Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Hard fun is not always fun

"It's fun, hard fun"

Seymour Papert tells the story of a young person emerging from a logo workshop uttering the above words. Programming is hard, but the bottom line, it's fun.

I think it's too glib. Hard fun is not always fun, sometimes it's just hard, frustrating, tear your hair out, why am I so stupid, why the hell did I ever start doing this, etc.

The challenge to transfer from Game Playing to Game Making in a school setting does make sense - there is a connection - but it is also problematic, there is also disconnection.

Yes, it's fun choosing sprites and playing games.

Friends in the class? Maybe yes, maybe no.
Good enough at programming to achieve the game I really want to build? Probably not.

Write a detailed design document before building my game? Not much fun here!

I've been talking to my students about this. Some say it's worth it because they are building a game they want to build and no one has ever offered them the chance to do that before in school. Others express some frustration. The programming can be hard and frustrating, the design requirements arduous and not anticipated.

I think it's time to trash my Game Making course slogan as false advertising: "Have fun while you learn!?" Maybe not. But what slogan should I use?

Crossovers: from comfort to struggle

I've been planning out my talk more, for the Australian Game Programming in Schools Conference

One set of ideas is motivation / fun / comfort which, it could be argued, correlates to game playing

Another set of ideas involves opposite concepts such as hard / frustrating / struggle / painful. This can correlate to learning to program games.

My new thoughts are to do with the crossover from the first set of ideas to the second set of ideas. I think there are a variety of crossovers which is what makes it all interesting and complex:

  • GENERATIONAL – younger people play more games than older people
  • GENRE – game playing is different to game making
  • EMOTIONAL – from social fun to hard struggle
I can work my own story and that of my students into that format and others could relate to it in their own way, add to the story. The key to the whole thing is working out ways to facilitate the crossovers.

Related blogs: Something is making me do it, My mental block, Hard programming problems, Enjoying discomfort.

Saturday, August 20, 2005


Connectivism is a new learning theory develop by George Siemens. He has developed it in conjunction with a critique of limitations of constructivism, cognitivism and behavourism.

His definitive paper is here:

Other articles are here:

Blog, wiki, discussion forum and email list info is here:

I like his ideas and find them interesting but don't feel that I'm expert enough on learning theory to pass judgement. I'm in the process of slowly trying to learn more. I've signed up at his connectivism site and hope to post comments and questions there.

I do know a little bit about constructivism / constructionism and have read just about everything written by Seymour Papert - and am a huge fan of Brian Harvey, author of open source logo and a great learning theorist - as well working with logo for several years and attempting to set up constructionist classroom environments. To qualify that statement I would also say that it's ridiculous IMO to push just one learning theory barrow, in the past I've said that learning is a continuum ranging from behavourism to constuctivism and that it's important as teacher learners that we walk the walk across the whole continuum.

I'm engaged by George Siemens assertion that it's time for a new kid on the block

I blogged about this back in March this year:

Wednesday, August 17, 2005


Blogger, many more people now have some understanding of that awkward word.

I'm a blogger, one of 14 million, is that significant? In a recent article Paul Graham said something simple but profound:
... Millions of people are publishing online, and the average level of what they're writing, as you might expect, is not very good. This has led some in the media to conclude that blogs don't present much of a threat-- that blogs are just a fad.

Actually, the fad is the word "blog," at least the way the print media now use it. What they mean by "blogger" is not someone who publishes in a weblog format, but anyone who publishes online. That's going to become a problem as the Web becomes the default medium for publication. So I'd like to suggest an alternative word for someone who publishes online. How about "writer?"

