Why pen and paper are imaginative tools

IMG_6056Recently, I’ve been working on a class technology project which aims to help kids understand how creative projects come about and the processes that designers go through to generate ideas and turn those ideas into prototypes. This is foundational in middle school technology, a cycle of innovation, design thinking etc.,

I might not have mentioned that I’m working at the International Football School on the Central Coast, which is the first school of it’s type and academically uses a unique form of project based learning. I’ve been involved in PBL for quite a while and as I roll to the end of term one, I thought I’d post about the on-going PBL challenge.

The main ‘new’ skill for students is being able to negotiate ideas and distribute tasks. in a group. It’s something many adults struggle with, not least those for whom ‘distributed leadership’ means not being in total control. My middle-schoolers are therefore just beginning to come to grips with project management (high-school) with it’s competing priorities, disagreements, unfamiliar terms and deadlines.

To help develop the necessary collaborative skills and work ethics, I’d like to introduce you to a technology called pen and paper (not available on the app store).

Pen and paper is la lean in technology. Unlike a screen, I never see kids learning back and gazing at paper. Movement is really important to learning, despite schools tendency to prefer static bums on seats. Active learning still a hands on activity, and not always a hands on glass activity. Kids are fascinated by what other kids are making in real time. Comments and idea flow without any special effort, as one kid will respond and mediate the flurry of ideas on offer. No one has to be amazingly gifted at drawing or have a developed digital literacy skill-set to use paper. Yes we could used an online sketchbook, and the kids could sign-up sign in and draw on a screen at the same time — but there’s one BIG reason not to do this. Creating ideas and bringing them into reality is exactly the kind of creative life-drama that kids love. It’s an opportunity to disagree without rage-quitting, losing face and to actively observe how others find new ideas and patterns as they emerge.

Paper also allows choice. In this task, the games they are designing need to teach the main points of topics they have also been working on in either geography, maths, science and English. This means that there is good reason to get out of your seat and move around to see what other groups are doing. In this case, the kids are making a simple RPG, and just out of this frame, others are creating a kind of Maths themed Twister. This is of course a PBL school in open learning spaces, where team-teaching really does mean co-player, co-protagonist much of the time. Pen and paper are super fast to use and kids generally have parent-supplied pens and other goodies ready to go.

Give it a try, pen and paper, still rocking the imagination. No batteries required.

Why isn’t that kid on task!

Student engagement is such as hot topic these days. With a wave of the Magic iWand, today’s youth can move from work avoider to engaged entrepreneur according to the buzzy world of edtech. It seems every off-task work avoider can be won over, if only we knew a guy who knows the right app to do it. I don’t buy into this at all. Teaching is hard and it’s always been hard. High school kids do not walk into school with a neutral work ethic, nor is there some gear-change moment that teachers are supposed to spot. Not all kids like the topic or the subject at hand, nor do their siblings or parents for that matter.

There are groupings of students and there are groups of students. Finding the sweet-spot assumes that at some point, by some method or incantation, that teaching and learning can be a stable pursuit. Attempting to separate motivation, attitude, belief and effort from learning is as useful as trying to guess the lottery. Moving kids from one grouping to another requires a careful hand — and not based on a score or a grade. We can put children into any number of groups, but not solve the wicked problem itself. For example, if your classroom is attempting to be PBL, but the mindset of separating kids is though behaviour+marks, then the exercise is futile and unlikely to improve one thing without de-stablising another.

When people thrust “data” from some form on “test” about comprehension, cognition etc., then this is like trying to weigh a pig to see how happy it is … unless your classroom is designed to operate in sync with the test itself. I guess cookie-cutter classrooms and tests are one way to represent education to the public, but not engagement. Are the kids disengaged or just tuned to other channels?

The problem is not ‘education’ or what content is used in it, but the fact that students are increasingly under the illusion that advances in technology has brought them on-tap knowledge and endless choices about what they do and when they do it. I’m sure that the ‘dose-response’ taking hold among societies technological users is eroding the basic need to get onto a task, figure it out and bring it home. That’s not engagement, that’s a battle with consumerism and behavioural conditioning that we might not be winning, despite our ability to draw circles.

How games can highlight under teacher underperformance.

