Saturday, November 29, 2008

A Snapshot of SL Educators

In May 2008, the New Media Consortium (NMC) asked individuals on the Second Life Educators (SLED) discussion list to complete a survey about their experiences in the virtual world Second Life (SL). In 2007, 207 educators completed the survey; in 2008, the number increased to 358 - 64% of these respondents are affiliated with the NMC. The highlights from the 2008 survey are as follows:
  1. Educators are no longer merely exploring SL; instead, they are using this virtual world for teaching and learning purposes.
  2. The contact lists of these educators is growing.
  3. The 2008 respondents are more experienced in SL. Interestingly, a large proportion of the educators in SL are between the age of 36 and 55; few play console video games or engage in massively multiplayer online role playing games (MMORPGs). These individuals are watching less television as well.
  4. Educators want to learn how to create in SL - scripting, machinima, building things, etc.
  5. The majority of educators do not create an avatar that resembles their physical self.
  6. More than half of the respondents have more than one avatar.
  7. Positive experiences reported by the educators included meeting people and interactions with others.
  8. Griefers continue to be a problem in SL.
  9. Top activities these educators reported doing in SL include random wandering, attending events, and meeting new people, just to name a few.
Additional details about the educational activities in SL can be found in the 2008, as well as the 2007 reports.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Adults - They Take Over Everything

Last night as I was trying to shift gears a bit from yesterday's youth and media use report, I picked up the latest issue (at least the latest one I've received) of The New Yorker. A piece by Joan Acocella - a dance and book reviewer for the magazine - just happened to be on the topic of overparenting (also known as helicopter parenting, hothouse parenting, or when I was growing up, spoiling). While this is not intended to be a scholarly review of parenting today's young people, the content does tie into many of the scholarly works on youth and technology. One vignette in particular near the end of the article illustrates my nagging concern about the integration of technology in the classroom simply for the sake of appeasing the alleged demands of tech-savvy youth.

Acocella highlights Carl HonorĂ©'s experience with his seven-year-old son. In this example, the son's art teacher told HonorĂ© that his son was a gifted artist. Because of this talent, HonorĂ© suggested to his son that he enroll in after school art classes. His son responded in the following manner: “I don’t want to go to class and have a teacher tell me what to do—I just want to draw. . . . Why do grown-ups have to take over everything?” To the son, the notion of moving his self-directed interest in art into a more formal educational setting was horrifying to him.

It is this type of reaction that supports research findings that young people want moderate technology use in the classroom. Studies show that students want to have face-to-face interactions with their teachers and to gain expertise from them. Therefore, are young people viewing the appropriation of entertainment technologies by educators as grown-ups taking over everything? It's certainly something to consider. If this is the case, then is there a way to use technology to foster the educational process without it taking it over?

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Failing through Teaching to the Test

Harvard's Tony Wagner argues that teaching to the test is setting kids up to fail in the global marketplace. Based on his conversations with employers, they want to hire individuals who ask good questions and who can engage in a thoughtful conversation. (These comments are similar to those collected by Cassner-Lotto and Wright Benner, 2006.) Knowing how to use the latest gadget or technological device does not rank high on their list of employee traits. (There's always on-the-job training for that.). In Wagner's experience, teaching to the test may enable students to score high on exams, but not meet these basic employer demands. Further, according to Wagner, being tech-savvy is only going to take these young people so far in life. Therefore, he has come up with a list of seven skills students need, which include:
  1. Problem-solving and critical thinking;
  2. Collaboration across networks and leading by influence;
  3. Agility and adaptability;
  4. Initiative and entrepreneurship;
  5. Effective written and oral communication;
  6. Accessing and analyzing information; and
  7. Curiosity and imagination.
Many educators and scholars are calling for change. Some reports point to the adoption of technology as the answer, whereas others, like Wagner, are looking past the technology to reading, writing, and critical thinking skills. Technology may come and go, but a solid foundation based on reading, writing, and critical skills can last a lifetime.

