Archive for the 'Classroom Tech' Category

Tuesday, November 24th, 2009

[I recently learned an article I wrote late this past summer was picked up in a publication called The State of the School Market Report. Thought I’d share with my blog followers until the time when I post more interviews as promised. Stay tuned!]

Interactive whiteboards are growing in popularity with classroom teachers around the globe.

Over the summer a relative who had just completed her first year of teaching came by for a visit. She was excited to share all the news about her classroom experience. My spouse and I are both teachers so we were excited to hear her news. She’s a smart, energetic and tech savvy person who, during her last visit, shared that she had found a great teaching position in the DC area. What she didn’t know until she started was that she would be the first teacher in her school to receive an interactive whiteboard. Not only was she thrilled to use this new technology, she said her students couldn’t get enough of it.

“What was it about the whiteboard that made your kids so excited?” I asked. She responded “The kids love to get up and interact with the board. It’s really empowering. Even students that show little interest during classroom time wanted to participate.”

“Not only that, ” she continued, “I also received ‘clickers’ with my whiteboard, so I can conduct in-class polls and interactive quizzes in real time. Using the clickers with an interactive whiteboard (IWB) allows me to know who is participating and who is not. Who gets it and who doesn’t. I’m so lucky to have both pieces of technology available to me. Other teachers in the school often poke their head in to see what all the fuss is about. It’s really cool!”

Immediately I thought of that old Chinese proverb:

“Tell me and I’ll forget;
show me and I may remember;
involve me and I’ll understand.”

Could it be that interactive whiteboards have the potential to re-invent and re-invigorate education in a way never experienced before? You bet, but that journey has just begun and there’s a long road ahead.

While following a recent House of Representatives discussion on the Future of Education, I learned more about the successes of interactive whiteboards in the classroom but was surprised to find out that only 16% of classrooms in the US were using interactive whiteboards whereas 70% of UK classrooms were using the same technology. Why was the US so far behind in implementing IWBs into classrooms? This number will most definitely rise in the US, in part due to the ARRA stimulus package that recommends schools invest in interactive whiteboard technology, but still there are more issues at stake here than just universal classroom access.

This past spring, I was surprised to find many education publishers scrambling to figure out what their interactive whiteboard product response would be. They all wanted to be a player in this fast moving ed tech arena, but it felt that not enough serious thought was going into how best to use this new medium. I could hear the publishers thinking out loud; What new products should they consider making? How should they be developed? What states should they target? What relationships need to be formed? It’s clear that there’s huge opportunity here in the IWB product space, and proof could be found in many places. Testimonials from satisfied teachers, IWB visibility at this year’s NECC event, ed newspaper and magazine articles, the projected 700, 000 IWB units to be sold in 2009. However, not all IWB solutions are destined for immediate classroom success.

In the same way that there are differences between what makes a textbook successful and what makes for a great online learning experience, publishers need to pay close attention to what makes an interactive whiteboard applications succeed. Simply converting static text pages into static PDFs is not the answer. That may work for overhead projectors, but doing so turns an interactive whiteboard into a very expensive overhead projector, a huge waste of technology dollars. Instructional specialists need to exploit the opportunities presented by interactivity and student participation. Instruction changes dramatically when you make the shift from linear print or “sage on the stage” lectures to interactive engagement. The IWB products that will succeed are ones that understand this small, but very important difference. It’s a vital component that traditional editorial experts might miss.

Media expert Marshall McLuhen, father of the phrase “The medium is the message, ” quoted years ago that when communication changes as a result of new media technologies. “It is the framework which changes… not just the picture within the frame.” Publishers might easily focus to closely on the content that appears within the frame at the expense of the entire framework. Having an intimate understanding of the framework is what will lead to “frame” successes with interactive whiteboards. Until this concept becomes universally understood by creators and publishers of IWB materials, schools might easily end up purchasing products that will do little to benefit and involve students effectively. The same can be said with any new technology, not just interactive whiteboards.

So, if interactive whiteboards become commonplace in all classrooms and IWB products include meaningful interactions that students can benefit from, our education future looks bright and rosy, yes? Well, almost.

