Shhhh! Don’t tell them they’re learning…

January 27th, 2008 by webmaster

My son is writing a novel. The amusing part is that he doesn’t know it.

At some point a couple of years ago, when my son was 11 or 12, he was introduced to lego fan forums by one of his friends (who, by the way, he plays with every night, even though they live in different countries. The power of Skype.). In the forums, he discovered a medium known as “RPGs”. Now, if you are my generation you may recognize the term Role Playing Game from such classics as Dungeons and Dragons. These involve rules, and dice, and little lead figures, and maps, and funny hats, and more dice. Forum RPGs, in contrast, involve none of these. As a game, it’s closest “classic” comparison would be what we called “Dark and Stormy Night” or simply “The Story Game”. It is a campfire game where one person begins a story, and the next person continues.

In the Forum RPG version, the rules of the “game” -  setting, character attributes, time period and so on - are established by the creator. When a person joins the game, they create a character and join in the fun. Each player then submits a blurb in response to the previous blurbs, and a storyline develops. The creator of the “game”, as well as any designated moderators, make sure that submissions fall within the guidelines, and ask for corrections if necessary. The players, in addition to storyline posts (referred to as In Character, or IC), post questions, comments, background information under the heading of Out Of Character (OOC).

My son - then 12 - created one of these games, based on a theme inspired by the very popular Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, and this has been a staple of his online time ever since. He spends more time “RPGing” than he does on Homestar Runner. And that’s saying something. As a dutiful parent, I check periodically to see that my children’s activities online are appropriate. This is known as “spying”. A recent bit of espionage turned up something interesting - this RPG has been running for over a year, with almost six hundred individual posts, each of which is on the order of 100 words of storyline (many with half that again in OOC comments). Of course, my son, like many a young teen, if asked to produce a piece of creative writing for school, would whine “I don’t know what to wriiiiiiiite.” And yet he, along with like minded collaborators from around the world, has created a grand serial adventure novel that sits currently at 60 000 words, with no end in sight.

It occurs to me, as it probably has to you by now, that if we could harness this energy and enthusiasm for education, it could be a very powerful tool indeed. Imagine children wanting to write. Wanting to rush home and “play my RPG”, and at the same time building their creative skills and writing ability. I know many frontline educators who would think to themselves, and even mutter aloud, that no administrator at their school would allow Role Playing Games as a means of education. No siree, we don’t DO games at this institution, it’s all about hard work. So, for these people, I propose a new name, one that hints at all that is good in 21st century learning, one that sounds like a new wave in pedagogical philosphy that a stick-in-the-mud administrator would love to soak up. So for these people, I give you Asynchronous Collaborative Online Storytelling (ACOS).

At it’s simplest, ACOS provides practice in writing skills, something that is much needed at all grade levels. More subtly, it involves the process of production or creation, which I feel is fundamental to the learning process. The process of producing information, rather than simply consuming it, builds knowledge, understanding, and critical thinking skills. It could have any number of roles in a classroom, from “just for fun” to part of the backbone of a literature or language unit or course. And how about this for an idea - the students begin an ACOS storyline - or maybe two or three different ones - and contribute for several months. At some point, the students can be directed to bring their story to a close through discussion during class time. Each storyline could be compiled and edited, and finally the stories could be submitted for publication. At the end of the year each student would receive a print copy of the book they helped to create, complete with their name on the author list, and student artwork on the cover. How’s that for a souvenir of Grade 7 English class?

I think this is an idea with definite potential. I would love to hear from anyone who has done anything like ACOS, would like to try this, or has any suggestions for how to do something like ACOS most effectively.

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