"Geeking Out"

What are kids doing online? Contrary to media reports of young people interacting with online predators, the findings presented by Ito et al. suggest otherwise. Mizuko Ito, a professor at the University of California at Irvine, and her colleagues found that today's youth are involved in activities that are similar to those their parents were engaged in when they were kids. Today's young people spend time online hanging out with their friends and socializing. Sound familiar? Much time and effort was invested in this research. In fact, this three-year study, led by Ito, involved hundreds of interviews and thousands of hours of online observation. It is the most extensive U.S. study of youth media use.

Other than their children encountering predators online, what do parents worry about? Ito et al. suggest that there are concerns about social isolation. However, these researchers argue that most of the online activities that young people engage in are very social, even though the interactions are not with others who are co-present. Instead of worrying, Ito et al. contend that parents need to recognize what motivates their youngster and cultivate those interests.

Socializing is not the only reason young people use technology. According to this study, today's youth are using technology to extend existing friendships. Sites such as Facebook and MySpace (among others) allow them to remain in constant contact with friends. Also, they are spending time online to explore their interests in topics that often extend beyond their school work. Moreover, these youth are able to connect with others who share those interests, as well as distribute their work and receive recognition for it in a public forum. The feedback these youth receive in this arena is typically from their more experienced peers rather than from adults and teachers (think Vygotsky and Piaget). Through this form of self-directed learning, which provides the youth a sense of freedom and autonomy that is often not found in the physical classroom, they learn technology and media literacy skills. It is this diving into a topic or a talent in a very social manner - one where adults are not the experts - that the researchers refer to as "geeking out."

I would have to say that geeking out (and is not an activity exclusive to young people. In fact, I don't think it's a generational trait at all. I would suspect that research could be conducted on older individuals who use technology, and similar characteristics would be present. It is worthwhile to investigate what today's youth are actually doing when they go online. However, researchers should be careful not to frame their findings in ways that would suggest that these young people are a homogeneous group, or that they are unique in comparison to other age groups. (For research that counters the notion of a universal, tech-savvy youth, see Hargittai (2008) and Herring (2008).)

While I didn't count the number of males and females highlighted in the Ito et al. report, it felt somewhat male-centric. The females were noted in the section describing ways they selected their Facebook page designed based on the color of their bedrooms. In contrast, however, the examples of the males (and there were many) included a type of tinkering that involved taking apart an X-box and rebuilding it. Changing the background of a social networking site (SNS) is not comparable to rebuilding a computer. Thus, how does technology use by young people differ by gender? What do these differences mean when integrating technology into a classroom setting? Would it possibly be a bridge that connects young males to academia while alienating females who typically perform well in the physical classroom? That information is not outlined in this report.

(On p. 36, the researchers do mention that the "work indicates a predictable participation gap" and "girls tend to be stigmatized more if they identify with geeked out practices." If this is true, then why do recent Pew Internet & American Life reports, for example, indicate that girls are active technology users, including in the realm of gaming?)

Also, recent reports have suggested that while young people are avid technology users in their personal lives, they prefer moderate technology use in the classroom (e.g., 2008 ECAR study). If a teacher were to integrate a self-directed component using technology into the curriculum, would the students buy into it? Or, would the students simply treat it as another assignment they submit for a grade? In other words, would the students do what was required to get a grade and nothing more? Creating an online, self-directed, unguided learning process that occurs informally may be difficult to simulate in a "traditional" classroom environment. As Kirschner et al. (2006) argue, students, especially those unfamiliar with a particular topic, may need some guidance before exploring independently.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

More on Virtual Learning

The latest NSSE report not only discusses physical classroom student engagement issues, but it also includes a section about online learning. Based on this research, the outlook for online learning is a promising one. Questions were given to more than 22,000 students from 47 institutions. And the survey says:
  • At least 75% of their courses were delivered online for 1,128 (12%) first-year students and 1,637 (14%) seniors.
  • Both first-year and senior online learners reported more deep approaches to learning in their coursework.
  • Online courses seem to stimulate more intellectual challenge and educational gains.
  • In comparison to f2f classroom learners, both first-year and senior online learners reported more deep approaches to learning in their coursework - 58 % of first-year students who take most of their courses online reported using higher-order thinking in their coursework; only 55% of classroom-based learners reported in a similar fashion.
  • 62% of first-year students who take most of their classes online reported using reflective learning in their coursework; 59% of classroom-based learners mentioned reflective learning.

