lördag 31 augusti 2013

Handbook for project-based courses

I was invited to a meeting last week at a KTH vice-rector's office. The vice-rector had tasked the department of learning at the KTH school of education and communication in engineerings science with writing a handbook for how to design and implement project-based courses. The goal is to write the handbook during the autumn and to print it (and hand out a copy to each teacher at KTH?) in the beginning of next year. The handbook will also be available online.

I know the persons who are responsible for carrying through the project, Marie Magnell and Anna-Karin Högfeldt. They know I'm responsible for a project-based course and invited me (and some other teachers) to a start-up meeting for this project. Marie will do most of the actual work; she will follow a handful of project courses during the autumn. Since my course is one of them she will interview me, attend a few lectures/events in my course and perhaps also interview some of the students who take the course.

I don't know exactly how the handbook will be structured. Perhaps my course will feature as an example of a project-based course, or perhaps they will exemplify different aspects of project-based courses in the handbook with practices and examples from different courses. The purpose of the handbook is to create better conditions for university teachers as KTH and elsewhere to create "well-designed interdisciplinary project-based courses with open-ended questions".

There is a long list of issues they plan to discuss in the handbook; course design, learning goals, activities, examination, creating teams and teamwork, motivation, finding project tasks, cooperation with industry, creative methods, writing reports, creating prototypes, communicating the results of the course, course analysis, course development, manning courses etc.

Pros about this project: it's always nice that stuff you do is noticed and I also look forward to get a copy of the handbook - perhaps I'll pick up some new tricks that I can have use of in my course...?
Cons about this project: while not a huge burden, the project assumes a certain amount of goodwill on my (and other teachers') behalf as I will of course not be compensated for my time in any way.

Also, I distinctly remember pitching a similar idea one and half years ago with little reaction or appreciation. There were some funds at my own school (of computer science and communication) for running smaller pedagogical projects and I wrote up a proposal for a project called "Better project courses". The fact that I wrote that proposal means that I have already thought through some of possibilities, and especially the challenges of project-based courses. There is a small amount of "sour grapes" in my attitude here, but I do also of course understand that few projects go ahead purely based on the merits of the ideas themselves. It's also a matter of who you know and of being in the right place at the right time. The right person to know is obviously a vice-rector at KTH with a strong interest in project-based courses - and I didn't know her before we met last week. Also, I'm pretty sure the department of learning can and will do a better job than I could have done... So I wish them luck and hope I can do my part of making such a handbook better. I look forward to seeing the handbook (I'll probably write another blog about it when I have it in my hands) as well as seeing if/how my course will leave its mark on the handbook.

söndag 25 augusti 2013

Cheating and creative play in online games

I was the advisor of Per Nygren's excellent master's thesis that was published in 2010, "Fusk och kreative spelande i onlinespel" [Cheating and creative gaming in online games]. The report (in Swedish) is available online.

I was therefore quite pleased when I, half a year ago, saw a call for a workshop about research in/on the online game EVE Online. I wasn't very interested in attending the conference, but part of the purpose of the workshop was to find/encourage/generate research on EVE Online with a future book in mind.
Yesterday was the deadline for submitting chapter proposals to such an "edited collection of EVE Online scholarship". I only saw the call for proposals less than a week ago, but me and Per managed to write a proposal called "Cheating and creative play in EVE Online". The preliminary title of the book is "Internet Spaceships are Serious Business: An EVE Online Reader" and "enthusiastic interest in this project has been expressed from a high quality academic press". The whole workshop/book project has a blog/website of its own, including a page with "EVE Online literature".

Our chapter proposal will be discussed at yet another workshop about EVE Online research at the upcoming (August 26-29) Digital Games Research Association (DIGRA) conference and me and Per will get to know if we made the cut next month. As these things go, putting together a book is a long-winded process. The editors will use our chapter submissions to "form the foundations for the proposal to the publisher". The first drafts of the book chapters will then be due in January 2014 and the final drafts are expected to be due in May 2014.

We have thus submitted a short abstract as well as an outline of our proposed chapter. Here's the abstract:

In Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOGs), many thousands of players interact simultaneously in a single virtual game world. "Cheating" in online games is a fluid concept that can differ from person to person. Cheating can, despite its fuzziness, have significant consequences for both players and the developer.

This chapter presents the results of a qualitative investigation of experienced players' subjective opinions about what constitutes cheating in EVE Online in terms of five different categories of cheating that we posit (bugs & exploits, bots & macros, player-created programs, real-money trade of virtual objects and meta-gaming).

Our theoretical framework is based on research in psychology (Rosch 1973, 1975) and linguistics (Labov 1973) concerning human categorization as applied to the concept of cheating. We furthermore make use of Salen and Zimmerman's (2004) "player types" and Nick Yee's (2005) model of player motivations to analyze cheating in relationship to online games in general and to EVE Online in particular.

Our conclusion is that cheating is a relatively subjective and ill-defined phenomenon and that what one person perceives as cheating can by another person be perceived as an opportunity to get ahead in the game. It is, despite this, possible to discern patterns and draw conclusions regarding the perceived degree of cheating of different “problematic” behaviors.

