Blogger Problems

I’d write a blog post, but I’m worried I might be wasting my time as someone else is writing a different one – right now and that this one will become redundant. That would make me really sad and disconnected from my artificial-reality I’ve created.


Fortnite, Smart Phones in Schools and Gaming Addiction – the once in a decade perfect storm for a media panic.


There has been no lack of fuss recently about two things: the inclusion of ‘gaming disorder’ (IGD) in the DSM-5 and the media-frenzy around whether or not the game Fortnite is enslaving kids to hours of toxic experiences – through some sort of magical-compulsion.

There have been calls for ‘gaming addiction’ since the late 1990s. The loudest voices emerged from clinical psychology. To put this in context, those calling for it, have achieved only a secondary win. The primary goal has been to get a much broader “Internet disorder” classified. You can imagine the revenue that this would bring the field – if now you could seek treatment (for a fee) for being addicted to the Internet. The DSM-5 has caused more confusion than clarity regarding the disorder, reflected by researchers in the field contesting a supposedly reached consensus for IGD diagnosis. In addition, the DSM-5 remains vague regarding whether or not games need to be engaged in online, stating that IGD typically involves specific Internet games, but can also include offline games, adding to the lack of clarity. Much of this confusion surrounds the primary goal – Internet Addition – and an inability to be specific about what exactly happens on the Internet that creates ‘addiction’. If we take the ‘screen time’ measure — more than 2 hours a day online might well mean addiction – so just about every office worker would be eligible for a prize.

Attempts this week to draw a line between IGD and Fornite have been numerous. I won’t waste your time showing you the primitive (and doctored) ‘news’ that Channel Nine and the Seven Network we’re trying to pass off as fact. Suffice to say, Twitter was awash with academics and experts in media, psychology and gaming posting “WTF” in response to much of it. At one point, one of the ‘experts’ on TV resorted to claiming ‘seniority’ over EVERYONE that railed against the claims being made – choosing to place correctness on status rather than evidence. And that is the problem, there is far too much ‘status’ and money surrounding IGD, that we are seeing highly selective and often exaggerated claims – a return to moral panics about kids and games we haven’t seen in over a decade.

While IGD is not in the DSM-5, it is worth pointing out that there is no evidence to suggest that playing Fornite will make kids addicted in the way injecting chemicals into your arm might.  In fact, the DSM-5 sets out that IGD is (like many habitual behaviours) a condition that emerges from and with numerous other conditions – it becomes part of the cocktail of psychological issues and variable reactions some people have.

Nope, Fortnite is not going to addict anyone, despite the ‘experts’ who jumped onto the moral panic bandwagon, the added sound effects and editing of ‘clips’ shown to the TV masses waiting for bogans to argue on My House Rules – and obviously, people are now paid to give their opinion on the matter – which they quickly try to attach to ‘problems with smartphones is schools’ and ‘screentime’ as though no one is going to pick them up on it.

What makes Fortnite a massive hit? Well, it’s not that it has magical addicting pixels. It’s not that it’s played online with others as some sort of innovation.

If she’s now into Fornite – and the parent previously loved Minecraft, or their teacher made a big deal about how ‘cool’ Minecraft is for learning … then you’ve kind of missed the important point – this has never been about content. Minecraft gave her a way to experience and re-tell personal, often very vivid stories. This is exactly what Fornite does – but Fortnite has used the ‘building’ joy with the shooting other people joy – and kids who play Minecraft see a clear line between it and Fortnite – it’s a remediation of several designs which are in children’s media culture.

In addition, Fornite is a clever design. The entire industry is saying that while elements of the design are derivative – its weapons and gadgets invite experimentation and specialisation  — hardly a stone’s throw away from Minecraft. But we’re not about to see teachers play Fornite – because teachers avoided games with ‘content’ until they found a game which was so un-challenging socially — they declared it ‘the best’ and ‘new’ – and suddenly all the cool-teachers are into it — almost exclusively.

Lastly, Fornite is easy to play for beginners. I’m not saying you’ll win easily, but unlike many MOBAs, players don’t need to grind for days to get sufficient stuff to be competitive. The culture of Fornite is super-easy to engage with. For kids using Insta and other networks to share, create and find memes – Fornite has fast become the cultural icon for this generation – a post-COD, post-Lol=L, post DOTA2, post-Minecraft audience. Kids in into Minecraft are GOING TO GROW UP AND GET INTO MOBAs, just as sure as they’ll enter puberty. Sure it’s a cartoon chop-job of PubG – but PubG missed the landing point in comparison to Fornite’s multi-platform success.

Adding all this up, Fornite is not more addictive or dangerous – it’s just the latest leap in kid-game-culture. It’s allowed a return to media panics about ‘content’ and Internet trolls (as though they don’t exist in other online spaces their parents use). TV and newsprint love this stuff – it sells advertising and is an IV line into parental fears.

