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 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.