Digital Learning Games as Skinner Boxes

My latest on Huffington Post discusses how I believe that digital learning games need to be more than “make the right choice, get a reward.” This mindset is akin to the ‘Skinner Box,’ an experiment by psychologist B.F. Skinner where he put a hungry rat in a box with a lever in it.  Whenever the rat pulled the lever, food was dispensed that he could eat. Digital learning games must be more than this!

“Digital Learning Games Must be More than Skinner Boxes” (Huffington Post)


Assessment and Digital Tools/Games

EdSurge recently published an article, “Can games and digital tools help students take fewer tests?”  It’s always nice to see in-depth discussion about the capabilities of digital tools and games in the learning realm.  And indeed, the future will include more digital tools with types of assessment embedded in.  No doubt.

However *cue dramatic music*

I don’t understand why the conversation on digital tools and games for learning is always so against what is done for learning today. Here the conversation is on embedding assessment-like activity within the tool or game and limiting traditional assessments and such. This way, you can use the data from the digital tool to show if the students have achieved mastery with the content.  This is wonderful!  But how about we hear more on how this kind of assessment can work with traditional assessments to create an unparalleled learning experience? Maybe the data from the digital tool or game can help with traditional test design, so that the numerous tests the students take have as great of a meaning to them and their learning as possible?

Just throwing that out there. A lot of “either-or” these days.  Where’s the love?!

Can Mixed Reality Games Improve Learning?

Researchers from the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University (Pittsburgh, PA) recently looked into whether using physical objects paired with interactive feedback (enabled by using Microsoft’s Kinect) enhances learning and enjoyment over a screen-only experience. This is a good question to explore as the number of mixed reality games will likely only grow in the future.

In the report, Learning from Mixed-Reality Games: Is Shaking a Tablet as Effective as Physical Observation?, the researchers detail a study of 98 6-8 year old children playing a game called EarthShake. The children engaged in four versions of the game – 2 were mixed reality versions that included the Kinect cameras, and 2 were screen-only versions (one laptop+mouse; one tablet).

Learning improved in the Kinect-enhanced versions of EarthShake by five times over the completely screen-based versions of the game, and the level of enjoyment was greater as well.

This brings up the question of what the next level of learning games will look like.  Perhaps the screen-only experiences that dominate today are only a tip of the iceberg towards outstanding learning experiences. Moving the experience more off the screen may open up possibilities that the screen just can’t facilitate.  It is certainly something to consider.

Check out the full report for more on the study and their results.

Now Playing: Citizen Science by Filament Games


I’m currently trying out Citizen Science by Filament Games.  It was published in 2011, but the great thing about learning games is that they don’t have to be measured by the latest graphics and technology (*cough Playstation Xbox cough*). In other words, I don’t feel outdated playing the game for the first time.

The game has you travel back in time to help stop the pollution of a local lake.  There is learning to be had, of course, including (from my first foray into the game) the concept of building arguments! Nice.

To check out the game for yourself, visit:

Games for Learning: Nanocrafter

NanoCoverScreenshot of Nanocrafter, from the Center for Game Science

The Center for Game Science recently released Nanocrafter, a game that allows players to put together strands of DNA through strand displacement (reactions that occur between three or more strands of DNA). This respresents, on a virtual scale, the practice of synthetic biology.  Players have to put these strands together through the completion of puzzles that get increasingly more difficult.

The field of synthetic biology is one that I am just learning about.  Apparently, it is a small field (so I don’t feel as bad anymore, ha!) yet it is growing.  This game gives players an opportunity to gain insight, perspective and even skill in the field.

I took the game for a quick spin and learned more about DNA in 5 minutes than I ever knew!  The game does a good job, for novice DNA-people like myself, of walking the player through the strand reactions and what they mean.  This seems like a very good tool to introduce people to this field of synthetic biology, and may indeed help the developers reach their goal of increasing “the numbers of workers in the field by orders of magnitude.”

