Thursday, March 31, 2005

Animated Characters with PowerPoint Challenge

Well, the deadline has passed. I received NO submission to the challenge.

Is it too hard? Is it not interesting enough? Is the deadline too soon? Is the prize too small? Is the technique you can learn from the challenge not worth putting in any effort? Are you too busy? Is the timing of the challenge at the wrong time?

I have no clue!

But this illustrates a typical scenario of "informal" learning - we may have a lot of lurkers, but only a very small percentage of the participants will do something.

This is what this blog is about. How can we design activities that can solicit a more general participations? In a formal learning environment, that's relatively easy. You enforce the need to handing in assignment. In informal situation like this, what can you do? Any suggestion is welcome.

Monday, March 28, 2005

Are blogs good for education?

Bill Bruck wrote in his blog,

Well, they aren't awful. They are fashionable right now, and so may gain learner acceptance. They get learners to write, which is inherently good, and to express their opinions - which may or may not be a good thing. But there's a fundamental problem with blogs: They are essentially optimized for easily publishing one’s opinions on the web. This is fundamentally a flawed model for education. It promotes narcissism, not dialog.

[my emphasis]

I generally agree with Bill's overall argument (please read the rest of the post for his argument). However, the conclusion that blog (or any collaborative tool) is fundamentally flaw for education is something which I disagree. I have made a clear distinction between collaborative tool and collaborative learning activity, see my first post to this blog. Hence I call this blog "Collaborative Learning Activities" which I look at how collaborative tools can be used for supporting Collaborative Learning Activities. It is the instructional (or learning) design which create the learning context and it is the tools which enable such design to be delivered. Yes, you should not use a hammer for everything. Some tools are better to handle a task than others. Following the linked discussion forum to Bill's post, a reader, Denham Grey, wrote,
There is some synergy to having all 3 forms (blogs, Wiki and bulletin boards) available to students. Here is how I see the play:

Bulletin boards:
Stay away from the dreaded threaded stuff. Include participation metrics in the grading system (originality, reciprocity, frequency, constructivism) not just me too / I agree comments.

Students should be requited to compile their e-portfolios, gather important links, keep a homepage, maintain rough notes, be open to annealing and refractoring practices. Collaborative writing is an important component of group work and a key skill in today's business word.

Encourage opinion diversity within a class. Provide 'protection' and a sense of permanency to timid voices. There needs to be some agreed social practice to summarize and synthesize those diverse opinions.

Now, we are starting to see how these tools can be used in educational setting. Here is another use suggested by David W. Locke:

What if blogs were used to keep class notes? I'm not saying do this, so that some students wouldn't need to keep notes. Rather, do it so that notes become a diverse source. Students would have to figure out things like source quality for themselves.

All these technique together, we have a better technological environment to create our learning context. The task, I still believe strongly, is the create the motivation and "learning context" to help the learners learn.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Yahoo! Research Labs and O’Reilly Media Lauch Tech Buzz Game

Matt Pasiewicz pointed out two online trading games (both are free to play): Buzz Game and Blogshares.

He questions:

Will technologies inspired by the Buzz Game, Blogshares, and fantasy teams make their way into the classroom in a pervasive, systemic way? Will they actually support learning?

There are a number of reports and papers* on the use of games such as the Sims, SimCity etc. in learning. These games are mostly solo player game and the player is playing "god". The success of the game is determined by the built-in logics in the games and hence are not under the control of the teacher. I have always doubtful of the effectiveness of such games.

The two games "Buzz Game" and "Blogshares" are multi-user games. I don't know whether Blogshares is a zeo-sum game or not. Buzz Game, according to the website, is a zeo-sum game. In a way, these games model the real market closer compared to other solo player trading games. By themselves, they are NOT learning envirnoment. However, if a course is built around these games, pointing out and explaining theories for the players to trading, these game environments are wonderful spaces to try out strategies.

I agree with Matt that we should wait for empirical data before we jump to any conclusion.

