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Who teaches more skills to children – teachers or the video game industry?

For those of us whose childhood game experience wasn’t much more complicated than the four blinking colors of Simon or the slowly creeping aliens of Space Invaders, the current childhood experience of video games is more than just alien, its inexplicable.  When I hear my four boys trading their gaming exploits like my friends used to talk about baseball, I can’t even follow what they are talking about.  Their games are vast, complex universes, overflowing with creatures and characters.  Each with its own layered narrative of challenges, embedded within the unique context unlimited by anything but the human imagination.  Which is by definition, unlimited.

Imagine a teacher designing lessons for 9th graders on the causes of the Civil War, and in the process having to teach close reading, synthesis of primary and secondary sources.  How should she approach that process if her students have to write a well-reasoned and organized essay that proves its thesis with adequate evidence?

Most of us wouldn’t have to think too long about that process before we find ourselves trapped in the world of traditional pedagogy, blending our own variations of plans and programs, or picking a flavor-of-the-month technique we saw at our last conference.  

Now imagine yourself in a back-office of the $40 billion a year behemoth of the video game industry, designing a series of tutorials and lessons that will not only introduce twelve year-olds to a vast, complex universe, but capture their interest in the narrative so well, that they commit themselves to hours of self-instruction to navigate their way through it.  

How are you going to tell them about the “laws of nature” in the world of the game?  How about the characters, their abilities, and their goals?  How about the inventory of “physical” objects in the game, what players have to get, how they keep track of it?  Not only do you have to teach your player-students the “soft” knowledge of the game’s world, but you also have to get them to master the “hard” skills of navigating the game’s countless screens, consoles, and button clicks.  

To keep the hypothetical in context, you have to also imagine that the company you work for already invested $30 million in game development and it’s success or failure rests on your shoulders alone.  By the way, you can’t really “teach” the lessons you design, you embed them in the game and walk away – they have to teach the players completely on their own. Your player-students must succeed in reaching the learning objectives without getting confused, bored or giving up.  They must be so enthralled with your teaching that they don’t even notice it because they’re so immersed in the game’s narrative. They have to leave your classroom triumphantly punching their fists in the air and begging their parents to buy your sequal. 

One last thing, the “school” you’re competing with, just sank $265 million into their “course”.  With a team of developers and an entire company-floor dedicated to player instruction and tutorial design, how can you expect to compete with them?

Well, that tired teacher trying to put together the Civil War lesson is competing with both of those companies and the entire video game industry at the same time.  Not to mention, facebook, YouTube, teenage angst and hormone infections.  Instead of overweighting her PD sessions with the edu-babble of our industry’s latest book-of-the-month, why don’t we show her how to break the shackles of traditional instruction and do it like the best in the business?

Do yourself a favor, and watch the 7 minutes of this tutorial development video. The professional development advice it provides to game developers designing player tutorials would serve teachers well.

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faster than a list serveNo one likes the condescending sneer of an officious computer nerd, impatient with anyone who lacks the god-given graces of their endless technical knowledge and intemperate enough to dare ask them a simple question. You know folks don’t you? It is their lack of people skills which drives everyone else to your door to ask you technology questions rather than submit themselves to ridicule and scorn.

On the other hand….it’s 2011. At what point is it fair to cross the field and join the other side? I’m not saying we have to get macs and lose our common sense of decency and politeness, but there are some tech questions that beg disdain. What the best approach here?

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If the Diigo flashback wasn’t weird enough for me, the irony I’m confronting this morning can send the cognitive dissonance needle straight into the red zone.

The Social Studies department at my school is embarking on a three year process of re-writing each of the core subjects courses.  When we are finished, World Studies, USI and USII will be taught without textbooks.  If you don’t need to have students mindlessly restate definitions and facts to prove they are learning, you can kick those brain-numbingly boring encyclo-sedatives to the curb.  With primary documents, innovative lesson plans and a curriculum that stresses developing cognitive skills and learning rather than memorization, textbooks are superfluous. And in the age of economic uncertainty, cost-prohibitive.

