Category Archives: online learning

SOAP: An Alternate Reality Game Engine

I am pleased to announce the release of SOAP v1.0.

The [S]UNY [O]swego [A]RG [P]ackage is an alternate reality game (ARG) engine. Built on the open source platforms WordPress and BuddyPress, it is a bundle of pre-existing plugins and custom modifications that allow anyone who can install and host WordPress to run “what if” simulations and collaborative storytelling exercises.


SOAP is free software, released under the GPL v.2.0 license.

SOAP was developed with support from a 2012 Innovative Instruction Technology Grant (IITG)  from the State University of New York’s Office of the Provost, plus additional support from SUNY Oswego. The programming was done by Ithaca Content Architecture and Design. Special thanks to Gary Ritzenthaler, Randy Belcher, Lisa Dundon, and Tim Perry.

To learn more, visit the SOAP site:

Grant for Alternate Reality Simulations Project


I received an Innovative Instruction Technology Grant (IITG)  from SUNY’s Office of the Provost. The project is called Alternate Reality Simulations as Learning Tools, and the grant amount is $20,000 (plus $5,000 campus matching).

Below is some information about the project from the proposal. [Update: Here’s a Campus Update item about the grant.]

Continue reading

Video of talk at Georgetown Communications Symposium

The video from Georgetown University’s Scholarly Communications Symposium, Social Media: Implicatons for Teaching and Learning, is now available.


Even though I had the difficult task of presenting the “dissenting” view, I learned a lot from participating in the session and I really enjoyed meeting the folks at Georgetown. Here’s the blurb about the event from the website:

Social media tools have gained widespread use across our campuses in a very short time. Many academic disciplines are also adopting these online tools as they embrace collaboration and interactivity. The implications of these developments are profound–not only for scholars and students but also for the potential transformation of the teaching and learning process. How do social media networks change the way our students learn and our faculty teach? How is the traditional classroom relationship altered? Are students becoming more active and engaged learners? The speakers were Gerry McCartney, Vice President for Information Technology and CIO and Oesterle Professor of Information Technology, Purdue University; Edward Maloney, Director of Research and Learning Technology at the Center for New Designs in Leaning and Scholarship and Visiting Assistant Professor of English, Georgetown University; and Ulises Mejias, Assistant Professor of New Media in the Communication Studies Department at the State University of New York at Oswego.

You can also download the video directly from iTunes U. a multiplayer scenario analysis

osw3go-netMy colleague Pat Clark and I are conducting a multiplayer scenario analysis (similar to an Alternate Reality Game) to explore the topic of racism on campus. It’s called We seek to involve our community (although the rest of you can observe) in a constructive dialogue about what we can do, individually and collectively, to prepare to meet these kinds of challenges. Our focus is on raising awareness, facilitating the generation of solutions, and eliciting action and involvement from members of the community. Additionally, this is a good way to research how new media can be used as a platform for simulation, collective problem solving, and social organizing.

Check it out! It’s going to be active for another couple of weeks.

Open Space: the ARG

Here’s a project for FLEFF I just launched. You are all invited to participate!


Can you help a bunch of ghosts wage topological war, one Google Map at a time?

Welcome to Open Space, the Alternate Reality Game hosted by the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival (FLEFF).

An Alternate Reality Game (ARG) is an interactive, multiplayer Web-based exercise in collective storytelling and distributed inquiry. Everyone can play, and participants can shape the actions of the characters and the outcome of the story.

The theme for this year’s FLEFF is Open Space. This ARG is intended to help us explore how exactly space is opened — not just physical space, but conceptual and political space as well.

How the Game Works

  • Each month or so, we provide a street-view Google Map, a little window into our modern world.
  • Then we ask our rival teams of dead or imaginary characters (including intellectuals like Marshall McLuhan, revolutionaries like Commander Ramona, or even mythical creatures like Jingwei) to explore the myriad forms and meanings of ‘open space.’
  • Waging a discursive battle (a high-brow flame war), they fight to defend or liberate the Google Map.
  • What does it mean to defend or liberate a Google Map? Well, that’s up to you! Go to our website, get more information, and start playing!

Play the Game

More on Alternate Reality Games (ARGS):

Presentation at CIT 09

I’ll be presenting a paper at this year’s SUNY Conference on Instructional Technology (CIT 2009).

Active Learning, Social Media, and Serious Games: Case Studies
Dr. Ulises A. Mejias
Friday May 22, 10:15 – 10:45 am
Alternate Reality Games, played with everyday communication and information technologies, can be used as forms of active learning and research that involve students in analyzing a real-life problem, collectively articulating a multitude of realistic and possible responses to it, and addressing the ethical imperative for action.