The last piece of the puzzle that will push interactive whiteboard success over the top involves teachers. The language and method of teaching in an interactive manner may prove a challenge at first for some teachers. Not because new technologies introduce technical hurdles that are too big to get over, though that can happen. The delivery of instructional content that is interactive is different. The teaching process can change when you invite student participation and interaction though IWBs. Interactive instruction can include many more two-way conversations, involving students at a deeper level of understanding than through traditional methods. This is a great opportunity, and one that needs to be supported with professional development. Those comfortable with the language of interactivity may thrive whereas teachers who are less familiar making a connection through such interactions with technology will need guidance.

I’m excited by the opportunities that lie ahead for schools that embrace interactive whiteboards. Our young relative is too. She’s eager to return to the classroom, having just accepted a new teaching position at Virginia school that has an interactive whiteboard in every classroom. “That’s fantastic!” we exclaimed! “Yes, it is, ” was her somewhat somber reply “but friends of mine who are just now accepting teaching positions in other areas the country are not so lucky. Many of them are going into schools that have yet to invest in interactive whiteboards. I can’t imagine doing that after the success I had in my own classroom.” I said not to worry. “They will have their chance. This is a change that is moving quickly. If they don’t have whiteboards available this year, I’m betting they will soon, and I’m sure the IWB hardware and software solutions are certain to be even better next year.”

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Tuesday, October 6th, 2009

[The following is a piece I wrote for the Breakthrough Learning in a Digital Age blog to help promote the upcoming Breakthrough Learning event to be held in Mountain View, CA at the Google headquarters later this month. This conference is sponsored by Google, Common Sence Media, the Joan Ganz Cooney Center and The MacArthur Foundation. You can follow along with what’s happening at this event through the Breakthrough Learning Twitter feed.]

A new high school is being built near my office. The old high school had served its function well over time, but in recent years the level of maintenance necessary to keep the school functioning translated into diminishing returns. School committees, planning committees, state and city officials, community members, and advisory groups came together to define a new future for the students of this city. Their passionate debates about the new school’s physical construction mirror discussions that are taking place on a national scale about how best to teach our students inside these structures. Our educational practices are showing their wear, with its own version of peeling paint, cracked walls and leaky ceilings.

Being a former teacher and having spent the last 20 years running a digital learning company that specializes in media creation, I see the potential for a revolution in education through the use of technology. Learning games, social media, mobile technologies, virtual worlds; all of these advances in computing offer greater opportunities for student engagement and improved literacy learning. What is clear to me and my colleagues is that there are many vested interests in the education world that don’t see this moment quite as clearly as we do, or if they do see it, don’t know how to advance its cause.

Let’s take a look at the kids we’re trying to reach today. They are the first generation that will have never known a time without the Internet, Google, or mobile phones. They are connected to the world through a variety of different digital, gaming, and communications tools. They are comfortable with many aspects of media creation. Every day they are presented with an unlimited menu of informal learning opportunities by simply following their passions online and choosing tools that suit their learning styles. How can schools compete with a similar level of engagement and interest through digital media inside the classroom?

Teachers and teacher training are certainly a critical part of using technology to support improved outcomes, but what elements outside the classroom influence the successes we wish to create inside the classroom?

Administrators and superintendents play a key role in purchasing decisions that impact schools. How do these leaders learn what technologies are best to bring into their classrooms? Should their ed tech purchasing decisions be driven entirely by the requirements established by policies such as No Child Left Behind? How can their purchases instead address a variety of different learning styles? How can they anticipate which digital media will appeal to the interests of their students?

Pulling back the curtain to shed light on the business of education we discover two areas that impact the quality of ed tech for schools, the first being new product creation. Publishers who create instructional materials for schools are, by and large, traditional media businesses that rely heavily on print. Most publishers are eager to play a part in the digital age, but historically their development efforts are driven by an editorial process that understands linear communication through the medium of print better than two-way communication and interactive engagement through digital media. How can these professionals better address the needs of a transmedia framework?

