Sandbox Games Facilitate Learning

Social Communicative Aspects of ICT

Squire’s paper Open-ended video games: A model for developing learning for the interactive age explores the educational potential of open-ended video games, aka sandbox games and explains how the modal can be applied to facilitate learning.

This topic has triggered my interest since long ago and I have seen my students fascinated by Minecraft, learning resources management and creativity through that game. In fact, Minecraft has been viewed by many educators as of high educational value.

A lot of sandbox games can stimulate the creativity and interest of players, such as the famous Sims serious. I personal have been playing the game since high school, and I still play it once in a while, sometimes simply creating my imaginary life for my sims, sometimes building houses, or having fun with creating stories. There’s no a certain style of gameplay restrained in the game, and that’s why it can motivate so many talented players all round the world to create mods, houses, etc around the game. Many creators even become real designers. Some use the game as a tool to design their dream house.

That being said, sandbox games also have their shortcomings. Like GTA mentioned in the article, the game depicts violent scenes and thus raised many controversies. In fact, I just read in news that it was recently been removed off shelves from all Target Australia stores because of too much sexual violence against women.

Epistemic Games – a better way to assess

Social Communicative Aspects of ICT

Gamification, games for learning are not new words anymore. The App Store is now abundant with educational games which help people (especially kids) learn maths, physics, alphabets, pinyin, and a lot more. But games for testing? That is something new.

This week’s reading The Right Kind of GATE: Computer games and the future of assessment by Shaffer, D. W., & Gee, J. P impresses me a lot, introducing a better way to assess students’ performance, not by standardized tests, but by epistemic games, which enable students to learn to solve complex problems occurred in a professional field in real life.

Shaffer is a professor in University of Wisconsin- Madison, and also leads the Epistemic Games Group, “which develops virtual internships, assessment tools, and other innovative learning technologies.” (More information can been found at their website

Here I include a brief introduction video of the Epistemic Games Group and what they have done.

I agree with the opinion that in many ways, games focus on good assessment and problem solving and that they can be well adapted to become assessment tools. However, questions also raise, such as:

1. Are these games fun? Will they become too realistic to lose the charm as games?

2. Why couldn’t we just ask students to participate in projects which simulate real life problem-solving rather than take the trouble to develop a game?

3. In the article, the author says that:

A GATE would have to take into account the fact that these children have not had the same experiences and provide missing resources before or during the assessment.

Imagine, if you will, two students. One comes from a family that has provided many learning experiences outside of school. This student starts the school year working at the 11th grade level and finishes at the 12th grade level. A second student comes from a family that does not (and perhaps can not) provide many enrichment experiences. She starts the school year working at the 7th grade level and finishes at the 11th grade level. The first child is a year “ahead” of the second in terms of her “level” of performance. However, with the appropriate resources, the second child made up 4 grade levels in a single year. The question is: which of these students would you want to hire? The choice seems obvious if what we care about is how well students take advantage of opportunities and use resources, rather than simply measuring what resources were already made available to them.

I don’t quite agree with the idea of “providing missing resources” and the example, especially the “obvious” choice to hire the second child. In real life, resources are not always ready for you out there. Most of the time you have to find hard to get them. So why would it be fair for the first child who spent the past several years learning so hard, while all his efforts are disregarded later simply because “the unbalance between resources”? What the first child has done was also a great demonstration of his ability to learn. And somehow I feel that in some tests, it is deliberately set that way to test students something which is not included in class, in order to see if they have done their own research out of class. The ability to be self-motivated and self learning is of vital importance in our rapidly-changing era, so I don’t think it’s a good idea to make the school testing system too vacuum and too idealized.

But after all, I definitely look forward to the real application of epistemic games as new testing tools and I am eager to learn more about them.

Proper guidance on the use of technology for students can go a long way

Social Communicative Aspects of ICT

Are the issues and possibilities for use of social software and technology in general different for elementary schools, high schools, and higher education? I think yes, and different guidance should be applied to each age groups.

Admittedly, social software and technology has strengths in terms of building social relationships and overcoming geographical distance, etc. But it also has weaknesses and threats such as workload issues, limitations in the quality of interaction, etc. When used in a higher education setting, since students are mostly adults, they have the ability to control themselves and is more likely to know how to utilize the technology to help learning, social software and technology can be better used to foster learning.

However, even we are only talking about adults, many people have already expressed their findings and concerns on how too much “phone-checking” and “multi-tasking” reduced our attention span and the ability to focus. Some researches also found that our brains are changing to adapt to the habit of “multi-tasking”. So think about those children who are called “Digital Natives”. When their bodies are still growing, are their brains evolving to be more short time focused and easily distracted, but maybe more sensitive to animated objects and details? Are they more accustomed to interpret pictures, graphs rather than texts?