Fornite is the game we needed, a post-Minecraft entry point for FPS and casual games which allows for a massive kid to kid social connections at school as well as online at home. Every game giving kids the opportunity to tell and re-tell cultural-stories creating a new level of agency in their close-social-groups and re-writing the narrative of social-gaming. Of course some folk are not going to like this, Fornite has been a huge shock to the system.

It just so happens that the DSM-5, banning smart phones and Fornite media and moral panics happened in a short space of time – creating confusion – and for some – an opportunity that everyone’s lost their minds about it.

Personally, I love Fornite. I don’t play it much or well, but it has reduced the squeaker population in Overwatch, and for that, I am truly grateful.

In 2013, The USA officially recognised E-Sports tournament and battle royale players as ‘pro-athletes’ giving them entry to the country with a P-1 professional player visa as an ‘individual athlete’. This goes to show that E-Sports players are both professional and athletes in their game. Like other sports, E-Sports players train 10-12 hours a day while fans were already watching Twitch streams for an average of 3 hours.

There are a number of things needed to understand the development of skills to reach this level.

  1. Know the jargon
  2. Practising with AI and Bots daily.
  3. Play and Learn Together – winning and losing together generates a dialogue
  4. Watch the professionals, analyse their play styles not their revenue streams
  5. Find the best tricks and tips – know the pressure points, know the plays, know the hero
  6. Learn the map, know the right positioning and punish teams who don’t.
  7. Tune your settings for better performance with the gear you have – not whine about what you don’t have
  8. Play the game you enjoy and play best – be open to other games, but master your own
  9. Be a mindful, pleasant player people want to play with – toxic players don’t win enough to become professional.
  10. Get enough rest, put fuel in the tank – a healthy screen-time and lifestyle needs a new routine and to taken as seriously as the game you’re playing.

There is no doubt that professional players have a skill set that allows them to react, preduct and move in the game better than casual players. However, natural skill in any sport isn’t enough to access the top – even if the game is an all consuming passion. Most players are there to have fun and the game mechanic is working all the time to keep them in the game – just at the edge of what they can do. Professional players break out of this game-induced ‘fun’ cycle and allocate their time to a far more pragmatic and analytic approach, taking in this list of facets and reflecting on which they need to focus on to find that performance boost. Whether they are playing in a team or solo, there is a goal-driven purpose to the time they are spending in the game.

This seems the major challenge in shifting from casual player (which some talent) to professional – managing time and keeping note of any factor which has improved their game. This is hard when playing casual, as the motivation of other team members is perhaps not to become a professional player. At times people in games are there to have fun – or even find that fun – throwing the match – or playing a smurf account just for their own entertainment. This is a big problem in online games – it is hard to know what is motivating other players as the match-making is made by the system. On the other hand two or three ‘stack’ parties might have one good player who is carrying or coaching the others – so in effect, you’re left playing in a team of 2 or 3, while the stack is off in it’s on party-chat, doing what it wants with no thought about the goals of the rest of the team.

This all means that the pathway to professional player requires a rhobust, performance based approach wherein players can develop their skills in a controlled environment which limits the randomness of home-solo play. Playing with friends is great, but there’s no guarantee that the friends are good players. Because we like our friends, we will be more focused on fun than performance – as we don’t want to be harsh and lose social capital with people we spend time with regularly. On the other hand, we don’t have any relationship with match-making. We might, over time, play with the same ‘randoms’, but have no personal relationship with them. This means the overall game-play experience is  one of a surface-level, temporary engagement, which doesn’t allow players to have those deeper conversations about improvement. We know that most of the learning (in anything) happens after the event – in the conversations and reflections we have about what just happened. Even in a school-lesson, it’s those lessons that kids talk about after, which will have the most benefit and impact – regardless of the teacher’s intention for the class.

It’s not possible (or desirable) to play 10-12 hours of E-Sports in High School. The key word there is play. The majority of after school play is geared towards socialising with friends (the digital-connections which have happened along side the digital-society) and having fun – at you own point of interest.

74% of teens in Australia access their media content via a tablet and about the same own a mobile phone. This means we have  generation which doesn’t want to watch programmed TV and believes that rich-media content is primarly an ‘on demand’ experience. Kids spend 12 hours a week doing this according to recent research.  If we then add the 1:1 school experience, many kids are spending over 60 hours a week – consuming content on demand. It’s hardly a shock that kids are double-tabbing classes, pretending to be accessing the LMS for school work, while watching videos in the other.

E-Sports becomes a way to meet the students at their point of interest, create a career pathway but also to use thier ‘on demand’ media time to something more than personal-media-consumption. In a way, the routines needed to be a pro-player can also be seen as a manifesto for all digital-demand media experiences – whether learning History or Maths. It’ just needs a small amount of context-shift to re-write this 10 point list to apply to anything kids are trying to be professional at.

