STEM games … is that it?

In recent years, access to media has undergone a transformation as mobile devices (e.g., smartphones and tablets) now allow families to provide their child with screen time opportunities throughout the day. One of the biggest concerns around this is the total time children spend doing it with the suggested message that they could/should be doing something else, such as playing sport, reading, homework or walking the dog – which is better for them. This assumes any of us can live in outside the media-machine anymore.

The media has been telling us the media (not theirs, the other guy’s media) is bad for society. Therefore, more screen time means more games, which will make you fat, lazy, anti-social and addicted to [insert seven deadly sins]. No longer can you only throw birds at pigs – or something like – you must also watch a movie about it while eating angry-birds popcorn and cola. It’s only a matter of time before Minecraft gets a movie … I mean, it’s a no brainer in terms of rendering power – and I bet Steve is voiced by that guy who played Lex Luther in Superman vs Batman.

This franchise consumerism becomes the media reality for children who endlessly sample and drop games. So kids are learning not to try harder, try again or get another chance … they are learning to quit and move on because it’s easy.

Rather then worrying about children playing games, parents should be worried about why 40% of children stop playing the game within 24 hours and despite all the micropayment options to ‘buy’ success (see raft of Internet articles about parents losing thousands of dollars on vitual game goodies) – the average ‘value’ of micropayment games is five bucks – ever. Where Jane McGoniswhatsername made a tidy fortune from her obligatory ‘gamification’ TED talk, painting an image of a generation of un-tapped gamers ready to save the world. Nope, the reality is that online games are wireless (app) games are played and rejected all the time. Kids are trying LOTs of games and persisting with FEW. PC games continue to be in decline and consoles need to invent new user experiences (ie – virtual reality headsets etc.,) to remain competitive with the ‘casual gamer’ phenomenon.

So where are we in education this week – still banging on about Minecraft Edumacation. The Australian game industry is expected to increase at a 7.3 percent compound annual rate to $2.4 billion in 2016 and what is the ‘innovation agenda’ – an hour of code, making up some games in OER applications such as Scratch and offering a STEM competition to students. Let’s be clear, Australia is: early adopting; good at making games; great at animation; is a multi-billion dollar part of the estimated $40 billion dollar global industry and we have one competition, for kids – about 4 in a group who will win some yet to be announced prize. At the same time, the government is talking about ‘innovation’ and STEM and politically campaigning on some ‘apply here’ funding for STEM projects — as though schools haven’t thought of it.

And how can I forget, the BIG one – schools are going to teach kids to swim too.

In summary, we have kids who play, but most drop out of in their first or second play session. We have a constallation of games with very little research to know which are good or bad for learning (or anything else) and we’re going to focus on a) making stuff in Minecraft Education (swoon) or doing an hour of code (off the clock) and hoping some teachers with run after school projects to win a (unknown) STEM prize for a game — which will almost certainly be edumacational.

It’s been a frustrating week in my head … or maybe I’m cranky as Overwatch beta closed. It’s time we addressed this — it’s time we stopped pretending and decided whether or not we want students to have a real in-school experience and shot at the interactive entertainment jobs (of the future) or not. Time, money and resources (a three word slogan).

p.s. Overwatch is out on the 23rd and you should buy shares in Blizzard before then (as if I know anything about the share market).

Gumboots and Gobblins

Screen time is a big deal. Right now the games industry is about to tip over the $100 billion dollar revenue point and shows no sign of slowing down. This isn’t the ‘true’ figure because so much of the revenue around games is concealed inside subtle categories. It’s easy to see a game in a store, easy to check a shipping manifesto and compare to inventory and sales figures.

The reality is that the figures we see about the screen time associated with games deals with the ‘tip’ of a very deep iceburg. The games industry has learned that DLC, add-ons, season passes, apps and special events rake in billions more dollars and billions more hours of play. The thin research we have about games (yes, it’s microscopic in comparison to what we know about other phenomenon such as TV) is barely a flag on top of that ice-burg.

When you hear that kids spend 2 hours on ‘games’ a day – you have to be well aware what they meant by ‘game’ in the first place. Sure my kid clocked 10 hours on Saturday playing Overwatch, but he’d spend 50 more watching YouTube about Overwatch before we got our beta-keys. Clearly this is a game which will take full advantage of the vast marketing and digital content sales for Blizzard Activision. And why not, it’s a great game – and instant FPS brawler thats funny, draws from other game culture and lore with endless options in the future.

