Sunday, November 20, 2016

The Evolution of a Game Dev Studio Inspired Learning Space

For years, my vision for the ultimate learning space was taking form. I teach Game Design and Development at William Annin Middle School in Basking Ridge, NJ. My dream was to create a studio feel for my learning space where students could pursue different avenues for learning and have a wide variety of resources available for them.

When I wrote the curriculum for the course I was able to build out the computer lab and include an Xbox 360 so students could create content for the Xbox using Visual C# and XNA Studio. This was a start, but I had bigger plans.

My vision included large LCD wall-mounted TVs, cozy sitting areas, multiple gaming consoles, Virtual Reality headsets, tabletop games, and other resources to provide students with a wide variety of opportunities to take learning into their own hands.

I was not sure how I would fund this venture, but that didn't stop me from dreaming BIG!

In March, 2014 I discovered Donor's Choose. I created a project called Empowering Learners in the Makers Age and asked for funds to purchase items including The XBOXOne, MakeyMakey, the OUYA Gaming Console, Raspberry Pi, Disney Infinity and several books to support students in learning to use these products. The project was fully funded and provided a great starting point in terms of moving toward the vision.

This TV is screaming for an upgrade... Stay tuned!

For the next phase of my vision, I wanted to bring non-digital games into the classroom so students could analyze and deconstruct the game mechanics. While most of the games my students create are digital, I believe it is important for them to experience and consider creating non-digital games as well. With choice at the center of the class, students get to choose what type of game they create. From a pedagogical standpoint, my class is about the iterative design process so the type of game is left up to the students.

We submitted another donors choose project, Game Design, Analysis and Deconstruction of Non-Digital Games. This project was submitted in October, 2014 and funded in 3 days!

Making progress! 

We had acquired some great resources and the kids were embracing the passion driven / choice based learning environment. 

Now it was time to start on the capital improvements to really reach my vision.

Our PTO has a call twice a year for 'wish list' grants to enhance the learning in our classrooms. In February, 2015 I put in a wish list for 3 large screen LCD TVs, a sound bar, and the hardware to connect the TVs throughout the room so that we could view content and present on all three TVs. This would make for a great space for learning as well as student content creation when it came to creating and testing games on the consoles. It would also provide a great training space for district wide Professional Development. I conduct a lot of PD for our staff and this would benefit our staff college program as well as classroom instruction. Above all, it would make for a super cool learning space that helped my vision to become a reality.

The PTO was gracious enough to fund the project and now we were REALLY moving forward!

We continued to move forward with two another Donors Choose projects, Empowering Learners in the Maker Age: Take 2 and Empowering Learners in the Maker Age: Take 3. These projects brought additional resources to our class including The Playstation 4 with Little Big Planet 3 so students could create games for the PS4, the WiiU and Super Mario Maker so students could create their own Super Mario Brothers worlds, Little Bits so students could work with Minecraft and Littlebits to merge the physical and virutal worlds with the Bitcraft Mod and much more.

You can read about how my students were using many of these tools through blog posts dedicated to our 20% time projects:

The TVs have also provided us with great opportunities to connect with other classrooms and Industry Professionals via Skype. For the past two years we have participated actively in the Global Skypeathon. We are excited to meet with some amazing people this year!

Next stop... Virtual Reality!

foundry10, an educational foundation focusing on nontraditional approaches to learning began conducting research on the use of Virtual Reality in the classroom in Fall, 2015. My Game Design and Development program was selected as one of the pilot programs to participate. As such, we received the Oculus Rift SDK2 for students to use to explore VR content and create content to be experienced in Virtual Reality. During our first year, members from the foundry10 team visited us from Seattle to demo the HTC Vive. We were able to use the Vive for two weeks. To say the Vive was a hit would be a gross understatement. In addition to my students using the tech, they became the experts who could demo it with others. We maintained an open door policy in the classroom allowing others to come in and experience VR. It was an empowering experience for my students and certainly provided others with a sense of the potential of Virtual Reality in education.

Now we are participating in year 2 of the research and this year we were provided with an HTC Vive of our own. The students are exploring content, creating content within VR, and reviewing VR software to contribute to the greater community.

The final piece to complete the vision for our learning space was comfortable seating around the TV areas. This would help to truly create an inviting and inspiring space for my students. Once again, I went to our school PTO with a wish list grant. I explored a number of options for seating with my students. Some were prohibitively expensive. Based on suggestions from other educators, Marianne Malmstrom (@knowclue) and Peggy Sheehy (@peggysheehy) who have created truly student centered learning spaces we looked at yogibo bean bag furniture. The goal was to create two spaces, one for each side of the room in front of the TVs. Up to this point, kids were sitting on regular classroom chairs or standing to use the gaming consoles on the TVs. I couldn't wait to create a true living room inspired space for use with the TVs for building games, table top gaming, skyping with other classes and professionals, collaboration, and relaxing while reading or watching relevant videos. In addition, the space is often used by other classes and the after care program. This would create a space that the students could truly love being in. After all, school should be inviting and inspire learning. I believe that my learning space does just that. As Beth Houf would say,  "We want to create a school where students, staff and parents are beating down the doors to get in...not out"

Here are some pics that show the final result and the learning space that my students and I absolutely LOVE!