Next stop! Cloud9?

For those die-hards that still read this blog, you may have gathered by now that my advocacy for video games is not primarily about taking what’s good about games and trying to squeeze the essence into educational agendas. For those who took (and may well be still taking) the Master’s course at CSU, I was always keen to provoke the idea that video games are an entirely valid media (text) in their own right — and that this has a place in the world of education, especially for children.

E-Sports is a very real phenomenon which is growing quickly and appeals to a global audience. For example, more than 360 million unique viewers watched this year’s League of Legends Mid-Season Invitational. It’s an extremely strategic game which is perhaps a frenetic form of Chess. During the event, fans contributed $2.6 million to the prize pool, totaling it to $4,946,970. The idea that a prize pool can be added to by fans is yet another remediation of the very idea of a competitive tournament. To put that in perspective, this audience was bigger than the Super Bowl or NBA. It’s almost pointless to compare any Australian sports viewing figures. Over 4 million Australians watch E-Sports which is pretty impressive. So why are schools not interested in competitive E-Sports? Why are they content to build forts in Minecraft or simply ignore this massive opportunity.

Someone said on a clip I watched recently …

“unlike the Javelin, which isn’t going to change much, E-Sports players are faced with not only playing at the highest, super competitive level but must also master the ever-changing technology that powers it”

Game developers are forever changing ‘meta’. Unlike traditional sport, this ensures no player can afford to develop a narrow skill set, nor can a team such as Cloud9 keep winning if the team doesn’t adapt. Of course, the audience loves this. As players, they also have to change their own play style and look to pro-gamers and streamers for the best insights in how to do it. With limited hours, most teens become very adept at finding the best sources to give them tips — which makes pro-players international celebrities.

Just like any traditional sport, opinions and arguments about who is the best player at any game stack out the various community forums. Some players are ‘flex’ and will play a number of heroes while others main just one. Again, this means is a departure from much of the singlemindedness associated with the professional sports arena. Pro-gamers make and generate a lot of money. With 5 or 6 player team configurations, getting a place in a pro-team is ultra-competitive, as there are literally millions of gamers who want their place. Compare this to traditional sport for a second. As players get older, the number who can ‘make it’ tapers off significantly. Unless they are top-tier, they can’t make the big dollars. In a bedroom near me, I have a Top 500 Overwatch player who can stream and gather a few hundred viewers willing to ‘tip’ or subscribe. Not all players stream, but even if you’re not in Cloud9, there is a very real potential to make significant money at an early age, simply being good at the game and knowing how to use the kind of media that schools spend vast amounts of energy banning and pretending are ‘bad’.

I’ve always though how utterly rediculous it is that Australian schools do nothing to help kids be the best gamer they can. While me moan that they are not doing homework or watching Fornite videos – what many teacher fail to understand is that they are watching kids – just like them.

So while schools have droned on about Minecraft, I’m going to argue few of these Minecraft Teachers understand the next level – Fortnite. The point is that millions of kids have been building Minecraft and Unturned servers for years. I know my kids had one almost ten years ago. I watched my Top 500 kid drop into Fortnite to play with his brother. I think it took only a handful of games before he was building. He’s already a dead-shot Widowmaker and while he (at 17) thinks Fortnite is for squeekers, he will occasionally play with his sister and brother in a 4 man. All the time, he’s outplaying them – while carrying them they are learning from him, just by watching his strategies.

Last year, I took him to the Overwatch Word Cup in Sydney. Of course it was amazing and of course he knew everything about the players and streamers that were knocking about. It’s a vast knowledge of gaming and gaming culture, which is simply ignored by his school. After all, wasting time playing video games means you’ll fail school. I think that is the saddest thing any teacher can believe. It’s also the push-back I’ve had from teachers when I ask them to talk about gaming beyond Minecraft. But there are some teachers and schools playing E-Sports, but it’s very few and as usual, an additional class outside of school. Interestingly, those who are advocating E-Sports are not concerned about meshing League of Legends with History class. They are see games for what they are – a genuine career path that requires kids to develop extra-ordinary skill and understanding – which academics such as James Gee has been telling us for decades – can happen.

I don’t get it. The facts are obvious, the growth is exponential – and Australia doesn’t suck at gaming or game development. So why are we not encouraging 13 year olds to be amazing at Fortnite?

