Can technology make learning more fun or (gasp) even more relevant to todays world?

One of my favorite topics is Digital Citizenship and Digital Literacy.  Our children really need guidance and instruction in these areas.  They can master the use of technology and digital media all around them but do they use it with responsibility, clear understanding and knowledge of their impact to the online community?  This is where teaching moral behavior and responsibility comes in and at this time, it is mainly taught by parents and families.  The school system has begun to teach using technology and digital media but not soon enough and not at the necessary depth that is needed.  Much of the research and work in moving technology into the classroom is still in its infancy. An interesting model, that an article in the NY Times special Education section published, is about incorporating digital games into learning. The issue is titled “Learning by Playing” and the article is “Game Theory”.

In many ways the Game Theory model is as old as Socrates and early game-oriented learning.  Basically it is about keeping children engaged and interested.  Thus encouraging them to learn and think through  problem solving in a fun way.  This is not a new concept and instead of using play or games in the non-technical sense, it uses  video games, online interactive social networks, video game design etc.  The end result is to prepare students to be producers of media. Helping them become graphic designers, video designers, journalists, publishers, communicators, bloggers or anything else that can be performed digitally these days.  Students still need to learn how to write and read as well as resolve problems but today they live in a digital world why not teach them on the medium they use everyday and will continue to use in their future.

Below are some of the more interesting ideas I found in the article.  It gets you thinking….

Find the full article at:

Game Theory by Sara Corbett

On Sunday, Sept 19, 2010 the NY Times Magazine section published a special Education Issue called “Learning by Playing”.  “Game Theory” was one of the interesting articles that discussed ways to get our children more engaged in the classroom. Using technology and digital media in our education process is an ongoing topic for discussion and a powerful element like video games and game design is something that may help children engage.

The article talks about a very specialized school environment in NYC called Quest to Learn.  The school’s model is organized around the idea that digital games are central to the lives of today’s children and increasingly, as their speed and capability grow, powerful tools for intellectual exploration.  Quest to Learn was planned and started by Katie Salen, a professor of design and technology at Parsons the New School for Design, also a director of a researched based organization called Institute of Play, which examines the connections between games and learning. She has spent a lot of time thinking about whether there is a way to make learning feel simultaneously  more relevant to students and more connected to the world beyond school.  The answer, as she sees it, lies in games.

The work for the school was financed by a research grant from the MacArthur Foundation, which is pouring $50 million into exploring the possibilities of digital media and learning in a variety of settings nationwide.  This school is one of a handful of “demonstration sites” for innovative technology-based instructional methods.  The school operates on a public-school budget but is powered by additional grants from the MacArthur Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, among others, it is a well financed and is a carefully watched educational experiment concerning children and video games and the unexplored force field between them.

The article goes on to describe how all the traditional school classes are handled with different models and approaches so every subject (pre-algebra, basic physics, ancient civilizations and writing) is covered as it is in the traditional middle schools. It is interesting to think about and discuss the premis that Salen and Robert Torres, a learning scientist who is a former school principal, use to design the curriculum.  They believe that going to school can and should be more like playing a game, which is to say it could be made more participatory, more immersive and also, well, fun.

A study in 2006 set out to examine the reasons that almost a third on American public-high-school students fail to graduate with their class.  Researchers surveyed high-school dropouts in 25 cities, suburbs and small towns across the country, where they were told again and again that school was boring. The final report recommends, among other things, that educators take steps to “make school more relevant and engaging.”

I think every parent hears how boring school is from their child at some point and many parents struggle with it as a regular complaint  throughout their child’s school years.  Of course we feel that school shouldn’t be all fun and games but how do you make kids want to engage?  Why is it that our younger children get to enjoy a learning experience because they can sing about it and play a game to help them remember their lesson.  Should making learning fun through games end after the elementary years?

One of the ways to use get kids excited about learning, according to the experts in the article, would be to stop looking so critically at the way children use media and start exploring how that energy might best be harnessed to help drive them academically.  Even without technology in the current classrooms, children prove to be wildly adaptive when it comes to using media outside the school.   They are fervently making YouTube videos, piloting avatars through complex game scenarios, sampling music, lighting up social networks and inventing or retooling language so that it better suits the text-messaging pay plan on their cellphones, only to show up at school to find cellphones outlawed, internet access filtered and computers partitioned off from the rest of the classroom  — at least in many cases.

Games often push players to explore, take risks, role-play and strategize — in other words putting a game’s informational content to use.  James Paul Gee, a professor of literacy studies, has advocated that our definition of “literacy” needs to be widened to better suit the times.  Where a book provides knowledge, Gee says, a good game can provide a learner with knowledge and also experience solving problems using that knowledge.  Ideas like this are slowly finding unlikely converts..  The retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor recently introduced a web site called iCivics, which features a series of interactive games meant to animate and revive the lost art of learning civics.  She was initially hostile toward games and now she is a fan.

People who play video games generally speak enthusiastically about “leveling up”  and are always shooting for the epic win.  Getting to the end of even a simple video game can take 15 hours or more of play time, and it almost always involves failure — lots and lots of failure.  This is referred to as “failure-based learning,” in which failure is brief, surmountable, often exciting and therefore not scary.  A well built game, is essentially a series of short-term feedback loops, delivering assessment in small, frequent doses.  This may be more instructive to someone trying to learn.  In a game a child will go back to redo a step a hundred times.  They’ll fail until they win.  In the academic environment, failure is depressing.  Both the teacher and student think failure will lead to disaster.  In school students are not usually given too many chances to do something over until they master it.

Even social networking is used to teach in the Quest for Learning School.  Within a classroom environment children are introduced to an online social network built just for the school by Salen and her team of designers.  It is open to students, staff and parents.  In a wellness class students work on learning things like how to tag photos, update their status, credit others the work of others, comment meaningfully on blog posts and navigate the complex politics of “friending.”  The goal is to try and help them do it with more thought and purpose, to recognize both their role and their influence inside a larger system.

Since most schools have not embraced digital media in the classroom it comes down to parents to teach the digital moral code.  Until all schools catch up with integrating digital media at this level, we, as parents,  should be looking at engaging ourselves with our children at home using more digital media.  A game is nothing but a set of problems to solve.  When it comes to capturing and keeping the attention of children, game designers appear to be getting something that schools, in many cases, are getting wrong. When your child works through the levels of a complex game, a person is decoding its ‘internal design grammar’ and this is a form of critical thinking.

Our children are already engaging themselves using social network sites and blogs shouldn’t we be teaching them how to do all of these things responsibly?  The  technology  is not what needs to be taught.  It’s the moral codes of behavior that require teaching, by example and by specific use.  How else can they learn their roles and the impact they have with their contributions?  We, as parents, need to teach them how to interact with more thought and purpose.  We need to be there to discuss what they read and find in this medium. It’s our job to help them handle how they are influenced by what has been written and what they write.  By using games we may be able to do so in a fun way while engaging in the world they live in.

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