A Summer of Awesome

This summer is shaping up to be really great.  I have two major trips planned.  The first is next week to Madison, Wi, for the Games+Learning+Society conference.  This will be my first major academic conference and I couldn’t be more excited.  One of the themes for my summer is gamifying education, a topic that apparently will receive some staunch criticism from a giant in the field.  I am going to be very interested in what Dr. Gee has to say.

This trip is also going to be great because the two people that really got me into this field are going to be there: Constance Steinkuehler and Sean Duncan.  Their 2008 paper “Scientific Habits of Mind in Virtual Worlds” [PDF] was posted to reddit (or somewhere I happened to stumble upon) pre-press and it opened a new world to me.  Since then, I’ve earned my M.Ed., hope to start my Ph.D. soon, and I have no doubt that my career will be focused on this area.

My next major trip will be in July, as I head off to The Amazing Meeting!  I know every year this conference is packed with awesomeness, but I can’t help but feel like this year is the best yet.  Just take a look at their list of speakers.  It’s going to be my first time to Vegas, and I’m kind of skeptical that it’s all that great for someone like me.

I have a few big projects I’m working on this summer.  I’m not ready to talk about Democritus in depth, yet, especially without hearing the criticism I will hear next week, but I am excited about it so far.  My gut tells me that this is something that is really needed and will be huge, but I also realize that I must be skeptical of my gut, as it tends to be wrong.  I will go ahead and offer a short explanation of the project.

Democritus is a next-generation Learning Management System that includes social networking and game mechanics as core features.  On the technical side, it is an HTML 5, with no java / flash / other third party plugins.  I’ve said for years that BlackBoard is crap, so I’m finally doing something about it.

Is it plagiarism if a robot created it?

I’m in the process of grading the final exam I give for my class.  Included in the exam is a question I wrote that was meant to demonstrate their understanding of plagiarism.  Here is the question:

Suppose 30 years from now you receive a paper from one of your students of such quality you suspect they didn’t actually write it.  When confronted, they admit that they had their robot “Curtis” write it for them.  They argue that since it wasn’t another person who wrote it for them, it’s not plagiarism.  Do you accept their paper?  Justify your answer.

As I’m grading, I was noticing a disturbing tendency to agree with the student.  Finally, one of my students’ answered in a way that really demonstrated what their thinking was, and it came down to the way they defined plagiarism.  If they defined it as ‘taking work not your own and claiming that you created it’ they denied the paper.  If they defined plagiarism as ‘taking another person’s work and claiming it as your own’ then they would agree that the student was correct that it’s not plagiarism, but wouldn’t accept the paper.

So in the end, it really hedged on the presence of “person” in the definition.  They don’t imagine robots fitting the description of ‘person’ so it wouldn’t be plagiarism, as long as their definition of plagiarism included the word ‘person’ in it.  I just find that incredibly interesting.

Productive Collaboration: Team Fortress 2 Manual

SomethingOne of the coolest games I’ve ever played is Team Fortress 2.   While it’s tons of fun to play, one issue with it is that it doesn’t come with a manual.  Just over a week ago, reddit user ‘lolard’ posted this to the new to tf2 subreddit, asking us to solve this problem.  The reddit community responded.  We fired up an etherpad clone and got to work.  Here’s what we accomplished:

  • In less than 24 hours, we had written nearly 8,000 words.
  • Today, we’re close 13,000 words.
  • More than 50 people have contributed in some way.
  • 28 people have contributed substantially.
  • Gone through at least two major transitions in the style of writing: from 2nd person to third person, and from the voice being used.
  • 4 different websites (3 etherpad clones and crocodoc.com)
  • My copy of the manual is 56 pages long, formatted.
  • There is now a website: http://tf2manual.net/
  • We were flexible enough to neutralize trolls who deleted all our work.

The list can go on.  The message is clear: this has been a massive collaborative work that has produced something amazing in a very short amount of time.  I’ve been involved throughout the whole process, stepping up soon after lolard made the first post.  From this perspective, I’ve learned several things.

