What a British teenager can teach us about the transformative power of sharing and social media

I’ve written numerous times about the power that social media and sharing can have in transforming a student’s educational path in a positive way. My thinking on this subject hasn’t formed in a vacuum. It’s easy to find these forces in action in the real world.

Case in point…

This young Briton, who goes by “Harv” to his international audience of over 110,000 subscribers, has become an unlikely rising star in the world of science and technology.

Harv recently turned seventeen, but he has been creating entertaining and educational videos about topics in physics and astronomy since he was fourteen years old. These topics are often presented through the lens of Kerbal Space Program. Harv’s deep, velvety voice is perfect for YouTube narration, and it belies his high-school age. “The deep British voice gives people an image of someone much older, it seems,” Harv has admitted. “So, likely under the illusion that they’ve been listening to [an adult], my YouTube channel has grown phenomenally.”

Harv’s willingness to share his passions with a public audience has yielded clear benefits for him in terms of providing academic opportunities, yielding professional contacts, and reinforcing the strength of his own intrinsic motivation.

Using experimental-stage hardware such as the Oculus Rift DK2 and the Leap Motion, Harv is currently developing a motion-controlled virtual reality puzzle game for a school project. Harv doesn’t view this as work; rather, he remarks on how fortunate he is to receive credit for pursuing his passion for VR. “I get to justify spending my time doing VR development when most of [my peers] are doing schoolwork,” he gushes. “It’s fantastic.”

Science, technology, and VR aren’t his only passions, though. Despite his young age, Harv has leveraged the power of his audience to organize and execute two wildly successful fundraising events for Charity Water: Kerbal Polar Expedition at the age of fifteen ($10,723 raised) and Kerbal Polar Expedition 2 at the age of sixteen ($23,624 raised). He’s even picked up occasional voice-acting work through his dense web of contacts– not a bad after-school job for a teenager!

Harv recently shared his ambition to apply for admission to Cambridge University. It sounds like he has his academic life in order, and given his already-incredible record of international educational and charity outreach, I think Cambridge would be foolish to turn him away.

Best of luck, Harv!

Google Cardboard: 3D for 3 bucks?

Hey, my Google Cardboard finally got here!

I’m not going to take my own photographs, both because I put my Cardboard together rather poorly and also because photographs don’t communicate much when we’re talking about 3D virtual reality.

The “device” (if you can call it that) looks like this:

Source: CNET
Source: CNET

You put your phone into it like this:

Source: CNET
Source: CNET

Apps designed to work with Google Cardboard display on your phone in split-screen. The left side is your left eye’s field of view and the right side is your right eye’s field of view.

Source: CNET
Source: CNET

The way Cardboard works is that it holds your phone steady and aligned in front of two specially calibrated magnifying lenses– one for each eye. When you hold your eyes up to the lenses, each eye only sees its respective half of the screen, and your brain is able to combine the two slightly different images into a coherent 3D image, just as it does in normal vision.

The potential educational value of 3D virtual reality is probably self-evident to readers of this blog, but to give one quick example, VR enables things like virtual field trips to faraway cities (Athens, Rome, Beijing, etc) or to natural wonders. VR games and simulations could also have educational merit in the right context, such as virtual operations in medical school.

My impressions of Cardboard, though, are slightly negative. Fundamentally, Google Cardboard is a very simple, cheekily-named toy designed to force your phone to be something it was never, ever meant to be: a 3D virtual reality visor. The fact that it works at all- however poor the final experience is- is incredible.

Let’s dig in a bit:

First of all, I got an ultra-cheap knockoff from a Chinese vendor which, at the time of writing, costs $2.99 shipped. The kit was confusing and didn’t quite have all the correct parts, but it did include the lenses, and I was able to fold the cardboard kit up securely enough to use it. For what I paid for it, it was worth every penny. However, I’m sure one of the more expensive kits out there would have given a better experience.

When I tried the popular Tuscan Drive demo, I was surprised at how terrible the graphics looked. Thanks to the magnifying lenses, everything had a “soupy” or distorted quality, and individual subpixels were highly visible. (Have you ever sat so closely to a TV that you could see the individual pinhead-sized red, blue, and green dots that make up the screen? That’s what I’m talking about.) In fact, the graphics were poor enough that although I was indeed seeing things in 3D, the “wow-factor” of the 3D graphics was overwhelmed by the “meh-factor” of how subpar the image was. Maybe the distance between the lenses and the screen wasn’t perfect or something, but there’s nothing I can alter in the calibration of the lens setup.

Plus, the headtracking that can be managed using cellphone-grade accelerometers just isn’t that great. On my Galaxy S3, there was noticeable lag between my real-life head movements and the corresponding in-game head movements, and the field of view often rattled oddly up and down or side to side based on messy data from the accelerometer.

I’m still excited by the technology, though, and rough as the experience is, I’m very glad to have gotten my own Cardboard to play with. Once the Oculus Rift is released, I’ll be sorely tempted to snap one up. If nothing else, the first mass-market VR goggles since the Virtual Boy will have some kitch value in the future, if not necessarily collector’s value.