Virtual Learning Reports

There are a couple of new reports out on the topic of online learning in the K-12 arena. The first is titled, Learning Virtually: Expanding Opportunities. This is a report authored by the State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA), a non-profit, educational association for state technology directors. A few interesting tidbits detailed in this report include:
  • Virtual learning is not a "silver bullet" or a "one-size-fits-all" solution.
  • Currently, 44 states have virtual learning programs. This includes Michigan and Florida.
  • 57% of public secondary schools provided access to students for online learning.
  • 19% of school districts paid for a computer for all students and another 10% of
    districts provided a computer for some students.
  • The Virtual High School (VHS) Advanced Placement research shows that on
    average students perform equally well or better in online learning.

The second report, Going Virtual! Unique Needs and Challenges of K-12 Teachers is the second phase of a three-part study series. A research team from Boise State University, led by Kerry Rice, with additional support from the North American Council for Online Learning (NACOL), is behind this initiative. Here are a few of the research findings:
  • The overall workforce in online education consists of relatively experienced teachers. Fifty‐five percent of teachers have between six to fifteen years of total teaching experience, with 18% reporting 16 or more years of teaching experience.
  • 72% have participated in ongoing training sessions in online teaching.
  • Professional development needs rated as very important (rating of 4 on scale of 1‐4) included use of communication technologies (74%), time management strategies (62%), risks of academic dishonesty to learners (60%), and student internet safety (60%).
  • Challenges expressed by participants included time management (n = 71), students taking responsibility for learning (n = 61), communication (n = 54), and their ability to learn and use technologies (n = 54).
In other virtual learning news this week, Inside Higher Ed is reporting that online courses are popular with students. However, administrators are finding that the more "traditional" models - ones sometimes used for correspondence courses completed by mail - are inadequate. For example, one instructor at the University of Iowa taught eight online courses and two face-to-face courses last year. His bonus for taking on this additional load was $120,000! This was on top of his salary. What are some alternative options? Wallace Loh, a provost at Iowa, mentions two: either support the faculty with pay/time/tech resources or create a centralized course creation department (in other words, become a course factory similar to the U. of Phoenix model).

Despite the financial rewards for teaching online courses at some institutions, there are administrators who find it difficult to recruit faculty to teach. Some faculty argue that teaching an online course takes more time and a different skill-set than preparing for one that takes place in the physical classroom. While these represent just a few of the challenges faced by administrators and faculty, in the end, both sides argue that they want faculty to be treated fairly.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Academic Entitlement (AE)

The number of media reports about students feeling entitled to good grades with minimal effort has increased in the past decade. Self-esteem has also been on the rise in recent years. A new study by Greenberger and her colleagues (2008) investigates the prevalence of academic entitlement (AE) among undergraduates between the ages of 18-25. More specifically, these researchers examine the relationship between personality, parenting, and motivation. In their review of the literature, they note that different measures of entitlement have been used by researchers, yet they all agree that entitlement is a problematic trait. Greenberger et al. also ponder about the possible contributors to AE. These include personality variables, socialization practices with families, and copying strategies among students with declining grades.

This study was conducted in two parts. Study 1 included 466 ethnically diverse undergraduates, 364 females and 102 males. Males only scored slightly higher on the AE measurements than the females. The researchers also found that work ethic was negatively correlated to AE. Further, Greenberger et al. argue that AE is not just exaggerated self-esteem. This finding in particular is interesting given the top responses to their survey: "trying hard" should be considered when the instructor is grading; students who do most of the course readings should receive at least a "B"; and students who attend most of the class sessions should receive at least a "B." Guess you don't need a healthy self-esteem to think that you should be rewarded just for showing up.

Study 2 was similar in that the focus was on ethnically diverse undergrads. This time 244 females and 109 males participated. In this portion of the research, the authors were interested in the perception of parenting practices and the relationship of that variable to AE. The students reported that their parents were warm and accepting of their academic achievements. Based on the responses, however, the authors conclude that particular family dynamics such as emphasizing good grades over learning may contribute to higher levels of AE. Moreover, the research once again suggests that AE is not necessarily associated with self-esteem.

