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Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Local Media: Combining Simulation Games & the WWW
  5. Media for Distributed Communities
  6. MicroAgentsheets
  7. Conclusion
  8. References

Currently the use of the computer is limited by the perception of it as a platform with advanced software tools to solve specific problems such as balancing a budget or computing grade point averages. While this is not a bad use of computers it does not fully employ their potential. By expanding our view of computer as tool to computer as medium that facilitates communication and sharing, we can fundamentally change the way we think and learn. This paper discusses the computer as a communication medium to support learning. Specifically, the paper illustrates the benefits of this reconceptualization in the context of having students author and play interactive simulations games and exchange them over the Internet.


Introduction

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Local Media: Combining Simulation Games & the WWW
  5. Media for Distributed Communities
  6. MicroAgentsheets
  7. Conclusion
  8. References

The World Wide Web (WWW) is widely acknowledged as a resource which can bring many gigabytes of useful information to students in schools. The rush to connect schools of all levels, but especially middle and high schools, has been an issue of such prominence that it was included in the president's campaign platform. The breadth of influence that Internet technology is having on commerce, industry, broadcast information, and education is staggering. The result is a vast, rich, diverse “cyberspace,” which can also be, however, as unorganized as it is diverse, as unnavigable as it is vast, and as shallow as the latest bit of hot news to spread through it. To our children, the WWW is like having 500 tv channels. Surfing the Web is still largely a passive consumption activity, despite the advent of Java applets and increasing multimedia capabilities. Students and adults alike are subject to getting “hypertracked” - moving from Web page to Web page until they forget what they were looking for in the first place, and merely responding to whatever sparks an immediate reaction.

The benefits of this technology can be made to outweigh the drawbacks. Despite large amounts of uninteresting cyberjunk, the WWW can be a valuable research tool. More importantly, as schools rush to evolve their computer curricula, the very fact that students can progress from being consumers of Web pages to being authors of Web pages opens up a world of possibilities. Interesting avenues can be explored in student publishing that enrich students' use and understanding of the WWW, computer technology, and articulation. Some schools now allow students to publish personal homepages. The result of such efforts is a one-to-many broadcast of information. The homepage URL is given out by email, or stumbled upon by someone using a browser. Better efforts are those of computer clubs who publish a school newspaper on the WWW. In any event, such projects are embarked upon by the student because of an interest in learning about the computer or the WWW, and are often done outside of the context of the classroom. The ThinkQuest® Competition challenges students to collaborate during the summer break, preferably with students from geographically diverse schools, to build Web sites that teach other students.

Such efforts begin to take advantage of the WWW as a medium, rather than the computer as a tool. Students learn not only to use computer-based tools to build and house their Web pages, but in the process, they begin to think of the computer as a medium for expression, communication, and learning (Bruckman & Resnick, 1995; Kafai, 1995; Kafai & Resnick, 1996; Pea, 1994; Resnick & Rusk, in press). Their pages have an existence and an accessibility that transcends the boundaries of the school and introduces the notion of an unknown audience. All of a sudden, the student must not only consider what she wishes to put on a homepage, but also to whom the information will go. Effective use of the WWW within the classroom as part of the curriculum is still elusive.

At the Center for LifeLong Learning and Design, our use of technology in education has focused on blending constructionist systems, in the form of interactive simulations, with the support of network media, such as the WWW (Ambach, Perrone, & Repenning, 1995; Fischer, 1994; Fischer, 1995). Constructionism, based on the constructivist ideas of Piaget that stress that knowledge is constructed from a child's experiences in the world, proposes that people best construct new knowledge when they are engaged in personally meaningful tasks (Papert, 1993). In contrast, a more traditional, instructionist approach in the classroom treats a student as an empty vessel to be filled with facts. Ideally, these approaches should be combined, for on their own, each lacks a crucial element of the learning process. Instructionist methods often neglect the hands-on practical experience that constructionist methods stress and may ignore altogether the intrinsic motivation of self-direction, and constructionist methods stress de-contextualized doing with little or no intervention or presentation of fundamental material.

This paper presents two systems we have developed for classroom use, based on the foundation of combining interactive simulation games with the WWW technologies. WebQuest (Perrone, Clark, & Repenning, 1996) is a environment for middle school students to play and author interactive quest games using the WWW as a research resource. In the spirit of our lifelong learning research, the WebQuest system was adapted by a group of undergraduate design students in the College of Architecture and Planning, and in cooperation with the Boulder County Healthy Communities Initiative, as a game for adult and community education around the topic of Sustainable Neighborhoods, called Mr. Roger's Sustainable Neighborhood* (*we are discussing the use of this name with the legal holders of its copyright). Mr. Roger's incorporates the use of visual simulation and various neighborhood issues. The participant is asked to make a decision about these issues and is pointed to various supporting resources on the Web. Additionally, the user of Mr. Roger's Sustainable Neighborhood can use the simulation construction environment to model his/her own neighborhood, and program the issues most pertinent to it.