Also, some of you might be interested in the webcast of the keynote by Liz Lawley (of mamamusings fame). Dr. Elizabeth Lane Lawley is Director of the Lab for Social Computing and Associate Professor of Information Technology at the Rochester Institute of Technology. She will be giving two talks on Thursday May 21 (free and open to the online public, as far as I can tell): Technology – Technical, Tangible, Social (10:15am ET) and Gaming and Learning (2:15 pm ET). To watch, go here.

Save Oswego! – An Alternate Reality Game

I’m currently coordinating a second (s)ARG. Here’s the info:

What would you do if you were not able to graduate because of cuts to SUNY Oswego’s budget? Stop panicking…. start acting!

Save Oswego! is an Alternate Reality Game (ARG) developed as a class project for the courses Social Networks and the Web and Videogame Theory and Analysis at SUNY Oswego. It could be called an experiment in collective storytelling, a radical new media project, or an internet ‘hoax’ with a social message! Anyone can play, and the whole Internet is the playground (participants interact with the narrative in real-time using a variety of communication technologies such as email, blogs, SMS, video and audio podcasts, etc.). By framing the experience as an ARG, this project seeks to involve various members of the Oswego community in analyzing a real-life problem, collectively articulating a multitude of realistic and possible responses to it, and examining the ethical question of what form action should take after the game.

This ARG is entirely produced by students and is being coordinated by Prof. Ulises Mejias of the Communication Studies department. The project is not officially affiliated with any SUNY organization, and the content does not reflect the views or opinions of anyone other than the authors. You can play the game by going to from April 7 to April 16, 2009. You can also join us for a wrap-up discussion during Quest on April 22 at 4:00 PM.

Gold Farming and the Geopolitics of Trade: The ARG

I’m going to be coordinating a couple of ARGs this Spring. Here’s the announcement for the first one. Please join us!

‘Stop Gold Farming!’ is an Alternate Reality Game (ARG) developed for the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival. It could be called an experiment in collective storytelling, a radical new media project, or an internet ‘hoax’ with a social message! Anyone can play (participants interact with the narrative in real-time using a variety of communication technologies such as email, blogs, SMS, digital video, podcasts, etc.), and therefore anyone can shape the outcome. The game revolves around a fictional controversy unfolding at Ithaca College related to the issue of gold farming, or the practice of selling virtual goods that can be used in massive multiplayer online role playing games (MMORPGs) such as World of Warcraft or Final Fantasy. These goods are often produced under sweatshop conditions in developing countries for the consumption of First World clients. ‘Stop Gold Farming!’ is the story of a student organization demanding that an IC student engaged in the distribution of virtual goods be expelled from the college. As part of the ‘Trade’ stream of FLEFF, the goal of this ARG is to engage students and festival participants in an exploration of gold farming as an embodied economic practice in a gaming context characterized by virtuality and disembodiment, and in the context of globalization and trade as a process that reinforces “unequal human relations rather than merely intensifying connectedness” (Biao, 2008). By framing the experience as an ARG, this FLEFF LAB involves various communities in analyzing a real-life problem, collectively articulating a multitude of realistic and possible responses to it, and examining the ethical question of what form action should take after the game. This FLEFF LAB was conceptualized and is being coordinated by Prof. Ulises Mejias from SUNY Oswego, and produced in collaboration with FLEFF interns. You can join the experience by visiting You can also join us on April 3 from 9:00 to 10:30 AM in the Park soundstage (Ithaca College) for a discussion that will include a gold farming demo and a live conference call with a team of researchers in China.

How does social media educate? – iDC wrap up

Here is my summary of this month’s discussion at the iDC forum. The archive of the discussion can be found here.


It’s time to wrap up this discussion on the question of ‘How does social media educate?’ I would like to thank everyone who contributed to it, even by lurking! As the moderator, the one responsible for reading everything and trying to engage all opinions, I am thankful because I probably benefited the most from these exchanges. At the same time, I want to apologize if I somehow failed to fulfill my duties responsibly.

Below I offer a summary of some of the main themes I took away from the discussion.

What is social about social media?

The conversation started by questioning the term ‘social media’ itself, and wondering what the word ‘social’ is supposed to be telling us if all media is, by definition, already a social construct. Perhaps the redundancy is a good reminder that the assumptions behind the word ‘social’ are precisely what we should be dissecting. As Latour says in his book Reassembling the social, those who treat the social as a black box “have simply confused what they should explain with the explanation. They begin with society or other social aggregates, whereas one should end with them” (p. 8). In other words, one should not take the word ‘social’ as something no longer in need of explanation. When looking at various instances of the application of sociable web media in education, we need to take these social aggregates as points of departure, as what needs to be explained in the first place.