Secondly, the process of how new learning products are approved for school usealso has great influence over the quality of ed tech products that are marketed at the state level. Publishers often find their biggest opportunities selling instructional materials to states through what is referred to as an “adoption.” During the adoption process state advisors review educational materials to see if they meet state learning requirements before these materials are blessed for purchase by schools. Could it be that the adoption process itself, or the interest of publishers, places greater emphasis on print media than digital media because it is a business they understand? These adoption processes are very competitive, and not easy for smaller and more digitally advanced companies to compete with. The large publishers who vie for a state’s adoption often include sweeteners to convince adoption boards to select their materials over another, often times giving away the technology component as a free incentive. If a technology product is given away, it usually means it is not supported financially within these organizations during development thus reducing incentives to create real breakthroughs in digital learning. How can publishers shift their business practices to treat ed tech as its own successful, revenue generating profit centers? How can states adoption boards be encouraged to place greater emphasis on learning that is facilitated through innovative technologies?

And finally, what sort of commitment should we expect on the side of government? States rely on federal dollars to help with teacher training and the purchase of technology products. One specific area within the No Child Left Behind mandate offered to accelerate the use of technology in schools is a section of the law called Enhancing Education Through Technology (EETT, Title II, Part D). Since its introduction in 2002 funds earmarked to support this commitment have declined. What is the true commitment of the federal government through this arm of NCLB?

Other federally-funded opportunities, such as Department of Education and National Science Foundation grants, have a hard time keeping up with the rapid pace of technology change. The process of reviewing a grant request, awarding and completing a grant, can take years. How can the entire grant process, from review to completion of a marketable product, be accelerated to keep up with the rapid advancements in technology? Can some amount of these grants also be directed towards smaller, more nimble, for profit ventures that are better able to chase a moving target?

Aside from the efforts described above, a long-standing opportunity to advance digital learning may be found in the promise of the CAMRA Act, also known as the Children and Media Research Advancement Act. The thinking behind CAMRA is that the federal government would fund research related to the use of electronic media to better understand its benefits to children. This bill was introduced in 2005, passed unanimously in the Senate in 2006, and has been stalled in the House ever since. Wouldn’t it be great if all organizations interested in using digital media for the advancement of children’ learning had a solid body of research to best guide not only new product development decisions, but also purchasing, implementation, and best practices of ed tech in the classroom? Wouldn’t the passing of CAMRA also put a spotlight on the need to bring together many disparate federal agencies interested in the research CAMRA would facilitate, and promote a more coordinated research agenda for the benefit of all? Combined with a sizable appropriation for the National Center for Research in Advanced Information and Digital Technologies, the passage of CAMRA would help realize the long awaited formation of a central oversight group for the advancement of digital media and learning research.

If we could in some small way address these questions in each of these areas of education outside the classroom, we would begin to see a new version, an enhanced version of education that would drive classroom success. Much like that new high school being built next to the older one, the visual difference between the two structures is striking. Maybe it’s easier for all parties involved to demonstrate a greater commitment when a clear vision of the new is offered alongside the old. The choice would be immediately clear to most. The time and effort required to make such changes may be greater than what many are willing to invest and there is comfort in keeping the status quo, but to ignore defining something new comes at our own peril. Key sectors must work together in earnest to provide us all with untold opportunities for the learners of tomorrow. Let’s start building that new structure, the future of education, and let’s place that Education 2.0 cornerstone down right now.

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Wednesday, June 24th, 2009

Assistanct Director of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center,  Ann My Thai

Can you imagine using video games as an effective tool to improve a child’s mind and physical well being? Can you also imagine video games that do more than just passively entertain and become media tools to improve a child’s life? These ideas no longer live in the domain of fantasy, and the researchers at the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, a non-profit organization named after the Sesame Street show’s founder, are exploring how new kinds of video games can help promote learning and healthy lives for children across the globe.

Yesterday at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington DC, the Cooney Center released its latest policy brief entitled Game Changer: Investing in Digital Play to Advance Children’s Learning and Health. (Note: Video of this event will be available soon on the Joan Ganz Cooney Center’s YouTube channel.) The paper was shared with a crowd of thought leaders specializing in the areas of education, public policy, research, television and video games. Game Changer defines a number of recommendations for a new framework related to learning games and games for health. After the event, which include a panel discussion from a number of pioneers in the learning games and games for health space, I had the opportunity to speak with Ann My Thai, one of the Cooney Center’s lead authors on this paper.

Scott Traylor: Your Game Changer report covers two sizable topics; learning games and games for health. Why one report and not two?