Outside the classroom: The ugly truth about the gaming world

This post is more personal than my usual fare. I feel the topic matter is important enough to justify this diversion from edtech-focused, classroom-oriented content.

On a number of occasions on this blog, we’ve talked about the potential that video games have as tools for learning and engagement:

All of these posts focus either on single-player experiences or else local multi-player experiences done under the supervision of a teacher. And there’s a reason for that.

The gaming world—and in particular, “gaming culture”—is a warty, pimply mess struggling to make it through its own ugly adolescence.

According to a recent report, an equal number of men and women purchase video games. The stereotypical “gamer” is a teenage boy, but active gamers who are adult women outnumber teen boy gamers more than two to one. In particular, the number of women aged 50 or over who play video games increased by 32% from 2012 to 2013.

So… In a world in which nearly half of gamers are women, and in which video games pull in revenues comparable to Hollywood films, why do big-budget companies cater almost exclusively to white, heterosexual male power fantasies and regurgitate misogynistic stereotypes with such ubiquity? Why not address the huge market of women and minority gamers?

That’s bad enough, but the white men who cling most fervently to the label of “gamer” promote—whether actively or passively—a racist, homophobic, transphobic, and misogynistic environment. This is true all the way down to the level of casual online X-Box gaming and all the way up to professional, corporate-sponsored tournaments with paid participants.

The protagonists of Left 4 Dead 2. From left to right: Nick, Rochelle, Coach, and Ellis.
The protagonists of Left 4 Dead 2. From left to right: Nick, Rochelle, Coach, and Ellis.

The level of venom and irrational hatred is almost unimaginable—unless you witness it.

Valve, one of the more progressive game development studios, is known for its inclusion of strong, resourceful, and resilient female characters and people of color in its games. One title, Left 4 Dead 2, is a cooperative multiplayer game which includes four protagonists: two white men, one black man, and one black woman. Each character is played by one human player, and no character may be selected by more than one person.

Depressingly, you can likely imagine the outcome in an online multiplayer gaming context: most people lunge to select one of the two white men. There may be some occasional grumbling from the player who ends up in the role of the black man, but the true venom is reserved for the black woman character. It doesn’t happen in every game, but uncomfortably often, a white man assigned to the role of the black woman would simply quit the game rather than proceed. This refusal to adopt a black, female persona would sometimes be accompanied by horrible invective spewed over the built-in voice chat—”F— no, I’m not playing some n—– b—-!”

I got into the habit of always picking the black woman character myself so that other players wouldn’t get an opportunity to indulge in their bigotry. Still, Left 4 Dead 2 was one of the last multiplayer games I ever played. The ubiquity of sexism and racism boiling under the surface of the multiplayer gaming community was more or less hidden from me when everything was just aliens and space marines, but once I saw how many gamers were loud, unrepentant bigots when faced merely with the prospect of playing as a black woman character for an hour or two, I couldn’t stomach the idea of associating with them any longer. I stopped assuming that my fellow players were basically good people and could never quite shake the feeling that any given teammate might be ready to spout off some vomitous bigotry at any moment.

I quit the world of multiplayer online gaming.

An advertisement for the Running of the Gnomes, an annual charity event benefiting breast cancer research run by Lauren's World of Warcraft guild
An advertisement for the Running of the Gnomes, an annual charity event benefiting breast cancer research run by Lauren’s World of Warcraft guild

Other people use different strategies to avoid the soul-sucking poison of bigotry that lies under the surface of the gaming world. For example, a colleague of mine, Lauren, who has previously written on this blog, conducted ethnographic and sociolinguistic research in World of Warcraft, which is a persistent online role-playing game with millions of players. Players in that game can form “guilds”, which act as a kind of club or social network through which cooperative game sessions can be arranged and enjoyed. Lauren’s guild had strict rules against the use of misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic, or racist language and didn’t hesitate to kick out members who violated these moral principles. As such, the guild was able to construct a safe space for women, as well as for racial and sexual minorities.

Another admirable class of tenacious individuals works to actively change the culture of the gaming world by making the kinds of inclusive games they’ve always wanted to play themselves.

One example of a progressive game development studio is the Fullbright Company, of which half the members are women and half the members are in a sexual minority. A recent post in an online community for feminist men asked where women could find men with feminist beliefs. The top-rated response was, “in our rooms playing gone home“—referring to a lovely game by the Fullbright Company which I, too, thoroughly enjoyed. The game, which is set in the 1990s, has a young woman protagonist who is trying to find out why her gay little sister has gone missing. The soundtrack is full of contemporary music from the riot grrrl movement. It’s a far cry from the dime-a-dozen violent beefcake fantasies such as, well, Far Cry, and the change of pace is a welcome one.

