Fables: Exploring natural ways of expressing behavior to create digital simulations

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In past projects we have worked at simplifying digital game design and programming for primary school children and their teachers [1][2], to empower them and let them learn by creating their own digital games. A central problem in this area is how to express knowledge about interactive digital systems in a simple yet powerful enough way, so that new digital games or interactive simulations can be generated automatically from children or non-programmers (e.g. teachers) descriptions. Usual approaches to solve this problem are: provide predefined customizable options (often via a game editor), or turn users into programmers. The latter requires the creation of a special programming language, typically coupled with highly visual and friendly development environments, e.g. [3]. Although very successful, this approach has problems, the main one being that it takes time for a pupil to be proficient enough to code satisfactory digital games. In our experience the situation is even more difficult if we expect primary school teachers to learn to program digital games, especially teachers with non-technical backgrounds.
We propose to look at a third approach, and in particular we build on Simon [4] and Schön [5], and the concepts of simulation and repertoire:
• “Simulation, as a technique for achieving understanding and predicting the behavior of systems, predates of course the digital computer.” [4]
• “When a practitioner makes sense of a situation he perceives to be unique, he sees it as something already present in his repertoire. […]The familiar situation functions as a precedent, or a metaphor, or… an exemplar for the unfamiliar one.” [5]
The idea that simulation and understanding are related is also supported by research in bounded rationality and naturalistic decision making [6]. In naturalistic decision making a person is said to use a simulation to judge the consequences of possible choices: a mental simulation that acts very much like the exemplars in Schön’s repertoire.
For us, the link between simulation and exemplars in a repertoire is the following: when a digital simulation of a real-world system runs, it generates a sequential story about the system changing over time. Moreover, an interactive digital simulation (for example a digital game) will generate different stories each run, depending on the user’s interaction. Therefore, a simulation can be said to generate or contain multiple stories, and running the simulation produces an interactive non-linear story, which in programming terms will require conditionals and loops to be implemented. In our previous work ([1] and [2]) we repeatedly encountered non-linearity, when studying how children or teachers express behavior. Even with something as simple as digital multiple choice quizzes, describing alternatives is perceived as difficult and requiring precise definitions. On the other hand, according to Schön, it comes natural for practitioners to create and maintain their repertoire, and since exemplars must also deal with multiple options and outcomes, handling non-linearity should not be the source of the difficulties we observed. We decided therefore to explore natural ways of expressing behavior to create digital simulations, aimed at children and teachers.
Instead of looking at programming concepts like conditionals and loops (such as those in Computational Thinking), we draw inspiration from soft methods like rich pictures, and formalisms like concept maps and mobile ambients. In this paper we define fables, where a simple fable represents an exemplar. Multiple fables can be composed together with information about options/alternatives; these complex fable have the role of Schön’s repertoire.
We are currently implementing and testing a digital tool to support creation and interactive playback of fables. The playback of fables will be an interactive animation of the changes that occur in the system being described, and the user will be able to choose how the fable is progressing, always following one among all possible storylines.
We expect that fables will be used by pupils to express what they know about a system or domain, explicitly and in an objectified way, so that teachers or other pupils can explore that knowledge by replaying the fables in multiple ways (i.e. interacting with the simulation automatically generated by those fables). We also expect that our fables can be used to generate concept maps or linearized and exported as slideshows. Participatory workshops will be run in autumn and winter 2017 to discuss, co-develop and test our incremental prototype of the fable editor/player.
Title of host publicationLecture Notes in Computer Science
Publication date2018
StateAccepted/In press - 2018
SeriesLecture Notes in Computer Science