The goal, then, is to trace the interactions of humans and technologies as they go about redefining the social, inventing new forms of sociality. Just as the concept of ‘virtual reality’ (with its own set of assumptions, contradictions and delusions) helped us to question what was real, ‘social media’ should help us question what is social, how the social is being put together in the world of education.

The politics of networked participation

Interpreting the meaning of new social assemblages is not a neutral exercise that can be accomplished by means of scientific inquiry exclusively. We rely on ideologies and metanarratives to explain the impact of new media on society. Throughout this discussion, there was much debate about which framework is best suited to explain new social assemblages. There was even some arguing over which assemblages (corporate, independent, etc.) are more worthy of analysis!

One side seems to espouse a Lyotard-influenced framework that sees the increasing role that digital media play in our societies as solidifying the spread of a capitalist culture that commodifies *knowledge* by transforming it into *information* that can be easily exchanged and consumed. To us, the educational applications of sociable web media should not be analyzed without considering the ethical implications of capitalism and a market economy. This is not to say that the architectures of participation that social media engenders cannot present an authentic challenge to the dynamics of the market, even right in the middle of corporate-controlled platforms. But to fail to acknowledge the context from which these technologies emerge can only result in incomplete analyses.

Learning 2.0 – Opportunities and challenges

Depending on how it is applied, social media can be a site for a liberatory or an oppressive education. As educators and learners, we need to be aware of our own practices, simultaneously teaching and learning ‘with’ and ‘against’ social media. Simply embracing new technologies or taking for granted the pedagogical assumptions behind the new ‘Youniversity’ is not enough. The fact is that we live in a world where education is not a ‘good’ distributed equitably or always for the benefit of the learner, and some applications of social media will continue this trend. Increasingly, the ‘public’ education system is being used to separate the unproductive members of society (the ones that need to be ‘managed’ by the growing private incarceration business) from the productive ones (the ones who demonstrate compliance and aptitude for jobs in the service industry). The kinds of social media applications the latter are more likely to see will probably be in alignment with the needs of a control society:

“In disciplinary societies you were always starting all over again (as you went from school to barracks, from barracks to factory), while in control societies you never finish anything… school is replaced by continuing education and exams by continuous assessment. It’s the surest way of turning education into a business.” (Deleuze (1995), Negotiations, p. 179)

This definitely puts a sinister spin on ‘life-long’ learning. The ‘constant student’ is not one who engages in an ongoing perfection of the self, but one who is constantly assessed according to the performance standards of a service economy. Social media can be used to ensure that education for the constant student becomes something that can be delivered anytime and anywhere, and which –more importantly– can be used to monitor performance throughout the ‘learning’ life of the individual.

Daily Kos: They Hate us for Our Freedom (the Assessment Movement in Higher Ed)

Social media literacy

For a long time, educational technologists have put their faith in technology as a way to change education, and even the world. Access to the technology is seen as the magical solution that will end disparity:

Web 2.0 can benefit the world’s poor – SciDev.Net

Unfortunately, for the reasons discussed above and during this whole month, access is not enough, and narratives of bridging the ‘digital divide’ do not help us better understand how digital technologies such as sociable web media contribute to the commodification of education.

The work of a new generation of educators and learners shows us that social media can be used to promote positive change in the world. This work demonstrates that the issue is not universal access, but rather the strategies through which those who benefit from access to social media are able to transform those benefits into benefits for the greater society, extending the value of social media beyond the privileged minorities that have access to it.

And so I end by recapitulating some of the skills I mentioned earlier in the discussion that I think we need to develop as part of a critical literacy of social media:

  • The ability to articulate the difference between open (FLOSS) and proprietary social media platforms (including how to tell when the former mutates into the latter, and what to do about it).
  • The ability to determine when it’s appropriate to use open (FLOSS) or proprietary social media platforms to promote social change with maximum effect.
  • The ability to understand the social agency of code of a particular technology, i.e., how the program promotes, constricts or redefines social functions through its affordances.
  • The ability to identify the benefits of contributing to a social media environment that operates as a gift economy versus a market economy (including the ability to identify social media environments that operate as both simultaneously).
  • The ability to articulate in personal terms how networked participation is changing the relationship with one’s local environment, and be able to calculate tradeoffs and assume responsibility for one’s choices.

I hope you can help us continue to refine these, within or outside of the iDC forum.


Confinement, Education and the Control Society

PrisonPerhaps it’s not surprising that Foucault, the “panopticon guy”, is characterized as a thinker of power, discipline, and punishment. But as Deleuze (1995) points out, Foucault also believed that we are increasingly moving away from being societies based on discipline to societies based on control. According to Deleuze’s reading of Foucault: “We’re moving toward control societies that no longer operate by confining people but through continuous control and instant communication” (1995, p. 174, my emphasis).

