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Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Gaming Education

Classic ed-tech games and build-your-own methods are now joined by the "gamification" movement.

There are at least three different classes of digital games in schools. Which you prefer speaks volumes about the role you believe schools should play.

The first group, the classic edu-tech games, have danced in and out of schools for so long that many kids take them for granted. Most of these programs are cute, but they fall short on pedagogical ambitions and graphic design. That doesn't make them worthless; it just limits their effectiveness. (One person's drill-and-kill can indeed be another's guiding light. When educator and blogger extraordinaire, Scott McLeod, asked, "Do most educational games suck?" he drew fire from just about all sides.)

By contrast, a handful of educators a few years ago sought to put game controls directly into students' hands by teaching them how to build their own games. Scratch, developed by the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at MIT's Media Lab, is the reigning champion here. (See my take on Scratch below). There are a few others, too, including Microsoft's Kudo, a programming language that kids can use to build games for the Xbox game platform.

Screen from The Fly, a game built with Scratch

Screen from "The Fly," a game built with Scratch.

And now comes what I would dub a third approach, something that has picked up its very own buzzword before it has even reached most school gates: gamification. The term is as elegant as a teenager jawing a mouthful of bubble gum. But it suggests adding far more sophisticated game mechanics to applications -- no matter how stuffy or serious the application has been. Gamification probably has more momentum outside of schools than in. Case in point: Dean Takahashi of VentureBeat has written about how DevHub, a place for web developers, added gaming feedback and watched in awe as the percentage of users who finished their sites shot up from 10 percent to 80 percent.

Most games are naturally social, which means gamification depends on that other ubiquitous web trend, social networking. Sure, go ahead and play Solitaire. But most of us take a certain pleasure in besting the competition -- whether it's the Texas Rangers or some ugly troll in World of Warcraft.

Academics are creating a skin of respectability for gamification. Byron Reeves of Stanford University has recently co-authored "Total Engagement" to outline his ideas about how gaming can turn the erstwhile plodding company man into an engaged and motivated worker. (Reeves is also putting his ideas to the test by co-founding a consulting firm, Seriousity, that will coach companies on how to do this.) The first gamification summit is slated to take place in January in San Francisco.

What does each of these approaches say about education?

The first type of games were willing to entertain kids to keep them engaged -- the "just-make-it-fun" school of thought. But any standup comedian will tell you how tough it is to keep people entertained for long. It's even harder with kids who outgrow the "fun" of a game faster than most games can evolve.

The Scratch camp is more about empowerment. Scratch appeals enormously to kids who want to control their environment and be in charge. Those who build Scratch games get feedback from others when they post their games. They say they love the comments and feel great when hundreds of others play their games.

Ultimately Scratch aficionados bring their ambitions to learn with them. I'd wager that if these kids were born a generation or two ago, they'd be building transistor radios. The Scratch kids have to be self-motivated: most use Scratch outside of school. No one makes them do it. All it took to get them going was for someone to introduce them to Scratch in the first place. That's a great argument for exposing more kids to the tools.

Gamification, by contrast, doesn't rely on internal motivation. Instead, it's using the oldest tricks in the book: providing instantaneous feedback, egging on the competition, and rewarding even tiny steps of progress. Gamification assumes that the player isn't especially motivated -- at least at the beginning -- and then provides barrels of incentives to ramp up that motivation.

I'm betting that gamification, in spite of its throat-clearing name, is going to be big in the commercial world -- and in schools. Gamification can help build kids' competitive spirits. As they gain confidence, they may become hungry for tools that put them in control. At the end of the day, those who know how to create the rules of the game, know how to win.

reposted from: O'Reilly Media Edu2.0

Monday, October 25, 2010

Playing Games In School

Many parents of adolescents curse the electronic games that soak up their kids' time and energy. But 12-year old Chris Rybicki gets plenty of encouragement to spend time on games—at least when he's building them with a program called "Scratch." Developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab, Scratch is a three-year old project that aims to transform education by giving kids the tools to build and develop their own computer games and multimedia projects.