At the same time however, my school is becoming a member of Virtual High School, on online collaborative school.  I worked with VHS eight years ago when I was teaching in North Carolina.  They have one of the best models for online education I’ve encountered.  Because I will teach a course with them

and I can't help myself either!

and I can't help myself either!

online as part of my teaching responsibilities, 25 students at my school can take any course in the VHS catalog.  I’ve been offered the chance to write an AP European History course for VHS, and that’s where it get’s weird.  As a teacher for VHS, my school is responsible for distributing the materials used in connection with my course.  Which means this….

The face-to-face classes at my school no longer use textbooks, but the online course I teach will use a textbook.  Go figure.

Unless there is some kind soul out there who will let me know if anyone has had success passing the College Board’s audit with an AP History course based solely in online materials.

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Nets for teachers

 

I wanted to finally get to reading the new NETS for teachers and found that there was another lesson to be learned.  Proofread everything a dozen times before it goes public.

njvsThis reminded me of another example of a lack of professionalism in the form of outright plagiarism.  Two weeks ago a principal told me about the New Jersey Virtual School, which is a division of the Monmouth Ocean Educational Services Commission.  It is a summer school alternative for students that costs their parents $350.  Looking through the demonstration courses on their site, I noticed that they seem to have lifted the course material directly from Florida’s Virtual School.  Did they have permission to do this?  Or are they like the students who don’t even bother to take the urls of the printouts they hand in as their own work?

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He tried sitting at the dining room table, he tried at my desk. He even tried while lying down in bed. Yet he failed every time and got more and more discouraged with every fruitless attempt. My third grade son has a bright, curious mind, but last week his homework was wearing it down with frustration.image

For this particular assignment, he had to pick out three syllable words from a list, which he can do easily. However, he must then write the words on a tiny, 1.5 inch line on a worksheet His cursive writing is much better than his print, but he still couldn’t fit his answers on the line. As much as I encouraged him to keep trying, he was erasing what little was left of the line and getting more and more angry. He knew that my feeble argument that he has to complete his work just like I have to do my job didn’t have my heart in it.

Am I wrong in thinking that asking children to write with a pen and pencil on tiny little lines on a piece of paper is about as relevant as teaching them to ride a horse?

They will have to commute one day, and therefore need to get around town and go to the store. Why not teach them to ride a horse? Yes, everyone uses cars now, but we used to use horses, it was an essential skill for the 19th century American. Yes, everyone writes with a keyboard now, but we used to write with pens and pencils so let’s force the kids to do it.

Eventually my son finished his homework, but it wasn’t pretty. His younger brother wasn’t as lucky, he did not finish writing every word on this week’s spelling test five times each. And for such an egregious irresponsibility he will have to sit with Mr. McChoakumchild in lunch detention to finish his homework.

Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?

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If there is anything that we can say with confidence about “Growing Up Online”, it has generated a fair amount of discussion about the role of technology and the Internet in children’s lives. As the catalytic effect of social networking on the adolescent experience is under the light of public scrutiny for the next news cycle, we can rest assured that the nature of the discussion has changed. 

Reactions are understandably mixed. Some express disappointment that the surface of a complex subject was skimmed, leaving unanswered the deeper questions about our culture yet still accenting just enough fear to grab viewers.  Others, me included, are pleased that views like those of Danah Boyd and Anne Collier have made it to the popular media.  There could have been much more fear mongering, much more parroting of the Luddite call to parents to throw their children’s computers out like Beatles records in 1966. We didn’t hear that.

Though to tell the truth, I expected to see a documentary on the role of technology on education.  That was what I talked about through three conversations with the film-makers and the hour–long recorded interview.  But in the end the subject of education was whittled down to cheating and entertainment, just a couple minutes in the entire program. 

That’s fair of course, the film had a different focus, and education was just along for the ride.  And they did include transcripts of the interviews on the companion site.  Yet to those of us absorbed with education, those of us convinced it is the most ignored national security threat facing our country, those of us who have found our lives and learning transformed by new tools of communication and information, those of us who feel lucky to watch humanity go through the initial stages of the greatest change it has ever experienced, those of us who teach, were left wanting more.

