Viewing posts tagged Minneapolis

Bob Dylan and the genius of context

When I woke up this morning, I was delighted to learn Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for “having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” For those of us in Minnesota, still mourning the loss of Prince, this was a welcomed surprise that feels healing, both culturally and spiritually.

I’ve been watching the University of Minnesota’s twitter feed closely. Dylan went to the University of Minnesota when his career was forming, and the University always lets us know immediately anytime anybody connected with the institution wins a Nobel Prize. If they had their way, they’d have us believe that the sun would not rise without them!

But not this time. It took them until just before 11am to make the announcement. And, it was distant, if not cautious:

Why such an innocuous statement this time? Well, history records that Dylan dropped out after just a few semesters; he was successful without the University.

Don’t get me wrong: I love the University of Minnesota – or, the “U” as we affectionately call it. I got my Ph.D. there, and started off my academic career at the Twin Cities campus. But I think there is a crucial lesson to be learned:

Genius is not created by the institution; genius is fostered by the context in which the institution interfaces with the community.

Dylan’s career started not at the University, but across the street in the Dinkytown district of Minneapolis. Dinkytown was eclectic: a zone for free thought, open expression, independent businesses, and a food and bar scene that catered to students, faculty, and staff. The University attracted people in, but it was the music scene of the adjoining neighborhood that helped to propel him and get a start in his career.

After a year at the “U,” he moved to Greenwich Village in New York, and the rest is history.

And the University remains. It’s churned out a few Nobel laureates along the way, but I fear that we will see fewer creatives, like Dylan, emerge. The reason is simple: the context is being destroyed.

The University of Minnesota, like nearly every other institution, has learned that higher education is a big business. This extends not just to research and teaching, but also to the University’s presence in the community. It comes as no surprise that the “U” has been a major player in the redevelopment of Dinkytown. Small, older buildings that once housed its creative scene are being replaced with monotonous, monolithic apartment buildings, chain stores, and generic fast food options. Freewheeling politics, art, and other cultural expressions are being replaced by unimaginative configurations of concrete, steel, and glass.

The context for fostering genius is vanishing. I’m sure many more Nobel laureates connected with our beloved “U” will be announced in the coming years, but there will be no other Bob Dylan emerging from the University without an interface for creativity.

A conversation and workshop with the KaosPilots and Knowmads

For those of us in the Minneapolis area, I’m pleased to share news that the KaosPilots and Knowmads will visit with the University of Minnesota for a free event on redesigning university education.

Here’s the official announcement:

Following on the activities of the College of Design’s Design Intersections symposium (, the University of Minnesota community is invited to join in a FREE follow-up workshop, co-sponsored by the Department of Organizational Leadership, Policy, and Development and the Jandris Center for Innovation in Higher Education:

Rethinking Teaching and Learning at the University of Minnesota: A Conversation and Workshop with The KaosPilots and Knowmads.


Friday, March 30
9 am – noon, lunch follows
Shepherd Room, Weisman Art Museum

Registration will be limited to 50.

Join us for a FREE co-creation event at the University of Minnesota featuring global creatives from the KaosPilots (Aarhus, Denmark) and Knowmads (Amsterdam, The Netherlands) —innovative schools focused on applied creative and design thinking, business, and social entrepreneurship.
We will discuss the future of education and what it means for the University.

  • How can we rethink how we learn, share, and apply what we know in this time of accelerating technological and social change?
  • How we can apply design thinking principles to transform how we teach, learn, live and work in Minnesota?
  • How can students and faculty at the University of Minnesota be engaged in democratic, participatory ways in co-creating new approaches to teaching and learning?
We welcome the University community and others interested in education for building a creative and innovative Minnesota.

Event co-sponsors:  College of Design; Department of Organizational Leadership, Policy, and Development; Jandris Center for Innovative Higher Education; Humphrey School of Public Affairs; Carlson School of Management; and the Weisman Art Museum

For more information, visit or contact Virajita Singh ( or John Moravec (

Games in the Classroom Part 4

Games as Expert Systems

It seems like common sense to assume that the best way to learn something is to work one-on-one with an expert. Unfortunately, many of these experts are busy using their expertise in important projects at the Louvre, saving lives, winning Nobel prizes, and putting out fires—and sometimes a great expert is not a great teacher!

Teachers have many specialties and interests, but are often not experienced with having been a physicist, psychiatrist, police officer, or an engineer. But they do have expertise in the developmental issues of children; they know how to build relationships, can motivate and engage, and know how to structure learning environments. These are key attributes if you are going to create a learning outcome with a stranger– unless you are paying them!