Games? At a time when we worry about kids' ability to read and write? American kids are already awash in digital media, spending an average of more than 7.5 hours a day, seven days a week with a potent mixture of digitally delivered music, television, computers and games. Legions of government officials are wringing their hands over U.S. students' lackluster results in standardized tests. According to the most recent results from The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), U.S. eighth graders rank 11th in the world in science and 9th in math.

But drilling students on math and science facts, contend a growing chorus of educators, won't significantly improve those scores-- nor will it help students find jobs when they finish school. Instead schools need to put math and science skills into context.

That doesn't mean endlessly entertaining students. In the past many so-called "educational" programs have been as passive as watching YouTube. By contrast, "Scratch was conceived with the idea of empowering kids to be media creators," says Andrés Monroy-Hernández, a doctoral candidate at MIT who has helped lead the Scratch program since it was officially released in May 2007.

Scratch is a downloadable set of tools that anyone can use to create digital games and animated movies. After a Scratch user builds a game, he or she can send it to the MIT website where anyone can try it out, offer comments and even improve on it. More than 600,000 people have Scratch accounts; they've built 1.3 million projects. The program is particularly popular in the 12- to 13-year old set. A third of Scratch users are girls. And although most of those students use Scratch at home or in after-school programs, teachers are also starting to use Scratch in the classroom to teach everything from math to ecology.

"What else do kids learn in school that you want them to teach their neighborhood friends?"

Karen Randall, who now teaches at Paul and Shelia Wellstone Elementary in St. Paul, Minn., started using Scratch with students when it was still a prototype. "We helped find the bugs in the program," she recalls. Students loved taking part in the product development, she says. Along the way, they learned that technology was not a magic box but something that they could control.

When she previously taught at St. Paul's Expo Elementary magnet school, Randall encouraged students to use Scratch to demonstrate the concepts they were studying. For instance, one year Randall asked her students to use Scratch to explain the idea of complementary angles. If she had given them a multiple-choice test, some might just guess at the answers. In Scratch, the students came up with creative ways to show they understood the concept.

Could the students just make a poster? Sure, Randall replies. But she sees an intriguing difference between paper-based and Scratch projects: Ask students to draw pictures and those with poor motor skills simply shut down. By contrast, students relish learning from one another in a computer environment. "It's fascinating," she says. "In about four weeks, they go from saying, 'I can't do it,' to seeing each other as resources and building amazing designs."

For 7th grader Chris Rybicki, sharing Scratch projects is a central part of what makes it "cool." "It's fun to collaborate with others and to see what's new," he says.

Rybicki admires the flashes of inspiration he sees from his fellow Scratch gamemakers in the galleries on the Scratch website.

Others are beginning to follow Scratch's lead. For instance Sam Animation is a free program developed at Tufts University that enables students to design stop- motion animation projects. Microsoft has built Kudo, a programming language that kids can use to build games for Microsoft's Xbox game platform.

Monroy-Hernández's team at MIT is now working on a Web-based version of Scratch. That might make Scratch easier to use on some of the aging computers that schools have—but would also require more high-speed access. Nearly all U.S. primary and secondary schools report having some Internet connectivity. But about 78% of the schools that have received federal support for Internet connectivity say they need faster connections to keep up with the demand of students and teachers for online educational resources.

The buzz that goes with learning Scratch is palpable, Randall says: kids go home and teach other kids in their neighborhood about it, she says. "What else do kids learn in school that you want them to teach their neighborhood friends?"

Reposted from the Cisco news service

Monday, June 14, 2010

Makers versus Sponges

School tech should start with a simple question: Will students absorb others' ideas or make their own?

The rumbling debate over whether technology helps or hurts us -- and our kids -- is growing louder. The ever articulate writer, Nicholas Carr, stoked debate with his new book, "The Shallows." (Yes, he believes, Google makes you dumb.) Last Monday, the New York Times worried that technology may be reshaping our brains. Also last week, neurobiologist Steven Pinker weighed in on the New York Times op-ed pages today with a piece that waves away those concerns. (Everything rewires our brains, he notes.) If that seems like too many quick links, the New York Times' Bits blog recaps some of the debate here.
On the education side, the Washington Post took theses questions to the classroom in a piece entitled, "Some educators question if whiteboards, other high-tech tools raise achievement."
I keep wondering why we lump all "technology" into the same basket. By doing so, we ignore the most important distinction of all: whether we are sponges for absorbing other people's ideas, or whether we're making our own.
O'Reilly has long been a champion of the "Maker" movement so perhaps this amounts to singing to the choir. But here's one slice through the technologies organized according to their potential relationship to kids:
IT Tool: Sponge or Maker?
Smart boards in classroom SPONGE: Kids absorb lectures with better graphics
Electronic games SPONGE: Kids learn to master rules of the games (and sometimes the content, too)
Scratch MAKER: Kids create their own games
iPod Touches SPONGE: Kids absorb & interact with presented material
iPod Touches with "homemade slides" MAKER: Kids create their own "flashcards" to present on gadget
Powerpoint / Keynote / Prezi / Glogster, etc, MAKER: Kids have to pull together materials to create presentations

