Hour of Code 2015 – Minecraft

Hour of Code has become a global phenomenon, but with excellent resources and celebrity support, it comes as no surprise. Several websites are now running their own Hour of Code projects, but I want to look at the ones on the official site as I’m really impressed with their offerings this year.

Earlier in the year I talked about the Frozen resources and mentioned that while it is an excellent resource, it gets quite tricky near the end. I’ve noticed that in the meantime, they have addressed the issue of calculating angles being too tricky, by adding in information about the necessary angles in the description for each level. However, some of the children in my school completed both of the new resources and then tried the Frozen one and all agreed that Frozen was still the hardest of the lot.

So, Minecraft is exceptionally popular amoungst the children in my school and, with the approaching launch of the new Star Wars movie, this too proven to be a popular choice.

In the Minecraft puzzle, the children are given the choice of playing as Steve or, his female counterpart, Alex. This is a nice start as it acknowledges that children of both genders will be giving this activity a go.

As with the previous activities, you are shown a video, this time it’s from one of developers of Minecraft, who explains the activity ahead.

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The code is based on blockly and introduces it’s concepts in a slow and simple manner. Once you’ve figured out of the system works, you are introduced to concepts such as shearing sheep, cutting down trees and mining resources by using ‘destroy’ blocks in the code.

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I really love that when you get to level six, you can chose a difficulty level for building the foundations of your house.

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We’ve just been introduced to the repeat block and the activity begins by giving us some basic code, which we are expected to modify to complete the design. The code we are given at the start won’t build our house, but with the addition of some further loops, we can complete our house.

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In the Frozen code, we are usually given a limit on the number of blocks we can use for each activity, which is to encourage us to use loops effectively, but so far we haven’t been given a limit for the Minecraft code, but this changes in level 7:

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The limit is not enforced, and if you exceed it, you are politely reminded that you could do it more efficiently.

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If you don’t finish the activity in the required number of blocks, your status bar shows a slightly lighter green colour, which means that, as a teacher, I can clearly see who has carefully completed the activity and suggest that children look again at certain bits to try and make their code more elegant.

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The activities involve a number of blocks unique to this activity such as ‘place cobblestone’ or ‘shear sheep’ and I think this is useful for children to see as they can recognise that code can be altered to suit the situation.

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Slightly different to the other Hours of Code, if you complete the Minecraft activity, you get a special Minecraft themed certificate, which the children really love!

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So, what are you waiting for? Give the Minecraft hour of code a go!

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Apologies for Silence

So, last year I spent my summer writing blog posts left right and centre and I have so many new products to try out and blog about, but I have a huge apology to make first… Basically, I started to write a short iBook about how to begin teaching primary coding which was aimed at primary school teachers like myself…this quick guide has slightly taken over my life and is now just shy of 50 pages with several sections left to go. Once I’ve got a first draft written and checked then I can pull my finger out and start blogging again, but just to wet your appetite, here are a few of the things I’ve got to blog about:

Hopscotch – block based coding on iPad

Gemma – arduino based wearable tech

Codebug – I’ve got one arriving in the post any day now

Mozilla learning platform

Explorer Hat Pro, Displayotron 3K and Unicorn Hat

So, you can see that I have a couple of bits & pieces ready to go in my pile of stuff to review, it’s just finding the time!! Please bear with me while I slog my way through permissions and acknowledgements not to mention glossarys and introduction videos!

Raspberry Pi – Minecraft

I don’t know about you, but for my Year 5s, Minecraft is a way of life – for the past 3 or 4 years I’ve seen it grow and grow in popularity to the extent that it’s no longer something cool to talk about, it is beyond cool, it’s just assumed that everyone knows what it is and plays it. So, when I first bought my Raspberry Pis, I remember enthusiastically telling the children that “you can use Minecraft on it”, which was greeted by some mumbling responses and one child declaring that it was too slow on the Pi.

When I went to Picademy I learnt the significance of Minecraft on the Pi – it’s not to play Minecraft, which can be done on any laptop, desktop, Xbox or even on Android & IOS devices, it’s to use lines of code to hack Minecraft and change the rules of the game.

