Education ∪ Math ∪ Technology

Month: January 2012 (page 1 of 2)

Exploring multi-user online text spaces for collaborative game building

(Screenshot from the opening screen of Arctic MUD)

I have a confession to make. When I was in university for my first degree, I spent way too much time playing games, and not as much time as I should have on my studies. One of the games I played was called a multi-user dungeon (or MUD).

When I was asked recently by a colleague to help her find a typing game for her students, I was reminded of my experience playing MUDs. A MUD is a game written entirely in text, and their use predates the Internet itself. You enter the game through a specialized client, and type in commands, and read the results of your commands on the screen. Whole worlds can be created in muds. One of the MUDs I used to play had thousands of rooms players could move through, each of which had a description of the room. These descriptions were important, and because there was information in the room descriptions associated with mini-quests in the game, you had to read them thoroughly, and pay attention to details.

I took a typing course in high school, but none of the typing skills took. The course was incredibly boring, and my memories of it are of typing asdf asdf asdf over and over again. I did not learn typing from the typing course I took, I learned how to type as a result of spending hours and hours playing a MUD in school.

Every command I sent the mud had to be sent via the keyboard. There were no options to click on buttons to make the game work, you had to type. As a result, I had a strong incentive to learn how to type faster, because by typing faster, I made the game go faster. Typing faster gave me more control over the game, and this was amazingly empowering. Typing accurately was important too. The game moved fast, and if I typed something wrong, my character in the game died, or the game just sent back an annoying ‘Hunh?’ when it didn’t understand my command.

The next thing I realized is that the different parts of the mud (called zones) are each stories. When I move my character through the zone, it is like I am moving through a story, and controlling the action and pace of the story. This is part of the reason kids are so excited to play video games today; they have some control over the pace of the story, and the flow of the game. Today’s video games are excellent places for students to explore narratives, but they aren’t text narratives, and it is still important to understand text narratives.

Mud story
(Screenshot from a zone on Arctic MUD called "Forest of Haven", created by Draknor)

The zones in a mud include things called mobs, which are non-player characters controlled by the computer. These mobs can be considered to be bit actors in the stories of a mud, and the players are the main characters. Imagine that instead of just reading about Tom Sawyer and how he tricked the other boys into whitewashing the fence, that you could join him in this mini-quest in the story, and interact with him and the other characters in the book. How would that change how you viewed the book?

I thought that muds could be a way that students could read, access, and see an interpretation of a story, but they could also create interpretations of stories. One of the advantages of muds has always been that the source code for many muds is free to download and modify, and that the resource required to run a mud are fairly minimal. The editing systems for most muds is reasonably archaic, but its not too complicated to create simple effects, certainly well within the reach of most students.

A group of university students created an online interpretation of Dante’s Inferno as an exercise for one of their literature classes. When the mud was active, you could literally walk around the layers of hell as described by Dante. Can you imagine what it must have felt like to have created Dante’s Inferno?

I see some interesting things one could do with a mud, but I need some feedback. Is this just a crazy idea?

Update: I just found out about Moose Crossing, which is a decades old project to do exactly what I am suggesting but with more control given to students than I had originally envisioned. Awesome.

On the evolution of schools

Wired Magazine recently reported an interesting story about a study suggesting that massive changes in the size of a species could taker as long as 24 million generations to occur. This process is very slow, and part of the reason it takes so long is that there is no one directing the evolution of the species; it happens as a result of a series of incremental (and sometimes contradictory) selective adaptations of the species to its environment.

Schools have taken glacially long to adopt changes, with some classrooms still approximating those of the 19th century. Maybe the problem has not been a lack of leadership, but a lack of patience? If we really wanted the classroom to evolve, maybe we would place external pressures on classrooms which would encourage a different direction, and then be patient as the process of cultural revolution occurred. Perhaps this is the role of the computer; not to itself force change in education, but to change the environment around schools.

Where is the technology?

The following is an excerpt from a keynote I will be giving on February 13th for the University of Alberta.


