Sony Readers

This semester we lent Sony Readers to a senior seminar in German to see if students would find them useful.  It was a small class of only 7 students.  In addition to the size, we chose them because the professor had mentioned to me that they seemed to be having trouble understanding the readings despite the fact that they were in the senior seminar and had all studied abroad.  It sounded like a good use of the e-readers and the built-in dictionaries.

Last week, I went to talk to the students and hand out very brief surveys.  The responses varied, but were generally apathetic.  Note taking was more difficult, so most preferred the physical texts.  I asked about the dictionaries, and while all said they saw and knew how to use them, they didn’t see any need.  Having been abroad so long, they explained, they gathered the meaning of the word from context.  This of course belies what their professor had told me about their reading, but I would have been skeptical regardless.  I’m pretty sure my reading level in German is well above the average student in the undergraduate course, and I appreciate having the dictionary immensely.  Even when the context allows me to either recall or understand an unfamiliar word, checking the official definition helps me refresh and hopefully cement the word in my consciousness.

Otherwise, the only other point on which they were in general agreement was cost.  If the savings that came from downloading books for free from the public domain outweighed the cost of an eReader, they would consider purchasing it on their own.

I plan on trying again in the fall, probably with a lower lever class.  An introductory literature course may be better since students face a rather large jump in reading from the last language course.  Hopefully their need for additional vocabulary will be a nice fit with the dictionaries, and I’ll have to consider suggesting strategies for note taking as well.

Visualizations and Art

I’ve been seeing a lot of interest and examples of data visualization coming via the blogosphere.    Stanford has released Data Wrangler in alpha, open source Gephi is in beta, and Google is not allowing users to upload their own data to their visualization tool.

It’s also interesting to see the artistic bent of many of the popular visualizations.  Check out the comments below the Facebook visualization, for example.  There are also entire sites with a definite artistic bent to the data visualizations.  Two of my favorite are and

For us, this seems like a great potential cross disciplinary project for students in sciences or courses with a stats component to work with art students in order to make a visual argument.   I know we already have a large number of science classes who make posters each semester as part of their presentation.   Art is a little trickier since we don’t have a graphics design course.  While the digital photography students certainly have applicable skills and knowledge, it’s hard to imagine a final project that would fit into their course.

Games – Horizon Report 2011

I’ll be co-presenting the introduction of the gaming portion of the Horizon Report at ELI 2011 with Libby Evans from UNC.  I’m posting the notes here so everyone will have access to the links of examples.  I’m sure I’ll update this again before Monday.

I’m just going to run through a quick series of examples of games used or created in education.  These don’t even include those mentioned in the Horizon Report, and I’ll have a link at the end to my notes that includes these games and many others, so don’t worry about catching links as long as you get the last one.

