Teach With Portals

Project Website: http://www.teachwithportals.com/

Project Team: Valve

Reviewed by: Joseph Santoli

Review Date: 28 February 2013

Expertise Required: Teacher (for access)

Portal 2:

Portal 2 was the highly anticipated sequel to the first game in the series (you guessed it, Portal) and was released in April 2011. The game is played from a first-person perspective and involves using two portals (what goes in one comes out the other!) to complete 3D puzzles. The game received much critical acclaim for its writing and design, including a review in The New York Times. This review is important because it foreshadowed the role Portal 2 would decide to take in education (and likely, got a few educators thinking about it).

The game was released with a tool called the Portal 2 Puzzlemaker, which allowed users to create their own puzzles for free. The game also included a new cooperative mode; two players could play on the same map, solving puzzles that were often crafted in a way in which both players were needed. The puzzle maker tool, and the community Workshop both emphasize collaborative play; “peer review” is dependent upon the quality of your map, as its rating is created by users who play the map.

Roughly a year later, someone asked, How can we use this in the classroom? How appropriate a question this was for a game that was developed primarily by students.

Educator Cameron Pittman was the first educator here who started using Portal 2 and the puzzlemaker in his classroom. It was because of educators like Pittman that Valve created TeachWithPortals. As a response to the community, Valve amended their game to include tools for educators. Valve wanted to create a place for educators to share their ideas and collaborate on lesson plans. The also modified their commercial game client to better suit the classroom. Only the “library” and “community” options are available for students, and only Portal 2, its tools, and Universe Sandbox (another potentially educational game) are available.

You can see Pittman’s blog here, where he keeps track of all his student’s progress within the program and discusses how he is using it in his classroom. You don’t have to take mine or Valve’s word for the project’s usefulness; take a look at Pittman’s blog and decide for yourself whether this belongs in the classroom or not.

Valve’s main focus is on topics in STEM, and by coincidence, their choice of corporation name (STEAM) is extremely close (adapting the “a” to mean art makes their title sound almost too educationally relevant). As you might guess, many of the lesson plans found on the website are meant for a physics class, though one of the earliest lesson plans is rooted in Literary Analysis.

You may notice that most lesson plans are made with middle/high school students in mind. The tools may not be useful for post-secondary education yet, but the game itself has made an appearance in college courses. For the students at Wabash College in Crawford, Indiana, playing Portal is a requirement for all freshmen. Paired with Goffman’s Presentation of the Self, the professors there found it a perfect presentation of “tension between backstage machination and onstage performance,” or, the personal identity that freshmen will develop for themselves and for others.

The Formal Stuff

Signing up to teach with portals is easy, if you can prove you teach a class. The form can be found on the top right of the website. While the form is easy to fill out, hearing back from Valve can be a bit frustrating; “don’t call us, we’ll call you” doesn’t give the user a concrete expectation. I can tell you that it doesn’t happen within a week, but I cannot be certain if it even happens within a month.

All the tools are completely free once you have signed up. You are allowed access to as many usernames and codes for your students free of charge, and can request more at any time. Once you are in the system and a proven educator, you do not need to fill out the form again.

Website overview: Most pages are self-explanatory, what you really want to focus on is the “Lesson Plans” page and the “Forum” page. This is where all the content for your students will be shared, developed, discussed and collaborated upon. You can also see the other educators’ lesson plans. The forum is only accessible to proven educators, but the published lesson plans are available to everyone. How are the lesson plans reviewed? From the website, Valve reports that they have been working with a “team of educators” and have their own education sector in their company. They do not say how qualified their team is or even who is on the team. If one takes a look at their webinar sessions, you can see the interviews with “educators from their team”. Despite how the info seems hidden, these educators appear to be quite experienced; each one has a history in Game Design and several have their master’s degree in education. 

What it Means for the Digital Humanities

What’s interesting about this project is that it didn’t start out as a Digital Humanities Project. Its funding came from gamers and commercial advertisement. It is interesting to see a commercial endeavor be so easily attuned to educative purposes; the steam client and the game only needed a few modifications. What’s great about this project is that there is no need for outside funding. Perhaps as Digital Humanists, we should be thinking about how to cleverly modify what already exists to suit our needs rather than attempting to craft an entirely new creation, which requires much manpower.

Many of the lesson plans are focused on making the students create their own designs to demonstrate the lesson. The website does not offer an exclusive map sharing workshop for teachers just yet, but teachers can post their maps to the public workshop and label their projects appropriately for other teachers to find. Teachers can also post links to their projects on the private forums as well. 