There is a technology our students use that is destroying their ability to learn actual mathematics.

This technology is so advanced that you can use it to find any formula. In fact, almost all of mathematics we know is available via this technology. Some students, lacking the resources at home, are able to go to the library and use this technology and learn all of the mathematics we teach ahead of time, thus destroying our lessons during the year. Other students can even access this technology from home!

When using this technology, students don’t need to think. It can record every step they do during a problem so they don’t need to actually remember where they are. In fact, if they have done a similar problem before, they can just copy the steps from the previous time.

Students are using this technology to share ideas outside of class; plagiarism and cheating is rampant because of the ease of sharing provided by this technology. This technology is inequitable because not all students have equal access to it at home. Some of our homeless students, for example, do not have access to this technology at all.

Further, the production of this technology is damaging our ecosystem, and we throw millions of tons of it away each year. It is an environmental catastrophe in our schools, and something must be done.

Yes folks, it’s time. We need to stop using paper in our mathematics classes.

Pencil writing on paper
Photo by Simon Stamm

Sarcasm aside, this objection to paper, pencils, and writing in education is a real one, at least in the age of Socrates, who (according to Plato) said,

"…this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves."(Dialogues of Plato, Phaedrus, pp. 275).

It is true that pencils and paper require the person using them to know less, and to allow the medium of pencil and paper to hold information for them. Pencil and paper can be thought of as a solid state storage device with a low ratio of information to volume capacity, and a terrible indexing system. Pencil and paper are like a hard-drive for the mind.

However, the fact that pencil and paper require less memorization of information does mean that they result in less thinking. In fact, our entire civilization’s technological advances rest on the fact that we first created a very portable, reusable, and reasonably durable medium upon which we could record our discoveries for the next generation. What will happen to our society when the fundamental medium of communicating ideas changes?

The photocopier did not change education. It made the lives of teachers easier, but very little about the pedagogy the teachers used with their teachers changed. Teachers taught lessons, and students practiced what the teachers taught through their worksheets. Penmanship suffered, since students were no longer required to carefully transcribe the worksheet from the blackboard, but the trade-off was that students and teachers got more time to discuss the ideas being presented.

The Internet, on the other hand, will change education. As we become better connected as schools through the Internet, good educational practices which once took decades to take hold in the education world, will begin to spread more rapidly. We will find new ways of connecting our students with content, and it will become less important to attempt to contain every important fact about the world in our heads. Our memorization skills will suffer, but the trade off will be that we will have access to a much larger set of information as a result. Knowing facts will still be important, but knowing how to learn new facts will increase in importance. The computer, as a tool to interact with the Internet, will become a necessity for all schools.

Unfortunately for education, some of the ways computers have been introduced into schools have been somewhat ridiculous, to say the least. Seymour Papert used the analogy of the pencil to show just how nonsensical some schemes for introducing computers into schools are. He said,

"Imagine (if you can) that we lived in a world without writing-and, of course, without pencils, pens and books. Then one day, somebody invents writing and the pencil, and people say, “Wow, this would be great for education. Let’s give these things to all the children and teach them to write.” So then somebody else says, “Hey, wait a minute. You can’t just do that. You can’t just give every child a pencil. You’d better start by doing some rigorous experiments on a small scale. So, we’II ‘put one pencil in a classroom and we’ll see what happens. If great things happen, we’ll put two pencils in a classroom, and if greater things happen, then we’ll put in more…"  (Papert, S. 1984.)

Our generation has a new technology, the computer, to replace paper and pencil, excepting where paper and pencil is still more efficient or more educationally sound. A reasonable question to ask is, to what extent should the use of a computer replace the now traditional use of pencil and paper in schools? An even more reasonable question to ask is, how does school change with the introduction of computers?

There will come a day when our descendants will not look at computers as a type of technology anymore than most of us see pencil and paper as a form of technology. In that time, some of the concerns we have today will be seen as antiquated, and even bizarre.