It is often said that games are motivating and fun. Although this may well be true, if we’re going to put them to use in school, the reality is that assessment drives curriculum and this drives content. Decades of research explains why many (not all) teachers teach the way they do . In this canon of evidence, norm-referenced assessment and information transmission stands out. Basically this means that feedback from assessment, tells ‘low-performing’ students they are ‘low performing’ students.

From this, students are placed in lower ability-groups, where most are left to function at that level. This used to be the way parents were convinced their children were dumb, until parents started to notice that millions of kids were playing VERY complicated games which required cognitive skills and information processes which — according to schools — they didn’t have. Schools have attempted to ban games of course. They need games to be seen as an outsider-media, lurking in the shadows to make kids dumb. Sadly, this myth has been debunked. Even the media, who have been negative about games for decades now publish stories of how games are helping kids break the cycle of poor-talent-skill-knowledge identification.

This to me is what Minecraft has really achieved in society. Granted it emerged at a particular epoch, but at a time where governments are wondering what to do with education, here we have a game which clearly shows kids are being wrongly labelled, and worse they self-identity with being a low-performer as though the world they will now enter works like it did in the 1960s. If you’re a parent of a ‘low-performer’ then you probably see your kid effortly playing very very complex games. Do not buy into the false idea that games are for dummies, a waste of time or signal a lifetime of time-wasting. I’m going to set out why this is a deliberate and convenient myth.

So how can a ‘low performer’ level cap in Destiny or build an amazing cityscape in Minecraft?

Parents open the school report to see their child has been operating at the ‘limited’ level (again) and so the circle turns. Go up to the teacher and challenge them — how come my child is limited, when she can build this? Chances are the video-game is being blamed for distracting the child – or worse that the game is a crutch for low performing kids – who presumably can’t read books etc.,

What rubbish! The reason the school report is an unreliable tool that is over-rated. It doesn’t detail whether or not the teacher understands how metacognitive, reflective and imaginative education could lift any child from the perceived cycle of poor-performance. It just says poor performance is the outcome of the classroom strategy. Once again, the child who is a poor performer – can also successfully play video games which require higher levels of performance and cognition than are needed information transmission based classroom. To get around this problem, teachers try to stream kids, which another way of saying reaffirm on a daily basis that you are not very good and should never be asked to think about relational or applied problems. No wonder she likes Minecraft, there’s no such garbage happening.

So why don’t teachers fix the problem? One reason is culture, the other is training. Research tells us over and over why teachers adopt the strategies they do, so I’m not letting the cat out the bag to when I say, low performance is an intended outcome of teaching sadly.

A better approach to using and designing games to break this cycle involves teaching as involving conceptual change/development intentions with student focused strategies (Trigwell & Prosser, 2013). This means that the teacher is focused on the gap between the current position of the child and the NEXT desired position. They are NOT focused on the next question, the next topic to get through or the next fact or powerpoint slide. Learning is intertextual and multimodal, yet teachers press ahead with strategies we know reinforce and trap kids in a cycle of low-performance identity. What crap, I’ve seen ‘low performing’ kids solve problems in games that their teachers couldn’t do — and perhaps this is why kids are awarded ‘detentions’ for playing games, rather than being rewarded for saying “why can you not teach me like this”. In effect, game playing behaviour is an indicator of teacher performance. Ouch.

For example, using Minecraft, Myst, Portal or other entertainment games towards can be intentionally used towards educational goals, The authors contend that literacy relies not only on the content within each element, but also each element’s position, relationships among elements, as well as aspects of the reader. This position can be further understood using the SOLO taxonomy.

In an extensive review of teacher assessment strategies, Biggs (1998) argues teachers tend to use practices that encourage low cognitive level activities such as recall of isolated items of knowledge, norm-referenced in such a way that feedback confirms their low ability and  assessment within this encourages students to mediate their own effort in assessment tasks, (which define the curriculum). Students  adopti cue-seeking behaviours to avoid what Biggs calls the backwash. ie, for those who perceive themselves as ‘low performers’, in classrooms where transmission of information is the dominant teacher strategy, their ability to improve is hampered by the backwash of assessment itself. Cue-seeking is a sign of pedagogical confusion or poor alignment rather than intelligence. Contrastingly, where metacognition and reflection are part of the learning process “students themselves, without teacher help can focus on the gap between their actual position, and the desired position, until the the calendar dictates when the calendar must stop” (p.107).