Review: Simmons Fascinates in Villainous Turn in ‘Whiplash’


I finally got a chance to see Whiplash, starring Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons and directed by Damien Chazelle.  I wanted to see this movie from the first time I saw the trailer months ago, but never got around to it.  J.K. Simmons won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his role in this film as musical instructor Terence Fletcher, which made me decide that I needed to see the film sooner rather than later.

In short, this is a terrific film that I plan to watch again in the near future.  Simmons’ performance as the ridiculous, borderline maniacal Fletcher is a joy to watch.  He is one of the best villains I’ve seen in a supporting role since Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight.  And make no mistake about it, he is a villain in this movie. But unlike the Joker, Fletcher has layers of humanity that shine through the nuances of Simmons’ performance (which is why he definitely deserved that Oscar).  Fletcher pushes his students because he wants them to be great – yet at the same time, does he want them to be great for their sake or for his own ego? The argument can go back and forth on this one.

Teller’s performance as Andrew Neiman, an outsider type who finds his muse through playing the drums, is a well-crafted, grounded turn.  Neiman awkwardly walks through life, only finding solace when he’s banging on the drums.  But worse, he finds the most solace when he’s banging the drums within Fletcher’s band, despite verbal, physical, and psychological abuse from the instructor.  A budding romance with lady friend Nicole (Melissa Benoist) stands little chance against Neiman’s pursuit to be one of the greatest drummers ever.  The only person who seems to show compassion for Neiman throughout the film (or that Neiman allows to show him compassion throughout) is his dad Jim (Paul Reiser). Even that relationship, however, can’t hold a candle to the greatness Neiman feels he can reach with Fletcher.

So it’s no surprise that the foundation of this film is the ultra-tense relationship—or more appropriately, the escalating rivalry— between Fletcher and Neiman.  Fletcher uses tactics to push Neiman that should get him fired, but Neiman just comes back for more.  Nothing can stop Neiman’s pursuit for musical greatness, not even unexpected twists of fate (you’ll have to see the movie to know what I’m talking about).

Neiman’s determination is fascinating to watch, because you just know that Fletcher will never let up. Fletcher won’t go soft, and he won’t take it easy on Neiman.  That’s not the character that Simmons portrays.  He portrays a rather vile person who lives in a world where the greatest of men must get that way through any means necessary.  Yet the story is crafted in a way that helps you understand why Fletcher thinks this way, even if you don’t agree with the means he uses to try to make his vision of the world happen (and in cinema, these are usually the best villains).

All in all, Whiplash is like watching one long continuous mind game, and the main actors (along with the supporting cast) certainly stepped up to the challenge and made it work.  This is a timeless film from Damien Chazelle, and a definite recommendation for all fans of cinema.

NFL Divisional Round Playoff Picks

The NFL Divisional Playoff Round has long been considered the best weekend of football of the year.  The games usually deliver, and this weekend’s batch of contests look like they won’t disappoint.  Let’s take a look at the games and throw some predictions out there!

Baltimore Ravens vs. New England Patriotstom-brady-leaves-practice-with-a-possible-knee-injury

This Patriots team is the most reminiscent of the teams that won 3 Super Bowls last decade.  Tom Brady is…Tom Brady, so that always presents a problem for opposing defenses.  Maybe most important, the Patriots are battle tested this year.  They played – and dominated – the following playoff teams: Denver, Cincinnati, Detroit, Indianapolis.  They hung tough in the game of the year against Green Bay.  They fended off their pesky division rivals.  They finished as the #1 seed and looked like a team ready for a Super Bowl run.

The Ravens, however, are always there and waiting to ruin all of the fun.  They are consistently the thorn in the side of every AFC contender.  John Harbaugh has done a great job with the team, and let’s not forget that they overcame adversity this year due to the Ray Rice situation.  If Joe Flacco has a solid game (and he’s more than capable) the Ravens have a legit shot of pulling this off.