No matter if such evolution does exist, it is vital to provide guidance in the use of social software and technology in elementary school to high school settings. Nowadays, it is hard and unwise to forbid children from using smart phones and technologies, but it is the educators’ and parents’ responsibility to guide them to take advantage of these technologies to help them in all aspects of life, not merely in studies.

Having been a teacher for two years, I have witnessed students’ unstoppable passion towards playing their smart phones during class break. This might not be easily seen in a formal school, given the fact that many schools and parents restrict cell phone use. But since I taught English as an extra curriculum on weekends, students had more freedom to bring their phones to classroom. I observed that during break, students always took out their phones and started playing games/ chatting with online friends, and surprisingly they seldom chatted with each other that were physically present in the classroom. I was interested in knowing how they used technology to help studying, so I did some surveys among my students ranging from middle school to college students, asking them the main purpose of using smart phones. Unexpectedly, few of the middle school students said they used phones for studying, mostly for entertainment; some high school students could utilize apps to learn English; while more college students knew how to use phones to help study.

Noticing that, I started recommending good apps and good online resources to learn English. When you know how to do it, technology can be surprisingly amazing to achieve things that are hard to achieve before. For example, an English speaking app uses voice recognition technology to detect user’s recording and compare it with standard pronunciation so that user can know which part is not perfect. Also through role-play game mechanics, user feels motivated to speak English. Such great educational apps/games are abundant out there, but students as well as teachers and parents are not yet fully aware of all the possibilities.

It is innocent to expect those “Digital Natives” will all discover them on their own without coming cross some negative things. It is also sad that some parents/ teachers forbid use of phones at school. Both actions are too extreme. With some proper guidance, students can learn how to best utilize the advantages of technology while not losing themselves in it. And I believe the guidance could be given as early as in elementary school, starting from very basic and restricted use of technology. Children can read E-books, learn alphabets and math from apps, etc. but cannot download apps or purchase contents freely. This is to give children a sense of what phones or mobile devices can do – not merely playing games. I noticed before that some parents let their toddlers who can barely speak play freely on phones without any regulation, and the parents themselves are constantly on their phones.

Meanwhile, regarding the issue of neglecting physical relationship, some social etiquette are necessary to help children know what should be done and what should not. For example, when talking to a person face to face or attending a meeting, it is rude to check your phone constantly.

Based on this, the guidance could cover these areas:

  • Recommended resources by teachers
  • How to find resources you need
  • How to make your phone work for you, but not consumed by it
  • Entertainment is not the only function of a phone
  • Learning can also be gaming
  • Social etiquettes in using technology

Networking in SNS: relax or pressure?

Social Communicative Aspects of ICT

With the prevalence of social network sites (SNS), it is somehow expected that everyone should have at least one SNS account to either connect with friends (Facebook) or professionals (LinkedIn). Apart from their initial attraction as passing-time or relaxation, I found these sites somehow exert more and more pressure on people, requiring huge amount of time and energy, as well as techniques to better “network” with people.

The research on 800 Michigan State University undergraduate students in this week’s article The Benefits of Facebook “Friends”: Social capital and college students’ use of online social network sites found that

For less intense Facebook users, students who reported low satisfaction with MSU life also reported having much lower bridging social capital than those who used Facebook more intensely.

This finding corresponds with what I have experienced in college too. Almost all of my peers used a similar SNS called “” in China, and those who are not intensive users often felt less connected with their classmates, not knowing what’s going on. What’s more, anyone visiting a person’s page can see the total view times (although they may not be able to see the contents of that page if they are not friends), thus exerting pressure for those whose pages are not frequently visited.

I wonder if the same kind of pressure exists in Facebook’s “like” function? Will people feel upset if their posts don’t receive a lot of “likes”?

Another prevalent SNS/chatting hybrid in China called “WeChat”, which is now gaining users in the U.S. , handles this sensitive issue more wisely. Instead of seeing all the “likes” for a post, the user can only see the “likes” by their common friends.

However, like other SNS, networking in WeChat has also gradually become something more demanding. For example, since most friends share their thoughts, pictures and updates on WeChat in the “Moments” section, it now becomes an habit or even obsession for most people to check these moments a few times everyday. And since WeChat is originally a chatting app, people tend to keep an eye on it everyday, the frequency to check the moments is probably higher than that of Facebook. On one hand, it sounds good to have your friends checking your updates all the time; on the other hand, people expect their friends to know what they are up to. It is not uncommon now to bump into a friend and be prompted to check his/her “moments” in order to see the photos of a recent activity he/she took part in.

