Plague Inc – Learn while you infect the world

It’s the summer holidays here in Australia. This means I get to play more games than usual. Rather than spending my evenings planning lessons, I get to sit on the couch with my tablet and play games while watching the Australian Open.

Last week I stumbled across a game called Plague Inc, available on iOS an Google Play. The goal of the game is to design a disease that will become an epidemic that wipes out humanity. You as the player chooses where you start the disease, the symptoms of the disease, how the disease will be transmitted and the defence mechanisms it will have such as drug resistance.

The game is an authentic simulation of epidemiology. While it is not 100% scientifically accurate, it is accurate enough to reflect the following epidemiological aspects:

  • The location of the origin of the disease affects where and how fast the disease is transmitted. For example, a disease originating in a third world country with limited health care resources will spread faster than the same disease originating from a first world country. The disease will also spread via transport routes.
  • To design a disease that will kill everyone on Earth, the player needs to balance the rate of transmission, the severity of the disease and how lethal the disease is. Making the disease too lethal early in the game will result in doctors noticing the disease and research on a cure will begin too soon.
  • Islands are harder to infect. In the game it is often difficult to spread the disease to Greenland and Madagascar.
  • The transmission of disease follows trade and travel routes.

Plague Inc has a lot of potential in games based learning. I am planning to use it as an introductory activity for students to think about how diseases are spread on a global scale and how scientists approach epidemics. The game can be used to discuss evolution of pathogens and vectors of diseases. The game can also be used for students to test out how wealth and regional location affect a country’s ability to respond to epidemics.

Plague Inc also throws in some ethical issues. In the later stages of the game, it shows how countries begin to respond to massive numbers of people dying. Some countries’ governments are overthrown, some countries fall into anarchy and some countries bomb areas with large numbers of infected people in order to control the spread of disease. This can be used as a stimulus for a whole variety of learning that spans across many subjects.

I am planning to use Plague Inc with my Year 9 class this year when we are learning about diseases. I am going to use the game in the beginning and have students come up with questions they would like to explore and mould that into a project based learning opportunity.

Plague Inc is a bit morbid and perhaps not entirely politically correct, so it is best to check with your principal if you are thinking about using Plague Inc in your classes as well.

Action learning with Minecraft – Cycle 1

Last term I decided to undertake an action learning project to see whether using feedback will improve students’ self regulation skills in project based learning. This came from my observations that some of my  Year 7 students, who work well in traditional, teacher-centred learning activities, displayed a lot of off-task behaviours in project based learning, which included being not staying with their teams, constantly changing their minds about their projects and other actions, which resulted in a very low-quality learning artefact being produced (see my previous post for more details). This happened in their 60 second science project, where they worked in teams to create a 60 second video on an astronomical phenomenon. Their latest project was to create a model Parthenon in Minecraft where the architecture followed the golden ratio. This project was broken into 4 stages where each stage had a goal and students and I had to assess on how well they have achieved their goal in the form of medals and missions.

Based on informal classroom observations, more students were on task than the previous project. From their survey data, more students said they knew what their team’s goal was, knew how they could help their team achieve that goal, stayed with their team and were on task.

Note: The first graph shows the survey data from the 60 second science project while the second and third graphs show the data from the Minecraft Parthenon project. (Sorry, the categories have been listed backwards in surveys 2 and 3.)

student survey results for self regulation

shows the data from the Minecraft Parthenon project

shows the data from the Minecraft Parthenon project

There were also selected students who struggled with self regulation skills more than the rest of the class in the 60 second science project. Let’s call them Student A, Student B and Student C. When I compared their data, this is what it showed:

student A's survey data over time

student B's survey data over time

student C's survey data over time

When I combine the students’ survey data with my own classroom observations, I can conclude that these three students have worked a lot better during our project sessions. They weren’t “perfect” though, but they did improve. I did see them looking up their own houses on Google Maps a few times while they were meant to be working on their Minecraft Parthenons.