The Minecraft section of our course was run by Craig Richardson, a former teacher with a passion for both Minecraft and the Raspberry Pi who is employed by the Raspberry Pi Foundation to pass on that enthusiasm to other teachers and children. He has very kindly shared his resources here and he even explains how to install Minecraft Pi Edition on your Raspberry Pi.

So, for those of you who don’t know, Minecraft is a simple, block based game where people can build, using blocks, houses and castles and boats and whatever their imagination requires. You can set up the game to be very simple i.e. resources are readily available, there are no bad guys etc or you can play so that you need to collect resources in order to make your buildings sustainable etc. It has never appealed to me in the slightest, but I really enjoyed using Craig’s hacks to explore the game and would consider looking at it again. One of the first things we were told when loading the Pi version of Minecraft is that the current version doesn’t work very well in full screen so don’t try to make your window full screen.

The first thing Craig asked us to do was to build a house. We discovered how to select different coloured blocks and built houses of varying quality (mine ended up being bright pink with a glass roof – it was hideous!). We also found out that to move our character (called Steve), we used the WASD keys, then the mouse clicks to play and select blocks. Once we’d built our houses, we were then asked to record the co ordinates of a point somewhere inside of it and then walk our character to another random point on the map.

In order to release the mouse from Minecraft, we had to press the tab key and then we could open Idle in order to type in some lines of code. Thankfully, Craig has helpfully created worksheets to go through all of this information including some extra tasks like creating a Minecraft folder in LXTerminal.

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As with the CamJam sheets I looked at last week, I’m really impressed with the amount of detail in these workbooks – not only are the lines of code explained, there is some information on the back about what you’ve learned in terms of the language of code and an extension task. The first booklet explains everything from switching the Pi on to getting your code running and has a helpful big red box to remind you about using tab to release the mouse. From there you move on to making  flowers follow your character, then building a house in one go, using chat, freezing water and making a ‘block fighter’ mini game.

So let’s see how simple the instructions are to follow.

My first problem was that I couldn’t really remember how to control Steve in Minecraft so I had to sit for a while and press buttons until things happened – left click allowed you to smash things (either with your sword or without), right click allowed you to place blocks. Pressing E came up with a list of different materials that you can use to build. Pressing the space bar allowed you to jump and double pressing it allowed you to fly (double pressing a second time made you drop to the floor). I could also press ‘esc’ to alter the viewpoint from first person to third person (some of our group felt that the first person view made them feel a bit seasick). So I built myself a house…..

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In order to teleport into my house I need to make a note of the co ordinates of it – in the top left hand corner, in white, are the xyz co ordinates of my front door (which need to be rounded to the nearest whole number for the code to work). I actually want to teleport to the middle of the room so I’m going to use -30, 8 and -32 in IDLE an then save my code.

I hit upon a problem when I tried to run my code – I kept getting the error “no module named mcpi.minecraft” …a bit of fiddling and I discovered where I’d gone wrong – in my infinite wisdom, I’d saved my teleport file to completely the wrong place (I found a directory called .Minecraft and thought that sounded right), it turns out it’s important to save the file to the Documents folder called minecraft. So, now my code works I can move my character away from my house, tab out of Minecraft and then hit f5 in the Idle window and….tada, I’m back in my house!

Magic!

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I’ve mastered booklet 1, with one minor hiccup, so let’s take a look at number 2, the flower path – my goal is create a path of flowers that follow me around the map.

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Maybe I’m just a bit more confident now, but this took me a few minutes to type in and, apart from accidentally missing the letter e off of Minecraft in one line of code, I had no problems….until I decided I wanted to get the flowers to stop following me, then I had a massive problem – luckily I’d written down that in order to stop the code you had to press ‘ctrl + c’ in the Python Shell window, otherwise I know I would have found myself getting really annoyed.

