Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Off Topic----Wired For History: World War 2, A College Text, and A Web Game

Wired For History: Company, Harvard Prof Work on Web-Linked Textbook, WWII Game, Paul Restuccia, Boston Herald, May 24, 2010.

A renowned Harvard professor is teaming with a local software company to change the way students learn history.

Niall Ferguson, a revisionist economic historian best known as the author of “The Ascent of Money” book and TV series, has helped create a World War II strategy game and is also developing a Web-enabled history textbook that integrates his lectures on Western civilization with data, images and minigames for students to play at critical moments. “Today’s students want to be engaged, and those who play strategy games know more about history than those who just read today’s textbooks,” said Ferguson. “The interactive approach to learning history is going to be a game-changer.”

Dave McCool, who founded Newburyport-based Muzzy Lane Software in 2002, is a pioneer in creating complex simulations for classroom use. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology grad developed networking systems for Bedford-based Shiva and Chelmsford’s Aptis Communications, which he co-founded and later sold to Nortel Networks. For Muzzy Lane, McCool created the Sandstone 3-D platform, which allows seamless integration of video, audio, images, games and live chat.

McCool developed “Making History I” for the education market, licensing it to several hundred high schools and colleges as a World War II teaching aid. The company, which now employs 20 people, is also developing interactive content for clients such as McGraw-Hill, Pearson Education, the MacArthur Foundation and the Defense Department’s DARPA research agency.

Ferguson has been a Muzzy Lane consultant since 2005, after responding to a request for an expert that McCool made to Harvard faculty. Ferguson has a dual appointment as a professor of European history and business administration at Harvard Business School. Ferguson said his role as a “counterfactual historian” who explores “what-ifs” drew him into the endeavor, even as McCool describes the globe-trotting prof as “the busiest person I’ve ever known.” “I also saw how much my sons have learned from playing computer strategy games,” Ferguson said. With Ferguson’s input, “Making History” has undergone a two-year reworking into a full-fledged commercial game, with the subtitle “The War of the World,” named after Ferguson’s book that analyzes the economic and ethnic forces that led to World War II.

Ferguson supplied “Making History II” with enormous amounts of economic and natural resource data for the some 224 countries modeled in the game, which was upgraded with a “Civilization”-style 3-D interface with realistic topography. He added features such as the option to either annex a defeated country, or turn it into a colony or puppet state. Ferguson is happy with how the game has turned out. “It’s a pretty good cartoon stylization of what the world was like back then,” he said. “We did had to leave out some things, so that the game is also fun to play.”

Muzzy Lane hopes to sell 50,000 to 100,000 copies of the game, which has just become available for digital download and will be on store shelves next month. And it’s seen as the first in a series of grand strategy games on 20th-century global conflict, which will feature titles on World War I, the Cold War and the current “New World Disorder.”

Ferguson, in the middle of writing a warts-and-all biography of Henry Kissinger, said he is even now exploring Cold War “what-if” scenarios with the former secretary of state that will no doubt be incorporated into a future game’s artificial intelligence. While he has penned more than a dozen books, Ferguson has also developed a number of TV series for the BBC and PBS. “I’ve learned from my work on television that multimedia is a great way of teaching history,” he said.

But when he and McCool first approached textbook publishers about multimedia textbooks five years ago, no one was listening. Now, the recession, coupled with student’s low opinion of traditional textbooks, has publishers rushing to develop them. Companies in “the educational market tend to be slow adopters, but the time has arrived,” said Ferguson.

Next year, Pearson Education plans to publish a Web-enabled textbook that uses Muzzy Lane’s Sandstone engine and Ferguson’s Harvard lectures on Western civilization. The written textbook will be augmented by a course-specific Web browser where students can get additional video, data and images and play minigames at critical historical moments. “I plan to use the Web-enabled textbook in my Harvard undergrad course,” Ferguson said.

At the business school, he envisions interactive learning complementing the traditional case studies model, including micro-corporate strategy and energy-allocation minigames. Muzzy Lane’s Sandstone platform is also being used to create an interactive textbook for McGraw-Hill as well as the ClearLab learning project to develop better ways to teach middle-school science. “The education-side market for games is just going to explode within the next five years,” McCool said. “We want to be the technology platform educational publishers use.”

CWL: Hmmmmmm . . . How about Stephen Recker (Virtual Gettysburg) and Jim McPherson (Battle Cry of Freedom) having a chat?

Text and Image Source: Boston Herald, Photo by Stuart Cahill
Middle Image Source: Channel 4
Bottom Image Source:

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