  1. The future is live collaboration at the level etherpad (and it’s clones) tried to provide.  Wiki’s are last generation technology that only slow things down.
  2. None of the etherpad clones were able to fully function at our level of collaboration, including the new Google Documents.  We used ietherpad, openetherpad, sync.in, and I privately tested Google Documents.  All of them experienced difficulties dealing with both the number of collaborators and the size of the document.  Sync.in functioned the best of the bunch.
  3. Crocodoc is awesome, but does not scale up to groups of more than 2-3, especially for a 50 page document.  It’s flash driven, and was extremely slow.  It claims to be ‘live’ in the sense of etherpad, but it really isn’t at the levels we were using it.  I had to refresh the page to make sure I was viewing all of the changes.
  4. Do not use the time slider on any of the etherpad clones.  This basically made the document useless for everyone over the next 20 minutes as the website did who knows what.  This feature worked great in the original etherpad, so I’m not sure why these clones have trouble with it.  Even sync.in had this trouble.

I can’t emphasize enough how much this changed my view of collaboration.  This has been collaboration how it’s supposed to be done.  While reflecting upon this experience, I’ve identified several reasons I think this went so well.

  1. We’re passionate about the subject.  Of course this is important and must appear on the list.
  2. We’re passionate about the community.  This is not necessarily an extension of the first point.
  3. There was no barrier of entry.  Once the pad was created, we could simply spread the URL around, and once people arrived on that page, they could start editing.  There was no registration, no waiting.  They could immediately jump in and start writing.  This was true for all the etherpad clones as well as crocodoc, and I applaud all of those websites for that.
  4. The latest work was immediately available, down to the keystroke.  We could see exactly what others were typing as they were typing it.  Corrections could be done within seconds, and they were not always done by the person who made the mistake.
  5. Version control was transparent.  We didn’t have to think about keeping track of a history; the application did it for us.  Hypothetically, we could even playback that entire history as it played out, but that feature was broken on every website we tried.

The biggest theme is that while we were all very good with technology, the technology was completely transparent.  We didn’t have to think about it (except when it broke, like with the time slider).  We just focused on what we were trying to do, and then we did it.

It’s been an amazing experience so far, and while this project is far from over, our parts are winding down.  Soon, we’ll have a nice manual for team fortress 2 users to go with all this valuable experience we’ve gained.

Fun Times with Remote Desktop

The iPad has been making a splash in the gadget world, and I’ve been strongly tempted more than once to go ahead and purchase one.  For now, though, I’ve been able to resist, and I am hoping to hold out for a Notion Ink Adam.  Pixel Qi screen, Rotatable Camera capable of recording HD, HDMI out, Android with Multitouch?  I’m sold.  But this post isn’t about that.  It’s about one of the reasons I want a tablet so bad:  Being able to use it while teaching.

Currently there are a few tablets that are available for use in the classroom.  The problem is “Tablet” is used in a bit of a different sense.  The tablet I have available to me is the Airliner from Smartboard.  This piece of hardware is truly a piece of crap.  Half the time it won’t connect to the computer, and when it does connect, the software fails to function correctly.  There is a better way to handle this type of functionality, and I think I’ve found one.

One issue with using a tablet like this is usability.  You’re controlling the computer through the tablet, but you can’t look at it.  It would be better if you could get a copy of the screen on the tablet itself.  Well, with these new tablet computers, it’s possible to do that.  You just need to setup a VNC server on the computer you want to connect to, and a VNC client on the tablet.

Well, I had the opportunity to borrow one of our faculty member’s iPads and go ahead and try this out.  There’s a lot of idiocy in this institution about network security and such, but I was able to finagle (to use a technical term) the server installation such that I didn’t have to go through IT to enable this functionality.  However, the iPad was having trouble connecting.  So I decided to use another computer in to test the connection.

I didn’t have a VNC client on any of the student machines available, but I did have one on my desktop computer upstairs. So I logged into one of the student machines, and used the Microsoft Remote desktop software to connect to my workstation.  Then I was able to use the VNC client on my workstation to remote into the instructor machine at the front of the classroom.  Everything worked perfectly.

