The following are rough draft remarks shared during the 2016 Institute for Innovation in Education Gathering at Vancouver Island University in British Columbia. I was a participant in the StorySlam, a collective presentation structured around 5-minute long responses to the following prompt: “Tell us a time when you learned there was another world.” The StorySlam was recorded and broadcast by VIU’s radio station CHLY 101.7 FM, and I will update this post with link to the recording when available.

A “snowflake” model I drew in early 2001 when researching the online political simulation Arab Israeli Conflict (AIC) with my mentor Dr. Jeff Kupperman.

This is a snowflake. I drew it in early 2001, more than 15 years ago. Today, I’m going to tell you a story about this snowflake and what it taught me – and might teach us – about worlds of inquiry.

This story begins with Jeff Kupperman. He and I met in early 2000 at Community High School in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I was a junior. Jeff was conducting his dissertation research by facilitating an online role-playing simulation about the Arab Israeli conflict called, appropriately enough, the Arab Israeli Conflict (or AIC). Long story short, I took my game play very seriously, and once our semester concluded Jeff and I kept in touch about how I might further contribute to the AIC, his doctoral research, and – more broadly – the various learning technologies that were being developed by the University of Michigan’s Interactive Communications and Simulations group

Now, when I think back to my senior year of high school I don’t remember spending much time in school. And that’s because I skipped a lot of school. Good thing Jeff was my enabler, my partner-in-crime. I began to attend the courses Jeff and his colleagues were teaching at UM’s School of Education. Yes, I was skipping school to go to college and to conduct research in the world of academia. I began to accompany Jeff on school observations, talking with teachers and students who were participating in ICS projects. This is when I met mentors like Fred Goodman, Edgar Taylor, Gary Weisserman, and Jeff Stanzler. And when I met Susanna, Jeff’s wife; and when I reconnected with Michael Fahy. I was welcomed into a world of inquiry, with social relations that sustain me to this day.

What does any of this have to do with a snowflake and learning about another world? Let’s have a careful look at this so-called “model.” First, we see multiple intersecting continua, each representing some type of dichotomous relationship like online versus offline, or proactive versus reactive. I think, in subsequent drafts, we also included in-character versus out-of-character activity. These categories, according to this draft, could each be color-coded and also shaded, with darker tones associated with ranked values. It seems we were also attempting to measure aspects of playful learning across multiple scales, from individual undergraduate students roleplaying as national security advisors (or NSAs), to all teams within a given AIC game, to all AIC games (as there were usually four parallel AIC games running each semester).

In some respects, this snowflake is a mess. How could a single heuristic adequately capture the complexity of shared activity nested within a game, with that game nested among a set of similar simulations? On the other hand, this snowflake – irrespective of its scientific validity and reliability – is really pretty awesome. We were trying to create our own learning analytics and associated data visualizations. We were inductively generating means of understanding individual and collective learning across settings and scales. We were attempting to systematically inquire into another world of complex systems, on our own terms, with codes and categories that made sense to us as designers, as facilitators, and as researchers.

When I look back at the work Jeff and I were doing 15 years ago, I recognize we were wrestling with powerful questions that likely resonate with many at this iiE Gathering. How do we measure learning? How do those measures support inquiry into complex worlds of activity? Are our measures of learning adopted, based upon the agenda of others? Or do our measures of learning reflect our own designs and agency? Furthermore, what do useful learning analytics look like, and how responsive are these measures to other worlds of social interaction and meaning-making?

Don’t get me wrong – tools, models, and data (whether so-called big data or small) are all important. Yet when I look at this drawing, I am reminded that whatever distinct phenomena we seek to measure or describe is often, in retrospect, less important than the messy and iterative process that, years later, we are able to share as a story of creative connection to another world and way of seeing.

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