Many teachers believe that if they were able to work with just a few kids over a long period of time, they could create significant growth. Just imagine working with 32 students over a 55 minute period – how much time would you have with each student if they started and ended when the bell rang?

So what would happen if you to design a computer game based upon teachers’ knowledge of pedagogy and childhood development, with a designers ability to portray and depict complex ideas, a computer programmers ability to design a system, an assessment experts ability to create measure outcomes and performance, and that subject matter experts knowledge?

Perhaps you would have a game. . . A game that could work as an expert system to teach.

Here is one about the brain called Neuromatrix! A secret agent fixing brains. Sounds cool.

How about nano-technology?

Business Week just published a story related to their special report on gaming on theNanoScale game, which helps players visualize and understand thespatial relationships between objects at all scales, starting with a tiny blue hydrogen atom, shown here next to a buckyball (the name of amolecule of carbon atoms arranged in a pattern of hexagons andpentagons) and a colorful strand of DNA.

This is not the first serious game. Serious games and games in general, according to David Perry at Business Week:

Now games are a legitimate academic subject, with many university courses around the world offering degrees in video game design and development. And many game designers and researchers are seeing how games influence cognitive and other skills. This summer, the MacArthur Foundation board announced it will give a $1.1 million grant to fund the Institute of Play, a new middle/high school in New York City focused on making video games. Why? The foundation has found that games are an effective tool to teach information management and other critical skills.

So are we going to begin to make this happen in our own schools and universities? It seems odd that we would ignore this trend. Training and retaining people is the one of the most expensive things we do. In addition, when we lose young people in schools, it costs us more. So what can we do to retain our students?

It is my contention that many young people have checked out. Do they know what skills they will need for the work place? Maybe they see through our worksheets and have found us to be irrelevant, or are they tired of the point-and-talk teaching model that informs the work they do in their tidy rows of desks?

One of the current issues that may need to be addressed is how we bring in the new skills and interests to an older generation who do not know what a Super Monkey Ball is, or even Madden 2008.

In respect of this, I have begun to create a wiki resource for educators who would like to explore video games as a classroom topic. This wiki has been co-created by teachers who took the class “video games as learning tools”, taught at the University of Minnesota.

In this class, we are exploring games for use in the classroom. If you are interested in looking at the syllabus and the activities, as well as finding resources and student reflections on the readings, please go to

This wiki was created to be a resource for teachers to have structure in the course, but to also co-create the course. Included are the lesson/unit plans I used to create a 6 week unit for middle school and high school students at the Minneapolis Public Schools. The role of the wiki was to create a communal platform where students in the class could have choice in creating content, process, and outcomes in the course. They were course designers too. This co-creation is a powerful method for teaching, and wikis can support it.

The class itself was not a glorification of video games. It was a practical look at how games can be integrated into the classroom as tools as well and models for designing instruction. Since games are representations of ideas, worlds, concepts, and life, we can have them stand as metaphor to embody any process experientially.

Playing games may not be as rich an experience as taking the kids to the Grand Canyon, but, a game about the Grand Canyon can give you the chance to walk around a well-modeled representation, and maybe even give opportunities being there couldn’t. How about the possibility of flying above the canyon, and then landing and kayaking the Colorado River? All of this could be done with games and interactive story telling technology. You could definitely see it all faster in a game.

Also, games can supply us with efficacious design elements. How about this game I designed for developing performance reading? You become part of a music act and create your own image and work through Garage Band. Students take on the role of: the talent, the producer, the publicist, the manager, the designer and create their complete band package—including a MySpace page for networking and sharing your work. This game is simple role playing and use of readily available technology.

Many artists are being discovered through social networking tools. Why not have your students do it at their computer? Here is the slideshow that I presented at

Games structure interaction, they demand mastery, the performance is the assessment, and if they are well-designed, they are fun. Your lesson plans can be this way too. Why not offer work that is really fun and inspires play? It will change your teaching experience.

So this game is in the tradition of Guitar Hero & Karaoke. I call it found objects, because all the elements necessary come in many of the computers we currently purchase in schools. In this case, our school had imacs. Often as teachers, we do not have the resources to purchase some of the great games available, but we can use our eyes, ears, and creativity to use the design elements that some of the great games are built upon to build units that might be more fun, playful, and rewarding while building important competencies. I am hoping that teachers think about this and design units that allow them to participate rather than broadcast

The student basically designs a band franchise– producing an album using off the shelf Imacs and the iLife bundle of software. I looked around and Karaoke software can be just as effective if not more interesting for the fact that the lyrics can be created with it for performance and the creation of that lyric sheet represents an opportunity to think about how they might structure and format a song. We listen to a song to get the lyrics and discuss the qualities. These qualities are used to create a framework for voice and flow.

