After Minecraft comes … Project Spark

When I discovered Minecraft circa 2010 when it was a little known ‘beta’ game. It immediately struck me has having archetypes which could be put to work in education (institutional and self-directed). I enjoyed and learned so much in the next couple of years as part of what was then the largest indie-educational game community I co-founded. The time was made all the more enjoyable as I was playing along side my kids at home to conduct some “deschooling activities”. I maintain the things we achieved (such as presenting our framework and methods at Games for Change and Dundee University) would have never have happened though current institutional practices and culture. But time moves on and though Minecraft has become huge in education, next-gen technology is bringing even more opportunities.

So where next? what (if anything) comes after Minecraft which could promote similar opportunities? I think it’s called Project Spark, and I’ve been busy with the beta for a while, and I’m even more pleased to say had access to Microsoft to look at how to take this into ‘educational’ realms. In short PS gives you the tools to create your own game, and build entire interactive worlds full of heroes and monsters. The game has been in beta for 10 months — and some of the early versions did suck. Microsoft listened and has come out with what I think is the next ‘big’ game for schools, especially post-middle school — but of course those interested in finding out about game-based-learning, not just ‘using’ PS to make games.

The full game is due out in October on Win 8.1 and XBONE. The first DLC will be a sci-fi tool pack called “Galaxies: First Contact” and there will also be great campaign adventure called “Champions Quest” Void Storm”.

I highly prefer the XBONE arrangement and would advocate for schools to seriously consider buying a console over a computer to run PS. The game itself is (will be) free, but expect there to be ‘paid’ content available. I don’t see this as an issue as people now buy content and DLC all the time.

You’ll be seeing me doing a lot of work around Project Spark in the future … because it’s EPIC.

Games as deschooling

I’ve just written an article for a US publication about why schools should take games more seriously than they do. I argue the incumbent ideology and culture of institutionalized education can no longer ignore their influence on learning. In many ways there are associations with much of the de-schooling critical discourses of the 1970s by people such as John Holt and Ivan Illich. As my research into family negotiations of play continues, it’s quite clear to me at least that play is not the opposite of work and therefore schools are not avoiding play because it is frivolous and un-productive.

In the 70s, Illich argued, self-directed education, supported by strong-ties in social relations IN fluid social informal arrangements de-institutionalises society and empowers all who want to share what they know, find those who want to learn it from resources anyone can access.

Now consider who has fabricated MOOCs — institutions. With great bravado they have set about constructing a rhetorical framework around what is already essentially a public reference service, skills exchange based on peers, curiosity and interests. That is called a Learning Network in my view.

It’s little wonder that games must be tamed … as we start to look deeper into their culture, we see just how radical and dangerous they have become. With 98% of people playing them, and half of those playing networked games, they become an entirely new educational funnel — and perhaps for many adults, they reverse much of the social shaping that institutionalised education imposed.

Where do you start with GBL?

I get this question all the time. Now editors have stopped attacking games because games now pay their wages … people who used to ignore games are warming up to the idea. Yay for games.

First I say that games will not, and do not want to be integrated into your classroom the way people have climbed on the Apple and Google product ladder. Games come with culture — and require a lot of rethinking. I’d argue that GBL is a higher level of practice than PBL, so I don’t imagine I’ll be run over with requests for school training for a while.

So … the first step starts with you and how you choose to represent yourself and games.

Games are unique in they challenge our cultural understanding of the value of play itself. To use games, educators have so firmly believe (and publicly declare) play is not the opposite of work and will also enrich, not diminish schooling. This requires not only proof, but also first hand experience and courage in the part of schools, administrators and teachers.

Video Games are part of the connected presence

In the last decade, recreational video games have been a special interest topic for media discussion for both their material content and their influence on families. It wasn’t until the advent of smart-phones and the commercial marketplaces of iTunes and Google Play that video-games established themselves as the most popular way to spend leisure time with technology.

The media have been forced to rethink their editorial attitude to a lengthy and sustained attack on video games due to their immense social popularity and billion dollar revenues. It wasn’t hackers or teenagers downloading music and television that has re-defined new media business models, it is video games. Video games occupy so much of people’s time and money that they are increasingly being positively reported. The editor might still hate them, but has learned that game coverage and advertising adds much needed buoyancy to their sinking ships. It no long pays to slag off video games — or video gamers. The much claimed causality between addiction and violence has never been established unlike the flow of income from video-games.

The concerns parents hold are valid — the quality of interpersonal relationships, the time children want to spend playing games created a profoundly new domesticity with everyone in the house owning at least one device and willing to challenge generational attitudes and boundaries. The question of whether video games are good or bad is facile in light of the fact 98% of people play video games at some level on a computer, phone, tablet or console. Many humans do appear to struggle to self-mediate new media. Whether you’re a user or an abstainer, no one can miss the uncertainty and concerns people have for a society fixated on screens. Having said that, the ambition and greed of technology developers and media networks shows no sign of slowing — or being regulated. Add to that an ongoing refusal of educators to adopt ‘media studies’ in schooling and un-restrained enthusiasm of some that “everything is awesome” when it comes to technology and media and any worries about Grand Theft Auto pale into the distance.

The connected presence: family and friends; game-communities and personal social media tribes impacts the quality of interpersonal relationships. To me, it’s strange that so much media (and teacher media chat) is applied to working out what is good or bad, as though there is some human action at the civic level which could now separate them. If you’re building a personal learning network — then you are doing so because video-games have succeeded and not because some social elites have finally decided communication is useful.