The extension task for this activity suggests changing the block variable value so that instead of flowers, you get melons, gold, water or even lava following you – I remember on our course we managed to make exploding dynamite follow us, which was highly amusing, albeit very destructive. Using this page I decided to try getting some different things to follow me – it did not like it when I tried to get Emeralds to follow me and I got a recurring ‘fail’ message across my screen and when I tried 319 for a ‘raw pork chop’ I ended up with a trail of wooden signs following me, so I guess it’s a bit of a case of trial and error (I did successfully manage to make running water appear under my feet using the codes).

Anyway, this is another fun Minecraft hack from Craig.

Just a final point – as I went to quit Minecraft, I suddenly got really upset that all my hard work building my house would go to waste, so I did a little research – by pressing escape I could quit the game, but the next time I loaded up Minecraft, instead of clicking on ‘create a new world’, I could click on my existing world and go back there -it seems that Minecraft Pi autosaves. While doing my research I learned that the version of Minecraft for the Raspberry Pi is a much more simple version compared to the full version so does not have the same scope for multiplayer etc, but it’s still good fun!

Personally, while Minecraft is a bit lost on me, I think that these 6 booklets are a fantastic way to get children interested in word based coding over block based because it’s not just typing in lines of code to make a message pop up, it’s typing in lines of code to ‘hack’ a game that they already play – it has huge mass appeal and I can’t wait to show the children I teach these booklets and let them have a go!

One thing I really appreciated about using IDLE over the LXTerminal is that it preempts the code you are typing and a little yellow box started hovering over my current line of code, suggesting what the rest of the line might need to look like. I also found that IDLE automatically put in line indents, which can be one of the reason lines of code fails.

So, if you teach children who are interested in Minecraft, I would thoroughly recommend taking a serious look at Craig’s worksheets and giving Minecraft hacking on your Raspberry Pi a go!!

Espresso Coding

We’ve been using Espresso in my school for a number of years for subjects like history and English. I’m sure most schools have one of their servers installed somewhere in a forgotten corner. As a maths and ICT teacher, I’ve never really found much use for it, but occasionally I’ve given it a cursory glance. Earlier this year we were sent information about a free trial of Espresso Coding, which I decided to take a look at with my Year 3 and 4 children in order to introduce some of the concepts of code and to see if it’s any good. We’ve been using it in the classroom since January 2014. Espresso have said that they will start charging from October 31st 2014 (I can’t seem to find the price so far). It seems to operate completely online and be managed separately from the main bulk of Espresso (which requires you hosting a server within your school that they manage externally), however, this may change once they start charging. I’d be interested to see what they charge since Scratch and  Scratch Jr are comparable products, but are both completely free.

So, what do you get for your money? Espresso have created 2 units of work for year groups 1-6 and in each unit they aim to teach a develop various different coding skills. They’ve also introduced a ‘starter unit’ so that you can recap the information from previous years without going all the way back to the beginning of Espresso Coding.

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Each unit is broken down into 6 lessons and each lesson also has 6 parts to it, which does make the software fairly idiot-proof, however, it does mean that there is an awful lot of repetition. Your more capable children could quite easily jump straight to Step 6 of a lesson and find no difficulty with the task.

Screen Shot 2014-08-15 at 15.05.30 Each activity is introduced with a simple video explaining what you need to do and how you need to drag your blocks into place to achieve the expected outcome. This means that Espresso Coding is really good for those teachers who are less confident with coding and the language of coding.

After watching the video you are taken to your ‘game’ in the My Design tab – here is the start screen for Unit 4a -> Lesson 5 -> Healthy Eating (lesson 6 is always a ‘design your own game’ option using the new skills you have just learnt).

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This basically shows you the four images you can animate – in Scratch any image that you can manipulate and get to move is referred to as a sprite, which is the term I now tend to use to differentiate between something that moves and something that is in the background so that when children move on to Scratch they understand the term.

While you are creating your code, you can get back to the game screen by clicking on the “My Design Tab” and to play your game, you need to hit “Run”.

So, when you enter the My Code tab you have a selection of control bars and a load of pictures that you can drag into place to write your code:

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By dragging the blocks into place you should end up with something like this:

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Let’s take the very bottom line of ‘code’; if I were to read that to the children I would read it as “If dog hits burger, burger gets randomly placed somewhere new and score goes up by -10”. As you can see, it’s all very simple and self explanatory.

