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Interview: Nate Poling On His Starcraft-Themed College Class

I’m happy to share this interview with Nate Polling, who runs the University of Florida's class on RTS classic Starcraft.

I'm happy to share HitPoints' very first interview! Back on August 27th, I wrote an article on the University of Florida Starcraft class. I reached out to Nate Polling, the instructor for the course and he was gracious enough to grant our humble blog some of his time. Nate is a UF educational technology doctoral student at the College of Education. He also teaches EME2040, Introduction to Educational Technology.

Mark Tanjutco: Nate, I want to start by saying thanks for taking the time to chat with us today. I guess we’ll start with the background questions: What personally motivated you to build and offer the course? Was there anything in your background as a gamer, as a member of academia, etc.?

Nate Poling: My research interest revolves around the educational use of video/computer games and their implications on teaching, learning, and training. Personally, I grew up with video games and I’ve been fortunate enough to merge my interests in course design, teaching, and gaming into a major project, the Starcraft course project.

Mark: Putting yourself in the student’s shoes, what do you think the typical class session will feel like? How will it function?

Nate: Well this course is, as you know, online education, which is gaining a lot more steam, becoming a lot more popular; there’s a lot of high quality online education out there. And this is billed as a high-quality online course. It is highly structured. Unlike a traditional course, you don’t show up to a classroom for any lectures. There are eight modules, or, a module for each week of the course. Students can go through the course at their own pace.

As for class discussion, that will be facilitated through forums, projects, and other collaborative tasks.

Mark: From my reading of other articles on the course, students will actually be playing Starcraft II, but it’s not a class about how to play the game; students will need some background in how to play the game itself. How will you use actual gameplay to teach lessons?

Nate: Well let me first and foremost reiterate that fact that the course is not about Starcraft. It’s not about how to make a player better or how to improve your gameplay. The course uses Starcraft as a resource, as a supplemental resource, to teach crucial 21st century skills. My working definition for (these skills), in the context of the course, are: problem solving skills, decision-making skills, management skills, collaborative skills, critical thinking. All of these skills are crucial not only in a Starcraft match, but also in the workplace.

Each week of the online course has a specific section that connects Starcraft to the real world. For example, one (section) that we have in there is on Build Orders. Are you familiar with the concept of a Build Order?

Mark: Yes, I am.

Nate: Ok, so a Build Order: break it down, take the jargon away. A Build Order is a process of steps or a process of actions or decisions that you make, or that the player makes, to produce a product or a service in the most efficient way possible.

You are able to custom-make Build Orders in order to do whatever you need to do at that time, or (to anticipate) whatever decisions you want to make later on. Let’s say that a Starcraft player or a student that enjoys Starcraft is very adept at this, within the game content. Well, you can’t assume that the student or player is as adept with those skills when you translate it to the real world.

So one of the major goals of the course is to help facilitate that transferrable skill. For example, a Starcraft player has all this knowledge of 21st century skills. They know how to make decisions based within the game. Well, if (those skills) are based in the game, (the skills) are not going to inform their professional practice.

So you take the course: it’s a highly structured environment, facilitated by an instructor, by quality online course material, by quality, academic assignments that are specifically designed to tease out their knowledge, to have them relate what they know in the game to the real world.

To have this (learning) environment, hopefully, students who take this course will be able to transfer those skills more readily to the real world.

Take my Build Order example: a student who is perfectly adept at Build Orders in the game can now take it to (real world) project management or starting their own business. Again, we’re breaking it down: Build Order was just getting from Step 1 to Step 2 in the most efficient way possible. The same person is going to be making those same decisions in the real world context. If I have an idea for a product or a project or a service, I’m going to have to (do the following): find venture capital, find my (target) demographics, find my market, do research and design, (build) my infrastructure, and then finally get my product out. And I want to do that (process) as efficiently as possible in a competitive environment.

Mark: So that really speaks to the questions I had on the business side of the course. Thinking about Starcraft II, the game itself, what was it that attracted you to pick Starcraft for the course, versus Warcraft or World of Warcraft or another game in the RTS genre?