When we think about game-playing, where fun and immersion drive metacognitive, reflective experiences such as World of Warcraft, Destiny, Halo, Guild Wars, Lord or the Rings and so on – players are almost entirely focused on the gap between current position and the ‘next level’. The game, or rather information processes in the game, are entirely designed to give feedback to the player such that no external ‘judge’ is required.

This isn’t an easy fix and this is a blog post which has gleefully skipped over a raft of ‘challenges’ that can be put up – however, if a parent is reading ‘limited’ on a report and the kid can finish a AAA game in a weekend, then how can that be?

Biggs, J. (1998). Assessment and Classroom Learning: a role for summative assessment? Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, 5(1), 103–110. http://doi.org/10.1080/0969595980050106

Trigwell, K., & Prosser, M. (2013). Qualitative variation in constructive alignment in curriculum design. Higher Education, 67(2), 141–154. http://doi.org/10.1007/s10734-013-9701-1

The search for ipad apps

I must admit to being ‘new’ to using iPads. I’ve owned one since day one, but since working in University, iPads were something people brought in out of choice. Now, I’m on the hunt for apps! I can’t believe I even said that, but as my middle schoolers all have iPad mini’s then I have to come up with whole new workflows and to be honest, they ain’t computers.

I’m tapping this out on my new, second hand, MacBook Air, and it’s great! My Surface sits on the floor, right next to my iPad2 and Mr14s kitten. I’m awake because my stupid brain is trying to resolve the conundrum of using iPads to teach some basic programming. It’s a week or so from Easter and I’m obsessing about June’s project already. Welcome to my head.

For example: I want to get them coding and making games, so I want to use something amazing such as Code Combat as I want to them to start some hands-on action in Python. Roadblock one is of course the generic iOS problem, cost and two is that an iPad isn’t really a computer so there has to be an ‘app’ between the user and the code. Despite their being plenty of useful tutorials for learning to program, such as Python the hard way, there’s no access to Terminal etc., so the hunt begins for a work around. I liked the idea of Udemy Python for beginners app but it’s no where near as appealing as code combat when it comes to the all important motivation of 12/13 year olds. Programming looks hard to many kids, and it’s not made any easier by beginning on an iPad. Having tried to use the ‘web’ with a couple of kids keen to try the ‘hour of code’, screen lock ups were common.

This puts me back in the hunt for apps. Perhaps try Hopscotch for the ‘hour of code‘ – Hopscotch is intended to familiarise kids with the world of programming, but they don’t write actual code. But he will learn how to make a simple play button, or a tap on the screen lead to an actual action, so in that way it’s ‘like’ Scratch but hasn’t got quite the depth. The more I look into the world of iPad apps, the more problems emerge.

  • The are not as good as desktop computers for interpreting code
  • They don’t have a real keyboard
  • They don’t have “Terminal’ like access
  • Programming resources which are free on computers, cost money as apps.

This leads me to wonder what the advantages of iPads are over cheap PC notebooks these days. The price point seems similar, yet there is this niggling on-going ‘fee’ problem and along with it, iPad editions of ‘web’ things seem convoluted, cut down or ‘crashy’. For example, I do like Sploder for getting kids thinking about and making games. It’s been around since 2007 at least as takes a sensible approach. It’s free online, and costs $1.99 for the iPad. I understand the commercial realities of developing software, however for those using iPads there appears to be a persistent cost which is more easily circumvented using a computer.

As a computing teacher, I get this feeling that I’m going to walking on egg-shells. Nothing turns kids off programming and making as fast as awkward or wonky UI, and that seems to be what happens with ‘apps’. For example: Given Google’s brilliance and wealth, why can’t kids insert a freaking image into a Google Doc. Why is that SO hard? This feature is basic word-processing, available since the 1980s. Just use the desktop? Yeah, as long as you have tiny and accurate fingers to navigate Google’s minuscule ‘dismiss’ notices and other hit and miss navigation. It’s frustrating when it should be easy.

I’m beginning to think iPads are adept at getting consumers to pay a premium for software which is actually inferior to what is often free and more useful on a computer.

