[Review] Learn Geography (NDS)

Title: Learn Geography
Media: Video Game (Nintendo DS)
Primary Subject: Geography

Full disclosure: I hate maps and geography. Yes, I teach history. No, that doesn’t mean I have to like maps. I find them boring and almost entirely without educational value. I don’t care where something is I only care why something is. Still, I loved the old Carmen San Diego games and I was hopeful this game would make geography and maps fun. It doesn’t.

This “game” is indicative of everything bad about edutainment. It is poorly made, ugly to look at and just plain boring. Despite having almost no game whatsoever the developers somehow managed to still have it not be remotely educational. Read on if you want to see exactly why it is so bad.

Motivational potential:
Yes, I actually like geography less having played this game. If a video game can’t make a subject even remotely interesting I am convinced it just isn’t my thing. Essentially all you do in the game is look at some vague clues and then click on which city you think it is. For example, the game might say “City was split until 1989.” You then click on Berlin. That’s it. Now you’re on to the next clue and city. There is no reward for being right and no penalty for being wrong. I mentioned Carmen San Diego before. That game, from like 1990 mind you, did essentially the same thing but had a story going along with it that was at least mildly entertaining.

Ah, but wait you say, what about mini-games? Every DS game has mini-games right? Well, yep, it sure does have mini-games. They range from the boring (crosswords!) to the mind-numbingly horrible (word jumble!). Once again, they lack any sort of rewards relying solely on their complete lack of fun to encourage you to play more.

Educational Potential
There is a map and there are countries on it. You can potentially learn random facts (up to 5!) about those countries. You may also end up learning that BAECH can be re-arranged to make the word BEACH as I learned this morning. It would be wrong to say there is no educational content here. It would be equally wrong to say there is any chance any one would ever take the time to learn from this game.

You may argue that I’m being unfair. Maybe the game was designed for young kids who don’t know that RRIVE unscrambles to make RIVER. While I can see the logic in that I cannot see the logic in expecting that kid to unscramble TRIUMPHAL ARCH as I had to last night or that kid knowing that Cannes is home to a famous film-festival. Fact is, I have no idea who this game is for and I’m not sure the developers did either.

Shame on the them. Not only did you make a bad game (which reminds me, the game has long load times to boot almost every new screen) but you somehow made learning geography less fun than it already is. Some poor kid is going to get this game as a gift and then hate history because of it. You have just set that kid back in his goal to reach the American dream. I hope you can still sleep at night. But hey, if you can’t, just try playing your game for 5 minutes – that’ll do the trick.

March 2, 2010 at 5:37 pm Leave a comment

[Lesson] Latin in the Reformation

Subject: World History
Topic: The Reformation
Purpose: To get students to experience why so many believed it was important to pray, read the Bible and perform church services in their own language instead of in Latin.

This is a fairly simple, yet quite powerful lesson utilizing media. All you need is any DVD with both an English and a foreign language track. It is especially helpful if that foreign language is uncommon in your community. For my purposes I use Madagascar which has a language track in French.

Prior to the lesson create a “quiz” about a short section of the movie. I used a 5 minute section with 5 questions and that seemed to make the point fine. However, I added to this by speaking in French myself. If you are not going to use the foreign language in your own instructions perhaps a longer segment and quiz would help. Translate the quiz into the language of the clip you are going to show. Google’s language translator is sufficient for this as even if it has some minor grammatical errors students won’t know and the point of the lesson is unaffected.

When the lesson begins handout the quiz in the foreign language without explaining why. Put a slide on the screen giving instructions on how to take the quiz, again this should be in the foreign language. If students question you emphatically deny that there is any problem and that this is simply how things are done. It is especially helpful if you give your explanation in a foreign language as well (even one you make up on the spot can work just fine.) If you happen to speak Latin, by all means use that! Do not use English if at all possible. You are better off not speaking at all and just shrugging as if you don’t understand their questions.

