As stated earlier, task cards are an
essential tool of the 5th Dimension. Together with a little Wizard’s magic,
task cards are catalysts that bring the computer games, fun, and education
together. The task cards are used to guide the children through the games as
they play, and encourage them to think about the activity. Task cards also
provide opportunities to write to the Wizard or other children in far away
places about certain games.
The quality of the task cards plays a big role in determining how successfully the 5th Dimension can achieve its goals. The task card for each game specifies three levels that it can be played at: Beginner, Good, and Expert. The levels differ in degree of proficiency required and are intended to allow children of different ages, abilities, and degrees of expertise to play and enjoy a given game. Ideally, each child should find at least one level available which is neither too difficult nor too easy. It should also be possible for children to advance from one level to another if they are willing to try hard enough and are provided adequate encouragement.
Closely associated with the task cards are the consequences contingent with each level of performance achieved. The basic rule is: the higher the level of achievement, the greater the child’s freedom of choice about where to go next. Beginner level assigns a next room, Good level gives some choice, Expert level provides the most choice. Thus, in choosing a level, children are also choosing "a future" in the 5th Dimension. (For more detail, see the section on “The Maze”).
However, it's important to note that the three levels need not be organized in a simple building-block sequence, with each level serving as an introduction to the next. Each level should represent a complete and satisfying game in itself, clearly connected to the goals that the 5th Dimension advances. On the one hand, this means that the children should be introduced to these goals, and given some means of achieving them, even if they do not go beyond the beginner level. On the other hand, while the higher levels should provide more depth and information, they shouldn't require the child to have previously completed a lower level. In most cases, the child should be able to choose any level at which to begin, and be able to backtrack to a lower level if necessary. (In cases where doing one level requires the prior completion of a lower one, the task card should indicate this clearly).
If the levels aren't stepping-stones, what is their relationship to each other? The higher levels should incorporate the same basic framework as the beginner level, yet go further to provide enriched and deeper activities. Both the goals the children are asked to achieve and the means of achieving them should be more complex and more informative. The lowest level of each game should be easy enough to be completed by any child who wants to give it a serious try, if he or she is provided with a little help (and remember that we have to accommodate a wide age range). The higher levels should be more challenging, and should give the child who completes them a fuller sense of accomplishment.
Often the games are already described in the manual/teacher's guide provided with the software. In writing the task cards we often have to go beyond the manual/guide (and the instructions that appear on the screen) for several reasons. The most important reason is that the manual/guide instructions are usually guided by a narrow set of goals (if they are designed to be educational) or they have no educational purpose at all (if they are arcade style games).
Here are some of the ways the task cards will go beyond the way a game is structured in the software. First, we often try to supplement the bare instructions with a story that will engage the child's imagination; the challenge here is to embed the goals of the game in a framework that can appeal to a wide variety of children. For instance, some children are very interested in manipulating abstract geometrical shapes by transposing, reflecting, and rotating them at high speeds, but other children don't necessarily share this enthusiasm. We made such a game more accessible to a wider range of children by introducing it through a story that asks children to imagine themselves as architects and constructors who are making multi-level buildings (Tetris). Another example: the system of X and Y coordinates, which is meaningless for young children, becomes meaningful when they are presented as crossroads where a building is located (Jenny's Journeys).
Second, we often try to supplement computer graphics with concrete manipulable objects, paper and pencil, crayons, and so on. For example, we help children discover the numerical key to the pattern of lily pads in a pond (Pond) by having them draw the pattern on a piece of paper; count the number of lily pads in each segment; and then read out the numbers to each other, listening for the repeated numbers. Another example involves the Factory game. In this case, children are shown two cubes, one decorated and one blank, and asked to decorate the second cube so that they match. The children are also given an actual cube and cut-out pictures with which to decorate it; this helps them grasp the rotations and spatial relations involved by actually manipulating the cube themselves.
Third, since we want to use the games to enrich the children's knowledge, we will often ask the children to look up information in different resources: books, atlases, encyclopedias, or any other resources available at the site. Sometimes this information will help them directly in playing the game (e.g., using a geographical atlas of the world for Where in the World is Carmen San Diego). At other times, the intention is more to help them enrich their general knowledge. In both cases, the point is to avoid having the game be an entirely isolated and self-contained experience; we should find ways that it can help expand the children's knowledge of the world and of issues in their environment, as well as their knowledge-acquisition skills. (Another way we try to do this is to introduce themes that highlight similarities between different games in the 5th Dimension, so that the games enrich each other). The delicate issue here is to avoid giving the children the impression that they are simply back in school doing assignments. The challenge is to organize the games in such a way as to expand the children's knowledge and, in particular, to introduce a quest for learning without coercing them to do school-like tasks. Remember that the play element should always be respected!
Finally, the last crucial goal of the task cards is to occasionally break into the fast pace of the games to allow the children time and space for reflection. The children should be given time and an opportunity to reflect back on how they played the game, and how they might play it differently and more effectively. Thus, we ask them both to; (1) stop and think about questions posed by the task cards, (2) verbalize their reflections with their helpers and (3) externalize these reflections in writing, sending a message to the Wizard or writing hints for other children about how to play the game. For example, in one game that requires rapid hand-eye coordination, children are asked a few times to write down the scores they achieved and to articulate any strategies that helped them improve their scores. In many games, the children are asked to send hints to the Wizard about how to play the game. The Wizard, in turn, evaluates the hints and, if they are useful, places them in a hints book so that every citizen can use them. If the hints are not actually helpful, the Wizard will send them back to that child and will try to have the same child, or another child playing that game, improve those hints.