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Posts Tagged ‘education’

Over the last year, I’ve been involved in various qualitative research projects relating to teachers and how they interact with museums and use their educational resources, especially mobile or online resources, whether on a visit or in the classroom. In doing so, I’ve noticed a number of common themes coming up again and again that might be useful for other museums considering how best to work with and provide for schools.

A note: these are undoubtedly generalisations, and you will find teachers who do not conform to this, but these responses have been consistent enough throughout several different projects for me to think that if you want to be most effective for most teachers, you will need to consider these things.

Also, you are going to notice one word coming up a lot: “easy”. Make life easy for teachers. They work hard, they don’t have much time or budget. Make it easy, and they are much more likely to use your resources.

Make online resources easy to find

Teachers, by and large, are extremely time poor. They do want to find great new resources to use, activities and games to help them teach literacy, images to illustrate a historical topics, etc, and actually already spend a great deal of time looking for them. But they are swamped, and will tend not to look beyond well-known resources sites such as TES or “teachers pay teachers” (or corporate subject specific sites, sometimes that they are subscribed to) or Google. And when they google, they tend to use the key stage as a search term (or “primary/secondary”), the subject, and a word like “game” or “poster”.

Whilst some do go to a museum website that is well-known to them as having resources on a particular subject (e.g. the British Museum for Egyptian history), for the most part teachers are not going to trawl through lots of potential museums to see what resources they may have. So, your stuff will have to either be prominent on a resources portal, or high up the search rankings to be seen.

Alternatively, you will have to work harder to reach teachers directly, but when you do so, remember that:

The benefits must be easy to see

Again, always assume that teachers have no time (or energy) to spend a lot of effort trying to figure out whether your resource or session is what they need, whether it is appropriate for the age group, what it covers exactly, what is required to use it, and how long it is expected to take. Make this easy for them, by spelling it out up front, and by including good images such as screenshots of it or that show it being used.

The fact that it was created by a museum does give it some authority, but generally teachers will use whatever works, whoever it was made by, if it is easy to use and find.

Registration is a barrier that most teachers won’t bother getting over, especially if you can’t trial anything first, so don’t make that a requirement unless you aren’t bothered about losing a lot of customers.

Make the visit easy, don’t ask them to prep for it

Teachers don’t generally prepare for museum visits. Even if directly asked to check out the app they will be using, to recce the gallery, or to send over information about the students before a booked visit, they rarely do. See above re time and energy, but whatever the reason, instead of wondering why teachers don’t do this, and why the visits are sometimes chaotic as a result, better to just not rely on this preparation for the visit to work.

So, make sure any activities you have planned work without prep; make sure any digital resources come with a good introduction and, ideally, direct facilitation (seriously, this is what makes digital work well in these situations, a good facilitator); give teachers information they might need on the spot when they arrive (suggested activities for free time in the galleries, background info, questions and themes etc). Make it easy for them, and I’m sure they will appreciate it.

If you need information in advance, be proactive in seeking it out, don’t wait for a teacher to email. Also, I have noticed that teachers generally do not use email a great deal, especially out of term time, so find a better mode of communication if you must get in contact, probably by phone. But when you do that, don’t forget to:

Be mindful of the time of year

I was trying to reach teachers for interviews in December last year. Major error. The build up to Christmas was apparently frantic, almost nobody answered my calls and emails, and I began to despair of ever being able to get hold of people. In January I tried again though, and it was much easier. Exam times will have similar issues. Out of term time is probably hopeless. But at the end of the year, teachers will be looking to September, so that may be a good time to give them some new ideas for the new year.

Make it flexible and modular

You might have a grand online interactive planned or a beautiful mobile app that will teach the history of the Tudors in a single game, and so this might be hard to take, but chances are that won’t be nearly as useful to teachers as a really good image bank.

When teaching in their own classroom, they have their own way of doing things. Curriculums vary, especially at primary level, student needs vary, and teaching methods vary. For your activity or resource to work, it will be more use if it can be modified, broken apart, or flexible enough to be used in different ways. Rigid lesson plans that make assumptions about how teachers teach the subject and how long they spend on it are also likely to be unhelpful too.

So image banks are great for teachers, they can be used in presentations for teaching from the front or by the students in projects, they can be used to illustrate or enliven. If they can be provided on an open licence, all the better, so they can be repurposed and edited.