Well, for one thing, the pathway to pro-gamer mostly happens after they have left school, so there’s little ‘cudos’ for the teacher who’s busy building forts in Minecraft in year 6. Teachers also lack the language needed to have a conversation about games with kids. Terms such as flex, DPS, skrim, SR are deeply encoded in world of gaming. They don’t watch Twitch, they don’t follow pro-gamers on Twitter or make the effort to reach out to Shout Casters to find out what is actually happening. I asked @ubershouts a few things about turning pro, as Mr Top 500 was killing it on the Xbox. “Get a PC and make the leap” he said “then get him playing skrims”. It too him almost a year to re-learn how to be as good as he was on the Xbox – on PC. He also had to ditch most the people he’d been playing with on console to focus on improving. He still plays console for fun, but is mooching about in the PC realms looking for games and making connections – aka – wasting time on video games.

So there here we are: at the edge of building an E-Sport reality. I’m sure the ‘education’ needed is not about games, but about the career pathways that games lead to. The kids know it, but it’s the adults we have to still win over I guess.

Using AU (Alternative Universes) in GBL

Although this won’t be news to gamers, the Alternative Universe phenomenon (AU) surrounding games is impressively vast and active. There is plenty of it on Reddit and Tumblr – all places less travelled by teachers — even those using Minecraft.

In addition, there are also plenty of high-school students teaming up to play Overwatch games out of school, some are competing in tournaments and of course some kids are dropping high school to focus on being pro-players. Overwatch is of course not the only game – Rocket League, FIFA and other games are increasingly being seen as worthy ways to engage students in extra-curricular activities.

These things stand outside the AU culture. Below is an image of teachers in “Overwatch High School” where the game-hero takes on a rather more mundane persona.

Screen Shot 2018-05-10 at 2.57.46 pm

Here’s an example of some fanfiction inspired by Overwatch from another site which once again shows how remediation can work into traditional (non-game) teaching worlds.

The History teacher introduces himself as Reinhardt. Not Mr. Reinhardt, just Reinhardt. He explains that the name comes from what his fellow soldiers called him ‘back in the day’. Oh boy. Hana notes his strange accent. Some kind of European? Once Reinhardt finishes a 15 minute speech about his distaste for teaching only American History, Hana decides that she likes this class.

Arguably, schools are the AU when it comes to studying or remediating texts.  There is plenty of scope for creating an array of media around kid’s interest in Overwatch (or Fornite or …) but the key for teachers not to appear n00bish – and by that I mean to not really understand the meme-culture, streamers and players that are part and parcel of the game. Here’s an example of asking the wrong question in the wrong place.

Screen Shot 2018-05-10 at 3.14.19 pm

The costs of playing a 6-up team are not insignificant. PCs are great, but expensive and whole consoles are cheap these days, they lack that ‘flex’ value that IT Managers want. Then there are Xbox Live accounts (or Sony) which are annual subscriptions. Add monitors and headset’s and the cost rises. Realistically, a decent set up will be $600-$700 to play a game. Then there’s the issue of how Overwatch matchmaking, which currently makes 6-stack players play with people who rank above them.

So let’s say that it costs $4000 to set up an Overwatch space at the school. Sounds a lot, until you start to think how much it costs to get an edu-consultant to come and tell you about games (or anything) for a day or two. If we then think what we can do with space which can play FIFA, Rocket League, Overwatch, Fortnite … even Minecraft – it starts to look quite cheap. Then add on all the stuff we can do around ‘social’ factors to help kids learn to actually get along in games, take turns speaking and articulating what they are doing … $4,000 is quite cheap.

The output and possibilities are clearly un-tapped – but as I’ve set out, there is movement in the idea of high-schools organising games and certainly a rich and established culture for AU … so why is placing blocks the dominant ‘innovation’?

Poor Game kid – Rich Drone kid

There are plenty of models for learning to choose from and I don’t doubt that all of them arise from a body of evidence which shows they can be successful.

Since I’ve been teaching, the debate has centred on direct instruction vs inquiry learning, where belief and preferences for one, diminishes the other. In Australia, the movement for more open-ended discovery and enquiry has long been associated with projects and collaboration, despite a sustained body of evidence around the world that educator enthusiasm for discovery learning is not supported by research evidence, which broadly favours direct instruction. In the last few weeks, the media has reported on Gonski’s view that learning needs to be both personalised and conducted in ways which appeal to the student’s individual learning preferences, yet the psychological evidence is clear that there are no benefits for learning from trying to present information to learners in their preferred learning style all the time.

Ultimately, our school system remains married to ‘high stakes’ testing.  In the study Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology reviewed decades worth of data on ten basic learning techniques, many of which have direct implications for reading and an interesting connection to writing as well. Of the ten, the author’s concluded that five were highly or moderately helpful and that five were of relatively little help.

The highly useful techniques noted in the study were the following:

  • Practice Testing. Self-testing or taking practice tests over to-be-learned material.
  • Distributed Practice. Implementing a schedule of practice that spreads out study activities over time.