Nate: If you’re familiar with Starcraft, it’s been popular for so long, there’s name recognition there. It still has such a loyal fan base after so long, it’s still popular, it’s still relevant. I’m not sure I can say that about other titles (in the RTS genre). Starcraft has that lasting power.

You mentioned WoW as a massive multi-player online game. It definitely has its educational uses. It has some social aspects that I chose not to address in this course. I was specifically looking at different skills which are definitely evident in WoW, but I think a RTS environment is definitely a viable way to look at that. So I decided to choose Starcraft for its popularity, and because it provides a unique environment for learning.

For example, (the course) encourages learners to collect information, analyze information, synthesize information from many different sources, and has them act on that info within the context of a constantly changing, constantly fluid environment. That’s very different from a traditional, lecture-based class. That being said, I don’t think Starcraft or a Starcraft course is any better than any other method; it’s just another alternative method. So for example, as you may have noticed in some of the other articles that have been written (about the course), we don’t claim that this course is a “cure-all” or a solution; it’s just one more tool that an educator can use to reach students in order to facilitate learning.

Mark: One thing I expressed to you (via email) was that one point of this blog is to address some of the business issues surrounding video games. But the blog also speaks to some video game culture issues. We can take a look at the financials of the gaming industry, and there’s evidence that games are accepted from that consumer standpoint, but there still seems to be a perception at times that games and gamers are geeky, or “uncool,” marginalized, or that in some cases, games are even harmful to the players themselves.

Do you think a course such as the one you’re building and offering might do something to improve the credibility of video games in general? Is that something you’re hoping might be an outcome?

Nate: I certainly hope the course advances the field of using gaming in education. It has the potential to do that; I want to move the needle forward.

Talking about acceptance of gaming, I think personally that gaming is becoming increasingly more accepted. If you did a poll and looked at how many people are playing Farmville or Mafia Wars – those are a form of gaming, and obviously it’s become a very big part of digital culture and society at large. Definitely, I think gaming is becoming more widespread and accepted.

As such, I think gaming warrants more study. It warrants more potential looking into the benefits or concerns that the medium brings.

Mark: You already spoke to a few reasons why you think the course might make the student a more effective member of a business or an organization. The course is for undergraduates; personally, I just finished my MBA over at the University of Washington. Is there any advice or guidance you would give to MBA students, such as myself, who are interested in a career in the video game industry, but do not have a technical or programming background?

Nate: Well, let’s avoid any confusion about what the course is. It focuses on 21st century skills: problem solving, critical thinking, management. Anybody of any major of any profession will find those skills useful.

When we designed the course, it wasn’t designed specifically for a business perspective, although I must admit that a lot of the most readily (apparent) connections between gaming and the real world do come in business.

So that being said,  (the course) is definitely in the world of business. You have a lot of problem solving, critical thinking and management. And I think it’s important for business students to remember that you can learn from a lot of different things – it doesn’t necessarily have to be business oriented.

Your critical thinking skills are going to be just as important as your management skills. And your management skills are going to be just as important as your collaboration skills. So in the big scheme of things, I think business students and students of all majors need to remember that it’s all about balance. The 21stcentury is going to demand that you use all of the skills in your toolbox. Some might be used more than others, but you will use pretty much all of those skills, so it’s good to develop them.

Mark: Well, I want to close by saying thanks so much for your time. Do you have any final comments to add?

Nate: Well I think (the Starcraft course) is an innovative practice, and innovation is definitely something that’s good. It’s adding an innovative spin to traditional education: it’s not replacing any major; it’s not replacing any degree. It is definitely a supplement.

You had sent me one question (via email) about hiring managers (whether they would prefer a student of the course versus a non-student)?

Mark: I think you spoke to some of those issues already.

Nate: I wanted to say one other thing there. I would imagine every qualified applicant that a hiring manager interviews will have the required education and experience for the position. All of the candidates might have similar course work, job experience – they’re all pretty much neck-and-neck right now.

Well the thing that sets a Starcraft student/player apart is that they can bring a different perspective to the table. Their innovation, the cliché “thinking outside the box.” But they key is, they have the ability to draw from two seemingly different areas to synthesize solutions. That is the value I see from someone who has taken the course.

Mark: Nate, thanks again for joining us on HitPoints.

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