ADIOS TEACHERS [creepy robot voice]

Just kidding, but what is happening around the developing world is probably enough to scare the most anxiety-ridden among us.  This article tells how kids in a remote Ethiopian village are teaching themselves how to read and, perhaps more interestingly, how to hack the tablet computers they were given.  (Someone had decided to disable the camera on all of them!)

I first learned of kids teaching themselves how to surf the Internet and speak English after a friend recommended a TED talk by Sugata Mitra.  You can watch the video or read this article, which tells how he got started.

Mitra calls this Minimally Invasive Education (MIE), and as someone who has traveled through some areas in South America and Mexico, think carefully about what Mitra says about the learning he studies: in rural areas, even when there is a school, the teachers aren’t any good.  What does he mean by that?  I personally struggle with the idea of good and bad teachers–it takes a village, you know.  Put one of those good teachers in a bad school and see how well they do.  Put a bad teacher in a good school and see what happens.  But what Mitra is talking about is the style of education given in rural areas.  Often teachers use outdated methods, focusing entirely on rote memorization.  Only the “smart” kids do well.  What MIE allows is access to knowledge, with the only barrier being the skill-set the child develops.

It has to be a radical constructivist’s dream come true: (from the first article linked) Box of tablets dropped off in village.  Kid opens boxes, finds on switch, and within two weeks they were singing ABC songs in English.  Within 5 months they figured out how to enable the disabled camera function.  BAM.  In their study they also find that the kids start teaching their parents English.

[I don’t want to sound like I’m cheerleading for the destruction of non-English cultures.  It is hard to argue with how impressive the results are, but let’s not forget what is lost.  But here’s the thing: change happens, and if we want to preserve cultures, we need to document them.  These days, by the time you finish documenting the culture, it’s already changed.  And you change it by documenting it. There are lots of cans of worms here, so I’ll sign off before opening up three more.]

Resource of Note

Richard Byrne has been blogging for five years at freetech4teachers.com, and he is a curator extraordinaire.  He has won many awards from the “bloggies” and continues to share great resources with sometimes multiple posts per day.  Perhaps of interest to members of the IT570 class, he has a link at the top for “PLN,” which happens to look a lot like a PLE, but rather than using a blog, he encourages the use of Twitter, Classroom 2.0, or The Educator’s PLN.  His linked presentation provides some tips for getting connected with others.  The benefits, I suppose, are assumed to be great.  During our class, I joined Twitter, followed a few education news groups and a few famous educators, and now I already have more resources than I could ever use for my 401 classes and ideas in general.  The limitations of Twitter, the 140 character limit, is overcome by most through including links to more detailed information.  Today I found a webinar tweeted by Education Week on flipped classrooms that I plan to watch tomorrow when I’m on a PC.

It’s Already Here

This weekend I visited my mother, who held a party in her home in North Carolina for my sister and her new husband.  My sister, Laura, is trying to re-learn Spanish.  As a former Spanish teacher, she is enlisting my help, but she is joining the e-learning revolution as well.

“It had the best reviews,” she justified.  Clicking, buzzing, fart-noises, and music reminiscent of Mario Brothers was coming from her phone as she tapped the screen and said words out loud in Spanish.

It was MindSnacks, an app that has games to help learn Spanish.  In the years I have known my sister, she has never once expressed even remote interest in video games.  In recent years, she refuses to play games of any kind.  No Scategories, no Cranium, no Taboo, no card games.  So even though I have seen the e-learning trend growing and growing, I was still surprised to hear her yell out, “I’m almost on the fourth level!”

I went over to look over her shoulder as she played the next round.  “You have to go fast,” she explained.  She was clicking viernes or turquesa as what appeared to be a water level behind the options was dropping to the bottom of the screen faster and faster the more points she earned.  When it would hit the bottom, the phone emitted a fart noise and her game was over.  “I earned 800 points that time.  The rhino dies if you lose the next one.”

This popular app employs rewards, punishments, humor, speed, and feedback.  If you can put your stigmas aside (if you have any left), you can see why digital games for education can be (and are) powerful.  Check out this article with an overview of what makes a video game good, educational or otherwise.

For anyone interested in the learning theory behind digital games, one of the authorities on the subject is a guy named James Paul Gee.  He writes mainly about the power of games in terms of cognitive learning theory, but also in terms of motivation.  A preview to one of his articles is linked here.  In it he picks out 16 concepts from cognitive psychology that video games exemplify.  For example, (p.36).  This seems to be less academic than what I was looking for, but a colleague of mine, Vittorio Marone, is in the process of writing a paper framed in more traditional educational psychology terminology, and once it’s published, I’ll be sure to share it.  In it, he examines the ways in which video games reflect principles of behaviorism (trial and error, law of readiness, schedule of reinforcements), social cognitive theory (enactive and vicarious learning, goal progress feedback), constructivism (ZPD, collaborative learning), and many other theory families.

As I look around, I see more and more people engaging in e-learning, much of it voluntarily.  My friends’ babies are learning colors, numbers, and names of fish.  I’m learning the constellations.  My brother in-law is using Khan Academy to learn chemistry.  As Gee says, “…Lots of young people pay lots of money to engage in an activity that is hard, long, and complex. As an educator, I realized that this was just the problem our schools face — how do you get someone to learn something long, hard, and complex, and yet still enjoy it?”  He implies that we should see how we could better design classroom instruction to utilize the powerful characteristics of games.

There’s at least one thing schools don’t have that games do: choice.  Students are compelled to attend, required to take classes, take state tests, etc.  Even if they were all “gamified” they would be missing one of the keys to motivation: choosing what you want to do.