We do have this one consolation; we have our own media and marketplace of ideas as well.  As I watched the story grow over the weekend and overflow in my aggregator, I marveled at the way church groups, mother’s clubs, and teachers told each other to watch and then discussed it afterwards.  Were they talking about the role of technology in education this way last week? What remains to be seen though is how the discussion generated by this program will be taken up by the education community as a whole.  How will individual teachers, administrators and dare I say, state legislators, join this conversation? 

Maybe throwing cheating and entertaining into the mix causes just enough spark to get more people involved.  As this issue evolves, those of us who think we see the true potential and need to change are going to have to work harder than ever.  Technology not only changes the “how” we teach, it also changes the “what” we teach.  And it’s not going to be easy to convince people that memorizing US history is not learning US history. 

John Chambers, the CEO of Cisco Systems has impeccable timing.  In a column from Forbes he writes “Technology hasn’t simply changed the way we obtain and share information; it has changed the very nature of what we need to know in order to be effective.”….”we are going to have to have the courage to break patterns and approach this in an entirely different way. We might even need to explore some things that make us uncomfortable.”

Let’s hope this first step into a national conversation about technology in education starts that exploration.

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Just as the hardware buying binge of the late 90s quickly brought tons of equipment into schools, the learning environment building craze of the late 00s will bring a flurry of excitement and activity to school districts across the country. Remember how computers were rolled into rooms before the networks were built? Remember how professional development wasn’t even a twinkle in the eye of administrators who were only too proud to boast of their student/computer ratios? It didn’t matter that the pedagogy wasn’t there, it didn’t matter that the bandwidth wasn’t there, it didn’t even matter that the teachers did not know the difference between stopping their vcrs from blinking “12:00” and setting a default printer; the public thought computers were good and the schools got computers. We’re done, right?

As much as we can hope that we’ve learned from our past, we have to realize that this is public education and most school districts across the country will probably fall into this trap again. Since the public wants school and teacher web sites and homework assignments posted online, the school districts will provide it to them without any planning, foresight or concern for real learning. Those same administrator chests will puff out again at PTA and school board meetings, “did you see our school’s web site?”

Well if you did, you would find three teachers out of 70 who actually have anything on their section of the site. You would find a basic template that tells you and your children as much about the personality of their teacher and the class as a hallmark card tells you the true emotion of the sender. You would find that the calendar hasn’t been updated since August. The basic shell of the site will look fine, but as Gertrude Stein said of Oakland, “there’s no there, there”.

Yes, there are many exceptions to this rule, but that misses the point as well.

School web sites are web 1.0, one-way streets of information dissemination, there is no interaction between administrators, teachers, students and the community. Just as the hardware payoff was not realized by rolling a machine into a classroom, the school web presence payoff will not be realized until learning environments are built.

And there’s the rub.

Perhaps the only significant decision in the hardware binge was platform. After deciding on Windows or Macs, the only thing left to do was sign the check.

This step is not so easy. There is a overflowing font of learning environments. There are free tools like blogs, wikis and Moodle and a host of corporate products, eager to cash in on the ignorance of decisions makers who do not trust and do not know much about the open source alternative.

Administrators and decision makers are excited by these tools and have a sense of how they can be used in classroom, but they do not really have the sort of working-level experience necessary to make important decisions regarding how the environments should be constructed. Teachers are also excited, but need a much more immersive professional development experience to tinker with them in order to figure out exactly how they can be applied to their particular classes. And to complete the triangle, the IT folks have little sense of what goes on in the classroom or the day-to-day work of teachers.

At some point, school districts will decide what sort of the learning environment they will make available to their students and how that environment is connected to their local community and the outside world.

The architecture of these learning environments is as important as the architecture of the buildings themselves. How many buildings do we have? What do they look like? Who is allowed to work in them and who do we allow to tour our facility?

Those questions are easy for us when we are physically constructing an addition to a school because everyone has a complete working knowledge of how those physical buildings work. But few people have spent time in the type of “buildings” we are talking about. Until administrators and teachers communicate and collaborate in these environments, they will be ill-equipped to design them. Although they could easily navigate “Windows or Mac”, do they know the difference between a blog, wiki or forum?

Here we go again.

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