I don’t think the Patriots have come all this way just to lose in this round.  And this Ravens team is not quite as stout as the teams that have beaten New England in the playoffs in the past.

Prediction: Patriots 34 Ravens 20

Carolina Panthers vs. Seattle

This is probably the game that a lot of people are overlooking.  Superbowl Champs against a team that didn’t finish above .500 in the regular season?  Pssst.

But I’m looking forward to this game because it has the potential to be a good ol’ fashion knock-em out drag-em out contest.  It will be ugly at times. In a league where points accumulate faster than in pinball machines, a low-scoring, hard-hitting bout is a nice change of pace.  I think the Panthers will play Seattle tough for the first half. Don’t be surprised to see a low score like 6-3 going into halftime. But Seattle, much like New England, did not come this far to lose in their first playoff matchup.  Look for the Seahawks to turn it up in the 2nd half like they did in games over the last stretch of the regular season.  Carolina will play hard, but Seattle is just too good.

Prediction: Seattle 24 Carolina 10

Dallas Cowboys vs. Green Bay Packers
Green Bay Packers v Dallas Cowboys

UGH this is hard for me to predict. As you may know, I am a tried-and-true Philadelphia fan.  So of course seeing the Cowboys here makes my stomach turn.  But looking at this as a football fan, the Cowboys have everything going their way.  This includes a bucket-load of momentum/swag/mojo, whatever you want to call it.  Sometimes to win these games you need a bit of luck; you need calls to go your way and the ball to magically bounce to you all the time.  The Cowboys seem to have this going on at the moment.  And they’re a good – if not very disciplined – team.  Tony Romo is a good QB who is shedding the ghosts of his past football mistakes.  Dez Bryant is a future hall of famer, most likely.  DeMarco Murray is a monster and shows no signs of slowing down (why oh why didn’t I draft him on my Fantasy team this year?!).  The Cowboys offense has what it takes to control the tempo of the game – which is exactly how you can beat the Packers.

If the Packers offense is allowed to dictate the pace, it will be a long day for the Cowboys.  Aaron Rodgers is the best QB, skill-wise, in the game.  However, he will be hampered by his strained calf.  This means that Eddie Lacy will need to have at least a solid game in order to take the pressure off of Rodgers.

This may end up being the best game of the weekend.  I don’t think the cold will matter.  I hate who I’m about to pick, but Rodgers not being 100% makes it tough for me to pick against the Cowboys.

Prediction: Cowboys 27 Packers 24

Indianapolis Colts vs. Denver Broncos
Denver Broncos v Indianapolis Colts

I’m surprised this game isn’t getting more attention.  The storylines are all there – Manning with a chance to eliminate his old team from the playoffs.  Luck with a chance to signal a passing (or taking) of the torch by eliminating his predecessor.  A talented but aging Broncos team against the up-and-coming but seriously flawed Colts team. It may come down to the fact that people have soured on both of these teams as Super Bowl contenders.  But there are certainly no locks in the NFL playoffs, so maybe it’s actually better for these teams that they are kind of under the radar.

This is anybody’s game and tough to call. Andrew Luck can literally will the Colts to victory.  The Broncos, for all their problems this year, are still a good team!  They also have a great running game to ease the pressure off of Manning.  In the end, I don’t think the Colts have enough momentum/swag/mojo to overcome the talent differential between them and the Broncos.

Prediction: Broncos 37 Colts 27

Shark Tank Recap: Biaggi, S.W.A.G Essentials, Gameday Couture, and Zipz

sharktank logo

Friday night’s Shark Tank was one of the better episodes of the season.  The entrepreneurs were resilient, the products were interesting, and one of the biggest deals in the show’s history took place. So let’s dive right in and bite into the episode’s highlights (puns intended. Puns so intended):

The Judges: Mark Cuban, Lori Greiner, Robert Herjavec, Daymond John, and Kevin O’Leary

Pitch 1: Biaggi
Trep: Steven Hersch, Brooklyn, NY
Asking for: $500,000 for a 30% equity stake

Steven pitched the most practical product of the evening: luggage that could fold flat for easier storage.  Who doesn’t need this? My closet right now has a bulky piece of luggage tossed in there.  At least I would be able to fold it flat before tossing it in there.

