playful technologies can help students understand how history is created
May 4, 2014 5:12 PM   Subscribe

Pastplay: Teaching and Learning History with Technology. The fourth book from the digitalculturebooks imprint of the University of Michigan Press, Pastplay includes a wide range of essays, all available online for free. T. Mills Kelly reflects on his historical methods course which resulted in a historical hoax, “the last American pirate,” declared one of the 10 biggest hoaxes in Wikipedia’s first ten years. Matthew Kirschenbaum discusses if board games work better than computer games for teaching history. The book's chapters cover successful combinations of play, technology, and history. Yet, many are wary, as a "playful approach to teaching and learning with technology can seem like the worst of all possible worlds: the coupling of strategies developed for entertainment with tools created for commerce."

Indeed, the book's editors also sound a note of caution.
We tread carefully because we recognize that technology has ostensibly come to the rescue of learning on several occasions. We also appreciate that this is not the first time that subjects such as history have been apparently liberated by play—the 1960s, for instance, saw the widespread introduction of play and games across curricula. In the latest turn of this circle, recent years have seen a focus on computer games, the most interactive computer environments yet created. The “edutainment” of the 1990s was repackaged as “serious games,” and educators were told that if students were allowed to play, the challenges of teaching history and other subjects could be overcome. Similar claims are now being made for “gamification,” the application of gameplay mechanics to non-game situations or domains such as education.
(digitalculturebooks previously)
posted by spamandkimchi (17 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
I admit I've only begun to skim this, but so far I am surprised at the lack of mention of OREGON TRAIL.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 5:18 PM on May 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

Nothing ever did more to educate a generation on the dangers of dysentery, it is true.
posted by Etrigan at 5:37 PM on May 4, 2014 [3 favorites]

I'm going to read this with great interest. Thanks for pointing it out!

I just want to note, in passing, that computer visualisation was a revelation, for me, when I was trying to teach military history in the mid-2000's. History students don't always get maps, and terrain is incredibly important for understanding certain campaigns.

Picture this: I'm trying to explain the Gallipoli campaign to a student who just. isn't. getting. it.

"Why couldn't they just attack the Turkish rear from Y Beach?" She asks.

"Because they couldn't see what was happening," I reply, "a classic case of interrupted communications."

"But they were so close! They must have been able to see, or at least hear, the battle!"

I pull up 3D model of the Gallipoli Peninsula in Nasa's World Wind (this was before Google Earth was available).

"Oh! The hills!" -- it's as clear as day
posted by Dreadnought at 5:37 PM on May 4, 2014

The serial hoaxer T. Mills Kelly deserves perma-banning from Wikipedia.
posted by Bwithh at 6:56 PM on May 4, 2014

Text is the densest form of content; anything else will always amount to dilution. Dilution may be useful or even necessary, but it is what it is, and a diluted diet is likely to lack essential nutrition.
posted by Segundus at 4:14 AM on May 5, 2014

Text is the densest form of textual content - compare watching a play with reading the script.
posted by Dr Dracator at 4:38 AM on May 5, 2014 [3 favorites]

One for a spectator, the other for a student.
posted by Segundus at 6:02 AM on May 5, 2014

the student will read the script, and the 1000 pages of analysis that accompany it.
posted by rebent at 9:58 AM on May 5, 2014

(unless you mean the drama student, in which case, could you imagine having someone perform a play based solely on the script alone? With no direction, suggestions, or even conversation beforehand with the other players?)
posted by rebent at 9:59 AM on May 5, 2014

Text is the densest form of content; anything else will always amount to dilution.

Text itself is a dilution of something, whether an experience, a process, or something else. Poems, trees, loveliness, etc.
posted by Etrigan at 10:04 AM on May 5, 2014

I'd say text is a distillation of experience and knowledge.
posted by Segundus at 2:40 PM on May 5, 2014

It can be, but other things don't "always amount to dilution."
posted by Etrigan at 4:05 PM on May 5, 2014

You'd need to explain or give an example of something with more content than text.