However, I don’t think I can just conclude that giving effective student feedback will cause students to have better self regulation skills in project based learning. There were some major differences between the 60 second science project and the Minecraft Parthenon project:

  • Duration of the project – The 60 second science project lasted 8 weeks while the Minecraft Parthenon project only took 3 weeks. Students might work more effectively in shorter-duration projects.
  • General appeal of the project – While the class in general enjoyed both projects, there was a more heightened excitement about using Minecraft. The games based learning aspect might have affected students’ work ethic. Many students are also very familiar with Minecraft, while the 60 second science project involved students learning and applying unfamiliar concepts such as scripting and storyboarding.
  • Structure of the projects – The 60 second science project involved students working in a range of learning spaces. At any one session, some students were in our main classroom, some students were in another classroom to film, some students were in another classroom so they can record audio. This created a slightly chaotic atmosphere even though it was organised chaos. In the Minecraft Parthenon project, all students were on the mezzanine level of the library. For students who are easily distracted, such an environmental difference might also affect their ability to self regulate.

I’m now coming up to cycle 2 of my action learning project. The next project will involve year 7s creating their own newspapers to report on the London Olympics. I’m staying with feedback and self regulation but will make a few changes to the way data is collected:

  • Student surveys will have additional questions that ask them how well they understood the feedback and how well they know how to act on that feedback
  • Observations from other teachers – I’d like someone else to come into the class and observe Student A, Student B and Student C as well as the rest of the class and note what they are doing at what times of the project session

Cycle 2 will begin in week 2 of Term 3 so watch this space for updates. Also watch this space for updates on how my team of science teachers have been using action learning to improve student learning in science at our school.

Let the games begin!

The London Olympic games will be starting on July 27. My Year 7 class will be studying a unit of work based on the Olympics that combines English, Maths, Science, Geography and History. So when I saw the Xbox game London 2012, I couldn’t help but test it out and see whether I can incorporate games based learning into parts of the unit.

London 2012 is available on Xbox and Playstation 3. On the Xbox some games are also able to be played via the Kinect motion sensor. Players can compete in over 45 Olympic events including track and field, swimming, archery, gymnastics, cycling and diving.

cycling in london 2012 game

I tried the events with both Kinect and the controller. I found the controller much more enjoyable. While some reviewers have said that using the Kinect gave the game more of an authentic feel, I would disagree. For example in the spint events, there is no need to run. All you need to do is to wave your arms wildly.(This is possibly because the game is also designed for Playstation Move, which can’t detect whether your legs are moving or not.) The KInect is nowhere sensitive enough to play table tennis properly (the ball sort of flies through the middle of your body). Archery was quite fun on the connect. If you want to play the events with Kinect, I find that Kinect Sports is much, much better (and cheaper the moment).

There were some events that were really enjoyable with the controller. I particularly liked trampoline and gymnastics, which required you to perform different routines based on pressing different combinations of buttons. Kayaking, weightlifting and shooting were also very good.

The game does have a lot of detail and gives an authentic Olympic feel. You can choose to play as different countries and when you win a gold medal, a shortened version of the national anthem plays. Each event is played at the real location of the London Olympics.

Overall, the game is OK. If your class is doing a unit on the Olympics in Term 3, it is a quite good game to use as a hook for your class. However, I find Kinect Sports to be a much better game. If you already have Kinect Sports, it might not be worth getting the London 2012 game as Kinect Sports‘ game play is much more sensitive and intuitive, cheaper, and will have a longer lifespan. Kinect Sports also has lot of the same track and field events, and in Kinect Sports, you actually need to run in the running events.

Kinect Sports game cover

 Games based learning activities using London 2012

If you are thinking about getting London 2012 for your classroom, here are some games based learning activities;

  • Experiencing unfamiliar sports

Students can play sports that they may be unfamiliar with like the different routines in gymnastics and trampolining. Students can describe how these sports are judged. This can also include the venues that the sports are being played in.

  • Science of angles and wind resistance

In javelin and discus, players are required to throw at an optimum angle in order to achieve the maximum distance. In archery, wind resistance plays a part in how you aim the arrow. Learning can be designed where the London 2012 game can be used as a launch pad into more discoveries on projectile motion and wind resistance.

  • Evaluating the authenticity of the events

Most events require players to time their button pressing. For example in swimming you have to time when you press particular buttons so that it simulates smooth strokes. In sculling you have to press the buttons at the right time and maintain a consistent rhythm to gain speed. Students can learn about the techniques used in each sport and evaluate how well the game has tried to replicate that.

  • Use the game as a stimulus for students to create and host their own mini Olympics games

The London 2012 game will give students the experience to learn how different sports work and they will be able to choose their events for their Olympics, create a schedule and create processes for judging.