The moderately useful techniques were:

  • Elaborative Interrogation. Generating an explanation for why an explicitly stated fact or concept is true.
  • Self-Explanation. Explaining how new information is related to known information, or explaining steps taken during problem solving.
  • Interleaved Practice. Implementing a schedule of practice that mixes different kinds of problems, or a schedule of study that mixes different kinds of material, within a single study session.

The least useful techniques were:

  • Highlighting/Underlining. Marking potentially important portions of to-be-learned materials while reading.
  • Rereading. Restudying text material again after an initial reading.
  • Summarization. Writing summaries (of various lengths) of to-be-learned texts.
  • Keyword Mnemonic. Using keywords and mental imagery to associate verbal materials
  • Imagery for Text. Attempting to form mental images of text materials while reading or listening.

This list appears to be out of sync with how many kids are learning at home from games. And this is the essential problem with competing fields using competing methods to find the ‘best solution’ or model – be that a theory of education or a system designed to enact that theory into ptactice.

The research points above are almost entirely focused on the classroom as a closed environment which arrives at a point where students encounter the high-stakes test. It follows that the ‘best way to learn’ debate is always headed towards a point where what has been learned (and how good you are) is measured by that test at nominal points in a students life – which they have no control over.

If we think about ‘the timetable’ – students are housed in a system which is entirely designed to condition them for these events – whether it’s in-school exams, NAPLAN or the HSC. This happens despite numerous industry and educational reports which express the idea of ‘jobs of the future’ being unknown and what students are learning today is likely to be irrelevant by the time they enter the workplace.

I won’t get into a debate about lack ‘soft skills’ other than to point out they are often set out as a lesser set than the hard skills in the table above the field of psychology itself is in a binary debate with itself about this).

Games are not represented in the hard-skills table. Being a good gamer is seen as an amusement – unless of course we look to dystopian novels where kids need to succeed at games to win at life – Hunger Games, Ready Player One etc., But no one’s getting a winner-winner chicken dinner award on their school report – yet kids STUDY these texts in some weird universe where these skills are relevant – just not here, not today – close the laptop.

Richard Van Eck argues Games and play can be effective learning environments, not because they are fun but because they are

  • immersive;
  • require the player to make frequent, important decisions;
  • have clear goals;
  • adapt to each player individually; and
  • involve a social network.

My own elderly teen is amazingly good at games. playing in the top few percent of leagues and despite his age, is more than able to play with adults ten years older than him – many of whom are also streamers and well known in the game community. He doesn’t study for a game using any of the methods in the table above – and yet has developed the skills and ability to process and react to information in the way scholars such as James Gee have argued are very useful to developing multiple forms of intelligence. This of course has no bearing on his school performance — as he (like many) has almost no engagement with a system that he knows is going to require memorisation of facts for a high-stakes test. At the same time, his school experience has made zero effort towards using games or attempting to understand any of the literature about how games and their embedded systems, methods and cultures could actually be useful.

Van Eck asked us over a decade ago

  • Are computer laboratories available where students can play games? Are they appropriately configured? Are they available for the extended hours that game play involves?
  • Is the right equipment available, such as headphones, speakers, and special consoles?
  • Is support available for the game, both technically and in terms of gameplay?
  • Are there instructional designers who can develop games?
  • Is gaming integrated into the curriculum or just added on?

For almost every student in our educational system – the answer is no. Firstly, computer labs have been removed in favour of cheaper and largely unproven 1:1 schemes of less powerful devices. These devices have poor processing, poor software and don’t adequately support video animation, filmmaking etc., Schools do not make game-spaces available to students — and often ban games in the little time students have between time-tabled classes. Consoles have never been taken seriously in schools – and I’m yet to see a school willing to make a six station game-room – nor do I see Sony or Microsoft making an effort to encourage it. Even worse, Microsoft has put all it’s education eggs in the Minecraft Edu basket and has become extremely blinkered in its representation of what gaming in schools could be, which has stopped any real development of games in classrooms – but it sells like hotcakes and fuels an array of ‘expert’ speakers who also make money from it – and probably couldn’t get out of Bronze in Overwatch if their life depended on it. It’s very hard for kids who are playing Fornite, PubG and Overwatch to get excited about Minecraft … but they are now required to ‘play’ it in school because that’s the only thing the teacher has to offer or is willing to accept.

My last point is about ‘instructional design’. Yes, people, it’s a thing. The way learning is presented – the quality of the delivery, the variations in activities, the use of space — all matter. Few teachers seem to engage with the basic idea that they have to be good instructional designers to be a good teacher. It follows that students who are presented with indifferent or poor instructional design experiences are not going to be able to apply either their own media-game understanding or the stuff that I stuck in the table above – which is geared towards ‘static’ text and high stakes tests.

