What does education want with games?

For some odd-cultural reason, education seemingly cannot engage with media-texts or information processes that are not self-evident of being a part of ‘life’ in the consumer society. Perhaps it is a need to feel apart from ordinary folk who are not teachers ordained by politicians and blessed with public money that does it. I don’t have a plausible explanation other than ‘EdTech’ has come to symbolise market driven education, and in persuit of that both corporate brands and the new neo-citizen brands that prowl social media. They both find it useful to pander to this separatist culture and establish that all important ‘niche’ from which they communicate their dangerously technological deterministic message.

I managed to fire off a burry-eyed Tweet this morning, commenting that another “EdTech” conference, which has called itself “TechEd” to be super-cool and different is on again today in Australia. Images of people in lines, with brands boasting about how ‘the cool people’ are willing to line up to attend what is basically another consumer electronics show. Watch out for the word “cool” in association with these messages because they signify “the uncool”. Games have of course been ‘un-cool’ in education for years. So what do these people want with thier “gamification” hashtags?

I argue that they want what they always want, more customers, more attention and more sales. Education does not move with the times and lives in 2008. It isn’t allowed to move on as the marketplace panders to adult literacies which barely reach that datum point — most are still struggling to use a computer that isn’t set up by technical support. As those are few and far between, the Internet has become the “sales assistants” for basic media-literacies. Games are amazingly complex. They would be mind-boggling to someone who still believes 50hours professional development ever five years is a ‘task’. Educational technology therefore creates “gamification” so that it can maximise the return and minimise the investment towards developing or even studying games that might help kids learn better than their blogs, wikis and podcast exercises.

Education wants game to be simple(r) to a point they can be backed into the existing dogmatic methods that was the genius-revolution of Web2.0 in schools. The issue is that while there are some great technologies on offer to schools, they are immediately labelled “pilot” or “experimental”, despite the fact virtually none of the ‘tools’ that are forced on kids have gone though any empirical process to work out if they have any benefit (sort term exam culture prevails) or in the long term. Games don’t have anything to prove in this regard. They are not by any stretch of the imagination ‘new’. Gamification is a product of mass-consumer culture and in essence, a bundle of tools for measuring and rewarding progess. Perhaps education hopes this new market will last long enough to make some more fly-in-fly-out cash, maybe they think it pumps oxygen into the dying mantra of Web2.0? Who knows what education wants — but I’m pretty sure it’s only a slim (tame-able) slither of what players want from a game.

What’s wrong with just putting games in classrooms and then figuring out what kids can do, what to do — and call it what it is – playing videogames, because it’s a great way to build one’s own technological and media literacy without a lesson plan.

Negotiations of Play


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I’m pleased to say that I’ve posted my project website for my thesis, called Negotiations of Play. This is designed to support parents and to capture the experiences of Australian parents and caregivers of children aged 4-12. Right now you can leave your email address if you want to notified of then the study commences. I expect that this will take about 12 months to collect.

Overall, there is no research into what parents and children think about online games or how parents mediate them in Australia. Much of the reports in mass media tend to discuss statistical data which they use to inductively to tell parents what they should or should not be doing. The dominant literature which voices concern focuses on, and extends the long running negative ‘media effects’ debate by experimental psychology. The positive often focuses on theories of ‘flow’ and the design of games and player behaviours, especially fun, motivation and enjoyment.

My approach is somewhat different in that I am interested in the broad negotiations between the media and families and inter-family conceptions of the role video games play in family life as media markets, which to me plays a key role in developing both adult and childrens literacy. The market benefits though reproductive process helping expand what games can do. Evidence of this can been seen in the rise of new forms of games which negates much of the ‘violence in games’ claims these days. I see what games do as establishing what I’m calling a neo leisure class. People in constant negotiation with game designers and media producers through the cultural production of their avatars and game-identities. In particular, I’m interested in network mediated culture which I think is largely ignored or overlooked in game-studies, yet as every Steam or Xboxer knows is an essential site for identity, socialising and play.

