Teaching With 40 Year Old Software

I read an article that mentioned that someone teaching game design was using the old game "The Oregon Trail" as a simple example of game design. I felt a little wave of nostalgia for that computer game that I used with middle school students in the late 1970s on Apple IIe computers.

What can we teach with 40-year-old software?

The game was developed in 1971 and produced by the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium (MECC) in 1974. My school subscribed to MECC and received many software packages on the big 5.25 very floppy disks which we could duplicate.

The original game was designed to teach about the realities of 19th century pioneer life on the Oregon Trail. The single player is a wagon leader guiding a party of settlers from Independence, Missouri, to Oregon's Willamette Valley on the Oregon Trail via a covered wagon in 1848. 

But many teachers used it in other ways. In those early day, just teaching students to use the computer and navigate a game was a learning experience. I knew teacher who, like myself, used it was a way to teach cooperation by having players work in pairs or teams and justifiable arguing about choices was encouraged.

I used the game as an example when teaching literature as away to discuss the consequences of actions (draw branching diagram here).
 

Looking at the game again today via one of the several emulators available online (such as https://archive.org/details/msdos_Oregon_Trail_The_1990 and https://classicreload.com/oregon-trail.html), it seems about as primitive in its graphics as it did back in 1975 in my classroom. But it worked. My homeroom students enjoyed playing it just for gaming fun, and I was able to incorporate the decision-making aspects into lessons. I taught English, not social studies, and was less interested in the historical aspects of the game. I did use it briefly in an interdisciplinary manner with a social studies teacher, but having students do research into the real Oregon Trail and that period seemed to kill interest in the game itself. 

Apple IIe screenshotIt was one of the most successful games of all time and “The Oregon Trail” was inducted into World Video Game Hall of Fame in 2016. If you played it a few times, many of its screens are probably etched into your memory. I recall entering my real family members' names into the game the first time I played, and then sadly dysentery them "die" along the trail - probably from dysentery. It had game play moments (like hunting buffalo) and simple animation, but it was mostly text and so involved a lot of reading.

I would have my students work in small groups and map the game both on a real map of the trail, and then later on a decision tree style "map" of the game's options.

For me, the strength of the game in the classroom was in understanding how decisions could change the game's outcomes and their traveler's fates.

I recall that students would argue about the design. They didn't like the random things that would happen, such as a fire in the wagon destroying objects that were worth game points. But that also worked its way into my discussions with them of literature. Things happen in novels - and our lives - that seem random and out of our control, and they have consequences.

The other software that I used back then which was more sophisticated (though not graphically) was made by Tom Snyder Productions. I met Snyder at an educational conference and we talked about his Decisions, Decisions series. The series focused on the best aspects of what I was using in "Oregon Trail." The series included products on politics and the environment and came with printed material to supplement the games, so "research" was easy and necessary to play well.

I had no luck finding online what happened to Snyder and his company. It seems to have been consumed by Scholastic, though the link I found was a dead end.  I did find something on Amazon, but it doesn't seem that the series was continued or updated recently. It could easily be an online or mobile game. 

Can we use old software to teach new skills? Absolutely. Though these software packages seem crude by today's standards, they are also "classic" curiosities. I haven't taught secondary school students since 2000, so my sense of what is acceptable is lost. Certainly some of these games, or similar decision-tree kinds of games are a very viable classroom tool at all grade levels K-20. Maybe someone has already updated them or created new versions. If not, there is an opportunity.

     

Bleeding Edgy Deep Learning

Deep learning is a hot topic right now, but it is not lightweight or something I would imagine learners who are not in the computer science world to take very seriously. But I stumbled upon this video introduction that certainly goes for an edgier presentation of this serious subject and obviously is trying to appeal to a non-traditional audience.

That audience would be part of what I refer to as both Education 2.0 and also that segment of learners who are The Disconnected.  I see these disconnected learners as a wider age group than "Millennials." They are the potential students in our undergraduate and graduate programs, but also older people already in the workplace looking to move or advance their careers. The younger ones have never been connected to traditional forms of media consumption and services and have no plan to ever be connected to them. And that is also how they feel about education. You learn where and when you can learn with little concern for credits and degrees.

The video I found (below) is an "Intro to Deep Learning" billed as being "for anyone who wants to become a deep learning engineer." It is supposed to take you from "the very basics of deep learning to the bleeding edge over the course of 4 months." That is quite a trip. 

The sample video is on how to predict an animal’s body weight given it’s brain weight using linear regression via 10 lines of Python.

Though the YouTube content (created by and starring Siraj Raval) is totally free, he also has a partnership with Udacity in order to offer a new Deep Learning Nanodegree Foundation program. Udacity will also be providing guaranteed admission to their Artificial Intelligence and Self-Driving Car Nanodegree programs to all graduates. 


Is this a good marketing effort bu Udacity? Will it reach new and disconnected learners? Will they simply use the videos and resources to learn or make that connection to some kind of degree/certification that might tell an employer that they know something about deep learning? I don't have the deep learning program that can predict that. I'm not sure it exists. Yet.

RESOURCES

This is the code via GitHub for "How to Make a Prediction - Intro to Deep Learning #1' by Siraj Raval on YouTube

This lesson uses simple linear regression. "Simple" is a relative term here, as many people would not find it simple, as in "easy." It is a statistical method that allows us to summarize and study relationships between two continuous (quantitative) variables. This lesson via Penn State introduces the concept and basic procedures of simple linear regression.