There are heaps more ways to integrate games into Olympic-themed learning experiences. What are your ideas?

Level Up! Using games culture to enhance learning & innovation

Level Up! is a project that involves embedding games elements into everyday classroom practice. The project involves games based learning, gamification and games design. The brochure and poster presented at the Microsoft Asia Pacific Partners in Learning conference are shown below. Click here to access the virtual classroom tour details from the Microsoft Partners in Learning website.

poster presented at the PIL c onference

It’s more than just a game

For the past 5 months I’ve been coordinating a team of 10 students to design a mobile geolocation game for mobile devices. The game is built on Aris and is designed for Year 6 Orientation Day. The team of 10 students consisted of students in years 9, 10 and 11 (15 to 17 year olds) who were part of a student-led technology team.

The team was divided into students taking on different roles. Two students were the main programmers in Aris, three students were narrative writers for the game and five students were media collectors and collected images and photos for the game. The narrative writers came up with the following as the main narrative that ran through the game:

My older sibling just left MHS and apparently he left me notes around the school for me to use to get around the school without any trouble. Now all I need to do is find the notes.

My older sibling’s friends said that these notes are crucial for me to find my way around the school; so therefore I won’t get in trouble from any teachers for being late to class.

The team designed seven quests based on this storyline. All quests related to major landmarks of the school that Year 6s would need to know when they enter high school. Each quest contains four items that students collect by scanning QR codes. After they have collected all the items for a quest, they go to the school’s assembly area to “exchange” their items with a quest “guardian”, who gives them a badge. Students need to collect all seven badges to receive a medallion and win the game. Here are some of the quests’ storylines:

SOCIAL QUEST

The bell has gone for recess.

The first thing you need to do is to visit the toilets. Visit both the boys and girls toilets. Then find the toilet and collect toilet paper code. Find the toilet and collect soap code. Then head towards the canteen. This place is where you buy food for recess or lunch. There are also seating areas. Near the windows you will find a food code. Go and eat on the Quad and then put your rubbish in the bin. Go to the podium where the assembly takes place, to scan the appropriate guardian to receive your badge.

SPORT QUEST

The bell rings for your next class. You stare at your timetable and notice that you have PE prac. You are unsure of where to go. You see a bunch of people going towards the back end of the school and you ask one of them where is the PE meeting area, They tell you the PE meeting area is just there where all the silver seats are at the back of the school. Go to the silver seats and you should find a basketball code.

After you meet your PE teacher, you need to change into your sports uniform. Go to the change rooms behind the hall to find the sneakers code. After you get changed, go to the hall and find the hockey stick code. Then go to the fields to find the soccer code. Finally go to the podium where assembly takes place, to scan the appropriate guardian to receive your badge.

The game was a success! There were some initial glitches that the students fixed during the day.

iphones with the game on the screen

The orientation game on iPhones

student scanning QR code

Year 6 student scanning a QR code to collect an item for the game

student scanning QR code

Another Year 6 student scanning a QR code to collect an item for the game

student coordinating iphones for the game

A student running the show by setting up all the iPhones before another session with Year 6s

For me, this experience is much more than making a game and playing a game on iPhones. Watching the students create the game has shown me how much young people can thrive when given a challenging task in a stimulating environment. Something that traditional classroom experiences can’t offer.

The students created the game from scratch, after a very brief training session with Macquarie ICT Innovations (MacICT). The students met face to face for 50 minutes a week and a lot of work was done outside of this time. Each student had a defined role in the team (programmer, narrative writer or media collector) and they had to constantly communicate with each other (face-to-face and on Edmodo) and complete their tasks according to a timeline, which was created by the students. There were times when one team could not continue their work because another team has not uploaded their work. In the beginning, I was the one that ensured students worked to the timeline, but overtime another student took on a leadership role and began coordinating the team. In the end, I had almost no input in the game and the students did it all themselves. It was fantastic!

students working together on Edmodo

An example of student leadership and the development of project management skills

From making this game, the students applied their literacy skills, team work skills, project management skills and problem solving skills. The way the students worked also reflected how adults worked in real-life in many businesses. Our face-to-face sessions began with each team stating where they were up to and the whole team uploading what their goals were for the session. Each team would then go off to do what they had to do. Some students stayed in the room to program the game or write narratives. Other students went around the school taking photos. Within the narrative writing team, all students wrote the narratives for the game and one student took the role of editor and made sure there were no spelling or grammatical mistakes. Based on the narrative, the media team created images or took photos. These were then passed onto the programmers who put everything together.