The literature is clear when it comes to the poor use of an LMS, the scroll of death, the digital vending machine and the absent teacher who doesn’t know how to be present in an online space. I’m going to guess that these teachers don’t play games or haven’t yet watched kids play in an MMO or reviewed their media-habits when not playing games.

So why not let kids play an MMO before school starts? Because the idea of ‘school start’ is part of the problem. Why not get kids to play MMOs as part of their development as people? Why do they only get to play MinecraftEdu and not Overwatch or Fornite? Why is being an exceptional gamer of zero value in the way we assess student ability or capability?

I think it’s because education is on an endless search for the ideal solution which on one hand engages students to use their own interests and sense of self – but at the same time has to also deliver ‘results from high stakes testing. If a child’s preference and interest lie in playing Fornite and another is interested in drones – I guarantee the drone-kid will be scooped up by teachers and encouraged while the other is ignored. That makes me quite sad, because for kids who are actually GREAT at games, almost nothing in their school day is going to reflect their interests or understand them as a person – and over time, they are presented with insipid online activities and content as the cloud of high stakes testing forms around them with no shelter – until they get home.

Perhaps, if games were as accepted as drones and bots, then kids might go home an do something else. Perhaps if teachers played games, they might be more interested in instructional design … but as it is … the search goes on.

Digital Media uncovers our love of the past.

About fifteen years ago, I put a two group espresso machine in my 1967 Kombi to take to Volkswagen meets. Back then, it was a bit of a curiosity as the coffee-boom had not yet happened. Last week, the family went down to 21 Grams Coffee in Dee Why to learn from their baristas. the Coffeewagen has been down there since February having a high end fit out for a weekend business which the family will run. Over the years, the van has been many things — a storage container, dog-beach hauler, surf and camping van. While #vanlife has become somewhat of a lifestyle movement — mostly featuring the beautiful young people who get to escape the daily grind. The movement itself has become a huge industry — from fitting out vans, making documentaries, giving talks and of course arranging meet-ups and events.

Screen Shot 2018-05-01 at 9.55.45 am.png

It seems that many people, old and young are interested in low-technology life, or at least weekend escapes. Social media is a human-history of people looking for and finding vintage escapes as well as documenting their lunch or outdoor adventures. This makes it very hard to argue that technology is creating a shut-in society or that everyone is addicted/distracted to post iPhone devices. Media is documenting a revival in vintage things. For us, owning a vintage coffee van is a ticket to having weekend fun – and perhaps giving our kids an insight into running your own business. For me, a love of coffee and vans made a perfect fit fifteen years ago, but back then – people didn’t spend as much time in so many diverse places as they do now. Artesian markets and a parade of car shows are on offer every weekend. People use social media to find ‘real world’ leisure time and love to document their enjoyment.

Social media creates tribes. It also makes it possible to place your telepresence in multiple tribes. My wife’s Facebook feed is full of Springer Spaniels as that’s her ‘thing’ whereas mine is predictably full of old cars. For me, it’s an endless swap-meet of Italian, British and German cars.

Buying a real-world thing leads you to new people, experiences and cultures. For example, I recently bought a TVR. It’s been on my list of ‘want’s for years — and finally, via social media – I got the tip-off to negotiate the purchase from the seller – but as it’s a rather rare beast, the car had a digital history and story, curated by other TVR enthusiasts. I had the car inspected by someone I’ve never met, but he was recommended by a guy who had previously helped me out (but also never met) and flew down to Melbourne to drive it home, some 1200kms. Along the way, I had a few questions that were almost immediately answered by TVR owners from Australia, the Netherlands and the USA. All people I’ve never met.

Unlike my Volkswagen tribe, the TVR is embedded in historic racing and old British car fanatics. Simply buying the car opened up new car culture portals. At the casual level, I’m viewing part of an ever-flowing visual stream of images people are capturing as they move about their lives. Vintage cars are deeply embedded in this idea of freedom and nostalgia for a time before digital – but is documented because of digital. It is a complex soup of fandom and nostalgia – a visual treat of looking back at designs which emerged from a sense of passion and artistry rather than consumer focus groups which seem to produce technologically brilliant cars which all look the same. Some people are collectors, most are sick of losing money of cars with planned obsolescence and expensive repairs once the warranty runs out. There are people who buy cars for purely practical reasons – the increasing phenomenon of commuting to work and driving to the mega-mall etc – but there is also a massive culture which rejects it.

Don’t get me wrong, I like new cars – our Alfa Romeo Giulietta QV is 240hp super-hero car thanks to its Tony Stark levels of technology. It’s a perfect car for every day as the technology is sufficient to be both practical, reliable and fun – and there are plenty of social-media tribes who post endless images and superlative comments about how great they are to drive – or make go even faster.

