Thursday, October 27, 2005

The problems with collaboration.

The success of wikipedia has shown us that coherent pieces of text can be written by several users over time. Sure, there are the few cases of vandalism, but 750,000+ articles is sufficient evidence to demonstrate the power of collaborative writing.

"But hold on there," I can hear you say, "writing a factual article on tree sap is completely different than writing an creative piece of fiction."

Very true. And this is the 'problem'. How can you write a coherent story when you have multiple people pulling the story in multiple ways? Before we address that issue, lets look at the art of writing fiction.

Over the years I've read several books on how to write. A familiar theme in these books was the fact that while one person does the actual writing, a story is still shaped and molded by more than just the author. For example, both Steven King and Orson Scott Card have said the first thing they do after writing a chapter is show it to one or more trusted sources. They want feedback. They ask questions such as; what works? What doesn't work? What have I missed? They then go back and rewrite the story based on that feedback. Sometimes the book goes in an entirely different vein based on this kind of feedback.

Then there are the editors who look for punctuation and grammatical errors, technical errors (first you say it's Tuesday, and now suddenly it's Friday), etc. etc. etc. Although the core of the story belongs to the author, and they ultimately have the final say in what appears in the book, I don't think there are many authors who say, "I wrote this book by myself, in a vacuum, and nobody helped me." Just look in the acknowledgments page to see who helped mold and shape the book.

So, the problem of wiki fiction is that you will never get a coherent story when multiple authors are trying to drive the story a different way. But that problem is solved when we realize that normal fiction is also being pulled by different sources. The difference is that there is one author who ultimately gets to say what happens to the story. I don't know what you would call this role; the original author, head author, whatever... But their role is to write the initial 'kernal' of a story (it may be just an idea, or it may be a well crated piece of work), and then guide that story through the many edits that will come by multiple authors.

It is interesting to note that writing in a wiki environment simply gives more 'access' to those sources who help shape the story. It empowers them in a way that hasn't happened before. What will be the result?

I don't know.

I want to talk more about the role of this head author, but that will have to wait for another day. I also want to talk about how this role as a head author is crucial, not only to the creation of a good story, but will also also be important from an instructional standpoint. Again, that will be a topic for another day.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005


I've been thinking about games and learning, and can't help but wonder if patterns aren't an important part of it all.

My last couple of posts were long and dry, but I attempted to look at how games might be related to problems, and specifically Jonassen's 9 problems types. The more I think about it, the more I think the more popular games fall in the middle of Jonassen's problems. They aren't the logarithmic or story problems, neither are they the design and dilemma problems. They are the rule-using problems, decision making problems, troubleshooting problems, and the diagnosis-solution problems.

And it seems to me that these kind of problems are replete with patterns. This relates to the whole idea of 'learning is fun'. Some kind of learning is fun, a lot of fun. And in my mind, I think the fun learning is all about quickly recognizing patterns, predicting patterns, manipulating those patterns in hopes of achieving an end, and finally, mastery of patterns to completely obliterate your opponent.

Anyway, these are just 'initial' thoughts. I was playing Civilization the other night (when I should have been doing homework or sleeping), and I just couldn't turn the game off. I had made some choices that I thought would pay off, and I kept hitting the 'end turn', anxious to see if my predictions would turn out. I was manipulation about 7 different patterns and wanted to see the outcome.

Anyway, I'll have to think about this some more. I probably need to play some more Civilization to completely immerse myself in the thought process.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Not a Followup

I found this article to be interesting. Dvorak is basically saying that the media is biased toward Macs because they all use Macs. And new things that come along with Windows are dismissed out of hand. While I've been told many times, by many people (including relatives, friends, co-workers, total strangers, aliens) that Mac's are better, I just can't make the switch. The German Language might be better, but I'm used to English. The Dvorak Keyboard (no relation to the columnist mentioned above) is supposed to be better, but you don't see people fleeing qwerty in droves.

I'm quicker on a PC. It would take me months to figure things out on a Mac. So I'm sticking with it, despite what the Macmedia says.

That being said, when I get my new laptop, I am putting Linux on it.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Follow up to the follow up...

The more I think about my last post, the more I want to change my statement. I think games relate to Jonassen's problems, but that the more popular games relate to the problems in the center of the spectrum, and the games on the outlying edge would be considered more educational than games. For example, here is a great example of a 'design problem/game'. And there are a bunch of examples over here. But these aren't the types of games that sell millions of copies (half-life, Sims, etc.). Those kind of games mirror the problems in the center of the spectrum.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Follow up...

