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 Digital textbooks are few and far between, learning games are limited (too specific, too expensive, too outdated).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 Technology is outdated and inadequately maintained.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?


Three Papers by Jesper Juul

Three Papers by Jesper Juul – A brief synopsis of his recent works relating to computer game design.

*Note, all of the papers below are available for free from the Jesper Juul’s website (linked above).

Paper 1 – Zero-Player Games

Juul’s analysis of gaming looks closely at the players themselves and how player is defined. Importantly, the paper shows that there’s a distinction between games and gamers, and also, that games do not require a player (the player-centric model).

Zero-player games are games which require no significant human interaction for the game to be played. These are divided into four categories:

  1. Setup only games – games where the player starts the game and observes (without interaction) the remainder of the game.
  2. Games played by AIs – simply, games where the computer (AI) assumes the role of the player.
  3. Solved games – Games played by computers with the purpose of solving it – such as figuring out guaranteed winning moves, etc.
  4. Hypothetical games – non implemented games designed to describe or examine a question.

By understanding how games can be played without a player, paradoxically, the player can be more easily understood. Juul concludes with five distinct player traits:

  1. Players have continued agency
  2. Players as humans
  3. Players as temporal beings
  4. Players as having intentionality
  5. Players as having aesthetic preferences

Juul’s paper shows that a distinction can be made between game (artifact) and games (the activity). As well, it gives a strong rebuttal to the dominance of the player-centric model, since it doesn’t actually centre on players and overlooks their aesthetic preferences.

Paper 2 – Easy to use and incredibly difficult: On the mythical border between interface and gameplay

Interface and game play are seen, by many as Juul suggests, as vastly different. He argues that there’s no distinct border between the two. Interface is the tools (software and hardware) used to affect the game state. Gameplay is the core activity of the game.

The analysis focuses on defining the two elements and understanding how they have been used in game design. Importantly, Juul looks closely at the relationship between interface and gameplay, then compares their realisation in various games.

He concludes that gameplay is usually a simple premise or idea made challenging by the interface. The purpose of games is to be fun. Doing so often requires challenging the user. There’s a lot of fluidity between interface and gameplay. Because games are entertaining they are not always designed to be efficient. Intentionally adding inefficient elements to the gameplay or interface increases difficulty. This is a desired effect.

Most importantly, games provide an opportunity for the gamer to improve certain skills.

Blizzard uses the term skill differentiation to describe how requiring a range of skills allows a player to grow: a real time strategy game can have “twitch” skills, multitasking, strategic thinking, understanding of economy, knowledge of a map, and so on, as skill differentiators.

This means that difficulties of interface or gameplay simply become a skills hurdle for players to jump. The gameplay and interface in games is often blurred and, as games become more innovating, is redefined.

Paper 3 – The Fear of Failing? The many meanings of difficulty in video games

The role of failure in games is interesting and important to consider. Juul explores two important questions regarding failure.

  • What is the role of failure in games?
  • Do players prefer games where they do not feel responsible for failing?

There are two approaches to looking at “winning” in games.

  • Goal oriented – where the focus is on winning, which should be made as easy as possible
  • Aesthetic perspective – where there should be a reasonable combination of challenge and variation

Added to that are the methods of punishing players for failure.

  • Energy punishment – loss of energy, usually leading to life punishment
  • Life punishment – losing a “life”, usually bringing the player closer to game termination
  • Game termination – ending the game, forcing the player to start from the beginning
  • Setback punishment – making the player “replay” the game from a certain point

When a player fails, they might attribute the failure to three possible causes.

  • Personal – personal traits, skills or disposition (eg. I didn’t move fast enough)
  • Entity – the characteristics such as the game elements (eg. The enemy in game is too powerful)
  • Circumstance – luck, chance or other transient causes (eg. My fingers slipped off the controller)

Juul developed an empirical study, based on an earlier study by Malone in 1982, to test how players responded to different punishments (energy punishment and life punishment). The study concluded that players prefer to feel personally responsible for failure when they play a game. When players failed, then succeeded, they gave a higher rating for the game, reflecting that they felt more satisfied. This is in comparison to players who didn’t fail at all and players who failed too often (both groups gave less positive reviews of the game).

