How I learned to love games in the classroom – or, conversion by Derek Robertson

I’ve always been a sceptic about the use of off-the-shelf computer games in the classroom (in other words, pre-existing games not designed for education being used in schools). This is even after working on a Futurelab-sponsored “thought leader” panel about it. My doubts stemmed from a number of things:

  • The sloppy thinking that “you can just put the learning in” – I’ve seen one prominent commentator describe how he thinks that French questions should be inserted into an existing action-adventure game at key points in the action, forcing the student to answer them before they can continue. This apparently would make it educational. In fact, it would be positively damaging: the whole point of an action-adventure game is the visceral experience. Stopping that experience ruins the game and demonizes the learning. It may be possible to integrate the French into the plot somehow – but that requires developing the game with that in mind from the beginning, and ensuring that it fits seamlessly into a compelling story and experience. Shoehorning sucks.
  • Many of the games ideas that I have seen, implemented or not, have contained an inherent dishonesty. The idea is that the learning gets “hidden” – that kids won’t notice that they are learning about history while they are playing a game. This is a recipe for disaster. Make the learning necessary for the game, but be honest about it. Kids of every age spot the lies very, very quickly.
  • The limits of simulations. There has been some interesting and good work in schools with a range of simulations – from SimCity to Theme Park – but several issues emerged. It took the teachers a very long time to work out the way the game worked, and where they did, even more time to embed them into meaningful lessons. More profoundly, though, I have always worried that however interesting the simulation, it never reflects the true, sometimes fickle complexity of reality. Additionally, there is often a rather frustrating relationship between the fidelity of the simulation and its usability.
  • Scalability and transferability. Almost all of the work I have seen or read about depended on an a charismatic and motivated teacher delivering great lessons. Arguably, these teachers could have delivered a great lesson with a carrot and a piece of string, never mind a computer game – the success of the teaching depended on an individual, not the resources they were using. I have rarely seen examples of work which could be used without that fantastic teacher.

But. I’m writing after the Handheld Learning conference this week, where on both days I saw Derek Robertson from Learning and Teaching Scotland’s Consolarium speak about his work across a wide range of Scottish schools. I also saw a teacher from a London LA talking about how she has re-applied one strand of Derek’s work (with the Nintendo DS and the Dr. Kawashima Brain Age game) in her school. All of the numerous examples Derek gave of his projects – from Guitar Hero to Endless Ocean – seemed honest, well thought through, compelling and – and here’s the important bit – scalable.

I even challenged Derek on a big issue for me about projects involving ICT. I always wonder how much the novelty and attention which kids automatically get from being involved in a project with computer games and learning increases their motivation and focus automatically. Derek’s great answer was: why shouldn’t kids get new things all the time? And what’s wrong with giving them attention? Fair cop, particularly if you are working for an organisation which has institutionalised that novelty and attention by providing Derek and his colleagues as an ongoing resource.

It strikes me that the key things about Derek’s work are the following:

  • Selection. Derek chooses – very carefully- the games which he works with for their potential for use in the classroom. Strangely, Grand Theft Auto hasn’t featured in his work yet…
  • Derek’s notion of a “contextual hub”. Derek doesn’t just push the games (and their associated devices) into the classroom. He spends a lot of time working up how the games can be used, and building extensive activities around them. So, when working with Nintendogs the children got so excited with dogs in general that they wrote about dogs, read about dogs, made pictures of dogs, and even got the local dog warden in to understand how you should treat and look after a real dog.

There’s a challenge here for those of us who develop software for education – to match the way in which off-the-shelf computer games engage their users (mercifully, this isn’t just a question of production values and money, although they obviously play a part). It’s this motivational quality that Derek is so successfully harnessing in his work. Guitar Hero offers a great context for learning, if you have the imagination. Off-the-shelf games are going to provide a fantastic – but by definition patchy – set of resources for teaching. Let’s make sure the dedicated resources that people like me develop learn from the games and from Derek’s work with them.

Beyond Inclusion

Jonathan Hassell at the BBC – who I worked closely with on a project for blind learners – has an interesting idea about accessibility which I think deserves wider hearing. It sits – sometimes uncomfortably, for me at least – alongside an often-peddled notion that “designing something to be accessible will mean that it’s more usable for everybody”. This is true up to a point – yes, we all have our own preferences, learning styles and limitations, and if mine happens to be the need to see something in a larger font and that’s supported by the software, all well and good. But there are limits to this, and people and organisations seem scared to admit it. I suspect this is mostly because it would make them admit the compromises they’ve had to make in designing their offerings – and in a highly sensitive area, this can attract the wrong sort of attention.

Accessibility is vital and should be “designed in” – included, even – from the beginning of a project. But designing accessible products is an art as much as a rigorous process and science. You can’t just tick a bunch of boxes – pragmatic and specific decisions, and often compromises, have to be made about what you can afford and what’s reasonable for a specific project. Sometimes, websites or CD-ROMs have to have less than perfect accessibility to deliver a really great experience for the majority of users, or to fit within the commercial constraints of the initiative. Equally, some projects need to be the reverse – specifically designed for certain disabilities or needs of a minority, and providing a more limited experience for the rest of us. This latter point is what I understand Jonathan to mean by “beyond inclusion”. The best projects, of course, admit all of this up front and have the budget to allow for the creation of separate experiences or versions for particular disabilities where they just can’t be catered for by the “main” version – but such budgets are few and far between.