A few days ago I wrote a bit about PBL and writing. Shelton Brett followed up with a very good question. He asks, “What about Jonassen's problem types and the effort of designing instructional games? Is there any cross-over between alignment of game activity and instructional goals in PBL? If so, how does this work?”

That is a very good question. One in which I had to think about for quite some time (over the weekend, no less, when my brain is supposed to be shut down).

I thought I should probably define what I mean when I say PBL, and then look at how Jonassen breaks problems into types. Then throw out what I think might be some cross-over points with games.

Barrows, the granddaddy of problem-based learning, defined PBL as having four key parts (note, these are pulled from a journal called Distance Education, Vol. 23, No. 1, 2002):

* Problems are presented to learners in the way they would be presented in the real world (i.e. messy, ill-structured, etc.)
* Learners assume responsibility for their own learning (i.e. the instructor is no there to give them all the answers, the learners have to do their own work.)
* The teacher's role is that of a guide or facilitator of learning.
* The problems presented to students are the ones that the students are likely to confront in the real world during their career.

So, PBL in a nutshell can be described as real world problems that are given to the students, who then decide for themselves how to solve them. The teacher only guides the process. You can also read a good definition of PBL over on wikipedia.

So turning to Jonassen, he describes 11 types of problems:

* logical problems
* algorithmic problems
* story problems
* rule-using problems
* decision making problems
* troubleshooting problems
* diagnosis-solution problems
* case analysis problems
* design problems
* dilemmas

Problems don't fit into these types as nicely as we might like, and maybe it's more of a spectrum than a classification, but at least it's a nice measuring point with which to start.

So, how does all that relate to games? It is always difficult to talk about video games because the spectrum of video games is so broad. How does PBL relate to a game like Tetris? Grand Theft Auto? The Sims? Solitaire? One could argue that when those games are compared to each other, they have more differences than they do similarities.

That being said, I would argue that just about all of the games have one thing in problem, and that is they are centered around some 'problem'. The problem is the core of the game. In Space Invaders the problem is the aliens keep coming down, faster and faster. In Myst the problem is you don't know what is going on. In the Sims, you have problems like your sims must eat, get rest, and find love. Solving the problem is the point of the game. Because of this, games do a particularly good job at presenting problems in a way that engages the learner and is fun. After all, they are selling these 'problems'. The purpose of presenting the problem is they would like to make money.

So what kind of problems are they? I think you could argue that games present nearly every problem type that Jonassen describes. Some of the simple puzzle games present logical and story problems. Strategy games, particularly the real time strategy games, do a good job at teaching decision making, troubleshooting, diagnosis, and strategic performance problems. There are even games that have design and dilemma problems built into them.

Of course the crucial question comes when we return to Barrows. If we look closely, it can be argued that 3 of Barrow's criteria for PBL are met. The problems in video games are often 'messy'. If they weren't the games would be solved in a few minutes, or half an hour. A good game not only take days to 'solve', but often the problem is interesting enough that the person playing the game will try different ways to solve the problem.

The learner (or the video game player) is also the one calling the shots. When you pick up the controller, you are the one in charge of the game (Barrow's second criteria). And the game often does an excellent job of being a tutor, rather than a lecturer. My experience with games, and with observing others play games, is that the first thing you do with a game is not read the instruction manual, rather you just start playing. There are often in-game hints, tutors, or quick start guides that help get you started, in the right direction.

Where the games don't quite live up to Barrows, is the last criteria, that of presenting problems that learners are likely to confront in real life. Although I'm quite adept at saving the princess in Super Mario Brothers, in real life I've never had to stomp on any killer mushrooms, or turtles throwing hammers.

However, since I'm a bit partial to video games and their learning potential, I would state that while the video games do not present real world problems, there is the real possibility that transfer can and does happen. I attended a recent talk given by John Seeley Brown where he mentioned a young man who played a lot of online games. This young man started many guilds, and became quite good at managing these people at a great distance. In the case of this video game player, the skills he learned in this online game transferred quite well to the real world. Dr. Brown mentioned that the skills he honed in the game have landed him a very good job with a large company'.