From the overall analysis, four observations were made about games and failure.

  1. The player does not want to fail (feels sad, inadequate)
  2. Failing makes the player reconsider their strategy (making the game more interesting)
  3. Winning provides gratification
  4. Winning without failing leads to dissatisfaction

This is an interesting outcome. Gamers want games to be difficult. While they hope to win, gamers will fail and feel personally responsible. Once they’ve reviewed their strategy and tried again, they will eventually win. The gamer feels gratification and is satisfied with the game.

Failure in games creates a sense of depth. Failure forces the player to re-evaluate strategies and practice their skills. Doing so reflects improvement and success (overcoming adversity).

A game should be neither too easy, nor too hard. Failure adds content!

Why I Blog

Why I Blog

Lupton’s short explanation of why she blogs is worth a read. Not only is blogging immediate and personal, but it breaks down academic walls which act to keep society and academia apart. I like the notion that academic though need not always be so formal, which is an attitude many academics (but few academic institutions) are embracing.

Mostly I agree with her assertion that it’s important to keep our writing away from academic paywalls. This is very high on the list of my pet-peeves – paying for scholarly works. While google scholar, and other sites are helping to remove paywalls, too many sites are still profiteering from paid access to academic writing. 

I own my writing. It’s mine. As I progress through my studies towards completing my doctorate, I intend to make all my work free for anyone to read and share. This is the way the internet works and academia needs to get with the program

High Score Education – Games, not school, are teaching kids to think.

High Score Education – Games, not school, are teaching kids to think.

Although somewhat dated, this short article by James Gee touches on some important elements of gaming and learning. The education system still pushes a “memorize and test” philosophy. Gee laments that children are not learning to think, they’re learning to memorise … and good students aren’t good at thinking they’re just good at “doing school”.

This is a very valid concern. Gee believes that games are an agent of mental training. That children aren’t meant to be memorising.

Learning isn’t about memorizing isolated facts. It’s about connecting and manipulating them.

I like that. It’s a very succinct way of describing what should be our relationship with information. This is exactly what the internet can do – provide an environment where we manipulate information by mixing, sharing and remixing between collectives online.

Gee states that the secret of video gaming’s success isn’t the games themselves or the 3D graphics, but the underlying architecture of the game. Each level is incrementally more difficult, pushing the gamer further and further beyond their abilities. This is the ‘regime of competence principal’. The game is just difficult enough to simultaneously provide pleasure and frustration for the player. It’s hard enough to be challenging, but through effort the player can be rewarded by winning the game.

Games also incorporate expertise. Gamers become masters of a game, but are then forced to adapt and evolve as the game becomes more complex.

As Gee notes, kids often say that playing games doesn’t feel like learning. They’re focused on playing. Again and again, educational experts push this point. Learning must become a secondary objective to having fun. When students are focused on having fun they forget that they’re also learning.

Summarising Evgeny Morozov

Summarising Evgeny Morozov

Seriously, the whole “technology doomsday” angle has been done since the printing press … call me an idealist but from a person as smart as he seems to be, it would be nice to hear something a little less cliched and more constructive than just inciting moral panic.

Teachers want access to more technology in the classroom

Teachers want access to more technology in the classroom

A nation wide survey conducted last year discovered that teachers want more technology in the classroom. Access to computers seems to be high and a lot of teachers are using websites, images and other media in their daily classroom routine.

However the problem, according to the survey, is that teachers feel they don’t have access to the “right” kinds of technology. The biggest barrier to technology, unsurprisingly, was budget constraints.

Teachers have their hearts in the right place. Most teachers cite ‘motivating students’ as their reason for wanting more technology in the classroom.