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Playstation VR: Why bring Tech into the Classroom? Ask your students!

I believe strongly in student voice in the learning process. Currently, my students are part of a large scale research project looking at the implementation of Virtual Reality in schools. The research is being funded and conducted by foundry10, an educational foundation in Seattle looking at non-traditional approaches to learning. This is our second year in the study. Last year, foundry10 provided us with an Oculus Rift and a high end computer to run it. Members of the foundry10 team came to visit and provide a demo of the HTC Vive for my students (as well as staff and administrators). They left the Vive with us for 2 weeks. To say it was a huge hit would be an understatement. My students loved it, as did everyone we pulled in to try it. This year, foundry10 provided us with an HTC Vive of our own! We raised money through donors choose for a computer to power it.

Now, we are looking to add the Sony Playstation VR to our VR collection. The Playstation VR is unique in that it might very well be the most reasonable point of entry in terms of high end VR technology as it is priced at $400 (providing you already have the PS4). For our class, having the three current forerunners, we can truly become the authority on Virtual Reality. My students are doing research, comparing the devices, creating their own content, supporting others, and ultimately helping to contribute to how VR can be best integrated in schools.

Donors Choose provides a wonderful opportunity to put your ideas out there and use community support to crowd fund projects for the classroom. To leverage student voice, they have added the option for student led projects where students share how funding the project will help them to learn and how they plan to use the purchased items. Student led projects ask students to respond to 3 questions:

  1. What is Your Project Idea? How would you use the items in your classroom?
  2. How will you be a leader in bringing this project to life? How will it help you demonstrate leadership skills?
  3. Why is this project important to you and your school community?

Our project, Virtual Reality in the Classroom: Take 2 is a student led project. The link will provide the project overview and some of the student responses. I tossed the idea out to my students to provide their response to the three questions, and I received far more student feedback then could be fit in the project writeup. So, I wanted to share the remaining student responses here so everyone can see why my students want to get the Sony Playstation VR in our classroom and how it will contribute to our learning as well as the greater research community.

Student responses:

"I believe it would be a very good idea to add VR to our classroom. First, we are researching VR to discover what it's like and what we would like added to it. Having more than one system of VR could help because experiencing different types of it will further our understanding of it. We will be able to play a bigger variety of games which would really help."

It would help our leadership skills because it would let us work in VR to discover characteristics of it ourselves and be able to show leardershib by explaining these characteristics to others. 

If the project is funded, I would like to complete some quests to do blog reviews on different VR games. Also, I would learn about VR to be able to explain it to others as well as right blog posts about VR in general so others can learn about it. Overall, adding the Playstation VR to our classroom would be really great for our class."

"I think it would bea great idea to add Playstation VR to our classroom because I think it will really help us understand how our games are supposed to make the player feel. For example, if we have created a jungle themed game, we could use VR to test out our game and see if it actually takes that player to the atmosphere we want them to be in. It would support VR research because it would get young teens to experience new things which would show a number of people supporting it ideas on improving VR and much more. 

This project will help us develop leadership skills by allowing us to virtually lead someone or something in a game, such as a pack of wolves or a tribe. Though this is just one example, there are many ways that VR will effect us in a good way. 

If this project is funded, in Game Design class, I would like to create some of my own VR games because I think it would be extremely interesting that you could create your idea. Not just on a computer screen, but for the time being your idea could be in virtual reality. Therefore, I think using VR in Game Design class as well as other classes would be an amazing experience for everyone!

"I think it will be a good idea to add the Playstation VR to our class because it gives students new and/or different experiences they might not otherwise be able to experience. It would support our research in VR because the Playstation VR gives a wide variety of different games / genres for us to experience and by adding controllers, it makes the games feel more real.

This project will help us develop leadership skills because you get to experience certain events that may happen to you in a later date. This can serve well for simulations so when you experience these events you will know what to do and how to do it. It can help us learn how to perform important tasks.

If this project is funded, I would simulate events I wouldn't be able to experience, such as old time events or science fiction."

There were many other student contributions, but this gives a good sense of the enthusiasm my students have for this opportunity to put learning in their hands with such cutting edge technology.

We would love your support if you could help out. Donations of any size will help us reach our goal.. 

Monday, October 3, 2016

Minecon 2016: Can't wait for Minecon 2017 :)

Last week I attended Minecon with 12,000 of my closest friends :)  It was an amazing experience and my hat is off to the Mojang and Microsoft Teams that put the event together. It was truly a celebration of this game that everyone in attendance adores. The schedule was packed from the Opening Ceremonies, which brought ALL attendees together to kick off the event to the Closing Ceremonies, which brought us all back together to shed a tear and celebrate the shared experience.