You can see how strange it would look if I put the blocks the wrong way round – the sprite (or noun, or object or whatever you want to call it) must come before the instruction – it’s a bit like writing a sentence in literacy (cross curricular, cross curricular!!!!)

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The whole code basically makes the dog move in straight lines constantly in whatever direction key you press (I tend to subtly hint that WASD is a great key combination, but that’s because I’m a big geek). When the dog hits one of the items of food the score, or variable, either goes up or down and then the food item randomly relocates.

So, what I’ve found is that the children really enjoy using Espresso Coding – probably because they can’t really go wrong so it’s nice and safe. They really like the big cartoon-like characters and the simple instructions, however, I found that after a while they began to get a bit bored with being constrained to one skill per unit. They started to skip lessons out and jump straight to either lesson 5 or the ‘create your own game’ section and just have a play. In particular the boys were really eager to move on and so I tended to use Espresso as a starting point for coding, but once they children were more comfortable I moved them on to the Scratch cards (more info here) and even onto the Code Club resources because that allowed them more opportunities to be independent learners.

Espresso have worked hard to try to make their resource cross curricular and have even got a few lessons designed to work on a iPad and have a good awareness that many KS1 and 2 teachers really don’t have a clue about coding, however, it is a limited application that can get a bit tedious and works best as a way to introduce skills before moving on to more complicated resources.

I would recommend Espresso Coding as a useful stepping stone, although that does depend entirely on how much they plan on charging for the product. Personally, I haven’t renewed my contract for Espresso Coding because, while you are teaching children coding concepts, there is no independence or opportunity to really use the coding skills. It is a little bit too much of a ‘paint by numbers’ approach to teaching coding and I prefer using Scratch or even Hopscotch on the iPad to Espresso.

Quest – Text-based adventure game (creating a game)

For an introduction to Quest/ActiveLit, click here. For information about creating your first room, click here.

So, after creating my single room and getting my head around how to use this software, I’ve made a start in creating my full game from the map I created earlier:

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As a starting point, I created every single room, which meant I had to give them all names. I would suggest that the rooms are named during the planning phase.

Once I’d created all of my rooms, I could then add in all of the entrances – I know in my final game that I want some of the doors to be locked and/or hidden, but for now I just want to get them all in place – fortunately there is a tick box as part of the ‘exit’ creation tab, which allows you to make your exits two-way, meaning you don’t have to create them twice (once for each room).

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So, my next step is to hide/lock some of my doors.

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And now I can start populating the rooms with objects.

I’m not going to go into too much detail, but my game creation took approximately 3 hours and then I had to ask a friend to beta test it, at which point several problems were identified. I’m happy for people who aren’t sure to drop me an email, but I also found the creator of text adventures, Alex Warren, on twitter and he seems very happy to help and get involved.

So here’s how my populated game looked after creation:

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And here’s a copy of a few bits of the log from my friend playing through, which helped me to make some changes.

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One thing this highlighted to me was the importance of creating an object and a description for every single noun in the room. My room description mentioned a computer, but I hadn’t created an object called computer and this led to my friend getting very, very frustrated.

I also found that it was important to add extra verbs to word – in one room I wanted to have a picture which you could push to one side to reveal a switch, I discovered two things: Firstly, you need to drop a REALLY big hint in the description that the object can be moved and secondly, that you need to think about the different verbs that people might think of to describe pushing or moving or shoving a picture out of the way. I decided to make the object a container AND edit the verb field like so:

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Hopefully, like me, you’re currently bouncing up and down about the cross curricular links between this particular programme and English/literacy. Not only do the children need to plan their story carefully thinking about how events link into one another, they also need to think carefully about nouns and verbs. They need to know what a noun is in order to understand that every single object in your room is a noun and therefore needs to be created as an object and given a description!

When a pupil finishes their game it can be ‘published’, but this only make it available to other users in the group, making it a safe environment to make mistakes and a great way to help each other think about errors. It would also be an ideal opportunity to discuss debugging as each user tests one another’s games.