There is a bigger point here, too:

Don’t try and break the mould, make it fit with teachers’ existing practice

If you are trying to make teachers do something out of their normal way of doing things, it is probably doomed to fail. If they usually teach the Tudors with plenary classes (that are exactly tailored to their and their students needs, because they designed them that way) and an essay writing activity, your Tudor history game is unlikely to fit in here. It might be great for giving to students as homework, mind, which could be valuable in and of itself, but not much cop as a classroom activity, so don’t market it that way.

Generally, it pays to do the legwork to find out how teachers are already teaching a subject, and what the gaps and opportunities are, rather than making assumptions and finding out too late that your idea just isn’t practical in the time available. This is especially true of secondary schools, where there is a lot to cram in, and time is short.

Also, don’t assume all schools have access to ipads (other tablets are of course available, just not used that much, as far as I can tell), or that the ones that do are using them in the same way. Some are 1:1, many are using them in groups, or swapping them between classes.

Make it beautiful, easy, and solve a problem

Put yourself in the teacher’s shoes. They have a working busy life, a big class of students to keep engaged, a long week ahead and they just spent their whole Sunday marking. On Monday morning, they have to teach a tricky area of their subject, that students always struggle with, so they go in search of something that might help.

Can you give them something that will help solve this problem? Some great pictures, a short and exciting video introduction, some suggested live games to play, or, yes, maybe, a flexible interactive tool that will engage them but do more, perhaps track progress, or allow teachers to choose different bits for different students or be genuinely fun enough that kids will go play it in their own time.

Better yet, can you make it look really good? Because it does help, the students and teachers both appreciate high production values.

The best way to make sure that your resource works for teachers? Research their needs, and test it with them. I’ve found a lot of teachers very happy and willing to share their thoughts, and even just a few interviews will be invaluable for shaping your decisions.

So, I hope that’s useful. If any teachers come across this, I’d love to hear your thoughts. Is there anything I’ve missed, or misrepresented? If any readers want to hear any more detail on any of the research behind this, get in touch.

Thanks to the museums I’ve worked with for letting me share this research as well as the fabulous Teach Your Monster to Read team for whom I carried out research into classroom phonics resources.

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As I sat in the audience at a session called “Learning To Game or Gaming To Learn?” at last Wednesday’s BBC Academy’s Fusion Summit on games in Salford, I became rather frustrated. The session had been billed thusly:

How far should broadcasters use games as a vehicle for learning? Join some of the finest minds in the field as they wrestle with the future of learning games and the controversial subject of gamification.

On the panel were Mark Sorrell (Hide and Seek), Carlton Reeve (Play With Learning), Tom Kenyon (NESTA), Phil Stuart (Preloaded), John Milner (Bitesize, BBC Knowledge & Learning), and they were being questioned by Kate Russell of BBC Click. Undoubtedly a great line-up, yet it was all rather unsatisfying, and also rather familiar.

This is my attempt to explain and unpick this frustration, which is actually a more general frustration with the way educational games are so often treated with scepticism and distrust. This isn’t really a criticism of those involved in the panel, since it was just playing out in the same way that these sorts of discussions always do, and probably are always expected to.

Starting the session with a discussion about gamification didn’t help. Russell acknowledged that it wasn’t going to go down well with some of the audience, and winced as she said it (as I did writing it, ugh). So much has already been said on this subject, whether gamification is just pointsification, whether it mistakes the extrinsic trappings of gaming for the reason why people enjoy games, whether it should be reclaimed as just meaning adding game mechanics to content and so on.

Most people do seem to understand it to mean pointsification, and I can’t see this having any more than limited value. In this context, it’s also a total distraction. This isn’t really what people are talking about when they talk about games based learning in my experience, so it’s a shame it took up so much of the panel’s time. In fact, it’s a shame gamification has taken up so much time on so many conference panels and sessions over the last couple of years, can we possibly move on from this now?

But it was the next few questions that troubled me more. Russell asked “do educational games work?” And “where’s the evidence?” Now, it’s not that I think we shouldn’t ask these questions, but it seems that these questions are all anyone ever asks about educational games. The implication always seems to be that one should be hugely sceptical of such an outlandish and possibly even NEUROLOGICALLY DANGEROUS (more on that later) concept, and that educational games exponents had better have some seriously good evidence up their sleeves if we are to countenance allowing their nutty ideas into our schools and homes.

