Perfectly normal teaching

I recently wrote a blog post to my university’s education blog titled “Perfectly normal teaching” (Aivan tavallista opetusta). The main point was to remind teachers of the need to value established and “normal” teaching practices, and to share them with others as well. In my eyes, there is a tendency to highlight the “new” and “innovative”, and to focus on various types of development initiatives, while established best practices are often bypassed or taken for granted. Especially in situations or organisational change, such as when departments are joined together, or new personnel are recruited, it would be important to remember to share existing practices no matter how self-evident they may feel. In short, it is important to make structures visible.

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No, not this traditional teaching…

In this spirit, I want to collect here some highlights from the teaching I participated in the spring of 2017:

 

  • On the Newsgames -course, organised jointly between our dept. and the Faculty of Information Technology, student teams worked on three different game projects, including: A game on the life stories of Finns born in 1917, illustrating the drastic way our life has changed in the 100 years of Finnish independence; a game on cybercrime, illustrating the ease of making simple attacks, and how unlikely it is to get caught; a game on the every day decisions a medical doctor has to make, illustrating the difficulty of doing medical work ethically while not being overworked in the process.
  • On the Communication in Global Virtual Teams -course, student teams worked on a variety of wonderful topics, producing presentations and final reports on topics such as: Perspectives on Team Development in Virtual Setting; Social Tolerance in Global Virtual Teams; and Diversity Management in Global Virtual Teams
  • On the Media and Online Cultures -course, we used a very traditional lecture format (with visitors!) to take a look at themes such as social media and participatory culture, communication in online communities, theories of technology-mediated communication, new and emerging trends in journalism, contemporary media landscape as a (contested) site for bringing about change in the world, and many others.

And of course many others as well, including MA theses on too many topics to discuss here. There is always a lot happening within the hallowed walls of the university institute! As always, it has been an honour to work with talented and motivated students and to witness the way their thinking and understanding evolves.

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Public speaking all the way

Last autumn and during the winter I participated in many a seminar where I was asked to hold speeches. This is nothing out of the ordinary – normally, in an academic conference, we are expected to be able to verbalise our research processes and results to the audience. The cases I am talking about, however, were more along the lines of popularising “science” (I write that in quotation marks since I do not see myself as a scientist. A researcher, yes, and academic, definitely, but not a scientist.). Since these occasions can never really be put to use in a CV, and they are not really appreciated in the academic world, I thought it might be interesting to save them here for posterity.

The first two were in Finnish, and took place in the autumn of 2014. The first of these was in a closing seminar of the Pelaten terveeks? -project I wrote earlier about. The next one was during the concluding seminar of the Pelitaito -project in Helsinki. My topic there was communality and communities in games, with a special focus on emergent player behaviour. The whole event was streamed online, with around 100 people in the audience, and some hundreds more online. Marko TEDx

The last speech was done in English, and was delivered during the TEDx-event here in Jyväskylä. The organisers did a really nice job putting together an interesting ensemble. The space was nice, and the atmosphere was cozy. In this speech I talked about the power of games and a gameful attitude in opening people up for learning about computers. What I see so often when talking to students is the attitude that technology is not for them. What I also see is that the few courses they take are not nearly enough to provide them with the necessary know-how required in today’s technology-driven media landscape. A video of the talk can be found here. Unfortunately, while the video quality is good, they did not have microphones for the audience. This is a shame since I managed to get the audience going a couple of times, and the feel of the situation suffers from the lack of murmur on the background. Well, anyway it was a nice occasion!

Situations like these provide wonderful opportunities for honing one’s public speaking skills, and I am quite happy to take on challenges like the TEDx-talk. Scary they may be, but one always ends up learning a lot from them.

On the parallels between game design crunch and academic work

Before we begin, a disclaimer. Since this is my personal blog, these are my personal thoughts – and I know they do not necessarily represent those of my employer or my co-workers. With that out of the way, let’s begin!

Kotaku, an online magazine concentrated on game cultures, recently released a story looking into the culture of “crunch” in the field of game development. (Read it, and especially the comments!) Crunch here refers to – often excessive – overtime that workers have to put in to meet deadlines in the process of developing games. Most of the time people doing this are on salary, with no overtime payment. The story got me to thinking (again) about the parallels between the “coder-hero” and the “researcher-hero”, and the way in which the concept and ideal of crunch is embedded in academia as well as in game development.