Read more



Papert, S. (1984). “New Theories for New Learnings.” School Psychology Review, Oct. via

Plato,. (1875). The dialogues of Plato. 2d ed. Oxford: Clarendon press.

Do iPads improve mathematics instruction? Maybe

Student using iPad
(Image source: MindShift blog)

Stephen Downes just shared this study suggesting that students see a 20% improvement in their test scores on their state exam after using an iPad loaded with HMH Fuse.

I am a supporter for using technology in mathematics education, but it’s probably worth examining these results closer. Here are some quotes from the study itself, and my unpacking of what this means for the reliability of this study.

  • Earhart has been a school eager to employ new technology in the classroom…” (p5):

    This suggests a selection bias. Further, it also suggests that this program has been attempted at one school, or that all that has been shared with us are the results from one school. Were there other schools that had an opportunity to pilot this program which have not been shared in this study?

  • Coleman approached his teachers about this opportunity and two teachers, Jackie Davis and Dan Sbur, were ultimately chosen to take part in the study.” (p5) :

    This suggests that the process for choosing the teachers was anything but random. The study makes careful mention that the students were carefully chosen, but underplays how teachers were selected.

  • …this meant more work and time required by the teachers…” (p5) “Like any new technology, there was a slight learning curve with adopting a tablet in the classroom. “In the beginning of the year I tried a little bit of everything, trying to find out what was best for my class and for me,” recalls Jackie Davis. Dan Sbur also found that “Over time, it became easier to use and I could use it more in my class as I became comfortable with the device and app.” (p6) :

    The teachers who were chosen (or volunteered?) had to work harder to implement this program. This suggests that at least part of the effect on their test scores could be attributed to the efforts their teachers put in.

  • …This meant that students were allowed to take the devices home and “customize them,” adding their own music, videos, and additional apps. This approach also allowed students to have 24/7 access to the HMH Fuse: Algebra I program.” (p5) :

    So now, are we measuring the effectiveness of the program, or the effectiveness of time spent learning math? Students who spend much more time working on math are obviously going to see an increase in their test scores.

  • As one would expect, those students who were randomly selected to be part of the HMH Fuse study were very excited – as were their parents. In fact, Coleman quickly found that one benefit of the HMH Fuse: Algebra I app was enabling parents to provide more support to their children: “Parents could watch the videos or review problems with their children to help them if they did not understand.”” (p6) :

    Clearly parental involvement makes a difference in a student’s education, and if this app helps parents be more involved, that’s excellent. If this program wasn’t considered so innovative, and new, would parents be as involved? In other words, if we standardized this program, would parents get excited by it?

  • In addition, Mr. Davis found students took the initiative to use HMH Fuse: Algebra I to check their work during class, freeing him up to do more one-on-one work with struggling students in need of individual attention. In this regard, the HMH Fuse app essentially enabled a “flipped classroom” model in which students learned and worked independently at home, and then came to class ready to do problems and practice what they had learned (see Bergmann & Sams, 2011). This “flipped classroom” dynamic gave both Mr. Davis and Mr. Sbur the ability to provide personalized instruction to many students during the normal school day.” (p6) :

    If the HMH Fuse app allows students to work in a more self-directed way, that’s a good thing. If their teachers are changing their pedagogical approaches to suit the affordances of the device, that’s probably a good thing too. So one wonders how much of the learning effect was due to this personalized attention. Did the two teachers in this study also find ways to personalize and give individual attention to their students in their other non-iPad classes?


One thing not at all discussed in this study is what they hope to accomplish by improving mathematics instruction. Test scores are one measure we have for mathematical ability, but they are not the only measure. Did this program give students additional time to work on improving their mathematical reasoning and their problem formulating & solving skills? Hopefully the authors of this paper will submit it for formal review so that any of the issues that I’ve addressed can be peer reviewed.

Apple iPad textbooks

So as expected, Apple announced their new textbooks for the iPad. Looking over the specs and what is possible to create with the iPad, it doesn’t look like they’ve offered a complete set of features for their book, but buried in their authoring features is the ability to embed HTML widgets into pages. There are some things I’d like to see improved about their digital textbook, but most schools will find the fact that they can subscribe to multiple textbook publishing companies through the same system pretty attractive.