Those in the print media who dismiss the writing online because of its low average quality are missing an important point: no one reads the average blog. In the old world of channels, it meant something to talk about average quality, because that's what you were getting whether you liked it or not. But now you can read any writer you want. So the average quality of writing online isn't what the print media are competing against. They're competing against the best writing online. And, like Microsoft, they're losing.
Simple but deep. Bloggers are just writers who are using the new default medium. Makes more sense to put it here than in a notebook. At least 14 million people have embraced the paradigm shift and our numbers are doubling every 5 months.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

enjoying discomfort

Here are a variety of sometimes contradictory sayings:
"have fun while you learn" (a poster which I designed to promote game maker)
"play is OK"
"no gain without pain"
"to understand is to invent" (Piaget)
"back to basics"
"design and struggle" (Garth Boomer)
"dressing up the dog" (critique of easy fun)
"hard fun" (Papert)
"instrinsic motivation"
"extrinsic motivation"
"every time we teach a child something we keep it from inventing it himself" (Piaget)
"objects to think with" (Papert)
"enjoying discomfort" (Minsky)
I'm thinking that sayings that stress fun are not quite right, that my poster is phoney.

And that the ones that use words like struggle, hard, discomfort, pain are quite important.

I've recently been struggling with a programming problem - to do with making a series of segmented snake bodies follow the snake head - which has caused me much pain and real feelings of doubting my capabilities. I have screamed at my computer and called myself stupid.

But I have learnt a lot about: the concept of representing following, programming techniques, my own resilience and limits to what can be achieved at school.

Not a great of this happens in school perhaps because of large class sizes and the necessity of teacher spreading him/herself too thin in the impossible juggling act of keeping everybody happy - that fun word again.

But isn't it an important component, or absolutely essential component, of what education ought to be about?

Saturday, August 13, 2005


Originally uploaded by Bill Kerr.
I found a page of quotations from Albert Einstein today. Here's one that I liked:
You see, wire telegraph is a kind of a very, very long cat. You pull his tail in New York and his head is meowing in Los Angeles. Do you understand this? And radio operates exactly the same way: you send signals here, they receive them there. The only difference is that there is no cat.

Friday, August 12, 2005

andy thomas

andy thomas
Originally uploaded by Bill Kerr.
Astronaut Andy Thomas has been in the news again lately, good on him!

Last year in an Adelaide Advertiser article he drew attention to the extreme importance of maintaining and furthering maths and science skills in Australia:
... the sobering reality is that the number of people graduating with advanced degrees in maths and science, and who are fluent in the language of science and technology, has shrunk by about 25 percent during the past 20 years.

Similarly, fewer and fewer young people are attracted to the idea of studying maths and science at high school. This is undeniably of extreme concern, and one might ask why this is happening.

Perhaps it is because maths and science is not considered very cool by today's youth. It holds no attraction to young people. Partly, my generation may be to blame because of the way it is packaged in our education system...

But sadly there is another reason for the decline in standards across Australia. University academics today are asked to endure longer hours, larger classes, bigger workloads and less funding for research and development. And they face huge obstacles to getting their research sponsored.

I have seen bureaucrats, chartered with administering the government's research dollars, argue insistently that there should be blunt, obvious and immediate results from any sponsored scientific research. Sadly, that philosophy is usually reversed to mean that any research that does not produce a tangible, immediate and marketable result has no value.

There is a failure to appreciate that it is the skills generated by scientific endeavours that can be just as important as the research itself. In Australia, this heavy handed approach has caused some academics to move to the US and elsewhere in dismay.

The long term consequence is a real danger that we are dumbing down our community ...

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Dylan with Style


I'm modelling here how to create a nice looking sidebar menu and page using XHTML and style, no frames.


This displays a series of incremental improvements going from no style at all to some sophisticated style creating a button like effect on the menu

btw this looks better in firefox than IE (I haven't added the various hacks to make it look better in IE which has not kept up with CSS1, 2, 3)

I have a teaching sequence and various worksheets developed and more in the pipeline, happy to share them if anyone wants to trial this approach for themselves

I use HTML Kit as both the HTML and style editor, it has various supportive drop down menus (for both HTML and style) and wizards (for img and anchor elements)

Monday, August 08, 2005

Elizabeth Kerr

Five years ago on this day my sister died from a malignant cancer that spread amazingly rapidly.

