Interview with Dr. Curiosity – Digital Education, Technology, and Video Games

This interview has been in the works for a few weeks now, but here it is, at last. Dr. Curiosity.

1. Can you give us an ‘elevator pitch’ of who you are and what you do?

Most of the time I’m an open source software developer here in New Zealand. I also recently completed a PhD in Computer Science – I was looking at how we can capture data from 3D virtual worlds so that they can support teaching and learning activities more effectively. In my “spare” time I’m also a moderator on a number of social media platforms – a few Facebook groups and Discord servers in either transhumanist or general STEM topics. In the past, I’ve also helped to teach courses on game design and narrative, and done a bit of writing for games.

2. What is the background / what inspired to you to study and specialize in this field?

I was one of perhaps the first generation of “digital natives”. Computers are something that I grew up around, in a time when home microcomputers were relatively uncommon. I learned how to type before I learned how to write with a pencil, and my first word was “RUN”. While we did have a lot of things on tape (and later on disk), it was still the era where some programs had to be typed in by hand. As such, I’ve always seen computers as something that you can create with, rather than just consuming their output.

My interest in education probably stems from growing up around teachers – I have several generations of them going back on my mother’s side. My mother taught in a number of high schools around Christchurch: mostly English, but large stints of long-term relief work in a variety of other subjects as well. A lot of dinner table discussion at home involved the challenges and breakthroughs of teaching, both with individual classes and with the systems and institutions of schooling. Teaching across a broad range of social classes and cultures quickly disabuses you of the notion of a “one size fits all” approach to education, and that encouraged me to think of ways that I could support teaching as a technologist. I don’t have the temperament to teaching full time, and I have immense respect for those who do.

As to 3D virtual worlds, I voraciously consumed sci-fi as a kid, across various media. Having seeing films like ‘Tron’ and ‘Blade Runner,’ I got into the works of William Gibson and Neal Stephenson in the early ’90s. I played a lot of interactive fiction games in my youth, and at university I was introduced to MUDs – the text-based precursors of today’s online MMOs. Around the same time, I was also getting involved with tabletop roleplaying games like ‘Shadowrun’ and ‘Cyberpunk 2020.’ I discovered I liked building stories and worlds for others to enjoy.

To prelude the next question, how important and formative do you think video games can be for people?

They certainly have potential to be formative, even transformative, in a variety of ways. Most storytelling mediums do. Games and other interactive experiences – when they’re done well – can be very engaging and compelling indeed, in ways that passive consumption would find hard to match.

On the other hand, a game experience relies on the player or players to move things forward. As a designer, a large amount of your art is anticipatory – trying to predict the various ways in which players will respond to the environments, characters and situations they are given. Everyone brings their own personal context with them, though. So even playing the same game, we can get the full range from banal to profound.

3. In what ways do you think technology has influenced and continues to influence education as compared to traditional classroom and lecture theater teaching?

That’s a good question. Taking a long view, I think that it’s worth viewing traditional “chalk and talk” teaching style as a teaching technology in its own right – it’s just one that been around and maturing for a couple of thousand years. That said, education and its approaches are often influenced by the times in which we live, and adapt to reflect them.

I feel it’s no coincidence that some of the more rigidly systematic approaches to teaching developed alongside real-world production lines in the industrial era, that the information age gave rise to more metric-driven approaches and standardisation of assessments, and that now we’re increasingly looking to technology-mediated personalisation of learning and teaching support systems.

Part of that is in the presentation of learning activities. Over my lifetime we started with a “watch me, now do” approach of talking with worked blackboard (or whiteboard) examples, to incorporating passive video and audio, to now including interactive experiences in the way we deliver content and ask learners to engage with it.

The other part is in how we assess that learning has taken place. The essay or short form test still has its place in assessing our understanding, but even in the most academic of topics we’re more likely now to be building or producing something in order to demonstrate our knowledge of a concept, or mastery of a skill. In the future, I think we’re going to see more situations where the interactive experiences themselves have more “awareness” of what the learners are coming into the experience with, and adapting to suit their needs with timely feedback and dynamic adjustment of challenge levels to keep them well engaged.

