September 1, 2016

Generic v. Specialized Tools in Assignments

Categories: Digital Learning, Edtech
popcorn holder shaped like a man

I would like to share my thinking process for designing an assignment for my class this semester and hopefully this will be beneficial to others as well.

I have an idea to ask my students to create a simple empathy game that is a choose-your-own-adventure type of thing, which is also sometimes called interactive story/narrative. Two great examples are SPENT (take on the role of a poor person in America) and the BBC’s Syrian refugees game where you pretend to be part of a Syrian family fleeing to Europe.

There are a variety of tools students could use to create this kind of game, including :

  1. Using branching questions on Google forms (see my sleep-deprived mom empathy game — took me 2 hours to create)
  2. Using Google slides or PowerPoint (see @carmelhealth’s game on responsible partying)
  3. Using Twine (see Ana Salter’s introductory post on this)
  4. Using Inklewriter (check out simple instructions here)

Notice that the first two options are not intended for use as tools for creating interactive stories, whereas the second two are. I could offer my students the choice of which tools to use and let them explore which they would find most beneficial for their purposes. I would do that if I were teaching an educational technology class. However, I am teaching an educational game design module as part of a course on Creative Thinking and Problem-Solving (a core curriculum liberal arts option for freshmen). Therefore, my focus is on both the actual game design and helping students build skills that will help them throughout college (including writing, reading, critical thinking and digital literacy).

Making a decision between a generic and a specific tool reminds me of a metaphor used during an MITx MOOC entitled “Implementation and Evaluation of Educational Technology.” I didn’t take the MOOC myself but my colleague Nadine shared this metaphor with me. Edtech tools are either more like a chef’s knife or more like a popcorn maker. Popcorn makers are perfect for making popcorn and probably straightforward to learn. But, they don’t do much beyond making popcorn. A knife, on the other hand, is a versatile tool. It may take time to learn to use it well, but it has multiple uses and one can repurpose it according to need. If I had money and time to invest in just one of these long-term, I would almost always go for the chef’s knife. There will be instances where we can afford both, or where choosing a popcorn maker is a good choice because we are planning a career in selling popcorn, for example. If I were teaching the course as part of a major in digital storytelling or game design, it might make sense to introduce students to Twine. On the other hand, if students aren’t at all familiar with Google forms/slides, it may take a little longer for them to figure out how to do the branching — but, this time, investment is generally worth it because they are likely to benefit from it again in the future. For example, when creating surveys or forms for other courses, extracurricular activities or work purposes. One other thing to keep in mind is to teach students to try a conceptual design first before choosing a tool. For instance, you can get some variables counted if you use Inklewriter but not Google Slides. If that is essential for your game, you may need to use a specialist tool.

Having said all of the above, I think I will still give students the option of looking at all four tools and deciding which one they prefer, because you never know. Maybe one of them is planning a career in interactive storytelling.

Banner image credit: Flickr photo by Express Monorail shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-ND) license