So, to summarize for everybody who just skipped to the end (I don't blame you, I didn't mean to blather on this long), I think video games are intricately tied to problems, and therefore would fit nicely into Jonassen's problem types. I also think that video games (at least the better ones) meet most of the criteria that Barrows outlines as good PBL. And despite the fact that games don't present 'real world' problems, there is still a good chance that concepts learned in video games might be transferred to the 'real world'.

And there you have it.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

PBL and Writing...

So, I mentioned in a previous post how problem-based learning (pbl) works, but I wanted to write just a bit about how I think this applies to creative writing.

Jonnason describes several types of problems. Writing falls into the 'design' type, and is one of the more complex kind of problems. A design problem is where you start with a blank piece of paper. To solve the problem you must design a 'thing'. Whether you are designing an engine, writing some code, or writing a short story, the design problem is complex in the sense that you start with nothing, and end with a finished project.

Think for a moment about writing a short story. When we ask our middle school students to write a story, we are really asking them to solve a lot of problems. They must solve the problem of structure, setting, character, conflict, time line. On a smaller scale they must solve the problem of paragraph and sentence structure, dialog, punctuation, wording, adjectives, verbs, etc. etc. etc. This can be a daunting task for a novice writer, which is why often when we ask students to write we don't ask them to take on the whole problem. We may ask them to write a few paragraphs that describes a setting or a character. Or give them a setup with a conflict, and then have them write the resolution. This helps break down the whole problem into more manageable bits.

As a side note, this is exactly what Fan does. With fan fiction, many of the problems are already solved. Setting, character, conflict, back story... These are already provided. Writers can focus on dialog and action; smaller problems.

So... If pbl looks to be a viable way to instruct, and writing is a design problem that may be best taught by breaking down the problems into manageable chunks, that leads us right into out next topic, collaboration and how wiki's play a part in all of this. And I think I'll save that for another day.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Don't You Believe It...

A few of these have been popping up, and they are quite clever. You take clips from a movie, and change the 'theme'. So for example, the wonderful West Side Story becomes a zombie flick. Or The Shining becomes a tender heart warming story.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Movie Night...

Want to watch a movie? Don't want to go to the theater, blockbuster, or even the shelf? Well, if you're reading this, you're only one click away from a nice Hitchcock flim. And no, that link isn't to Kazza or Morpheus.

The public domain is your friend.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Still more dissertation thoughts...

I guess the foundation of my open fiction idea stems from problem-based learning. PBL has it's roots in the Canadian medical field. Back in the late 60s medical students weren't happy with the status quo, instructors weren't happy with the status quo, so a guy by the name of Howard Barrows decided to try a problem-based approach to instruction. The idea was that rather than have students sit in lecture halls to learn content, then go into the real world and basically solve problems all day, why not teach them the content by giving them the kinds of problems they would face in the future?

It is similar to an apprenticeship model, where a person comes and learns at the hands of an expert, not in a separate location, but right there in the thick of things. There is quite a bit to problem-based learning, and I won't go into all of it now, but suffice it to say that studies have shown that problem based learning is about as good as the traditional method of teaching (lecture based) when it comes to teaching content, and much better when it comes to teaching strategies and problem solving skills.

So, the idea is that we give students problems that will help them learn both content and strategies, and this will better prepare them for the 'real world'.

Does this relate to writing? I think it does, and it leads to some interesting lines of thought. I'll tackle that topic another day.

CNET offering online courses...

It looks like CNET is beginning to offer 'online courses', though they more technology related. Right now the only course is one on how to use your HDTV, but courses on digital photography, selling on e-bay, and several tool courses look to be in the works.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

We can do that...

Twice in the last week, while converting online courses to open courses, we've run into the snag of intellectual property issues. And both times the instructor has said, “Why don't we just produce some alternative material ourselves?”

In both cases, it looks like we just might be able to do this.

I hope this is a trend we see more of. There are all sorts of little pieces of copyrighted material out there that somebody is making a few dollars off of. They are not a feature length movies, they are not four volume set of books. There are little clips of audio here, and cheaply made videos there. But they are held out of the public domain because that is just how it's always been done. But if our school makes a few things, and other schools makes a few things, and this sharing happens over and over again, we will soon have a nice library of material that all can benefit from.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Girls Best Friend...

Looks like they are growing diamonds in the lab now. The article talks about all the good things that will come of if like cell phones the size of watches, iPod holding 10,000 movies, car paint that doesn't scratch. But of all the cool new things it does, my first hope is that the first thing these artificial labs do is bring down the De Beers cartel.