  1. Games as sims – One of the great educational benefits games and simulations have is to demonstrate in a practical manner a problem with a multitude of variables.  Players need to first demonstrate an understanding of the complexity of the problem before they can advance.  We see many of examples of these in business/economics and with environmental simulations, particularly global warming.
    1. Global Warming Interactive
      1. (nice about this one is model is based on a dissertation that’s available, so can critique/analyze underlying assumptions.  Fiddaman%20Dissertation%20Climate%20FREE.PDF)
  2. Persuasive Games  (maybe a slide of the book Persuasive-Games)
    1. Games are especially effective at promoting understanding and empathy by placing the player in a situation in which they are unaccustomed.  Ian Bogost has categorized many of these types of games as “Persuasive Games”.  They can be designed to express a political view, desire for social change, or promote a charity.  Great for introducing a class to current events, especially those not well covered in the new.
    2. Alice and Kev – Student game designer Robin Burkinshaw set up characters in Sim 3 without money or a home then shared their stories from the game.  Also a great example of games, even single person games are social and use social media to connect games, in this case, blogging.
      1. (slide)
    3. Darfur is Dying – NGOs are using persuasive games to spread their message.   One of the earlier and more successful games was Darfur is Dying
      1. (slide)
    4. Haiti Earthquake  – A more recent example is “Inside the Haiti Earthquake” which includes professional quality documentary footage.
      1. Inside the Haiti Earthquake – (slide)
    5. Great source for these types of examples:
      1. Games for Change – (slide)
  3. Games as crowdsourcing tools – People can perform better than computers with many puzzles, especially those involving space and patterns.  Scientists create games to help with their research.
    1. Phylo players help scientists research for genetic diseases
    2. Fold-It is simliar, though now it’s proteins.
  4. Alternate Reality Games – These games have the real world as their environment.  Clues or the story is usually distributed via the internet by a game master then players work together and play in the real world until the puzzle is solved or the story is complete.
    1. Evoke – how to save the world (the real one)
  5. Games as object for study themselves whether as art, digital story or as example of a concept
    1. “Portal” as assigned reading for a required freshman seminar at Wabash College, “Induring Questions”. Portal  is played and discussed along with passages from  Erving Goffman’s Presentation of Self
  6. Games as creation tools – We tend to think of games as being something that comes pre-packaged and played.  More and more games, however, are being used as a creative resource to alter the game itself or to create a new medium.   In order to extend shelf life, many publishers (think LittleBigPlanet, Sims, Civiliation) now include tools to make it easier for players to create and modify within the game.
    1. Machinima – creating movies using video from a game.
      1. Skits in foreign languages – Sims comes with camera icon, just click and saves action from game as an avi file.  Subtitles and audio can be added via IMovie or any other video editing software
        1. (slide)
    2. Modding – slight more adventurous
      1. Civ IV Mod  – Both Civ IV and now Civ V come with tools to modify any variable in the game including maps, technologies, governments, social policies and populations to create historial scenarios.  This mod was created for a class at Dickinson College for students to play the role of Montezuma or Cortes.  Discussion focused around the importance of variables not included within the game.
        1. (slide)
      2. Rome Total Realism – Mod and active community for altering Rome – Total War to be an accurate sim of the period.
        1. (slide)
    3. Platforms – the daring
      1. Inform 7 – Is a platform for creating text games (MUDs) aka Zork type games.  Keep in mind, even though it’s simplified programming, it’s still programming.  Creators layout spaces based on the direction and description then write “if then” statements based on what the player may type.  We had students create a scenario based on their research of life under a fascist regime of their choice.)
        1. (Show screen shot of the Baghdad game)
      2. Scirra – A free and open source platform for creating games.  While the user doesn’t need to know a programming language, the logic is the same.  Objects are created, then each user action (clicking etc) must correspond to an event (player moves forward, block changes color, etc).  Has the look and feel of visual basic.  The creation of the game itself is an intellectual undertaking.  Would make a for a fascinating intro to programming course.   Be sure to check the forum for starting tutorials.  Also keep in mind .99 is permanent beta, they’re skipping to 2.0 due to memory issues.
        1. (Have screen shot in  ppt)
      3. Venatio Creo – Simpler though also easier to use platform for creating games and developed by students from Ursinus
  7. Start Libby – other examples in education
    1. Econ 201 from UNC Greensboro is an example of a game that has been used as a course for several years. It was developed in-house.  It’s single-user.
      1. (See the trailer, read more information)
    2. The Moonbase Alpha isn’t used  in a course I’ve found, but it’s a good example of industry working with the government to develop an educational game. It’s multiuser and requires collaboration, according to the NASN blurb.
      1. (download the game)
      2. (NASA’s information page about the game)
    3. WoW is a commercial game that is generating a fair amount of interest regarding its educational aspects. It’s an example of using a game that’s already developed and re-purposing it for education.
      1. “Virtual Worlds, Real Leaders: Online games put the future of business leadership on display.”
      2. “Reflections on Play, Pedagogy, and World of Warcraft.”
      3. Dr. Steinkuehler – WoW for at risk students and other articles
    4. Finally, the MIT game suite looks terrific… except they’re just prototypes, so there’s no link to the games. The descriptions for each game are really well-done and can provide a guide for how to think about games and learning.
      1. (Index of prototypes, not available for download)
    General links and resources
    1. Horizon Report Delicious links on games –
    2. Notes from faculty workshop at Dickinson College for games –
    3. Bryan Alexander, Gaming in the Liberal Arts