Show the clip in the foreign language. I feel that it helps to show a clip from a movie most kids are familiar with. Though the mass was in Latin it was still a familiar setting and message to the people. After the clip is over they are to do the quiz. The blank stares and exasperation you’ll get are priceless. Once everyone has finished (or sufficient time has passed) show the same movie clip again but this time flip the language track back to English. Then have students retake the quiz in English. Grade the quizzes and have students compare their results. Invariably they will have done better on the English quiz.

This then leads into a discussion of the important of the use of the common language in the church.

January 8, 2010 at 2:47 pm Leave a comment

[Review] Assassin’s Creed 2

Title: Assassin’s Creed 2
Media: Video Game (Xbox 360, PS3, PC coming soon)
Primary Subject: Renaissance History
Secondary Subject: Art History

Assassin’s Creed 2 by Ubisoft has received incredible praise from critics since it was released just over a month ago. It has been on my radar as a possible teaching tool since it was revealed at E3 earlier this year. The original Assassin’s Creed had many educational elements to it but I personally found the game boring to the point of being unplayable. That made finding the history in it a chore. AC2, however, is a joy to play and more than any other experience with media I’ve had truly embeds you into history.

The game takes place in Renaissance Italy – primarily in the city-states of Florence and Venice. It is set late in the 1400s and begins just prior to the assassination attempt on Lorenzo de’ Medici. The game developers have recreated Renaissance Italy in absolutely astounding detail. Of course, I’ve never been to Renaissance Italy but I imagine if I could time travel I’m quite sure it would look, sound and feel remarkably like the game world. Many critics have commented on how it feels very much like when they actually visited Florence for the first time. It is that accurate. All of the key buildings are there from the incredible Duoma in Florence to the waterfront in Venice. The towns are vibrant, busy and truly feel alive. The game can even be played in Italian to further enhance the experience.

That alone would have made for an incredible teaching experience. Ubisoft, however, took it miles further. Throughout the game whenever you visit a new location, buy a new piece of art or find a new historical figure the game adds an entry to a data base. This data base is, quite frankly, a textbook on the Renaissance. There are hundreds of entries providing accurate historical information on the items. They are easily accessed at any point in the game. What is most appealing to me as a teacher though is how they first appear. When the entries are “unlocked” the first time a box appears in the corner of the screen showing the items name and a small picture of it. A simple tap of the A button at that time brings up the new information. This is not like the encyclopedia in Civilization IV which had to be hunted down. This is history right at the fingertips of the player. It is clear the developers wanted their players to learn this history.

However, even if you never touch the data base there is much to appreciate here. The doctors in the game all, for example, wear the beak-like Black Death masks we’ve all seen. You can buy period specific art at galleries throughout the game that are then put on the wall in your virtual house to be viewed at any time. On top of that, key Renaissance figures play roles throughout the storyline of the game. The Medici Assassination provides the setting for the first third of the game, Leonardo da Vinci plays the role of “Q” (the scientist from the James Bond series who provides new gadgets) and in the upcoming add-on pack none other than Niccolo Machiavelli serves as your guide. Even the game’s final boss is a very important Renaissance figure whom I will not spoil here.

Beyond all this is the series’ main storyline. Again, I don’t want to spoil anything so I’ll be vague. The first game of the series takes place during the Crusades with the idea that the Knights Templar are the main enemy. We’ll keep it simple and say they are. That enemy continues into the second game and will assuredly into the third. What is extremely cool is how the second game starts to show how the Templar have had their hand in various events throughout history. While this is all fictional it certainly adds a great level to intrigue to history in a very da Vinci Code-like manner. By exploring this completely optional aspect of the game you’ll find how players as varied as Gandhi and Houdini have been affected by the Templar conspiracy. Very cool, very history.

Motivational Potential:
The game is about assassin’s – what more needs be said? It suffers from none of the boredom of the first in the series. It is incredibly well paced, looks great and exudes cool in every way. This is no obscure edu-game either. AC2 was nominated for Game of the Year by many large publications this year including Spike TV’s Video Game Awards. It is a huge selling game. It would not be hard to convince students to play it. Plus, as I said above, the game is drowning in history. Not only is it unavoidable it will almost certainly make most players want to learn more. This game is everything an educational game should be in terms of motivation.

