Valve, the video game company who brought you the wildly famous brainiac puzzle games Portal andPortal 2, announced last week that it will now be offering Portal 2 and Puzzle Maker free for educators as part of their new Teach with Portals project using Steam for Schools service.
There’s a lot of new concept in here, so let me walk you through them. If you’re reading this article, then I’m guessing you’re already familiar with Portal and Portal 2. If you’ve been living in the dark cave of parenthood like me, Puzzle Maker is a platform to create your own Portal puzzles and it comes with Portal 2 (as an update). Teach with Portals is Valve’s new community for educators. Steam for Schools is a stripped down version of Valve‘s online content service, Steam, designed with the teacher-and-students environment in mind.
This announcement was made at the Games For Change Festival 2012. In their presentation, Valve representatives discussed the enormous positive feedback they had received from the education community and how it was the driving force behind the creation of Teach with Portals. Leslie Redd, director of educational programs at Valve, and her team received entire lesson plans from educators who wanted to share the work they had done using Portal with students. The Puzzle Maker was being used to teach everything, from the obvious (Mathematics, Physics) to the creative (circuits, principles of chemistry, language arts).
It was in the Games for Change Festival of 2011 that Valve co-founder and president Gabe Newell discussed the educational merit of commercial and educational games, a conversation which inspired Valve to appoint a new team to lead an educational effort. A year later, the education team had Teach with Portals to show off at the festival.
What Valve has announced this year still isn’t the end of the line. They are dedicated to responding to the feedback of the community and adding new features that show a lot of interest and potential. I communicated with Leslie Redd about how Valve can afford to keep adding on to a product that is free to the user (the educators).
“Valve is always interested in exploring new ways of thinking and doing. What we are doing with thePortal 2 Puzzle Maker education program is responding to a demand from our current community and perhaps expanding that community further by sharing the creativity and innovation we see emerging. It’s the teachers who are creating the content and driving the direction.”
You may think that with such great educational potential, Portal might have been designed with education in mind. Not exactly. “Portal and Portal 2 were created as fun and engaging entertainment games,” said Redd. “There is always ‘teaching’ that goes on in game design – educating the player to be familiar with the game mechanics and assets – but there was nothing intentional for the educational space.” However, the gears changed when later creating Puzzle Maker. Considering the popularity ofPortal and Portal 2 with educators, a lot more educators and students were brought in to direct and testPuzzle Maker in its development phase. “Consequently it’s designed as a modular system that can be updated to better suit a teachers’ needs,” said Redd.
There is concern from certain teachers about being able to introduce a new educational tool when they are already facing very limited resources and strict objectives. To that, Redd replied “a teacher can use an aspect of the game for demonstration purposes, or have students use it more interactively. The lesson plans on the website are created by educators and are aligned to Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards. Teachers in the initial beta test have told us that they use the Puzzle Maker to introduce, support and supplement their students’ learning.” In fact, there’s a wealth of knowledge shared by educators online about using Portal in the classroom, for example the impressive Physics with Portals blog by Physics and Chemistry high school teacher Cameron Pittman. Homeschoolers need not fear, Steam for Schools is available to them as well.
Just how dedicated is Valve in trying to redesign the educational system to reflect the needs of our current world? Redd replied, “Valve is interested in hiring people who are highly developed critical thinkers, collaborative, creative and problem solvers – all the 21st Century skills so crucial for students to acquire and exercise. We hope that the worldwide educational systems can reflect that.”
Currently, Steam for Schools offers only Portal 2 and Puzzle Maker. In the Games for Changepresentation, Redd had this to say about introducing more games to the service, ”I hope that we will be able to provide a place for there to be a lot of great conversation, creativity, and innovation. Where that will lead us, we will see.”
As per the request of GeekMom Helene’s 3-year-old son, I asked Redd if Valve would ever consider partnering with Lego to create a Lego Portal game. “We love Lego and how creative the community has been with the it and Portal 2! We’ll pass that on our friends in Denmark.” Seed planted. In the mean time if you want to see Lego and Portal together, consider voting for the Lego Portal Cuusoo project and help make it a reality!