Outside of the world of developers, media critics such as Anita Sarkeesian (above) have been working diligently to document problematic aspects of the gaming world and bring these issues to the attention of both game developers and gamers themselves. Anita’s most recent video, Women as Background Decoration: Part 2 – Tropes vs Women in Video Games, is a widely-acclaimed look into the ways in which many big-budget video games use women as empty, sexualized window dressing, and—more distressing than that—how sexualized violence against women is used to titillate male audiences.

The trope may be summed up with the gut-punching image below, which was an actual mass-produced advertisement for a video game:

Advertisement for Hitman: Blood Money which places a violently-murdered woman's body in a position intended to titillate and arouse the viewer
Advertisement for Hitman: Blood Money which places a violently-murdered woman’s body in a position intended to titillate and arouse the viewer

The backlash against Anita’s observations has been depressingly predictable, but no less shocking and horrifying for its predictability. The prominent industry figures such as Tim Schafer who endorse her work get off easy with just a stream of hateful and profane protests, but Anita herself has had her life threatened. She recently shared the deeply disturbing rape and death threats issued by a stalker who tracked down her home address. It should be read from bottom to top, not from top to bottom:

Death threats issued to Anita Sarkeesian. Source: https://twitter.com/femfreq/status/504718160902492160/photo/1
Death threats issued to Anita Sarkeesian. Source: https://twitter.com/femfreq/status/504718160902492160/photo/1

It’s stomach-turning. I considered putting the image behind a cut, but honestly, that would just provide a bit of courtesy and privacy to the stalker making the death threats. It’s wrong to censor others’ crimes, especially when those crimes are motivated by bigotry.

I absolutely repudiate the shamefully bigoted aggression perpetuated, abetted, or tolerated by so many in the gaming community, and I want to help stop it. I could be doing more than just boosting the signal and bringing heightened exposure to these issues, but it’s hard to know where to start.

I suppose I’d like to think that encouraging the incorporation of educationally-appropriate mass-market video games (Minecraft, Kerbal Space Program, etc) into the classroom will help to cultivate a new generation of gamers who don’t think of playing games as being a “boy thing.” I’d like to think that boys who grow up playing games alongside girl classmates won’t be as likely to harass and torment women or minority gamers later in life. I’d like to think that girls and minorities who grow up playing games in the classroom can internalize the message that they are valid participants in that space and that no one has the right to exclude them from it.

But that’s awfully distant, hand-wavy stuff.

What can we do right now?

Efficiency is overrated: the importance of resilience in classroom tech

As excited as I get about the possibilities of new technologies and cloud services, one lesson I’ve never allowed myself to forget is the importance of contingency planning. All the efficiency in the world is worth nothing if you don’t also have resilience.

For example, videorecording is incredibly efficient and effective. In principle, on days during which my students give speeches, I could just set up a videorecorder on a tripod, hit the “Record” button, and walk out for the day. However, if the recorder failed, I would be completely unable to assess my students’ performance! There’s no resilience in that setup. So when I do videorecord important student speeches, I use two video recording devices while simultaneously taking fastidious notes. (I also used to have an audio recorder going at the same time, but even I had to admit that that was overkill!)

Current case in point: an ELI student has to give an important presentation later today, but his USB drive containing his PowerPoint file failed. A teacher sent him to me to see what help I could give him. Upon plugging in the USB drive, I saw that the file allocation table had likely been damaged, because the system was unable to mount the drive despite being able to detect it.

I reformatted the drive and began running Recuva on it. As I type this, the process is 54% complete, with an estimated time left of 10 minutes. Here’s the screenshot I took a bit earlier:

There are no guarantees, but Recuva is pretty darn good at rooting out lost files.
There are no guarantees, but Recuva is pretty darn good at rooting out lost files.

Hopefully we’ll be able to get this student up and running! All of his files will be jumbled up and possibly unnamed, but with a bit of luck, we’ll at least be able to find the PowerPoint file.

So to go back to my original point: using a single USB drive is pretty darn efficient, but it’s not so resilient. If I were in that student’s shoes, I would have copied the presentation onto two USB flash drives; I would have made it available online, preferably accessible via a bit.ly URL; and as a last resort, I would have paper handouts of the slides ready to go as well. Tap-dancing due to technical issues is never pleasant, but if you make sure to plan resiliently, you’ll have the peace of mind of knowing that if Plan A doesn’t work, you still have Plans B and C to fall back on.

(Incidentally, this topic reminds me of one of the most embarrassing moments of my grad student career: I made a mistake while photocopying my handout for a presentation. The original printed copy was two-sided, but I absent-mindedly set the photocopier to “one-sided to two-sided” mode, effectively deleting half of my handout’s pages! And the first I knew of it was when someone in my audience raised their hand and said there was a problem with the handout. I learned a big lesson that day: always, always double-check your handouts!)


Postscript: The ending to this story wasn’t as happy as I’d hoped it would be. I was able to recover tons of files, but they were all images, videos, and sound files. Recuva did not detect any PowerPoints or other documents. Oh well.