Archive for the 'Age 16-18/Grade 11-12/Teens' Category

The Thin Line Between Education and Entertainment

Friday, May 13th, 2011

[The following is a piece I wrote for the Joan Ganz Cooney Center's 2011 Leadership Forum, Learning from Hollywood, a cross-industry event that will explore new ways of bridging the perceived gap between entertainment and education. The event will be held in Los Angeles at the USC School of Cinematic Arts on May 16 & 17. ]

If you were challenged to define what math is, what would you say? How about science? What makes the two different, or maybe even the same? I started exploring the idea of what makes up these educational disciplines as a result of hearing the term STEM more and more in the news. STEM is a short-handed way of referring to science, technology, engineering and mathematics, but is this term simply a collection of separate items, or could there be something larger at play here because of the overlaps between these disciplines? Is there greater benefit to the whole than simply its parts and could this concept be applied to other similar examples outside of education as well?

While noodling with the idea of categories and boundaries, I remembered a discussion I had with Vinton Cerf from Google many months ago. Vint is frequently cited as “the father of the Internet” a title he will quickly point out involves the contributions of many of his fellow colleagues, and not just those of his own.

During our meeting we talked about how Google looks at the world of content. Vint shared with me the following:

“In the academic world it has become traditional to speak of disciplines, and that’s an organizational artifact; geology, history, English, physics, chemistry, medicine, and so on. Yet when we dive down deep we discover this is all a continuum. These things are not really broken up with such hard walls and barriers between them. Understanding that those disciplines are actually related to each other in a very intimate way is an important thing. I want to be careful about the idea of organizing information into categories. That can be helpful abstraction but it’s dangerous if you actually believe these things are segregated from each other.”

Upon reflecting on Vint’s words, I immediately thought of a quote by the great media thinker Marshall McLuhan, who famously said:

“Anyone who makes a distinction between entertainment and education doesn’t know the first thing about either.”

Connecting the dots between the two statements came over me like a tidal wave. Could we as media creators, educators, researchers, whatever the industry, be carrying with us artificial boundaries that prevent us from making real breakthroughs in our field? If we look for new ways to engage audiences through media creation wouldn’t it be in defining new boundaries that reshapes society’s thinking about these boundaries?

Simply being aware that we have the ability to redefine those boundaries may actually be the first step in creating something larger, something that is truly breakthrough. How would you define the boundaries between education and entertainment? Or should we instead define the overlaps, or maybe even define how we wish those boundaries to be drawn? The overlaps appear to change and grow with every advance in technology. Their sum is greater than the parts. To separate the two diminishes our ability as creators to discover new opportunities and reach audiences in ways never before dreamed possible.

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The Changing Views of the Online Experience – from Fears to Possibilities

Wednesday, October 6th, 2010

[This post first appeared on the Joan Ganz Cooney Center website, where I was invited to be a guest blogger for the day.]

Panelists from the September 2010 event, Back to School – Learning and Growing in a Digital Age. From Right to Left - Moderator: Wendy Lazarus of The Children's Partnership. Panelists: Sara DeWitt of PBS Kids, Mandeep Dhillon of Togetherville, Marian Merritt of Symantec, Joe Sullivan of Facebook, Catherine Teitelbaum of Yahoo!

Last week I attended Back to School – Learning and Growing in a Digital Age, an event which explored federal policy, e-learning, and digital literacy, sponsored by Common Sense Media, PBS Kids, USC Annenberg’s Center on Communication Leadership & Policy, and The Children’s Partnership. The session that impacted me most was Empowering Parents and Kids with Technology. What was fascinating about the speakers on this panel was that collectively they described the evolution of Internet and its perceived challenges facing parents and kids over the last ten years, from a social perspective.

In the early online days, parents’ concerns about the Internet were largely about preventing children from stumbling upon inappropriate content online. As time passed, the concern shifted towards one of a fear of online predators. Today, the focus of concern is more about a child’s privacy, cyberbullying, and what constitutes appropriate behavior online. If you think about it, our social perceptions of the Internet and how kids will experience positive as well as negative aspects of the online world have changed a lot in a very short time. The changes we see looking back, and the changes we have yet to realize, still point to the amazing potential the Internet offers our children. Here are a few noteworthy comments from the panel that capture this change:

Mandeep Dhillon, CEO & Co-Founder, Togetherville

“There are many sociological changes occurring … If you look at the last couple of years, computing has become more social. We’re just now starting to see the first generation of tech-savvy parents know more about technology than their kids. In the past it was common for a parent to turn to their kid for help with technology. That’s no longer true. Now parents can actually say something meaningful about the technology their kids use. As a result, this is changing attitudes about how kids should be engaging with technology.”

