Thursday, December 07, 2006

One-Room Schoolhouse

Yesterday's post-conference workshop on "Designing Learning Games that Matter" led by Scot Osterweil of MIT's Education Arcade produced a great brain-storming session about a possible game for a higher education environment. (Osterweil thought that Huckleberry Finn was like a good game, but I thought that another text that I have taught -- the Aeneid -- is a better fit for game culture.)

Osterweil is known for creating the ground-breaking Zoombinis computer game, which teaches single-variable reasoning. He also did a lot of work for Broderbund, a company about which I have a lot of nostalgia and from which I bought many products when I was running a computer lab at a delinquency prevention center in the late eighties and early nineties.

I liked the fact that Osterweil encouraged us to ponder the games that we enjoyed in our own life histories and why. I hadn't really contemplated my own perverse appetites in the area of alphabetical games (for a person who always hated real-life alphabetical filing) and money-making Monopoly-style games (for a person who has always gravitated toward the genteel poverty of academia) before.

The fact that he espressed respect for the challenges faced by traditional teachers, wasn't awed by graphics or bells and whistles technology, cautioned parents to steer away from their current obsession with child performance, and expressed concerns about "content-stuffing" that could lead to titles like Grand Theft Calculus suggested that he was justifiably suspicious of the current distance learning model for K-12. I also thought his understanding of the appeal of Grand Theft Auto and his ideas for a related game about getting lost in a city for overprotected kids made some sense.

Osterweil thought that a good game for teaching history should emphasize detective work with primary sources, alternative explanations from many disciplines, and should allow people to explore situated identities. Too bad a great project for those purposes, the Salem Witch Trials, would never get past religious fundamentalists into the curriculum.

Finally, I appreciated his mockery of the "team of cool kids" paradigm, which is pervasive on many government websites for children. Perhaps the worst example is on the National Security Agency's kids' site.

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