We conclude with a discussion about who suffers from cheating and what could be done to prevent cheating.


söndag 18 augusti 2013

Books I've read on my vacation (part 2)

"Books I've read recently" is a recurring topic and here is the previous blog post about the books that I read this summer. The books below have little in common except for the fact that I read them on my vacation.

Katherines Boo's prize-winning "Behind the beautiful forevers: Life, death and hope in a Mumbai slum" (2012) has rightly been praised for its portrait of the concerns and the lives of the people living in the Annawadi slum area right next to the Mumbai airport. India's economy has been growing in leaps and bounds, but not everyone in society benefits. Boo's book is a gripping tale of individual life destinies and of the severely limited choices that dirt-poor people face.

"almost no one in this slum was considered poor by official Indian benchmarks. [...] True, only six of the slum's three thousand residents had permanent jobs. (The rest, like 85% of Indian workers, were part of the informal, unorganized economy.). True, a few residents trapped rats and frogs and ate them for dinner. A few ate the scrub grass at the sewage lake's edge. And these individuals, miserable souls, thereby made an inestimable contribution to their neighbors. They gave those slumdwellers who didn't fry rats and eat weeds, like Abdul, a felt sense of their upward mobility. [but] For any two people in Annawadi inching up, there was one in a catastrophic plunge."

"Behind the beautiful forevers" is a book about many different things. It is among other things a tale of the corrosive effect of corruption and powerlessness on the poorest and weakest members of society. I had a hard time understanding how the book had been written since it describes events in the slum from the perspective of the people who live there. How could Boo, an American journalist, know so much, and how does she dare describe the actions and even the thoughts and very life philosophies of specific slum dwellers? It turns out she recurrently visited the slum for years and interviewed the same people over and over again (though translators). Boo's book is a great read and it allows for a view of something that is totally remote and even alien to anyone who reads this blog. It really is one of those books that can change your perspective on things. It also made me intensely thankful to live in an affluent, peaceful part of the world.

I've read Klein's "No Logo" (2000) and I bought her 2007 tome "Chockdoktrinen: Katastrofkapitalismens genombrott" [The shock doctrine: The rise of disaster capitalism], on a spur of the moment a year ago. It's a hefty, 600-page book which treats the links, or indeed the unholy alliance between (right-wing) politics, the Chicago school of economic thinking and financial and military oppression (or terror) during the last 40 years.

On an overarching level, it's a tale of how an oppressive, winner-takes-it-all economic system has made inroads in country after country during the last 40 years. Individual chapters treat different countries in a rough chronological order and describe how radical, deeply unpopular, and often previously-rejected free-market "reforms" are rushed in after "shocks" of different kinds (typically natural or financial disasters) hit a society. The ideology comes from the Chicago schools of economics (for decades led by frontman and Nobel laureate Milton Friedman), the impetuous from American companies and commercial interests, the military muscle and advisers from the US military or selected intelligence agencies (especially the CIA), and the torture methods (for handling those who protest the loudest and for shocking everyone else into silence) come from a 1960's CIA manual ("The Kubark manual"). This cocktail is Klein's "shock doctrine". The idea is to remake societies from the bottom up and "liberate" it from the shackles and "inefficiencies" of government regulation and government ownership (typically of infrastructure; mines, oil, energy, trains, postal services, telecommunications, water etc.).

Klein's story is compelling. It's hard to gauge her knowledge though of the myriad of topics she writes about and that she weaves together into one dramatic tale of the surrender of civil society to unholy military-economic-polical alliances.

"Spelet om staden" (2005) [the title is hard to translate and it's about the game or perhaps the gamble about the city] is part of a series of popular science books that Formas [The Swedish Research Council for Environment, Agricultural Sciences and Spatial Planning] publish. These are easy-to-read texts by, I presume, researchers who have gotten research grants from Formas. I started to read this book more than two years ago, put it aside, but took the opportunity to finish the book during my vacation.

It's a primer into some issues and the politics of how cities are planned and built, who gets a say etc. It's a complicated process with many stakeholders and with very long time horizons. The book was ok didn't make a huge impression on me even compared to other books in the same series that I have read before.

söndag 11 augusti 2013

Books I've read on my vacation (part 1)

"Books I've read recently" is a recurring topic and here is the previous blog post (same topic, different books). I took a pause in my regular reading schedule during the summer and chose some "easier reading" (no academic tomes, but still non-fiction). Below are three books I read on my vacation and the common theme that binds them together is money and economics.

The very best of these three books is Michael Lewis' masterful "Boomerang: The biggest bust" (2011). The book consists of five essays and all of them have previously been published in the magazine Vanity Fair (as well as on the Internet). What can I say - Michael Lewis is a great writer and a great travel companion to the epicenters of the post-2008 financial crisis with separate book chapters covering Iceland, Greece, Ireland, Germany and USA (more specifically California). The crisis played out in different ways in different countries, but the sheer economic and financial madness on display in each chapter is something that all these countries have in common:

"Irish people will tell you that, because of their sad history of dispossession, owning a home is not just a way to avoid paying rent but a mark of freedom. In their rush to freedom, the Irish built their own prisons."