Luckily, I was able to spend some time with her just before her death. Afterwards I wrote a reflection in 11 parts. For the first time I'm publishing a small part of this reflection here.

The death notice we inserted in the paper read as follows:
Generous in word and deed
Always unselfish
In love with life
Open and curious
Strong willed
True to your own self
We miss you.
We organised all the essential details of the funeral ourselves, the music was selected by her best friend C. with help from cousin S., the flowers for the coffin were organised by her gardening friends G. and R., the celebrant was another friend, J. All of the speakers were family or friends. We selected the cheapest coffin available.

The family produces a memorial card, this is a joint effort, with A. helping with the poem from William Blake:
To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour
Elizabeth wore unusually strong colours. M. picks out a cardigan for the background colour of the memorial card and I take it down to the printers for them to copy.

At the funeral I say:
Elizabeth died well, she died very well. She was still giving advice on book prices for her business right up to the end, from her sick bed. She knew she was dying but didn't see the point of lingering, she rejected the offer of chemotherapy. There was no false hope, no sign of fear, no self pity, no tears for herself, just tears from everyone else. She even apologised to her friends for being so sick and having to leave them.

I feel proud to have such a courageous sister who had helped to show me how to live and how to die.
It was a good send off, with the right mix of humour and sadness ...

The funeral parlour charged us $5, 500. Cousin S. and I vow to organise our own funerals to protect our families from the rip off merchants of death ...

When a loved one dies we grieve, we regret the bad times, we cherish the closeness, we learn to empathise with others when they suffer such a loss. We become part of a common humanity.

What have I learnt from Elizabeth's death? To treasure friends, to be true to my own values, to be generous, don't let the petty things in life hold you back. Death is nothing to fear, just live your life to the full. M. has the final word, to live each day as though it were Christmas Day.

Dr. Elizabeth Ann Kerr: 9th February 1944 - 8th August 2000

Sunday, August 07, 2005

hard programming problems

Originally uploaded by Bill Kerr.
I've spent a lot of time recently trying to solve a programming problem in Game Maker (see snake picture)

Each time the snake eats then a new part of its body is created and it becomes longer. The first body part follows the head and the other body parts follow the previous body part, as they are created.

An unsophisticated solution would be to have lots of body parts, body0, body1, etc. and then body0 follows the head, body1 follows body0 and so on.

To tell the truth I didn't find doing that easy but I have got that far.

But there is a far better solution which requires keeping track of the unique id of each body object, storing those values and then calling them up and getting them to follow at the right time as each new body part is created. This way involves passing ids, creating arrays and accessing them with for loops and I'm still working on it.

Programming is a merciless task master. If you get something wrong then an error message comes up on the screen and that's it, think again. Syntax error. Or you might get a logical error where the program runs but doesn't do exactly what you want it to do. Think some more.

At times I think I'm close to a solution but then as I approach it the problem manifests new dimensions and the imagined solution recedes into an inaccessible recess. Sometimes a promising idea turns into a dead end but then I may not be sure that it is really a dead end or just that I don't know a small but vital technical point.

With programming, I often have good ideas to solve problems but the technical implementation is difficult. I have to stop and look up the manual, print out the code and study it, it can be a long and frustrating process.

"Technical implementation". What a nice, easy phrase which conceals hours of agonising and worrying about whether the problem will be solved or I'll have to give up.

At times I feel very stupid but for some reason feel compelled to go on. At various points I look at what I have achieved and think, "How could I have spent so much time and achieved so little?"

When you learn something new then you quickly forget the difficulties involved in learning it and just take it for granted. Perhaps that's why experts sometimes appear to be arrogant and lack empathy with my learning difficulties. That's a perception I have, an internal conversation I conduct about whether I am stupid or not.

Don't you hate it when people say, "This is easy".

my mental block

Some students go home and play computer games and don't do their home work. I have the opposite problem. I've reached a point where intellectually I want to play computer games but it's almost impossible for me to do so. I think I'm wasting time, that I always have something better to do, etc.