Really my point is just that reading will always be a core part of serious study.
posted by Segundus at 7:24 PM on May 5, 2014

Take the example they mention, of Ramon Llull’s Ars Magna. That actually provides an incredibly innovative mechanical process for generating true statements. Llull, born around 1232, enjoyed a tremendous reputation in his day, and was famous enough to have had his name anglicised as ‘Raymond Lully’. He was better acquainted with Jewish and Arabic learning than most medieval scholars, and may possibly have been influenced by the Kabbalistic tradition of generating new insights through new permutations of the words and letters of holy texts. He wrote in both Arabic and the vernacular, and among other achievements is regarded as a founding father of Catalan literature.

The Ars Magna has a relatively complex apparatus and uses single words rather than extended text as its basic unit. The core of the whole thing is a table of Absolute principles, Relative principles, Questions, Subjects, Virtues, and Vices. Llull provides four figures in the form of circular or tabular diagrams which recombine the elements of this table in different ways. Very briefly, and according to my shaky understanding, the first figure produces combinations of absolute principles – ‘Wisdom is Power’, say. The second figure applies the relative principles – ‘Angels are different from elements’. The third brings in the questions – ‘Where is virtue final?’. The fourth figure is perhaps the most exciting: it take the form of a circular table which is included in the book as a paper wheel which can be rotated to read off results. This extraordinary innovation has led to Llull being regarded as the inventor of pop-up books. The fourth figure combines the contents of four different table cells at once to generate complex propositions and questions.

But... IMHO, the Ars promises so much more than it delivers. You could use it as the starting point for theological enquiry, but any decent teacher could write a page of exam questions which would do as well or better.
posted by Segundus at 8:16 PM on May 5, 2014

You'd need to explain or give an example of something with more content than text.

A picture? It's worth a thousand words, or so I hear.

Thing is, different media are good for conveying different kinds of information. I mean, ultimately you can display almost any kind of information through text, but sometimes a picture or a video or a video game gets that information across much more quickly and powerfully.

For example, I could spend thousands of words explaining the shape of Spain, or I could just show you a map. I could paint an elaborate word picture of how a baseball pitcher moves, or I could show you a film. I could expend volumes on the utility of a cavalry reserve, or I could sit you in front of a simulation and have you experience it for yourself.

This doesn't mean that we shouldn't use traditional text (by which I mean non-hyper text): it's really one of the best media -- and has the highest information density -- for certain kinds of information. It's great for displaying narrative, can allow a teacher to zoom in and highlight important details, it's second-to-none for presenting interpretation, and it's probably the best way to rapidly represent process.

But traditional text also has limitations: it's non-interactive, it's highly linear, it can't display spacial relationships very well, and it has trouble rendering circularity or recursion. It can often display visual images very evocatively, but it can't do it very precisely: no text can show you Charles de Gaulle's nose as well as a photograph of Charles de Gaulle's nose.

One of the neat things about computers, is they allow us to create experiences that we would never otherwise be able to put in front of students. I've already talked about 3D models, which computers are pretty good for. Another example, a much deeper one, is the modelling of choice.

Now this isn't exclusively a computer thing: it's really a game thing. But computers are really good media for running games. I've actually done choice modelling, very successfully, with 'pen and paper' games, but there are some cases in which computers are really powerful and immediate and evocative when compared to a written or oral exercise.

This is what I mean by choice modelling: Students often have a hard time coming to grips with understanding why people make choices. In my case, I'm talking about historical people, but it applies to other areas as well. We've all seen cases of people saying "I would never have done it that way", which is often the same as people saying "I don't understand why somebody would make that choice". With computer games, we can actually put students in a position where they have to choose for themselves. We can give them analogous problems with the same characteristics of uncertainty and complex consequence. When you do that, you find that the students often make similar choices to those made by the people you want them to learn about. Even better, they often make worse choices, which helps them understand that hindsight judgements are indeed dangerous.

It's all very well telling students what leads people to make choices; experiencing those choices oneself is just a billion times more powerful and pedagogically useful. It trains people in empathy, in willingness to entertain counterintuitive ideas about how complex systems produce unexpected results, and in their own and human limitations.

Quite seriously, I often wish I could take some of the more... self confident commentators on the subject of intelligence and security affairs on mefi, and ask them to sit down with the kinds of problems we give our students. It really might help them understand why this crazy old world works the way it does, sometimes.
posted by Dreadnought at 8:19 PM on May 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

You'd need to explain or give an example of something with more content than text.

A sunrise.
posted by Etrigan at 8:30 PM on May 5, 2014

One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.

posted by Segundus at 11:04 PM on May 5, 2014

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