My final word on this is that I think it will be tough to teach, I think it will be hard work to explain all the nuances to the children and probably require a lot of running around, but I also think it has so many positives that it would be an invaluable classroom tool as long as you take the time to understand how it works.

If you want to play my game, click here and for now, I’m off to plan my next game!!

Quest – Text-based adventure game (creating a room)

If you’ve not read it yet, here is my first post about Quest/ActiveLit.

I’ve just sat down for about an hour and a half to try and create my first room in ActiveLit. I’m not going to lie, it was quite hard work, but it feels like the next room will be a lot easier now that I’ve done it once and I’m really pleased with the results.

So, the first thing I did was to create a simple map of my intended game – turns out I was definitely being over-adventurous and I would suggest you make a simple 4 room map with the children.

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So, my first room was hopefully fairly simple – there is a locked door which can only be opened by collecting a floppy disc from a box and using it with the BBC Micro in the corner of the room. In my mind, that wasn’t too much to ask for, but it did take me a while to get my head around the interface.

I didn’t change anything about the basic setup of the game except to activate the light and dark setting (meaning that rooms can be dark until an object is used). I wouldn’t worry too much about your basic settings for the time being – I just had a strange desire to have a torch or a light switch somewhere in one of the rooms just because it was an available option!

So the first thing I did was create a couple of rooms (I discovered that to have an active ‘locked door’ you need a room for the door to lead into so it’s no good just having one room). A key thing that you need to think about when creating a game is that in order to create interactive objects, you have to have created both of the objects (and anything else they need to interact with) before you try to set up interaction.

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You will see from this diagram that I have two rooms – Lobby and Hallway. The hallway only has a link to the lobby exit – at the moment it is only there as a placeholder. Inside my lobby I have the player, a table (with a box containing various objects inside), a door and an old computer (which I want to be the ‘key’ to opening the door).

In the room tab you can write a description of the room, but you don’t need to list any objects as the programme will do that automatically. You can also see that I have added one exit which is to the hallway

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Each of my ‘top layer’ object are listed in the lobby objects list.

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You can choose whether to set up new objects as ‘an object’, ‘a room’ or an ‘object and/or room’. My table needs to have the box on it and then the box itself needs to contain other items so they both need to be labelled as object/rooms, whereas everything else gets to be just an object.

Screen Shot 2014-07-31 at 14.29.03Both the box and the table are turned into containers/surfaces in the features tab Screen Shot 2014-07-31 at 14.52.05and this helpfully adds the container tab to the object, allowing me to dictate whether or not it is a container or a surface – the table is labelled as a surface and I have created the box as an object within the table so that it is listed as being on top of the surface.

The cardboard box that I wanted was created as a ‘closed container’ which could be ‘opened or closed’ and I could tweak settings so that the objects inside became visible on opening, however, initially the opened box didn’t list the new objects and they didn’t appear to be discoverable until I added a ‘print message’ line in the ‘after opening the object’ tab, listing the objects inside (it seemed to automatically realise I wanted the objects hyperlinked) – for each new object I had to press the ‘add new script’ button, which allowed me to add another object or event to the action box.

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I didn’t want the objects inside to be visible until the box was opened so when I set them up, I made them invisible by unticking the box in the setup tab.

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I only wanted the floppy disc to be a takeable item and so in the inventory tab, for the other 2 items I simply made sure the ‘object can be taken’ box was unticked and then added a ‘take message’ along the lines of  ‘this item cannot be taken’ and gave silly reasons why each one could not be taken, whereas for the floppy disc I made sure that there was a clear message after you have taken it.

Screen Shot 2014-07-31 at 14.59.53So, finally, I had the fun bit of code to do – I wanted to be able to put the floppy disc in the computer an have it unlock the door.

When I initially set up the room, I set up the exit to the hallway, now I went into the settings for this and changed it to a locked door:

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So now I need to create the object to unlock the door, my BBC Micro Computer

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By ticking the first box in the features tab, I was able to make my BBC interact with another object (I also did the same thing with the floppy disc!).

