The Costumed Character “Buford Beaver”

For my summer job while in high school, in 1977 I passed a stage audition at the Busch Gardens theme park, in Williamsburg Virginia, to perform as the costumed character “Buford Beaver.” Just today, I found a long-lost photo that shows me, in costume, with my mother and grandmother, check it out!

Keith Sawyer performing as Buford Beaver 1977I stumbled onto this job by accident. I originally auditioned to be a pianist in one of the theme park’s many stage shows. I didn’t get the gig, but somehow they thought I might make a good costumed character, so they invited me back for that audition. I was on stage with about 40 people who were hoping for the job, and the directors put us through a series of non-verbal improvisational exercises. We did group improv, and then we each did a solo improv. For mine, I was asked to improvise being a piece of bread, going into a toaster, popping up out of the toaster, and then being spread with butter and jelly. I had no experience with acting or improvising, and I’d never been on stage before, but I was too far along to say no. So I went all out!

When unexpected zigs and zags come your way, embrace them and own it!

Computer Games and Learning

There’s been lots of research lately on how computer games can be used to inspire new educational software–software that’s aligned with what we know about how people learn. Most scholars who study this are learning scientists, and there’s a chapter summarizing this research in my 2014 book, The Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences.

Here’s a review of a new report called Impact with Games: A fragmented field, taken from the ProfHacker blog. The report emphasizes a problem I’ve often noted: There’s a disconnect between learning sciences research–which tells us exactly how people learn–and policy and evaluation research, which measures learning outcomes.

I’ve written a lot about using and making games for the classroom here at ProfHacker, as while games and learning have been around for a long time our ability (and interest) in realizing their potential is on the rise. One of the continuing challenges for bringing games into education is assessing the impact of games on learning. Often, it’s hard even to agree on what we want games to accomplish: are we most interested in raising student engagement? Reaching learners who are alienated by traditional lectures? Increasing critical thinking and analysis skills? Or getting content memorized or absorbed?

Games for Change and the Michael Cohen Group just released a report, Impact with Games: A Fragmented Field, that addresses some of these questions. It’s a great read for those of us thinking about the ramifications and challenges games present for higher education. Today I’m going to take a look at a few of the highlights that might be particularly of interest for ProfHackers working with digital pedagogy.

The group found five sources of disconnect within the field that contribute to the challenge of measuring impact: of those, two that strike me as particularly important are that ”Impact is defined too narrowly” and ”Evaluation methods are inflexible.” These are some of the frustrations with assessment that accompany any digital pedagogy, as we may default to using comparative measures (does this game “teach” better than a lecture?) rather than defining new metrics for a different type of learning

Defining games by their impact is one way to find great games that become the imitable standards for socially conscious or serious gaming. However, these games don’t all “teach” content in an expected way, and the impact of a game might even be entirely unrelated to knowledge-based outcomes–for instance, a great game might bring a team together for collaboration and problem-solving in new ways. The team observes that: ”When evaluators and researchers stick too rigidly to their preferred methods they lose the flexibility required to tailor assessment to unusual and complex games. Such rigidity can be dangerous, sometimes leading to games based on evaluation methods (rather than methods based on the game).”

If you’ve ever played a game that feels more like a test (the perennial favorite classroom Jeopardy comes to mind), you’ve probably experienced some of the consequences of making games based on clearly assessable outcomes. When I work with teams of educators making games for the first time, often the very first game idea that comes out is something with a string of questions or challenges with right and wrong answers that map easily to assessment: right answers let the player move forward, while wrong answers keep them stationary. But as their ideas progress, educators shift away from games that resemble assessment: take a look at Parable of the Polygons, a game exploring biases by Nicky Case & Vi Hart, or This War of Mine, a war survival simulator from 11 bit studios, and it becomes apparent how different “impact” can be.