Friday, 28 June 2013

The Periodic Table 2.0

Yesterday I spent a bit of time tweaking the periodic table I built in MinecraftEdu for my blind student. The 'lips' I put in to separate the different elements were making it tricky to read the braille so mostly I just removed them and made them recessed instead, as I still want to differentiate between the different elements on the table. So today I printed it off, gave it to the student and asked for some more feedback, straight away he gave me some more tweaks to do.

The characters are too close together, both horizontally and vertically was his main complaint. Another tweak was that some of the height differences, due to the different groups, make it too hard to read still. So after messing around with the old version a bit trying to make more room between the cells vertically I decided it would be easier to start from scratch.

So I now have a new version, which is going to be a bit bigger than the previous but should be easier to read. Also the height mapping I did has been rejigged so that there should only be a 2mm difference between any 2 adjacent groups. (That was true until I actually mapped the heights in game and had a look, there is one place where the height difference is too large. No easy fix, so I shunted the element down a bit after consulting with the Chemistry teacher to make sure it wouldn't break everything for him).

So now I have the time consuming task of putting the braille in, typing the elements symbol and number on my iPad, and then making the same symbols in MinecraftEdu.

Here is a picture of V1 and V1.5 side by side. The black one is V1, the while is v1.5.

Now to the animal cell, I have spent a lot of time tweaking my texture pack, not necessarily for the cell, but for the next 'part' of the cell map. I now have all 20 amino acids and the 5 nucleotide bases all set up as blocks in game. I have also started creating some machinery that will help me teach the process of transcription and translation to my students.

The transcription machine that gets the students to convert from DNA to mRNA.

My first prototype of a DNA snake.

The 26 new blocks I have created.

Thanks for reading, feel free to leave a comment below.

Monday, 24 June 2013

On Professionalism and Opinions

Last week Joel Levin was lucky enough to present at the Games for Change conference, he wanted to use my Solids, Liquids and Gases demonstration as an example of what teachers are doing with the tool he helped to create. So I sent him through the 9 or so minutes of relevant footage and he zapped that down to about 1 minute, still getting the main idea and showcasing the fun learning that was happening. Admittedly he did crop a lot of the discussion I was having with students as we progressed through the demonstration, however I believe there was enough of it left in there to make the concepts in that demonstration clear to most watchers.

Here is the short video edited by Joel.

Now a few days later another presenter (at the same conference) had the gall to call Joel 'a very well intentioned teacher' in a very patronising manner, he did preface his comment with essentially "I know we are supposed to be all nice to each other at these things but...." He then went on to say that was 'horrified' by the use of MinecraftEdu in classes and that my lesson rang 'alarm bells' for him. He did not explain himself very clearly, other than, the demonstration I did with the students was not an accurate model of the way particles behave. Which in itself is true, however he took the whole thing the wrong way, he thought the students were running away from the fire, which if he took the time to watch the actual lesson he might not have that misconception, as the fire (heat) allowed the particles to move more freely from one another, going from solid to liquid, the particles are still contained, but are much more able to freely move once in liquid state.

Now I am trying to connect with this presenter to discuss his opinions, not because I am mad at him for his comments and criticisms and want to 'flame' him for it, but because I am open to these comments and criticisms, and want to be able to reflect on what I am doing from another point of view. Currently a lot of my online interaction is very positive, and that is not necessarily the greatest way to develop best practice. However he is not coming to the party so to speak, he appears to be ignoring me. I have also asked that he watch the original video footage so that we can discuss the pros and cons of my lesson. Now this brings me to the heading of this post.

It is perfectly fine to have opinions, and to share them, but I think people need to be mindful of being professional when sharing opinions. It is easy to say "this Australian teacher" and have that person as a faceless entity in cyberspace, however we are not faceless entities in online interactions. I put a lot of effort towards using MinecraftEdu into my classes, and also sharing the process, thoughts and reflections with the world. So I hope that this presenter will be professional enough to at least acknowledge my request and be willing to discuss and defend their opinions. The only way to improve anything is to look at what is not 'right' and work to make it better. He is the first person to really say that what I am doing is not good, to the point that it should not be happening. This is why I want to connect with him.

Thanks for reading, I would appreciate any comments or suggestions on my current state of affairs. I know this is the second non-MinecraftEdu (well sort of) post in a row, more updates on MinecraftEdu happenings will be coming soon.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

What Do We Test For?

Time for a non-Minecraft post. This is one about testing, and the title of the post kind of implies I want to know what to test the students on, but that is not what this is about. Today I had my year 8 Maths class, and for the current topic I have tried a different approach to what I have used in the past. Instead of directly 'teaching' students I gave the students a list of what we call "success criteria", basically these are skills that the students should be able to demonstrate after completing the learning tasks.