Interestingly enough, many of the paragraphs in the original story work just as well when you replace “developer” or “gamer” with “researcher”, “development” with “research”, and so forth. Like this (emphasized words have been changed):

Often, researchers equate crunch with the final weeks in a research project, when everyone on a team has to go into overdrive to ensure they hit their deadline—”crunch time” is a euphemism for the very last minute of a project. But in reality, according to many of the researchers I talked to for this story, crunch is always there, hanging over universities like a big gloomy rain cloud. Plenty of the people who do research say they have to crunch all year long.

One of the main similarities between the two contexts becomes apparent with the realisation that in both cases we are talking about creative work that is often difficult to predict. It may be impossible to know when a new insight is going to appear, or how long it takes to actually analyse a large set of data (posing challenges for project management, such as scheduling). What this leads into is that it is easy to feel that you have to stay one more hour to complete a thought, or fire up the computer late in the night when you get an idea. I argue, though, that this mindset is largely an illusion. Those “fantastic” thoughts are not as fragile as people think. They will not be lost if you get your children from the kindergarten in time or go to your yoga class (And if they do, good riddance! Most probably they were not that special to begin with). From my viewpoint, sometimes it is necessary to forcibly pull yourself away from your work to gain critical analytical distance. Just putting in the hours does not mean anything by itself.

Another similarity is the stance that people have towards crunch. Like in game development, there are many, many researchers who think that “passion for science” means working extra hours. They think that research is a way of life, an identity, something larger than everyday obligations. This kind of hero-researcher discourse is very common, and I can understand its allure. Due to the way academia works (rewards, tenure, promotions…) I argue that it is probably the case that most of the people who have been able to climb up the ladder are likely to be people who subscribe to this line of thought. Heck, I might be one of these people myself, come to think of it! The end result is that we have “managers” (professors, principal investigators) who not only allow for, but actually expect for crunch to happen, and who absolutely do not see it as a problem but rather a normal price to pay if one wants to do this line of work.

Just like in game development, people’s different stance towards crunch can be a source of ill feelings and conflict as well. Again, the original story has a wonderful quote related to this:

It’s also tough to imagine a culture where people don’t equate long hours with passion and commitment. Many of the game developers I interviewed for this story said that when some members of their teams voluntarily crunched while others didn’t, the crunchers would grow to resent the people who left at 6 or 7pm every day. Even in studios where crunch is never mandatory, a divide like this can rip teams apart—unless there’s a manager forcing people to go home.

What is sorely missing in academia, from my viewpoint, is the kind of leadership culture where people in leading positions would actually take care that others leave home early, and do not work overtime unless it is absolutely necessary to do so. You see, most of us are in this for the long haul, expecting to work in academia (or similar line of work) for decades to come. What we need is a work culture that supports that aim, instead of focusing on the short-term and constantly asking: “How many articles did you publish this year?”

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“Run! Time is money!”

Especially alarming for me is the experience of one designer in the story, where he tells how “he and his team found themselves crunching not to finish but to build fake demos for publishers and trade shows” (emphasis mine). It is alarming because I am sad to say that I recognise this element in current research practices as well. Crunching to be ready for a conference deadline, a funding call deadline, or a deadline set by outside partners or funders has the potential of pushing people to take the easy way out with regards to important decisions related to research. It doesn’t need to be as dramatic as coming up with results that you “need”. It can simply be about wanting to find that suitable quote to prove your point or provide a theoretical backdrop for your argument. Being in a hurry means that you might simply use the sources you have always used, or for example go cherry picking a source that others have used (but which you actually don’t know that well) – whatever the strategy, the risk of thinking too fast is present. And thinking too fast can lead researchers to search for anything that supports their initial ideas (sometimes called hypotheses), instead of trying to test their position and argumentation as critically as possible, trying to find counter arguments to them.

Of course it stings if you end up missing a funding deadline or a call for papers of a conference, but you know what – there will be others. Life will go on. You can do it better next time. (Of course it would be nice if your livelihood would not depend on meeting that one deadline, that the university structure would allow for more safety in terms of reliable income instead of leaning more and more towards to the absurd union of competition and science – a rant for another day).

