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CS and Popular Culture; Learning From Console Games

April 23, 2011

I recently gave a talk at the American Educational Research Association's annual meeting, my first time at that venue in more than 10 years. I spoke for my student, Lijun Ni, about her work studying how U.S. high school teachers come to see themselves as computer science teachers (which is different than other STEM fields since few states have CS teacher certification). In response to one of the observations about these teachers, one of the other speakers, an education post-doc at a top U.S. university, said, "Maybe that's because they're computer science teachers. Computer science, as a discipline, is not interested in research and is only interested in immediate answers." That is what scholars in other disciplines think about computer scientists?

Computer science is working hard to be considered an equal player among the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) disciplines. We try to get computer science into the core curriculum alongside disciplines that are hundreds (in some cases, more than a thousand) years older than our own. We worry about how people outside of our community understand computer science. These are well-founded worries, and I strongly support these efforts. But I think a really deep cultural understanding of who we are will take awhile.

It takes time to permeate popular culture the way that other disciplines have. Sure, people's understanding of disciplines like engineering is not always accurate, but it is a lot closer than ours. Many layperson's definition of "computer scientists" is that we are expert at using applications like Photoshop and Excel (unfortunately, Lijun found that definition even among some of the high school teachers who claim to be teaching "computer science.") I have heard there is an effort to create a television show that features a computer scientist as its hero. Television is incredibly powerful in popular culture, and such a show would only help to explain who we are and what we do. I wonder if we should also be thinking about slower, more pervasive ways of influencing popular culture.

We also need the equivalent of pop culture paperbacks about computer science. When I was a student in high school and an undergraduate in college, many of my classes also required us to read some mass-culture paperback that connected to the class. I remember reading Future Shock for a high school class and Cat's Cradle in an undergraduate engineering class (to lead into a discussion about the unexpected effects of technological advances). My daughter just read The Dragons of Eden for her high school science class.

Many (maybe even most or all?) areas of science have books written for the educated-but-not-specialist reader about topics in that area. These books are not textbooks, and they are not surveys of the whole field. They are a slice, written in approachable though not necessarily simple prose. They can be useful to assign in a class to get students to think about a perspective on the course that might not otherwise come up, and to feed into discussions.

Where are the popular culture paperback books on computer science? There are a few. Danny Hillis' The Patterns on the Stone meets the definition. James Gleick's book The Information may serve that role. Few books like these actually contain code or describe algorithms, the stuff that computer scientists talk and think about. How many of us CS educators actually assign these books in class and then discuss them?

We need books like theseand maybe not just books but also bits of software, simulations, videos, electronic books, and active essays. We need media that are aimed at the educated-but-not-specialist reader with approachable prose (maybe with other modalities), that are not textbooks, that do not aim to cover the whole field, that describe a particular slice or perspective on computer science, and that could be assigned in a CS class for breadth and to spur discussion. We need a lot of media like this, as much as has been written like this about mathematics, biology, chemistry, physics, and other disciplines.

If we want to take our place in popular culture, we have to make the same contributions of ideas to the broad public and provide accessible media. It is the long, slow road into permeating our culture the way that other disciplines do.

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Reader's Comments

I see a serious problem. Computing is both an academic discipline and a profession for millions of people. But the two are not the same. It is not dissimilar to the difference between physics and electrical engineering. Computer science is most often presented in a fashion that parallels the presentation of physics. Typically, the academic discipline of computer science pays but little attention to the concerns of the practicing IT professional.

We confuse our audience if we do not clearly recognize the difference between the academic discipline of computer science and the practice of IT professionals. Until we are clear about the difference, the great unwashed masses can hardly be expected to be clear about what it means to be either a computer scientist or an IT professional.

Bob Fabian

It is a great point, Bob. I think we need to convey both to the general public. Computer science is a fascinating, rigorous academic discipline that is critical to innovation in our world. Being an IT professional has aspects of both engineering and craft. The former is more critical for the K12 core, in my opinion, but both are completely appropriate and useful to share in the "popular paperback" kinds of representations that might be used to reach the wider public.

Mark Guzdial

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Judy Robertson "The Impact of Console Games in the Classroom"
May 19, 2011

Futurelab recently published a report on the impact of console games in Scottish classrooms. It contains case study evidence from 19 schools in which pupils are involved in game-based learning projects, and considers the impact from the point of view of school leaders, teachers, and pupils themselves. I find these types of studies very interesting because they are about the way technology gets incorporated into educational practice in the everyday messy world of schools. Most of the console games used in the classesGuitar Hero, Nintendogs, Endless Oceanwere never intended to be educational, and certainly not in school settings. They have been enthusiastically adopted by teachers who happen to notice their educational potential while playing them at home. Contrast this to the academic development of interactive learning environments that may be carefully designed to solve a specific educational problem but are often sufficiently obscure that they never see the light of day in a classroom. The adoption of common off-the-shelf games in classrooms is characterized by evangelism. Once converted, practitioners tend to get quite overexcited by it all and joyously sing the praises of such projects. This might go some way to explaining Futurelab's bias in choosing to identify the educational benefits of console game-based learning rather than the drawbacks or challenges.

That said, there are some interesting findings in the report that go beyond the excitement about motivating learners. One is that teachers became motivated by the projects because they could see what an impact it had on their classes. Initially some teachers were worried about adopting games in the classroom because they did not see how it would fit with the curriculum, or they were panicked about not being able to use the technology themselves, or they were worried about parents' perceptions of it. However, the experience of seeing their students become enthused about and engaged with their learning convinced many of the teachers that the risks were worth it. From the perspective of keeping teachers invested in their work and extending their professional repertoire, managing a challenging games-based learning project is likely to be beneficial.

A striking aspect of the classroom projects is that the pupils typically spend very little time actually playing a game at schoolperhaps five minutes, three times a week. A lot of the classroom activities are based on a game but do not directly involve playing it, e.g., balancing a budget for your rock band's forthcoming tour or writing about how to best look after your Nintendog pet. It seems like a small amount of game playing translates to a lot of motivational "buzz."

Critics of game-based learning in school sometimes argue that playing games in school tarnishes children's enjoyment of games at home, that it takes the fun out of it. The children interviewed in these case studies commented that they liked to receive support and advice from their classmates about solving puzzles in the games, and they liked the increased competition. They also liked being challenged in school. Some children noticed the titles they played at home were not as good for learning as those at schoolperhaps the project taught them to expect more from games?

I will end with one of my favorite quotes from an interview with an eight-year-old who took part in a project based on Cooking Mama. "I burnt a cake at home and I learned that it's just lifeyou have to cope with it not going right... and the topic helped us with that and keeps us from getting bad tempers." Coping gracefully with failure seems like a great skill to learn at school whether learned through real or virtual baked goods.

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Mark Guzdial is a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Judy Robertson is a lecturer at Heriot-Watt University.

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