Educational games are one facet of a multiple threat UL is assembling: computer gaming, film, animation, and 3D/4D supercomputing & visualization. ultoday.com interviews the scholars who head UL's Center for Innovative Learning and Assessment Technology, where many innovative educational games are created.

Dr. Doug Williams, Director of CILAT, is an assistant professor of instructional technology in the College of Education. Dr. Williams holds bachelor's and master's degrees in computer science and a Ph.D. in instructional technology.

His research lies in the area of computer-based problem-based learning, interactive multimedia design & production, situated cognition, assessment, and learning strategies in hypermedia and multimedia environments. He holds the Patrick R. Rutherford Endowed Professorship in Education.

Dr. Yuxin Ma, is an assistant professor of instructional technology in the College of Education. Dr. Ma holds bachelor's degree in English language and literature, master degree in school psychology, and a Ph.D. in instructional technology. She has six years experience in developing Web applications and computer-based instructional programs. Her research focuses on investigating emerging technologies and learning strategies (e.g. case-based reasoning) in innovative learning environments, electronic performance support systems, and knowledge management systems. She holds the Joan D. & Alexander S. Haig Professorship in Education

ultoday.cominterviewed them recently about their activities in the UL College of Education, particularly their work with educational video games & learning environments.

Yuxin, where did you study, and how did you end up at UL?
I grew up in Chengdu, China. I received my first degree, a B.A. in English from Szechuan University. My MA was from Indiana State in School Psychology, and my PhD was in Instructional Technology, which is where I got most of my instructional design and computer background.

When I was at ISU, I was doing a lot of psychological testing, so when I went to my apartment, I was constantlyl testing the kids there. But I began to realize that very complex language skills were necessary to to be effective, and even though I had studied English, it would be very hard to get to the level I needed. So decided to study computers. But now, I have the same problem; instructional software and games requires advanced communication skills. So it didn't work out exactly like I thought.

While I was writing my dissertation, I was looking at different institutions. I had two offers, and several scheduled interviews. But I accepted the offer from UL to work with Doug, and canceled my remaining interviews. UL's program has focuses more on research; the other programs wanted me to work more in instruction. My main interests are researching and developing instructional programs that are based on latest understanding of how people learn. I like the fact that the UL position focuses on such cutting edge research. 

How do you like Lafayette?
I like it. I very much like the humidity and the weather, and Cajun cooking is the best American food I've had. So this is the most like home, humid weather & spicy food. And the traffic is a lot better here than at home and in many big cities. One drawback is that we don't have a really good place to buy Asian groceries, but the weather here lets me grow my own vegetables, so it works out well.

Doug, what's your background?

I'm a local product, grew up in Lafayette, was graduated from Cathedral-Carmel. I earned my BS in Computer Science here at UL. After graduation, I applied for an internship with the American Scandinavian Foundation, but I was rejected. But I contacted them, told them I had already started studying Swedish, and was even working on my conversation skills with a Swedish friend here at UL. I guess they were impressed, because they awarded me a spot, and I ended up working as a paid intern in an IBM lab in Stockholm for a year.

From there I went to BHP in Melbourne, Australia, where I worked as a programmer for a year. After that, I came back to UL, and earned my MS in Computers Science.

But I headed overseas again, and worked for the next 3 1/2 years in Central and South America. I enrolled in a Spanish immersion program in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, which was a great experience, I learned more Spanish in two months than I had in all my Spanish classes.

For a while, I worked in a soup kitchen in Cusco, Peru, where we fed 600 kids every day. I ended up teaching high school English and Mathematics in Buena Vista, a small farm village outside of Santa Cruz, Boliva. In my senior level math, I introduced the kids to computer science which they enjoyed. The students there worked on the local farms, where they produced a lot of their own food. It was a big deal for one of them to go on to college, but some of them went on to college in Santa Cruz, and some of them even came here, to Boston. So that was really great.

