Library Research Skills Game from Carnegie Mellon

Carnegie Mellon Libraries are introducing some games to help students “develop research skills through

entertaining and easy-to-repeat activities. At this stage, we are testing each game to work through any technical glitches and prepare the games for a final version.

Please feel free to send us your comments & suggestions on ways that we can further develop the games.”


Interactive Fiction, Passively

PMOG:The Passively Multiplayer Online Game

An interesting feature of Pmog ‘missions’ is the way that so many of them are really guided tours of specialty websites (e.g. this one). This is a handy approach if, say, you teach via distance and you want to show your students what constitutes ‘good’ research sites.

Yet, that’s really nothing a powerpoint couldn’t already do. An interesting variant on these missions is the ‘puzzle’ mission, where creators exploit a glitch in the game to create breaks in the flow of the mission. The only way to progress is to solve the riddle to learn what website to go to next – whereupon the mission resumes.  Some of these, like ‘The Mystery Machine‘, require you to read the page to fill in the blanks: each word represents a letter in an ultimate URL. If you’ve got the right letters and you complete the last URL, the resulting webpage represents the ‘Victory!’ screen.  Others are more complex, more devious. My own mission, ‘The Case of the Missing … Something” depends on anagrams of URLs (which is mean, I know). I can’t solve ‘The Lost Gold of Dr. Nes‘, since it depends on a gamer’s knowledge of nintendo, but the principle is good.  ‘Meet Felix Klein‘ takes the player on a tour through various flickr photographs to create a kind of visual story. No puzzle, but it certainly *feels* like an old-style text adventure.

All of these represent a new twist on “interactive fiction”, with the fiction layered on top of the day-to-day internet (perhaps a riff on augment reality, too?).  In a way, they are like the ‘Prisoner Escape from the Tower of London‘ game created by mscape: the fiction intersects with daily life to create the game, with events being triggered by your physical or virtual location in the game space. Unlike regular interactive fiction, the game creator does not control that game space – other people intrude (in Pmog, other players might lay, for reasons unrelated to the mission you happen to be on, mines or portals on pages within a mission, which could -perhaps- prevent you from completing it).

The archaeological angle: simple show and tell of vetted sites is good, for starters. Using Pmog (or other AR) to create layers of information/meaning on top of the information is even better. You could imagine a student creating a pmog mission on curse-tablets. This might begin as simple show and tell. Other students could then play the mission, leaving mines on pages they think are ‘bad’ (poor information, bad research, whatever) or portals to ‘good’ sites… the game records the play, and the meta-analysis afterwards with the prof would spark a deeper discussion. Inserting puzzles into the mission would force a deeper engagement still, and completing a puzzle mission would constitute a formative assessment exercise.  Creating missions could also be exercises in public archaeology for the students,  if built around a decent resource (say the British Museum, or Chaco Canyon).

What I’m arguing for is that we, as educators, need to be using things like Pmog to get our students to engage with online materials in a deeper fashion. They are too often uncritical users of what they find. They need to interact passively.

“In the springtime of 51 BC, Ptolemy Auletes died…”

In the course of marking an assignment, I noticed a curious reference: “Interoz 2008”. What was Interoz, I wondered? In the bibliography, this was listed: It turns out that Interoz is a webdesign company, and these pages on Egypt are likely connected with some work they did on a tourism site.

A website design company is not the kind of source that students in a university-level Roman history class should be using. Time and again, I ask my students to ask themselves: “Who wrote this article? How can you know whether or not to trust it?” Needless to say, the author of the article is not listed on the site (though the person who put the page together is). The essay on Interoz goes on to describe Cleopatra’s life and times: standard info available in any textbook. I’ve encouraged my students not to be referencing the textbook, but to get out there and read widely; if they use the internet, I almost beg them to use JSTOR or the other digital resources of our library… to little avail.
Anyway, the page in question contains an essay that begins with “In the springtime of 51 BC, Ptolemy Auletes died and left his kingdom in his will to his eighteen year old daughter, Cleopatra, and her younger brother Ptolemy XIII who was twelve at the time.” In an effort to determine the ultimate source of this essay, I googled that phrase.

