Archive for the 'Classroom Tech' Category

Need-to-know Advice for Publishing in the Digital Age

Thursday, October 17th, 2013

[This article was originally written for the Association of American Publishers (AAP) PreK-12 Learning Group and can be found here.]

What do traditional publishers need to know to enter the digital world of publishing?

The publishing world has been on the edge of major change now for well over a decade. Digital media and all the different content delivery platforms are here to stay, and the traditional print model is being challenged in many ways publishers have wished to avoid. I find myself in discussions where the old adage “Video killed the radio star” keeps coming up. The reality however is that video didn’t really kill the radio star, but it did change the future of radio forever. The same is true today with interactive devices, tablets, and smart phones. Traditional publishing is now and forever changed as a result of digital.

I’ve worked in interactive product development for over 20 years now and put together a few thoughts about what is important to know in making the leap to digital. What “must-have” knowledge is important, and why? I offer you these top five observations.

Interactive media is different

That sounds obvious, but many publishers have difficulty in grasping the finer nuances of interactive media. Print media is largely a one-way conversation. Interactive media at its best draws in the user, as a participant, often times creating a two-way interactive conversation. Interactive content, the user interface, and the user experience are often different and unique for each user group or age. In print we may talk about the correct language level of the written word. In interactive there are usability considerations. In a nutshell passive media, like books, magazines, television, and movies, has a viewer; interactive media has a user.

Understand the strengths (and place) of engineers and executive editors

I’ve seen many a publisher hire a hot-shot engineer and relinquish all product development control to that person. The thinking is that “They should know how to make a successful product. They’re the engineer!” Unless that engineer has a great depth of experience in content, usability or instructional design, you are about to make the world’s worst interactive product. Related to this observation (and many people will hate what I have to share next,) the same can be said about the executive editor. Editors often have a wealth of print and content experience and little to no interactive experience. This too is a common mistake, and one that really ruffles feathers at traditional publishers. There is a place for the editor, just as there is a place for the engineer, but knowing what talent works on what part of the project to make the best interactive learning experience is an effort in rethinking through the expertise of each member of your team. Traditional roles do not port to digital in a straight-forward way. Be prepared for some disruption.

Have a road map

The best interactive products have a development plan. Before a single line of code is written or pixel created in Photoshop a detailed plan is created that defines the product. Often times this road map for development is referred to as a design document, or design spec. Complex projects might also have a technical spec. These documents are not only helpful to bring an entire team up to speed about what exactly is being built, but they are also important documents for your quality assurance (or QA) testers. How will your development and QA team know when your product is actually done without a defined plan to compare against?

[Related article: Want to Make an App for Kids? — Getting Started]

Test your product

There are a few different ways to test an interactive product, and all approaches are invaluable. First off, the quality assurance part of a project is not a line item expense that can be eliminated. I have seen executives cross it right off of a product plan as an unnecessary expense. Many cost conscious publishers mistakenly decide that quality assurance testing need not be part of something they’re working on. While you may have absolute faith in the content portion of your product because your team knows content, the best software development teams rely on QA testing to help improve the finished product. Many a product fails within moments after its release due to sloppy development, or even simple innocent coding mistakes that should have been caught and corrected during the QA process.

Test with an audience

An even bigger oversight is not testing a product during development with the target audience. A common complaint I hear from educational product companies is that kids are so engaged by videogames and television that they can’t compete from an interest or engagement perspective in the classroom. Well, what is it that game developers and broadcasters do to help ensure that kids love their products? They test their products with their target audience! When have you ever heard of such a thing in the publishing world?! That’s crazy talk right? Well, as different media formats mature, it might not be such a crazy idea in the future to test your interactive product out with the target audience that will ultimately use them. User testing could be the new normal in publishing. Even if you think the idea of user testing is crazy, trust me, you will learn something. At very least you will learn new, invaluable ways to shape future products. I can guarantee it.

[Related article: Kid Testing and Facebook — What? Are You Crazy?!]

While there are additional points I could add, having an understanding with the above list is a great place to start. Shipping a quality product by traditional publishing means is always hard and takes a team years of experience to master. Shipping a quality interactive product that engages an audience in the digital world is also hard. Understanding the differences between old and new media types is essential for future product success, and providing a path to step confidently into the future of digital publishing.

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ISTE 2012: Sir Ken Through a Mirror Called Twitter

Sunday, August 5th, 2012

[The following is an article I wrote for the August 2012 issue of Children's Technology Review.]

