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Homemade PowerPoint Games: A Constructionist Alternative to WebQuests

Lloyd P. Rieber
Department of Educational Psychology & Instructional Technology

The University of Georgia

Over the past decade, a growing body of literature has supported the contention that children can learn in powerful ways when they are involved in the act of building projects (Blumenfeld et al., 1991), an approach known as constructionism (Harel & Papert, 1991; Kafai & Resnick, 1996). As the name implies, constructionism involves learning by building (examples include Harel & Papert, 1990; Horwitz & Christie, 2000; Kafai, 1994; Kafai & Ching, 2001; Roschelle, Kaput, & Stroup, 2000; White & Schwarz, 1999). As exciting as these projects might be, one of the main hurdles yet to be overcome is the problem of scaling — that is, widespread implementation of the project in schools without special assistance or resources. One project that has surmounted the scalability problem is Bernie Dodge’s WebQuests (http://edweb.sdsu.edu/webquest/), a creative instructional use of the Internet that has been embraced by teachers. One reason for the success of the WebQuest project is that it is based on what teachers already do (design instruction for students) while making good use of Internet resources and good use of student time. Teachers who design WebQuests feel satisfaction in integrating Internet-based resources in ways that are consistent with their training and daily school responsibilities.

There is no denying the success and popularity of WebQuests among teachers. WebQuests are very creative and very useful. For those of us interested in technology integration in the schools, this is a significant step in the right direction. The genius of Bernie Dodge is that WebQuests succeed in terms of teacher buy-in and scalability. Yet, WebQuests are instructivist examples of technology integration — they are web-enhanced forms of direct instruction (albeit some teachers have students create their own WebQuests). Those of us also interested in constructivist forms of learning are not satisfied with WebQuests and yearn for something much more student-centered and student-directed. So, inspired by Bernie Dodge’s work and our own research at the University of Georgia focusing on children’s design of educational computer projects, we propose a constructionist alternative, not replacement, to WebQuests.

We consider constructing homemade PowerPoint games as a constructionist alternative to WebQuests. PowerPoint is nearly ubiquitous software tool and PowerPoint games are already a familiar part of many classrooms, though usually in the form of already existing games (such as Jeopardy) that a teacher modifies for instruction. This project is different in that it contends that a better use of class time for learning is to turn over the act of game design to the children themselves. The idea that children can handle the task of designing games to enhance their own learning is supported by the work of Project KID DESIGNER (Rieber, Luke, & Smith, 1998), a project begun almost a decade ago. But, like many other projects, Project KID DESIGNER was not scalable because it relied on university researchers to act as the children’s programmers. Designing homemade PowerPoint games builds on all the lessons learned in Project KID DESIGNER while also tackling the problem of scalability. One important result from the Project KID DESIGNER research is that children enjoyed and benefited from playing games designed by other children (Rieber, Davis, Matzko, & Grant, 2001, April). This instructivist result of a constructionist project likewise confronts the problem of scalability because teachers who are not yet ready to have their own classes construct games are likely to use already existing PowerPoint games with their classes. But we feel it is likely that these teachers would become a likely group to adopt the constructionist activity of game design.

This project is in its first of several phases. We are starting with building an infrastructure and support system for teachers while also conducting several pilot projects with school children. Inspired by Bernie Dodge’s WebQuest project, we are now building an extensive web site that will provide teachers will an array of training materials and PowerPoint game templates for use in the classroom. Many of the templates will include the idea of using other ubiquitous technologies, such as paper, cardboard, glue, and paper clips, as part of the game design in order to mitigate the programming limitations of people using PowerPoint. For example, a monopoly-like game template includes a PowerPoint slide that is meant to be printed for use while playing the game. Other games include directions and cut-out templates for making spinners to provide randomization as part of the game. (Of course, PowerPoint allows users to program their own scripts, known as macros, however we are designing our resources in such a way as to be usable by teachers without special skills in their classroom as quickly as possible.) Another advantage of using PowerPoint for game design is that the games can be small or large. Games based on question and answer templates can quickly be adapted for classroom use just by having students write their own questions, a mathemagenic activity long advocated by educational researchers (Wong, 1985). However, PowerPoint games can also be designed over a long period of time, similar to math and science fair projects. Indeed, we have long envisioned the advantages of schools using design activities as the focus of an interdisciplinary, thematic curriculum (Rieber, 2001). Our plan anticipates the desire of children to take and modify existing PowerPoint games. In our previous work, we noticed that the playing of game prototypes was one of the most valuable ways to induce other creative ideas and revisions to the design. Therefore, our project embraces the "open source" concept where children who design PowerPoint games agree to give other children permission to adapt and modify the games they create.

As part of PowerPoint game infrastructure, this project will take advantage of the WWILD (World Wide Interactive Learning Design) Team web site. Its searchable database now includes PowerPoint games as a software category. Teachers can have their students’ best PowerPoint games added to the WWILD Team database so long as everyone agrees to the following stipulations:

It should be noted that the WWILD Team site already provides a means for members (including students) to review materials in the database. This should prove to be an attractive and useful feature among teachers and students in selecting PowerPoint games for playing or adapting. (It may even lead to healthy competition among designers — we envision a yearly competition to determine the best PowerPoint games based on student votes.)

In conclusion, this project proposes the use of homemade PowerPoint games as a possible solution to the problem of scaling the constructionist learning philosophy within K-12 schools. Building on the work of Project KID DESIGNER that provides a model for teachers supporting game design teams, coupled with the result that children other than the those who designed the games find the games motivating and enjoyable, we believe that the near ubiquitous technology of PowerPoint offers widespread means of realizing the power of game design for K-12 education.


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