SNS is meant to increase the relationship between people, but when WeChat and Facebook requires frequent checks to demonstrate a connection between you and your friends, it somehow can be tricky. A friendship may fade away simply because you don’t “like” the posts of your friends or don’t contact them often. And people can be deceiving in this aspect. I know some people just tend to “like” every post they see in order to show a sort of kindness. It seems nice, but somehow lacks sincerity, doesn’t it?

This “unique” way of networking/connecting with people reminds me again of some concerns regarding the technology-mediated human relationship. The SNS are so powerful in terms of their social capital, and those who don’t use them are considered fall behind. They may lose vital information. They may lose friendship. Doesn’t face to face conversation count more than virtual online chatting? Must our future relationship become a hybrid of F2F and online? …

How to educate our children? Regulation or Autonomy?

Social Communicative Aspects of ICT

The article from Week 8 reading Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivations: Classic Definitions and New Directions introduces the intrinsic motivations and different types of extrinsic motivations, which are not quite familiar to people, and how to better utilize them in schools. It is a very informative article which leaves me thinking: how can educators unleash students’  intrinsic motivations and give more autonomy to extrinsic motivations?

One quoted research finding strikes me most:

The more students were externally regulated the less they showed interest, value, or effort, and the more they indicated a tendency to blame others, such as the teacher, for negative outcomes.

It reminds me of the way I was educated in China. Though my parents are pretty open-minded in that they seldom exerted much pressure or regulation on my studies, the teachers are sometimes the opposite. I always felt motivated to study hard when no one forced me to — according to the article, driven by a type of extrinsic motivation called “integrated regulation”. However, in the third year of high school, when it’s often referred to as “the darkest year”, I couldn’t stand the constant pressure from teachers and the ongoing competition between students that I almost hated school. For me this seemed unbelievable, and it was not until I read this article that I realized there is a theoretical reason behind this.

So if exerting pressure and making students “fear” their teachers doesn’t work well, then does the solution to give much autonomy and to respect and care students work well? Given some current controversies raised by the book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua, I wonder what is the best way to educate our children? Can we find a balance between regulation and autonomy?

My own experience: learning in a virtual community

Social Communicative Aspects of ICT

I am most impressed by this week’s reading Children Online: Learning in a virtual community of practice, which looks deep into a virtual community called “Gathering of the Elves” and analyzes how children’s role-play as Tolkien’s characters relates to learning and community theories.

One reason I found the article impressive is that I didn’t realize before a hobby BBS created by children can have so many learning merits and actually absorbs children into learning spontaneously, without even realizing it. The author highly praises their main activity: role-playing and story-telling as “shaping a community”:

But it is the act of the storytelling ritual that is revealing. Elianna is creating and shaping a history of the community by retelling the events of the role-playing. She is also encouraging and directing other community members to read certain parts of it, as she celebrates the achievements of the role-players, showing pride in their collaborative narrative, and forging her identity in the community as a leader.

The other reason, perhaps a more important one, is that I found myself engaging in several similar virtual communities when I was in secondary school! One BBS was focused on Zhuge Liang, China’s greatest and most accomplished strategist in the Three Kingdoms Period, where we worshiped and wrote memoirs and novels about him, trying to retell the history, and all of the members were closely bonded “sisters”. In fact, that was the one and only virtual community I felt truly belonged to. Similar to “Gathering of the Elves”, writing was also the main form of communication and we would give huge respect and support to each other. I was always impressed and moved by other’s writing and they in turn inspired me to write better. This is exactly like what the author describes, a learning process. It’s also such a coincidence that we didn’t quite regard it as “learning” either.

Another BBS I always engaged in was about Harry Potter, where we shared news, discussed and guessed the plot, wrote our own novels, and translated foreign novels from a site called Since the translation was sometimes lagged behind, I soon went to the site to read the novels myself. It soon became a big hobby for me, and I believe it was during these “English-novel-reading” nights that I accidentally practiced my English. I would look up new words and wrote them down on a notebook. Finally I started to translate a short novel on my own.

In one word, my own experience in virtual communities resonates with the author’s point. But it’s curious that none of the kids nor me regard the learning as serious, or even notice that we are learning. This raises an interesting question: if we want our kids to learn spontaneously from virtual communities like these, how can we guide them?  After all, there are all kinds of virtual communities and not all of them are constructive. Should we use incorporate them into classroom? Would it be different once children know the communities are designed for them to “learn something”?

Abstract/Critque: Introduction: Alone Together of the book Alone Together

Social Communicative Aspects of ICT

Here is my mid-term Abstract/ Critique assignment for the course Social Communicative Aspects of ICT. I post it here for more people to see and reflect on the questions raised by the book.