I have many people to thank for getting me to this point: Not least: My wife and kids and our household’s game characters – Vormamim, Vorsaken and LollykingOMG each of whom have played an important role in developing my interest in the issues and controversies of parenting the gamer generation. Then there are those whom I know in-game by gamer-tag (anonymously represented here). Next, those whom have contributed significantly to what I now call ‘work’ – the ones who I ‘talk to’ on Twitter, but also those who have been working on using games for over a decade in Australia: Judy O’Connell, Bron Stuckey, Jo Kay, Kerrie Johnson, Westley Field and countless others in Australia and overseas such as Derek Robinson and Peggy Sheehy, two people I see as key critical thinkers in what games can do to improve kids lives, especially those kids who are increasingly being marginalised by educational technology’s neoliberal-elitism.

Finally, and not least my PhD supers Professor Catharine Lumby and Dr. Kate Highfield who have been amazing in the last year of my life and lit the darkest of days when I’ve needed it most. A few more essentials, Dr. David Saltmarsh who has really expanded my thinking and coffee drinking and Mal Booth at UTS Library who shares a love of ink-pens, Alfas and innovation.

Born to buy #1

Moving the discussion of the role of brandification in education along … I must thank @dandonahoo for bring this article to my attention. Clay “Here comes everybody” Shirkey has banned devices and media in his classes. For the freshman, this in really important news. Shirky was quoted, re-quoted and used to justify the “shift” debate around 2007/8. This might be too early Twitter for some, but essentially, his stories and discussion about read/write and social connections was hugely influential on the vanguard of edtech. I won’t name names, suffice to day Shirky was considered a seminal figure in the movement to reform classrooms and numerous correlations drawn between “the crowd” and the emerging social-media communications of teachers who found credibility in the whole “web2.0″ debate.

This is what makes this story BIG news. Shirky’s idea (and book) is a cornerstone of the binary new media vs old media debate and without question has been the shoulders that the ISTE/ACEC famous held up as having ‘the future vision for education’. Shirky is a central cultural figure to the ‘early crowd’ interested in connecting ‘school’ and ‘media’ into ‘classroom visions’. In their eyes, consumer culture and mass communications could be tamed and held to account in educational uses/settings. It wasn’t just Shirky who had a had a “laissez-faire attitude towards technology use in the classroom”, schools have not fully appreciated the changes in media either. Reseach is increasingly critical of ‘screen time’ and exposing students to it whom have little ‘media education’ history and highly managed school and home time. [see link in the article].

And now, he has set up set up a pile of rules to be a media/tech filter himself, as his students are “distracted” and unable to manage time effectively [in his view].

I think the issue here is not that the principles of consumption/production have shifted, nor has the ideology of mass schooling. Teachers simply identified with Shirky’s observations and for a short time, the idea of connecting classrooms and using electronic communications was a) manageable b) limited to few software/services and c) relatively under exploited by mega-brands such as Apple, Google and Pearson.

Five years later, the explosion of media, devices and granularity of media subjects and modalities has resulted in as Shriky says “Those gains never materialize; instead, efficiency is degraded”.

In all sectors of education, students have been encouraged to bring in devices. While this is clearly politico-economic, another neoliberal step away from centralised provision and responsibility — we are experiencing elevated consumerism being presented as “more freedom”. This seems to be the central concern Shirky has with technology in his classroom — and wrestling with his other arguements that freedom can be assisted though technology (esp, regime change and information production).

The approach to technology in education so far has been seen/measured in terms of ‘adoption’, where students (with devices) are being counted and often used to justify educational rationales about what EdTech is, and why “we” should be doing X (usually X = things small groups like, benefit or control).

But 2014 isn’t like 2008. Media and devices are saturated with brand interference and consumerism. The distraction levels are alarming, because few students have ever had a media education as media scholars have argued is essential. What will be interesting now is whether or not, EdTech pays attention once again to their founding father … or whether the markting juggernaught of self-gratification resulting in brand/tool obsessive behavior can be tamed.

What if schools still believe what was true of 2004, 2008, 2010, 2012 is still true today? Low tech schooling is alive and well it seems.

Google Academy: Where’s the evidence? What’s the intent?

I dislike Google Teacher Academy (GTA). Not because I dislike the so called “free” products, or believe people should never meet, but because it is consumer public-theatre which in a neoliberal marketplace, deliberately creates winners and losers.

