Monday, August 8, 2016

Reflecting on a summer of self-directed learning

The transition of Grand Challenge Design to a game/scenario based course was the focus on my "genius hour" project for my Winona State course on Mindset, Motivation, and Self-Directed Learning taught by @jenhegna.  The two parts of this class that I focused on were the book study and genius hour project.

As a class, we studied George Couros's book "The Innovator's Mindset" and discussed it on our Google+ site.  This laid a powerful foundation for thinking about a project that would impact student motivation and learning.  The reflections on problem-based learning, supporting risk taking, community-based design, and empowerment led me to change the course from "real world projects" to "simulated world".  The new design puts problems before technology, creates a safe space for failure, puts students fully in charge of many key aspects, but still invites the wider community to engage with the class and students.  I didn't fully realize all of this until reflecting in the post today, but there is a clear hand-off from the book study to the "why" behind the course redesign.

Six weeks ago, the game concept was rough, but the overall vision was in place.  Though the initial blog post wasn't perfect, it gave me a public medium for putting the concept in front of friends and colleagues with different areas of expertise.  I got over 20 responses that both encouraged me and pushed me to adapt the idea so that students would truly develop useful skills within the course (THANK YOU!!).

Four weeks ago, I wrote an update post that got more specific with the purpose of the change and what the student experience might look like.  I recently recorded this, along with a few updates, into my final course presentation.

Since then, details have been the name of the game.  I began compiling all of the rules and key details in a Google Doc.  I left it open for public commenting, and it will be a year-long work-in-progress, so please jump in.  The doc goes through the physical and digital game board, the objectives (individually maximize health, productivity, and happiness, and collectively maintain 90%+ citizens in good health), governance and law, how virtual citizens and their housing work, how the economy operates, transportation logistics, trade, goods, and electrical power.  It also details the application interface (API) so players know how to interact with pieces of the digital infrastructure.  The doc ends with goals for students and the course to make sure that future rules and adaptations stay focused on the point of the game.

The design and learning process that led to the development around each industry usually looked like this:
  1. research big problem area such as access to clean water
  2. find lots of news articles that highlight aspects of this problem locally or globally
  3. make up a scenario that sounded like some of the news articles but for the game
  4. imagine what in-game solutions might look like
  5. figure out what components would be needed on hand to deal with that problem
  6. search eBay for the cheapest solution possible
  7. perform zillions of Google searches to better understand the components so I can differentiate the $2.30 and $2.80 components, and realize that neither will do the job well, and then find a $1.50 component that works perfectly
  8. click buy, print receipt, put in pile
  9. repeat
More than anything else, the past few weeks is when I have been joined by two former students, Paul Klompenhower and Evan Richardson, who have been insanely helpful in turning the game from a rulebook to reality.  Evan was a programmer since his robotics days in high school, but thanks to more practice at school (MSOE) and his summer internship at Mayo, he has become an awesome web developer, especially with NodeJS.  He has been developing the digital game board, translating my API docs into something that actually works, and developing a way to observe all of the ditially-tracked game stats with a sane and logical (and awesome-looking) interface.  In the process, he is also teaching me how to do this so I can pick-up where he leaves off and continue to update the game software as bugs surface and new needs pop-up during the year.  This learning is especially important for me since I need to help students setup their own NodeJS-based servers!

Paul is a master of mechanical design and fabrication.  He was the one that first nudged me in late 2012 to start a robotics team in Byron.  Since then, he too has been developing his skills through his insane curiosity (with answer-side help from Google) and projects with friends.  He created the CAD model for the physical game table and has been helping me get all of the parts and processes together to have a working CNC (computer controlled) router in class (think laser cutter, but with a drill instead of a laser etching and cutting things out).  Besides making it possible for the class to make their own creations from CAD, this will also allow us to cut out the 632 hexagons that make-up the game board.  It will be *quite* the project to get all of this set-up and working, but will put the class in a great position to start building new things right away.

Moving forward, I am focused on getting the students and classroom ready.  I met with my first group of 7 students last week to present the idea, take questions, and solicit feedback, and will meet with most of the rest of the class tomorrow.  Students were a bit overwhelmed at first, but after giving them some time for the ideas to sink in, they started firing off all kinds of questions.  I am really excited to see what kinds of conflicts arise in the virtual world, as many of the students were thinking more about self-centered ends than world-improvements.  After reading John Hunter's book "World Peace and Other 4th Grade Accomplishments" about the way he manages his class during the World Peace Game (a class-wide game/simulation that he invented), I might be a bit heart-broken by this attitude, but know that it is necessary to let it play out if students are going to learn anything valuable.  Cooperation and competition will have a fascinating balance given the interdependencies between players and the lack of any forced structure.  Worst case, I will maintain some "vigil ante" power to knock out key infrastructure in the middle of the night from students who are not playing nice.  You know you're being too mean when a bat symbol lies across a series of snipped wires.

The classroom itself will also be quite the challenge, but will need to be a work in progress.  My initial vision was doing a bunch of electrical work, buying and building furniture, and painting before school starts.  With less funding, less of my time, and less time with the classroom emptied out than I anticipated, much of this will not be happening.  Instead, one parent has been finding tons of ideal furniture on Craigslist that we are buying for a steal, and painting projects will come from student proposals that I will approve during the year.  Though a mid-year painting project is a pain, it means that there will be time for students to really own the process.

We're only four weeks away from students coming everyday to class!  Back to work.