Marian Merritt, Internet Safety Advocate, Symantec

“It’s been remarkable, over the last several years, seeing the dialog shift from fear and panic and a real lack of understanding on the parent’s part to discussions like this where we’ve moved the conversation to one that’s more realistic. However, I still think our parent community is lacking a bit, still focusing on mythology rather than the real world of their children. This gap prevents our children from being honest about what they are experiencing in the digital world, be it cyberbullying, be it downloading inappropriate content, running into things they don’t understand on the Internet. I think there’s some old fashioned issues we still need to contend with. Parents have been educated to protect their children from the Internet by placing the home computer in a central location. That was great information for a generation ago. Today, as our children increasingly have full access to the Internet on a device that fits in their pocket, these rules need to be adapted for a changing environment.”

Catherine Titlebaum, Director of Child Safety and Product Policy, Yahoo!

“I’ve been watching online behavior for more than a decade now, In the past the conversation ws all about what kids consume, what they search for, and what they find. Over the years, as kids become increasingly more social online, we’ve had concerns about who they might connect with and speak with, and now it’s really about how are your children behave online. How are they living in these digital spaces as opposed to their real spaces? The challenge for parents to recognize is that this extension to digital life is real. It’s a real extension to real friendships, real learning, and there’s real interaction back and forth between these two spaces.”

During the opening remarks of this event, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski spoke to the challenges all parents and children face:

“It’s striking how much technology is part of kids’ lives today. Children are using multiple devices to consume 11 hours of content a day. They send a text message an average of once every 10 minutes they’re awake. There’s a lot to be concerned about here, and I don’t know a parent who isn’t. We need to find common-sense strategies to mitigate the risks of the new technologies, including the safety and the privacy of children online. We need to establish new norms for families; new strategies for the home and for when kids are on the move. Technology can and must be a key part of the solution to the problems technology creates. Real solutions that address real and growing needs that honor the First Amendment. Because here’s the truth: We can’t slow technology, and we shouldn’t try.”

Though the Internet is not a perfect place, Genachowski went on to describe the benefits that are almost within our reach:

“I believe that the opportunities of new communications technologies for our kids far exceed the risks. Indeed, I think it’s mandatory in the digital age – in our global digital economy – that we seize the opportunities of technology for our children; that we ensure universal access and digital literacy for all our kids; that we ensure that all our children, no matter the town or the school district they’re from, have the tools they need to be full participants in our digital economy and 21st century democracy.”

This vision took a huge step forward last week as the FCC voted to modernize the current E-Rate program, a mandate which was originally established by Congress years ago to bring the Internet to all schools and libraries in the US. This update will now guarantee these same institutions the very best and fastest broadband access to pave the way for innovative high-tech tools that are essential for a world-class education.

As we begin to see the National Broadband Plan advance this country’s digital infrastructure, the changes in social perceptions mentioned above only help propel this promise, complete with all of its widening educational possibilities. What an exciting time to be involved in the digital universe on behalf of children (and everyone one else too!) Yes, very real concerns will continue to exist in this digital future, perpetuated by media outlets looking to capitalize on shocking headlines, but it’s truly amazing how our collective intelligence about the Internet is changing from one of fear and reservation, to one of infinite possibilities.

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Game On with Katie Salen at Quest to Learn

Monday, January 4th, 2010

Katie Salen, visionary behind a new school in New York City called Quest to Learn

It seems wherever I travel, educational publishers, learning theorists, and teachers of all kinds bring up the concept of learning through interactive games. It’s an idea that’s been picking up steam over the last few years, and why not? Research from the PEW Internet and American Life Project last year found that 98% kids ages 12 – 17 play video games. Organizations like the MacArthur Foundation have been funding a small number of projects to test out new ideas for using interactive games with learning in mind. A few months ago I came across a great article in the Economist about a new public school opening in New York City that uses gaming principles to teach its students. At the recent Breakthrough Learning in a Digital Age conference held at the Google headquarters, I had the opportunity to speak with Katie Salen, the visionary behind this initiative. You can view a short video of my interview with Katie on the Cooney Center YouTube channel or read the complete interview below. Portions of this interview were edited for clarity:

QUICK QUESTION PICKER:

Tell us about your new school, Quest to Learn.