What surprised me was that 943% of teachers believed that interactive whiteboards ‘enrich’ classroom education. I understand the limitations of classroom technology and also the often low levels of training teachers have in using technology in the classroom. Particularly, teachers aren’t always well versed in areas like the internet and social media. However, I cannot fathom why interactive whiteboards (a 20+ year old technology) is still desired in a classroom environment.  I had access to them over 10 years ago and nobody in my school was interested in using them. Their application, quite honestly, is limited.

Overcoming budget is an understandable problem. One idea might be to apply a BYOT (bring your own technology) attitude. Allowing students to bring mobile devices to class – and use them directly for learning – will help raise motivation levels. Also, students are more likely to enjoy using computers (internet and social media) than they are using interactive whiteboards.

Teachers should start moving towards a more participatory methodology for learning. Provide students with the basic ideas or questions and let them use the resources that they’re comfortable with (online environments) and it might be surprising what they can produce.

Perhaps the problem in modern education is that we’re too focused on telling students what tools they can use to solve problems (such as learning, knowledge acquisition and skills building). Instead, let them choose their own tools. Why can’t a pyramid be modeled in Minecraft? Why can’t student presentations be done via youtube?

The best part is that teachers don’t even have to think of tools that students might choose. Students will do that! Technology? Not a problem, students will use the technology they have and whatever they’re comfortable with. Teenagers are happy to work when doing so on their own terms. Whatever students are studying, just give them core ideas and let them figure out the rest. Study after study proves that student will work when they work for themselves.

Motivation goes up. Creativity goes up. Original content and content creation goes up … all without the teacher lifting a finger.


Teens and Technology – Pew Report 2013

Teens and Technology – Pew Report 2013

Pew Internet is a good source for quantitative data regarding teens and internet use. Their recent reports have made some interesting conclusions about teen behavior online. Most of the following data is from the Teens 2012 keynote by Dr K. Purcell.

Some of the more interesting findings summarised. For the following data, the term ‘teen’ refers to the age group 12-17 (school age) teenagers unless otherwise stated.

  • 80% of teens use social networks
  • 95% of teens use the internet (the highest age group)
  • 88% of teens use a desktop/laptop computer to access the internet
  • 49% of teens use a phone to access the internet


  • 77% of teens have a cell/mobile phone
  • only 23% have a smart phone
  • 47% of teens talk to friends on the phone several times a week or more (decreasing)
  • 69% of teens send text messages several times a week or more (increasing)
  • only 17% of teens send emails several times a week or more

Some surprises there. The low frequency of smartphones amongst teens is likely due to their high cost and relative “newness” in the tech market. Teens are more interested in texting than talking. Email is not a popular option amongst teens, possibly because it’s not considered mobile or immediate. More effort is required to email whereas texting is short and faster.

Social Media

  • 93% of teens have a facebook account
  • 16% of teens use twitter, of which 12% have an account
  • only 2% of teens use tumblr and skype
  • 27% of teens record and upload videos of themselves online
  • 62% of teens keep their profiles private (viewable only by friends)
  • 39% of adults have “friended” their children on social networking sites

Clearly teens prefer facebook as their go-to social networking venue. Very few use twitter (more common amongst adults) and almost no teens use tumblr or skype (which is surprising!). Also, teens seem to be good at maintaining their privacy online and quite a few connect to their parents on social networking sites as well.

Teenagers and their sleepless lives

Teenagers and their sleepless lives

While the BBC has done a good job of surveying wider opinions regarding teens and technology, they’ve fallen short by focusing on the views of kids who are well educated, mature and responsible. 

I don’t know how many 14 year old would use the word ‘hierarchy’ in a conversational setting, but I get the feeling that the BBC is putting quite a positive spin on teens and their technology.

Don’t get me wrong, the overall view of youth and technology should be positive … but not all teens use their tech toys in a positive way. there’s a lot of negative sides to the use of tech as well. 

It’d be good if the BBC’s thoughts on the issue were more well rounded.