Some recent research is suggesting 6-8 hours a day of screen-time is now the norm and might well explain the issues facing teachers – even those using technology – to keep their attention when needed, get them to be quiet when needed and not phase out as soon as some critical thinking is called for. At the same time, parents seem to increasingly see school as an ‘app’ – it’s an email away or a text – for the duration, they have bought a season-pass to learning much as they subscribe to Xbox Live. Busy lives, demanding workplaces, consumerism, hater-culture, neo-liberalism — call it what you like — but ‘the media’ that lashes at schools today is not the same as 5 years ago — and yet there teacher culture seems to not really grasp the ingredients of media and instead focuses on selecting a few ‘apps’ and Google shoes to wade about in the rising tide of online culture which permeates the thinking (or not thinking) of season-pass holding parents.

Of course this isn’t a universal truth, however the screen time we insist is necessary just might be the thing that sinks us.




There is one big issue with video games. Almost all of the discussion about children and video games attempts to work out which games are good and which are bad. This is not the discussion which is happening in education. Games are not commonplace. Where games are used, teachers appear to be choosing snow-globe-games like Minecraft in order to once  remain in control of children’s media experiences with little knowledge of what is happening at home. In this post, I’m looking at some on-going issues with the discourse about school-allowed-games and the growing problem of building snow-globe-ecosystems for chldren, while teachers still guard the communication avenues between them.

The focus of school-allowed-games is on their representational qualities and not their interactive ones. In education, the established ‘cool’ allowed-game is of course Minecraft.

Teachers (on the whole) approach it  though its material properties and then look for signs of engagement and then describe connections with that particular day’s curriculum objective. Well done! you own a snow globe and can tweet about it.

The problem with the above approach is that video games  exist as a metaverse of experiences comprised of both human and non-human actors as part of a broader network which is co-developing with other media and technologies. Recent studies show that almost 40% of children aged zero to five play video games and 90% watch television. We also know that parental regulation of video games is based on parents own experience of television and computer regulation. The shift is that interactive media entertainment is a post 2007 phenomenon, induced by the advent of the iPhone. Children don’t play one game – they play many games. For example: Blizzard Activision have 50 million subscribers to Warcraft, Hearthstone and Destiny. Two universes in their eco-system. Minecraft is part of the Microsoft eco-system and so it’s fairly obvious why Minecraft Education Edition is being pushed into classrooms by Microsofts paid-for-teacher advocates. Blizzard Activition don’t make word-processors, spreadsheets, search engines and so forth, nor to they offer a gateway to paid-TV, film and music.

You don’t have to be a games scholar to see why Warcraft is seen by educators as ‘too hard’ or why kids are not allowed to play two hours of Destiny a day. They should. They don’t need to have lesson plans and make derpy posters about it either. The academic value of these two games is much stronger than Minecraft … but it’s the wrong snow-globe. This is how utterly insane the situation is.

Using Minecraft as the game we play in class demonstrates a lack of understanding of children and the media. it might impress other teachers who are somewhat interested in technology, but this is like only using Edmodo or reading the same book over and over. Children enjoy Minecraft. Whether they are learning anything specific is far less clear. It appears to me the evidence of their learning is something which is represented by teachers through symbolic artifacts. It appears to me that teachers don’t see video games (on the whole) as an anthology of play at all, and might benefit from reading  John Dewey’s book “Art as Experience” because that is how children are interacting with games at a very young age. Using their cognitive knowledge of games to play Minecraft and then to interpret what they do as learning – though external objects, discussions and so forth doesn’t begin to tap into their media experience, and there’s a possibility that games like Minecraft are allowed in order to put a media-wall around children (again) which more represents the knowledge, attitude and self-image of the teacher.

Children should play many games, just like they should learn to use several pencils, paints and brushes. I am skeptical of the claimed benefits of playing Minecraft in the classroom where it’s not part of a much broader (and deeper) interest in transmedia literacy and supporting their well being though the act of play.


