Friday, June 11, 2010

Takeaways from GECS

I'm just getting caught up from attending GECS last week and meeting a bunch of other really awesome people. The focus of this workshop was using games to teach STEM courses; usually the crowd I hang around with is game developers who get into teaching, but here I saw more educators who were taking steps into games, so it was a bit of a different perspective. Here are the lessons I learned:

There is interest in games beyond "game development" schools and departments. Some traditional educators see games as a means to an end, a way to make their content more accessible. From their perspective, they couldn't care less whether it's games, or inquiry-based learning, or circus clowns, as long as it gets their critical course content to stick in their students' brains. This is certainly not always the case -- there are plenty of professors who delve into games because they are gamers -- but there are others who are unfamiliar with games but are still trying to use them because they want to be effective teachers. The game industry (especially those of us who teach) need to reach out more to other departments, rather than staying in our own comfort zones.

Games are not the only way to teach. While some "serious games" people like to tout games as some kind of panacea that makes all learning activities more fun and engaging, the best examples of so-called "games" that I saw were not taking advantage of the interactivity so much as non-game elements that are engaging. One example, by engineering professor Brianno Coller, illustrates this. He opens a course in Control Systems by presenting this racing-car game, where the car is controlled by some very simple source code. It starts out not doing anything; he tells it to move forward, and the car drives straight into the first wall. He then tries to get it to take a corner, by steering towards the center of the road (with the tightness of the turning proportional to how off-center the car is -- if you're at the side of the road, you swerve wildly, while a slight displacement only requires a slight correction). This seems intuitively like it would work... but when you run it in the simulation, something strange happens. The car takes the first turn, but then starts veering wildly out of control, vastly overcorrecting for its position, until it eventually gets so far out of line with the road that it crashes into a side. This leads into a discussion and exploration of why that happened, how to correct it through a phase shift, and all of the calculus and other heavy math that you need to derive it. He has found that this method of teaching is far superior to simply diving into the equations with no context.

Is Brianno's course superior because it uses games to teach? I don't think so. Instead, what he's doing is opening his lecture with a real-world mystery, something the students can see that is interesting and counterintuitive, and then he goes through the course material to solve it. Once he's got that "hook" the students are much more interested in learning the material, because it's not just a bunch of random facts and equations anymore... the learning has a purpose. And while that mystery may be presented within a game world, I don't think it's the game that gets student interest as much as the mystery itself.

A storm is coming, and it is going to suck. One concern I'm seeing from a number of people is that game industry growth is not keeping pace with the number of graduating students from game-related programs, and yet the number of academic programs is still increasing. As a result, I think the industry is going to get more and more competitive over time, and things are going to be pretty rough for students for awhile (until we find some kind of equilibrium). Corollary: it's likely that we will see more industry "abuse" of fresh students, in terms of expecting long hours and lower pay, since there is more labor supply than demand. Reputable schools should warn their current and prospective students about this trend. (Don't worry about dropping your enrollment numbers; in practice, you're not going to be able to talk most students out of choosing a game development major, anyway.)

Another storm is coming, and it is also going to suck. One by-product of the many industry layoffs this last year, is that a lot of ex-developers are considering teaching as a career, which is a great thing. However, to save costs, a lot of schools have been taking advantage of this by hiring more adjuncts and reducing their full-time staff. This is exceedingly dangerous on the part of the schools that do this, and here's why: the game industry is cyclical in nature. When the next upswing hits and the industry goes on a hiring binge again, schools can expect at least half of their adjuncts to leave. If a department that used to be 50/50 between full-timers and adjuncts goes down to 20/80, and then half of the adjuncts leave, the result would be devastating.

We think there are more academic standards than there actually are. How many schools has the average faculty taught at? I don't know, but the answer seems to be pretty low. And yet, a lot of people I talked to just assumed that their experience would extrapolate to every school in the country. One example is the assumption that adjuncts always get paid less than full-time faculty; I've run into some schools that pay them about the same per course (it's the same course, after all), and other schools that actually pay adjuncts more, on the theory that (a) they need to partly make up in cash what they don't pay in full-timer benefits, and (b) a lot of adjuncts have day jobs, so teaching is effectively "overtime" work for them, and they need the extra pay as incentive to put in the extra hours. Another assumption is that full-time faculty always teach a certain number of courses each term; I've seen requirements of anywhere from 5 courses per term down to one course per year, depending on the school, the department, and how much research the faculty is doing outside of their classes. Another assumption: everyone complains about how hard it is to work across departments because they are "silos" and yet I've seen some rare schools where inter-departmental collaboration is the norm. It seems to me that each school is different, and there are few if any standard practices that really apply everywhere. I was just a bit surprised at how many career faculty seemed unaware of this.


Lewis Pulsipher said...

Ian, when a full-time faculty member teaches an extra course, his or her pay is about the same as an adjunct's for that course. But if you divided the normal course load of a full-time by their pay, and compare it to a part-timer's, the difference is huge. (Example, full time $50K, teaches even five courses times two semesters, $5K per course. If four per semester (or fewer) and it goes up. And of course, full time often are paid more than $50K.) This is why schools are going to adjuncts and away from full-time, $$$$$$.

Lewis Pulsipher said...

The underlying foundation of the (serious) games for education movement, if we can judge from GECS, is to provide students with real-world application of what they're expected to learn: games as simulation, as Brianno Coller's. The problem is to find something that engages a student's interest, and students nowadays tend to react better when they see the real-world application of their activity.

Several people at GECS were concerned that students would "game" a game, learning how to win/succeed without learning whatever it was the game was supposed to teach. The "solution" to that would appear to be simulations, interactive puzzles rather than games, where winning the game and learning the lesson are very closely aligned. Coller's "game", while a brilliant application, was actually an interactive puzzle, with a contest tacked onto it (as you can tack a contest onto anything that takes time) so that the students who solved the puzzle best would get the best grades.

Ian Schreiber said...

Adjuncts - again, this may be true for many schools but not all. Like I said, I have run into some schools that pay adjuncts more than full-timers (when you adjust both to a per-class / per-time basis) for the same reason that independent contractors make more per hour than salaried employees at a lot of companies.

Serious games - I think we're on the same page here. As you say, the problem is finding something that engages a student's interest. My point is that games do not always do this, and non-game activities sometimes do. In Coller's example, it's the mystery rather than the game that gets the interest.