I don’t think these things are cheaper in the long run either. They do have long battery life and they are highly portable, but they are more useful to receive information (and consume) than they are to create it. Just about everything has to have a work around and often a compromise. Then there is the ‘open in another app’ lottery. Sending data from one app to another requires chanting. There is often no obvious reason it fails to arrive as expected. The idea of “open in” or being able to locate a file in a folder is just too un-cool?

I don’t doubt that iPads can do many things that a few years ago were not possible – and for many teaching purposes they are great. However, I don’t live in ‘a few years ago’ and right now, I’m yearning for a 30 slot computer lab, because I’m unconvinced that in STEM or Visual Arts that iPads are a better option. I’m also dirty on cheap end laptops too. I bought a $400 Acer for my youngest child last year. It can barely open a window without calling time-out and sits somewhere on a bedroom floor abandoned. I’m not saying iPads are crap and PCs are better — just that entry level devices have been wrongly and frequently described is liberating learning when in fact they bring new challenges in schools, which didn’t occur in the era og computer-labs. In BYOD classrooms, the problems appears to get worse as the teacher has to do twice the preparation, twice the research and effectively know twice as many work arounds, hot fixes etc., just to keep a learning session running.

I’ll never moan about a computer lab again … the ability to image 30 machines over a network, run the LMS, configure the desktop, share data easily  … now those were the days … and don’t get me started on how bad Turn It in is on iPad or how Edmodo lags out or screen loops … some days things that should be simple are elusive, yet at the same time, watching a hundred iPads hit the internet in a lesson is still a marvellous thing. I just wonder if BYOD is more about returning to the world of computing …

Me and Conferences

Conferences come in two main forms to me. The first are events which are organised and orientated to educational institutions. These are not events which Universities or Educational Authorities sponsor, they are events where the scholarship of teaching or other field is discussed in the context of evidence based research.

The other forms are commercial. They are driven by revenue and as such resort to marketing routines, hire talent (keynotes get paid $10k-100k at some of these in Australia). They are glitzy events which are marketed to teachers using consumer messages and popular culture. The organisers are driven by profit and the speaker motivated by their fees. I am sure that many scholars whom have earned their place in the ‘edtech’ royal family have got where they are though scholarship and institutions. Good luck to them, they have every right to charge a fee and try to motivate the crowd. I am not sure the fees being demanded are warranted, but in the market, if event companies are willing to pay it, and people can afford to pay to listen, then thats just the neoliberal free market in action.

But most teachers can’t afford to go to glitzy events – time and money being the key barriers. This is perhaps not a bad thing, as the also-ran, self made experts who often fill out the speaker list, are neither scholars nor remotely qualified in adult education. Perhaps that’s why they lecture their audiences, safe in the knowledge that any push back or comment is likely to be made via Twitter (echo) and most people in the room will simply say nothing should they disagree.

There is disagreement in academic conferences – plenty of it – but the work people are doing is based on a deep and well understood process of research, data-sharing and re-evaluation, which is probably why academics don’t take too much notice of 140 systems. I really don’t believe that the money spent on glitzy events is warranted, given the reduction in funding for innovation, research and so on. We are buying into dogmatic, powerpoint driven information transmission, which ironically is what many of these ‘presos’ claim are the problem. Let me put this in perspective. A lecture is worth about $200 in Australia at best. A day’s casual teaching is worth $350.

Anyone paying some fly in, fly out ‘preso’ dropper thousands of dollars for what is little more than public knowledge is removing money from schools. This conference market is not real, it’s entirely being invented by software, hardware, events management and consultants – who claim these things are filling some gap, or offering some new insight that organic meetups and academic events are too stupid to know about.

Do yourself a favour, just visit your online peers in real life, its cheaper and more fun. Pay for a Masters – it will improve your teaching and career or take a course online for a hundred bucks. Even better, go attend something out of your field and learn something new.

So that’s me and conferences. I don’t agree ‘edtech’ events should be without criticism and I accept that they make money and attract people who are motivated by it. I like meeting folks, I like sharing ideas, but I am not about to pay $1000 for a ticket, when I can organise my own peer-event for $50 a head and still have a muffin. Boom.

Minecraft and Education 2015

For a long time now, education has discussed and experimented with immersion in virtual worlds, often with far more success and innovation than counterparts who have moved from office automation to cloud automation.

