Sunday, May 01, 2011

A curriculum in computer programming, reviewed

You may remember the class exercise for CMS.863J (Computer Games and Simulations for Investigation and Education, taught by Eric Klopfer and Jason Haas) in which our student team created a curriculum for teaching basic computer science concepts and programming skills in World of Warcraft. In late April, an NYU class completed their review of the curriculum and let us know where it was strong, and where it was lacking. Here’s what they had to say:

So our class just finished reviewing several of your curricula to be used within the World of Warcraft environment. We like your concept of teaching computer programming through a process similar to learning gameplay. Your rationale is definitely solid.

You also chose and defined very specific learning objectives. From the perspective of a fellow programmer, these are basic concepts in computer programming that computer science learners would need to know.

Several times in your curriculum, you do a nice job at incorporating built-in functions into the lesson plan, which in turn facilitates better gameplay for the student. This could be a major draw for already experienced WoW players who are looking for ways to improve. What about someone who has less experience/interest in the game?

This brings up a possible limitation with your curriculum: whom do you expect to take your class? You mentioned that young people in general are interested in video games, but it is a specific player that is interested in WoW. Although a learning environment like the one you designed has obvious appeal to those already interested in WoW, those who are not interested in this game might have no motivation to improve their gameplay and therefore learn built-in functions or other commands. It would help if you were more specific when identifying your learner. Then once your learner is defined, do they have the necessary motivation or prior knowledge to complete this curriculum? If not, what kinds of support can you provide to make this learning task intrinsically motivating?

Now from the perspective of an educator, although you have clearly outlined specific learning tasks, your plan on implementing these tasks into a formal learning environment is rather vague. As of now, instructions for your teacher include “ask the students to do…” which is left as is for a lesson plan is not very dynamic. Perhaps you could incorporate actual quests/goals of the game to the lesson objectives. For example, it’s great that you teach certain programming objectives that indirectly teach the player certain built-in functions (e.g. item info, total worth of items in your bag, etc). Wouldn’t it be more motivating if you chose a quest in which knowing what you have in your bag or the price of copper, etc. and being able to pull that information up quickly serves as an obvious advantage in gameplay.

One suggestion is playing on the social aspect of the WoW. It’s unfortunate that the printed scripts only are visible to the individual player. Wouldn’t it be cool if a script your published resulted in actual interchange between players? Or just have another player react to your printed commands? Obviously you are most likely limited by the API or programming language in what a learner can actually change in the WoW environment, but what we want to emphasize is more exercises that result in direct feedback from the printed commands.

After seeing these comments, I totally agree that we missed an opportunity to create a dynamic learning experience with better instructions for teachers and in-world exercises for students. However, regarding the comment about learners who may not have interest in the game, I felt that the boundaries of the assignment were limiting. We were told to create a curriculum around concepts that had to be taught in a classroom environment, using WoW specifically. The fact that some students may have no interest in playing wasn’t something that we had much flexibility to work around, any more than a high school science teacher has flexibility to work around the requirements of using test tubes and Bunsen burners to teach bored students the fundamentals of chemistry. Ideally, a teacher will be able to use the required tools in a way that generates interest and good learning outcomes.

In summary, I think a game like WoW is better than traditional textbooks for engaging students. Besides the fact that almost all college-aged students are familiar with video games, the ability of WoW to allow social interaction, team activities, rewards for better play, and an environment for experimentation makes it a tool that is well-suited for teaching computer programming and other topics. I agree, however, that the curriculum we designed needs better exercises to engage unmotivated students and make the overall learning outcomes better for students and teachers alike.

More blog posts about my MIT experience:

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