Whether you identify as a gamer or not — the connected presence that exists in society today – Facebook, Twitter, Tinder, SnapChat, Instagram and so on is there because video-games have provided substantial models, ideas and revenue. So stop thinking that you’re in the 2% that don’t play games … it’s highly unlikely.


For my daughter

For my daugher

Archie arrived today. A handsome English Springer, which my gorgeous daughter will love and show. Theres so much she’ll learn and so much she’ll grow by having Archie around. I could not be happier — and figure I’d share the love.

Classroom motivation


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Okay, this only works if students actually have or are allowed to use a device, but it doesn’t mean the teacher needs to be using technology in the lesson. I use the Pomodoro Method a fair bit personally. My brain like to have too many tabs open, and it helps me stay focused and motivated on a task — even if it’s boring. I happen to like the 20mins on, 10 mins off routine and in the case of learning with technology in the classroom, I’d also recommend alternating between 20mins using device and 10mins off AS WELL AS 20mins off and 10mins on. I think it allows for better workflows because you can set a ‘peak’ of activity as well as have some really clear deadlines and conclusions.

Pomodorium is a gamification variation with some nifty software that COULD help those students who seem to lack the ability to stay on task or focus. I grant you that if they are given some dull worksheet to complete they won’t begin to love science or geography, but I really think some kids — especially by mid-year in Year 8 are beginning to massively tune-out and simply idle the fifty minutes away.



This year has been quite challenging for many reasons. I’m terrible for listening to music on repeat and I’ve lost count how many times I’ve listened to Tegan and Sara this year on my two and half hour public transport commute.

Mobile Phones, Classrooms and Culture

It is incredibly disingenuous for conference experts to make claims about mobile phone benefits in classrooms. I know this is a popular verse, however what they fail to explain is — what cultural contexts are they talking about?

Firstly, phones are computers. They therefore have a potential to access and process information. Making this observation is facile in todays society, yet time and again I hear it used simply to drive their deterministic argument based mostly on their opinion rather than research or recent classroom experience. Throw shoes at the next person who trots this out as a crowd pleaser.

Secondly, mobile phones in many schools are simply a social-menace. Signs adorn classroom doors which children ignore, unable to stop fiddling with the magic portal to their more interesting (so they think) social life and right to communicate with whomever and whenever they want. Parents often fund these devices on a thin argument of ‘safety’, when actually it’s all about much more profound changes in society, related directly to communications and the politics of social filtering.

I won’t dispute some teachers, some schools and some cultures have made mobile phones work as part of blended learning. They become recognised as tools for particular purposes at certain times. Again, this will almost certainly be in places where teachers have learned about ‘blended learning’ and how to educate children on media usage. I would hypothesise these places will also be where BYO-MacbookPro has been normal for some time too.

In public education – post the DER and the non-supply of laptops – the single biggest rising technology is the photocopier (a billion dollar business) and the biggest single social problem is the mobile phone and the connected distractions they bring to students who are less motivated than those in wealthier schools with deeper pockets and supports.

Not only did schools not get Gonski funding, they also lost the DER funding which (if you have been in a classroom) has clearly had a huge impact on both how students learn and slowing of the considerable momentum which was gained. BYOD is nothing but a false promise without starting to address the current culture of mobile phones — as seen by children — and the regressive nature of school technology funding.

I would imagine teachers now spend several hours a week dealing with children who seem incapable of putting down a phone let alone using to Google an answer.

I can’t see at all how mobile phones can be removed, banished or disabled in classrooms, but equally without addressing the wider cultural and social divides which have emerged post DER, there is a new elephant in the room when it comes to classroom management as well as how to show teachers how to put blended learning into practice.

The Cool Blend for Learning


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The meta-verse seems to generate so many ‘new’ variations on any given theme these days that no one should be hard on another for mixing their descriptions, acronyms or buzz-terms. One reason for this is of course to make those dreaming up new terms discoverable through search — as search rewards those who generate new content. This post is about re-generating better courses from what has worked well in the past using cycles that are well proven in Blended Learning.

Regardless of your enthusiasm for one technology over another, or which pedagogy you believe best suits you and your students, there is one factor which separates a ‘fresh blend’ from one stewing on the stove of in-difference. I mention this because often courses are simply ‘rolled over’ like turning a bed-sheet rather than given a damn good airing. Another problem is that way too many EdTech’s tour the planet like some 70s prog-rock relic band churning out crowd pleasers.

The solution is quite simple: Each time a course is run, it goes though a development cycle in order to identify improvements, efficiencies and better experiences. This is fairly basic stuff for Educational Developers (ED)– they are used to pulling things apart, doing a spot of design thinking and coming up with new solutions. If you are not an ED-type, then you can still play along … when you’re reviewing your course – or thinking of a new one — then you should be looking at this list of elements in order to ‘blend’ your face to face efforts with your digital efforts.

  • Time (face to face vs online live / archived /pre-recorded lectures)
  • Place (online discussion circles, small group collaboration, virtual webinars, consultations)
  • People (guest lecturers, existing video/audio, off-campus and on-campus connectivity)
  • Resources (eReserve, digital collections, curations, playlists, online readings)
  • Activities (online quiz, collaborative production, self-paced, blogging)

Blended learning promotes good preparation and decision making about the course design and embedded technological components. As improvements are made to the technology itself, new opportunities are presented to enhance the learning experiences of students and to optimise the construction and maintenance of courses and resources.

So before you get carried away with cool-words flashing across Twitter, consider that creativity and ‘out-there’ thinking does not create the kind of robust improvements and revisions that often see success in business, products and … education. With so many exciting things going on, the cool courses are the ones which get regular maintenance and evolve with the times.



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