Results: 1310 pages. Most of the sites lead in circles, and I’m somewhat stumped as to the ultimate origin of the article. But you can buy it for $12 from this site: (In which case you’d be quite an idiot if you did).

So though my student didn’t take my advice or learn the lessons of internet research, at least she didn’t plagiarize. Small mercies.

How many universities and colleges, I wonder, make ‘research skills’ a required course during the first term of a student’s career? I get discouraged sometimes in my own courses: not only do I have to teach the content, but I also find myself devoting enormous amounts of time to teaching remedial basic grammar, spelling, internet skills, library skills… the net effect is to take away from the content, from the subject, and I fear the marks that get awarded might ultimately reflect whether or not a student can string together reasonably grammatically correct and properly spelled thoughts (in comparison to his/her peers) rather than any deep knowledge of the subject…

What a depressing thought.

Web 2.0 is not a democracy (and some disparate thoughts on Wikipedia & authority)

Web 2.0 is not a democracy…. but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

I tell my university students to be leery of the Wikipedia: since anyone can write/edit an article, how can you be certain of its authority? Apparently though, only a small hand-full of people are responsible for the majority of its articles and edits. So there is editorial control, and other user-content sites are similarly not democratic. From Slate, ‘Digg, Wikipedia, and the myth of Web 2.0 Democracy’:

It’s getting harder to be a Wikipedia-hater. The user-generated and -edited online encyclopedia—which doesn’t even require contributors to register—somehow holds its own against the Encyclopedia Britannica in accuracy, a Nature study concluded, and has many times more entries. But even though people are catching up to the idea that Wikipedia is a force for good, there are still huge misconceptions about what makes the encyclopedia tick. While Wikipedia does show the creative potential of online communities, it’s a mistake to assume the site owes its success to the wisdom of the online crowd.

Social-media sites like Wikipedia and Digg are celebrated as shining examples of Web democracy, places built by millions of Web users who all act as writers, editors, and voters. In reality, a small number of people are running the show….

What is interesting in this article – from the point of view of one who has followed the whole PDQ discussion from its inception – are the different models for generating what amounts to ‘authority’ in formats that are supposed to be ‘democratic’. Authority emerges despite the best efforts to the contrary… If PDQ is going to be successful (that is to say, accepted by the wider academic community beyond those of us who spend far too many hours on the internet) , it has to find its own model for generating authority – or perhaps it will emerge anyway? – in order to demonstrate its value to those who prefer the current models for academic publishing.

Another disparate thought: What of the creation end of thing? Students are quick to use Wikipedia; Martha Groom and Andreas Brockhaus make this a virtue and have used publishing a term paper via Wikipedia as a forum for demonstrating to their students just what is really involved in getting something up on Wikipedia, and as a model for the peer-review process (!). Happily, they also found it was an excellent exercise for getting her students more engaged in the process of creating academic writing. Their powerpoint is available here; their conclusions:

Writing a Wikipedia article can be a more sophisticated learning experience:

  • Enhances quality of research and writing
  • Enhances student understanding of the research process
  • Highlights importance of using verifiable and credible sources
  • Increases pride in work
  • Encourages collaborative model of knowledge creation

I tried to use a wiki-writing experience in a media studies class I taught at the high school level (the anglophone online high school in Quebec) and I have to say I did not find the same thing with those particular students. They never really understood the point of Wikis, to my astonishment. Part of the problem there though was that the students in question were all taking my course since their own schools did not know what else to do with them: they were the students who had fallen through the cracks in the regular programs. They didn’t have computers at home. And part of the problem was one that Groom and Brockhaus identify in their presentation, the problem that our students, for all their presumed internet savvy, often do not know how to do such basic things as marking up text, logging properly, saving work, and so on. My little class never got to the point where their materials were ready to go live. I find this is true even of my university students.

Lesson learned for next time.

Finally, on a similar theme, Scott Moore is chronicling his experiences with a class on Digital history that he is conducting, and I recall that in one of his posts he identifies much the same problem. He has also recently tackled the problem of assessing the authority of a website with his class – and happily, student feedback from that session shows that it was a good thing to do. This is a lesson for all of us. We can’t assume that our students already ‘know’ how to understand what they find on the internet. We have to make our students aware of where the authority lies.