This makes me weary. It is really such a leap to see that an activity so absorbing as playing a good game, could be harnessed for learning of some sort? An activity whose very essence is about learning, as you must do to improve in any game? Does it trouble people that much that it might be possible to have fun whilst learning? (Note: not that learning in and of itself can’t be fun, but if there was a better way of educating children that all of them would really enjoy, shouldn’t we be really happy about that and keen to explore it further?) Some of the panel did indeed make some of these points, but were rather on the back foot in the face of this slightly negative questioning. Asked to think of evidence off the top of their heads, they were unsurprisingly unable to cite any academic papers in support of their position.

Gran Turismo Academy was mentioned (by Mark Sorrell IIRC) where players were put in real cars, and performed brilliantly, despite only ever having played the game before.  It’s a great example, but in the rest of the discussion little other evidence was mentioned and the conclusion was that there wasn’t much out there. I couldn’t think of any either off the top of my head at the time, but a google search shows there’s a fair bit out there. I’m pretty sure the military wouldn’t be so keen on using games in their training if they didn’t have some good evidence, for example. But maybe all of us involved with games for educational purposes should be better versed in the literature (and there is definitely a discussion about better dissemination about this sort of research and evaluation to be had at some point).

Testing the efficacy of games in learning is always going to be tricky though. For example, testing existing games may show that some of them are poor learning tools, but you couldn’t conclude from that that all games are poor learning tools or that it’s impossible for games to work in this way. And perhaps this is a rather back to front approach anyway for those making the games. Using what we know about the science of learning and good gameplay to make great educational games, with the majority of the testing taking place in formative stages would surely be more effective?

This week I read the Nesta Decoding Learning report, which makes a similar point about starting from good learning principles when creating digital educational tools, and which I highly recommend. I’ve also had a number of discussions recently with people who are indeed working on this basis, which is great, and it may be that this line of thinking isn’t news to many people working on educational games and technology.

So why do we always end up on the back foot in discussions like this? Why is the default position apparently one of scepticism? Responding with examples of the odd good game based learning initiative or stats about how the games industry is huge, broadly equal in terms of gender, not just played by teenage boys in their…snore… doesn’t appear to be making a difference. I hear this defensive tone so frequently and, hands up, have definitely been guilty of doing this myself in the past. Especially to audiences I assume will be sceptical (science types, for example). I promise to stop doing that now. But I have heard this discussion about whether or not educational games can work so frequently in conferences, articles and from people outside the “industry”, and it never seems to move on.

Perhaps we’re doing it wrong. As I tweeted at the time, perhaps all this defensive navel gazing is counter-productive. Perhaps it’s merely reinforcing the impression that the scepticism is right. I think many others in this area, like myself, know in our hearts that there is much potential here; that there is something in games which could work really well for increasing people’s understanding of subjects, situations, and systems. There may well be aspects of learning that games are not good at too, of course, but I don’t think it’s so far-fetched to think they could be very powerful educational tools.

Let’s not allow the likes of Susan Greenfield and her Daily Mail pleasing nonsense about video games set the agenda around this. She might not be able to point at any actual evidence for her claims, but we can. (On another note, if she thinks games have so much potential for evil, they must be powerful things, and therefore have potential for much good too. And of course they change the brain, as any repeated activity will, and this is not necessarily a negative response, as well she knows. But I digress). Let’s not sit back and wait for others to confer respectability on this area, let’s set examples, continue to do great work, and let’s talk instead about how to deal with the real and meaty challenges facing educational games: reaching teachers, funding projects, being heard above the noise, and so on.

On that note, we do actually get into the genuine issues around games based learning at the London Educational Games Meetup group (LEGup). Please do come along to talk games, share learnings, tell me I’m full of crap, or tell me how you think we can change the tune on this issue.

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Posted in haste from my phone…

So far, SXSW has been eye opening. From the sessions I’ve been to and the people I’ve met, I’m discovering that there is a ton of work and thinking being done in the area of games for formal and informal learning across the US. At the same time, I’m finding that there is little awareness of what’s being done in this area in the UK.

Also, there has been a lot of discussion about how to make this innovative work more mainstream. It seems like pooling information, resources and learnings could be a good start, and that everyone working in this space could learn from each other. I know I could. So, this post is a plea for suggestions about how to do this, or for directions to places where this discussion might already be happening.

A google group? A wiki? both? Something else altogether? Suggestions in the comments or @ me on twitter and I’ll add them here. Thanks!

Updated after twitter discussions:

Museum games wiki as possible model: Museum games wiki

Q: are there not some serious games lists already out there?

Yes, lots of people working in this area in us but because it’s multidisciplinary it’s fragmented.
So q: is how to bring that all together.

any other thoughts from people?

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