I was excited to participate in two panels, one on eSports in Schools and the other on Resources for Education featuring a group of Minecraft Mentors. It was great to collaborate with an all star lineup on both panels. I will be posting the video recording of each panel when they become available. I only wish I was able to attend the many incredible panels through the weekend.

The exhibit floor was awesome including a variety of areas designated by minecraft themed biomes, numerous vendors, a Minecraft: Education classroom with sessions by Jim Pike (@joakleyiii), John Miller (@johnmilleredu), Shane Asselstine (@hikarikishi), and Adam Bellow (@adambellow) presenting the new partnership between Minecraft: Education Edition and BreakoutEDU (@breakoutedu). 

Without a doubt, one of the best parts of Minecon for me this year was the fact that I was able to share the experience with my daughter, Leila.

Leila and I celebrating Minecraft at Minecon!

 Leila moderated the Student Voice pane which featured some amazing kids. Generally, the kids presented with their teacher, but Braeden (@braedenart) presented with Rafranz Davis (@rafranzdavis), his aunt. Braeden shared his story of how Minecraft was a great unifier for him. The story starts with he and his classmates being given a rather interesting homework assignment. The assignment was to "NOT play minecraft."  REALLY??? Anyway, don't get me started on that one. Later at school there was a tech day where a number of kids were playing minecraft and started to play together. They took their interest outside of school and a number of friendships were formed.

I can't talk about Braeden without sharing an amazing Minecon moment. Braeden poured his heart into creating a puppet in the likeness of Stampy Longnose. We spent a good deal of time with Braeden and the puppet. Braeden was on a mission to give the puppet to Stampy. Well, a few hours before Braeden and his aunt had to leave to catch their plane, a meetup was arranged.

Braeden meets Stampy! Mission Accomplished!

 There is so much more to share and I will likely write a few more posts, but wanted to get something out there before I kept putting it off. You know, the plight of the blogger...

Friday, July 22, 2016

Breaking News: First non-Pokemon related accident reported since the game's release!

This just in! There has been an accident reported that is NOT related to PokemonGo. I know it is hard to believe, but it's true. When asked about the incident, Isaacs reported, "I figured that as long as I wasn't playing PokemonGo while I was riding my bike I didn't really have to pay attention. All I hear these days is about people getting hurt, mugged, etc. while playing." Isaacs continued, "I am an avid player of the game, but at this time I had my phone safely tucked away in my backpack as I was riding my bike.".

The blood is real. Surprisingly, there were
no Pokemon involved in this accident. 

This story is leading many to believe that we still need to follow standard safety protocol even when we are NOT playing the game. When asked how this could be avoided in the future, Isaacs proclaimed, "I think it is still important to watch where you are going. I would still suggest not taking candy from a stranger, even if they are not offering you a rare Pokemon.". He further concluded, "I beg all of the people out there, still look both ways before you cross the street.  Even if you are NOT trying to catch a Pokemon."

All we can conclude from this story is that it seems as though the same rules that we used to apply to safe living still apply, Pokemon or no Pokemon.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Student Voice: A Published Author!

GameMaker Programming by Example available
on Amazon and through PACKT Publishing
Last year I was approached by Packt Publishing, a publisher of technology books to author a step by step guide to learning the GameMaker Language (GML). GML is a programming language that is used to program games using the GameMaker development environment.  GameMaker has a drag n' drop approach to creating games as well as a robust language that can be used to program. Programming with GML provides incredible flexibility over the drag n' drop approach. I teach video game design and development to 8th graders. Generally speaking, instruction focuses on the drag n' drop approach as it is a great way to introduce computational thinking and GameMaker is great for learning syntax through the visual approach which translates well to learning coding.

I always encourage students to learn GML on their own and support them the best I can. I am not an expert and definitely do not claim to be. As a result, I was inclined to turn down the offer to write the book. Fortunately, it occurred to me that one of my students took immediately to the language and essentially taught himself as part of our 20% time project. I approached the publisher and asked if they would be open to me co-authoring the book with my 8th grade student. I was clear that he was the expert and I would support him in the process. 

Brian - published author at age 15
The writing process began while Brian was in 8th grade and he wrote through the summer and into the Fall to complete the book. I assumed the role of editor as Brian truly was the brains behind the project. I am so proud of his accomplishment. He was extremely organized through the process and demonstrated great responsibility in terms of ensuring the content was accurate and the directions to the reader were clear. I am proud of the final product which is now available from Amazon and Packt Publishing in paperback and kindle. I'm 47 and this is my first published book. I can only imagine what Brian's future has in store!

I am a firm believer that students need to create content and publish to an authentic audience. In my class, students are active bloggers, write step by step tutorials, and publish videos to youtube. I was very pleased to see that there is a strong emphasis on student voice in the new ISTE student standards. It is so important to empower our students to contribute to a global audience and be active members of the educational community.