Not only that … Minecraft Education is a gateway drug to Microsoft’s broader eco-system. So in effect, the transmedia vision is broken, what we have are a series of snow-globes within which children exist in schools. Take this image for example, it visually depicts what is happening … SNOW GLOBE LEARNING … less and less transmedia literacy and more artificial creations of ‘teacher run universes’ rather than a ‘metaverse’ which (if you know anything about education and virtual worlds) is the whole point – and what is happening out of school – art as experience (1934).

Need or Greed?

In a large class of a hundred or so students, I wanted to find a way to allow them to organise the space and resources for an end of term class Expo. It’s the first time I’ve done this, so I thought I’d share what I was doing, it might be of use.

First, I have a large open space with four work-zones. One has traditional tables (seating 6) per table, another bean-bags called Kloudsacks which sit (or prop up) 3/4 kids, another with high tables and stools (each sits 4) and a kind of air-port style lounge which looks like a long strip of bendy licorice. Overall, students sit in one or other as they need during the day. We have some portable wipeboards, three fixed projector screens and a portable. The rooms is about the size of 3 traditional classrooms overall.

At the end of a project session, the kids have work to display and written folios. The two things are largely interchangeable, with the display a summary of the folio. The display as 3-5 images with descriptions (about the project) and a reflection statement about what they learned, hated, saw as valuable etc., With 100+ kids, we don’t have a uniform way of setting this up and so eveyone has to share.

The problem is: How do 100 people dicuss and share irregular resources so the whole group comes up with the best overall expo of their work?

The solution is to use some technology to help. First, I used Warcraft’s basic “need or greed” mechanic to talke to kids about what we have to share around. Next they used Padlet to describe in one sentence (per project) what they needed to display. This was a great way of seeing who had 1 project and who had many. I should say that people didn’t have to display anything if they didn’t want to – and zero kids chose that option.

The process was to use QR codes and iPad Readers.  I used DemoQRacy to allow them to choose Display one, Display many or Display none. All they had to do was vote. They then split into two groups and sanned two more QR codes which Padlet generates. It took them to one or two discussion boards online. We used the multi-jectors to show them the codes in two slides. Overall this took about 15 minutes to complete and get the groups together.

If needs needed to have something: it means they could not display without it or any other way. This promotes a lot of critical thinking and lateral thinking about their own work. If kids greeded something, it means they it would enhanse their display, but they realised it wasn’t needed or that they would get it.

Next one teacher worked with a self-selecting group of 8 kids on each committee who then read the padlets and draw a floor plan. The floor plans then came together and a final one agreed. The needs came first and then the greeds. The greeds were allocated by a dice roll (as per Warcraft’s mechanic).

All up, the expo was designed and planned in about 30 minutes, with everyone critically thinking about what they will be doing on the day itself. Of course we have a few students who might not have too much to display — so we created a ‘crew’ option for those kids who will hand in work privately and want to be part of the assemmply and organisation, working for those displaying in the afternoon.

The long-term plan for this is about assessment. We will have a Week 10 Expo of all out PBL projects. This is for peer review and comment, public display and to allow teachers who team-teach to team-assess student work.

There are a few benefits here besides the kids expo. It gives us time to see take a holistic look at their work and it allows us to re-think parent-teacher communication and culture. The expo allows parents and kids to think about the whole groups work – and not the ‘selected few’ that schools often try and pass off as ‘what our school is’. Most of all, it speeds up the end-event-marking, as we get an whole day to assess kids as they set up their displays.

Need or greed expos … give it a go.

The unGamed Classroom

I will freely admit that I have no time for SocMediaEdu types anymore. It’s like watching a weird cabaret featuring the neo-Von Trapp singers. I wince at the ego driven need to be at the ‘cool’ conference, simply to churn our a  cover of someone else’s song. ix years on from Minecraft’s initial steps into

Six years on from Minecraft’s initial steps into game-culture, some teachers  are now using it to advance their acclaimed innovator persona, who can ‘show’ other teachers how to integrate it into the syllabus in their classroom. Of course, you can. Who am I to argue?

Well actually I will argue against this because on the scale of what is needed – what can be done – and what IS being done, it’s feckless. What we students need, especially as they start high school, are teachers who can provide an evidenced based media-education in Stage 3, which expands in Stage 4 and 5 with an obvious and deliberate articulation into their studies and work practices in Stage 6. I think Jenny Luca has been working on this for over a decade – so there are good examples, but Jenny never rode the wagon to do this and has had to fight tooth and nail for it. You can see this in her blog which goes back numerous years. Lasting,

Evidence-based improvement isn’t built off a pithy or snarky Twitter account, nor playing the most popular game in children’s entertainment (oh the irony).