How did you recruit teachers for your school?

Was it hard to get teachers around the concept of teaching from a game design perspective?

How are the students working with the teachers who apply this teaching model?

How do you divide up the class day?

Is it your intent to open up more Quest to Learn schools?

INTERVIEW:

Scott Traylor: Tell us about the work you’re involved in with the start of your new school, Quest to Learn.

Katie Salen: I run a nonprofit called Institute of Play. Two years ago we started work on a new school with an organization called New Visions for Public Schools. Our new school is called Quest to Learn. The MacArthur Foundation gave us a two year planning grant around the school. The work that we’ve been doing at the Institute of Play centers around the idea of games and learning. We’re really interested in the idea of how we can develop a school that doesn’t necessarily use games in the classroom, but does use game design principles in learning spaces. Our idea was to design a school from the ground up built on those ideas.

We opened Quest to Learn this past September. It will eventually be a 6 to 12th grade school but we started with just the sixth grade this year. Next year we will roll in another grade, continuing to add an additional grade each year for the next six years.

Today we have six teachers and 79 students. We’re located in New York City, in Manhattan. It’s a district two school so we could recruit kids from a specific geographic area in Manhattan. (Return to Question Picker)

Traylor: How did you go about recruiting teachers for your school?

Salen: We think the way we recruit teachers is actually very interesting. Our process is one in which anybody we bring into the school needs to be immersed in our model. We held a series of four-hour workshops on Sundays for teachers that were interested in our school. They come in, we put them through a learning problem that kids would have and then they do some work with us around assessment. From the list of interested teachers we narrowed it down to a smaller group and then took them through a series of interviews. We also do direct observation in our classrooms.

We had some really specific criteria for the teachers we were looking for. First, teachers had to be content experts, they had to really know their content. Next, the teachers we looked for have to be really good collaborators. Teachers didn’t necessarily have to be technology people, and a lot of them weren’t necessarily gaming people either, but they were able to work in teams or had come from schools where they worked in teams. They had to have a very good sense of how to enable kids to be innovators. This was very important to us. And finally, teachers had to have done project-based work before, our curriculum includes project-based work in it. Those were the three criteria that we looked for. (Return to Question Picker)

Traylor: Was it hard to get teachers around the concept of teaching from a game design perspective?

Salen: You know, when you begin to explain to a teacher how a game designer thinks about the design of the game, and we’re able to show them a one-to-one parallel with how they think about teaching students, they say “Oh, it’s the same thing.” Then they realize “Oh, maybe it’s the words that are different” and so it’s about helping them understand and translate between something like the term “core mechanic” in games, which talks about the primary activity of the player, and the learning design, because the curriculum is the basic activity of the lesson. It’s a learning curve for everybody. Game language, as with any other language, can feel very specialist, but the concepts aren’t so new. That’s our whole argument. Games actually model good learning and good teachers are immersed in good learning all the time. (Return to Question Picker)

Traylor: Quest to Learn has only been in operation for a short while now. Any observations this early about how the students are working with the teachers who apply this model?

Salen: Well the interesting thing is that the kids are so excited to come to school every day. We have parents saying this is the first time that their student has ever come home excited to tell them about what they’re doing in school. This is the first time that their child gets up out of bed and wants to go to school. So that’s great just from an engagement perspective. It’s a place where kids feel safe. It’s a place where they feel excited about coming which is no small feat for a new school where kids are coming from many different neighborhoods. (Return to Question Picker)

Traylor: How do you divide up the class day?

Salen: When you design a school from the ground up, you attend to every detail. One of the things we spent a lot of time thinking about was the daily schedule. A lot of schools use the Carnegie Unit, classes that are 45 to 50 minutes long. We don’t believe good learning can happen in 45 minutes. From the beginning we wanted to use block scheduling which are extended periods of time.

The main classes we offer, domain classes, last 88 minutes. In a typical day a student will take two domain classes. Since we have an integrated curriculum students will take a class that’s an integrated math/science class and an integrated math/English language arts class. They may be dealing with three or four subjects in a day, but only in two full classes.