A Powerpoint (or Keynote) presentation is hardly the height of intellectual achievement. But when we think about how kids interact with ideas and media -- what promotes creativity and learning -- it seems to me we need to focus on whether the gadgets are the means for kids expressing themselves or a way of imprinting someone else's ideas onto their brains.
Of course, a kid doesn't need to make a Prezi presentation to deliver a great and inspiring report. But we live in a world that values flashing lights and cool transitions.
That struck home a few weeks ago when I saw a group of fifth grade students show off a semester's worth of work to their parents and guardians. They had done traditional, glue-and-paper reports on different U.S. states, a project that had extended over about a month as the students gathered information, wrote summaries and clipped out pictures. Then, a week or so before "open house" night, the students were asked to deliver a report on one element in the periodic table using a Keynote presentation.
On the evening the parents and guardians showed up, I saw the same act repeated over and over: students grabbed the arm of their guest and dragged them over to watch their Keynote. They stood by, beaming as the slides clicked through. They had also absorbed a surprising amount of information about their elements, where they were found and why they were located on the periodic table. The students were proud of their state reports, too =- and knew they had worked far longer on them. But at least on this evening, the Keynotes stole the show.
Back in the 1970s, kids who sat glued to the television screen didn't have a choice: we were all just sponges for the stuff broadcast over the airwaves. Today's computer technology lets us choose if we want to be a maker or a sponge. Shouldn't that be starting point when we argue about the role of technology in schools?
Postscript -- Could this be the ultimate "Maker" class? Encouraging engineering in kindergarten.

Reposted from O'Reilly Radar Edu 2.0

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Venture capitalists do it. Why shouldn't philanthropists do it, too?

Pitch a new idea to venture capitalists and the first question they’ll shoot back is: “Who else is in your space?”

If you can’t answer that question, go straight back to “Go” and don’t even dream of collecting $200.

VCs, of course, needs to weigh competitive as well as potentially complementary efforts. But answering that question should help the entrepreneur, too. Entrepreneurs are most likely to help a field move forward if they build on the knowledge and the mistakes of the past rather than tripping down the well-trodden road.

Really compelling ideas draw multiple entrepreneurs (think of how the idea of social networking brought out Facebook, MySpace and a swarm of other startups). And sometimes ideas have to wait for the technology to catch up (picture phones and electronic books come to mind).

Smart startups, however, look for unique approaches even when tackling a problem that others are--or have--taken on. And the fastest way to assess whether an approach is fresh or a rerun is to know what else is going on.

So what about the educational-technology space? We want to invent new approaches and ideas that will engage students, teachers (and even the occasional parent). But do we have good maps of what’s going on—not just in the for-profit venture sector but in the philanthropic sector, too?

Dale Dougherty, who’s no slouch when it comes to staying on top of the latest technology, summed up the problem well in his recent post:

“I wished the teams themselves were a better judge of their own proposals, and that they understood how their project advanced appropriate uses of technology in education. I wished that each of the applicants had been able to consult an evolving set of best practices for developing educational technology projects. …. They might help others avoid pitfalls and learn from failures.“

Our problems in education are too intense, funding is too thin and time too precious to take on duplicative efforts. We need to apply some of the same discriminating standards in our philanthropic Edu2.0 projects that we use in for-profit ones.