Sir Ken Robinson opening keynote remarks at the 2012 ISTE Conference

Last month, 18,000+ tech-loving educators gathered at the San Diego convention center for ISTE — an annual event that has become the Mecca of ed tech in the United States. Also known as the International Society for Technology in Education, the four day event always starts with an opening keynote address — this year the headliner was Sir Ken Robinson, the English futurist.

But I wasn’t going to be there.

Due to family commitments I needed to miss the first day, and Sir Ken’s talk. So, I did what any valid data cruncher would do. I started collecting and analyzing the tweets from the one hour event. What I discovered was fascinating. The “big ideas” aren’t necessarily what comes from the podium. If you don’t believe me, you can watch the presentation yourself, (jump to 32:27 to see the keynote). The best ideas are the ones that are heard by a massive audience — collectively chewed and digested, and then captured in a collective mass of about 2,500 tweets, under a single hashtag (#iste12). It’s as if Sir Ken were talking to a giant brain comprised of 750 busy tweeters, waiting to pounce on the next nugget.

Listening carefully to this brain at work taught me that trying to paraphrase Sir Ken based on Twitter information is a little like playing the telephone game, where you pass a secret phrase around a circle, only to end up with a different result at the end. Each spoken line from the original keynote was tweeted and re-tweeted at least 20 times, complete with some minor edits. I picked out, and in some cases merged together, some of the best tweets from the event. If you can forgive some editorial sanding, here’s what seemed to resonate:

“No Child Left Behind is proof that Americans get irony. No Child Left Behind should be renamed to be millions of children left behind.”

“If we know anything about children it is that they are not standardized. Yet we have a suffocating culture of standardization and we need just the opposite. Humanity is based on the principle of diversity, yet our education system is based on compliance and conformity. Our lives are not linear, they are organic, and school is based on linearity.”

“One-third of all students drop out of high school. If doctors lost 1/3rd of their patients it would be unacceptable. If 1/3rd of airplanes dropped out of the sky there would be an uproar. Yet this is the reality in education.”

“There are opportunities to personalize education. And while we may not be able to afford personalization, we can’t afford not to.”

“People on the planet today have more access to mobile devices than safe drinking water.”

“What will it take to truly engage students in their own education, and what role does technology play in this?”

These are inspiring and somewhat depressing words, but they were what this particular audience decided to capture. It seems that many educators view the US education system to be a flawed, broken process, and that the Department of Education doesn’t have much to add to the conversation. During the lengthy live and prerecorded statements made by DOE personalities Karen Cator and Arnie Duncan, a brief moment of Twitter praise came when Karen Cator’s comment “your work matters” was retweeted by many. However, the overall tone from the twittersphere during the DOE remarks was more snarky than pleased.

Was there any gold in the twitter stream? Sir Ken did challenge the audience to engage each student in a unique way, to empower the abilities of the individual, for the benefit of all mankind. The tweet read like this: “Great teachers don’t take students to a destination. They give them the tools to get there on their own.” Certainly this is a strong tweet from a smart crowd, and it is a good closing thought.

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360KID Learning Game Trends at Casual Connect

Friday, August 3rd, 2012

Casual Connect is an annual conference in the US that explores the business and development of casual games. This conference also travels to Europe and Singapore. This year’s US event recently held in Seattle, had a day long track focused on Children & Family Entertainment. 360KID CEO Scott Traylor was asked to deliver a presentation on trends and best practices for developing learning games. The video below is a recording of his talk called “Technology, Kids, & Learning: The Future and the Opportunities”.

Links to specific research cited in this presentation are listed below.

Do you need help developing a learning game for the classroom or just need some advice for creating a consumer-based learning game? Be it online, offline, electronic toy, iOS or Andriod, give us a call.

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Will Wright on Game Design, Play and Learning

Tuesday, January 10th, 2012

[The following is an article I wrote for the January 2012 issue of Children's Technology Review.]

Will Wright, video game developer extraordinaire, takes questions from the audience while sitting on stage

If somebody asked you to name the masters of interactive design, chances are good that Will Wright would be on your list. He created SimCity which led to SimAnt, The Sims, and Spore, and he’s currently working on a new social game called HiveMind. Last year in New York, I heard him speak and was struck by his thoughts about the learning opportunities he brings to his players, and asked him about it. What does he think about when he makes a game? What are some key influences? (Note that this was a long interview, and edits have been made for clarity).

Scott Traylor: In your presentations you often refer to learning theory, including your own Montessori education. It seems you have a passion for the topic.

Will Wright: Learning theory is certainly one of the factors that shapes my talks and my work in general, but it’s only one element. For me, making a game or a talk is a process of continual self-discovery.

Scott: Can this be attributed to your Montessori background?