From there I traveled overland to Cartageña, Venezuala, and flew back to the US. I worked as a programmer at LGMC. It was during this time that I met my wife, Anne. After we were married, we went to the University of Texas, where I got my PhD in Instructional Technology.

What brought you back to UL?

Lafayette is a wonderful place to live. Both my wife and I have family here. Also, I knew that UL would be a place were I had opportunities to pursue research and teaching in the field of instructional technology. So I'm happy here.

You both run the Center for Innovative Learning and Assessment Technology (CILAT) here at UL. How did that get started?

It was founded about 2004. I (Doug) approached Dwayne Blumberg who was then VP of Research. I felt that it was important to create a Center, something that would boost UL's image, and help us with recognition and funding. So we did the work, and the Center was created. Soon after, Yuxin joined us.

What is the purpose of CILAT?

We serve two functions. One is to train teachers and students to work with emerging technologies, and the other is to develop those technologies.

In the training component, we have a Model Pedagogical Laboratory, where UL students can get field experience. We started off trying to have our students observe teachers using technology, but we found that there was a need there, because teachers either did not have access to current technologies, weren't aware of them, or they weren't comfortable with, the technology that are available. So we started the Lab. Two Saturdays each semester, we recruit local kids to come on campus and learn about robotics, computer games, and digital storytelling.

In the storytelling component, kids write scripts and then create a video to go with it. The older children work with animation, and the younger children start with pictures of people, clay models or drawings, which they then animate. The UL students get the opportunity to directly teach and work with students. Most of their other field experience is observation, so they enjoy working directly with children.

We teach the UL students to learn these technologies first, and then they start learning how to coach younger students. After their teaching experiences in the MPL, our students write their reflections on the experience. The research shows that the best pedagogical strategies have three components: knowledge, experience, and reflection.

The MPL also lets us try new techniques, new technologies, and new strategies. We collect a lot of data from the experience, which forms the basis for some of our research. And then we plow our own findings back into our Lab. All of this reflects well on our program, and the area parents and kids take an interest in what we're doing. We attract high-achieving students into the program, and of course, some of them end up enrolling at UL.

Talk about your research developing new technologies.

We create Virtual Learning Environments (VLE). We start with a concept for a Learning Environment-- usually an educational game-- and put together a team of educators, 2D and 3D artists, and actors. We work closely with people such as Charles Richard, head of the Cinematic Arts Workshop and Yeon Choi, associate professor in the College of the Arts. Our team develops a story, graphics, and the programming, all guided by the best educational theory & research available.

We have two goals. The first is to develop a useful product, something that children and schools can use, and want to use. Our second goal is conduct research on our products, developing design guidelines for other educators, programmers, and developers. There's not a lot of educational data out there for game programmers to look at. Traditional games have a lot of gender bias and violence. It's much like the film industry, there's more money in pop culture than in strong film making. But with effort and thought, you can create games that are educational.

Talk about your grants funding.

We have a grant from the National Science Foundation in collaboration with Texas A&M for $1.6 million over four years. That's allowed us to hire one full-time person, and we will produce 5 or 6 educational games with A&M. We also have a Board of Regents Traditional Enhancement Grant for $156,000.

What do you see for the future?

We need to build out new games, so we can increase our testing and our research, find out what works. We also want to expand what we do, expand our efforts in educational robotics

Right now, we're ahead of the game, we're one of the stronger research teams in the country. But universities with more money are investing in this area, and they're catching up. The Harvard Graduate School of Education has developed a very good product, River City, but at the moment they're using off-the-shelf software. Indiana University recently produced a strong product, Quest Atlantis, but they're using an older technology. We are building our game research platform over OpenSource software, and that gives us some advantages. So our technological foundation is still stronger than most schools, but we're seeking more funding, so that we can maintain our position, or even advance.

That's our biggest goal, and our biggest need. If we can locate more funding, we can build on our lead in instructional technology.