Learning and MicroWorlds:

An Insider's Case Study on Designing Games Using Constructivist Educational Technology

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Jim Kenney
Xing King

This case study describes how students in Pepperdine's Online Masters in Educational Technology (OMET) program constructed their knowledge by developing video games with MicroWorlds software, and how this activity could be used by teachers, parents, or other adults to scaffold children's learning.

Background

In the fall of 2004, the OMET students at Pepperdine University took a course, EDC 664 Learning and Technology. One of the theorists that they learned about was Papert. Papert's constructionist learning theory holds that people ¡°learn best when they are in the active roles of designer and constructor.¡± With computer, somebody whose interest is in graphic arts can use mathematics as an instrument to produce shapes and forms and motions on a computer screen. Somebody who is interested in music can make digital musical instruments, and so there are infinitely greater ways of connecting the particular interests that an individual human being might have - and a kid particularly - with the powerful ideas. Therefore they really can learn knowledge by doing it and using it.

In order for OMET students to see how the learning theories work in a real learning environment and gain the insight of how people construct their own knowledge with computer, the instructor introduced Finale Notepad, Celestia, and MicroWorlds computer programming software to the students, and provided them with the opportunities of hands-on learning experiences. One of the projects with MicroWorlds was to design a video game, Snacman. The following study will focus on this project and show how the project affected the OMET students' learning.

What Happened

Sixteen OMET students participated in the learning activity (officially called a learning adventure) where they were asked to design and program a Snacman video game (the game would have a similar look and function to the popular PacMan game).

The activity was announced by the professor during one of the course's live synchronous chat sessions. For this activity, each student developed a Snacman game using the MicroWorlds educational software. Although it was an individual activity, students helped each other by communicating through a threaded discussion. It was a completely new activity, but the students already had some experience using MicroWorld from a previous assignment. The instructor informed the students that a PDF document with instructions for programming the game was available (this was a PDF file included as part of the original software package).

Other than announcing the assignment during the chat session, there was no other formal communication regarding the assignment (although students were free to ask for clarification via the threaded discussion). There was also no due date communicated.

The completed games varied in both the complexity of design and in the types of features. Some students stayed within the structure provided by following the PDF instructions, while others experimented with the programming and were able to add functions. There were a variety of challenges that arose throughout the activity. Most of these were solved via the discussion thread, with support coming mostly from others in the group, with occasional support also coming from the instructor.

Although many students completed the assignment independently, some students let their children work with them on the project. This helped them understand how children construct their knowledge and learn by doing by using MicroWorlds. One student who worked with her 10-year-old child described her experience. ¡°My son started the project by designing and making maze, ghosts, and other graphic work. Since MicroWorlds provided visual programming, he learned the coding by trying each simple step of the turtles. Even when he made mistakes, he could correct the mistakes easily for he could see and understood what the turtles were doing. My son enjoyed the simple programming. However, when complicated problems occurred, and it required him to dig through the meanings of the syntaxes, and use some debugging techniques to solve the problems, he refused to do so as he did not know how.¡±

The student later realized: ¡°What we should have done was to break the complicated problems into small and simple tasks, and solve them one at a time. In this way, he could construct his knowledge by connecting his prior experience and knowledge with the new learning.¡±

Another student let his 13 year old son help develop his game. His son took over much of the development with tremendous interest, and learned to both program and problem solve. His son even provided advice to one of the other OMET students, further demonstrating confidence and interest. The student noted how his son had shown little interest in the previous OMET learning activities. It was the idea of developing his own video game that captured his interest.

In the end, the OMET students posted on the discussion thread their completed games. Because the games were posted, both the instructor and students were able to play each other's games, and provide recognition and feedback.

Outcome/Benefits

We have found that this course affected the OMET students' thinking greatly. Some students have applied what they learned from this course to their practice. They have successfully facilitated their students' learning using technologies.

Here are some other benefits of this activity:

Issues/pitfalls

There were several issues that surfaced:

February 2005