*Examples are:
Games-based learning
Role Play Simulation for teaching and learning

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Existing research on the use of "Pedagogical Agent"

Prompted by the current discussion of IFETS-DISCUSSION, I use "pedagogical agent" in Google and find a large number of research results on the use of the Microsoft Agents.

Now that I have introduced the world how to use these agents in PowerPoint for story telling, may be you can start incorporating them in your other projects as well. Please leave a comment here if you find a good project which makes good (pedagogically speaking) use of these agent. Let collectively create a repository of useful resources for this topic. First, I will need to find a free wiki site to host the repository ....

Monday, March 14, 2005

Getting MS agent to work in your PowerPoint

Some of you have communicated to me that they cannot get the Microsoft agent to work in order to create the animated PowerPoint. Here are the detailed steps to make sure that it will work - for Windows XP.

Windows XP comes with the agent runtime installed - but only have one character file for you to use. Go to the windows directory and open the msAgent sub-directory. Inside there is a chars sub-directory. Inside you will see the characters that your system has. By default, it will only have one file: merlin.acs.

So go to Microsoft Agent download page for end-users. At the top of the page, there is a content section. Get the following via links in the content section.

  • Microsoft Agent character files. Get all of them, except Merlin which you already have. Save them somewhere. After downloading, double click to install. You can check your installation by looking at the chars directory as above. Here is another website which has more characters for you to download.

  • text-to-speech engine. I downloaded British version. The American version sounds better in fact.

  • SAPI 4.0 runtime support. This is the required speech support file. Download and save to somewhere. Double click to install. For some reason, the license of the file is invalid, so you CANNOT install directly from the link on the web page!

  • To get the sample, go to Microsoft Agent 2.0 Sample: PowerPoint 97 Presentation Narrator and download the sample. [You may like to get the 2000 version] Save it somewhere. Double click to open. It will ask you if you want to allow the script to run. Choose "yes". By default, it will open the PowerPoint in the notes view. Run it to see the demonstration. You need to "wiggle" your mouse over the word "Merlin" in the front page to get the agent to come out. Please watch through a few slides before you stop it. Make sure you can see the bird (Peedy) come out too.

If you can get to this stage, you have all tools you need to meet my challenge in the last post. So don't stop here. Read on. You are just one step from liberating your creativity.

Stop your PowerPoint presentation (press ESC). Go back to the first slide. In the notes view, you will see the instruction. Here are a few key points.

  • For each slide, any wordings before the funny ^*#{}#*^ is your notes. Any thing after that line is commands to the agent.

  • If you already have an agent on screen, you don't need to show the agent. As in the first slide, you cannot assume there is any agent on screen. So you can use the command SHOW to show the agent. (All commands are in CAPITALS) This SHOW command takes the name of the agent, the agent file name and position on screen. Please experiment.

  • The command SAY is the activation of the text-to-speech engine to say the words by the agent. If the pronunciation of the word is different from the rule, you can put the correct pronunciation in a bracket.
    For example, in slide 3 we have the command
    SAY This is where I come {inn=in}.
    It will display "in" in the balloon, but sound like "inn".

  • MOVE command allows you to move the agent to anywhere on the screen.

  • PLAY command is the most interesting - and you and your students may spend most of your time playing with. PLAY will play an animation loop available with the agent. Different agent supports different animation loops and they may be all different. Check the documentation of which animations are supported by your agent.

These are all technical stuff. The important thing about the design challenge is to create a pedagogical demonstration which can motivate your students to use the technique to write stories - animated play to be accurate.

So get your creativity going and send me your PowerPoint before 28th March 2005. The prize is a one year subscription (6 issues) to e-Learning Magazine.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Storytelling - beyond PowerPoint

A post Telling a Story -- with PowerPoint? has prompted me to dig up my old bag of tricks.

What about giving your students a project involving technology and story telling? Here is a lesson plan for your adaptation.

