Blogging from a teachers perspective and from a students perspective.

I am working closely with a number of teachers on blogging in the classroom and how they might embrace this communication technology. There has naturally been some who have embraced the platform while others have initially shown some resistance as they have struggled with both the mechanics of building in a digital space, but more so their uncomfortableness with communicating in this space. Many teachers still feel nervous about being “on show”. There is also the prevailing view from our generation of the “large consequences” of voicing things in the online space. I’m not sure how true that view is.

I have also been working on a term long unit of work with my friend and fellow educator Dan Donahoo. We were working with a group of 30 children aged 11 and the contrasting opinions and use of the digital world has been quite enlightening. The focus of our unit is on game making and it is an exciting and totally engaging unit for these kids.

At the start of the project I quickly built the students a blog to help us communicate with them. As we are only with this class for one hour a week I was looking for a space where they could potentially become involved with the project outside of the classroom and beyond our physical contact hours. Dan and I gave them no instruction on how to use a blog or what we expected of them in this space. Rather we simply gave them the URL and said it was available to them if they wanted to use it.

The subsequent 6 weeks and the way the blog was used by the students was incredibly informative on this generations ability to communicate in the online space.  But beyond that it was quite interesting to note the reasons for their communication how it relates to learning how it is quite different to some of our more traditional practices.

Allow me to give a few examples.

The first night there were 19 comments – this is a class of 25 and shows the ease of which they use this medium. There was little to no evidence of fear of leaving a comment an opinion or asking a question. There was no feeling of “permanency” of their digital imprints leading to a fear of learning from the environment. Something I think we need to consider in our current approaches to “cyber safety”. Maybe its time to stop condemning the young for permanent records of their youth and inexperience. Maybe it is time to embrace a different perspective.

You can note in the picture below that opinion of our class is given (thankfully positive) and information about the subject is freely offered up helping us as educators to get t know our students better.

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Secondly, Dan and I decided to upload a vague plan of where we were heading in the unit – a unit outline. A number of students had read all of the planned work and jumped ahead and started to work at the place they were ready and excited to work at. They were rejecting our linear strategies and rather learning at the point of there own readiness. This really best represents how learning works – it is never linear. Perhaps some of the students had already covered our initial work in other classes or other parts of their life and didn’t require that from our plan. Excellent. Our idea of putting up the whole course content was also to encourage immersion into the work.

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Potentially there would be kids who would so take to this subject that they would like to do it in their own time, to be limited to our system of learning which only involved the one class a week at 2.30 on a Monday afternoon. Thankfully this did prove to be the case and it allowed for us as educators to stretch out and notice how it is important for our planning to be very flexible and dynamic. Kids were moving in directions beyond our planning and we needed to allow for that rather than constrict them to or initial limitations.

Finally the blog was a great place for the children to extend each other and provide each other feedback beyond the ability of Dan and myself to do that. They would upload the games they were making and respond with critique both positive and negative to each others work, they would ask for immediate help and get quick responses rather than waiting for Dan or myself to be the sole assisters in their learning. Below Charlie expresses something he has learnt from his own investigations with the group allowing response from Dan and suggestions on how to move forward.

Screen Shot 2013-11-15 at 2.40.16 PMThe following clip shows evidence of students uploading incomplete work, not afraid of public condemnation of poor work, rather they are uploading it to generate learning – they are looking for advice and subsequently got it from other students, myself and Dan.Screen Shot 2013-11-15 at 2.49.58 PM

One final thing of note, that will hopefully encourage many nervous teachers to jump in. While being one of the main educators involved in a game-making unit I have never created a game in any of the platforms the students chose to create in. I have used many others but not these ones. As a teacher you don’t need to be an expert in software – you need to be able to set up learning environments that allow for a degree of student empowerment allowing you to manage the environment and push the students to go deeper in their inquiries.

Digital literacy, gaming and contemporary narrative writing

What constitutes digital literacies is an interesting topic in contemporary learning environments. When I was teaching in a school I spent much energy trying to convince the “literacy team” that they needed to alter their definition and subsequent approach of literacy to incorporate digital literacies, in this way I was hoping to introduce a more inclusive use of ICT by a method of subterfuge.

At that stage digital literacies was a term that was merely talking about film and early stages of web literacies.

Doug Belshaw an educator who works for Mozilla when trying to answer the question of what constitutes digital literacies recently wrote ;

“My short answer to such a question would be that it is a ‘convenient hypocrisy’. By this I mean that it is a term used ambiguously (both consciously and unconsciously) by people with multitude of different backgrounds and intentions. However, given that it is a term that has entered common parlance, I would hope that this thesis clarifies at least three things. First of all, I have argued that speaking of a plurality of ‘digital literacies’ makes more sense than endless attempts to define ‘one literacy to rule them all’. Secondly, I have suggested the essential elements that should make up any contextualised and emergent definition of digital literacies. Finally, I have attempted to argue that the process of coming up with a definition of what constitutes ‘digital literacies’ is at least as important as the outcome of that process.” http://dmlcentral.net/blog/doug-belshaw/ontology-web-why-i-learned-stop-worrying-and-love-learning-standards

I agree with many of the points Doug raises. The term is now almost undefinable and therefore of so much more importance from an educationalist perspective – particularly to my old literacy team.

