Education’s Digital Future—Gaming to Learn talk at Stanford University 2013

March 1, 2013 § 2 Comments

Even after three decades of research on combining digital games and learning in schools, the successful turnout at the talk showed that it is still a hot topic today.

The event was organized by the Stanford University Graduate School of Education as part of their departmental seminar and forum. It was also open to the public to allow greater discussion and debate. Indeed, the lecture theater was tightly packed with graduate students, professors, industry consultants, and even parents with babies. This diverse audience clearly shows that we still care about how we play and what we learn from it.

The forum invited four famous key speakers: Malcolm Bauer, Professor James Gee, Professor Dan Schwartz, and Professor Constance Steinkuehler. These speakers offered different perspectives, research interests, and thoughts on policy-making decisions, and shared current developments in the field. The brief answer to the question of what our digital future is: It is still in progress.

The panelists gave an optimistic report of what we have found so far—essentially, that games create good experiences, which may lead to more engagement, interest, and motivation to learn, plus practice at problem-solving skills. Mr. Bauer, the director of assessment at GlassLab Games, gave examples of how fun and learning can be connected through his son’s case of playing a game and solving mathematical problems.

But although there are possibilities and great potential, are these games going to be implemented in schools? The challenges we face today, as Professor Schwartz noted, are that the positive results seen with these games cannot match up with a school’s measurements of facts, normative explanations, and procedures. He stressed that we should measure what counts for good decision-making. On top of that, Professor Gee expressed that we should try to avoid creating games as digital textbooks, but rather use digital technology as an infinite space in which to have a collective intelligence. In other words, we should create a social networking space to discuss and solve problems. He then briefly listed his twenty-three rules for his “Big G” concept.

The forum was also given a little beacon of hope when Professor Steinkuehler mentioned that the Obama administration took an interest in this field two years ago. She stressed that games are architecture for engagement, which is key to learning. She ended on a high note, suggesting that there should be more collaboration among academic researchers, industries, and policy makers, who should work together to make this happen.

For me, this sounded slightly too optimistic and utopian, especially when Professor Mitchell Stevens in the crowd raised questions of desire and the problem of violent games. But I left the talk with one major question in mind: Why is it still so hard for mainstream education to accept digital game-based learning? Should “Big G” really be the solution, as Gee listed in his rules? Surely, there must be different sizes of ‘G’, as people learn things differently.

While I was frowning at this, another audience member walking next to me smiled and jokingly said, “It’s all part of the game.” I realized that even after thirty years of research and development, this field is still fascinating because we continue to question whether or how we should combine digital games and schools. There is no perfect formula for learning, but this solution just sounds more fun than others.

Event Link:


Be inspired by Sir Ken Robinson and RSAnimate!

February 1, 2011 § Leave a comment

As usual to begin with my digital morning, I woke up and checked my e-mail, updated my news from the BBC news website, and followed this with a brief visit to Facebook. Suddenly, I found a link to a talk entitled ‘Changing Education Paradigms’ in a friend’s most recent status. ‘The most amazing talk ever! This is what we need for our education!’ the comments stated, but on top of that, many others had ‘liked’ the status or reposted the link themselves. Somehow, the ‘like’ button has becomes today’s most trustworthy yet ambiguous star rating measurement, and so, seeing the sheer number of fans, I assumed the talk was something special.

The talk was presented in a form of an animation with Sir Ken Robinson’s voiceover, with occasional audience laughter in the background. It was a TED (Technology, Entertainment, and Design) conference speech that had been modified into an animation. The talk laid out the problems of today’s educational system, training children to be good worker rather than innovative thinkers. Robinson believes that more a creative learning system may solve the problems of high school drop-out rates, decreasing arts activity, and student ADHD.

Other than the content of the talk, what made this speech interesting was the use of instant animation (RSAnimate). RSA is short for ‘Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce’, which is a London-based society for social progress. The animation provides a great deal of information in comic sketches and descriptions, supported with voice narration. The talk was edited down to only 12 minutes, but it held my full attention for exactly this amount of time. I was enlightened, but also entertained. I know that without the animation I could still ‘survive’ this talk without falling asleep, as Robinson, after all, is a great public speaker with a subtle sense of humour. However, the pairing of this particular talk with the animation worked perfectly: Learning and teaching should be creative, after all.

After watching the animation, I said to myself, ‘This is not good, this is amazing!’ For the interested, I will let the animation speak for itself:

Why was the Christ the King school an Epic Fail?