Did Foucault prematurely announce the end of confinement? It sure looks like it when looking at the US, which incarcerates more people than any other country in the world. According to government statistics, the number of people in prison and jail is outpacing the number of inmates released, even while the crime rate continues to fall. By June 2004 there were 2.1 million people in US jails, or one in every 138 residents (ref, ref). Race has everything to do with this issue: “blacks comprise 13 percent of the national population, but 30 percent of people arrested… and 49 percent of those in prison… One in three black men between the ages of 20 and 29 was either in jail or prison, or on parole or probation in 1995.” (ref).

And that’s just at home. The US is also in the business of confining people abroad. According to the article American Gulag in Harper’s Sept. 2006 issue, 450 prisoners are being held at Guantanamo, approximately 13,000 in Iraq, 500 in Afghanistan, and an estimated 100 in secret CIA “black sites” around the world. They have not been formally charged, and have little legal recourse. In essence, they are guilty until the US decides they are innocent. While the man in charge of the facility “firmly believes” that there are no innocent men in Guantanamo, a report based on data from the Dept. of Defense indicates that 55% of the detainees are not determined to have committed any hostile acts against the United States or its allies (ref, ref). According to Harper’s, 98 Guantanamo detainees have died to date, it is safe to assume not from natural causes.

But it’s not simply the case that this society is a bit behind in the transition from discipline to control. It is actually advancing equally well on both fronts. In fact, increased control goes hand in hand with increased confinement because increased control means more precise ways of identifying those who fail to perform to society’s expectations. In a technocracy, control is surveillance: the continuous monitoring of public, private and work life, and the “intelligent” identification of any deviance. But while new control technologies afford more effective and efficient methods of management and surveillance, you still need an apparatus for controlling those who fall outside the established parameters. This group includes those who have failed in the educational system and therefore cannot productively contribute to the service economy, enemies of the state (preemptively defined), non-conforming minorities, etc. (I’m not suggesting there are no criminals in prison; I’m merely drawing some conclusions from trends in the makeup of the prison population). The trick is then to turn the confinement of these ‘burdens’ of society into a business opportunity by benefiting from their cheap labor or by privatizing the industry of confinement itself (think Halliburton).

I hinted above at the role of education as a control mechanism that helps differentiate the productive members of society from those who should be confined and disciplined. The fact that the same groups who are disproportionately represented in the incarcerated population are also those most likely to drop out of the educational system is not a coincidence (only about half of Black and Hispanic youth graduate with a high-school degree; ref). But for everyone else who succeeds, what does education look like? The answer is: continuous control. I was struck by Deleuze’s comments regarding the changing nature of education in a control society:

In disciplinary societies you were always starting all over again (as you went from school to barracks, from barracks to factory), while in control societies you never finish anything… school is replaced by continuing education and exams by continuous assessment. It’s the surest way of turning education into a business. (1995, p. 179)

This definitely puts a sinister spin on ‘life-long’ learning. The constant student is not one who engages in an ongoing perfection of the self, but one who is constantly assessed according to the performance standards of a service economy. Thanks to distance education, e-learning and technologies such as the Learning Management System (LMS), education becomes something that can be delivered anytime and anywhere, and which —more importantly— can be used to monitor performance throughout the ‘learning’ career of the individual. Thus, assessment-based education helps reconcile control and discipline in society by helping to effect, in the case of those who fail, a transition from controlled subject to disciplined object.

I want to go back briefly to Deleuze’s comment about control societies also operating through “instant communication” (1995, p. 174, my emphasis). It would make sense to assume that, in a crude way, control societies would want to control communication. But that is not the case. According to the standard technophile discourse, thanks to technology our societies enjoy an unprecedented freedom of speech and expression. Communication technologies with low operational cost and low barriers of entry (such as blogs) are praised for giving “everyone” a chance to express themselves. But Deleuze points out that “Repressive forces don’t stop people expressing themselves but rather force them to express themselves… What we’re are plagued by these days isn’t any blocking of communication, but pointless statements” (1995, p. 129). Deleuze is suggesting that there is a connection between control and an over-abundance of (meaningless) expression. More of this type of communication has not resulted in stronger social bonds, but in increased isolation: concurrent with advances in ICTs, the last U.S. census shows that 25% of the nation’s households (27.2 million) consist of just one person, compared to 10% in 1950 (ref).

This is the paradox of social media that has been bothering me lately: an ’empowering’ media that provides increased opportunities for communication, education and online participation, but which at the same time further isolates individuals and aggregates them into masses —more prone to control, and by extension more prone to discipline.

Offline Reference:
Deleuze, G. (1995). Negotiations, 1972-1990. New York: Columbia University Press.

Creative Commons photo credit: thost