The battle over technology in schools

(Disclaimer, this post is more of a rant and less of an academic critique!) Every teacher has heard it hundreds of times – there’s this crazy rhetoric amongst school officials that “student to computer ratios” and “number of smart boards” are excellent metrics for evaluating how well a school has “incorporated” technology into the school environment. Yet, the reality inside classrooms is that the technology is rarely shared beyond ICT. English, math and science rarely use computers or labs. Smart boards are gathering dust in the corner of history classrooms. Teachers are too busy to rebuild their curriculum around technology and many are too afraid of technology to try and do more with it. Add to that the fact that technology breaks, becomes obsolete every two years and technical problems eat up valuable instruction time.

So it’s no surprise the European Commission has concluded 63% of 9 year old students are missing the digital equipment they need at school.

Between 50% and 80% of students in EU countries never use digital textbooks, exercise software, broadcasts/podcasts, simulations or learning games. Most teachers at primary and secondary level do not consider themselves as ‘digitally confident’ or able to teach digital skills effectively, and 70% would like more training in using ICTs. Pupils in Latvia, Lithuania and the Czech Republic are the most likely to have internet access at school (more than 90%), twice as much as in Greece and Croatia (around 45%).

Let’s be honest … this shouldn’t be a surprise. Currently teachers are severely undertrained for using computers or any technology in the classroom. Digital textbooks are few and far between, learning games are limited (too specific, too expensive, too outdated). Many teachers have no idea what a podcast is. Existing software is poorly used and rarely implemented. Technology is outdated and inadequately maintained. And I think that’s being quite generous! Decisions about technology in schools is being made by politicians and bureaucrats … and to make matters worse, there’s no consensus on what technology has value and how it can be applied in a standardised way across schools.

But to be fair, and taking a step back, this is not an easy problem to solve. By the time schools get around to agreeing on a strategy, the technology they are considering is already old. Teachers need to be trained and re-trained regularly. Technology needs to be maintained and updated every few months. Despite which, schools will still be years behind the cutting edge … while students are years ahead, already adept at using instagram, whatsapp, facebook and other new apps to communicate online.

However, one possible way forward is by looking closely at teachers. The teacher is the interface between the education system and the students. The teacher is the conduit. So it’s the responsibility of the education system to make sure teachers are able to do that job effectively. But how? Teacher training already has mandatory learning areas for would be teachers. They must learn about student welfare, learning methodologies, social justice, pedagogy and practice, and other areas that relate to effective teaching. Yet, very few universities have mandatory technology training for teachers – including how to use that technology in a classroom. And I’m not talking about smart boards. I’m talking about using Google groups as virtual classrooms. I’m talking about using iphone/android apps to communicate with students, record test scores, share resources. I’m talking about podcasting, documentary making, social media, RPG storylines and other technology areas being core parts of a teacher’s curriculum.

I’ll get a lot of hate for this, but if teachers can’t use technology, they probably don’t belong in a modern classroom. The trend now is BYOT – bring your own technology – and if teachers don’t know how to utilise the technologies they have available to them, then they are doing a disservice to students. Step 1 is start with rebuilding teacher training courses at university. Step 2 is less reliance on gimmicky technologies and more reliance on curriculum writing that takes advantage of student skills, personal technologies (smart phones) and access to hardware (computers) and software (apps) that will help students to achieve their goals.

Today’s luddite test: How many teachers use dropbox or cloud storage for their teaching resources?

Game based learning – with Paul Gee

If you don’t know who Paul Gee is (guru of game based learning!) or aren’t terribly familiar with his most recent works, there’s an excellent webinar called “Big G Game Based Learning”. Check out the webinar here:

Game-based learning should involve more than a game as a piece of software. It should involve designing what Arizona State University Professor James Paul Gee calls “Big G Games.” In the 50th webinar for the Game-Based Learning community, Gee discussed how Big G Games integrate a game as software with good interactional practices, good participatory structures, smart tools, and an emphasis on production and not just consumption. Often, out of school, such Big G Games involve what Gee has called “affinity spaces,” Internet spaces where people self-organize around a passion. Game-based learning leads naturally into a discussion of 21st Century learning and paradigm change for schools. View the webinar to find out how these “affinity spaces” are often part and parcel of even entertainment games today and how they create learning systems with properties that are quite different from schools as we currently know them.