January 20, 2011 § Leave a comment

Neil Selwyn of the Institute of Education has a very useful 9 point list of things that help make research into educational technology persuasive. It should be a starting point for anyone involved in trying to ensure technology plays an appropriate role in developing high quality education systems.  If Neil reduces his list  to 7 points and writes a book called ‘the Seven Habits of Highly Effective Education Technology Researchers’ he might even make his fortune. In the meantime, the considered use of technology is still not seen as a core issue in education policy making. Usually the issue is trivialised and educational technologies are seen as either a total distraction from ‘proper’ teaching and an embarrassing/expensive one at that – Christ the King school (in Huyton, Liverpool) being a prime example; or a cure-all for teaching students about living in a highly connected world, where showing eight year olds how to create a Powerpoint slide is seen as ‘embedding ICT in the curriculum’.

Christ the King school  was built as part of the previous government’s Building Schools for the Future programme and was jointly run by the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches with the aim of being a ‘palace for learning’. It replaced an existing but poorly performing school. Classrooms were designed as flexible learning spaces which would encourage a variety of styles of learning and teaching. The school itself had a curriculum heavily supported by digital technologies such as downloadable learning packages and teachers acting in a mentoring role. The initial cost of the school when it opened in 2009 was approximately £24 million. It is likely to close at the end of the school year as only 500 of its 900 places have been filled.

There are many reasons why the school didn’t work out in practice, and, despite the hysterical reaction in parts of the media, the ideas behind it are potentially promising. I think the fundamental reason why this school failed so spectacularly was that the ‘technical fix’ became the main design aim. The ideas behind the architecture and the role of digital technologies in bringing learning opportunities to students were all radical for the world of education but actually fairly standard for many large service-based companies.

The failure was in not creating an environment that everyone who used it would feel was a real school. The enrolment figures started off low and then continued to decline. This failure to place the technology and associated physical environment into something that the outsiders who mattered (parents) would recognise as a school that they wanted to be part of, but to direct all the attention to the vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty of whizzy technology will cost over £150 million in total. That, if nothing else, shows why educational technology research needs to be more considerate of Michael Cole’s recent observation that “massive change will only occur when…policy makers and the general public… fear for their lives if assembly line schooling… is allowed to continue”.

The school was a brave idea but not enough design effort was aimed at parents;  an understandably risk-averse group who are less interested in big ideas than in an educational environment that mirrors their own conception of what a ‘proper school’ should be like.

The ‘Google’ Gene

September 21, 2010 § Leave a comment

There is the argument that the genes of technological innovation are frequently in conflict with emotional intelligence. Successful technological innovation is all about disruption. On the other hand, effective emotional intelligence is all about collaboration, that means how you get like-minded people to achieve a common goal and enjoy it.

One of the companies that managed to coexist collaboration and disruptive innovation is Google. The planet has been Googled, with Google becoming part of our lives, like brushing our teeth. It has eliminated barriers to finding information and knowledge. While the Internet makes information available Google makes it accessible. While twenty years ago entrepreneurs would have said ‘I’d like to be the next Bill Gates and Microsoft’, today people’s great ambition is to be the next Google. It has become the place to go for information and probably the most visible service concocted by mankind.

Collaboration has also been central to Google. Indeed, Google is becoming what Microsoft was in 1998. Microsoft’s power was the ability to leverage its operating system to control the various applications that use the operating system. So, Microsoft offered a free browser to knock out the Netscape browser and attacked Java software that might facilitate competition with the underlying operating system. On the other hand, Google’s power extends to more than one layer of the network. Its power flows from a different source. Google produced an amazing machine for building data, and that data has its own ‘network effect’– the more people who use it, the more data generated. Everything sits on top of that layer, starting with search. Every time we search, we give Google some value because we pick a certain result. And every time we pick a result, Google learns something from that. So each time we do a search, we are adding value to Google’s database. One potential here is that the data layer is more dangerous from a policy perspective as it cuts across layers of human life.

So far, there haven’t been any concrete evidence that Google misbehaved in the way Microsoft misbehaved when they tried to leverage the operating system to protect themselves against competition. So, far they’ve been good guys. Yet, that leads to a question: Why do we expect them to be good guys from now till the end of time?

Like Microsoft, Google might become intoxicated by power and succumb to the same human failures. Theirs might be an old story about how good people deceive themselves. As Microsoft did in the nineties, you become so convinced that you are good that you become oblivious. Is this becoming true at Google today? Hopefully, the counter-argument that the genes of technological innovation exist in harmony with emotional intelligence would be exemplified by Google.

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