I have to make it clear here that I do not think any creative process can totally escape the idea of crunch, or the last minute push, or those moments where you are so intently concentrated on developing your stuff that you forget the flow of time. Also, for me it is totally okay that towards the end of a project, or when an article deadline approaches, people are asked (and ask themselves) to work late. But this is okay only when it is occasional, for example for a few days or for a week, and not when it becomes normalised. I also don’t buy the idea that just because this type of work is more fluid, more personal and independent, it would not take its toll on the human psyche and body. Perhaps the age-old idea of eight hours of work, eight hours of free time and eight hours of sleep does not work in knowledge-intensive work like research, but this shouldn’t mean that people sacrifice their mental and physical health, including relationships (interpersonal and societal) to the altar of “science”.

I feel it is very important to talk about issues like this especially for the benefit of the newcomers to academia – doctoral students, project workers, research assistants, etc. With our actions and the discourses surrounding them we are setting an example for young researchers.

My dream is that we may create an environment where crunch would not hang over research institutes “like a big gloomy rain cloud”. Where the hero-researcher is not the norm or a source of admiration, but where we understand that the important, long term scientific and academic goals can be reached with other strategies as well. Where researchers can have family and hobbies and a life outside of the academia without feeling bad about it – be a part of the society they are living in (and often studying as well).

Newsgames going forward

Last year I had the pleasure of working together with talented people both from our department and that of Computer Sciences in a pilot project looking into the creation and reception of newsgames. What are newsgames, you might ask, and for a good reason. The seminal book published by Bogost, Ferrari and Schweizer in 2010 keeps the door open for a variety of manifestations (including ponderings on crossword puzzles), but in our project, we focused more clearly on contemporary digital games and game-like interactive data-journalistic experiments.

Now, this spring we are at it again, this time with the local newspaper Keskisuomalainen, with the intention of exploring in practice what newsgames could be and how one could go about creating them. We have three very talented teams working on designs as I write this, ready to pitch their initial ideas to the news organization in our next meeting. We will be keeping a close eye on this project, and try to report the outcomes of this particular type of project-based learning later on.

If you are interested in this particular topic, please contact me and let’s see what we can do together!

Game cultures in Finland – research continues

This June we received word that our large consortium (Universities of Turku, Tampere, and Jyväskylä) received funding for several years to continue research on the changing face of games and culture in Finland (the previous consortium operated under a bit different name but with a similar constellation. More info here). The consortium is funded by the Academy of Finland. Here in Jyväskylä there will be four to five people involved, myself included.

This is really good news, not only because it pays a part of my salary for the next years, but especially because the “ludification of society” is a real trend that deserves our attention. From gaming and health to the ever-expanding uses of play and games in education, there are so many promises (and pitfalls) related to “gameful” or “playful” thinking that they definitely need to be carefully looked at.

Related to this topic, I have been asked to work as a member or the advisory board for a project at the Jyväskylä University of Applied Sciences. This project, called Pelaten terveeks? (yes, with a question mark) looks at the possibility of utilizing gameful design or game-like approaches in areas such as mental health care, etc. It is a really interesting and ambitious project. At the same time I am happy to be able to say that the advisory board has their feet firmly on the ground. We can believe that there is something there in these playful approaches, without fully submitting ourselves to unwarranted optimism and hype about “gamifying” healthcare. The project goes on until the autumn, when they will have a larger symposium on the subject.

All in all very interesting times ahead, again!

Pelaajien luovuudesta

Pidin äskettäin kutsupuheenvuoron RePlay-seminaarissa Jyväskylän veturitalleilla. Seminaarissa käsiteltiin nuorten pelaamista erilaisista näkökulmista, ja järjestäjät (mm. Pelituki-hanke) olivat tuoneet paikalle myös mukavasti oheisohjelmaa: kilpailuja, retropelinäyttelyn ja muuta vastaavaa. Illan päätteeksi paikalla järjestettiin myös peliturnaus.

Halusin omalla esitykselläni tuoda hieman tavallisesta poikkeavaa näkökulmaa pelaamisen tarkasteluun. Useinhan erityisesti nuorten pelaamista käsitellessä näkökulma liittyy riippuvuuden tai väkivallan kysymyksiin, tai sitten puhe on oppimispeleistä tai pelaamisen erilaisista vaikutuksista. Halusin kuitenkin muistuttaa siitä, että pelaamisen ja leikkimisen arvo on usein pelaamisessa ja leikkimisessä itsessään – aina ei tarvitse etsiä hyötyä tai vaikutuksia. Esitelmä ei perustu mihinkään yksittäiseen artikkeliin tai tutkimukseen, vaan oli tätä tarkoitusta varten rakennettu.