There are shorter classes called annex classes, which are extended enrichment and literacy periods. There’s also a gym period for 50 minutes.

For elementary school kids it’s a bit of a shift to be in a class for 88 minutes because they’re used to changing topics with every 45-minute class period. Because our students are working in a problem-based way, the time goes by in a second. (Return to Question Picker)

Traylor: Looking to the future, is it your intent to open up more Quest to Learn schools?

Salen: Everyone always asks us about scale. To be honest, it’s not the first thing we’re thinking about. We’re still in a fact-finding stage to understand what’s working about our model. However, our curriculum is modular. We piloted it in schools before we opened Quest. Everything we produce is open source and online. Any teacher can take what we’ve created and use it right now. The professional development program we have is something that could be used by any school. Our vision is not to make a hundred or two hundred Quest to Learn schools. Over time maybe other organizations will be inspired by the ideas we developed and seek to build schools that share a similar model. (Return to Question Picker)

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May the Force be with you… Star Wars Force Trainer by Uncle Milton

Monday, February 23rd, 2009

NY Toy Fair 2009 – Cool Tech Find Number 2

Photo of the Star Wars Force Trainer by the toy company Uncle Milton Industries

Have you ever had something fall behind the couch, just out of reach, and you think to yourself “If I just could use my mental abilities to reach that item, I would have it by now.” Well, we’re a whole lot closer to successfully making this happen than ever before. Soon you’ll be able to channel that mental energy and grab that item by using your powers of the Force. That’s right! The Force.

At this year’s Toy Fair, the toy company called Uncle Milton announced their latest creation, the Force Trainer. It’s part of a collection of science products recently unveiled at the show called Star Wars Science.

The Star Wars Force Trainer comes with a headset that reads certain kinds of brain activity, and a base station that receives those brain signals. Inside the base station (the Training Station) is a ball (the Training Sphere) enclosed within a clear tube. As the headset captures focused thoughts from the user, it converts those signals into instructions to power a fan within the base station, which in turn lifts up the ball within the clear tube. The more the user concentrates, the higher the ball floats. The less concentration, the lower the ball floats. The voice of Yoda helps you attempt to master 15 different Force Training activities included within this technology toy.

The ability to capture brain activity and channel it towards some device may be something we see more of in the future. A number of video game companies as well as other business enterprises are exploring this brain wave capturing technology for commercial use. One company in the San Jose, CA area called NeuroSky appears to be the way out in front with developing the technology, and currently offers a licensing and training program to learn more about it.

The Star Wars Force Trainer will become available on July 23, 2009 and will sell for just under $120.

Now, if I could just use my newly acquired powers of the Force to find my car keys, I’d be on my way to saving the universe from powers of the dark side. Check out the video below to see how you too can master your feelings with the Force Trainer.

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Rubik’s TouchCube, A Digital Spin to a Classic Puzzle

Monday, February 16th, 2009

NY Toy Fair 2009 – Day 1 Cool Tech Find

Photo of the Digital Rubik's Cube by Techno Source

On opening day of the 2009 Toy Fair event in New York City, I began my search for new toy products that include unique application of technology for the benefit of enhancing play. While I only covered a small fraction of the show’s floor (7 hours of isle wandering), I came across a few products that caught my eye. One being a digital facelift to the classic Rubik’s cube, promoted by a company called Techno Source.

Let me start off by saying that I am not a Rubik’s cube fan. I never could figure out those darn things. But I thought a couple of tech features applied to this toy were really groundbreaking.

First, users interact with this non-twisting cube by touching the different surfaces with a finger. It immediately comes across as an iPhone touch interface. Slide a finger along a row of lighted tiles made the cube “rotate.”

Next, the cube has a built in accelerometer used to determine the active display face. Once the accelerometer has figured out which way is up, it only allows the upward face to be changed through touch. This way a users holding the cube with both hands from the side will not alter the puzzle’s surfaces in unexpected ways.

There’s a button to give you a hint if needed. Also included is multiple levels of undo so you can roll the surfaces back to a point where you think you may have made a mistake. When the TouchCube is rested in its docking bay to be recharged, the cube puts on a unique visual display. Think of this as your new digital lava lamp.

The Rubik’s TouchCube is available for purchase in the Fall and is being offered for a suggested retail price of $149.99. Check out video below to see the product in action.

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