GTA works though behaviorism and follows decades of refinement by advertising and marketing theorists and practitioners. First, it uses a relational strategy (emotional broadcasts) then a transitional strategy (reviews, social media, search, in-group influencers, out-group ignorants) and finally the transactional strategy (direct and indirect sales).

Google Teacher Academy is a further example of the commodification of childhood. Without any empirical evidence, Google sets out to create competition among teachers, to create ‘aspirational value’ in it’s products and obedience with it’s ideology. It personifies this though the “every man” advertising representation. They select in-group personalities (with social influence) to defuse it’s consumer cultural agenda, because ‘every-man’ is someone just like us. Of course there is a pay-off for actors who amplify and fall into line in terms of financial and social capital (the biggest winners) and then there is everyone else — the losers.

Education is a civic institution. It is supposed to be about scholarship and resist commodification, question political-economic rhetoric and be alert to social-manipulation. Google actively attack these principles with GTA. In comparison, those researchers who are working to improve education are burdened with the task of collecting evidence and using human ethics. This doesn’t make them laggards, late adopters or other ‘out-group’ members. It makes them accountable, evidence based and ethical. Any claim that ‘research’ is out of step with culture, must first be very clear about what culture is — and what happens when corporations are not called to account. This is the subject of countless dystopian novels — the corporatisation of habitus, the removal of liberty.

I can’t imagine for a second that Google bothers itself with such things as it sets up it’s consumer theatricals in the name of ‘innovation’ and ‘elite teaching’. This is little more than a consumer-competition, like winning tickets to the circus by collecting tokens and writing a ‘tie-breaker’ limerick.

For me, the toolset isn’t important. Lots of people use Google’s toolset, so what? Its the false representation of behavioural marketing as scholarship that irks me. It does not promote new or better thinking, alternative solutions, but indoctrinates teachers and reduces the basic freedoms children are struggling to maintain

If I am wrong, please feel free to leave me references to studies/journals which show GTA has any benefit and more importantly how it’s design avoids harm. It obviously delivers Google and associates significant financial rewards.

10,000 off foot of distance

Without doubt, educational centres know what modern, connected, blended learning is. They know what is heading south of the wall too. However, calls for bravery have been said often and are ignored. No one listened to John Snow either and Winter is coming.

What prevents engagement are mindsets which are more interested in micro-culture and self importance than what the masses want and can already do. There is a mental separation which creates a misguided sense that the masses are not the elites, therefore need to be told what they want or are simply inconsequential.

You can be the most correct, most published, most viable candidate for job in theory and never engage a community enough for it to want to follow you. On the other hand, you can be someone who creates community because you see the mass as essential to cultural production and fill screens and rooms with you ideas.

How do you know if you’re engaging the community? Count the bums on seats not how brave the rhetoric is.

Minecraft and childrens consumption of media

I find it odd that adults often justify their children’s use of Minecraft as educational. What we know is that children have been targeted as subjects and sites of consumption, and that psychology has a close relationship with advertising. Games have significantly disrupted the political economic model of the ‘consumer society’ and its use of mass media. What challenges psychology is that games such as Minecraft defy their experimental designs and focus on individual behaviour and cognition.

Minecraft demands a focus on ‘the masses’ which psychology believes is detrimental, and is of course neither a politically neutral science or are their negative claims about games proven. Minecraft shifts the cultural focus from consumption to production. That is what freaks out mass media and advertising, and therefore spooks their friends in psychology. This is the worst case scenario of John Watsons followers … that people are not made happy and docile by consumption … they want to produce and change the corporeal and virtual world.

this is not a bad thing for childhood. it is far more significant than whether of not kids are learning about math. this is a battle for freedom.

Cool tools for schools?

In numerous posts, I’ve expressed a concern that “EdTech” reduces children’s freedom. I believe educators have a social responsibility to recognise this danger and take action to avoid it. The current marketplace is unsurprisingly built on consumer platforms, not educational theory.