Steven’s pitch was good overall, but he stumbled a bit when he admitted that it was a challenge to educate consumers on the benefits of foldable luggage (over normal, ever-bulky luggage like the bag in my closet). Daymond, however, was intrigued enough to offer $500,000 for a 33% stake and tried to close the deal quickly.  Lori got in on the fun, offering the same deal but hinting that she would change the name and packaging of the product.

“She’s giving you a Janet Jackson deal… ‘cause she wants control.”
– Daymond to Steven, referring to Lori

While Steven called his father for advice, Lori and Daymond discussed what resources they could provide for Biaggi.  Of course Lori, with her QVC connection and all that comes with it, was a better fit. So once Steven returned from his phone call, Daymond took back his offer and admitted that he thought Lori would be a better fit. Steven then accepted Lori’s offer.

Honor before glory on Shark Tank. Who knew?

Deal: Lori

Pitch 2:
S.W.A.G Essentials (Soaps, Washes and Grooming Essentials)
Trep: Lydia Evans, Houston TX
Asking for: $125,000 for a 20% equity stake

Lydia, with 8 years of experience in dermatology, brought an all-natural soap bar for men that cleanses, exfoliates, and disinfects to prevent razor burn and hair bumps. What made this pitch memorable was Lydia’s confident personality, so confident that the pitch ventured into Love Connection territory.  After Lydia disclosed that she makes all of the soaps at home in addition to working another job, the following exchange took place:

Daymond – “That sounds time-consuming…and what does your husb- uh, are you married?”
Lydia – “No sir. You know some single guys?” *flirty stare*

Lydia’s confidence was not enough to get a deal, however. The Sharks agreed that it was too early in her venture to ask for such money. And Daymond – who ended up being Lydia’s last hope – thought that he would be of little service to her due to his lack of knowledge about soap production.

Lydia had to go, but did so in a blaze of glory:

“Call me.”
– Lydia to Daymond

Not really sure what else to say here so let’s move on…

No Deal
shark tank

Pitch 3:
Gameday Couture
Treps: Shawnna and Kurt Feddersen
Asking for: $500,000 for a 20% equity stake

Shawnna and Kurt pitched high-quality fashion items for female college sports fans. We’re talking long-sleeved University of Alabama tunics and trendy Baylor University blouses.

Kevin reminded us that he’s the lightning rod on the show by running down the product’s valuation:

“Why are you worth two and a half million dollars?”
“You don’t make any cash flow…”
“I think you overpriced your business…”

You get the picture.

Shawnna and Kurt attempted to woo Daymond, but Mark Cuban stepped in and showed real interest. He offered $500,000 for 30% with a stipulation he wouldn’t reveal unless they took his deal immediately.  Shawnna and Kurt accepted, and Mark revealed that the stipulation was that they had to make some fashionable Dallas Mavericks gear for his wife. The company has certainly delivered. Smooth move, Mark.  Smooth move.

Deal: Mark

Pitch 4:
Trep: Andrew McMurray
Asking for: $2.5 million for a 10% equity stake

$2.5 million is quite a bit of money to ask from anybody. Yet Andrew was confident enough in his product’s potential to give it a shot.  Zipz are portable “glasses” of wine – you unzip the outside wrapper, unscrew the air-tight lid and attach it to the bottom as a coaster, peel off the seal and drink up.

“Our packages are going to become to the wine industry what the aluminum can became to the soda industry.”
– Andrew to the Sharks

The container that held the wine was so strong that Andrew stood on it.  Because that’s surely what I would do with portable wine.