Minecraft – Constructive fun, regardless of educational value

Regardless of your views of education, learning, gaming, gamification, serious games or any other buzzword that is thrown around, games like Minecraft are proving themselves to win people over for their inherent “fun” factor and potential as a learning tool. Not everyone agrees that games can be useful for learning and sometimes that isn’t even the point that those of us who extol Minecraft’s virtues are trying to make.

One recent article considered how much fun Minecraft was and made the point that has no educational value, yet, still has value as a tool which promotes creativity. Again, that’s the whole point of Minecraft. Whether or not learning is directly implied, Minecraft is fun and has value that is (without a doubt) tangible. Minecraft is a creativity game that allows children to express their creative side through building and construction. It’s a cooperation game that encourages players to work together. It’s a planning game that forces participants to calculate what they need and how big things are going to get. It’s a challenging game that invites users to expand their horizons by building PCs, writing mods, participating in communities that develop Minecraft plugins. It’s an expressive game that inspires its fans to draw comics, paint pictures, write jokes and sing songs.

Minecraft is all of those things … and at the end of the day there’s no test. There’s no essay or assignment. There’s no teacher marking down grades on a rubric. There’s only fun … and through fun comes the learning.

When you play computer games you learn, whether you want to or not … and that’s a pretty good reason to play games!

*For the record: There is a Minecraft curriculum. Minecraft teachers write units and build curriculum around the game and teach it in their classrooms. But that’s not the point. Minecraft inspires people to play, and to learn, and to do amazing things. You don’t need a curriculum for that!

Meshing GBL With PBL: Can It Work?

Middle School students learn about geocaching for Project Based Learning.

Meshing GBL With PBL: Can It Work?.

Project based learning is a thing … and it’s a good thing. PBL brings with it a more open, enquiry based mode of instruction that has benefits in modern classrooms.

So the question is how to leverage PBL and make it mesh with Game based learning (my favourite thing!)? Firstly, game based learning is about incentive. The idea is that the game is a motivating factor that can inspire and help students want to learn. The trick, as Randy Pausch would have been proud to identify, is to make students forget they are learning. When learning is the medium it is incredibly de-motivating and stigmatised. However when gaming is the medium, then learning happens in the background.

PBL is about teaching and assessing skill building within the context of the project. As the project develops, participants show learning through the way they adapt and advance towards the project’s goals. This is observable and, importantly for the teacher, assessable. While it’s an exciting idea, PBL is not yet commonly used in classrooms.

How, then, does GBL use PBL? The answer, according to edutopia, is through using games as collaborative problem solving tools. By presenting a problem within a gaming context, participants can collaborate, use critical thinking, communicate and show creativity. They can take risks to try and solve problems, then learn through their failures. Games are perfect for this because they create an environment where risk taking is safe and possible solutions can be tried again and again. In fact, this idea of repeating a problem until a solution is found is the very nature of gaming!

The most interesting area for me is games as the product of learning. Programming and coding are fields that are developing at an exponential rate. The entire “programming” field barely existed 20 years ago. Programming now spans areas such as computer games, websites, apps, software and a myriad of other areas. The future of programming is beyond our current scope of understanding. Programming and writing simple games is an excellent use of PBL and GBL as a way to teach programming. Writing games can be collaborative and require a diversity of skill sets (graphic design, coding, story writing, design, etc). Such project based learning is easily assessed using conventional rubrics and can be observed within a classroom as easily as the typical projects that teachers are using in classrooms now.

Another method of GBL meshing with PBL is using the often-cited elements of gamification. Projects can be given levels of achievement and mini-goals that have to be completed before moving on to the next goal. Goals can be selected based on their importance and some goals can be ignored if participants feel that it doesn’t meet their final objectives. Badges and other incentives can be used to motivate participants and reward incremental achievements.