Teach your students how to organise a good story, e.g. use the template suggested by Dave Pollard.

and may be with further information about story structures such as Pyramid Principle turned sideways or Elevator Pitches.

Group your students into small groups and let them know that they are going to create a 10-minutes animated play as a project. Show them your animation*. Open your animation and show how you did the first screen or two. Send them off. When they have finished their project (in a week or two), they will have an animated play of their stories. Have a show and tell session. During this session, give them a handout with the name of the story from each group and some appreciation/evaluation rubrics. The students are asked to rank the stories (except their own).

This exercise involves the students in the creation, then critical evaluation other's work. Should be fun!

What is the agent?
Click on this link to see the animated agent in action. Make sure you open this link using Internet Explorer on a Windows machine. If it does not work, you are not running Windows XP and you need to download some runtime. Follow the instruction in the next section and try again.

Technology requirement:
You will need windows to have the animated characters playing and talking. If you are running Windows XP, the required runtime is already installed. Otherwise, go to Microsoft Agent download page for end-users. This will enable you and your students to play the animated PowerPoint.

To create the animated PowerPoint, you need to get the MS PowerPoint agent narrator: The PowerPoint 2000 version or PowerPoint 97 version.

You may want to get more characters as well: Genie, Merlin, Peedy and Robby from Microsoft and some other as well. See the additional resource section.

*What about we have a little competition here? Please create your demonstration animated PowerPoint (theme: "how to use animated PowerPoint to teach story telling") and send it to me (albertipwingchung AT with the subject "animated story telling". I will share all your submission here later. If you have included characters other than those from Microsoft, please tell me the source of the character file so that I can download them as well. The best submission will have a little gift from me. This competition closes on 28th March 2005. My decision of the winner is final, OK?

Monday, March 07, 2005

Group, formal learning & Informal learning

Here are a few environment factors that drive me to look at the problem from this particular angle:

1. I have been critical about the school system in the developed countries (see Our world is changing, our schools are failing,.... but not mine to start with) and this view is starting to pick up discussions.

2. We started our life-long learning with informal learning. We learnt our initial vocab from our parents and immediate relatives. We learnt our basic social skill before going to kindergarten. We then started our formal learning stage, until we join the work force. Another cycle of informal learning starts again when we need to continue to improve our skills and adapt to new ways of doing things.

I don't believe it is time to start demolishing the school system any time soon. I still believe that there is a place for formal learning where children are offered "education" in a systematically via an institution.

3. There a strong current in promoting Blog (or other informal learning techniques) as the solution to a more liberated and appropriate learning technology, e.g. the work of Stephen Downes and others.

I am not disagreeing that informal learning has its place in our life. In fact I recognise how important they are.

As a technologist, I am looking at the fundamental difference in formal learning and informal learning and what they contribute to our formation of "us".

One of the major difference of formal learning and informal learning is the context in which we conduct our learning. At least with the current education system, during formal learning, we have a relatively steady group which we interact and work collaboratively and co-operatively for an extended period of time. We are obliged to work with the group, irrespectively of whether you find the group friendly or otherwise. We are also forced to take some subjects which we do not particularly enjoy. We learn to be disciplined enough in managing our time to meet artificially imposed deadlines (project deadlines set up by the teachers deliberately to make our life miserable!). We undergo very stressful examination which is useless to measure our own success - but with so much stake riding on it that we cannot forget about it.

In informal learning, we choose to participate in groups we like. We read blogs in line with our own thinking - as part of our continuous growth. On the other hand, we find information with the aim of solving immediate problems - just-in-time information, not just-in-case! Will my bias towards something increase due to my continual reading of material that reinforce my original bias? or will I be more inclusive of other ideas because I read wider?

Here are a lot of questions I don't have an answer.

But one thing I am sure. If the e-learning technology is to embrace both formal and informal learning, we must have a better understand of the effect of groups and cohorts. We must somehow build the concept of cohort into our learning standards and make a big splash about this concept. Collaborative learning strategies may be the thin edge needed to push this concept into main stream learning technologies.