Minecraft Oregon Trail

September 25th, 2017 12:26 PM
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Steve Weyhrich has gone whole-hog on Minecraft, having used the construction game to develop multiple Apple II models. Now Microsoft, the owners of Minecraft, are getting in on the retro action by infusing their virtual world with the most emblematic of Apple II software: Oregon Trail.

Now available is an Oregon Trail world. Just download the free package, install it in Minecraft Education Edition, and you'll find yourself in the town of Independence, Missouri, deciding whether to be a farmer, banker, or carpenter — just like on the Apple II.

Said Caroline Fraser, senior vice president of Oregon Trail publisher Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: "We are delighted to partner with Minecraft Education, giving students a new way to experience one of the most popular educational games of all time, The Oregon Trail. Through the unique magic of Minecraft, students will be drawn to discover the wonders and challenges that pioneers encountered on this famous journey."

However, this version of the Apple II classic comes saddled with limitations. First, the downloaded world does not change Minecraft's rules of game mechanics; it does not introduce new features. While there are signposts along the journey asking players how they want to ford the river, for example, this is more an opportunity for classroom discussion than it is part of an interactive branching narrative; the game doesn't require any action in response to these billboards.

Also, the world works exclusively in the educational version of Minecraft, which was released in 2016 to schools and educators. The average consumer will not have access to this version of the game, nor will the Oregon Trail world work in any other version of Minecraft.

What happens if you try installing the world in a non-educational edition of Minecraft? In an email, the Apple II community's resident Minecraft expert, Steve Weyhrich, suggests there are further differences under the hood:

The original Minecraft, written in Java, is what runs on Mac and Windows, and has it's own data structure and format. Microsoft is now calling this "Minecraft: Java Edition". The newer Minecraft, now just called "Minecraft", is written in some version of C, and they are trying to make all of the various platforms (pocket edition, Windows 10 edition, etc) use the same world structure… That Oregon Trail world in that download you linked does not work on the Java edition.

It's a rare case of the Apple II version actually seeming more accessible and educational by comparison!

(Hat tip to Stephen Noonoo)

Kids can't wait

March 30th, 2015 8:44 AM
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Education? I'm a fan. I taught at the high school level for several years and have been a college instructor for twice that. Teaching kids not what to think, but how to think, is the best investment I know to make in our future.

Turns out Steve Jobs was of a similar mindset. In a 1995 interview with Daniel Morrow of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, Jobs related his drive to ensure other kids had the same opportunities he did:

When I was ten or eleven I saw my first computer… I fell in love with it. And I thought, looking at these statistics in 1979, I thought if there was just one computer in every school, some of the kids would find it. It will change their life.

Jobs investigated what it would cost to donate a single Apple II computer to every K-12 school in the United States. The cost was prohibitive for such a fledging company, but made economical and affordable with various tax incentives and deductions. Jobs lobbied for even more flexibility, getting as far as landing the Computer Equipment Contribution Act of 1982 on the floor of the Senate, after sailing it through Congress. Alas, it never made it past that point. In the end, Jobs' outreach was limited to California, where each of over 9,000 schools benefitted from Apple's generosity.

Audrey Watters over at Hack Education has more details and links, including to InfoWorld's and Creative Computing's reports of that era. It's a fascinating look at the marketing and financial strategy by which Apple came to dominate the classroom.

The evolution of classroom tech

June 9th, 2014 8:53 AM
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The Apple II long had a role in education, with a library of edutainment software that included Oregon Trail, Number Munchers, and Scholastic Microzine. So it's only fitting that it features prominently in the first decade of the Washington Post's reflection on the evolution of classroom technology:

From the article:

1977
The Apple II computer—in all its gray boxiness—was introduced. Aggressive marketing and volume discounts made it popular in schools. The landmark, garage-built computers, which retailed for $1,295, were the first Apples to use full color graphics—for a simple reason: Designer Steve Wozniak wanted to be able to play Breakout on the machine, and that original game ran in color.

1985–87
The mid-‘80s ushered in an era of educational computer games. Oregon Trail taught kids about the harsh realities of life as a 19th century pioneer, dysentery and all (and it’s still around today, though children of the ’80s and ’90s would hardly recognize it). Mavis Beacon taught typing—fast. Carmen Sandiego tried to pique kids’ interest in geography. And Number Munchers aimed to get children excited about multiplication and division.

From the video, you might think the Apple II was obsolete by the time the 1990s rolled around. But this early computer continues to educate today's youth, whether as a programming tool, a museum piece, or a study in game design.

Teaching computer classes to seniors

February 24th, 2014 11:23 AM
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A year ago this month, the Gulf Coast News of Baldwin County, Alabama, reported how Anne Hinrichs, 74, got her start on the Apple II; now she's helping other seniors get their start with modern computing.:

As a typist in the 70s, she realized computers and word processing were the future of her profession. Anne bought an Apple II computer in 1977 right after she accepted a job typing for a court reporter.

"I took the computer apart and put it back together again so I would know the ins and outs of it," she said.

Anne's interest in computers grew quickly. It became a hobby that soon turned into a job. In addition to typing, she contracted with Olensky Brothers in Mobile, setting up computer systems in offices and teaching people how to use them.

As computer technology became more and more complex, Anne immersed herself in learning. Instead of reading novels, she read computer books. And she never gave up on something challenging, like learning computer languages.

Hinrichs may no longer be teaching on the Apple II, but she still has her original machine:

Anne Hinrichs

Photo by Jill Clair Gentry of the Gulf Coast Today staff.