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So, in the use/give tab I was able to select the option “use (other object) on this” which allowed me to specify that the floppy disc would both prompt a message AND unlock the door (by clicking the ‘add new script’ button). You will see that I also added a message for the “use any other object on this” just for the fun of it.

When the room is played through, other than the message displayed above, there is no indication that the door has been unlocked so the creator needs to make sure that the person playing the game knows it has been unlocked.

One thing that I relied on while making this game was the ‘save’ and ‘play’ options as it was only through playing my game that I was able to debug it and figure out what I was doing wrong – users should definitely be encouraged to use these after every new object is added in.

Now that I know what I’m doing, I’m off to create another couple of rooms and see how long it takes me to create my whole 13 room map! I may be busy for some hours!!!

Quest – Text based adventure games (intro)

When we were looking at the new curriculum last year, we were drawn to the idea of looking at text based adventure games and it was penciled in to our Year 6 curriculum. From September I’m the one who has to find a way to introduce and teach this topic so I was really pleased when someone on twitter mentioned Quest. Today I took my first look at this software and will be creating a couple of posts as I try and figure out what to do.

For those of you who remember, way back in the eighties most people didn’t have consoles, or even machines powerful enough to display brightly coloured images and so we had to make do with playing text based adventure games on Commodores and BBC computers (and whatever else followed). I remember, as a very young child, playing a lot of these games and getting incredibly frustrated, but also hugely addictive. Like Ian Livingstone’s fighting fantasy books, they allowed you to control the story you were reading and it was really good fun. Just an aside, does anyone else remember Granny’s Garden – the ultimate text based adventure game for children because it had a few rubbish 8-bit pictures and some terrible music (yeah, I bet you’re humming it right now).

Anyway, the first thing I did was create an account on the Quest website, at which point I noticed a link to ActiveLit described as interactive fiction for schools and groups, which seemed much more like what I was looking for so I also signed up for that.

ActiveLit let me create individual user accounts fairly easily although there doesn’t seem to be a bulk upload option (yet), whereas Quest wanted email verification for each user – having logged into both with a test account, they both seem to have the same interface, but ActiveLit allows the teacher some control, which is fine by me!Screen Shot 2014-07-30 at 21.53.59I realised, while thinking about this topic, that in a world of PS4 and Xbox One as well as smart phones and iPads, most children would not have ever experienced a text based adventure game and so one great feature of ActiveLit is that you, as admin user, can select games that have already been made and get the children to explore them:

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For now, I’ve picked one at random from the education section for the children to explore – I’d like to take a really good look at some of these to ensure they really are educational (it’s already upsetting me that the bottom game has the American spelling of labour).

For me, the single most important lesson to be taken from text based adventure games is that you HAVE to choose the right words; your spelling and syntax needs to be correct otherwise nothing happens. This is such an important lesson when it comes to code (and basic literacy if we’re being honest) that it can’t be ignored. By playing a few games, the children should begin to understand how this works (and how frustrating it can be when a simple misspelling can cause an error).

So, when my test pupil logs in they see the following:

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At the top, a list of games I, the admin user, have suggested they look at and then either to the right or below, their own creations.

For now, I would suggest the first lesson for both teachers and children is to simply play a game and see how it works – having played with a couple, it seems that the interface allows you to create slightly more complicated games then I remember, with much more visual controls (an inventory list, a compass with possible directions highlighted and even a list of interact-able items).

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However, this does seem to be optional as you can see (yes, this really is the original 1984 Hitchhiker’s text based adventure game written by Douglas Adams):

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Once I’ve had a chance to try out the creation interface I’ll be writing a new blog, but that’s all for now folks.

*edit*

I’ve just discovered something else really good about the admin panel – it has a VERY detailed log of users actions so if I take a quick glance at my test session yesterday, you can see exactly what my test user has done!

Screen Shot 2014-07-31 at 12.51.14 Screen Shot 2014-07-31 at 12.51.45This will provide an excellent opportunity for assessment and discussion about success criteria. It can be shared with the class to discuss ideas and suggest solutions or used for one to one discussion with someone who, perhaps, isn’t able to understand how the game works.

I have to say, I am REALLY impressed with this feature.