“Speculum Fantasia” and thoughts on other Invented Worlds

Mark Hall has published an article, Speculum Fantasia – Middle Earth and Discworld as Mirrors of Medieval Europe on the European Journal of Archaeology blogsite. It’s an interesting exposition of how fictitious examples of what might perhaps be called ‘alternative’ histories intersect with what might be called’true’ history.  I was especially taken with his example of a report stating that:

“Ashdown Forest was both the best surviving heathland forest in Britain and the setting for A A Milne’s Winnie the Pooh stories. As a result several million pounds of grant-aid had been allocated for conservation work to maintain the heathland and clear some of the trees – trees, it was noted, that Winnie the Pooh and friends would not have recognised and so they had to go.”

The point being that our narratives and stories  reflect back and alter the ‘real’ world.  For archaeologists, the lesson seems to be that archaeologically we’re going to find instances of these invented worlds, so we’d better know what to do with them:

“The question of what archaeology can learn from the popularity of these and other invented civilisations is a difficult one for me because of the paradox at its root. In the words of Terry Eagleton (2004, 4) ‘human existence is at least as much about fantasy and desire as it is about truth and reason’. Imagined realities have been an ever present part of the human drive to explain and adapt through narrative constructions. The same wellspring produced the creative drives for mythopoesis, invention, and material culture. Archaeological and historical explanations have grown and sought their own path, influenced mostly by an honestly meant desire to be objective. The paradox has grown as a consequence of the fantasy / truth split. On the one hand invention and mythopoesis are part of the human condition and so infuse the material culture / archaeological record. The cult of saints and the associated cult of heroes is a prime example: thus in the 12th century the abbey of Landevennec, Finistere, Brittany under the patronage of local secular potentates had a new chapel built dedicated to Landavennec King Gradlon, a fictitious first ancestor and king of Avalon. He was given a reality in stone, mortar and worship.9 On the other hand in a contemporary context we require an objective separation between archaeological, scientific, fact-centred analysis of reality and narrative desires. It can be hard to separate fact from fiction when fiction is a fact of existence.”

I found this article useful for thinking about other invented worlds, especially the online variety. I’ve argued elsewhere that virtual worlds can be amenable to archaeological study, and perhaps what Mark Hall’s article is suggesting is one way of approaching that virtual material culture.  The key I think is that line, ‘invention and mythopoesis are part of the human condition and so infuse the material culture / archaeological record’. In Second Life, everyone is a god. Everyone can say ‘fiat lux’, and there will be light.  The things we see in Second Life are the remnants of each user’s own personal myth-making.  Studying an individual parcel of land then in Second Life requires knowing the myth. An archaeology of a virtual world on this reading is an exercise in cosmology then…

Blogging Archaeology

William Caraher has been writing about the history of blogging, especially in the archaeological world (it is also posted here). It’s a fascinating discussion, and it brought to my attention a number of blogs – and student blogs written whilst on-site at excavations – that I hadn’t encountered before. It was nice, too, to see Electric Archaeology get a mention amongst all this fantastic work – thanks!

Many people write blogs with the hope of making a bit of coin from them too somehow. I wonder if academic blogs are considered in awarding tenure? I reach more people writing this blog than a lot of my more *academic* writing. My thesis isn’t climbing the ranks of Amazon, that’s for sure!

From the original post:

“…These specialized blogs will not be of interest to everyone, but they have tapped into the rich potential of digital media to communicate, inspire, and promote collaborative scholarship. Shawn Graham’s innovative Electric Archaeologist shows how a whole range of digital media can assist an archaeologist in research and teaching. Sebastian Heath’s blog Mediterranean Ceramics explores the intersection of the study of Mediterranean ceramics and the resources available on the internet. Tom Elliot, the director of the Pleiades Project which brings together geographic and historical information for ancient places across the Mediterranean, makes occasional posts at his horothesia blog. His main interest is developing innovative and open methods to disseminate archaeological and historical data. Scott Moore’s Ancient History Ramblings has developed a serious focus on archaeology in the virtual world of Second Life. Charles Watkinson, the director of publications at the American School of Classical Studies maintains an occasional blog on “communication in the humanities and social sciences.” Digging Digitially provides some great info on digital archaeology as the “Semi-offical” news source for the SAA’s Digital Data Interest Group. The Okapi Project’s blog from the University of California at Berkeley includes regular reports on their innovative efforts to disseminate academic research through digital media – including their work with the Çatalhöyük excavations….”