Schools need to start their functional ‘digital’ skills development in Kinder with a well set out program that is well communicated the whole learning community. That means keyboard skills, discussions about the fundamentals of interactive media – including entertainment media. Schools need teachers who can create, chart and support a progressive program of ‘apps’ which develop communication, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking — and not ones which attempt to ‘simplify’ the teaching process or swap paper and books for digital text and screens.

I have time for novelty. Games are unique and any fool claiming they are integrating Minecraft has missed the entire point. Even worse, there are those claiming to do PBL who are then ‘gamifying’ it with technology. Take Class Craft for example: loots MMORPG culture and delivers a faux-behaviour system. Doesn’t take into account the mindset of middle schoolers and is passed off as a tool for teachers. It’s another creepy tree house, another deadly sin of the forced education system.

I’m talking here about kids, mostly between 10 and 14, who learn best through interaction, play and being allowed explore in ways that allow them to learn about the social and physical world around them. Kids who are not broken or disadvantaged and those for which school and society so far, has not failed them or their parents and community. Part of their daily choices could well be to use a game like Minecraft to express themselves and their understanding of the syllabus demands. It does not signify a post-modern education nor that the teacher is a rebel who’s shredding the cultural-norms and prepared to fly the bird to the establishment. In fact, I’d argue there are numerous principals and executives who use these rebels as part of their own frustrated identity as a counter-culture school leader – with an eye on higher office. Bollocks, the rules for accreditation, for maintaining school records and other modernist paraphernalia have not changed – and Minecraft

Bollox, the rules for accreditation, for maintaining school records and other modernist paraphernalia have not changed – and Minecraft won’t change it either.

My beef is that there are precious few hours in school to allow ‘play and exploration’ and these must compete with much more mundane foundational skills – typing, logging on, remembering your email, resetting passwords and other boring system-driven literacies which are part of the technological society. This is the job of teachers at the baseline of primary school – and most do it very well. Then we have libraries who have always been the vanguard. You only have to attend a library teacher event to see that they are +2 years in front of the twitterari and have been since 42 things was put online a decade ago.

Libraries are great places to play. Librarians can synthesise play – they understand education and information theory wth the skills and resources to make a trip to the library amazing . In the last decade, and around the world, it’s libraries which have done the best work in educational gaming.

My point is that games are part of the broader interactive entertainment industry, and few games have successfully been converted or shovelled into educational settings. The educational world doesn’t have a sufficient supply of Peggy Sheehy and Lucas Gillispie types, but it does have numerous cover-acts these days. Again, Peggy and Lucas have neen doing this for over a decade and didn’t stand on anyone’s shoulders to do it. There is a constant need to find ‘new’ games, and ‘new’ ideas and sadly this is getting harder to see as the stream is overflowing with cover-bands.

Today’s 10-14 year olds know games. Over 70% of kids play them on a daily basis in Australia. Prescribing ‘game play’ such as ‘use Minecraft to” type teacher-crap has no effect on their attainment (happy to see evidence) whereas providing time for ‘media education’ does. And by that, I don’t mean ‘cyber safety’ and ‘risk’ which is learning  about ‘the internet’ and ‘cyber weirdo/haters’ with fear, loathing and drudgery.

If you want kids to play Minecraft, just put it on their iPad or computer and let them connect. Don’t ask why and don’t prescribe what to do. If you are any good at teaching, then the kids will by choosing their own expression and building their own agency. They will choose or not choose to select Minecraft and will be able to defend their choice. Anytime I see kids using the same app at the same time – I know that the essential voice and choice – a founding principle of enquiry – has been sold-out for teacher driven hubris. I’ll put money on the fact they are tweeting about it and will be using those kids to boost their ego at some conference too.

The unGamed classroom uses game techniques at times where the teacher sees contextual opportunities – because they have studied and played games most of their lives – like Lucas. It’s not something they need to think about, it’s something they can just do because they have the knowledge, insight and skill to do it. On the other hand, there are those who Tweet their ass off about how cool they are … and they are part of the problem.

