So you think your robot can dance?

Last week I was showing Mr6 the Macquarie ICT Innovations Centre via their website. He’s going to be presenting with his sister at their conference in October on Massively Minecraft, and wanted to know what it was about. His sister is hoping to go to the regional public speaking competition with her talk, so anyone who tells you games are not academic is deluded. Anyone who tells you she’d be doing it for an achievement badge could join them.

Anyway, back to the story. Debbie Evans and her small but feisty team are nothing less than inspirational. That’s not just a wild claim, congratulations are in order to Katy for here recent 2011 teaching award (along with my new mate Greg Alchin) and let’s not forget Cathy Howe (2010 Microsoft Innovation Awarded teacher).MACICT has a reputation for doing, not just talking and continues to evolve in step with everything people say is needed to engage students.

MACICT is a hot house of ideas that come to life and in all my travels  is the one place that truly lives up to the ideals of innovation for me. Let me explain why with a personal story as a learner and a parent last week.

Mr6 thinks he has an idea for a game as we cruise the website. I thought a hat-tip to Cathy was in order and let her know on Twitter. Making games is as important as playing them these days. A short time later Cathy replied to say they had a Good Game Design workshop the next day and he could come along … but it was for year 9 and 10s, not Kindy.

Online I know Mr6 can mix it up with anyone, but a whole day in a classroom with scary teens? Then I thought, I’d like to learn this stuff too and really wanted to try out the student experience that Cathy puts on so well and  figured I’d wrangle Mr6 who can be a handful when he gets on a mission. So I too signed on, keen to learn about Kodu.

There were teachers in one room learning about game theory, engagement and safety and kids in the other room being given a series of challenges, talking about the essence of game design, story and user experience.

One of the very clever (PBLish) things Cathy did, was to bring a young academic at Macquarie in to speak to the class about the extra-ordinary number of career paths they present young people, and how to start right now. Not some future dream, but how to get into the industry at the age of 14 or 15. Here is a rather poor quality (iphone), but never the less great off the cuff, no powerpoint, talk he gave them as they all leaned forward and absorbed every word. Mr6 has not idea what work is, other than he seems to think you have to do it sooner or later, so the idea of games-tester worked, and in fact he figured he could do that now. Sadly the guardians of the brain-missing temple ban games at the filter, so learning about this growing (not declining) industry can’t be too important. However, Australia is good at games. Take the 25 million downloaded iPhone game Fruit Ninja. Stupid? or has a benefit – how about a therapeutic benefit? or perhaps teaches animation?

During the day, he worked using Sploder – a great way of getting into game design (blocked) and also using Kodu, which is downloadable game-maker and I am told runs on most low end laptops. Cathy had prepared all sorts of resources about story, narrative etc., and I was pretty impressed when Mr renamed himself Shadow Reaper for the blogging and feedback session. He’d never written a blog post before, but soon made short work of it. I don’t think he needs to learn to blog, he needs a reason to. He made games, tested games and gave kids feedback on their games too. The video I took was delightful, both the 15 year old boy and him we’re laughing and so engaged they almost missed lunch. On getting home, he was straight onto Sploder and showing his siblings what he’d made. They of course made games too and we’re busy testing and sharing them – no help needed, Mr6 is quite a good teacher.

I tell you all this as a cautionary tale.

The future of innovation and learning is not by dividing kids into ages and subjects. The future is by creating places that they want to go to learn. That means selecting people who can innovate and providing spaces that support it.  The people who will make that future are not those promising change as they climb the ranks of authority, but people who are innovators and prepared to work with kids on what they both see as important. My good friend Peggy Sheehey recently said to me about innovation – “we are barely climbing around the edges, and yet from what we see online, you’d believe we are even capable of being its master”.

Until very recently, MACICT was just for Department of Education NSW teachers and students. However, that has changed – now any system can take part – Catholic, Private or organisation that wants to learn about the power of virtual worlds, technology, games, robots, video … the list goes on. If you are yet to discover it or a fly-in expert here to give a talk about [select: change/shift/innovation/technology/the future] make sure you go to MACICT.

You’ll be amazed at the long list of distinguished educators that do – and for good reason. What MACICT does off the smell of an oil rag puts many big-budget, big-talk efforts to shame, proving once again that people make things happen, not machines – and now the people are connected and connecting kids too. The only downside of this trip, Mr6 could only do 1 of the 2 days. He was less than impressed by this, and somewhat difficult when sent to school the next day, where he’s learning to count to 30 apparently.