If you missed it, make sure you check out the first part in this series on Portal 2’s classroom impact: Student Interest.
Let’s talk Portal 2 from the teacher’s perspective. As a physics teacher, can I recommend Portal 2 to other teachers? Did I enjoy teaching with Portal 2?
Once again, the short answer is yes. Teaching with Portal 2 was awesome. But, of course, there are a few caveats. Like any other tool, it has advantages and drawbacks.
Teaching with technology is hard. Any teacher endeavoring to teach with a complex game like Portal 2 should expect to run into some significant technological hurdles. Installation in and of itself almost proved insurmountable for me. Not only did I need access to the right computer hardware, I had to request special modifications to my school’s network for Steam. In fact, I pressed the administration at my previous school for the entire 2011-2012 school year and still failed to ever install Portal on a single computer in the school. While the administration was more than helpful, we ran into a tangled bureaucratic mess in the district office when we requested that network ports be opened for Steam.
It wasn’t until I started working at my current position in a charter school, where we have much more control over our resources, that all of the technological pieces fell into place.
After getting Portal 2 installed, I still ran into problems. There was the issue of figuring out a fast way of installing it on 30 laptops using the least bandwidth possible (solved using a thumbdrive and two 90 minute planning periods of furious work). Then, on the first day of Portal 2 labs, my students ran into the NO STEAM issue, which I only knew how to solve because I happened to have seen the same error a few days earlier on my own computer.
Then there were the more mundane problems. Mice occasionally didn’t work. Steam wouldn’t open sometimes. Students claimed their levels periodically disappeared (they didn’t actually disappear). Random crashes. Laptops froze. Students sometimes didn’t know what they were doing and messed things up. All of the litany of issues that can occur when you’re running a complex game showed up. In the early days of Portal 2 labs, I spent almost as much time troubleshooting as I did actually teaching physics.
I can’t understate how much fun it is to give students a sandbox world that follows the laws of physics. I felt, and I think my students would agree, that the freedom that Portal 2 affords arguably makes it one of the most important developments in the physics classroom. The freedom of the Puzzle Maker for physics students is akin to the freedom of a pen and a pad of paper for English students. They have agency and ability to mold a world to their specifications, analyze it, share it and ultimately learn in a way that no other tool can match. I love how quickly students can take a level from conception to playtesting in just a few minutes and then produce a data set by the end of class. It’s like being able to set my students loose in the Matrix for a class period.
So, yes, Portal 2 is awesome for educators. Just be prepared to solve some tech problems.