We have other mini-games in the unit like clapping academy, where we evaluate clapping and make a rubric. This act of co-creation instills buy-in and understanding by the students and is then extended when we co-create the rubrics for the songs and image elements.

The kids look for and create lyrics from poetry, prose, want ads– whatever—and read into garage band.

They record their chosen text, and then they comment on their performance reading. We use a fluency scale designed for continuous improvement that we co-create. It is meant as a model to create descriptions for different reading situations and what mastery may look, feel, and sound like with reading.

After they have talked about their track, they put music behind it, then reflecting upon why they mixed it the way they did.

This unit is intended to teach performance reading – beyond fluency, provide high interest activity, and integrate reflection on reading and emphasize comprehension through a discourse processing model and explore aspects like voice and other literary elements. The intention was to show that games that come prepackaged are great, but that teachers can design games that are effective and use existing technologies and software already available to teach traditional subjects that are relevant to current cultural values and interests.

Yes, it improved reading performance.

Taking a short intermission

We’re taking a short intermission from education futures blogging due to the craziness of the past week in Minneapolis. Thankfully none of us or any of our friends or loved ones were involved in the I-35W bridge collapse. Harkins and I were teaching in the UMN-FLACSO joint seminar at the time, only a few blocks away. One of our students posted her recollections on the course blog.

My office is only a few blocks from the disaster site. I uploaded a few of my photos onto SlideShare:

Tom Elko posted additional photos at the Sky Blue Waters Report.

Slides from World Future Society presentation: Youth futures

Youth Futures: Projecting the Roles of Disruptive Technologies, Anticipatory Knowledge, and Continuous Innovation

Summary: This session highlights the Global Youth Policy and Leadership Program at the University of Minnesota where faculty and students of all ages (kindergarten through graduate school) crafted scenarios, composed alternative futures, and explored other various futures methodologies. In this session, particular emphasis will be placed on the construction of future histories that can be used as alternative visions and maps to help youth of different backgrounds and experiences visualize and discuss the future. This session is conducted ‘salon style’ with audience development of the ensuing future-histories. Session feedback will be provided via Education Futures to all audience participants shortly following the conference.

Games in the Classroom (part three)

Twenty years ago, playing games over a distance might have meant that you played turn-taking games like chess over email, and you were cutting edge. I remember people playing chess through snail mail! You would make your move and wait for a reply.

What is happening now is taking place in real-time in virtual environments that are interactive and look better than many films. Decisions, actions, and communications happen like they would in a face-to-face conversation, but they are done through a proxy, that is first and second-person perspectives with an avatar: a graphical representation of yourself in the game space.


Here is my avatar in Second Life.

He is a mix of Yoda, Pei Mei, Zatoichi, Master Po, and Real Ultimate Power. I would have liked to have made him old, but this is only possible if you learn to use some tools outside of the game to create more specialized characters. There are many who do this custom avatar creation, and the cool thing is that you could make your avatar something other than a person. Maybe a virus or a mailbox.

In fact, many people are already creating a comfortable living creating products for in game use. If you have not seen it yet, there are already success stories of people capitalizing on the new economies that virtual worlds have created.


In this Business Week article, one school teacher in Germany has made substantial gains flipping virtual property!

Imagine that you have the tools and access to build in these environments. In Second Life you do. You can visit models of the Sistine Chapel, Yankee Stadium, or even visit government agencies like the Center for Disease Control. You can build what you like on your virtual land.

What make this kind of play appealing is the ability to play and communicate when you want, and the possibility of meeting people from all over the planet. The prospect of building models and interacting in this environments should be very appealing to educators. This is an extension of the diorama. (Tomorrow I will talk about a project using these ideas in the classroom).

Read More

Video Games in the Classroom (part two)

To do is to be

To be is to do

So Do We?

It is just good teaching

Games taught me that modeling environments and taking on the roles are powerful ways to teach and learn.

Piaget talked about roles as assimilation. You try on the role and see what part of the character is you.

Gibson talked about environment and context, with affordances and constraints. What the world gives you for advice, warning, limitation, and opportunity.

These ideas are present in embodiment and how we might contextualize our curriculum as an activity system.

One of the big lessons from games is design. Good learning is by design. A teacher, like a game designer creates the environment where we learn.