While there was no breakdown of the results by major, it would be interesting to determine whether there was a connection between high AE and the major. For example, schools of business are typically very competitive environments. In this context, are the levels of AE higher than for students who are majoring in less competitive environments such as English? Also, the findings showed no significant different between the male and female AE levels. Would this be the case for students in computer science and other male-centric disciplines? Because self-confidence, which was not measured by Greenberger and her colleagues, is often lower for females in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) disciplines, it would be informative to further investigate AE for those students specifically. I suspect that the results may be quite different from a general examination of "traditional" undergrads.

Games, Other Media Forms, and Convergence

Games and other forms of media are converging. Sara de Freitas and Mark Griffiths (2008) review the literature on this trend to examine the ways games are converging with other media. These authors divide their discussion into three sections:
  1. Gaming and cinema;
  2. Gaming and the Internet; and
  3. Gaming and mobile devices.
The discussion begins with the convergence between games and films. Video sharing sites such as YouTube enable individuals to create the content. An emergent aspect of gaming, modding, Also, open-ended interactions are supported. While I question the interaction capabilities of YouTube and related sites (see Alex Juhasz's critique of YouTube for educational purposes here, here, and here for more information on this issue), de Freitas and her colleague contend that these two characteristics that are shared between games and the cinema are the links to educational uses of these resources. Machinima, which is becoming more widespread, is one example of the convergence between games and cinema. Gus Van Sant's movie, Elephant, is another in that he used a game-like filming of narrative to frame his story of the Columbine shooting.

Next, the authors note the convergence that's taking place between computer gaming and the Internet. This has trend has its roots in the early text-based worlds of MUDs and MOOs. In terms of educational possibilities associated with this movement, de Freitas and Griffiths claim that educational studies of digital games are in the nascent stages.

The final convergence category described by the authors is games and mobile devices, including mobile augmented reality (MAR). Mobile technologies are very popular, and some institutions are using mobile phones in particular to distribute course content. Further, work on technologies that will enable individuals to access virtual world such as Second Life via a mobile phone are underway. Based on this, it is likely that educators will soon be experimenting with the combination of course content delivery in SL via a mobile phone.

What do all three of these convergence trends have in common? According to de Freitas and her colleague, they place greater emphasis on the learner, provide more opportunities for horizontal learning (e.g., peer-to-peer learning per Wenger, 1998), and enable more social interaction among learners. This notion of learners as the producers of content (and not merely consumers) contradicts the thoughts of Jakob Nielsen (1993) who stated that users are not designers.

The study of games for educational purposes is relatively new. And, I would argue that even less work has been done to investigate the meaning of this convergence in terms of teaching and learning. This article by de Freitas and Griffiths provides a glimpse into this area of research that will hopefully expand rapidly, so educators will be able to take advantage of the possibilities associated with these blended virtual environments.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Serious Virtual Worlds

I've read a lot of Sara de Freitas' work (e.g., here and here), and I enjoy reviewing the reports she produces. They are thorough, insightful, and I always find that I learn something. Her latest report, "Serious Virtual Worlds" is no exception. In fact, it's one of the better pieces I've read recently on the topic of educational uses for virtual worlds. If you don't have time to read through this 52 page report, make time to peruse the tables that are integrated throughout the text.

De Freitas begins by stating the obvious: virtual worlds are popular. However, many of the claims made about the popularity of these environments are found in blog postings and other informal, and unvalidated outlets. Thus, it is difficult for educators to know which ones to select and for which contexts. The purpose of this report is to help policy makers and educators better understand virtual worlds. In addition, de Freitas hopes to shed light on the role learners play in these worlds.

Not only does de Freitas provide a nice literature review on the current state of virtual worlds, but she also provides case studies on five virtual worlds: 1) Active Worlds Educational Universe (AWEU), which was launched in 1997; 2) Project Wonderland, an open-source world; 3) Online Interactive Virtual Environment (OLIVE), a world used for training by the U.S. military and medical schools; 4) Second Life SciLands; and 5) Croquet, a world that has been described as "Alice in Wonderland-type" (p. 21). One thing to look out for is a shift from the name virtual worlds to immersive worlds. De Freitas seems to use these terms interchangeably, and she may be previewing a change in the way we refer to these worlds. [NOTE: She also used the term "immersive" in her 2007 report on game-based learning.]