Some flaws I spotted:

  • The textbook does not seem to build in the ability to translate or look up definitions of words.
  • No discussion on the adjusting the readability (in terms of word choice and reading level) of the texts.
  • No discussion on interacting with other users of the textbook, either through comments, or even sharing anotations. It might be possible to share annotations, but can you share books? Can you deep link to a portion of a textbook to share a thought with someone else?
  • The interactivity they have included seems somewhat limited to pseudointeractivity. Being able to manipulate an image and move it around is not as big a deal (in terms of effect on student learning) as they seem to be making it out to be. You may be able to build in games and simulations, but you’ll have to build them yourself as HTML 5 widgets. I’d like to see a textbook which includes the ability to graph data, manipulate it, and run simulations within the text itself.
  • The textbooks will be in a proprietary format which can only be created on a Mac. This means that it will be sometime before authoring tools come out for other OS, and then getting your textbook onto the iPad via those authoring tools looks very much like it will have to go through the iTunes store. Good luck trying to get a book that doesn’t meet the somewhat stringent requirements of the iTunes store into the app. I can imagine that courses on human sexuality and gender may find themselves using paper textbooks for some time to come, for example.
  • A typical complaint with traditional mathematics textbooks is that the examples given earlier in the textbook are then replicated in the exercises the students do, and the exercise becomes not about doing mathematics, but about recognizing (and memorizing the solution to) problem types. I don’t see any evidence that this will be fixed with the new textbook, especially given the companies with whom they’ve partnered. Maybe because the technology is improved, the pedagogy will improve? I’m not sure…
  • One of the comments from the video advertising the new iPad textbooks said that students wouldn’t even have to think about what information they’ve bookmarked or annotated in the textbook. Doesn’t this seem somewhat problematic, given that a purpose of education is to get students to think?

I don’t disagree with digital textbooks per say. For schools that can afford this option, they do have a lot of benefits. I just think we should continue to ask ourselves, how can we improve the textbook? It’s been fundamentally the same for so long, and I don’t see a huge benefit in spending extra money for the reading device for a textbook (aside from reduced weight in students’ backpacks) if we can’t also fix some of the pedagogical problems in traditional textbooks.

Update: An important observation for Canadian markets – the Apple digital textbooks are not yet licensed for use in Canada, and the software to manage distribution locally of the textbooks is not yet available here.

Edcamp weekend

I attended Edcamp Delta this past weekend. On the same weekend, Edcamp SD43 occurred in Port Coquitlam. Both Edcamp events had a fair number of people, which is a fairly impressive draw for a Saturday professional learning session that no one is forced to go to.

The sessions were heavily tweeted about. Here is the archive for the Edcamp SD43 hashtag. Here is the archive for the Edcamp Delta hashtag.

Every session felt really useful and/or interesting during the day. I spent the morning talking about technology in the primary grades, and on an educational panel talking about education in British Columbia. In the afternoon, I facilitated a session on "Improving Professional Development" which Brad and I continued during the last session time.

I’m excited to report that Edcamp is flourishing in BC.

5 little monkeys

At Edcamp Delta, Brad shared the following parable with me.

In the parable, researchers supposedly put 5 monkeys together in a cage, and in the cage there were some steps leading to some bananas. Whenever any of the monkeys would start to go up the steps to get a banana however, the hypothetical researchers would spray all of the monkeys in the cage with cold water. Every time any one of the monkeys went to get a banana, the entire group would get sprayed with cold water. After time, the monkeys would self-regulate and would attack any monkey that tried to make a move for the bananas, and the researchers stopped spraying the monkeys with water.

In the next stage of the experiment, they removed one of the original monkeys, and replaced it with a new one. The new monkey, not knowing about the cold water, would eventually decide to make an attempt to get one of the bananas, at which point the other four monkeys would attack the new monkey, preventing it from getting a banana. Over time, the new monkey learned not to make an effort to get a banana, and even though it had not experienced the spraying of cold water, it learned about the aversion to going to get a banana.