Michael Lewis has described himself as a "financial crisis travel reporter" and no one is better than him at digging up strange stories and meeting up with people who give him the dirt - only to then turn around and tease out meaning and weaving significance on a larger scale from these individual stories. Many of Lewis' stories would be beyond belief - if not for the fact they have all actually happened. Despite having scathing remarks about many forms of financial madness, I think that the Greeks definitely come out worst in his book:

"Individual Greeks are delightful: funny, warm, smart, and good company. [But] no success of any kind is regarded without suspicion. Everyone is pretty sure everyone is cheating on his taxes, or bribing politicians, or taking bribes, or lying about the value of his real estate. And this total absence of faith is self-reinforcing. [...] Here is Greece's version of the Tea Party: tax collectors on the take, public-school teachers who don't really teach, well-paid employees of bankrupt state railroads whose trains never run on time, state hospital workers bribed to buy overprices supplices. Here they are, and here we are: a nation of people looking for anyone to blame but themselves."

Lewis' book provides a fascinating keyhole to the irrationality of mankind that lies behind a sumptuous smorgasbord of financial madness. I had already read four of the five stories on the Internet but still chose to buy the book and re-read them and I wholeheartedly recommend this book! If you are a cheapskate, you can read the articles on the web instead of buying the book. Check out this blog post to find the links to the five stories that constitutes the book.

One of my favorite Swedish journalists is Andreas Cervenka at Svenska Dagbladet. I love his weekly chronicles in SvD and looked forward to read his book "Vad är pengar? Allt du velat veta om världsekonomin men inte vågat fråga om" (2012) [What is money? Everything you wanted to know about the world economy but were too afraid to ask]. I did not realize beforehand that the book consist (only?) of his spiced-up-with-graphics already-published newspaper chronicles. While reading the book, I realized that Cervenka is better in small weekly doses than in this book format. His images and metaphors are breathtaking, but when you've read ten in a row you start to notice a pattern. It also seems the book would have needed a little more editing since I several times read that "something unprecedented happened Thursday last week". That works fine in a newspaper but not in a book! The book is still quite good despite these complaints, but I wish both Cervenka and his publisher would have put some more work into this project.

My least favorite economics book was written by fellow celebrated economy journalist (and Cevenka's colleague at SvD) Carolina Neurath. Her book "Den stora bankhärvan: Finansparet Hagströmer och Qvibergs uppgång och fall" (2011) [The great bank tangle: The finance couple Hagströmer and Qviberg's rise and fall] describes the events leading up to the implosion of the Swedish HQ bank in 2010. The book is based on Neurath's newspaper reporting about the scandal at the time as well as on interviews with as many centrally placed persons she could get hold of. I honestly don't remember why I bought this book. It belongs to the category of books that describes the rise (and in this case the fall) of a company - sort of like a biography not of a person, but of a company (complete with an ensemble cast).

I've heard this story so many times before. When the times are good, the captains of industry (in this case Mats Qviberg) think they are geniuses, are afflicted by hubris and drag their companies down the gutter. Here's a summary of this particular story: instead of 'fessing up to some bad decisions and taking the losses, they are swept under the carpet where they - over the course of a few years - mature and start to spread a mighty stink - only noticeable to those who are actually in the building and as apart from the general public (and journalists, shareholders etc.). Finally it all becomes untenable the whole house comes crashing down. Perhaps this book is interesting if you have a keen interest in the business pages meticulously or if you had a relationship to HQ, but I don't and I didn't.

onsdag 7 augusti 2013

Article on social media in higher education

I wrote a blog post more than year ago about "Students' attitudes to social media in higher education". The academic article I discussed in that blog post is finally finished and it was submitted to an academic journal back in June. The title of the article is "The student, the private and the professional role: An exploratory study of student positioning and perception of social media use within higher education". Pernilla Josefsson is the first author and I'm the third (out of four) authors.

The article has been a long time coming and there has been much effort put into writing the article - it is Pernilla's first journal article and the the article has also been changed and reworked several times since we started to work on it. I for example notice that parts of what I wrote in the previous blog post concerning the article has now been changed. Anyway, the text has been sent away and so we lean back and wait for feedback - something that could unfortunately take months.

Here is the abstract:

Previous research has found that students perceive a distinct divide between educational and private use of social media. This study explored this divide more thoroughly, by focusing on master students’ positioning and perception of roles when using social media in the context of higher education. A mixed method study, comprising of analyses of home exams, interviews and surveys was conducted with students enrolled in a first year master’s course "Social media technologies" given at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden. Results obtained confirm previous research stating that students have developed xxx. This study gives a more detailed understanding of the divide between educational and private use of social media, while also identifying yet another type of use beyond education and private use: social media as a tool for professional, career-enhancing purposes. Implications of social media use in higher education are described through the analysis of these three roles: the student, the private and the professional role.