Read More

Video Games in the Classroom

Video Games in the Classroom?

I am a gamer. I am also a teacher for the Minneapolis Public Schools, and have been working with students on issues of Language Arts, Reading, and Video Games. I also offer a class called “Video games as learning tools.” This course is for teachers and people who are interested in games and education.

You are probably asking yourself, “Do these things go together?”

Isn’t that like drinking paint thinner to become a physicist?

There is a general buzz that video games are causes for illiteracy and bad behavior. And I am hoping that I can shed some light on this, because the idea that games are the root of our problems couldn’t be further from my experience teaching reading and writing. In fact, using video games is what helped me to engage and extend the learning of my students in middle school and high school, and to connect my classroom with my students’ lives outside of the classroom.

I am sure you can imagine what happened when I told the kids we would be doing a six-week unit on video games. They flipped. You probably would have too.

But wait. Step back a moment. Would you have?

These are not the games your father bought you.

Are you my age? Have you have ever used a type writer for writing a paper?

If so, we missed the whole video games experience together. I am not talking about Pong®, PacMan®, Frogger®, Asteroids®, or Space Invaders®. I am not talking about your old Atari. Kids are playing new worlds of games that we could have only imagined from reading science fiction. It is more like playing in a rich movie environment that reacts, responds, and waits for you to talk, build, and act. And many kids today have this capability with game systems and computers at home. Many young people play Halo and other games on Xbox Live in their living rooms; they play and learn with kids from all over. This kind of mediated play over a distance has not been seen before.

We have tried to mediate in the classroom, using tools like radio, filmstrips, pictures, television, books on tape, conversation, print, and video. We use media to bring the experience of places and things into the classroom so that our students can get closer and have a more tangible experience. In the best of worlds, we would take them on field trips to see the ancient cave paintings in Lascaux, to view the aftermath of Mount Vesuvius, and to experience the richness of the Amazon Basin—to see and feel the things that are the basis of our science and stories –to embody the learning experience.

But since money, travel, and signed release forms are significant barriers to direct learning experience, we might consider games. Games can provide much more interactivity and experience with objects, places, people, and ideas by providing process, performance, and context.

They can help us with Time, Space, and Experience, which are still considerable barriers for the classroom; with game environments we can begin bridging the gap with the potential embodiment that current game technology provides our narratives. Imagine that you can have students interact in visually rich and interactive environments where they can communicate with voice and text, as well as non-verbal communication with avatar actions and facial expression! I know it is hard, but just try to visualize it. It is possible now.

I hope you keep reading. The next few entries are going to explore how they can be used, how I have used them, and what outcomes I have observed.

For more information on games in the classroom, you can contact me:


Phone: 612.747.0346


Here is a start for what I am building on my website

How Minneapolis can reinvent itself and thrive

I’ve been participating on the Minneapolis Public Schools Technology Planning Steering Committee. The committee has adopted the Leapfrog Paradigm and leapfrog thinking into its planning. Leaping frogs are showing up in presentations, and leapfrog is becoming a metaphor for creativity in the district. The committee’s work has, however, thus far focused on discussion on the use of technologies to promote its vision to advance student achievement and improve staff productivity. I think MPS can still do better. Leapfrogging can allow the district to lead in achievement, productivity, and meaningful knowledge production.

Here are five quick thoughts on what I believe MPS can do to reinvent itself and thrive as an institution:

  1. Commit to leadership in the reinvention of education in Minneapolis, the state, and in the world. The technology planning group can be the catalyst for this new orientation toward global leadership.
  2. Total success is possible. Do not set any goal too low, and do not be afraid to set any goal too high. Set big, hairy, audacious goals –but, make sure to align them with a Noble Quest in a broader leapfrog strategy.
  3. Don’t worry about breaking the rules. Bypass them. Better yet, leapfrog them! The disruptive change required to revolutionize MPS requires a new set of rules on a new playing field.
  4. Collaborate! Advances in communications technologies and socioeconomic globalization now means that MPS competes with the world in creating meaningful education. Rather than compete, why not leverage technologies and resources available to build global-reaching partnerships and collaborations?
  5. Forget about planning for the 21st Century. It’s meaningless to continue to plan for educating in the 21st Century. We’re already here. We need to start planning for the 22nd Century –and reassess our goals and priorities today based on where we need to be in the future.

That’s my two cents. I hope that these ideas will help to build a new MPS that is vibrant, edgy, hard-charging, and value-creating for Minneapolis, the state and the world.