In the section on "Working Worlds," de Freitas outlines five different categories of virtual worlds. They include the following: 1) role play worlds; 2) social worlds; 3) working worlds; 4) training worlds; and 5) mirror worlds. She also provides examples of each type of world (e.g., World of Warcraft is listed as a role play world, whereas Second Life (SL) is categorized as a social world) and notes the value of these worlds for learning and education.

One section of this report that is of particular interest to me is de Freitas' discussion on the blending between massively multiplayer games (MMOGs) and SL. A convergence between the two, according to de Freitas, is "quite possible" (p. 12). In fact, she highlights the use of Project Darkstar as Project Wonderland's underlying technology as an example of the convergence between the two. While there are scholars who claim that open-ended virtual worlds such as SL are not games (e.g., Bartle, 2004; Kelton, 2007; Oishi, 2007; Steinkuehler, 2008), there is not 100% agreement on this point. Virtual worlds and MMOGs are becoming more alike, and as a result, the game vs. not a game "debate" may be wasted energy. Instead, the more interesting point to examine may be why open-ended virtual worlds are becoming more game-like. Or, alternatively, the focus may be on why MMOGs are becoming more open-ended virtual environments.

Overall, virtual worlds place greater emphasis on the learner. Further, there are signs that physical world and virtual world experiences are beginning to blend. In the end, though, de Freitas contends that virtual worlds will not replace face-to-face interactions. Instead, these virtual spaces will supplement traditional approaches.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Will the Real Gamers Please Stand Up

When many people think about video gamers, the first image that comes to mind is the pasty teenage boy sitting in his parents' basement. But how accurate is that? Williams, Yee, and Caplan (2008) conducted a survey of 7,000 EverQuest 2 (EQ2) players. With the blessing of Sony Online Entertainment, the game operator, the authors were also able to collect in-game behavioral data. This is quite an accomplishment given that game operators are typically reluctant to provide gamer data to researchers. The goal was to combine the self-reports with the in-game data collected by the game operator to examine player motivation, as well as the mental and physical health of the players. Demographic data was collected via the survey instrument. The research approach taken by the group led by Williams differs from the common tactic. Typically, this type of research involves single-player computer lab sessions and self-report data.

Prior research suggests that there are physical and mental health risks associated with video game play. For example, a study by Anderson et al. released last week found a connection between aggressive physical behavior and video game playing among children. Williams and his colleagues wanted to determine the accuracy of some of the earlier findings about video game play and assess the characteristics of the players themselves.

For the most part, the Williams et al. findings contradict earlier research.
  • Play time: ~26 hours/week (among all players)
  • Average age: 31 years old [older players played more than younger; there were more older players in general]
  • Gender: 81% male; 19% female [however, adult females logged in more hours]
  • Race: Whites and Native Americans played more video games
  • Income and education: Players were wealthier and more educated
  • Religion: Players were less likely to be religious
  • Media Use: Players spend less time watching television and reading newspapers
  • Physical health: EQ2 players were slightly overweight but less so than the national average
  • Mental health: Higher levels of depression, especially among the female players; higher levels of substance abuse; lower levels of anxiety
  • Role playing: A fringe activity
Because many of the findings put forth by Williams and his colleagues do not match the rhetoric found in the literature, they conclude with a list of questions (i.e., areas for future research):
  • Why are there inaccurate stereotypes?
  • Why are older females playing at higher rates than younger males?
  • Why are EQ2 players healthier than the general population?
  • Why do minorities play video games at lower rates than other groups?
  • Why are players less religious than non-players?
  • Why are mental health problems more prevalent in players than in non-players.
The introductory paragraphs indicate that in-game behavioral data were collected by the authors. Based on this article, it isn't clear what information was collected and how it supported or refuted the survey findings. In the "Sampling and Procedure" section, Williams et al. note that there was a link between the survey participants and the in-game data. However, it appears that the main measure collected in-game was playing time. While this could be used to support the self-reports associated with playing time, it doesn't do much to inform the other variables. One point the authors emphasize is that much of the past research is not generalizable because it is difficult to get access to the players. These authors were able to get access to the players, but the findings still appeared to rely heavily on the self-reports of players, which can be inaccurate.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Violence and Video Games

A new study posted today to Pediatrics examines the longitudinal effects of violent video games on the physical aggression levels of young players. The players under investigation were based in the U.S. and in Japan. In both locations, playing video games is a popular activity among young people (e.g., here and here). Anderson and his colleagues wanted to assess the impact exposure to violent video game had in high- (U.S.) and low- (Japan) violence cultures. Two samples included Japanese teens ages 12-18; the third sample included U.S. young people ages 9-12.