Alas, her students are not learning on the Apple II, but it makes me wonder if certain demographics would cotton better to that platform, given that kids at the Joseph Sears School in Illinois are playing on retrocomputers. A common stereotype is that today's kids have a natural affinity for technology, since they have grown up alongside it. Is learning the Apple II therefore easier for them? Or is it more challenging, since they are accustomed to GUI interfaces and mobile devices, neither of which the 8-bit Apple II naturally accommodates? How easily do they transfer what they learn on the Apple II to a modern platform — or are these skills transferable at all?

Likewise, would seniors do best with older computers and then graduate to modern platforms, just as Hinrichs did? Or does it make more sense for them to jump right into today's machinery, with no background or context?

I've never had to teach computer literacy so don't know where I would begin. But whatever her platform of choice, I'm glad Hinrichs hasn't stopped!

An elementary Apple museum

January 6th, 2014 11:25 AM
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Fifteen miles north of downtown Chicago, Illinois, is an Apple museum you've never heard of. It's not open to the public, but it is nonetheless being put to good use: students of Kenilworth's Joseph Sears School are learning what computers of yesteryear were capable of and how they evolved into the machines we use today.

In the Wilmette Sun-Times article "Apple display both time travel and education for Sears students", library technology services director Elisabeth LeBris and former school computer coordinator Matt Brackett discuss how they "agreed to keep one of each Apple computer model used in the school (which has a long history of Apple use) even as each made way for successor machines". Students then use these artifacts to research how they compare to today's machines as part of their expository writing classes. The students' work is exhibited as a series of narrated slideshows summarizing the models' capabilities and places in history.

Several of the students' findings will bring a smile to an Apple II user's face: "[The Apple II] could not reach the Internet, because the Internet was not invented until WAY after the Apple II's time", for example. It's true the World Wide Web, which is often confused for the Internet, wasn't developed until a few years after the last model of Apple II was released in 1989, but the Internet was certainly something early Apple II users were connecting to — more so now, thanks to the Uthernet card. I'm also intrigued to know the calculations that led to statements such as this: "A modern 16-gigabyte smart phone has as much computing capability as 3.4 million Apple IIe computers." Despite being dwarfed by modern processors, one student admitted, "I was surprised at how much [the IIGS] could do, and how many parts there were." It's another great example of how classic technology, from Ultima to the BBC Micro, can be used in a modern education environment.

I emailed RJ Bialk, technology facilitator at Kenilworth School District #38, to ask if the video slideshows could be made available in an embeddable, shareable format, such as YouTube. There's been no response to that email of December 10, but I'm hopeful once the holidays are past and school is back in session, something might come of it. In the meantime, check out the article and videos for yourself and see what today's students are learning.

Computer literacy begins at home

August 5th, 2013 4:59 PM
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KansasFest 2013 is now a week behind us, and I'm still absorbing everything I saw, learned, and experienced. Moments such as interviewing Steve Wozniak and other unscripted events are memories that will last a lifetime. But of those events that stuck to the schedule — that is, the daytime presentations and official sessions — but one that really caught my attention was "Teach U.S. Kids to Program" by attendee Matt Hellinger.

Hellinger's talk was prompted by "Teach U.S. kids to write computer code", a December 2012 article by Douglas Rushkoff, digital literacy advocate for Codecademy.com, a tool I use in my own classroom. Rushkoff outlined ten reasons why programming must be an essential part of any student's curriculum, given how pervasive computers have become in modern culture and industry. The article focused on how we passively use computers, allowing ourselves to be the passenger to tools that drive our lives. Hellinger in turn reflected on the golden age of the Apple II, when users and programmers were one in the same, putting us in the driver's seat. Can that experience be replicated for today's youth?

His proposal stems from more than some nostalgic desire for his kids to grow up the same way he did. Hellinger made a compelling argument that computers have become so powerful and complex as to be impenetrable, transforming them from tool to crutch. He suggested bringing them down a notch to again make them accessible to students, providing them with an environment where they can write original programs in fifty lines of code instead of a thousand. The Apple II is just such a machine.

But there's more to that equation than the classroom. Hellinger and I approach the topic from very different perspectives: he as an IT professional and parent; I as childfree educator. Although I'll happily expose other people's children to retroprogramming, as is already happening in Milton Keynes, those lessons have to be reinforced in the home. To that end, Hellinger proposed taking away the tablet, replacing or completing the desktop with a Raspberry Pi, and limiting Internet access.

I challenged Hellinger on these potentially draconian measures — not out of opposition but curiosity, to better assess the rigor of the stance. I asked what Johnny should do when he comes home from playing Xbox 360 and surfing Facebook at his classmates' homes. Hellinger said those exceptions are no different from expecting a child to obey other house rules: different parents make different allowances for their kids. Later I followed up via email: what about when the disagreement isn't between homes, but between home and classroom? What if the student is using an iPad at school and needs one to complete his homework? Again, Hellinger made it a simpler matter than I imagined, pointing back to his basic tenets. "I would definitely recommend restricting usage (as if the kid had brought home a video game to research)," he wrote. "Disabling Wi-Fi in the house would go a long way toward resolving unfettered use."

Overall, I was pleased and intrigued by Hellinger's proposal. I hope for opportunities to test and practice his ideas in the classroom, just as he is doing so in his own household. If you want to see his theories for yourself, he has generously allowed me to embed his original slides in this blog. Watch for them to eventually be added to the KansasFest file archive.