If we just talk about films: Peter Greenaway the highly respected British film director recently said that he believed the traditional movie was a dead art form. peter1

It is one based on the narrative structure of the 19th century novel – and this template gets repeated over and over and over again. There has been little to no progression in the format since its beginnings. In this it strongly parallels opera as a story telling devise and a medium of entertainment – it is now viewed as a quant entertainment with sentimental values but of no real importance in regards to its artistic and cultural value.

One of the reasons for this is its inability to adapt rapidly in much the same way as the rest of technology-based art forms have.

For example film is extremely narrative based, generally linear and highly dictatorial in approach – by that I mean it is one way. Everything is imposed upon the audience, from on high. The audience is being told the story, they are told what to think, what to feel, when to cry when to laugh etc. Everything in the movie making process is aimed it this. The music written supports the emotion the director is looking for and further attempts to manipulate the audience into feeling that emotion. The same applies with the lighting, editing, camera angels and so on.

There is no room in for the audience to actively participate in any way rather than just sit and passively go along with what they are being told to do. Now this can be very enjoyable for many people but I would argue that most people have progressed from this form of entertainment/learning and are now looking at the ability to have a say themselves, or be involved in the process.

This is the space that digital games become very, very interesting – especially from a learning perspective.

There are many games that fall into the same category as the traditional movie. The narrative is entirely predetermined and the gamer must merely do as there told, but there are also many games that have moved well away from this.  assasins creed

Games such as L.A Noir or Assassin’s Creed do follow a narrative. The difference is instead of passively watching it unfold; the gamer can become part of it. They adopt a character within the narrative and play out the role, often times being forced to make choices that will influence how the original story plays out – much like a choose your own adventure book but a lot more immersive. Another game that does this and is great for younger kids is Little Big Planet. These narratives or stories are generally very complex and nested within other existing narratives and .can take months to unfold. However there is still a fair amount of control within these games – the settings, places, etc. are all predetermined as they are all set within a particular storyline.

little big planetWhen interviewing a 14 year old boy on why he liked games he said “because I get to choose what I want to do, unlike school where we are constantly told do this or that in games that I play I don’t just have to go a kill everyone to move to the next level, I can decide which way to go, how to deal with it. It’s a lot more fun having a bit of control.” This is also referred to as free roaming within a game. Batman Arkham City is one game that plays in this way – you can do the missions or “simply go in wonder around and play your own thing, play your own story.”

This notion of perceived control is also an interesting one from a teaching perspective. Recently when interviewing a fantastic teacher, Roland Gesthuizen he stated that “ you need to give choice to students but not too much choice…If you give to much choice people inevitably make no choice or the worst one “

To me games using this model are the natural evolution from movies – they have narrative, they have cut scenes using traditional visual techniques but moving on they allow for reediting of the narrative in a controlled fashion.

Beyond that and also of great interest to education is the game that is fully immersive and has almost no predetermined narrative structure. This includes games like Minecraft and Gary’s Mod and to a certain extent Disney’s Infinity..

These games are providing a framework for the player to enter and then leaving it up to the individual’s creativity to do whatever they want.

When recently watching a collection of students playing Gary’s Mod they were collectively interacting and communicating with each other, they were building there own characters, they were inventing there own games within the game and moreso they were inventing their own narrative within the games they were playing – that is narrative within narrative. Look at all the potential literacies learning that could be leveraged off this space.

This is an example of the game makers understanding this generation and providing them with autonomy, the ability to be self-directed and beyond that providing them the ability to be highly web connected. These three concepts are what our education system needs to understand and embrace.

To quote Australian educator –  Richard Olsen  -  How are our education systems to respond to students as autonomous,  self-directed web connected learners?

Minecraft Project 2 – A Very Complex System

Evidence of Emergent Phenomena in the Minecraft project.

Complexity Theory – the science of all sciences. It is a theory that has been used (amongst many other things) to study the stock markets and traffic conditions in an attempt to try to explain stock market crashes or traffic jams. Complexity theory states that when you have a complex system a thing called emergent phenomenon will appear (or emerge). A complex system can be defined as a collection of interacting objects competing for a limited resource.

The emergent phenomenon arises generally without the help of a central controller. It would be almost impossible if a central controller had to recreate a traffic jam. As Neil Johnson says in his great little book Simple Complexity:

“A universal feature of Complex Systems is : emergent phenomena can arise without the need for an invisible hand. Instead the collection of objects is able to self organise itself in such a way that the phenomenon appears all by itself – as if by magic.”

As the phenomenon is emergent it has not been predicted or planned for, it is generally surprising and can be extreme.The precise nature of the phenomena depends on how the individuals objects in the system interact and how interconnected the are.

One thing observed in this new science is that the behaviour of the objects involved in the complex system is greatly effected by feedback and they can adapt their strategies dependent on their history (through memory). One final and interesting point is that a complex system always shows a complicated mix of ordered and disordered behaviour.

I love this theory for it’s slap in the face to nonsense that is the traditional reductionist approaches to understanding the world.