The role of the teacher here moves from direct content delivery through to – as much as I hate the buzzword – facilitating the learning. They’ll be getting feedback from both the learner and the learner’s environment about the what progress is being made, which misconceptions might be persisting based on their problem-solving styles, and so forth. This can also feed back into the instructional design process, so that activities can be better tuned for particular students, their interests and behaviours.

Thinking about this in the context of immersive 3D virtual worlds, this process leans heavily on the work of game designers and developers, as well as other areas with event-driven data such as web development. They are the ones who have the most mature tools and approaches in this area, for all that they’ve usually been tuned for things other than effective education. Future developments in this area, I think, will focus on making better tools to allow teachers and instructional designers to work together more easily in this area.

4. What systems and technologies can we expect to see hit education in the coming years, or even decades? Do you have anything to add to this?

I think that things like virtual and augmented reality will have a place, but that at this point they probably still need another hype cycle or two before they get to the point where they’re mature enough for regular use. With VR headsets as commodity products and AR that works on mobile phones, things have definitely improved from the technology we were working with in the lab in the mid-2000s, but most head-mounted displays are still unwieldy and cumbersome for long-term everyday use. And costly: at the moment, there are significant equity issues for many schools and students around even getting hold of the hardware.

Still, it’s a good place for tech pioneers and explorers, with ample new ground to break. If things continue as they have, they’ll only get more accessible in decades to come, and we will continue to broaden our understanding of how effective learning practices can best incorporate them. I’m looking forward to seeing what the next generation of researchers comes up with!

5. What are some texts or videos you would recommend for people to engage more with this, and finally, where can we find you and/or engage with your work?

I feel like I’ve covered a fairly broad range of topics, so I’ll try to whittle down the reading and watching list to a few recommendations.

On the games side of things, ‘Reality is Broken’ by Jane McGonigal is a good read, putting forward a persuasive case for games as a vehicle for social good. I also appreciated ‘Digital Game-Based Learning’ by Marc Prensky, who’s largely responsible for popularising the term “digital natives”.

On virtual worlds, let’s go for ‘Designing Virtual Worlds’ by Richard Bartle – he’s been doing research and writing in this area since text-based MUDs. ‘The Making of Second Life’ by Wagner James Au is a good window into that online world, and how it came about through the efforts of both its creators and its residents.

Regarding VR and AR, there are plenty of good texts out there but I’m going to put in a special recommendation for Professor Mark Billinghurst, currently of the Empathic Computing Lab. While I was at the Human Interface Technology Lab (HITLab NZ), I learned a lot from him, and from the various international colleagues who came to visit us during my research there. Mark puts a prodigious amount of his course and talk materials up on Slideshare for anyone to see, and you can probably find a good dozen or more interesting talks by him on YouTube as well.

On general futurism, one title I feel gets overlooked is Nikola Danaylov’s ‘Conversations with the Future: 21 Visions for the 21st Century,’ which consists of interviews with a variety of seminal and influential futurists. Nikola’s “Singularity.FM” podcast is well worth a listen, too.

My work is sadly a little difficult to find. Much of my thesis research used an educational conversion of Minecraft called ‘MinecraftEdu,’ which is no longer available due to Microsoft buying out both Mojang and TeacherGaming LLC, and replacing it with the un-moddable walled garden known as ‘Minecraft: Education Edition.’ That put rather a damper on my plans to open source my research tooling for anyone else to access. (I’m happy to chat with anyone who has plans for something similar, though.)

Around computer science education in general, I did make some contributions to the University of Canterbury’s “Computer Science Field Guide” (https://www.csfieldguide.org.nz/) which aims to teach the “whys” of computer science alongside the “hows” of coding and design in New Zealand’s high school Digital Technologies / Hangarau Matihiko curriculum.

Other places to find me include Twitter (https://twitter.com/DrCuriosity), Discord (“Dr. Curiosity#7690”), LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/in/drcuriosity/) or local tech and education conferences once we start having those again.

Perfect. Thank you so much.

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