The testing phase of the game involved a lot of debugging. The game initially had lots of glitches and the team had to critically analyse which parts of the game were causing the glitches and how to fix them. This involved a lot of problem-solving skills where students had to undergo processes to isolate which component of the game that caused the glitch.

So after 5 months, the students succeeded in making the game. They created a game almost all by themselves with minimal help from teachers and developed some critical skills that they can carry through beyond their school years. Young people can rise up to the challenge and do amazing things! I am so proud of them.

And thanks to MacICT for lending us the iPhones and their support throughout the game design process.

My Spore Journey – digging deeper into GBL

Today was my last Year 10 Science lesson. We have been learning about evolution for the last four weeks. Over the four weeks, my class worked in groups to play the game, Spore, while learning about the scientific perspectives of evolution. The aim was to allow them to play Spore and evaluate the scientific accuracy of the game (for more information, see my previous post). Due to the time pressures of the looming high-stakes exam known as the School Certificate, the class only played the cell phase, with some groups playing the start of the creature phase. This still allowed all students to get a fair idea of how the game functioned in terms of evolution. Students also completed simulations that promoted scientific perspectives of evolution so they can critique Spore.

From classroom observations, students enjoyed the game. They asked whether it was their group’s turn to play the game at the start of each lesson and genuinely enjoyed playing the game. While we didn’t have time for the class to create a product to review the scientific accuracy of the game, we had a lengthy discussion on the topic. I displayed the evolution of one group’s spore creature and had the class discuss how the creature had changed overtime and how environmental changes can be inferred from the changes in the creature. This was similar to how environmental changes can be inferred from the fossil record.

evolution of a spore creature

We then compared the similarities and differences of evolution according to scientific perspectives and evolution in Spore. We compared the game’s version and the scientific version of how life originated, how changes came about in organisms and whether organisms evolved to “suit” the environment. The last two points were the most important as Spore purports two common misconceptions of evolution – (1) That changes in a species were for a purpose and (2) That organisms grew to adapt to their environment. In contrast evolution from a scientific perspective is random. There is no purpose to evolution and organisms do not evolve to become suited to their environment. Instead characteristics that might be useful to a changed environment come about randomly through mutations and the organisms with these mutations are just lucky that they end up being useful when the environment changes.  The two misconceptions that Spore purports are more aligned with intelligent design.

After the discussion, students were asked to post their understanding of the scientific version of evolution onto Edmodo. From their posts, they appear to grasp most of the aspects of evolution:

“Natural selection is the mechanism of evolution. Natural selection involves a group of organisms with favourable charactistics to be able to survive in an environment better than those who do not have these characteristics. This is called adaptation. The organisms that are able to adapt to the environment will successfully pass on their gene and over time many organisms within that group will inherit the same gene.”

“Natural selection is the mechanism of evolution where organisms with a certain characteristic are more likely to survive in the environment. The organisms with this characteristic survive while the other organisms without the characteristic die out. The organisms that survived will pass on this characteristic to their offspring and over time, more and more of those organisms will have that adaptation.”

However, what was more interesting was the students’ apparent perceptions of using Spore in class. From the class discussion it was clear that there were two groups of students. One group treated the game as a serious learning resource and were analysing the game for its scientific accuracy of evolution. The other group dismissed the game as a learning resource and thought using a game as a stimulus for learning about evolution was a joke. This group of students held a very traditional view of what school learning is. They were also the same students who thought 1:1 laptops did not enhance their learning because they thought they learnt better from copying notes (see previous post for more info).

Just like there is research to say that the successful use of technology in education is largely due to a teacher’s perception of learning and teaching, I think the same applies to some extent to our students. Some of our students hold very traditional views of learning and teaching. They believe that they learn by the teacher telling them what to know and what to do. Copying notes from the board, answering comprehension questions and memorising facts allow them to be very successful at the current schooling system. Just like some teachers, these students are comfortable with traditional, transmissive modes of learning and exams tell them they are good at it. I’m not the first person who have thought of this. In my prac teaching back in 2006, my supervising teacher took over a class from a teacher who who taught by the transmission model. My supervising teacher had a very constructivist approach to her teaching and had her students work things out for themselves through a series of self-discovery activities that ran every week. She said she experienced a lot of student cynicism at the start, where groups of students told her that this wasn’t how they learnt.