There was nothing like seeing the face of a six-year old blind learner experiencing a product which was designed precisely for her needs. She could unpack all of the layers of sound we had provided in our resource in ways which, as a sighted person with less attuned hearing, I simply couldn’t. If we’re aiming for excellence in our electronic learning materials, we should acknowledge that sometimes accessibility in its widest sense will be limited – for the minority or the majority.

Jonathan’s holding an event about this at BAFTA on June 30th, if you’re interested.

The myth of "free"

There’s been a lot of discussion about “free” at the moment – a debate in BECTA’s ICTRN email list, and Wired journalist Chris Anderson’s notion of “freeconomics”, examined in this Guardian article. The ICTRN discussion focussed around the apparent demise of free electronic educational resources on the internet, and the supposed benefits of open source; the Wired notion is all about how you get some things supposedly for free, but there is generally a hidden agenda (mobile phone “free”, monthly contract £15 per month, for example).

Made me think a bit. Fundamentally, and rather obviously, the key point is that nothing is free. The important debate is about who pays, when, what their motivations are – and what sort of market and products and services the chosen system creates. To dissect the current situation in electronic educational materials:

  • we all pay for publishers’ materials indirectly, via the money, targets and incentives that the DCSF distributes to schools (see below on this blog for more on how the market for educational resources in schools in the UK is incomparable to a much closer-to-free market such as that for wheat or potatoes);
  • the DCSF and other government bodies create materials using our taxpayers’ money and to their own political agendas (for example the materials for the strategies);
  • we all pay for the BBC and its free materials via the licence fee;
  • schools and colleges create materials for themselves, and sometimes others, which are also effectively at the taxpayer’s expense (as we pay teachers for their time);
  • there is nothing much “open source” in terms of software designed specifically for the UK schools market that I am aware of – Moodle and other VLEs are much more international (and often higher education oriented) in their focus. This is almost certainly because the creation of educational software is culturally very specific, time-consuming, difficult and expensive. Even if there were lots of such material, it would still have been paid for somehow – in people’s time and in the computing resources that they have devoted to their work.

Since the demise of BBC jam the debate about what sort of electronic materials and services we want for our schools seems to have been absorbed into the wider debate about what sort of education system we want in general, and how technology does (and doesn’t) help us to get there (for example in Futurelab’s Beyond Current Horizons programme). In many ways, this is entirely appropriate and sensible – but we should not lose sight of the myths and agendas which have shaped people’s attitudes to the current market.

Marc Prensky, computer games and "digital natives"

You’ll notice I’ve got a bit of a posting frenzy on today – I have come out of a long tunnel of projects and pitches, and wanted to start blogging again, particularly given that I wanted to comment on the cancellation of Jam as per below. This marks my first non-Jam related post – breathe a sigh of relief.

Late last year I went to the Handheld Learning conference. Mark Prensky was one of the keynote speakers, and his notion that kids are digital natives and the rest of us are digital immigrants was aired (again). He was – perhaps unsurprisingly – talking about his latest book, “DON’T BOTHER ME, MOM — I’M LEARNING” : How Computer and Video Games Are Preparing Your Kids For Twenty-first Century Success — and How You Can Help! His presentation was charismatic – but, frankly, a little patronising in places.

Prensky’s ideas are helpful – but I think, only up to a point. They seem to have been unthinkingly accepted as universally true, without a lot of research. I even saw them in a document distributed by an LA to its primary schools the other day. Yes, lots of kids are naturals with the technology. Yes, they are often much more savvy with digital devices than their teachers, and many end up helping their teachers and parents with their Word woes. But – there are lots of kids out there who don’t like the technology, or aren’t interested in it: just as there are girls that like football, and men that like ballet. My (utterly unresearched) opinion is that there are plenty of kids who think that computer games are really dull (in most cases, my view as well). Computer games are not a cure-all for educating our kids in the 21st century. It’s simplistic and lazy to accept Prensky’s ideas unquestioningly. Let’s challenge them a lot more.

The film I really wanted to make…

Those of you who know me will know about my interest in things Tibetan and Bhutanese, following my travels to Tibet in my gap year seventeen (gulp) years ago. As part of the Religious Education project for BBC Jam, we were going to make a film about young people in Bhutan and their changing attitudes to society, religion and the Bhutanese concept of Gross National Happiness. I’m bittersweet that somebody has made a film close to our idea, and it’s available online. It’s well worth watching here – Christof Putzel has made a thought-provoking film.

One year on, the BBC have cancelled Jam forever

The sharp-eyed amongst you may have spotted the BBC Trust’s effective complete cancellation of Jam, with a few caveats, published on 27th February. This is very sad. I hope that at least the SEN materials (some of which we are proud to have worked on) will see the light of day. Thus far, we have not seen very full details of the BBC’s plans to “meet its educational purpose for children and young people by enhancing its existing portfolio with some new online educational initiatives which are skills based”. I hope they are brave and big, in line with my post of a year ago.

At the moment, it feels like corporate greed has won the day, and removed any space in the market for the development of truly innovative and exciting public service educational online materials. As I have said previously, commercial publishers can create good stuff, but I firmly believe that there is material which can and should be created as a public service, and for which there will never be a commercial market. I suspect David Attenborough would agree, given his comments about the BBC last night (and I share many of his views as reported, by the way!).