Now I gave the students the entire list, broken down into the chapters from the text book that related to those criteria. The students were tasked with giving themselves an initial ranking on their ability out of 10, once they had done this, they then had to work towards getting all of those rankings to at least a 7/10. Once they felt they had achieved this, they were to write a summary sheet on the topic in readiness to sit the test.

Now normally I set a test, the students sit it, at some stage (normally a much longer time than is appropriate, but that is something I am trying to work on) I grade or mark that test and give it back to the students. The students work out their % mark and we move on to the next topic. At the moment a lot of the PD at my school is about feedback, and how to give effective feedback. A lot of the research we are being given, and the training that comes with it, is about not only timely feedback (hence the working on that part) but also about making sure that the students get the opportunity to reflect and act upon the feedback.

Where in the normal way of testing does this come in? Quite frankly it doesn't. As I said we sit the test, at some stage it gets marked, the student get it back and we have already moved onto the next topic. So what to do, here I am not giving timely feedback, nor am I giving the students the opportunity to act on that feedback, most likely they will not get the opportunity for between 6-12 months when that topic is studied again. Who remembers the mark, and more importantly the mistakes they made on a test that long ago?

I had a brilliant idea today, at least it appeared that way, but without gathering feedback from the students I cannot be sure. The students had to assure me that they were confident they would be able to get 70% on the test, theoretically if they truly were at a 7/10 ranking for all of the skills, then by rights they should be getting around the 70% mark on the test right? Only those students who felt they were ready were sitting the test, those who felt they still needed to work on some of the skills were able to do so. However today I spent the entire 90 minutes of my maths class marking tests, giving them back to students almost straight away. The students were then tasked with improving their mark to get it to the 70% mark, if it was not already there.

Some students tests were marks 3-4 times by me today, but here is the cracker, once the students got near the 70% mark, they then had to go back, look at their original answers, decide what mistake they made, and then describe the steps they had to take to get the correct answer. Now this has only just begun, so it will be interesting to see what the students actually come back with at the end of this process, and I am eagerly waiting to see.

The other point of interest, and one that I would appreciate some of your thoughts on, is the students asked what mark they were going to get on their 'report'. Now this is a tricky question, and one I am not quite sure of the 'correct' answer yet. On the one hand, shouldn't I be giving the students marks based on the demonstrated knowledge, this would mean that each student would be getting whatever their 'final' (70%ish) score is. On the other hand, is this equitable? Those students who achieved the 70% or above on the first sitting will be getting the same grade as those who sat it 3-4 times.

So those who took the time to study the skills, practice and accurately demonstrate those skills at the start, instead of rushing ahead or having an inflated belief of their own ability are losing out right? That being said, regardless of how I choose to report on this topic, and the students demonstrated understandings, I am teaching the students (I hope) to accurately reflect on their own level of understanding, and hopefully also starting the students on a path of improving that. I think, just now in fact after writing that sentence, that I need to scaffold this improvement a bit.

So for this test I have allowed students to re-sit say 4 times, for future topics should I be decreasing the number of allowed re-sits students can have, or is that heading too far back towards the issue of students not being able to act upon the feedback they are given?

Now that we have come full circle, it is time to stop writing, please leave a comment below with your thoughts or opinions, I would greatly appreciate them as I try to better the way I test and assess student knowledge in my classroom as well as provide my students with the opportunity to act upon the feedback they gain from these assessments.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Have I Gone Too Far?

I am starting to hit a bit of resistance to my planned project for the PreCAL numeracy course I want to run. Originally my thought was that the students would 'have access' to the world every lesson, that the world design, by nature, would require the students to do some learning to progress. Life in game would be pretty boring if you cannot dig, build or craft anything because you have no money. So I figured that the students, who will want to dig, build and craft, will do 'work' to get paid and hence can move forward with their goals in the world. And it is this work where some of the learning happens, for example the students will be tasked with keeping a weekly budget up to date, each weekend I will check their budgets, and on Monday they will get their pay if they have completed it, if not they will be on 'benefits', enough money to get food but not much else.

However I think perhaps I have gone a little too far out of the comfort zone of some of the other teachers at my school, including admin. There is some concern that students, and parents, will perceive this as 'just playing games' and that there will be no rigour to the teaching or learning going on. I am not sure how I feel about this. I can see both sides, in my head I have a grand plan of how it will look, work and how much learning will happen naturally in the world I want to set up. On the other hand, yes it could quite easily be seen as just playing games.

Can I not be trusted to do the right thing, to do my job? I guess is the real issue for me at the moment.