We will then present the current direction of our research; the expansion of technology that will allow local media for classrooms or neighborhoods to become remote media for sharing and collaboration. These mechanisms will allow the models developed in WebQuest, the Sustainable Neighborhood Game, and others to be used for sharing and collaboration over the WWW. We will explain the development and evolution of the Remote Explorium (Ambach, Perrone, & Repenning, 1995) into the Behavior Exchange (Repenning & Ambach, 1996), and the vision of Java-based MicroAgentsheets, all created to turn the World Wide Web into a more interactive, constructionist medium for learning and collaboration.

Local Media: Combining Simulation Games & the WWW

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Local Media: Combining Simulation Games & the WWW
  5. Media for Distributed Communities
  6. MicroAgentsheets
  7. Conclusion
  8. References

WebQuest

Often in Internet classrooms, when students are put in front of a computer, they soon get absorbed randomly browsing sites. Their attention is diverted from the teacher and directed only toward the computer. Instead of bringing their findings into an integrated discussion in the classroom, they are visiting sites that may not be related to their curricular material, and indeed, may even be undesirable to teachers and parents. Once hypertracked, it is difficult for the teacher to bring their attention back into the classroom. The multimedia available on the Internet has the ability to grab and hold students' attention. If one assumes that there are resources available that are valuable to students' research, the problem becomes keeping them focused in a productive way - finding, thinking about and then reframing and using this information.

Of course, this does not address discrepancies in the knowledge teachers have about technology and networks, which is a real and very serious issue, but rather focuses on how the computer can be transformed for students from a distraction into a medium for design. We have found that giving students a complex design task focuses their research on the Web, and keeps them absorbed in the simulation game they are building on the computer. The nature of a design task involves students in a real way doing or building something, in this case, a computational artifact. WebQuest is a construction environment combining both the game authoring environment, which was developed in the Agentsheets programming substrate, and the Netscape Navigator browser, that gives students a challenging task: to design and make an educational game to teach other students about the current curricular topic.

WebQuest has a palette of Renaissance characters and objects, a game board, and uses the Netscape browser. To play a quest, students choose a character from the palette and place it on the game board. They then navigate through the game board, making their way through forests and around obstacles, picking up interesting game objects. Scrolls are game objects connected to the WWW that pose questions which players must answer by searching on the Web. In this way, their search is directed and motivated by the game, however, it is not limited by it. If students are interested in what they see, they are able to continue browsing, but when they find the answer, they can bring it back into the game, collect their game objects and continue. Games are based on a theme. All questions on a game board relate to the theme, and players learn by doing research and discovering the answers to the questions.

Students using WebQuest can also author their own educational games. Once they have decided on a theme, which is either developed by the teacher, or chosen by the student, they research their topic on the Web, and use the information they find to develop questions that will be posed to players. They need to not only read these materials, but think critically about them in order to develop and pose their questions. In our most recent classroom test, students have chosen questions such as “What is Saturn's largest moon?”, “Who was Galilleo's last assistant?”, and “What is the surface of the sun called?”.

With their question worksheets in hand, they then use the palette of objects to build their own game boards by laying out forest and paths, rivers, trees and stones, and then choosing the obstacles and scrolls the players will encounter. Game objects such as keys, scrolls, islands, castles, purses of money, dragons, ships, and ferrymen can be easily programmed by middle school students to pose questions (for which money, jewels or keys are the reward), go to a specific Web page, or take the player to other levels in the game - inside a castle, or onto an island. In order to minimize the number of applications open on the screen and the amount of distraction, the WebQuest system contains mechanisms to both create and retrieve Web pages which pose these quest questions.

WebQuest has been used by children in grades six through twelve (middle through high school, ages 10 to 17), in both a classroom environment and several special science programs. Students are placed in groups of three or four, and work together to play and author games. Research topics have ranged from Computer Security to Africa. Once the groups in a classroom have finished authoring games, games are traded between groups. In this way, a dialog is started between authors and players, which facilitates reflective learning. We have seen that the use of WebQuest in the classroom reduces the “hypertrack” phenomenon, and provides students with a sanctioned forum for creating and sharing Web-based simulation artifacts.