Essays on History and New Media

 Some more reading of note for Digital historians, from the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University.

“Since 1994, the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University has used digital media and computer technology to democratize history—to incorporate multiple voices, reach diverse audiences, and encourage popular participation in presenting and preserving the past. We sponsor more than two dozen digital history projects and offer free tools and resources for historians.”

Wikis in plain english

 Sometimes, a glorious failure has as much to teach as a resounding success…

I’ve tried now, in two classes (one at an online university, the other at an online high school), to use wikis and collaborative writing as part of my formative assessment. The online university was asynchronous, the highschool was synchronous. Both did not work out very well, but for very different reasons.

I think it was James Paul Gee who coined the phrase ‘digital natives’, ie, our students are immersed in digital media, they understand it intuitively, and we, as ‘digital immigrants’, will never wade through the sea of 1s and 0s as successfully as they do. At the online high school, this did not prove to be the case. My students were certainly familiar with digital technology, but their familiarity was profoundly superficial (if I can say that). While they had often used wikis (most often as a source of information for History class), they had never actually considered what was involved in making them, or the implications of how that information was collated/created into the wiki article they so freely copied. I had to take them by the hand (voip-style) and talk them through the entire process several times before they started to catch on… but by that time, the needs of the curriculum were such that I had to abandon the project.

At the online university, my course was organised by topic, over the duration of the session. The student on their own time, whenever they felt like logging in, could digest whatever topic they chose. At the end of each topic was a wiki, with several possible article suggestions. The idea was that instead of writing a 3000 word term paper, they’d write – and edit others’ – short articles (which in total would equal more or less the same amount of work). In the process, they’d be communicating with each other via an online forum or by voip, and as a class they’d create what would be essentially a text-book. It’s now the end of the session, and I finally got the first wiki articles posted, all in a rush. No time for editing, no time for collaboration, just a series of v.small essays, with no external links or images.

Clearly, I hadn’t explained the concept well. Just as clearly, I can’t rely on my students to be motivated enough to get the articles done early enough so that the collaboration process can start. I dug a little, and found that the main problem, as far as my students were concerned, was the fear of letting others see their written work. Procrastination was of course another issue, which was compounded by my error in letting the students ‘choose their own adventure’ through my materials. And finally, like my high school students, they were not familiar with how/why wikis work (which I found astonishing – but why should I? I spend every day online and so encounter wikis all the time, but my students apparently do have lives… :)

The next time I run that course I think what I shall do is abandon the wiki format in favour of journals (that only the student and myself may view). The topics and questions and the amount of writing will all be the same. I will also set firm deadlines and chart a linear progression through the course. And I think I shall make the students watch the wee video below:

Doing History or, ‘Where is Vinland?’

“Thank goodness! Simply put, we need your help.A team of historians has been trying to solve some historical “cold cases” — old crimes in which the guilty ones walked, and even more insidious crimes where a whole village may have been complicit. There are other mysteries too, about unusual cases from the Viking age to the Klondike Gold Rush.The trouble is — it is not as easy as it looks. The evidence has not all survived and what clues remain often lead the historian-detectives down different paths. A fresh pair of eyes could really help.

Please check your preconceptions about “History” at the door. “Doing History” is not memorizing dates, politicians and wars. That is all just context. “Doing History” is the work of the detective, the gumshoe, the private eye — and we need you to take on this job. All we are left with are traces, artifacts, clues, hints and allegations. Putting those together, weighing the evidence, assessing the credibility of witness accounts, sorting out contradictions, and showing how your solution to the mysteries is the best of all the alternatives — that is “Doing History”.”

-the introduction, ‘Great Canadian Mysteries’

John Lutz and Ruth Sandwell have for some time been putting together fantastic packages of original materials, archival materials, video re-creations, and audio files that collectively explore some of the Great Canadian Mysteries of history (bet you didn’t think there were any?) Their latest, ‘Where is Vinland?‘, throws archaeological materials into the mix. At Anse-aux-Meadows, there is an undisputed Viking settlement – but Newfoundland is hardly a land of wine.