Esitelmä videoitiin kokonaisuudessaan, ja se löytyy järjestäjien Bambuser-kanavalta. Nostin lisäksi esityksen kalvot Slideshareen nähtäville, jos niistä vaikka olisi jollekulle iloa.

Change – as usual – in doctoral education in Finland

Recently, I participated in an info session/workshop meant for supervisors of doctoral students. I ended up taking some many notes, that I thought it would be a shame to not to share them with the world. So here goes!  “Random notes concerning doctoral supervision and the financing of doctoral studies in Finland”

There seems to be a lot of talk about the changes in how doctoral studies are funded. The ministry continues to push for more, faster, and with less expenses (it’s apparently the new citius, altius, fortius of the academia). Universities react to this push in different ways. In our university, for example, a so-called 2+2 four-year model is presented as a sort of ideal. In this model two years would be funded by scholarships and two years by the university where the doctoral student is located. At the same time the age-old tension between scholarships and doctoral students who are employed by their university continues. With the masses of doctors that the society apparently expects our universities to produce, it is simply impossible to provide every doctoral student with the option of being employed by the university. Looking from the university’s point-of-view, it is also very clear that doctoral students on scholarships are so much cheaper than those employed that we as supervisors should push for every one to get a scholarship from some foundation or another. Same old, same old.
What is new for us, though, is that from now on it will be impossible to receive university/faculty grants for more than two years in a row. If the doctoral student will receive funding from the university after two years, it will have to be through a working relationship with the university. However, should one receive funding from an outside body such as a foundation, a door for further funding can open anew. This can of course be seen as a positive development from the viewpoint of the doctoral student. No more will it be possible to keep someone hanging on scholarships for year after year -except if those scholarships come from foundations.
The difficulty with the funding system in Finland has also to do with the fact that doctoral students come from so many backgrounds and with such different expectations that it is hard to serve everyone. In my field, communication sciences, it is not at all rare to have people work on their dissertations while they are working full-time somewhere else. For such people, it might be totally impossible to devote even one full year for doctoral studies. Instead, they would need three to six months at certain stages during the process. For some of these stages, such as finalizing the work, there exists funding. For others, such as analysis half-way through, it is not as clear.
In the situation Dr. Tuija Saresma talked nicely about the practicalities of supervising doctoral students at the final stages of the doctorate. She reminded us of the fact that while doctoral students might appear “young” to their supervisors in the academic sense, they are experts as well, having earned a degree from an institution of higher education and being immersed in their topic. Consequently, she said, the role of the supervisor should not be that of an all-knowing teacher, but rather a combination of mentor, expert, project manager, friend, etc. add your own word here. This is in line with the way doctoral students have traditionally been seen in the humanities, that is, not just as cannon fodder to be used in tedious lab tasks (notice my totally non-ironic stereotype about natural sciences!). However, I see here a great turn taking place. More and more, the doctoral dissertation is not seen as the epitome of a life-long learning process, but rather as a starting point for something else. Even post-docs nowadays can have supervisors, and (unfortunately) be treated like students in practical issues. I do not quite know how to feel about this. While it is good that a new post-doc has a mentor, I don’t think it is good that after five years of MA training, and five years of doctoral studies, we still think people are “undone”. And if we do, what on earth does that tell of the education we give to these people?
Tuija also reminded us that the skills one needs to have in order to fare well in an academic career, whether they are related to applying for funding, reviewing academic work, supervising other’s work, project management, etc., do not appear out of thin air once a doctorate is conferred. There should be places and support for learning these kinds of things during the doctoral studies. I want to add here that I think that the very same thing is true also later on. Gaining an academic title or position does not magically confer powers that were not developed before that, and we should not expect that to happen either when we look at ourselves or when we evaluate others. For example, starting to supervise students, or write reviews, or recommendations, are things that we just expect people to be able to do without necessarily ever teaching them. Finally, Tuija spoke of the feelings and support needed during these long processes. There are many positive and negative feelings associated with personal research projects, and we take them too rarely into account at least in the public. Also in this blog post they got only a passing mention at the very end of a long piece of text. Poor feelings. So neglected.
All in all it is always refreshing to talk about such things, and share experiences with other members of the academia with similar work tasks. This is, and can be, a wonderful place to work, but we should be ever interested in making it better and fighting those influences that do not work in its favor.