There have been a fair few posts about this in the past, with some online 'experts' (I do not put experts in ' to be disparaging, only that they are perceived that way) purporting that you should just let the students play, not control them and learning will happen. Each time I think about this I cringe, as a teacher in a classroom (which some of the 'experts' are no longer, again I am not trying to belittle their expertise, just trying to make my thoughts clear) I have curriculum to assess and report on, so it is my duty to ensure that the students get these mandated skills, at an appropriate level for them.

So am I now one of these experts that live in a 'utopia' of education that doesn't really apply in the real world, in real classes, with real students and real curriculum? I guess time will tell but only if I can continue plugging away and get the program up and running.

Speaking to another staff member about my current feelings, they are very supportive, and can see how my 'plan' would encourage these students to learn, and give them real life numeracy skills. Their suggestion is that, perhaps the other teachers and admin don't fully understand what Minecraft is and what it is capable of, and that perhaps I should run a local PD for all staff at my school to show them. This teacher has the advantage of having visited a few of my Minecraft classes, so she has seen what it does in a classroom, and how I utilise it.

Re-reading this post, it sounds very 'complaigny' (I know it is not a real word, but you get the meaning don't you?), that is not what it is about. I take pride in the fact that what I do online is honest, the whole picture warts and all, and I feel that I would not be being true to myself if I didn't share my current thinking and the issues I am coming across as I push the boundaries of my own teaching practice. As always feel free to leave a comment below and thanks for reading.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Economy Update.

I have been working at least a couple of hours every night getting this new economy sorted. A couple of days ago I am pretty sure I finalised my basic economy in my spreadsheet, with basic groupings for items and also with thoughts heading towards 'restricting' the students ability to craft their own items. So for example there is no way (I hope) for students to get cobble stone. My reasoning here is I want 'openings' for student run businesses in the game.

So I am hoping a student will put in a request to run a quarry business, and supply the 'town' with cobble stone at a profit to themselves. But of course who knows how it is going to play out in the end. I have taken some screenshots of what I have built in game so far, I have only modified 3 of the villagers with custom trades and names.

Instead of spreading the 'town' out, the starting location is just one highrise building, it currently has 15 floors, but at this stage I will probably only use 6 or 7. The ground floor is the lobby of course, 1st floor is the market for the students to buy things. 2nd floor is for them to sell items, 3rd is the bank, 4th is the 'gym' (because all good hotels have a gym and pool :D) and the 5th floor is access to the residential areas (the hotel section).

I want the students to build their own houses, but to start they are going to have to 'rent' a room in the hotel until they have drawn up their plans and applied for their loan. I am also going to offer to build student houses (for a fee of course), even of their own design, as they are going to be able to practice building their own house to help calculate the cost and I can worldedit them in to the town. There is just so much scope for opportunity here if I can only get everything built and ready to go before needing it.

Enough blabbering, here are the screenshots.

The front door of the building, with an automatic door.

The ground floor elevators.

The wood section of the 1st floor market.

The food section of the 1st floor market.

 The elevator back to the ground floor.

Thanks for reading, as always I welcome feedback and thoughts in the comments section below.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

New Learnings!

I have been exploring the custom NPC's and a little bit of industrial craft trying to sort out how I can set up the trading system for my year 10 maths project. The other night, while I was supposed to be doing 'other' things I started messing around with NBT edit and normal villagers and WOW!

The idea first came to me after watching some youtube videos, where a couple of people were playing a custom adventure map and the villagers in this map had custom trades. So I had a play with the NBT tags on villagers. The NBT tags allow me to make custom trades, giving a heap more options for trading then either the custom NPC's or industrial craft can provide.

The main advantage comes from the ability to have 1 or 2 'selling' items for 1 buying option. Whereas I am pretty sure both custom NPC's and the industrial craft trade'o'mats have 1 for 1. The main disadvantage was that the villagers would generate new trades that I did not want them to.

However after a bit of googling on villager trading mechanics I have found a remedy for this issue. Villagers only generate new trades if the 'last' trade, all the way to the right is used. So if the last trade never gets traded, or is impossible to trade, no new trades will be generated. So I am pretty sure I will be using the standard villagers for trading, and the custom NPC's for dialogue.

Oh and on a side note, you can name normal villagers, choose their profession and even make them invulnerable. So I need to get designing my economy, the prices for items based on the coins from MystCraft. I am basing my calculations off a full economy and price guide I found on the Minecraft forums, here is the link to the post and I will upload my spreadsheet when it is complete for anyone to use if they would like.

Thanks for reading, feel free to comment below, and one day soon I am going to record some more tutorials explaining all of the neat new features we now have access to in MinecraftEdu.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Design Differences.