We have a screen-time problem. Teachers are un-regulated and un-accountable for the time they insist kids spend using them. They claim they ‘have a balance’, but few schools or departments actively keep records and consider the most recent research findings and recommendations. Kids love games like Minecraft – but not all kids, and not all kids find them relaxing or fun. Some become anxious because their parents are anxious — and the home is already a place where arguments about game-time is a common event.

I can’t say this enough right now – schools need a media-education strategy, not a technology policy – and were all just at the BEGINNING of figuring out that that is. Or at least we should be. Over in the corner, some teachers are messing about with games and tweeting about it, and that is disruptive — but not because they are cool-punk neo-leaders, but because they are wasting kids time.


Enrichment Projects


I really liked this graphic from Kim Cofino as it captures the ‘vibe’ that I’ve been trying to establish in my classroom. I always find myself taking a moment when students ask me about A-E grades, even though my school doesn’t use them in K-8. I generally try and explain the project in terms of agency — what will you know and be able to do at the end of this — and why would you care or put that to work.

Despite the subtle naming of formative assessments in education, the bell curve always feels present as does the cultural pressure to compare students within a school and with the external ‘average’. It’s always felt odd that ‘the average’ is so present in teaching – whether this student is below, above or just average. The context is glossed over.

The niggling internal voice shouts: what are you doing to combat the tractor-beam of ‘average’. What am I (and my awesome colleagues) able to do and facilitate that smashes right though that?

This term, we’ve been running an ‘enrichment’ aka ‘passion project’ where students get to choose from three things

  • Learn a new skill
  • Make something new
  • Help someone

On a Friday, students spend a few hours a week working on their project with no external pressure. We work in an open classroom, with 4 teachers and about 100 students, and so there are no obvious subject lines to cross, nor any obvious physical space-barriers.

The in-built elements of ‘enrichment projects’ are quite small – learning about setting SMART goals and organising a parent-facing expo. The range of project ideas is vast, and it reminds me constantly how narrow formal education is — and has to be — to function in its current form.

The passion project is a great way to experience the power of intrinsic motivation – as students use the Internet and their own peer/parent connections. More than that, I think that investing a few hours a week in it, builds a lot of capital with the students in mandated content areas as students see teachers stepping out of their conceptual subject-role and become collaborators and supporters.

Whether the idea is simple – to learn to juggle or complicated – build a platformer in Unity the passion project/enrichment project presents students with a real opportunity to move past compliance — and grade stress (real or imagined). This weekly session allows us to look more deeply at student 4Cs (creativity, collaboration, critical thinking and communication) skills in a context of interest, engagement and motivation as Kim points out.


Trust vs Use networks

There are moments in one’s professional life that stand at signposts. Like many people, I tend to live in the now to near future and generally find living life ‘in trust’ of other people is the ‘code’ most useful to a sense of purpose and balance. There is probably a personality trait for this, however, it’s one that I’m beginning to think I don’t want to pass onto my children.

People are not universally geared to ‘doing the right thing’ by other people. It seems this is variable in almost all societies. Some people are more interested in themselves, what they want etc., than others and they reveal this is a variable which emerges over time – some sooner than others. There are times where I (and I’m not alone) invest many many hours in something we are doing — trusting that it’s the right thing to do — and that over time, the extra (often unpaid and unseen) time spent will be well spent and provide some assurance of on-going benefit. This isn’t the case. After decades of trying this, I’ve learned finally that while many people have the ‘code’ around ‘doing the right thing’ – others have adapted their self-interest ‘code’ to mimic it — and you get let down or excluded.

This is something I want my own kids to be aware of as my own kids get older. The digital world is full of people whom we think we ‘know’ but in reality rarely see and only know through their self-image online, which we also know is constructed. Cyber safety is not simply about physical harm and threat — it’s about a foggy word of real work, where sometimes the total investment made will have no return at all unless you make people value it.

The problem is that this is very hard to do in reality and being prepared to jettison people from the personal-network is now a finger press, no come-back option. This creates real problem in building trust-networks vs use-networks. How do kids know which they are getting involved in when so many are offering the blue-pill and it takes time (and effort) – sometimes a long time — to recognize the reality of what they’ve been doing – perhaps for years. There’s no rewind in cyberspace.