But I'm working on my "bad attitude", maybe this story will help:
There is a small village, known across the country for their food and their mountains - and for their monthly lottery. The local school raffled quilts to raise money.

One of the villagers, a woman named Greta, worked tirelessly for the poor. She made clothes and bread for the needy. She gave away every penny she ever earned.

The thing she wanted most in the world was to win the lottery. It started off as a whim. She thought how much better she would sleep with a nice quilt. Then it grew into an obsession. But month after month, year after year, she never won. And she grew bitter. She still did her work but resentfully. She was often heard muttering angrily to herself as she delivered food. Every night before going to bed, looking at her shabby bed, she moaned up to the heavens, "I am your humble servant. I do everything I believe you want. All I ask is one thing. I just want to win the lottery once. Is that so much?"

One night, a booming voice came down from the heavens. "Greta!"

"Yes," she said, trembling.

"Buy a ticket!"

If you want to understand computer games then you need to play one!

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Inspirational Tim Rylands

Every now and again you find out about a teacher who is truly inspirational

Tim's website is fantastic, technically innovative, very funny and inspirational
"to baldly go ..."
"Tim's daughter Ellie once drew a face on the back of his head as he worked …without him noticing!"
"He spends hours each morning doing his hair…but always forgets to take it with him!"

I downloaded the video and skype / podcast interview, you'll be won over by his personality and love for teaching if you do likewise

He writes musicals for children and uses Myst to inspire creative writing, download the video to see how he does the latter.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Something is making me do it

I'm due to give a presentation at the inaugural Australian Game Programming in Schools Conference.

Initially I decided to present on Game Design Tools since I have worked quite hard on that this year and in previous years too. And I think I have developed some useful game design teaching materials.

But today I've suggested a topic change to something like:
Something is making me do it: A reflection on 3.5 years of teaching Game Making

That idea just popped into my head this morning and has stayed there throughout the day, as a far better topic.

The truth is that I've stumbled into teaching game making primarily due to forces outside of myself which pulled me in directions far more strongly than I anticipated. It's as though I've accidentally immigrated to the wrong county. I wanted to visit Game country but settle in Web application land. But the visit to Game Land has turned out to be a lengthy stay and here I am now getting in deeper and deeper, giving presentations at Conferences.

So I want to tell the story of the forces that got me this far. I want to identify more clearly the something, or somethings, that are making me do it. I see it very much as a dynamic equilibrium, that I'm being blown in the wind. I still want to go somewhere else - python, zope3, web development - but I keep getting dragged back into various aspects of Game Making and even Game Playing. It has been surprising.

It will be more interesting than talking about game design tools.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

mobile phones

This touched a nerve, mobile phones are so popular, powerful and educational in the broad sense that goes beyond the classroom. So schools have rules that they be switched off in class, rules that are often broken.

Education departments filter school internet feeds to keep their students "safe". What will they do when wifi hotspots take a hold and students access them with their mobiles at recess and lunch making the classroom experience feel even more irrelevant to their real interests?
Mobile phones are likely to develop into a key learning tool. Few technologies are more universal, more versatile, and more used by younger learners. Learning designers should be moving towards a level of design where all their content is accessible via mobile phones. Some thought leaders have advocated that learning will eventually be intelligently designed into the appliance we are using (i.e. Stephen Downes has used the analogy that a fishing rod will have context relevant learning resources teaching a user how to fish). Until this happens, a cell phone is likely to be the transitioning tool that truly moves learning from classroom/desktop to learning in a context relevant manner
- from George Siemens

14 million blogs

new report from Technorati's David Sifri on the growth of the blogosphere:
As of the end of July 2005, Technorati was tracking over 14.2 Million weblogs, and over 1.3 billion links. Interestingly, this is just about double the number of blogs that we were tracking 5 months ago. In March 2005 we were tracking 7.8 million blogs, which means the blogosphere has just about doubled again in the past 5 months, and that the blogosphere continues to double about every 5.5 months.
This updates the 5 million blogs figure I gave in an article I wrote about RSS services back in January.