I am finding that there is a massive difference between creating activities to suit a course compared to creating a course with suitable activities. Of course I am being specific to the MinecraftEdu side of things here. Mathlandia is about creating activities that students can do that supplement what we are already learning in our classes. Whereas what I am doing now is creating a course in Minecraft and creating activities that suit that.

Why the difference? I am looking at providing opportunities for the students to 'need' to learn the content, but at the same time make it relevant to the virtual environment. Which is far from impossible to do, it is just a bit backward from what I have done in the past. Everything I have done so far I know that the students 'have' the knowledge, at varying levels, but all students have been introduced to the thinking they will need to complete the task. In this case the activity will present them with a structured need to gather some knowledge to complete that task, and by completing the task they will have demonstrated an understanding of that outcome.

Now that is a very 'heavy' teacher sentence if I have ever written one. However if I try to simplify it as much as possible what it boils down to (I think) is that I now need to design the task to help students learn on a specific pathway, rather than just designing the task to allow demonstration of a skill or knowledge. The other thing I am doing for the first time is writing formally as to what I am covering and linking it to curriculum documents, all this in the past was done in my head, but since this is going to be a project that could be perceived as just playing games, I feel that I may need to justify to parents (and anyone else who asks) the what, how and why of this project. That is what we are covering, how it is doing so and why I am choosing to do it this way.

I was chatting to another teacher involved in this program, the literacy teacher in fact, and she is concerned about the approach I am thinking of taking. She was suggesting that I take the first couple of weeks to teach the students the basic information that they need to complete the tasks, and then open up the virtual world for them. I am not sure how I feel about this, I think it kind of defeats the purpose of what I am trying to do here. I want the students to be self motivated and self managing. I think she may believe that this is too much to expect from these students, I am thinking what have I got to lose by giving them a go first, and if things are not going the way they should adjusting my approach then.

Again, I am really open to suggestions or thoughts if you have any. Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Stupidity or Genius??

Well I was sitting in my VCE Biology class today, and as they were working solidly on their assessment task I was thinking about the 'hands-on' maths subject for year 10 I am taking next semester. We have decided (as a school that is) to run a Pre-CAL stream next semester for the year 10 cohort. I am going to be the teacher of the numeracy class. For those of you not in the Victorian education system, we have 2 basic paths in the senior years of high school. VCE is for those planning on heading to university and VCAL is for those heading down more of a trade path. In an attempt to better prepare students for choosing the path that is right for them we are running a Pre-CAL course for some of our year 10s.

Anyway back to my idea, which is either completely stupid or possibly quite genius (not completely genius, but possibly a little smart if it works). I am going to have students who "cannot do maths" or "hate maths" (their words not mine). So how am I going to get them thinking mathematically and getting some form of number knowledge to prepare them for their future?

MinecraftEdu of course. Someone has coined the acronym PEDLE, which stands for Persistent Engaging Dynamic Learning Environment, and I would like to attempt something along these lines. I took down notes as my brain was running a million miles an hour with possibilities, issues, fixes, concerns and benefits. Here is a possibly brief synopsis of what could be the plan (can you tell it is just forming?).

What I can cover: simple algebra, costings, running a business, budgeting, loans and interest, measurement (this was done earlier in the year, so possibly combine with a costing based task).

What links I might be able to make to the other two areas involved in the program: Humanities, social learning, laws/rules, running a business/economics. Literacy, creative writing, formal letters (for extra funding or loans)

So the overall plan is to somehow create a virtual world where students will not be able to gather resources but will have to purchase them. They will be able to build in designated plots, but the digging part of Minecraft will be 'removed' to prevent the possible 'thwarting' of my system.

Now with CustomNPC's I can have a currency, with bankers to help the managing of the money in game and traders who will be able to trade certain items for a certain amount of money. So basically I need to design a consumer economy in which the students will need to manage their finances, work to earn more money and achieve goals within the game.

I can have in-game tasks being worth a certain amount of currency, but I am also thinking of the possibility that I can pay students in-game for work completed outside of the game. I think this will be fairly easy, but possibly time consuming to manage. Now I am pretty sure I can also get the students trading with one another and essentially running their own business if I play 'game-maker' right.

I have a couple of possible ways to get students to only build in certain areas, the first, and obvious is to just disable student building on the server, however I am toying with the idea of making the server in "adventure mode" (not a default game-mode in MinecraftEdu) which would mean that students could break blocks only if they had the correct tool, but then I would need to try and maintain some 'control' of the wood supply so that students could not make too many tools and gather too many resources.

Just to add more confusion I am also considering using badges for the students too, but I am really unsure about how to move forward with this and I have only a couple of weeks to decide on a path and begin the design process.

I think that is enough information for now. I will start designing my economy and add updates as I can, so thanks for reading and feel free to give me some feedback/ideas in the comments section below.