2010 HASTAC/MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competition

The HASTAC/MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competition will soon be accepting applications. There’s good money to be secured for your projects and it’s open to South Africans. I was a judge for the competition last year and can confirm that they look for innovation from developing countries — so we should go for it!

2010 HASTAC/MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competition

We are pleased to announce that all information regarding the 2010 international HASTAC/MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competition—including detailed category explanations and guidelines, critical deadlines, application materials, etc.—is now available at www.dmlcompetition.net.

The theme of this year’s Competition is Reimagining Learning and there are two types of awards:  21st Century Learning Lab Designers and Game Changers.

Aligned with National Lab Day as part of the White House’s Educate to Innovate Initiative, the 21st Century Learning Lab Designer awards  will range from $30,000-$200,000. Awards will be made for learning environments and digital media-based experiences that allow young people to grapple with social challenges through activities based on the social nature, contexts, and ideas of science, technology, engineering and math.

The Game Changers category—undertaken in cooperation with Sony Computer Entertainment of America (SCEA) and Electronic Arts (EA),  Entertainment Software Assocation, and the Information Technology Industry Council—will award amounts ranging from $5,000-$50,000 for creative levels designed with either LittleBigPlanet™ or Spore™ Galactic Adventures that offer young people engaging game play experiences and that incorporate and leverage principles of science, technology, engineering and math for learning.

Each category will include several Best in Class awards selected by expert judges, as well as a People’s Choice Award selected by the general public.  The online application system will open on January 7 and will include three rounds of submissions, with public comment at each stage.

Please see www.dmlcompetition.net for all details.

Beyond the computer lab: Rethinking ICT for education

Today I gave a presentation at the 3rd Annual Education Conference in Southern Africa called …

For the fortunate learners in South Africa who have access to a computer lab at school, they often only spend 30 minutes per week at these PCs. At the same time, up to 90% of youth have access to a cellphone. The argument of my presentation is that we — educators, researchers, policy makers and parents — need to engage with the full gamut of ICTs and digital media in the lives of young people when we think of their teaching and learning. It is the only plausible response.

Cellphones and (digital) gaming present opportunities — and risks — for learning. It is time to seriously consider the digital lives of young people — to exploit the concomitant opportunities and minimise the risks — so that the growing gap between their in-school and out-of-school experiences is narrowed.

Even in the computer lab, much more needs to be done to fully utilise the affordances of ICTs. Researchers from the University of Cape Town, Mastin Prinsloo and Marion Walton, present a bleak case study of how early literacy is taught at one primary school in Cape Town. They describe their observation of learners and teachers in the school’s computer lab in Situated responses to the digital literacies of electronic communication in marginal school settings (2008):

The teachers enthusiastically supported the use of this [pre-reading] software because it was consistent with their own ideas about how reading as a basic skill should be introduced: as a drill and practice activity.

Children encounter literacy in the context of the authority relations and pedagogical practices that characterize schooling in this setting.

The way they were expected to behave in school contrasts sharply with the potential of ICTs for children’s experimentation, self-instruction and individual choices and creativity

We really need to change this. If that is all we’re going to use powerful PCs for, then we might as well not bother.

Of muppets, literacy and ICTs

Yesterday I met with a team from Sesame Workshop, the non-profit organisation behind Sesame Street.

The Workshop develops innovative and engaging educational content delivered in a variety of ways  — including television, radio, books, magazines, interactive media, and community outreach. Taking advantage of all forms of media and using those that are best suited to delivering a particular curriculum, the Workshop effectively and efficiently reaches millions of children, parents, caregivers, and educators — locally, nationally and globally.

Sesame Workshop has been running for almost 40 years and is the world’s largest single educational provider.

In South Africa, Sesame Street is known as Takalani Sesame. The local production — aimed at ages 3-6 — develops literacy, numeracy and has a special focus on HIV/AIDS safety. Through it’s star character, Kami, the world’s first HIV-positive muppet, the show promotes HIV/AIDS tolerance and destigmatisation. Takalani Sesame has also run campaigns aimed at teenage youth and caregivers.

