Digital Math Narratives

March 30, 2015

I’m teaching a hybrid Precalculus class this semester based on ideas from Jim Groom’s DS106, Darren Kuropatwa’s blogging Precalculus students, Alan November’s Digital Learning Farm, and the CSCL literature. The students are maintaining their own WordPress blogs, which are aggregated to a main class website. They take on different roles managing the blogs, and they also respond to a weekly blog assignment. It’s a huge experiment. Some things are working really well. Others are not.

I’d say I have about a 60% buy-in from my students at this point. They are getting through it, but it’s a struggle and I often have trouble communicating my expectations to them. It only recently occurred to me that they have probably never written so much about math. We don’t usually ask our students to do that, especially not in such a public forum.

On the one hand, I feel relieved to know that (hybrid) time outside of class is being well-spent, that the tasks I’m giving them are challenging. I’m perpetually worried that we will not be able to cover the same amount of material with so little class time, and yet I’m also cognizant of the fact that this course is pushing my students in directions they didn’t know they could be pushed. Blogging requires the students to orient themselves to math in a completely new way. I’m not sure they appreciate just what that means.

The original idea behind the blogs was two-fold. First, I wanted to create an authentic experience, a place where people from outside the class could read and comment on my students’ work. Audience is one of the biggest missing pieces in a Blackboard forum, and what bigger audience could you ask for than the entire internet. Second, I wanted to create a participatory culture for online learning, a space where students could co-create meaning and help each other out in their struggles to make-sense of new mathematics.

Creating a participatory culture can be a fickle process. One unexpected place where I’ve found guidance is in the literature on video games. For example, Constance Steinkuehler used James Paul’s Gee Discourse Analysis to understand how gamers learn through the participatory culture in and around Massively Multiplayer Online Games. Video games are different from math though. Gamers have a different relationship to their craft than Precalculus students. Still the same, I think there is value in comparing the two cultures.

Take for example the ludology vs narratology debate in game studies. The “narratologists” argue that games should be thought of as new forms of narrative whereas the “ludologists” view games as systems of rules. I probably err on the side of the ludologists but in thinking about narratology, I couldn’t help but draw connections to DS106 and the fact that it is a digital storytelling class. Blogging is basically a narrative medium. I’m basically asking my students to write digital math narratives. Maybe games could bridge the gap for my students, bringing them into the fold of our fledgling participatory culture?

I haven’t quite figured this out yet. There is a lot of literature on storytelling in math class. Most of it focuses on storytelling for young kids and assumes the instructor will be the storyteller, not the student. There is also a lot of literature on video games in math class. Again, this literature seems to completely miss the narrative aspect of games, mostly looking at puzzles and systems of rules. Can we create games with engaging narratives out of which an understanding of mathematics will emerge?

I’ve already waxed poetic about the role of hyperlinks in developing overlapping goals. When I shared those thoughts with a game studies friend of mine, he mentioned Twine, an open-source platform for creating html-based choose-your-own-adventures. (The math behind CYOAs is pretty cool.)

I’m happy to report that Twine is amazing! It’s not just a tool for creating CYOAs; it’s also a great way to prototype games, and I could imagine removing the narrative component entirely and just using it for instructional design with branching questions. Twine is simple enough to use that I could actually ask students to make their own math narratives/games.

In short, stay tuned for some upcoming digital math narratives. We’re brewing something interesting in Guttman Precalculus, and even if not all the pieces have come together yet, I feel like we’re learning a lot while charting new territory.