So what would be the relevant features of a topographical map of the educational-technology sector? Here’s one set of categories:

Projects aimed at:
• Improving instruction
• Individualized (adaptive) instruction
• Doing assessment
• Improving teacher practices
• Promoting project-based learning
• Improving transparency
• Bridging the school-home communications gap
• Improving school infrastructure

What would you add? What elements do you think would help people designing education-technology projects get a useful picture of what else is going on?

Monday, April 19, 2010

Drop Testing EduTech

A researcher I know has devoted three years to following a group of low-income students in the Baltimore area who have been learning geometry with the help of an innovative online program. Her paper (which isn't published yet) is a marvel of careful observations and statistical analysis. Its conclusion, however, is poignant: not only did the students who used the computer program not learn more geometry than the ones taught the old-fashioned way--they might have learned less.

The program was thoughtfully designed and took advantage of the latest and greatest learning algorithms. If any program should be able to help students learn geometry, one might be tempted to conclude, it should be this one. That kind of logic could give ammunition to those who declare that computer-assisted learning is bunk.

But there's more behind the story.

The researcher told me (and is writing in the paper) that she observed even the most well-intentioned teachers really struggled to figure out how to use the technology. The program wasn't well integrated into the regular classwork. The "protocols" for use, carefully constructed by the developers, weren't followed because, as every teacher knows, stuff just happens. Students moved out of town; new students showed up. Teachers came; teachers went. The list goes on.

It was, in short, a pretty good reflection of how technology gets implemented in most classes -- hardly in the precise and careful way designed by those who have sweated over the program.

The trial was a flop -- not because the technology failed but because there was a mismatch between how the designers believed it should be used and how the teachers wound up using it. Was that the teachers' fault? Nope. Every day, in every class in the world, teachers come up with workarounds to cope with the unexpected. Most technology, however, isn't yet as resilient.

We drop test hardware before we send it into the field. Seems like it's time to start drop testing software programs before sending them into the classroom.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Changing Minds

Two fantastic posts that I have to share by women who are helping change people's minds about the role of technology in education:

First: Lucy Gray, an education technology specialist at the University of Chicago. On Monday she gave a powerful presentation "Beyond Buzzwords" at the TED x TLN conference. Flip through her slides here.

And the money quote if you're in a rush:
"Before we expect students to step up, teachers to work harder than ever, administrators to lead with vision, and the data to change, we must engage and re-inspire."

The challenge before us: use technology to engage and re-inspire--not to frustrate and confuse.

A second, compelling conversation was started by Marie Bjerede, Vice President of Wireless Education Technology at Qualcomm, on the O'Reilly Radar blog. (Look here.) Of course, Qualcomm is in the cell phone business, but she has a fascinating story about using the technology to engage 150 kids in North Carolina studying algebra. It's called Project K-Nect.

She isn't shy about pointing out this is hardly a scientific survey. Still the kids' reactions are pretty impressive:

"Overall, proficiency rates increased by 30 percent. In the best case, one class using the devices had 50 percent more kids finishing the year proficient than a class learning the same material from the same teacher during the same school year, but without the cell phones."

And I can't help but add this: check out this Fast Company piece, echoing the same idea: "How Smartphones, Handheld Computers Sparked an Educational Revolution,"

Thank you, Lucy & Maria! Those are the kinds of signals we need to change minds.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Do What I Say -- Not What I Do?

Kids are pretty savvy truth-seekers.
If an adult tells a child to do something but does the opposite in practice, the child will follow the action not the command.

Tell a kid to read and then put on the television -- and you don't create a love of reading.
Tell a kid to eat spinach and then stuff a hot dog in your mouth and guess what they will choose to eat?

Kids who grow up in homes where there's no obvious regard for learning, where commands to learn are given but seldom demonstrated, have a tough time.

Some of the enthusiasm for using games to spur learning comes from this: put kids in an environment where they naturally go (namely an online game) then give them an opportunity to natively learn skills you want them to learn (such as reading or math).  

 That suggests an important clue about using technology: we need to figure out which tools are appropriate for what kids. In other words, emphasizing games may not be as essential for kids with basic skills as for kids who are really struggling. We give early writers a pencil with an eraser; we give more sophisticated writers a pen. We should now understand enough about technology and about learning to give kids the tools appropriate to their skills and needs. But only if we have a way of organizing the tools so that we can easily find the pens from the pencils.