Takalani Sesame: Moshe, Zuzu, Elmo, Zikwe, Kami (Image: Sesame Workshop (c))
Takalani Sesame: Moshe, Zuzu, Elmo, Zikwe, Kami (Image: Sesame Workshop (c))

The TV and radio shows used to include snippets of all official South African languages. But according to Seeta Pai, Sesame Workshop’s director of international research, this was not an ideal approach: “Research showed that children would tune out a language that they didn’t understand, so it became counter-productive.”

Now each TV and radio show is fully recorded in 9 of the 11 official South African languages. The new “applied language approach” is better because, “educationally, it is sound to give children a cognitive and language foundation in their native tongue,” says Seeta.

So, what were we meeting about in New York? Sesame Workshop, and the relatively new Joan Ganz Cooney Center, have always sought to use media for educational purposes. In the 1960’s, the notion of using TV for education was radical. Today, that same radical approach is needed when we consider ICTs such as cellphones, video games and even modernised versions of the bioscope (as used by Sesame Street in Bangladeshi slums) for education.

Sesame workshop has already run literacy campaigns, aimed at parents, using cellphones (see Learning Letters with Elmo), created a pilot virtual world called Panwapa, has a YouTube channel and a series of podcasts.

But what about Africa? At the meeting we spoke about what possibilities the media and ICT landscape in South Africa, Nigeria and Tanzania, present for teaching literacy and numeracy. Sesame Workshop would like to conduct an on-the-ground feasibility study of ICT access, as well as survey existing educational interventions and content, to inform its future work in these countries.

Future projects could leverage the full gamut of media, including TV, radio, mobile, CD-ROM and even cheap plug-and-play TV games.

The Shuttleworth Foundation will certainly keep the conversation going as it is in line with our desire to focus more on Foundation Phase literacy and numeracy.

EU study endorses games for learning

The article Video games encourage creativity is interesting, not because of any new findings in the study that it describes, but rather because the study was commissioned by the European Parliament Committee on the Internal Market and Consumer Protection and that it endorses games as good for learning.

It’s always encouraging when governments take a mature view on video games, when they recognise “the benefits and no definitive link to violent behaviour.”

The study calls for more parental involvement — this is obvious and necessary.

Brainstorming an ARG

Last week I held a brainstorm at the Shuttleworth Foundation to generate ideas for an educational alternate reality game (ARG) for youth in South Africa (SA).

In the world of learning games, as ARG is a good fit for SA because players don’t need sophisticated equipment, e.g. XBox or PlayStation, to play. Reading the newspaper or being able to receive and send an SMS can be enough to get involved.

ARG brainstorm

As far as I know this will be the first educational ARG in Africa. Attendees included Vincent Maher (who heads up social media at Vodacom), Alixe Lowenherz (education, curriculum and e-learning expert), Danny Day and Marc Luck (game developers), Barry and Patrick Kayton (of Bright Sparks) and Graeme Comrie (advisor to Hip2b2).

While the ARG idea is top secret right now (:-) I can tell you that it’ll involve mobile phones (which cross-media experience in SA wouldn’t). Watch this space in the coming months!

The educational value of fiction

In a recent paper, a research team from Manchester University and the London School of Economics (LSE) makes a bold and very interesting hypothesis: that fiction, such as the novels The Kite Runner and The White Tiger, is a legitimate way for people to understand global issues like poverty and migration. It is usually the domain of academic reports and policies to cover developmental concerns.

In a Telegraph article, Dr Dennis Rodgers from Manchester University’s Brooks World Poverty Institute explains that fiction “does not compromise on complexity, politics or readability in the way that academic literature sometimes does.” He continues: “And fiction often reaches a much larger and diverse audience than academic work and may therefore be more influential in shaping public knowledge and understanding of development issues.”