New blog – a research project on newsgames

I just launched a new blog centering on a research project called The Impact of Gamification on Journalism. The purpose of that blog is to document the proceeding of the research project, as well as to operate as a repository of links, literature, and all good things that a project needs! The blog will be in Finnish only, though, as its main target audience is local. Publications and conference participation will anyway be mostly in English, so I thought that I could serve the journalists and students here in Finland with this choice. I don’t mind using English (it is my primary working language after all), but I have to say that it is really, really important to be able to communicate about research-related issues in Finnish as well. This is a tremendously small language area, and we should make sure we don’t neglect it totally.

There will be at least one, perhaps two, co-hosts working on the blog with me. It will be interesting to see how it shapes up, and how much such a blog can support the sharing of interesting cases, literature, etc.

Here’s to hoping that the blog succeeds in reaching the goals I have set it!

Fund my research! … please?

The other day I sat through a long session where research funding was being discussed. There were professors, researchers, doctoral students as well as representatives of funders (i.e. foundations) present. Of course there were, I might add here, for applying for funding seems to be the single most important function of the modern university!

The art of wooing the evaluators is something all academicians today must learn, and of course in many ways this has always been so. Whether the source of funding has been an aristocrat’s family or an industry tycoon, we often come back to the question of how to sell our darling projects to the uninitiated. However, listening to some contemporary funding sources explaining their procedures and principles I cannot help but think that the structure has become more important than the content. This is especially prevalent in so-called public funding (I’m looking at you, EU). If you don’t follow the rules by the tiniest detail, you will be automatically dismissed. If you happen to submit your application to the wrong field, even if there is no right one for you, you are out of luck. Okay, one representative of a regional fund said that they (or he) sometimes corrects an application that has clearly been marked as something it is not. I wish the systems would be flexible enough to provide more opportunities for this…

The situation is not all that easy from the funders’ point-of-view, either. Sometimes, especially when a fund is based on wills or donations, the original donator might have specified very carefully what kind of research can or cannot be supported. This can actually lead to very interesting results. For example, a will might have specified that the money can only be given to research on a specific illness and/or for researchers coming from a specific geographical area, but it is impossible to evaluate whether there will be applicants filling these requirements once a call is opened.

I am a great proponent of knowledge for knowledge’s sake. I think we cannot ever know what kind of knowledge or insight will be of use in the future, and sometimes (often?) even this is not the point. We simply need to try to understand the world around us and ourselves in it, and this endeavor is important in itself. This is why I have followed with some concern the development of universities towards what I feel is a more applied direction, where “innovation” and industrial contacts are being stressed as funding criteria.

Learning how to apply for funding is one of the key competencies of contemporary researchers. It is a double-edged sword, this need for simplifying and selling your study, but it is something that you cannot escape from if you want to flourish in the academia. Time to practice your elevator speech?

“Managing” communities

One of the new job titles that many communication specialists have these days is “community manager”. Of course the idea of taking care of your customer base or key stakeholders has been important before, but the prevalence of social media has made it a much more visible task. Of course this also ties in with established social media ideas such as produsage, and the broad ideology of moving away from a push-centered approach to a more interactive way of being in contact and utilizing the network around, say, a business.

On Friday I will be taking part in CMAD2013, the second annual Community Manager Appreciation Day here in Finland. It will be interesting to hear thoughts from the trenches, from those people who are doing this kind of communication right now. It will also be interesting to hear their thoughts about the near future, as difficult as it is to predict.

As we know, most gaming companies today understand the importance of having a supportive community around their company or games, and this is something that even small indie studies should look into. For example, a succesful kickstarter campaign should definitely put a lot of effort in communicating their process to their fans, and of course work as hard as possible to also expand the fan base before the product is ready! Unfortunately this seems like a lot to ask, as we see from a review that Rock, Paper, Shotgun did of some of the successes of 2012.

No, not *this* snow plough...

No, not *this* snow plough…

Finally, I fully expect that Friday’s meeting will be full of enthusiasm and positive vibes about the possibilities of new media. While there is nothing wrong with that, I also want to remember those who are not as exstatic about the topic. Case in point, last weekend I heard one older gentleman tell a story of how he went to a store to buy a snow plough (really). He tried to get service, but all he got was “Go check it from the internet”. So he went to “the internet”, searched for another retailer of said snow plough, and bought it from there. Nice community management on the micro-level…