Civ IV Mod – Europe and the Americas 1492

I created a mod a couple of years ago in Civ IV covering the world in 1492 and conquest of the Aztecs by Cortes for a course taught by Ed Webb on empires.  Overall, I was extremely happy with capabilities offered by games.  Virtually all of the variables within Civ IV regarding civics, technology, religion, demographics and foreign relations can be altered to create a historic scenario.  That being said, even a complicated game such as Civ IV is still a great simplification.  However, having students play the game then critique its short comings gave them a great opportunity for goal oriented research and critical analysis.  In this case, the center piece this analysis was the book, “The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other” by Tzvetan Todorov which emphasizes the importance of the “belief systems”, a variable not included in the mod.  The other principle factor was the role disease played in weakening the Aztec forces.

My only regret was that I didn’t have the students create the mod themselves.  When all was said and done, I’m pretty sure I learned the most about the both the Aztecs and Europe during the time period.  Everything from the relative size of the Iroquois, the collapse of the Mayan Empire, the lingering effect of the plague on European populations, and the cultural/religious within Europe and North Africa had to be researched.  The students were let off rather easily in comparison.

Anyone interested in playing the mod can download it here.  Keep in mind, that my mod was actually a modification of an existing mod.  Credits and resources are referenced in the ReadMe file.  Finally, for those interested in creating their own mods, we’ve published our notes on the modding Civ IV workshops during the NITLE sponsored conferencing on gaming at Dickinson College.  The introduction to modding is here while the hands on worksheet for creating your first mod is here.

Moving Huge Files to the Cloud

After reading Mike Richwalsky’s post on Yottaa and cloud computing, I started experimenting with Amazon’s cloud service and possible integration with the Mixxer site running on Drupal.  This post is a bit more technical than what I usually write here, but even if you’re not heavy techie, it can hopefully give you an idea that’s simple and useful enough that your techie types wouldn’t mind implementing it.

With the growth of video, storage and bandwidth have become major issues for many instructional technology departments.  For most, this means either video projects are uploaded to YouTube with their accompanying restrictions and quality or an expensive server and accompanying bandwidth need to be paid for by the college.  This is the demand side of the equation.

Amazon on the other hand has a great deal of supply when it comes to servers, storage and bandwidth.  This is due not just to their huge size, but also because their business depends on the ability to handle large and sudden bursts of traffic around the holidays.  A fact that came in handy when Wikileaks supporters tried and failed to take down their servers.

What this means for us is that we can upload large files, or large numbers of files, to servers scattered around the world for extremely low prices.  Basically one first uploads all the files to a “bucket” on Amazon’s S3 servers.  S3 is simple storage.  If all you need is downloadable files from one server, you can stop there.  Just make each file public on upload then distribute the url to whomever may need the files.   Here is the pricing.

If you want to do streaming and video, you have to take it one step further by signing up for Cloudfront, creating a distribution of the bucket, and distributing another url.  In addition to streaming, this also means your content will be available on a number of servers around the world which can have a huge impact on performance.  In addition to the S3, you would have to look at this price chart as well.

Amazon has no minimum fee, which works out well for many class projects.  We often have a relative few number of very large files that will only be seen by a relative few people, but all at the same time.  To accommodate these peaks requires a rather expensive server and can strain bandwidth at peak times.  You’ll have to have an idea of how many GBs you would be uploading and distributing per month to compare prices, but if like us you’re dealing mostly with short Quicktime videos it’s quite cheap.

The integration with Drupal is on hold for now.  For those interested, the CDN and CloudFront modules are the places to start.  I am going to wait until I upgrade to Drupal 7 when it looks the CDN module in particular will be able to serve all of my static files from Cloudfront without tinkering with the core Drupal php code, which I try to avoid.


Google has updated their storage options.  Also incredibly cheap, but pay attention to single file size limits.  One GB of video isn’t a lot.