Then I had a thought.  We run a piece of software called iTalc that enables us to view the screen of any of the students computers.  This piece of software is amazing, and I use it constantly while teaching, for diagnosing student problems, letting students demo different things from their computer, and proctoring tests, among other things.

So I opened up iTalc to open up the screen of the student’s computer I was on.

The circle was complete.  I was remoting in a complete circle using three different pieces of technology on three different computers.  I got a nice looking mirror effect on my computer, but I was also able to close it all down easily.  Here’s the final picture:

  1. Student Machine -> My Workstation (using RDP)
  2. My Workstation -> Instructor Machine (using VNC)
  3. Instructor machine -> Student Machine (using iTalc)
  4. The student machine was already connected to my Workstation.

Just a bit of fun.  Unfortunate the wireless bandwidth around here is so crappy the iPad was practically useless as a VNC client.  I’m going to have to figure out something else.

Lessons after a year Teaching

I’m now in my second year teaching, and while I’ve learned quite a bit, I’ve still got a ways to go.  Here are a few things I’ve learned so far though.

  1. Students won’t do their readings if they’re not going to tested on it immediately.  Solution: require them to fill out worksheets concerning the readings as they do them.
  2. Test questions need to explicitly ask for details, otherwise students will not provide them.
  3. Nuances should sometimes be left unsaid, as they can confuse students.  There needs to be a balance between the basic required information, and the exceptions to the rule.
  4. As a general rule, accepting late work is a bad idea.  Students will abuse it.
  5. Bad class performance is most likely due to laziness and not inability to do the work.
  6. Sometimes you do have students that really can’t cut it.  I have yet to learn of a good way to deal with that.
  7. If you allow your students to be creative, they will blow your mind with their creations.
  8. Your actions have the biggest effect on morale.  You need to be able to make jokes and get them to laugh.
  9. You cannot be afraid to be wrong.
  10. Have discussion questions prepared ahead of time.  These need to be open ended, and force them to bring many different things together.

Lessons I’ve learned from observing other classes.

  1. Don’t treat your students as though they are lazy or stupid.
  2. A harsh word can completely ruin a semester, and force you to lose all credibility.
  3. If morale gets low, you better get creative, because low morale means low learning.
  4. If you find yourself ranting about your students more often that praising them, you probably need to reconsider your teaching strategies. And take a break.  Students aren’t actually that bad.
  5. Don’t treat your students as though they are lazy or stupid.

It’s an ongoing process, but I think things are progressing pretty well.  I hope to keeping experimenting to see what works best.

Strong Opinions, Lightly Held

A few weeks ago, I listened to this great podcast episode from Hanselminutes with James Bach.  While the podcast is normally about programming topics, this particular episode was more about auto-didactic learning.  Near the end of the show, they talk about the concept of ‘Strong Opinions, Lightly Held.’

The idea behind this concept is that you have very strong opinions about something, but you’re not dedicated to it.  You can make a passionate defense of a topic, but when presented with contrary evidence, you simply switch over.  Imagine making a very strong argument and then going ‘Oh, you’re right. Nevermind.’

This is something I don’t think very many people understand, but as someone who’s philosophy is scientific in nature, I’m very familiar with it.  I’ve experienced this countless times where I’ve made what I think is a very good argument for something, then had someone completely destroy it with a simple counter argument.  At that point, I have no choice but to change my mind.  And that’s a good thing.  It means I’ve learned something new, and I’ve progressed in some way.  It’s something I strive for, and when I see it in others, it’s something that gains them immediate respect in my eyes.

Being ‘wrong’ about something has been unfairly stigmatized in our culture.  If you change your mind about something, many times you’re viewed as a ‘waffler,’ or someone who doesn’t know what they believe, or someone who lacks principles.  In reality, it’s just the opposite.  Changing your mind when faced with a better argument does not represent the lack of principles, but dedication to the pursuit of truth.  Is is the embodiment of the idea that truth is more important than the self and that any opinions, beliefs, and views one has must bend to reality, because to do anything else is delusion, by definition.