Educational Potential:
The game is, however, rated M and therefore will be only truly useful for college – where I wouldn’t hesitate to assign it in an art history or Renaissance history course. I would without hesitation call this a perfect educational game if not for the rating (which is definitely earned.) Still, the game is not gratuitous in my opinion. There are a couple scenes early in the game that show off the main character’s “adult” pursuits that certainly could have been cut but to say that the Renaissance was Puritanical historically would be a lie anyway. There are “courtesans” throughout the city as well though in only one scene is there any real indication of what they truly are for.

The violence is consistent throughout the game (again, you’re an assassin after all…) but it is always done within context. If you, as the player, choose to kill innocents you are told that it is out of line for your character and if you continue you effectively “die” and have to restart your mission. While it would be nice if this wasn’t there, to portray the Renaissance as a time of peace would simply not be accurate. The Medici Assassination is a historical event after all. Not much you can do to ignore that.

If you have an age-appropriate group you have to play this. It is everything a game-as-education should be. I’m begging game devs who make games like this to release an educational version. It would not be hard to remake the game exactly as is just without the attack button and story line. Just drop my kids into this recreated historical world and let them wander around finding new entries for the database. I’ve played in virtual worlds before but none as wondrous as the one found here and I wish I could have my middle schoolers player it.

December 27, 2009 at 3:44 pm Leave a comment

[Review] Scribblenauts

Title: Scribblenauts
Media: Video Game (Nintendo DS)
Primary Subject: Creativity
Secondary Subject: Critical Thinking

Scribblenauts by 5th Cell for the Nintendo DS is an incredible learning toy. If thought of strictly as a game it falls short in many basic areas (control being number one) but that would completely overlook the incredible educational benefits it brings to the table. In short, Scribblenauts is a puzzle game where the player can use any object they can imagine to attempt to solve the puzzle. You simply type the word into the game and poof, the item appears ready to be used. No other game has done anything quite like this before and it is an incredible exercise in creativity.

The early puzzles of the game are very simple. In one you are in a desert with another man. The hint for level says “Refresh him.” That’s it. It doesn’t say “Give the man something to drink, you know like water or perhaps some milk.” So, you scramble your brain to think what could refresh a guy in the desert. Typing in water works. So does rain. Interestingly, so does coffee shop, which actually makes an entire coffee shop appear. Perhaps most amazingly typing in blizzard also works. “Refresh” apparently doesn’t just mean “give him a drink” but also possibly “cool him off.” (And on that note while typing I got the idea to try “fan” and yep, it worked too.)

The game challenges you to complete each stage 3 times with each new play requiring completely new words. This obviously encourages outside the box thinking. The puzzles get progressively more complicated and rarely are solved with only one item. Often you must spawn multiple items and get them to work together. For example, one on level you are tasked with retrieving candy for a little girl without harming the bully who is guarding it. I ended up handcuffing him to a magnet which then stuck him to the vending machine. He was locked in place and I could grab the candy without harassment. Amazing.

So, there’s definitely critical thinking going on here but could it be used in the classroom? Absolutely, read on!

Motivational Potential

I modified the game to be played in the classroom and tried it out last week. My class played only one level but they had a great time and came up with some incredible solutions. I broke the class into groups and we had a “Solutions Draft” to solve the puzzles. The puzzle we did was a mirror of level 1-1 of the game. That level has a police officer, a fireman, a doctor and a chef with the instructions “Give two of them what they’d need for their job.” I made a PowerPoint slide with the same set up except I wanted all 4 to be satisfied. Then, group by group, they drafted their items. If group one picked “gun” then no other group could. With 5 groups it quickly forced creativity. The goal ultimately was to solve the puzzle using as few items as possible or to do so in the most creative manner. Each group ended up with four items to solve it in this case as this puzzle doesn’t leave room for much overlap (though I suppose “dough” could satisfy the chef and the police officer…).

The kids couldn’t wait to play again and I’m just as excited to get them to do so. I really wish Nintendo would release a video hookup for the DS so I could put the game itself up full screen for everyone but so far no such luck. You might have luck using a document scanner however if you have a nice one in your room.