Mr. Roger's Sustainable Neighborhood

Physical game research has shown that learning and communication about pertinent neighborhood issues can be facilitated by modeling and simulation. Mr. Roger's Sustainable Neighborhood was an effort to transfer physical board games used for these purposes to the computer, and to take advantage of the capabilities of the WWW to access information from other communities about the design of a sustainable future. “Mr. Roger's” was undertaken as an undergraduate student project in a design lab in the College of Architecture and Planning. It began with a survey that asked citizens in Boulder about physical characteristics and social situations in their neighborhood. The survey was then distributed to the members of the Boulder County Healthy Community Initiative, or BCHCI. BCHCI is a group of professionals and citizens interested in focusing on the issues of sustainability within their community. Thirty-one surveys were completed. The results were tabulated and incorporated into the situations and scores of the game. Both a physical board game and computerized simulation game were created.

Mr. Roger's was intended for use by a wide range of citizens, from middle school students to planning professionals. Players of the game navigate through the example neighborhood and encounter issues. Web pages explain the situation, for example, creating a neighborhood focus, which can be a park, or a shopping mall, and the pros and cons of each choice in terms of sustainability. A shopping mall might bring in jobs and act as a neighborhood gathering place; however, it would also increase traffic and perhaps crime. Players are pointed to relevant sites on the Web which present various solutions attempted by other communities, and information about how community resources are affected by these options. The player then selects a choice, and the neighborhood is changed visually to reflect their decision. They are then given a score for their choice, and can continue to navigate through the neighborhood until they reach the next decision point. On the game board, a bank serves as the scorekeeper.

As authors, users of Mr. Roger's can use the icons provided to model their own neighborhood. The palette contains various types of housing and roads, parks, several types of shopping establishments, restaurants, trees, streetlights, and even buses and bus stops. It was important to implement Mr. Roger's in the visual programming language Visual AgenTalk, so that the behavior of these agents could be quickly and easily adapted by authors to suit their own needs.

Currently, Mr. Roger's Sustainable Neighborhood is a continuing design project in the College of Architecture and Planning. In cooperation with the Center for LifeLong Learning and Design, it has been expanded to include a miniature simulation of the Boulder Hop bus route, and more integrated use of the WWW to include not only the game situations, but also local disclosure about the game and simulation. Our vision is to include various levels of simulation - such as transportation and water consumption information - to increase the educational value of the game for all of its users. Visual simulation is very effective to communicate the complex interactions of sustainability and the concepts of multiple causality, which is one of the strong points of the SimCity software suite; however, we seek to add the additional motivational factor that the game can be customized to reflect what is happening in the user's local neighborhood.

Media for Distributed Communities

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Local Media: Combining Simulation Games & the WWW
  5. Media for Distributed Communities
  6. MicroAgentsheets
  7. Conclusion
  8. References

The WebQuest mechanisms used in both the WebQuest and Mr. Roger's Sustainable Neighborhood environments are programmed on top of the Agentsheets (Repenning, 1993; Repenning, 1994; Repenning & Sumner, 1995) programming substrate. Agentsheets is an environment to create agent-based SimCity-like simulations. Individual agents are given their own look, called a depiction, and behavior. Behavior can be programmed visually using the Visual AgenTalk language, which is suitable for novice programmers, or with the more Lisp-like AgenTalk language. Once given a behavior, these agents act like cellular automata (Toffoli & Margolus, 1987) on a grid based worksheet, enacting their behavior upon receiving the appropriate triggers.

The Agentsheets Behavior Exchange and microAgentsheets are used as remote media. The role of a remote medium is to help members of distributed learning communities (such as students all over the world) communicate with each other. The Agentsheets Behavior Exchange (Repenning & Ambach, 1996) extends the notion of evolvable spaces to include not only textual artifacts but computational artifacts including simulations and agents.

In our previous work on the Remote Explorium (Ambach, Perrone, & Repenning, 1995) we supported designers of Agentsheets applications by allowing the exchange of entire Agentsheets applications via the Web. Our experience with the Remote Explorium indicated that there was a need to exchange not only whole simulations, but application components of a finer grain, including individual agents. The agents in Agentsheets can be created by novice programmers and can be shared and archived publicly via the Web. The Behavior Exchange serves as a Web-based forum for Agentsheets designers, ranging from middle school children to professionals, to discuss, share and exchange individual agents and agent-based simulations.