In our Minecraft project (which I spoke of in my last post) we have 140 students building a new world in a MMOGing (Massive  Multiplayer Online Game). They are all in there building at the same time. I would describe this a complex system and the observance of the emergent phenomenon has been eye opening.

As the students are in total control of this Minecraft world which they are creating, the project has become very student driven. This has had the unusual effect of driving the content we are teaching to a much deeper place. Our initial aim was to cover some science based curriculum teaching about our solar system but the demands bought about by the conflicts and collaborations naturally forming up within the group of 140 new citizens has taken the “science learning” to a far different and more relevant place.”

For example the children demanded that districts were forms in order to maintain some sense of organisation on the new planet.  This was never planned for or expected. Those districts have taken responsibility for the tasks that they see as important to survive on this planet eg the technology district has seen the need to create energy to power the planet. This has lead to confrontation as some students wanted to develop nuclear energy while others wanted to go down the wind farm, green energy rout. To overcome this confrontation both sides have done extensive scientific research into their relevant areas. This research has led to some students changing their minds, others sticking to their guns but solutions have been achieved. The teachers involved were suddenly required to assist in new scientific study far beyond what they had originally predicted – we are now assisting in the learning about desalination plants, the use of methane as a source of energy, how is nuclear energy actually created and so on.

For this style of learning and teaching to be successful it requires teachers that are very adaptive, open to new learning, operating as facilitators and able to drop their own egos and needs for power. In an ideal world all teachers would have these fundamental skills.

There are literally hundreds of other examples of emergent phenominum being driven by the group which I will report on over the next few weeks.

Now lets talk about one of the other points I Mentioned earlier and have blogged about previously – feedback. All of the students research and work has been reported in a wiki space. I find this to be an extremely effective feedback mechanism for our COMPLEX SYSTEM. Every child can see every other child’s work and ideas, they can take ideas from others they can input into other students pages, they can survey the citizens when needed, they can communicate effectively – they provide powerful feedback to each other and the network drives itself to deeper learning. Screen Shot 2012-12-01 at 6.59.19 PM

I cannot express how exciting this project is for staff, students and parents because of the emergent phenomenon we are observing which has the effect of driving the network or system (or student body and teachers) to a very interesting and exciting place. The evidence of deep and personalised learning is overwhelming. Have a look for yourself. AURORA 5/6Z WIKI

Minecraft Project

At NFPS we are a school very focussed on gaming in education (using digital games to teach).
Some of the games we have used include  Civilisation and Sim City to teach term long units on government etc. We have done entire term projects on game making (looking at programming skills plus narrative development etc) in the grade 3/4 area. We used programs such as Scratch, Atmospfir, Sploder and Game Salad to do this.
We also use a lot of games on mobile devises in the Jnr levels to enhance the numeracy and literacy program.
This year we received a schools specialisation grant  to investigate the use of gaming to teach and part of this has linked us into working with Deakin Uni and their researchers, investigating some of the things we are trying to achieve.
This term, in an attempt to teach a science based unit looking at biospheres we are using the game Minecraft across all the grade 5/6 classes (140 students).
The premise is the world is coming to an end and all 140 of us  have to move to a new planet. Decisions need to be made before leaving Earth and Arcs are getting designed in google sketch up and prototypes being built using a 3D printer.
Everything we need to establish our new planet is going to be taken with us so decided upon pre leaving. Then we all fly to our new planet.
The new planet, called Auroura 56 Z will be simulated in Minecraft.

I have built a minecraft server for the school where all the work will be completed.
It is a very interesting project to observe. The way we set these things up are the it is mostly student driven with the teachers working as facilitators to the learning.
The kids have organised themselves into 5 districts (technology and industry , agriculture, discovery and education, recreation, city and culture) and have started to build.

One thing of note observed so far in this project is  the levels of bureaucracy the kids are bringing into the game – demanding the establishment of councils and committees. A lot of it has been driven by their existing knowledge of the game.
I regularly meet with a group of 10 kids  who advise me on game play and how to adapt it to enable the efficient and smooth development of our planet. The project has raised a lot of questions regarding global warming – what causes it, how can we avoid it on our new planet – do we really need to mine everything etc. Furthermore  the game based project has raised very interesting discussion about policing – people can obviously destroy other people’s work in the Minecraft environment – how do we control this amongst 140 players (these decisions are all controlled by the students)

All of the students work is being recorded in a wiki. This allows them to collaborate and plan across classrooms as well as reflect on their learning and cross pollinate ideas. An example of a designed arc is below.

Digital Gaming In Education, Aiming to Transform Not Merely Enhance

I have attached an article I recently wrote for technology In Education Magazine talking about the extensive program of digital gaming I have incorporated at NFPS. Gaming is used extensively throughout our entire curriculum including games such as Minecraft, Little Big Planet, Civilisation and Sim City along with a host of IOS games. I also speak about gaming enabling a school to move from its use of technology from being a substitution for other formats or beyond that an augmentation of other formats through to something that  modifies or ultimately redefines the learning. This is where the technology become transformative.

Gaming In Education – Aiming To Transform, Not Simply Enhance