Educational theory is not the exclusive domain for examining technology in the classroom, nor is it more correct. One obvious reason for this is the ongoing gendering of technological subjects themselves, despite education being painfully aware of the problem and causes. Try as we might, Piagian theories of childhood development (based on chronology, gender, class and ethnicity) fails to account of pre-teen media and marketing. Our experiences as consumers (teachers, parents, children) do not allow us to make choices the context of a ‘free’ market. This problem is compounded by narrow ideologies and approaches to school governance.

I also have have concerns about the use of the neovernacular term “PLN” (Personal Learning Network) to describe digitally mediated peer-network cultures, knowledge networks and so on. From what I have read on ‘popular’ academic blogs and seen in presentations, the PLN includes little discussion and makes no account for the symbolic group membership and display rituals. These are two key aspects of the marketplace and thereby influence cultural meanings and consumer actions. The very fact teachers feel a need to have (and talk about) a “PLN” is representative of consumer need to make social arrangements around both symbolic and material resources. The PLN is used as consumer-segregation and therefore better understood using consumer culture theory than educational theory. The PLN is a thematically used to separate the “cool” from the “uncool”, the enlightened from the ignorant masses. Not everyone can “have” a PLN, and membership is embedded in manifested products.

I argue that children’s freedoms are not simply being frozen by teachers who do not readily adopt technology (where it is available), but made worse though the symbolic neovernacular representations by sub-cultures which actively erode the potential of social responsibility and equity. Reading the messages teachers post on social-media, there is an observable gap between the symbolic and material resources of private and public education. If you like, “social media”, most notably Twitter, has become a site for erosion and any criticism is a taboo. The very idea that teachers and technology could be eroding children’s freedoms and limiting their media education is preposterous.

The Internet is a place where children actively construct narratives of gender, identity, class — and in turn how they discover themselves. The way in which this is orchestrated, the separatist nature of discussions (by domain, subject, technology, geography etc.,) is the evidence of the consumer culture dominating the actions of participants. Through this arrangement, I argue that commercial conflicts (Teachers who push/force/advocate for brands such as Google, Apple etc) clash with “citizenship”. Furthermore the use of online “sites” such as “Cool Tool for Teachers” is symbolic of the intentional separation of “winners” and “losers” by separating the “cool” from the “un-cool” using highly commercial social arrangements.

I realise this view won’t be popular, however as I said at the beginning, there are many ways to examine the impact of educational technology on society. I would like to point at rich data extracted from the billions of hours applied to “EdTech” as beneficial to learning. I can see sales figures, I can see teachers fighting each other to become branded elites, but I don’t see much in the way of researched benefits. To be taken seriously “EdTech” must produce reasonable evidence about how children use media in the school age years and outside of the context of their messy everyday lives — and to justify why this set of popular ‘cool tools’ and social arrangements (PLN etc)are not simply a result of commonly understood consumer marketing methods.

Last Orders: Flipped Classroom and dead pixels.

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The topic of flipped classrooms is one which I swear has followed me around this year like a black dog. I first heard someone say it in 2008, but no doubt someone has claimed credit for inventing it, which I can’t be remotely bothered to find out. Clarkson once said that Jaguar cars impress the neighbours … but only if the neighbours know nothing about cars. That seems to sum up how I feel about 99% of the representations of flipped classrooms.

The simplistic binary of moving media-based information to before class, thus allowing in class to be “more valuable” or “better used” largely assumes a false binary, or perhaps a lack of experience. The phrase is handed around with other buzzwords yet fails to address that many (of us) have been using media well for years. Our only failure was not to take the opportunity to valorize it in pursuit of power or reputation.

The use of lecture or classroom space to ‘deliver’ is not the fundamental challenge in school or university. We know that students have access to media — and we also know they are not (yet) as digitally savvy as the online edu-rhetoric (in flipped classrooms suggests). Flipped is constantly used as a token or signal for innovation and reform based on numerous unproven claims.