In virtual worlds, the potential for learning and teaching lies in the unique archetypes they continue to offer. Despite some mentions in popular reports such as Horizon, few educators to date have really found the time or interest in online, virtual communities (beyond Twitter).

Before Minecraft emerged as the ‘new’ way to learn in classrooms, games were wrapped up in cultural controversies about addiction, violence and other ‘media effects’ and so numerous projects in virtual worlds were largely ignored. Not because they didn’t work, but because the media-market which has grown out of Twitter focused (and sold) easier solutions to teachers. While some of us were busy in virtual worlds, others were making pithy YouTube videos, drawing long bows about ‘digital literacies’, creating endless Nings and writing blogs about lists of ‘apps’.

Minecraft isn’t in education. It is ‘in’ the public discourse about games and society. It’s aesthetic qualities are easily recognised by adults as ‘legos’ and it’s naturalistic biome seems pleasant in comparison with more dystopian games. Minecraft is popular in education for two cultural consumer reasons: 1 – It doesn’t scare parents significantly and 2 – it’s different enough for some teacher-users to attract attention and money. It is not in education because it has passed through the critical eye of virtual-world research, or because sufficient K12 research has been conducted to make any determination as to it’s value in school.

To be realistic, schools are not particularly open to games or reform. Minecraft is a game made by adults for adults and as such has no particular value as a ‘serious game’. What children may or may not learn from it is subjective. This is also subjected by broader media interest in the game, the creator and the billion dollar industry that Microsoft paid for – and into. Microsoft will use it’s claimed Educational value, as the relative cost outlay is tiny and inconsequential. The corporate-social-capital of snagging the ‘experts’ in a room has been a routine tradition in attempting to valorise claims, rather than get into any academic research.

Microsoft isn’t overly interested in game based learning, or at least it isn’t in Australia. I wasted my time with Microsoft once around Project Spark. They’ didn’t even return emails to a request they made to me. Aside from trying to show how ‘cutting edge’ they are there’s nothing to suggest Microsoft is overly interested in games and game based learning (enough to fund it) but happy to show how ‘edgy’ they are and use it in marketing messages. This isn’t news to people who have been working on games and virtual worlds for the last decade or so, but let’s not assume that everyone agrees to go along with the corporate marketing messages. I know Microsoft doesn’t care what I think and I’m fine with that. At the same time, I’m not about to give them (or other) a free ride into academia either. I would not be doing my job if I did.

Now don’t get me wrong here, I do think Minecraft has educational value to children. I just don’t believe converting the game into an educational narrative has merit yet. People make money out of this and it is part of the wider efforts of corporations to position their products as ‘part of childhood’ — where childhood is itself a story we tell ourselves. It’s not real. If your child is playing Minecraft, then the good news is that the archetypes in the game do show positive signs for learning, imagination and creativity. There’s nothing to suggest that any other media-computer time would be better or worse.

If they are playing in school, then the question is who’s really benefitting? Is it the child or some company executives and stock holders. What are they not learning? and why do teachers and schools feel the need to make specific mention of their Minecraft use

What I didn’t see coming out of the recent Minecraft summit in Los Angeles was new research or new funding for that research. To be fair, aside from a Facebook photo, I don’t know what it was about at all. And maybe that’s the point of marketing these days – to tell us nothing memorable enough to get us to ask questions. I am sure everyone had a great time talking about Minecraft … but what was made in Minecraft and where were the legions of kids who play it?

This seems the tragedy of ed-tech. It consumes technology and media as though they might be educational (and that’s enough to use it) but fails to address longstanding research questions about whether or not this investment has or is improving schools and society beyond them. Do schools need as much reform as entertainment media has faced from games and if so, what media education is needed?

Beyond educational research, consumer research is telling is of massive shifts in societal interest in game-like media experiences – that people like to buy DLC, that they self-identify with certain game titles and cultures. The question is not ‘what digital literacies does Minecraft offer’, but what does Mincraft culture say about how dubious the popular trope called “digital literacy” is. Minecraft has become central to the ‘talk-fest’ about games and game based learning, based on almost no evidence or research.

For parents and teachers, the questions to be asked remain around whether or not children and schools offer a well rounded, de-branded media education and on what basis do we bother to listen to people who don’t backup their claims with any real evidence. I wonder if playing “The Escapist” would be just as useful.