Will: Montessori is good for self-discovery and exploration, but Montessori didn’t invent it. Self-discovery and exploration have existed for millennia before Montessori. it’s the way the human brain works. The whole constructivist approach to education simply leverages hardware that’s already built in.

Scott: When you say “constructivist” is it fair to say that you are thinking of Piaget and perhaps Seymore Papert?

Will: Oh, yes, and Alan Kay as well. This formalized approach to learning has really only been around for maybe a 100 years. We can go back hundreds and hundreds of years before that and see people understood this as the primary mode of learning. Consider the Renaissance and Leonardo Da Vinci. At some point the pedagogy got wrapped around that inherent process. It’s something that has remained, almost becoming more relevant in terms of its implications with modern technology, or our imaginations, and our creativity. It’s almost more relevant now where people can approach a wider range of endeavors creatively, because of the tools we have, for gathering information, for creating things, for sharing things.

Scott: So you’re saying we’re at a point, technically speaking, where we are empowered as creators, as explorers, in anything that might interest us?

Will: Yes, especially in things like the social dimension. I can create something and put it up on the web and then by tomorrow 1,000 people might’ve seen it. Think back 100 years ago what it would have taken for that to happen. It just wasn’t a possibility then, but now it’s a possibility for anyone.

Scott: While these theories have become more formalized in the last century or so, good teachers and good facilitators of learning have been aware of these things for ages. Now there’s the opportunity for learning to be amped up through technology and through participation in a way we have never experience before, in such an immediate way.

Will: Yeah, Seymour Papert and Alan Kay were among the first people to realize the impact that modern technology was going to have. Nicholas Negroponte, as well.

Scott: When you talk about games, or video games, you often refer to these things as playful objects. Is that intentional?

Will: Let’s take a look at that. People like to call the things I make games, but I tend to think of them as toys. There really needs to be more open-ended play experiences and that’s a broader world than the formal definition of games. I think a game is really a subset of the world of play. In substance it’s really just semantics but it’s cultural as well. A lot of people think of games, video games, as this brand new thing that’s popped up. But of course games have been around forever. Most games are based on some fundamental play experience that at some point becomes formalized. There are different connotations to play, and with that formal rules. You might play with others, or by yourself, the play might be a zero sum game, or not. These are just a few specialized versions of play in my mind.

Graphic displaying Will Wright's learning model, comparing the universe of play and games.

Scott: Are there any play experts you follow?

Will: Not really. There have been a lot of attempts in the game design community to come up with more formal structures of frameworks to understand this. I think we’re just beginning to scratch the surface. They’re looking at the different perspectives on play coming from cognitive science or sociology or evolutionary psychology. I don’t think any one of these things is going to capture the subject completely. You have to triangulate from all these different perspectives.

Scott: Do you think the vocabulary around play and around games is evolving?

Will: In general, yes. A game is like the nucleus of the experience, but it’s not the whole experience. I spend a lot of time thinking about the meta-game, the experiences we’re having around the game, experiences that are the larger iceberg. For example, The Sims is a game on some level, where you can play with goal structures and rules. However, there’s a larger game where people make things and tell stories about the game. Then they try things with online communities. These are the things that people do outside the game. It is what I call the meta-game. To me, the more successful games are the ones that spark these larger meta-games.

Scott: You mean bringing the play or the game experience outside of the game, in some kind of social context, where people can talk about and interact around the game?

Will: Yes, in some sense the game in the player’s minds goes from being a specific entertainment experience to becoming a tool for self-expression. At first they were playing for the fun, just exploring. Then they start realizing they can be expressive with it. It’s almost like playing a musical instrument. At first, you experiment and press buttons. At some point you realize you can compose music. You might even start to perform. Eventually this toy becomes a tool to express one’s self.

Scott: Is it accurate to say that the opportunity for creative expression is also a central part of your games?

Will: it’s one of the more powerful benefits of technology. We can do things now that allow people to come in and craft more interesting experiences and share them with others. Somebody can take something from their imagination, create an external artifact, and then share it. They can even collaborate on larger imaginary structures. This is something that used to be confined to a small number of people that had very high skills in language. These individuals could write a book and describe some imaginary world, like Alice in Wonderland. But not many people had that skill set. Now average people are getting these tools that empower them, to create entire worlds, external to their imagination, to share with other people.

Scott: You have this amazing ability to translate complicated systems into successful play objects. What is your thought process?

