Teach the Earth > Online Games > Workshop 08 > Sean Fox

Sean Fox

Technical Director, Science Education Resource Center, Carleton College

Photo of Sean Fox

My (non)-background in the geosciences and teaching with online games and environments

In reflecting on what I might contribute to this workshop I initially struggled with two dilemmas:

  • With my graduate background in theoretical physics, and my professional career as an educational technologist with no personal direct experience in using online environments in education what exactly do I have to offer the group?
  • What exactly is the thing we're focusing on in this workshop, when the boundaries are so fluid with many of the underlying concepts? I keep running into conundrums like: is second life a 'game' and if so how do you win? and are virtual globes like Google Earth 'online' environments if they work even when we're not on the net?

This train of thought led me to consider a number of experiences I've had that laid the groundwork for my understanding of many of the issues I think are key to our discussions. I'll lay them out here, even though some are quite antique

Some Old, Yet Still Relevant Experiences/Examples

  • Contour Plot One data point equals a week of computation and the complicated 3-d structure implied by each went unvisualized.
    My graduate work involved computationally intensive simulations which generated lots of data (the electron wave function in magnetic crystals) but which we inevitably were forced to reduce to a few data points in order to communicate through traditional (paper) means. While it was possible (though costly at that time) to work with 3-d visualizations of the data locally within our labs (using tools like IDL) I can imagine it might have been extremely valuable to be able to share the full data sets with other groups working on these problems. But there existed no lingua franca for sharing this sort of data and no common environment in which we might explore the data together with those other groups. Perhaps that reality is approaching?
  • Somewhat concurrently I was involved in various online communities largely conducted via text chat (VAX Notes anyone?). The key observation from that context is that these online environments (crude as they were) offered the opportunity to interact with others in ways that were anonymous or in which I could divest myself from some/all of my real world identity. This role-playing/identity shifting potential of online environment presents a host of interesting opportunities and challenges for educational uses. Not only may they shift traditional power-dynamics at the faculty-student level, but they have interesting potential for tackling some of the race and gender bias issues that are a concern at many institutions. How does stereotype threat play out in virtual environments?
  • Cover of the DOOM video games Another relevant experience was my (short-lived) participation in the early 3-d computer games–mostly of the 'first person shooter' (FPS) genre. While I haven't been involved since the early days of DOOM it's clear that the deeply (addictively?) engaging quality of many these games continues to be the corner-stone of the video game industry and as such is the main force driving behind graphics hardware and software. For better or worse the technical limits of the visual side of any prospective educational virtual worlds are largely circumscribed by dictates of FPS games. So understanding what FPS environments offer (and what they omit) is an important element in understanding future directions for educational tools that ride on their technical coat tails.
  • More recently my energies have been focused on building the tools that underpin the websites at SERC. These sites are largely textual and quite distant (at least on the surface) from the sort of environments this workshop is focused on. However, my experience in generating this set of tools (which aspires to help faculty learn from each other) is permeated with the notion that there is a continual interplay between the virtual communities and communications and their real world counterparts. As we look toward students spending time in virtual environments (as they already are in various ways) we need to carefully consider the ramifications for the corresponding real world interactions. Will a student react to their professor the same way in the classroom after seeing him sporting a goat's head in 2nd life?
  • Finally, not too long ago I sat down with my daughter (7) to help her explore a budding interest in the pyramids in Egypt. We fired up Google Earth, took the wonderfully contextualizing virtual flight from our house to Egypt and checked out the pyramids from their aerial photos. Then, with just a little extra clicking, we found ourselves pulling up photos of those same pyramids taken by tourist who had spent the extra time to upload them for our (and other's) benefit. Clearly a different experience than picking up a book. And it reveals an interesting sub-text about how knowledge creation and learning are intertwined and participatory. My daughter can upload her photos (of our neighborhood) and be part of someone else's Google Earth experience.

Answers to Questions

So I guess my initial questions answer each other complementarily. The subject of the workshop is the new intersection of a bunch technologies and practices that have been evolving toward each other. I've participated in some of the pieces and now I'm looking forward to understanding more about what it looks like when they collide.

Sean Fox --Discussion  

so you don't feel left out--

Your expeience with daughter points to a different kind of collaboration -- not so much a game as motivation to be part of a group using/building something together to learn. Similar to the motivations we use in SERC projects to get faculty to contribute. I wonder if we can learn something from game motivations that are applicable. One possibility is that we could think about contribution as a game and clarify the goals/rewards in ways that would movtivate participation.

WRT roleplaying/sterotype threat -- I still feel threatened, so maybe I'm not a good role player. I wonder if there is a whole group of students that is not comfortable with role playing. I can see where this discomfort has impacted my ability to learn languages, to participate in any kind of role-playing learning activity, and to explore in places where I'm not comfortable/confident with the culture (virtual or real) I'm not bad on stage -- so it isn't acting--its the ambiguity of who I am -- me or the role player and something about comfort in role playing situations that are more ambiguous than acting. Maybe helping people get over this with games would have helped me in a whole host of activites.


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