Ann My Thai: This was something we really struggled with because learning games and games for health are both large areas. Learning encompasses all types of content areas, be it literacy, math, programming, or 21st century learning skills. Health on the other hand has a certain kind of knowledge and a certain rigor in the medical field that doesn’t exactly map out in the same way to learning research, especially when you talking about educational intervention research, an area which created a really big challenge in writing this paper. In the end we decided we wanted to stay to the Sesame Workshop philosophy of the “whole child, ” or in other words, the many areas of a child’s overall development, not just one area of development. We felt it was important not to ignore one or the other but to present both topics together. There’s strong research that shows learning and health are closely connected in young children. It’s important to address these challenges in both realms when talking about digital media. We suspect these are the areas within digital media that provide the greatest benefits. They can help bridge the gap between home and school as well as provide tailor-made learning for children, areas that are really important in health learning and learning in general.

ST: In your report you cite that the health-based gaming industry is estimated to be a $6.6 billion market. How big is the learning games market?

AMT: That’s a hard question to answer. Defining what is a learning game can be tough to begin with. On one hand you have organizations that are developing learning games in a research-based way, to make games intentionally educational. On the other you have companies who are making games that are fun first, but sometimes accidentally provide great learning opportunities to kids. Financial data exists for the gaming industry generally but I’ve yet to find anything specific that defines the market size of just learning games.

ST: In your report you touch on Henry Jenkins’ Digital Media Literacies Project, a body of work that could provide valuable insights for integrating digital media in the classroom. What do you think it will take for the points defined in the Digital Media Literacies Project to find its way into the classroom?

AMT: I think it’s going to take a complete paradigm shift with everyone who is involved with educating children, from parents to teachers, to school administrators, to reasearchers like us. There are so many ways that learning can work better for students. We need to completely re-envision what it means to be a school. For example, the area of parental involvement with children’s learning alone is huge. There’s a big disconnect between what happens at school and what children do at home. Digital media can be a really powerful tool in this regard, but it won’t happen if there are calls for cell phone bans in schools because news reports claim students are cheating in school by texting with cell phones. I don’t believe this is the response that will keep kids engaged. Kurt Squire, a leading learning games researcher from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, recently said that kids pass notes in class to one another all the time, notes that have been created with pencils. We don’t ban pencils in the classroom. Pencils are a neutral medium, just like cell phones and other technologies. We need to spend more time exploring the benefits of these technologies, instead of banning them for what potential harm they may bring.

ST: Studies find that Nintendo Wii Sports players expended significantly less energy than children playing “real-life” sports. Would you say exergaming is more about behavior change than it is about physical exertion during game play?

AMT: That’s a good question, and one that reminds me of a comment made by Alan Gershenfeld, founder of E-Line Ventures, during today’s panel presentation. Alan wonders if the success of Guitar Hero has inspired children to want to learn how to play guitar. Wouldn’t it be great of we could track increases in guitar sales as as a result of Guitar Hero’s success!

I think behavioral change is one part of it. I also think about communities that may not be safe for children to go outside and play. As the exergaming pioneer Dr. Ernie Medina mentioned in our interviews, exergaming may not necessarily be better than going outside. However, if children are inside and they are playing games, playing games that require children to be physical active are a much better alternative than playing sedentary games. It’s all about a balanced media diet.

ST: How best can we achieve a coordinated effort to improve research related to learning games and games for health?

AMT: Certainly programs like the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Pioneer Portfolio national Health Games Research program is a good start. A good first step would be to get people who are developing games to communicate with others across a variety of other important disciplines. Game Changer calls for the government to conduct an inventory to determine what games research is being funded and by which agencies.   This would organize the current research and help accelerate collaboration across silos, which is already starting to happen. The government also needs to create incentives for people to work and play in the same sandbox. The way that academic research is currently being conducted is very much driven by individual researchers. There are not many opportunities for researchers to cross pollinate. This is something that digital media, as well as any other media, requires.

Researchers also need to have more communication with practitioners and people who are using these digital medias as part of their research. There needs to be more incentives to drive and encourage these sorts of collaborations.

ST: Are you hearing any feedback from policy makers about your report? What are they saying?