Over time, the researchers replaced each of the original monkeys with a new monkey, and each time, the new monkey learned not to attempt to get a banana as the other monkeys would beat it up. In other words, the researchers learned that the monkeys had passed along a cultural adaptation (avoidance of getting bananas) without having the original reason for the adaptation still present.

There was an experiment done with monkeys in the 1960s which is likely from where this parable was derived. Stephenson was able to train monkeys to avoid touching an object with blasts of air, and discovered that these monkeys could transmit this aversion to a ‘naive’ colleague (Stephenson, 1967). So while the parable seems to have never actually been tested, the results from Stephenson’s experiment suggest the parable is believable.

The point of this parable is that we can often repeat patterns as a form of peer pressure without understanding the original reasons for the behaviour. While we have an advantage over monkeys, which is that we can clearly articulate to each successive generation the reasons for a particular action that we take, unfortunately, we often do not share our reasons with the next generation, and only share the rules that we have established.

We see this experimented repeated over and over again in society. For example, suppose that in a subway station a door was locked in the early morning, and another door was unlocked. The first people to arrive at the subway station, not seeing anyone around, will test both doors, and enter through the one that works. Eventually traffiic gets a bit higher, and the door that works is always open because of constant traffic through the door. The other door, which doesn’t work, is assumed to not work since no one seems to be using it. If a custodian came by and unlocked the door, it wouldn’t be used, until someone came and actually went against the grain and tested the other door. We could call this person who tests the other door, even though no one else seems to be using it, an innovator.

Cultural pressure to follow what we’ve always done before, without really understanding the reasons why we follow the actions we do, is quite strong. How many of our structures in schools are done in certain ways even though the restrictions on doing them in other ways no longer exist?



Stephenson, G. R. (1967). Cultural acquisition of a specific learned response among rhesus monkeys. In: Starek, D., Schneider, R., and Kuhn, H. J. (eds.), Progress in Primatology, Stuttgart: Fischer, pp. 279-288.

I could use some help

I’ve been invited to do a keynote on the topic of educational technology for the University of Alberta at their Technology Fair for their student teachers and education faculty on February 13th. See for details on this conference.

I’m working on the keynote, and I could use some feedback. There are aspects of what I’ve written that I’m happy with, and others that I think need improvement. I’m not planning on reading this verbatim, but it will inform how I construct my slides, and speaking notes for the keynote. If anyone can give me some feedback, that would be greatly appreciated.

You can either comment on the keynote directly, or leave me a comment here. Thank you in advance for your assistance.



Are teachers overpaid?

Two authors of a controversial paper from the Heritage Foundation suggest that teachers are overpaid for their efforts. Here is my response.

The US economy dropped by 15.6% in 2009 for a total loss of $2, 342, 400, 000, 000. The people responsible for this disaster to the economy almost all received million dollar bonuses for their efforts.

From this I can deduce that the relationship between compensation for one’s "work" and what one does, or knows how to do, is not as straight forward as the authors of this paper claim.

All compensation is political. We choose to compensate some people differently than others for historical reasons, for political reasons, and obviously for economic reasons, but to ignore the historical and political aspects of compensation is to make a grave error in one’s research.

Thoughts? Do you think teachers are overpaid?



Is my son a writer?

This is a list my son created of things he wanted to make sure he got done for the day.

Writing a list


Does this make my son a writer? Is it more important that he is attempting to use text to get out his thoughts? Or is it more important that I help him correct the mistakes that he has made to make him a ‘better’ writer?

I’m of the opinion, at least at this stage, that we allow our son to make mistakes without being overly concerned about correcting them. Once he learns how to read, he will naturally learn how to spell better, and he will also learn more of the rules about how we write things down. At this stage grammar, and structure are somewhat unimportant, and just being willing to experiment and make an attempt is of critical importance.

What do you think?