Google's RSS Reader

I plan on trying out Google's new reader here in the next few days. I'll post a review if I get a chance.

I actually saw a movie...

Went and saw a great movie the other night. You can watch the first nine minutes of the show here.

If I didn't have work, school, school, and work taking up all my time, I'd write up a proper review. But I don't have the time to do the movie justice. It was very good.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Interactive Fiction

One of the classes I'm taking this term is a course on gaming and education. As a class, we are creating an interactive fiction game (think Zork), based around the Spoon River Anthology. Spoon River Anthology is a series of epitaphs in a cemetary. The epitaphs make many different comments about many different things.

To me, the most enjoyable aspect of the class (outside of programming which is at once feverishly addictive, and excruciatingly frustrating) is the core design. The purpose of the game is not to come up with clever puzzles, but to teach the content of the book. We want the students to critically think about the poems of Masters. How do you do this? Well, it's not easy. It's quite hard, but when you hit the mark there is a thrill.

For example, one of the 'puzzles' that we came up with is centered around Carl Hamblin. His poem is a great message. He makes a political statement, one for which he suffered quite a bit. But how do we get the students to critically think about this 'message'? The answer we came up with, and I'm sure there are other ways, is to only give the student the first piece of the poem. They will find a headstone with the following:

THE PRESS of the Spoon River Clarion was wrecked,
And I was tarred and feathered,
For publishing this on the day the Anarchists were hanged in Chicago:

And then we will inform them that there looks to be four holes where a plaque once rested. Here is Carl Hamblin, who lost his livelihood and was physically harmed for printing... Something. The student won't know what. The puzzle will come in the form of finding the plaque, restoring it to it's headstone', and lighting a torch so that the message of the dead can continue to be read by all that visit. When put in that scenario, I feel that the students will value the message more. They will read it a bit more careful. They will understand the weight that the message carries after having to go to a lot of work to find it and 'fix' it.

Anyway, it is quite difficult to come up with puzzles that are not just fun, but that also meet the goal of making students reflect on a poem. Difficult, but quite satisfying.

Very Cool

Another great use for google maps. You can take a picture, then send the picture, along with the coordinates of where you took it, to this place. It keeps track of the picture and location.

I'm tempted to send a picture that is just the color white, and give them coordinates to somewhere in Antarctica.

I'll have to use the Humor Efficiency formula to determine if the laughter achieved would be worth the time involved, assuming the chance that the picture would not get through whatever filtering process they have in place.

I need a calculator.

This is the formula I used...

Ok, the topic is laughter, but this article takes a serious look at the topic. And it is actually quite interesting. I've posted before on humor, and have given it a lot of thought. A Russian scientist went one step farther (leave it to the Russians to show me up), and created an actual formula.

HE = PI x C/T + BM


HE = Humor Effectiveness
PI = Personal involvement
C = complexity of joke
T= Time spent telling joke
BM = Background Mood

Makes sense to me.

Google and MS

Google is going to make Open Office (it's free) accessible from their toolbar. I already use Open Office (it's free), and have had no problems with it. This could make the Open Office Suite (it's free) more popular with the masses because... well, it's free.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

More dissertation thoughts.

I wanted to write just a bit about what has driven me to the point where I want to study collaborative creative writing in a wiki environment. When I first heard about the wikipedia I thought to myself, "There is no way that will ever work. If anybody can make changes to a web site, it's just going to become one big vandalized mess." I mean isn't there a huge industry dedicated to internet security? An industry that keeps people from doing exactly what the wikipedia was inviting you to do?

Well, while I was busy being so sure it would never work, it in fact was working. It was working just fine. I wandered over to the wikipedia site and saw hundreds of thousands of articles, all being written collaboratively. Sure, vandalism happened, but rarely. And when it did happen, it was fixed quickly. It is amazing to see a wikipedia article grow and evolve.

This opened a whole new world in my mind. Openness, commons, collaboration; suddenly it all started making sense.

Of course most folks have heard about Linux, and know the openness behind that, but there is so much more. We have Audacity for all of your audio needs, Gimp for your photo editing needs, Open Office for all of you document creation needs, and the list goes on and on...

I think that online collaboration provides an exciting opportunity in many different areas. In a future post I'll look specifically at why I think creative writing is one such area.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Last Minute Book Signings

I'm doing two book signings today (Saturday the 1rst). I'll be at the Layton Seagull from 12:15 to 1:45, and the Riverdale Seagull from 4:15-5:45.