AMT: People are talking about these issues. This is a really pivotal moment in Washington in terms of setting an agenda for education and health. We hope that policy makers will read this report and see that if children are playing video games for hours a day, why not provide options that are not only entertaining and engaging, but also helpful with improved health and can teach children something as well. We have a briefing coming up with the Office of Science & Technology Policy. We know they have been looking at some of these barriers to multidisciplinary collaboration. We hope that our recommendations will give them some concrete ideas for how to lower those barriers.

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Tuesday, May 19th, 2009

Smart Technologies newest product,  the Smart Table

It’s often been cited that if one were to go back in time 100 years to visit a classroom one would see no difference between that classroom of yesteryear and that of a classroom today. While indeed there are many similarities between the two classrooms, there are some major differences. First, a difference that cannot be seen is the many bits and bytes floating in the air of classrooms today thanks to wireless computing technologies. Second, the surfaces within a classroom are turning into interactive screens. As many technologists within the ed publishing space are certainly aware of, the interactive whiteboard is growing in popularity. I see a trend that has yet to occur related to these new interactive technologies that can be seized on today.

Currently, interactive whiteboards (IWBs) are being used at the front of a class for instruction that just a year or two ago occurred on a blackboard or with an overhead projector. Could you imagine a classroom where each student had their own netbook on their desk that could interact with an IWB in real time? Also, looking one step beyond netbooks, recently SMART Technologies announced its new interactive surface product, the SMART Table, which could very easily lead many similar manufacturers to convert student desks into interactive desks within a few short years. How can publishers take advantage of this opportunity that is almost visible on the horizon?

A number of new products can be defined to not only take advantage of IWB instruction, but to facilitate learning through two-way conversations between IWB and interactive desktop. Such functionality could result in the next “must have” learning product. Such products would allow all students to participate in the digital instruction, alongside the teacher, in real time. Also, if every student could interact from the comfort of his/her own desk, teachers could also monitor student progress from afar either in real time or after the class day has ended. Teachers could also scan student efforts from the IWB, and project a student’s work in much the same way Timbuktu technology allowed years ago, displaying a student’s interactive table on the IWB for everyone to see.

Another yet to be explored opportunity by publishers relates to classroom use of IWB altogether. For some instructors, the art of teaching can be a linear process and for the most part, delivered as a one-way conversation to students. Interactivity begs for participation. My greatest fear with IWB materials is that teachers will use the technology to deliver content in a similar manner to using an overhead projector. IWBs allow for an interactive opportunity that is a two-way or participitory conversation, or at very least, a one-way conversation that can branch off in many directions based on student needs. What publishers are doing today with IWBs is similar to when radio professionals tried applying their expertise to television in the early days of the new medium. Content creation sensitivities for radio did not automatically port to television, and as a result, many mistakes about how best to use the medium were made. It wasn’t until the invention of the three-camera shoot and many additional “formal features” that the medium of television began to succeed as a means to communicate. What happened in these early days of television is also occurring today with IWBs and most surface computing.

What I’m noticing while my own company is defining and developing IWB products for publishers is that experimentation, user testing, and research are areas soon to evolve in this fast growing space of ed tech. Simply converting print material into PDFs as a solution for successful IWB products doesn’t fully exploit the interactive teaching possibilities that can be found with these new devices and doesn’t create the best value for the classroom dollar. True product successes will occur when publishers think outside the blackboard and outside the overhead projector to create a product that has more to do with the language of interactive engagement and less to do with that of linear print.

Average Rating: 4.8 out of 5 based on 208 user reviews.

Monday, January 26th, 2009

Can video games be successful vehicles for learning? Over the years many companies have tried to create video games that not only entertain, but also deliver some learning value. Very few of these products have succeeded in being fun to play as well as helped achieve their desired learning goals. Many “edutainment” product fail in the consumer marketplace as well as in the classroom. However, a very small number of such games reach some level of critical success in both of these domains. Why is it that few succeed where many fail? What should developers of such products be doing to increase their chances of success? What assumptions made along the way are incorrect?

Over the last year I’ve worked on a presentation to suggest a few of the difficulties in creating effective learning games. The video included below is of a presentation I delivered this past November at the annual Dust or Magic Children’s New Media Design conference, though some version of it has appeared in a number of other presentations I shared with others in 2008. After taking a look, let me know your thoughts; What is important to think about when developing video games with learning in mind? What products do you think achieve success in this area? Which ones miss the mark completely? Where do you look for inspiration? Enjoy.

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