Educational Potential

Content-wise there really isn’t anything here. That said, I fully intend to create content-based puzzles to use in my classroom version of the game. Why not create a situation that shows a village with no water and give the instructions “Refresh them!”? I can limit the summoned objects to period specific ones and see if perhaps my students could imagine aqueducts in the same way the Romans did. I am very excited by the idea of presenting historical problems and giving students a chance to imagine a solution before sharing how it was solved historically.

Still, even if content played no role I think this game is perfectly educational as it stands. We do not do enough (any?) encouragement of creativity and critical thinking in school’s today. This game forces it! If you play for 30 minutes and don’t feel any smarter after you aren’t playing it right. I consider myself a pretty smart guy and yet when presented with a puzzle and a completely blank canvas I often can’t even think of where to start. It is those moments when our brains are most active. I feel that just by playing this game my brain is making new connections – it is growing. There is no better definition of educational.

Highly recommended product here. Thank you 5th Cell for building one of the most fun and educational learning devices I’ve ever seen. Is it a perfect game? Absolutely not? It is a perfect learning tool? It is pretty darn close. Give it some time and I think you’ll find you want to fit it into your classroom somehow.

September 27, 2009 at 5:36 pm Leave a comment

[RESOURCE] SimpsonsMath.com

Title: SimpsonsMath.com
Media: Website
Primary Topic: Math

I’m not alone! Ok, I never thought I was but I’ll take any validation I can get. I stumbled (Googled, actually) onto SimpsonsMath.com yesterday while searching for episodes of Homer saying “Woo hoo!” for a project I’m working on. (It might surprise you to know that “woo hoo!” comes up in far less episodes than one might think…) The page Google sent me to was the “Guide to Mathematics and Mathematicians on The Simpsons” at http://homepage.smc.edu/nestler_andrew/SimpsonsMath.htm and from there I found their main page. It is not only a catalog of references to math on the show but also contains lesson plans built around Simpsons topics such as 2D vs 3D using the classic Treehouse of Horror episode where Homer becomes 3D. It also has links to articles about math in Simpsons and a transcript of a scholarly presentation the site’s owners did. It really is a complete resource.

Motivational Potential
The only reason I would not give this a perfect score is simple copyright restrictions. The site owners cannot post the clips referred to. That means the teacher will have to do the work of finding them. If the videos could be allowed on the site then I could see students spending a ton of time here exploring. As it is now it is appealing as it can be. It has transcripts of the appropriate clips and some great pictures as well. The activities are interesting overall too. Math can so often be hard to “sell” to kids but this should go a long way to helping overcome that.

Educational Potential
The activities are wonderful and the commentaries thoughout the site are well-stated and easy to understand even though they tackle some pretty high level math concepts (derivatives!) There isn’t much instruction on how to do these things so teacher input will be required (which is again why it is just shy of a perfect score) but just the exposure to the math concepts alone will be a huge benefit to students.

One of the best websites I’ve ever found. The way the activities are set up is truly inspiring and something I am very likely to steal! I love the idea of introducing each question with a scene from the show. If I were a math teacher I would find an excuse to go through as many of the activities as possible whether they applied to my level of students or not. I truly believe motivated students can learn just about anything and this site would certainly motivate. Definitely worth checking out and supporting!

August 22, 2009 at 4:52 pm Leave a comment

[RANT] RIP Popfly, Shame on you Microsoft

Technology is a vile beast. As we all know it goes wrong at the worst possible moments, teases constantly, and is never satisfied to just stay in one place.

It is with that cynical look that I announce the death of Microsoft’s Popfly.com. As of Aug 24 with little to no fanfare Microsoft is ending it. This isn’t the first time a service I’ve used has died but it is the first time one so integral to my classroom has. I used Popfly to create learning games for my website as well as interactive maps.

I actually feel betrayed.

Maybe that is a sign I take all this stuff far too seriously but when I think of how much time I put into it and how much my kids utilized it I’m left very angry. I’ll move on, of course. I guess I’ll finally break down and learn to use Sharendipity now. I’ll use photobucket for my image carousel and there has to be another way to embed maps into my site.