Overall, if classrooms aren’t using PBL then they should be. Project based learning helps students develop real world skills and lets them test their abilities and take risks, as well as enhances collaboration and communication skills. The beauty of PBL is that areas within a project can be delegated to members of a group with particular skill sets. Some students are good organisers, some are artists, some are builders and some are thinkers. Each student can participate by contributing their best skills. GBL offers a great medium for PBL. Games can be the motivation for projects. Students can work together to try and infect the world with a Pandemic virus. Or they can make an iOS app. Through gaming, learners are presented with a fun and motivational way to learn … while they’re busy infecting the world with a lethal virus, or while they’re trying to replicate Flappy Bird, they’re learning.


The Triforce of Gamer Knowledge

The Triforce of Gamer Knowledge

Computer games are fun and gaming is an important aspect of digital culture. The best part about computer games is that when we play, we learn!

This video was made as part of my Masters in Education studies at Griffith University, Queensland, Australia.

Full references, citations and the supporting paper can be found here:

Contact me or learn more about my other videos, studies and academic writing.

Creating is Learning: Building skills and knowledge through Minecraft

Creating is Learning: Building skills and knowledge through Minecraft.

Computer games are fun and gaming is an important aspect of digital culture. The best part about computer games is that when we play, we learn!

This video was made as part of my Masters in Education studies at Griffith University, Queensland, Australia.

Full references, citations and the supporting paper can be found here:

Contact me or learn more about my other videos, studies and academic writing.

Thanks to Notch and Mojang for making such an excellent game. Thanks also to the Minecraft community (particularly /r/minecraft) and the people who have developed original content that I used in my video.

Persuasive Games: Exploitationware

Persuasive Games: Exploitationware

Ian Bogost’s vitriolic attack on gamification, in my opinion, is somewhat scathing and unwarranted. His premise is that gamification focuses too much on the game layer of points and systems used to attract and motivate – rather than focusing on the actual game itself. Bogost’s contention is how gamification is able to be used by advertising and companies to manipulate people. He refers to gamification as ‘exploitationware’ in an attempt to use rhetoric and word-smithing to position gamification as, well, evil. 

My contention with Bogost’s view is that he’s looking for reasons to hate gamification and the tenets it supports. While a game layer over the real world may not be everyone’s cup of tea, there’s definitely merit to the idea – as well as historical precedent to justify it.

Let’s talk about classroom learning for a moment. A teacher decides that she needs to motivate students to learn more. This is every teacher’s desire. So the teacher decides to use sticker systems, stamps and candy. The teacher also offers rewards to students who perform well … this is gamification! The idea of giving students stickers (10 stickers and you get a reward) is no different to frequent flyer miles, no different to 10+1 coffee coupons. Stamps and points are the same. Giving prizes for reading 10 books in a semester is another reward system. Adding a game layer to the real world has been a trend for over 50 years. It’s a method to motivate participants and provide incentive to play the game. Often, that game is for profit (fly the same airline, rather than their competitors, and you get benefits).

When we look at the history of using games in education, the game itself is rarely the motivation – the reward of winning, prizes, status and other symbols are the reason we play. Numerous studies have shown that education based computer games are a failure because they don’t motivate students to keep playing. This is something “dark lord” Game Zichermann has stated on numerous occasions; the best games are not games made by educators. 

Now, I concede that Bogost is concerned with how gamification is used to monetize (and profit from) participants. It’s a somewhat persuasive methodology. However it’s inevitable that private industries will jump on the gamification bandwagon. Business, and advertisers, are always early adopters of new ideas. If you want to know what works, look at what private companies are doing!

Rather than investing in positioning “serious games” and “persuasive games” and “gamification” against each other, I wish that Bogost would consider that games and game methodologies (including gamification) can all be applied to education with considerable benefits. All of us who are pushing for change in education are on the same team.

I’d rather we spent our time focusing on what’s good for kids in schools. It doesn’t matter if you hate the word ‘gamification’. What matters is that the ideas can be applied to learning. 

Dedicating a few thousand words to rhetoric is a waste of words.