Through the use of the Behavior Exchange the design of computational artifacts becomes a social activity. The Behavior Exchange serves as a medium of constructive communication. The objects exchanged, agents - augmented with information about what the agent does, who created it, and why- become a new computational currency of social exchange. A typical exchange can work lie this:

  • 1
     Designer A creates interactive simulations or games using Agentsheets.
  • 2
     Individual agents or entire simulations are added by A to the Behavior Exchange by selecting the agents or simulations and submitting them to the Behavior Exchange. A provides textual rationale for what the agents or simulations do, and how they can be used by others.
  • 3
     Designer B browses the Behavior Exchange and finds some promising agents or simulations (Repenning & Ambach, 1996).
  • 4
    B simply drags the interesting agent or simulation out of the Web page into the Agentsheets environment.
  • 5
    Bcan either use the simulation or agents as is, or he or she can open up the new agents and inspect and modify their look and their behavior.
  • 6
    B can contribute the modified version of an agent to the Behavior Exchange, providing a rationale for what is different and why.

The Behavior Exchange features a growing collection of agent classes. Under the heading of Special Effect Agents, for example, one can find a simple Flash agent that can be used to create animation of explosions which are handy for a number of game-like applications. Agentsheets designers browsing the Behavior Exchange get a first impression of the behavior through an animated representation of the agent in the Web page. The Fire agent in Figure 6 is flickering and the Flash agent is exploding. Each agent is completely embedded within the HTML as a binary stream. That is, when designers, such as a student working on a questgame in WebQuest, for instance, find interesting behaviors, they will simply drag the agents out of the Web page into the Agentsheets application. This process will transfer the agent and all of its resources (icons providing that agent's look, and a Visual AgenTalk program providing that agent's behavior) into the designer's Agentsheets application, which is running locally on their computer.

image

Figure 6.  A Flash Agent is Dragged from the Behavior Exchange into a Game

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Agents are transferred as glass boxes, allowing other designers to change the original look and behavior of agents. As illustrated in the Visual AgenTalk program in Figure 7, the designer of the Flash agent had to create a large number of icons and define a timing sequence that caused the agent to switch between icons and play an explosion sound at the right time.

image

Figure 7.  A Visual AgenTalk Program for the Flash Agent

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In Figure 7 a designer has dragged the Flash agent into a space game in which it is used to denote an explosion resulting from laser beams hitting a target. Currently the Behavior Exchange features agents in categories such as Transportation: Roads inline image, traffic lights inline image and cars inline image; Special Effects (see above), and Musical Instruments, including pianos inline image, and trumpets inline image.

Though the Behavior Exchange was seeded by Webmasters in conjunction with Agentsheets designers, it is continually evolved by Agentsheets designers without the intervention of Webmasters. At some point, the Webmasters working with the Agentsheets designers will have to reseed the Behavior Exchange, when it comes time to establish new agent categories or provide new functionality.

MicroAgentsheets

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Local Media: Combining Simulation Games & the WWW
  5. Media for Distributed Communities
  6. MicroAgentsheets
  7. Conclusion
  8. References

MicroAgentsheets is an extension of Agentsheets that will allow users to convert their finished Agentsheets simulations into Java applets. Because Agentsheets will no longer have to be running in conjunction with a browser, this enables a much wider audience of users to access and interact with educational simulations created in Agentsheets. For instance, the Color Mixer applet shown below can be run in any Java-capable browser on any popular hardware and software platform.

MicroAgentsheets will compile Agentsheets code into Java code, which means that users capable of authoring a simulation in Agentsheets do not have to understand the Java programming language to be able to create their own web pages containing interactive applets. This represents a major conceptual leap, opening up the more dynamic aspects of the Web to non programmers.

Lowering the threshold of programming changes the Web into a new, exciting medium that will alter the way we think about teaching and learning. With this new medium, traditional educational practices can be augmented in ways that were impossible before. For instance, students can create interactive simulations and games, and share them not only with other students in their classroom, but with students all over the world.

Conclusion

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Local Media: Combining Simulation Games & the WWW
  5. Media for Distributed Communities
  6. MicroAgentsheets
  7. Conclusion
  8. References

New affordances of the web will change the way we think about education. Teaching and learning practices that were quite feasible not too long ago can become questionable very quickly. How much of a student's paper was cut and pasted from the Web, and how much is original work? As we grapple with bringing more and more students online, it becomes clear that our focus must shift between one of using the WWW as another tool to a vision of the computer as a medium through which students can express themselves. As we use our design environments in classroom and computer club settings, we find the design, construction and sharing of simulation artifacts encourages this paradigm shift. For more information:

  • 1
     The Center for LifeLong Learning & Design
  • 2
     WebQuest & Mr. Roger's Sustainable Neighborhood
  • 3
     Agentsheets, the Behavior Exchange, and MicroAgentsheets

References

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Local Media: Combining Simulation Games & the WWW
  5. Media for Distributed Communities
  6. MicroAgentsheets
  7. Conclusion
  8. References
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