It doesn’t mean you won’t make mistakes, that you can’t be misled.  It’s easy to imagine a situation where you hear what you only perceive to be a better argument, and in reality, you’re missing some vital information that would clearly demonstrate its incorrectness.  The beauty of this philosophy of ‘strong opinions, lightly held,’ is not that it always leads directly to ‘truth,’ but that it’s self-correcting. If you take the wrong path at some point, it’s easily corrected once you do have the required information.  You never reach ‘absolute’ truth, but you do get closer to it with each iteration.

If there is a path towards wisdom, it surely must begin with the recognition of your own fallibility through self-examination, and this is exactly what is represented by ‘Strong Opinions, Lightly Held.’

Fact Checking the Alamo

System Of Government

System Of Government

For part of my vacation this year, I visited my friend Tara, who lives in San Antonio.  It was a beautiful trip, and San Antonio was very nice.  Maybe I will write more about that later.  There was one quick thing I wanted to post about, however.  When I visited the Alamo, there was a short sentence that really jumped out at me.  There is a picture on the right.

The first sentence reads: “Republicanism, a new idea about government, became popular in the late 1700s.”

I realize this may be over pedantic, but I just couldn’t let this drop.  Republicanism was a new idea about government?  Perhaps the author of this short blurb should have read Plato.

That’s all for now.  I need to get back to catching up on email.

Paper: Scientific Habits of Mind in Virtual Worlds

As I work through my Educational Technology Masters Degree, one of the things I’m very interested in is the use of video games for educational purposes.  So when I saw this article (pdf) entitled “Scientific Habits of Mind in Virtual Worlds” a few months ago, I couldn’t wait to read it.

This particular study focused on the users of the popular massive multiplayer online role playing game (mmorpg) World of Warcraft, and specifically an online discussion forum used by players to communicate.  The abstract sums up their findings:

Eighty-six percent of the forum discussions were posts engaged in “social knowledge construction” rather than social banter. Over half of the posts evidenced systems based reasoning, one in ten evidenced model-based reasoning, and 65% displayed an evaluative epistemology in which knowledge is treated as an open-ended process of evaluation and argument.

The paper itself it very accessible, and doesn’t take long to read.  The findings are surprising, and I think important for educators to be aware of.  Since I’m not much of a gamer, I was unaware of the level of detail and care gamers put into playing this game, although after reading “Everything Bad is Good For You” last fall, this really shouldn’t have been much of a surprise.  From the paper, here is an example of what I’m talking about:

The calculations correctly show that mind flay [spell]
receives just as much +damage percentage as mind
blast. However mind blast has a 1.5 second cast time,
and mind flay has a 3 second cast time. And therefore
mind flay receives half the dps [damage per second]
boost it should. (post #2609.43)

There are two things about this kind of thinking that really demonstrates something I hope I can foster in my own classroom: the depth of analysis, and social knowledge construction.  The user in this case, wasn’t satisfied by the damages given by a particular attack; they took it a step further and came up with their own method of identifying what kind attack is better (damage per second).  While this particular example seems simple, since it only involves one issue (a single tactical decision), it’s important to realize that this is just a piece of a much larger discussion that involved many more variables. From later in the paper, here is an example of a more complicated, user generated equation:

For Mindflay, SW:P, and presumpably VT [3 priest spells]:

Damage = (base_spell_damage + modifier * damage_gear) *darkness * weaving * shadowform *misery

The second thing they did was post their analysis in a forum, generating discussion and debate.

It was this paper that inspired me last semester, when I was assigned to create a lesson plan that integrated some form of technology, to use Schorched3D as a way for students to create models for learning about trajectory and range.  While I wasn’t able to give this lesson to actual students, and it’s outside the field I actually teach, I think this kind of integration will be necessary in the classrooms of today and tomorrow.

For further reading, there is a wealth of information to be found in the citations of this article.  I also recommend the book “Everything Bad is Good for You.”  Finally, check out Constance Steinkuehler’s website.  She’s done a lot of great work in this area.


  1. Steinkeuhler, Constance & Duncan, Sean (2008). Scientific Habits of Mind in Virtual Worlds Journal of Science Education and Technology, 17 (6), 530-543