The paper argues that Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner has “done more to educate Western readers about the realities of daily life in Afghanistan (under the Taliban and thereafter) than any government media campaign, advocacy organisation report, or social science research.”

The paper offers the obvious caveat: that fictional works should be read alongside (not instead of) formal research “as valid contributions to our understandings of development. In this way, literary accounts can be seen – alongside other forms – as an important, accessible and useful way of understanding values and ideas in society.”

Why is this particularly interesting? For educational purposes, the value of fictional representations is legitimised. I’m not thinking of books though, but rather digital and cross-media representations, such as video games or alternate reality games (ARG). We are constantly trying to engage young people in current affairs that affect their world — this is one way to do that.

For some time ARG designers have been trying to understand the educational value of the games (we already know they are highly engaging for some players, but what are they learning?) This paper gives credence to the belief that the game play, when embedded in real world situations and stories (at which ARGs excel), is a legitimate context for learning. I think that when the game play is then tied back to reflective discussions in formal contexts (such as in the classroom), the learning is even more powerful.

Computer game boosts maths scores

The BBC reports that a daily dose of computer games can boost maths attainment, according to a study carried out in Scottish schools.

The study involved more than 600 pupils in 32 schools across Scotland using the Brain Training from the Dr Kawashima game on the Nintendo DS every day.

Researchers found that while both groups — the control and experiment group — had improved their scores, the experimental group using the game had improved by a further 50%.

What’s interesting here is that most game literature likes to promote complex games as the vehicle for real learning, but this study shows that even drill-and-practice games help, if improving maths scores is what you want to achieve.

More on the project at Learning and Teaching Scotland.

Games and Learning Indaba in Johannesburg

Yesterday the second Games and Learning Indaba took place at the University of Johannesburg. It was very different to the first indaba held in Cape Town, I think largely because more game developers attended the Jo’burg event. In total 33 people attended, including researchers from the Meraka Institute and various universities, members of civil society organisations (e.g. SANGONeT and Women’sNet) and a number of teachers.

At the Games and Learning Indaba in Johannesburg
At the Games and Learning Indaba in Johannesburg

As in Cape Town, the reason for the event was to explore the potential that digital game-based learning holds for education (formal) and learning (informal) in South Africa (SA), especially in improving communication and analytical thinking skills.

Why did people attend the indaba? Game developers wanted to make connections with researchers and ask: are they gamers themselves? Is their work grounded in reality or based on assumptions? Researchers wanted to meet game developers. One attendee came to find out if anyone knew of a game that is as addictive as a first-person shooter, but not as violent. Civil society people wanted to know more about using games for social change, in other words, about serious games. A game developer wanted to know what companies expect to pay for games.

While not all of these questions were answered, what clearly emerged from the session was an interest between game designers and developers, academics and teachers to work together to create, pilot and evaluate games. This will be challenging, as the some of the heated discussions demonstrated, because each of these groups have different interests that motivate them.

A number of game development challenges were discussed:

  • It takes an enormous amount of time – and is therefore very expensive.
  • It requires specialist skills, often not found in SA.
  • The different belief systems and ideas between designers and developers need to be negotiated during the creation of the game.

I gave a short presentation on two gaming conferences that I recently attended.

As in Cape Town, Professor Alan Amory presented again. This quote sums up one of his fundamental beliefs about games and learning:

I don’t think you learn from technology, you learn with technology. When you are designing a learning activity, that is the object of the exercise. The tools, e.g. games, that you use to mediate that learning can be very complex or very simple. That’s a very different way to think about games. It’s not the thing – the game – that is important, it’s what you do with the thing that counts.

All games are socially constructed and have ideologies embedded in them, e.g. those of the game designers and developers. That is why there are games that promote gender bias. That doesn’t matter as long as the game is used as a tool to explore the topic of gender. It is essential to deconstruct these socially constructed artifacts. The process of deconstruction, where the game is used as the discussion starter about violence, gender bias, male dominance, etc. is where the real learning with games occurs.