You might also want to look at this tutorial on the topic via machinelearningmastery.com.

Humans Learning About Machines Learning

GoDeep learning might sound like that time when we get really serious about what we are thinking about, and go deeper into the subject and learning. But it is not about the human brain. It is about machine learning. Also known as deep structured learning or hierarchical learning, it is part of the study of machine learning methods. It is about machines getting smarter on their own as they complete tasks.

The theories do look at biological nervous systems as models. Neural coding attempts to define a relationship between various stimuli and associated neuronal responses in the brain The terms used are many. Deep learning architecture, deep neural networks, deep belief networks and recurrent neural networks are all labels used in computer vision, speech recognition, natural language processing, audio recognition, social network filtering, machine translation, bioinformatics and drug design. That means a machine is producing results instead of human experts.

Google's artificial intelligence software, DeepMind, has gotten a fair amount of press coverage. It has the ability to teach itself many things, including how to walk, jump, and run. In the press, it will defeat the world's best player of the Chinese strategy game, Go, but deep learning is more serious than that.

You can take a free, 3-month course on Deep Learning offered through Udacity, taught by Vincent Vanhoucke, the technical lead in Google's Brain team.

Machine learning is a fast-growing and exciting field of study and deep learning is at its "bleeding edge. This course is considered to be an "intermediate to advanced level course offered as part of the Machine Learning Engineer Nanodegree program. It assumes you have taken a first course in machine learning, and that you are at least familiar with supervised learning methods."

Should You Be Teaching Systems Thinking?

An article I read suggests that systems thinking could become a new liberal art and prepare students for a world where they will need to compete with AI, robots and machine thinking. What is it that humans can do that the machines can't do?

Systems thinking grew out of system dynamics which was a new thing in the 1960s. Invented by an MIT management professor, Jay Wright Forrester,  it took in the parallels between engineering, information systems and social systems.

Relationships in dynamic systems can both amplify or balance other effects. I always found examples of this too technical and complex for my purposes in the humanities, but the basic ideas seemed to make sense.

One example from environmentalists seems like a clearer one. Most of us can see that there are connections between human systems and ecological systems. Certainly, discussions about climate change have used versions of this kind of thinking to make the point that human systems are having a negative effect on ecological systems. And you can look at how those changed ecological systems are then having effect on economic and industrial systems.

Some people view systems thinking as something we can do better, at lest currently, than machines. That means it is a skill that makes a person more marketable. Philip D. Gardner believes that systems thinking is a key attribute of the "T-shaped professional." This person is deep as well as broad, with not only a depth of knowledge in an area of expertise, but also able to work and communicate across disciplines.  

coverJoseph E. Aoun believes that systems thinking will be a "higher-order mental skill" that gives humans an edge over machines. 

But isn't it likely that machines that learn will also be programmed one day to think across systems? Probably, but Aoun says that currently "the big creative leaps that occur when humans engage in it are as yet unreachable by machines." 

When my oldest son was exploring colleges more than a decade ago, systems engineering was a major that I thought looked interesting. It is an interdisciplinary field of engineering and engineering management. It focuses on how to design and manage complex systems over their life cycles.

If systems thinking grows in popularity, it may well be adopted into existing disciplines as a way to connect fields that are usually in silos and don't interact. Would behavioral economics qualify as systems thinking? Is this a way to make STEAM or STEM actually a single thing?

 


David Peter Stroh, Systems Thinking for Social Change

Joseph E. Aoun, Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence

The UX of Course Design

UXI stumbled upon a post on Medium by John Spencer called "8 Ways UX Design Theory Transformed My Approach to Course Design - How a Small Side Project Changed the Way I Teach."  As someone who has taught for a quartet of decades and done UX design and even taught UX, I was intrigued by what he might have learned about "how to build community, communicate clearly, and set up effective systems as we design our courses."

A few basics to start: User experience design theory is confusingly abbreviated as XD, UX, UXD or UED, But it is about focusing on the user experience of a device, tool, platform or web application. In doing this, a designer considers accessibility, usability and the easy to overlook pleasure someone might get from the interaction. Do you think Facebook would be as popular if people didn't get pleasure from using it?

Spencer says he first embraced UX design when he worked on creating a blogging platform for students called Write About.

As with any design, you make the best that you can, add features you think users will want - but then you have to deal with how users react and use it.

Is there a connection to teaching?

Every lesson has a design and teachers learn to design based on what works with a course or even with a specific group of students. Even larger in the design scheme is our current use of classroom systems and course architecture.

Building tools and systems that can be used intuitively understand with a minimum of additional instruction or training is key to UX. If you as a teacher spend a lot of time teaching procedures and methods rather than teaching your content and concepts.

Some of Spencer's takeaways make a lot of sense to me. For example, embrace onboarding. Onboarding is the mechanism through which new employees acquire the necessary knowledge, skills, and behaviors to become effective organizational members. When you sign into a website or register for a service, you might get virtual tour and buttons have pop-ups or rollover text. The designers want you to feel comfortable as you navigate that first experience. Do we offer that to students when they enter a course?

Read Spencer's post, but maybe think about course design as a system that should seem invisible. I don't know that you need to be a UX designer to teach, or that we can all create a course that when you enter it you immediately know where to go and what to do, but we can certainly put the learner at the center of the design.