What has become very apparent is the number of people who want to also own a classic car — and the rising prices that come with demand. Finding a classic that might appreciate is also powered by digital. Whether you want to spend five grand or fifty — technology powers the search. Not many of us have the time to go on ‘barn find’ trips, but those who do – also use social media to post where they are going to be and what they are after. One tip-off leads to real-world connections where a guy knows a guy who knows a guy. All of this is of course captured on YouTube via an array of drones, go-pros and phones. This has also become a business – one which necessarily includes ‘experts’ who offer insights into heritage and history.

So while I’m reading about what young people ‘need’ – personalised learning, keeping up with the skills needed for future work, there is an equally strong movement which is interested in pre-digital, escape, old mechanical things – and uses technology to find, experience and enjoy it.

My computer is a cat.

I have a cat. It’s semi-friendly most of the time but has a tendency to make demands while appearing to be friendly. It likes to bite when it doesn’t get what it wants – which is hard to know as has cat-communication issues. I still feed it, look after it as best I can and take the occasional happy-rub with the random swipes and bites. The cat doesn’t seem to do this in a pre-meditated manner and if I read it correctly, the follow-up rub is a sign of remorse. The cat reserves this for those who live here, it generally ignores visitors as the cat knows, they won’t feed it. I find myself studying the cat too much, trying to figure out if there is a pattern here, or what triggers it. Overall, I think the cat just likes to do it on impulse as it’s a solitary creature pre-wired to knock things off tables because it can or dissapear for few days on whatever adventure it’s on.

The cat is somewhat predictable. It’s general attention seeking mode kicks in about 10pm when our pack of hounds have found a child’s bed to curl up in and the ground is far safer to walk on. It’s not a big cat and our gun-dogs are more than happy to scoop it up and carry it around until they get bored. Of course, the cat is a fascination to them as it has superpowers. It can leap on any surface and unlike them, is allowed to sit in places they’d be kicked out the house for. It can also vanish into thin air or ambush them from dark corners. I pretty sure the hounds don’t study the cat the way I do, but they too have a weird relationship with it – except the cat’s wise enough not to bite the dog and to high tail it when caught in the open ground.

Most of all, the cat doesn’t care. It care’s about stomach-o’clock, getting the odd pat and being on the high ground – preferably in a food-coma. It doesn’t provide much in the way of service from its lofty existence. We had a rat in the kitchen who ate plastic pipes – the cat didn’t care. There’s no cat-brain connection between other animals and it’s bowl. The humans will fill the bowl on demand. The shallow cat rationale seems to be –  I am a cat and I am here. To the cat, the rest of us are there for one reason – to feed it. It shows up when we unpack the weekly shopping.  I can see it judging us, as it sifts through the bags with disappointment. I’m sure it doesn’t know what it thinks we should bring home or care – but it just likes to maintain a sense of under-whelming gratitude.

I’ve come to think that technology if it were an animal, that it would be a cat. Perhaps in a different time, factories were also cat-empires that we – the working cogs – serve. The difference between the adults of the 1950s and today is that we have a much more demanding, smarter and punitive feline to deal with. I also think that the instant-nature of technology promotes cat-like behaviour in some people. The obvious one being the keyboard warrior – which I am sure is something my cat will evolve to do at some point when it feels the need to mess with people at a distance or we run out of objects for it to knock off shelves or benches.

As I say, I’ve been watching the cat and I’m onto it. I’m also increasingly trying to observe my technological-cat and not be on call to feed it or feel like I have to respond positively when it bites me or decides to be a jerk. I can’t control what people actually do with technology – when they use it; how they use it or what their intent is. It’s a waste of time, other than to accept thinks amazingly appear before me – which the techno-cat would like me to attend to – now. It might genuinely be hungry, but it’s just as likely to be messing with me for its own amusement.

I think our relationships with our inbox is a lot more like having a cat and far removed from our relationships with other humans. It’s hard for us not to pay attention to it – and it doesn’t care about what we think about its demands. The inbox is there to make demands of us, whenever someone feels like it. I’m sure I’m not alone in experiencings a ‘ding’ of an email notice and then minutes later someone says “did you get my email”. Then there are those mass-emails, where dozens of people are saying “did you read THE email” … as though we all get just one a day. Most of my time in my kitty-litter box is trying to get rid of turds to be honest – endless spam that I try to ‘unsubscribe to’. Yes Twitter I’m looking at you.

I’m going to tame the cat-inbox to create a calm inbox. I’m going to give Inbox Pause a go and see if it has any effect on me and others. I am aware that I am also guilty of being a techno-kitty pressing SEND at the end of every technological interaction. So I want to send less in order get less. I have over 30,000 un-read messages. I actually paid $25 to add more storage to Gmail today – which the point I thought – you are an idiot – the cat is running your life.