It will be interesting to find out how students’ perceptions of learning and teaching affect their learning in a classroom that is structured in non-traditional ways. I’m planning to do an evaluation of using Spore and other games in learning activities when the class completes the School Certificate exams to see whether there is a correlation between students’ perception of what learning looks like at school and their attitudes towards games based learning. Suggestions of survey questions or focus group questions are welcome

Level up! Games, resilience & innovation

I have just returned from a five-day trip to Adelaide where I attended the Global Emerging Leaders Summit (GELS) and the Australian Council for Educational Leaders conference. The overall arching theme was “change” and “innovation”. One thing that really stuck out at me from both conferences was the need for resilience. Students need to be resilient in order to be innovative in a rapidly-changing world. To order to innovate, you need to be able to fail, fail multiple times, and get back up to reflect and improve. In one of the conference sessions, the principal from North Sydney Girls High School spoke about how her school was developing students’ resilience as a foundation for them to think outside the square.

But what about the teachers and their resilience? In GELS there was lots of talk about many teachers being skeptical about change; that they don’t want to prototype or try anything new when clearly what they are currently doing is not working or is contrary to research on best practice. While it is important to build students’ resilience, I think it is equally as important to build teachers’ resilience.  I think every teacher has had this experience – they come up with a brilliant lesson or activity to engage their students and improve their learning, but when they implement it, it just doesn’t go right. Sometimes it even fails dismally. I have had this many, many times. But I look back at the reasons why it failed, tweak the idea and try again. Many teachers do this, but  many teachers would simply give up and go back to their previous way. Some teachers not only give up but become increasingly cynical towards new ideas.

So how can we make teachers more resilient in order to lead to innovation? I think games based learning will have a role to play here, for students and teachers. No one is ever successful at a game the first time they play. And no one gives up on a game the first time they fail. (Yes people do rage quit, but that is usually after many attempts.). When you die in a game, you re-start and try again. Most of the time you work out what killed you the previous time so you won’t do that again and try something different. Most of the time you work out patterns in things like how the enemies come out at you so you devise more efficient ways of wiping them out. Imagine what our schools and classrooms would be like if all students and teachers did this? There is research that shows playing games can build resilience of improve “self-concept”. Susan Main and John O’Rourke showed that when students used hand-held console games to learn maths, their confidence in themselves increased and their achievements increased, signficantly more than the control group of students who did not use games. (This article is in the Australian Journal of Teacher Education, vol 36 (2), pp. 42-55)

So video games build your resilience, but it is unrealistic to expect a student or teacher to play a game and suddenly become resilient all other aspects of their lives. We need to look at elements of video games that build players’ resilience. I think there are three key elements.

Element 1 –  You have a guide

In games this is usually a fairy, a dog, some sort of partner like a fellow detective, or a third-person voice that speaks to you. This guide doesn’t know everything, but they are there to give you hints and suggestions when you feel stuck. And that’s why you try different things to pass a level. A good example of this is the fairy Navi in the Legend of Zelda series.

navi and link from legend of zelda

Element 2 – A supportive community

When the fairy in the game doesn’t give you anything useful and you’re still stuck, you jump on the internet to ask other gamers. The gaming community is a supportive network that would tell you what you’ve done wrong and give you suggestions to improve.

Element 3 – Setting you up for success

red mushroom power up  star power up

Games place strategic “power-ups” and objects to make sure you can be successful in your quest. Games do not set up for players to fail. Games make sure you can work out how to win. This can be placing extra “health packs” in a space just before you go fight a boss, or the game reminding you that perhaps it’s a good idea to visit the markets to stock up on health supplies before embarking on your next quest.  The Child and Youth Health website actually makes an analogy between video games and resilience, citing that you need “power-ups” to keep you going in life when you face obstacles.

Teachers and students need these three elements in gaming to be replicated in their real worlds. We all need a Navi to guide us. We all need a supportive community like an online professional learning network where we can share our expertise but also ask for guidance from others. We also need power-ups (resources, leadership, etc) to make sure we are set up to succeed.

So grab your Xbox, Playstation and Wii and play something as the first step. Imagine how innovative and engaging our classrooms can be …