“This website will take you along Leif’s route to North America and Vinland. Where was this land? Many claim to have found it from northern Labrador all the way down to Virginia. Which is the real Vinland? Leif left only a few tantalizing clues as do medieval Icelandic manuscripts. Solving the mystery of Vinland requires putting these together with archaeological discoveries, a knowledge of what the Vikings were capable of, what their motivations might have been and an understanding of the people and environment of the land they encounterd. To understand the context of the Vinland voyages, this web site offers a tour through the Viking world, with brief stops in Europe, Iceland, and Greenland. To allow you to get a better grasp of Viking life, we have recreated the L’Anse Aux Meadows settlement and some of the Viking artifacts in a 3-D format. To understand their encounter with America you will also meet the people already in North America when the Norse arrived: the Aboriginal groups of the eastern seaboard.

There are many mysteries to solve here, and “Where was Vinland?” is just the start…”

Interactive Fiction experiment continues

I wrote a while ago about how I’ve been working with a local grade school teacher to use text adventures to improve literacy with her class. The approach she took with this ‘interactive fiction’ was a bit different than what I expected – but perhaps is a model for others.

She first built a simple adventure using ADRIFT, to get the students used to how the story might work (see my earlier post, Interactive Fiction (Text Adventure!) in the Classroom). Over a series of sessions she had the students divide into groups to work on particular ‘rooms’ for their own adventures. What does the room look like? What will happen in this room? This collaborative work was all done with pencil and paper, followed by students’ swapping their work with each other for group edits. What was interesting about this stage was how – interactively, without a computer – an adventure took place situated in their own school grounds. In most cases, the editing process really improved the descriptions of each room – although there was one group, who upon receiving the edited version of their room, proceeded to erase others’ edits to return it to its original state. When the disparate parts were put together using ADRIFT, remarkably, a plot seemed to emerge. This allowed the teacher to discuss the mechanics of fiction with a group that has an extremely low level of literacy ability.

So… the computer was only used to bracket this project. ‘Interactive fiction’ usually refers to the playing or reading of these works, but in this case, it was actually the creation that demonstrated the interactivity.

Interactive Fiction (Text Adventure!) in the Classroom

Text adventures have completely dropped off the radar, as far as gaming is concerned, although there is still a hard-core of devotees out there. I always liked playing them as a kid, and as part of my research for the Centre for Digital Humanities at Brock, I’ve been looking at them again as teaching tools.

I now have two versions of the Interactive Fiction aka Text Adventure project in two different classroom settings. One is as a club activity at lunch time at a local high school, the other is formally integrated into a split grade 4/5 classroom. Both have been interesting experiments so far…

I wanted to see if the process of building a game could help foster historical literacy amongst high school students – more on that later. Another teacher I know (the 4/5 teacher) became interested and wanted to see what would happen in her classroom – her students have reading and writing problems, and she hoped that the making and playing a text adventure would help improve her class’s general literacy.

She told her students “we’re going to be making a video game” – to great cheers – “and it’s going to be a text adventure” – to great moans. But as it turned out, her students had no idea what a text adventure was. She has a smart board, a digital white board, installed in her classroom. She loaded up the small demonstration game that we had built and put it on the smart board. Then, as the class read the text aloud, she selected students to go up to the board and type in commands. The kids love going to the smart board, so the chance to do so is a very useful management technique for her. As different kids tried to put in commands, others in the class would offer suggestions, or corrections, to the kid at the board. Pretty soon, the whole class was deeply engrossed in the game.

Today she told the class that the game they would be making would be for a more junior class. This has the advantage that her kids get to feel important – they’re helping the teachers teach the smaller kids! – and it allows her weaker kids not to be embarrassed by their own level of literacy since as a class they’re aiming at the younger kids (and so weaker readers/writers). The kids are mapping out rooms (the adventure will take place in their school), they’re creating characters, and they’re planning out puzzles. The software for making the game is itself probably too advanced for these kids, so we will either take their ideas and put them into the game editor, or else work intensely with some of the more advanced kids (so that they get to stretch their minds too!).