Will: First, how much are these things representations of the real world? When I get started it’s usually with something that contains some aspect of the real world that fascinates me. I’ll start to imagine if I had a toy planet, what kind of things would I want to do with it? What kind of processes would I like to see? By connecting the toy to real world, it maintains a relevance. Later that toy becomes the scaffolding for building a more elaborate model. When people get to the point where they realize the toy’s limitations, they start discussing and debating what their more elaborate model is relative to that toy. When players first started playing SimCity they didn’t know what was going on. They started building things, they started exploring what caused land value to go up or down, they explored issues around crime, or pollution. Eventually they get to a point where they say, “I don’t think that’s the way traffic really works” or “I don’t think the land value model is very accurate because of this or that.” They could not have formalized these thoughts without the toy. When a player realizes the limitations of a toy, the user has created a better model for themselves internally that transcends the toy.

Scott: Once a certain of level of mastery is achieved with a game, that’s the point when a player will go out and look for additional information to improve upon those models, those systems that they have in their mind?

Will: Yes, that’s the real model we’re building, actually. The computer is really just a compiler for that model.

In a Montessori classroom you will see thousands of tangible manipulatives. This photo is an example of bead work

Scott: What you have described in a sense are games that are digital manipulatives. Tangible manipulatives are a big part of the Montessori world and early learning. Sometimes I hear educators debate the benefit of digital manipulatives over tangible ones. Even if a digital manipulative doesn’t perfectly represent a system, they lead a user in a direction that helps facilitate further learning and growth and discovery that is more accurate and representational of the actual model.

Photo above: The typical Montessori learning experience is based on time with tangible manipulatives, such as these base 10 beads. There’s 1 bead, 10 beads, 100 beads, and 1,000 beads, in the form of a block. These physical manipulatives help young learners understand small and large, base-10 counting, and maybe even geometry (point, line, plane, volume). Substitute beads with the elements of a city, where you can freely experiment with a different kind of units and rules. Get the idea?

Will: Think about it. That’s what we call the scientific method. Quantum mechanics does not describe, is not reality, but it’s our best model so far for describing what we observe to be reality. it’s not the first model we built to describe it and it’s not the last model we’re going to build either. Each model is making a more accurate understanding of reality. They’re all just models and none of them are accurate representations of actual reality.

Scott: Does the knowledge a user gains through game play transfer into the real world? Do you have an example of people playing games where the user transferred something they learned from a game into the real world?

Will: There are a lot of things people learn from games that can’t be measured on any test. On the surface games don’t necessarily feel like education. But when you look deeper into them they really represent a fundamentally deeper level of education. There’s a common story I hear from players of The Sims. Someone will be playing the game and they really get into it. They make sure to take care of the basic needs of their Sims, getting them fed and rested before they go to work the next day. These players can get totally obsessed over making their virtual lives perfect. In doing so, a Sim might get a promotion at work the next day. At some point many players experience an “a-ha” moment — that its 2:00 in the morning, and they have to go to work the next day. Then somehow the players understand that they were taking better care of their Sim than they were of themselves. They were making sure their Sim got to bed on time, was well rested for work the next day, while the players were staying up late playing this silly computer game. For these players this is where they started understanding the strategy within the Sims as a time management game. it’s a game where you juggle many factors. Sometimes a player will step back for the first time and see their real life as a strategy game. As a player, day to day, hour to hour, minute to minute, they were making resource management decisions that would impact their Sim in the short term and long term. Then there’s the paradigm shift: What if your real life was a game, and you actually had these resources, and had to develop structures, how would you play it? This is one of those things you’re not going to measure on any standardized test. Through playing the player would walk away from the game thinking deeply about every aspect in their life. “Do I really need to do this now?” or “Should I really spend that money?” For the first time, the game caused them to clearly see the decisions they were making in every day life.

Scott: If the game is the model of a system, which happens to loosely or exactly parallel your own life, at some point, you might reach that a-ha moment.

Will: Right. People who think of themselves as really good strategy players, for some reason never think of their real life as a strategy game. If I were to treat my life as a strategy game how would I play it?

Scott: Will, thanks very much for sharing your thoughts on play, learning, and games. While we have talked about a variety of inspirations and influences across a number of professions, is there one person that has done more to shape your thinking than any other?

Will: My mother, Beverlye Edwards. She supported me with all my crazy ideas as a child. If there was something I was interested in trying or doing, she believed that I knew what I was doing, even if at the time certain ideas seemed slightly odd. Just her believing in me allowed me to keep on trying new things, made me believe in myself, made me confident that I could do something big, something special. I thank my mother, for everything I have, everything I achieved, for her wonderful spirit and the great support she gave during my childhood years and in the years thereafter. I credit all my success in life to her unconditional belief in me and support in my trying something new.

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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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