It’s not that games are fun and we need fun in the classroom, it’s that games offer an interactive environment that is unique from any other media, and thus, a unique learning opportunity. The project seems to have a small following at the moment, but I’m hoping that Teach With Portals is a glimpse into the future of our education where every classroom involves the use of a game.

2 thoughts on “Teach With Portals

  1. Cassandra Nelson

    An excellent review of a project I never knew existed. Having never heard of Portals before, I particularly appreciated your inclusion of a brief history of the game and how it was reconfigured for the educational sector. Also, your purpose and intended audience really come across in this piece. I like that you review seems to be intended for a wider audience than just our class since it will probably be posted on the ADHC blog, a fact that we need to keep in mind when writing these reviews. Based on your concise yet comprehensive discussion of how TeachWithPortals works, I feel like everyone from complete novices, like myself, to more experienced gamers stand to gain a better understanding of the project from your review but without getting bogged down in jargon or bored with unnecessarily long details. Likewise, your review is well organized and progresses in a logical and easy-to-follow fashion. My favorite part of your review comes in the last section, in which you state, “Perhaps as Digital Humanists, we should be thinking about how to cleverly modify what already exists to suit our needs rather than attempting to craft an entirely new creation, which requires much manpower.” You make a very good point about how modifying already existing tools/technology, or simply using those tools to their fullest capabilities, can be just as important as creating new tools. If no one uses these existing tools or creates a new tool rather than modifying existing ones to fit their specific needs, then a lot of tolls and time are being wasted. This point also speaks to the larger ongoing debate in DH about creating vs. consuming.

    The only real suggestions that I have to offer are basically grammatical. Since I am not a grammar expert, you may want to ignore some of these suggestions and stick with what you think is best. In the fourth paragraph of you opening section, I feel like something is missing from the sentence that reads, “It was because of educators like Pittman that Valve created TeachWithPortals; the game was not originally intended to be educational, but was modified to be as a response to the community.” I’m not sure if you mean that the game was modified to be educational or if it was just modified as a response to the community without really becoming educational. Maybe it’s just me, though. Then, in the next paragraph, I feel like there should be a semicolon or period separating the two clauses in the sentence “You don’t have to take mine or Valve’s word for the project’s usefulness, take a look at Pittman’s blog and decide for yourself whether this belongs in the classroom or not.” On a really minor note, in the first sentence of paragraph 7, you have “lessons plans” instead of “lesson plans.” Next, in paragraph 3 of the second section, you have “educator’s” in the singular possessive when I think you meant “educators’” in the plural possessive. And finally, in the second paragraph of the last section, there seems to be something missing in the sentence that reads, “However, anyone can post maps the game’s “workshop” and download the map from there using the steam client.” Other than these grammatical errors, I have no further suggestions for your review; your organization, syntax, and tone are all well developed and free of errors. Good job!

  2. Alex Pieschel

    Speaking generally, I like how this review is organized chronologically. The rhetorical progression from NY Times review to educational tool feels logical to me. With this in mind, I would like to see a date for when TeachWithPortals was released, so I can see how much later it came along than the game itself. Most of my suggestions are mechanical or stylistic revisions.

    I would stick with the past tense here: “It is the highly anticipated and extremely popular sequel to the first game in the series (you guessed it, Portal).” You also might consider combining this sentence with the first one and removing the phrase “extremely popular” (I don’t think you need it).

    A small aesthetic concern: It seems the link to the NY Times review is broken in two. “Review in” and “The New York Times” look like separate links when you try to click on them, but they both go to the same place.

    As is, this sentence doesn’t really tell me anything: “You’ll notice the game has its own brand of humor as well.” I would either cut it or give anecdotal evidence of said humor.

    Small stylistic concern: “And how appropriate a question this was for a game that was developed primarily by students in the first place.” I really like the link that’s included here, but the sentence itself thuds a bit. I would revise. Maybe start the sentence differently, and maybe you don’t need that last prepositional phrase.

    There’s an unwanted apostrophe in this phrase: “(and likely, got a few educator’s thinking about it).”

    And comma splice here: “the game was not originally intended to be educational, but was modified to be as a response to the community”

    Unwanted apostrophe plus comma splice here: “It’s funding came from gamers, and from commercial advertisement.”

    I would replace this semicolon with a comma: “Despite how the info seems hidden; these educators seem quite experienced.” And maybe revise a bit so you don’t have to use “seem” twice.

    There are some good observations in the Digital Humanities section towards the end. I might hope for a little bit more of your opinion on why this educational tool might be more affective than traditional teaching methods (That might not be your opinion, but that’s what the tone of the last sentence suggested to me).

    This is a fascinating project. Thanks for telling us about it.

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