Introduction: Alone Together of the book

Alone Together:

Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other

Linying Wang

Teachers College, Columbia University


The author begins by pointing out the negative effects technology has brought to us: we are connected, yet lonely, and fearful of intimacy. Then she explains her intention of writing this book, to “ask how we got to this place and whether we are content to be here” and how her attitude has changed from her last book. The author devotes a lot to her concern about the future relationship between humans and robots by citing many living examples. One of these is through her daughter’s critical reaction to two giant living tortoises on display in Darwin exhibition; the author found unsettlingly that most children didn’t see the value of aliveness. Other two elaborate examples are revolved around the notion of future human-robot love, sex and marriage. The author is “troubled by the idea” and was shocked when a Scientific American reporter accused her of “no better than bigots who deny gays and lesbians the right to marry”. The author continues to cite more examples of people who long for robot companions and she names such time to be “the robotic moment”, and analyzes the reasons behind it: Humans rely on robots to compensate for the disadvantages of human being. As the author puts it, “We are too exhausted to deal with each other in adversity; robots will have energy.”

Since the book consists of two parts: The Robotic Moment and Networked, the author then moves on to present her concerns on people’s over connection in virtual world and lack of real communication, and points out its consequence: even more isolated. Examples are common yet shocking: multitasking when having video calls with family, people doing their own stuff and not talking to those who are present during a conference. The author warns that we are degrading relationships to “mere connections”. Finally she summarizes the two parts of the book.


Trained as a psychologist, the author’s clinical writing style provides a great many living examples that illustrate the shocking fact that we are “expecting more from technology and less from each other”. (Turkle, 2011, p.295) I cannot help but feel unsettled by these facts and keep reflecting on myself. Although I consider myself as a technology enthusiast and somewhat “geek”, I regard myself as having good control over technology, not playing with my phone all day or obsessed with virtual worlds. But I cannot deny the fact that when I have dinner with my family, I too sometimes watch TV on my iPad or send messages on IM; when I am on subway, I also sometimes concentrate on my phone like other people do. I don’t like the fact that almost everyone on the subway in Shanghai are playing games or texting on the phone, or even watching TV dramas when they are walking, but in the meantime, I cannot resist the temptation to plug in to the “wonderful” virtual world in order not to be “lonely” on the boring commute trip.

I agree with the author that we are trained by Internet to be “so enmeshed in our connections that we neglect each other”. (Turkle, 2011, p.294) Nowadays people scroll down their social media timeline page to check on their friends instead of making phone calls, let alone visiting. This makes us feel even more lonely despite the seemingly “constant connection”. Especially when we are at our weakest moments like illness and suffering, is it going to help if our friends just say comforting words via IM?

A cited 2010 analysis of data from the book also troubled me a lot, stating “since the year 2000… young people … say it is less valuable to try to put oneself in the place of others or to try to understand their feelings.” (Turkle, 2011, p.293) Such findings are shocking, yet corresponding to what I have experienced personally these days. But why is it happening?

One reason might be the evilness of human nature, as many great philosophers believe. Our fatigue with the difficulties of life with people creates the need for robots, as they don’t demand, disappoint, cheat or take drugs. (Turkle, 2011, p.10) On the other hand, such reliance on technology breeds a vicious circle: when humans have a problem, especially problems created by technology, we turn to technology for help. As the author puts it, “But when technology engineers intimacy, relationships can be reduced to mere connections. And then, easy connection becomes redefined as intimacy. Put otherwise, cyberintimacies slide into cybersolitudes.” (p.16)

A deeper reason, and much more dangerous and shocking one, which is not provided in this book, can be found in The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. It claims that “Our brains, the historical and scientific evidence reveals, change in response to our experiences. The technologies we use to find, store, and share information can literally reroute our neural pathways…. We are becoming ever more adept at scanning and skimming, but what we are losing is our capacity for concentration, contemplation, and reflection.” (Carr, 2011) No matter true or not, we cannot deny the fact that our attention span is shorter and shorter and our tolerance for boredom is more and more limited.

Disturbed, I keep thinking of the question what we shall do to change the situation. The book doesn’t provide many solutions, but simply suggests doing things like “talk to colleagues down the hall, no cell phones at dinner”. (Turkle, 2011, p.296) But are these actions powerful enough to save us from the “alone together” dilemma? I would call for more.


Carr, N. (2011). The shallows: What the Internet is doing to our brains. New York, NY: WW Norton & Company.

Turkle, S. (2011). Alone together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other. New York, NY: Basic books.