I’m not so important that I have tons of important email anyway, most are junk as I said, but as a human, I really think that other humans can call me or visit me when things are super-attention worthy. If I convince myself that 90% of inbox messages to various systems I’ve stupidly learned to use – and see as important – are the work of cats – it might just help.



Teacher currently afk

One enduring problem with online solutions is that they have to actually be used by teachers for the benefit of students. For example, if an LMS is just a grand-flash-drive in the sky, where a teacher periodically places a few activities, students will have no motivation to engage with it. The result will be learning analytics that show the student has low-participation. This is not the student’s fault. Why would you visit a dead-space to see if a teacher has uploaded another task? This is also true for games – why visit a world where nothing much happens?

If the system is used poorly: no feedback at the point of learning; unmarked work, incomplete grading etc.,- the student is hardly going to value it.

If the teacher relies on the machine to grade the work and set the agenda (endless quizzes) then the machine is the teacher and the teacher just the operator. Where the course is poorly designed, resourced and rarely used by the teacher –  it’s easy to see why the student wouldn’t value it – and find something else to do with their laptop.

There are 5 aver-arching rules for working with any online system

  1. Make a great first impression
  2. Create a course that’s easy to navigate
  3. Make it easy for students to find everything
  4. Let students know what to expect
  5. Keep students informed and engaged

The benefits are also super simple

  • Ease of use of the tool saves time and cognitive energy when locating and using course materials
  • Facilitates student-centered learning

Feedback given as part of formative assessment enables learners to consolidate their strengths, identify their weaknesses  and guides them about the necessary actions in order to achieve the learning outcomes.

Again, using a system doesn’t mean, sticking your practice on auto-pilot and leaving the machine’s algorithms to give students feedback.

Feedback, throughout the course, should be electronic and verbal. It should be:

  • timely: feedback is more effective if it is provided timely since students can still recall how they addressed each assessed task. Timely feedback timeframe is clearly communicated to the students.
  • motivational: feedback may have a positive or negative effect on student motivation and self-esteem. It affects students’ personal feelings which, in turn, affect their engagement in the learning process.  As a result, formative feedback should be empowering and constructive.
  • individual/personal: each student has unique strengths and weaknesses. As a result, in order to be effective and enable students to improve their competences, formative feedback must fit each student’s achievements.
  • manageable: feedback should certainly be detailed enough to ensure that students understand their strengths and weaknesses.

So while we have some very powerful tools, ranging from free to the institutional LMS, they all demand teacher-engagement – not just with the design of the course, but in communication with each student – especially where there are large numbers of students. Systems which shovel ‘work’ and variably issue ‘grades’ but no feedback not only de-motivate and dis-engage students from using the system, but also impact how the students see the class or institution — all of which is well researched.

The bottom line is that all digital tools we are using in pursuit of student productivity, organisation and assessment need to be able to do the above – because the teacher is present in the space.  – so any ‘ghost town’ experience – teacher afk – is something to be avoided at all cost. Students soon work out who is present in online spaces and act accordingly.

Digital PBL – Still light on delivery?

There seems to be no lack of information around ‘Project Based Learning these days. This is good, but also a problem in that information spans several decades. The more recent incarnations, popularised by companies such as New Technology Foundation never really capitalised on Learning Management Systems. The result is a vast amount of graphic organisers, KWL charts and expert-advice, and very little actual ‘projects’ which could be ported from one context to the next.

The advent of better LMS systems promotes using learning analytics as well as a range of tools which can act as project manager, organiser, communicator and most recently, provide learning pathways based on both academic progress and student choice. We are then living at a point in time where no one project suffices: as it’s entirely possible to provide students with several pathways, gamification and tracking.

The LMS can provide both negotiable and non-negotiable learning experiences; wherein protocol based lesson activities can be leveraged into the enquiry, challenge and problem-solving. But where are they? In the case of Canvas’s Learning Commons, it’s a mixed bag of material content – and very little in the way of learning design.

It also takes time to design a project in this way. There is a vast difference between ‘using ICT’ and being able to create a ‘learning design’. Far too many teachers (from what I can see in terms of projects) are handing out a binder of ‘resources’ for students – aka worksheets – and materials. To be honest, this could all be done in an eBook or stuffed on a Flash Drive. The worst designs are simply a scroll of non-wonder where students start at task 1 and end at task Yawn.

Surely we can design learning so that it looks enticing? Surely we can present materials using tools like Canva to at least make it look ‘modern’. I mean, since when did kids see a YouTube video that didn’t have some kind of ‘graphic’ intro. And that leads me to the use of video in PBL courses. Very few examples because it either takes way to long to ‘find’ a video to use or too long to make a video in the zero spare time many teachers have.

So here I am, a decade or more into PBL wondering where the projects are – not just the information about projects. Links and tips welcome!