After some back and forth with the sharks about patents, and comparisons to a past Shark Tank guest who had portable wine, Kevin made his play.  Focusing on the prospect of getting the product into Costco stores, Kevin told Andrew he could work with him if the per-glass price (originally $2.99) was lowered to about $1.49.  Kevin turned up the pressure by offering the $2.5 million at 10%, but requesting the option for him to get that same valuation even if Andrew eventually sold the company to someone else at a higher valuation.   The negotiation showdown here between Kevin and Andrew made for great television, and Andrew had to leave to talk to the investors of Zipz.

“This is the best offer Kevin’s ever made to somebody…”
– Robert to the other Sharks

“These wine guys drive me crazy.”
– Kevin to the world

When Andrew returned, Kevin continued pushing for the deal before Andrew finally said, “I’m on board.”

And with that, another great episode came to a close.

Deal: Kevin

Trusting the Learner

We are in a day and age where the learner in any situation is as knowledgeable as ever. Before the internet, the lead instructor (teacher, workshop leader, or whomever) in a formal or informal learning environment was the beholder of knowledge.  The resident expert.  The sage on the stage. Although learners were knowledgeable, the dynamics of learning environments before the digital age created a situation where the learners looked to the instructor for a world of knowledge.

While this is still true today to some extent, high-speed internet and multimedia communications has changed the dynamics drastically.  Learners of all ages now have access to a world of knowledge at their fingertips.  “Google” is 6 letters away (plus a .com). There are many, many free videos online where people are teaching you everything under the sun. Social media allows for local and world news to spread at the drop of a dime.  Now it is very likely that the learner will enter a learning situation (be it formal or informal) with a bevy of knowledge and experience about the particular topic at hand.  That knowledge may range from a rough idea that needs to be molded, to a thorough understanding that needs to be affirmed.

If we haven’t before, now is the time to trust the learner.  Now is the time to create learning environments that empower the learner to use their wisdom and experiences to the benefit of the overall learning experience.  In informal education settings, this is especially important; empowering the learner in an informal education environment could be one of the keys to enticing that learner to come back to subsequent sessions.

The question is, how do we do this? How do we trust the learner?  First, I believe it starts with an acknowledgement that we are in a digital age, and the instructor/learner dynamic as a whole has changed. No longer is the instructor the absolute beholder of knowledge.  Second, we must create learning environments that give learners the chance to show what they know and the chance to put  that knowledge into practice.  By giving learners a sense of empowered agency through the creation of a supportive learning environment, we are giving them the trust they need to contribute mightily to the learning experiences of this digital age.


Pondering the Future of Informal Education


I believe that informal education – such as the education programs that informal learning institutions like museums have – will take on a role of increased importance in the near future.  While educational institutions have to deal with factors such as Common Core standards, high-stakes testing, structural complications, and much more, informal education programs have more flexibility in providing enriching learning experiences. The key, of course, is that these learning experiences must ultimately contribute to the overall mission of the sponsoring group, organization, or institution.

While these learning experiences may not match the level that is found within a school (and thus, could never replace them) I feel that they will serve as even more beneficial supplements in the future.  21st century skills, soft skills, life skills and more are increasingly important for success in the modern age. While schools may not have the time or resources to allow students to explicitly practice these skills in the classroom, informal education programs can make this a major focus without too much constraint.  In doing so, the organizations, groups, or institutions can give the participating learners enticing reasons to return and learn more – even beyond the informal education program.

Of course, let’s not forget the ultimate variable – technology.  Technology has opened the door for new and dynamic learning experiences in and out of the classroom.  But just like with formal education, if technology is to be used in an informal education learning environment it must be used thoughtfully and strategically.

Informal education will not replace formal education, and it shouldn’t.  But it can go places that maybe formal education won’t be able to go.  And technology could take it even beyond that.  That sounds to me like a very exciting future.

Image from