This also deliberately denies more broad discussion about casualisation, increased demands on curriculum and so on — which seem much more important than how you take your tea – one lump or two? Flipped classroom places advocates on a socially constructed pedestal and extends the technologically deterministic reform agenda ignoring the reality that amount of media-education students receive is decreasing in real terms – as is the time we spend trying to teach. The erosion of teaching-labour in the face or climbing demands and expectations is unsustainable. Ultimately it’s only those with a) a full time role and b) a full time work load that allows media creation time and learning about media who can do it. It seems that most of those talking about flipped classrooms are unburdened by things like casual-contracts, poor equipment and lack of media development training. So if you’re not getting cut-though on your flipped classroom agenda, then it’s perhaps that the corporeal world most of us live in has quite different pressures and priorities which we didn’t create and do our best to work within. We’re not media ignorant, laggards or late adopters.

Flipped classrooms will get you noticed it seems, like owning a Jag. Provided those clapping think Jags are cool. I’m not discussing ‘flipped classrooms’ anymore, it’s a dead-pixel.

Higher Ed 2024

from a recent Educause depiction of higher education in 2024 …

Library personnel, as well as other campus support staff, meet with students either online or offline. Hands-on learning occurs everywhere, in and out of classrooms. Old-fashioned maker culture and the digital world play off of each other, dialectically. Media classes (e.g., art, computer science, media, literature) combine media production with studies.

I winced at the vision of “other support staff” which maintains the upstairs/downstairs arrangement. This once again diminishes the value of non academic pay cheques. Who else is going to create this vision if not “librarians and other support staff”. Why assume they too would not find alternative arrangements … And be doing something else … Say working online, from home in global courses? This assumption that support staff are little more than a pit pony … Is deeply problematic, given this is a “futurist” expert view.

In a decade? This also seems optimistic given the drum beat of educational development so far. Without radical change in how people are employed and then progress in the meritocracy this vision seems to ignore the increasing casualisation, swing funding and resistencia of academics welded onto narrow technological and recruitment fairways.

Be nice if it happened, keep shuffling, there is a better future I’m sure.

Is PBL the better Flipped Classroom?

Background: I was very fortunate to have been at a school ten years ago where the boss introduced PBL (project based learning) following his sabbatical trip the USA.

Despite head-office skepticism, he pushed the agenda along, finding funds to send a few of us to some heavy-duty training in the USA. They furnished us with a US-Model of PBL, which we then set about adapting towards the AU system. It radically changed the school and the learning. This was one man willing to look at a new idea, but encountering many in the process. History represents this as an Institution system initiative, but that as anyone who was there will tell you — that’s just politiks — it was a smart leader who had a vision. As I’m also a designer and also teach arts and industrial tech … the rhetorical depiction of the ‘traditional classroom’ never lent itself to my experience, so for me PBL was a welcome extension of what I was already doing … and even now game-based learning is a step beyond PBL.

More recently, I’ve heard “Flipped Classrooms” being dragged out as “innovation”. This seems often to be on the basis of a “new-broom leader” trying to impress, rather than assuming all classrooms are chalk and talk. In fact, many of these depictions simply show these people are more adept at memorising and repeating pithy quotes and buzzwords that they are at creating student centered learning. Most teachers are not stuck in the 20th Century mindset, but they are continually depicted this way in order to validate someones assertions and importance.

For PBL teachers, flipped classrooms are absolutely nothing remarkable. For a start PBL is not regulated by modernist binaries of ‘classwork’ and ‘homework’ and uses media to prompt ideas and directions rather than instruct. I tend to assume those whom have delivered ‘expert’ content to novices in ‘traditional’ ways tend to fixed on one method and then set about arguing they have a better method. They don’t do what Brother Patrick did, and take a walk into the unknown with an open mind that what they find might be useful. Being correct and important all the time seems a terrible burden to carry — but useful if you’re a career-tribute I guess.

Can we teach PBL to pre-service teachers, using a PBL classroom? – Absolutely we can (and are). There is no reason to believe that pre-teachers are married to the methods they experienced in school as being the ones they will use. I find students are very adept at offering up better ways to learn, and seem troubled by the idea that they should become ‘like their teachers’. Every student can tell a story about a teacher that didn’t follow the 20th Century method which flipped-types use as a basis for their innovation. So before you blow a fortune on video or run up another playlist — consider that before “Flipped Classrooms” has been a method/model which has proven highly successful for decades, and gets even better if you use media in sympathy with modern times.


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