To find out now though, only 2 weeks before the start of school is like getting dumped right before prom.

Microsoft, you’ve broken my heart.

August 20, 2009 at 1:59 pm Leave a comment

[REVIEW] Science Papa

Title: Science Papa
Media: Video game (Nintendo DS)
Primary Subject: Chemistry
Secondary Subjects: Physics

This game is pretty terrible, let me just get that out right away. It is a spin-off of sorts of the Cooking Mama series of games which has been very successful. Cooking Mama is a collection of mini-games that mimic (to varying degrees of reality) the mechanics of cooking. It also includes a recipe guide and arguably could actually teach people how to cook. So, Science Papa ought to do the same right?

Yes. It ought to. The game plays the same. There are a series of stylus-based mini-games that supposedly mimic scientific processes. For example, you frequently mix chemicals in a beaker. You drag them into the container and then draw circles on the screen to simulate mixing. When using the microscope you use the stylus to turn 3 different knobs to improve focus. You also drag beakers over a Bunsen burner, turn on an electrolysis machine (by tapping one big red button… exciting…), and ruin your DS screen when you have to brush off something by rapidly scraping your stylus across the screen.

New tasks are added as the game progresses but they are no more interesting than the early ones. What is worse is that after a fairly thorough early tutorial you are never told how to use the new instruments. The microscope, for example, just has 3 knobs. They aren’t labeled or anything. You just have to randomly fiddle with them until the game says you’ve been successful.

Even with new tasks coming in the game is ridiculously repetitive. You will often redo the same “experiments” over and over to earn more money or reputation. When you’ve earned enough rep you go on to one of the game’s 5 Science Competitions and compete by doing the exact same tasks you’ve been doing for the last 3 hours.

So again, the game is bad, but at least it is based on science so it might be educational right? No, not so much.

Motivational Potential:

You might be able to trick the kids into enjoying this somehow. It is, at least, a video game based on a theme of science. I could see younger kids enjoying it greatly as the gameplay is very simple, at least in the early stages. Unfortunately, I cannot imagine anyone after playing it to have any interest in becoming a scientist. If I thought that all scientists did all day was scratch their DS screen repeatedly with a stylus I’m pretty sure it would kill any interest I might have had.

Interestingly, the most motivating part of the entire game in my opinion are the frequent “Do not try any of these experiments at home” warnings. Honestly, if it weren’t for them I wouldn’t even recognize that I was doing experiments at all. The game does tell you what chemicals you’re using and what you’re doing with them but that is done on the top screen while you are working at such furious speeds at the bottom screen that you won’t even notice. A good science teacher could slow the pace down and use the game to introduce these basic experiments to their class. Almost like a preview. I do believe, despite any problems I have with the game, that would be motivational.

Educational Potential:
And now the real disappointment. It isn’t often that a game comes along themed so clearly around an academic topic. One would think (or at least hope) that this would make the game educational. In this case at least, it really doesn’t. The game uses science as a prop and little else. As mentioned above the game does tell you what chemicals you’re mixing but it is lost on the top screen due to the frantic action you are following on the bottom. There is also some introduction to various science instruments and how they work and this would likely be the game’s best use in a classroom. I could see using it early on as a virtual tour of a science lab. I’d imagine there are far better ones online but probably not in game form. Even this though is weak. I mentioned how the microscope game really doesn’t teach you anything about microscopes other than they have knobs that do something or other. Oh well, maybe the designers just wanted to encourage experimentation…

Ultimately, a teacher would have to purposefully play the game slowly as a demonstration for a class but any student playing on their own would get little to no science out of it.

Disappointing. I hope that if “Archaeology Aunt” is ever made history isn’t presented as randomly brushing off unrelated objects as fast as you can to get a high score. This game could have been easily redeemed with some guides to experiments (like Cooking Mama has a recipe book) but it wasn’t. There just isn’t much here to educate unless a teacher really wants to put some work into it. It seems like nothing more than a cash-in from the developers trying to trick a few parents into thinking their kids will learn something. Without guidance, sadly, they won’t.

August 17, 2009 at 2:30 pm Leave a comment

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