The findings suggest that habitual exposure to violent video games early in the school year predicted later physical aggression in the study participants. This was true for the U.S. (an individualistic culture and the two Japanese (a more collective culture) groups, but less so (but still significant) for the older teens. This contradicts an alternative hypothesis that only aggressive children are affected by repeat exposure to violent video games.

While extreme violence was rare among the participants of this study, the findings of the Anderson et al. study are important because, as these authors note, youth violence accounts for many deaths. As a Surgeon General's report on youth violence states, homicide is the leading cause of death for Blacks between the ages of 10-24, and the second leading cause of death for young Hispanics.

What does this mean for researchers who are using controversial games such as Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas for educational purposes? Much of this research is conducted with disadvantaged youth whose lives are filled with poverty, drug use, and violence. By adding a violent video game to the mix, are we as educators placing these young people in even more danger? While these games are appealing to students and may foster the acquisition of certain skills (literacy, technological, decision-making, etc.), are the potential risks worth it? As Anderson et al. contend, more research is needed. However, their findings thus far are enough to make educators approach the integration of violent video games into the curriculum with caution.

Student Plagiarism

Almost half of the students surveyed at the University of Cambridge plagiarize. The study, conducted by the student newspaper Varsity, found that 49% of the participants admitted to acts that are defined by the university as plagiarism. The acts range from turning in someone else's work without acknowledgement to purchasing a term paper. Interestingly, law students admitted to plagiarism more than other disciplines at 62%. Overall, however, only 5% of the survey participants have ever been caught. Perhaps more troubling is that many students interviewed by the paper staff did NOT consider their acts plagiarism.

So, is the rising number of plagiarists a training issue? If we teach students what constitutes plagiarism, will the numbers go down? If the competitive pressure of certain disciplines such as law were eliminated, would the need to plagiarize also disappear? Or, has plagiarism simply become an acceptable practice in our culture?

On a related note, Drexel University's The Smart Set has an interesting piece written by Nick Mamatas - an author who wrote papers for a term paper mill on the side. Highlights from the article include:
  • Term paper work is easy, once you get the hang of it.
  • Getting the hang of it is tricky.
  • The secret to writing term papers for one of these outlets is to have fun.
  • Many students have never read a term paper. The author compares this to asking a student to write a novel without reading one first.
  • The students are not only cheating themselves; they are also cheated by their institutions that give them nothing in return.

A Web 2.0 Campaign

We've been talking about video sharing sites in class for a few weeks, and an article in today's New York Times discusses the ways in which sites like YouTube (and other Web 2.0 technologies) have changed the campaign. David Carr and Brian Stelter kick off the conversation by noting that the clip from “Meet the Press” of Colin Powell's endorsement of Barack Obama appeared on hours before individuals on the West Coast could watch the interview in its entirety on television. What's also interesting is that many of the Web 2.0 technologies that have been heavily utilized in the 2008 campaign (e.g., YouTube, Facebook) were not yet available in 2004.

Obama and McCain both used Web 2.0 technologies to further their campaigns, but they did so in different ways. Last week alone, the Obama campaign uploaded 70 new videos. Many of the videos, including ones on were not television ads; rather Obama's new-media director stated that many of the videos were more biographical in nature. In contrast, McCain produced videos that revitalized older news stories such as those about Rev. Jeremiah Wright.

While one could speculate that the heavy use of the Internet in the current campaign could mean the end of the more traditional media outlets, this does not appear to be the case. As the Colin Powell example illustrates, networks like NBC are taking advantage of their web outlets to preview their television content. Katie Couric and other reporters have their own YouTube channel. In other words, it's not an either-or decision.

Further, one medium isn't dominating. On election night, for instance, it is expected that individuals will be watching the election results on television as well as accessing news and information from online sources. The best of both worlds.