetry, while Braid has been on my list of games to play for quite a while now and I'm almost embarrassed by how long it's taking me to get round to play it.

I do want to add a game to the list though - The Path from Tale of Tales. It's a horror game inspired by Little Red Riding Hood but instead of following the path to Grandma's house as instructed, you're encouraged to wander off into the woods - where all the interesting stuff is... It only costs $9.99 and can be downloaded from here. It's already been reviewed e.g. Leigh Alexander's review on Kotaku and for a much better description of it than I could give check out Fullbirght's take on it here. I think the main reason the game appeals to me because it's making people think about what games are and what they could be. Yes it challenges our normal game play assumptions but you can also see how something it could be used to prompt discussions about all sorts of issues, such as is it warning young girls to stay away from dangerous situations? Or do we all have our own "wolfs"? And even to what extent does it echo traditional fairy tales, including of course, Little Red Riding Hood? I also like the way the designers have worked around the game so you can find out a bit more about the girls as individuals e.g. Carmen has a blog here, while the rest can be found from the Path's own blog.

That said, and as much as I appreciate the different approach to designing a game-play experience, I haven't actually finished the game yet. Ok, so yes I'm a little busy at the moment, but when I have played it, I often get a little frustrated by how long it takes me to explore the woods. There is no map I can call up to see where I've been and where I haven't, expect for this weird unreliable dotted path that occasionally flashes up on the screen but disappears before I can get my bearings. There are some cryptic clues for your location in terms of finding the "wolf" but these aren't very helpful when I only want to do that after I've explored everything else. I know the game is supposed to be accessible to non-games players but how about people with poor spatial awareness? I think I am just a little bit impatient when it comes to games, even when I know I should be appreciating the fact that I do actually feel lost in the woods when I play, and all the stunning graphics and music that make up the Path. But I have certain expectations and I guess I get frustrated when I'm not sure how to get from A to B, and at the thought that I could be missing out on something by not exploring everything. Is that enough to question The Path's status as a game? I'm going to go with Leigh Alexander and Fullbright on this one - did I play it? Yes. Then it's a game. Just maybe not the sort I'm used to....