A point that everyone seemed to agree upon was that gaming, as an element of an increasingly digitally mediated world, is forcing educators to rethink how they teach and how learners learn at a very fundamental level, in a way that talks to youth today.

As the discussions continue on the Games and Learning in South Africa Google Group, we will hopefully see more perspectives, collaborations and findings emerge that will help to exploit the learning potential of games.

More photos of the event on Flickr.

Games and Learning Indaba in Cape Town

At the Shuttleworth Foundation we seek innovative ways to improve the communication and analytical thinking skills of youth in South Africa (SA). One of the ways to potentially develop these skills is through digital gaming — be it on a PC, mobile phone, platform (e.g. Sony PlayStation), handheld (e.g. Nintendo DS) or some other device.

The question we are currently asking ourselves is: What potential does digital game-based learning hold for education (formal) and learning (informal) in SA, especially in improving communication and analytical thinking skills?

To begin to answer this question, I hosted the first Games and Learning Indaba (workshop) at the Foundation in Cape Town last week. The indaba had three overall aims:

  • To explore the state of gaming amongst youth in SA;
  • To identify opportunities for using games in education and learning; and
  • To identify barriers to increased use of games in education and learning.
At the Games and Learning Indaba (CT)
At the Games and Learning Indaba

While there is interesting and relevant research about games and learning coming out of the developed world, not much research has been conducted in SA. Our context is significant: we have a particular education system with its own strengths and weaknesses; our society is multilingual and multicultural; and the access to technology for our youth is varied and vastly different to, say, that in the USA. It is therefore important to understand the opportunities, challenges and findings here.

Twenty people attended the indaba, collectively representing game designers and developers, academia, university students, the Western Cape Education Department, creators of educational content, and marketers. Sadly, no learners attended; we tried to get a few there but they had to attend school!

When asked what they were expecting to get out of the indaba, attendee responses included: to get ideas for a particular game, to join a network of practitioners and researchers in this space, to see how more game-like activities can be used in school computer labs, or simply to find out more about games and learning.

Elaine Rumboll, Director of Executive Education at the UCT Graduate School of Business, described how many corporate executives were very excited about the prospect of gaming as a way of embedding learning back in the workplace. She is currently developing a game for a corporate client and wanted to connect with a group in this space.

First off, to get to know each other the attendees did some “speed dating” — meeting a stranger in only three minutes before moving on to someone else.

Professor Alan Amory
, a well known game studies researcher from the University of Johannesburg, gave the first presentation — Social constructivism in games based learning in the South African context — on game design, development and research that he and others conducted with previously disadvantaged youth in SA. They found that the highest levels of learning were achieved when there was social dialogue between game players (learners playing a game in pairs as opposed to playing alone). Their conclusion: people learned not from the games but rather with the games as they tried to solve the game problems together.

Marion Walton, senior lecturer at the Centre for Film and Media Studies, UCT, gave a fascinating presentation titled Beyond communities of practice: Understanding informal learning in online games. As part of her PhD, she joined two guilds in the massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG), World of Warcraft. Much of the current game literature portrays online gaming communities — in actual games and also on forums, mailing lists, etc. where games are discussed — as close-knit places of informal learning, mentorship and inclusion (what Gee calls “affinity spaces”). While this is true for some communities, it is certainly not true for all, as Marion discovered.

The World of Warcraft guilds she tried to join were rife with prejudice, sexism, overt masculinity and profanity. These “tribes” are highly exclusionary, with wannabe members needing to jump through humiliating hoops to join, and then play along within the harsh social hierarchies of the tribe if they manage to be accepted.

Marion’s thought-provoking research thus questions the often celebratory view of online gaming communities. Her presentation highlighted a challenge for those wanting to use games for learning and education: How to allow communities to develop that do not replicate the prejudiced practices found in the offline world? This question was discussed in light of the recent xenophobia attacks in SA.

From group discussions during the indaba, some of the challenges identified for games and learning included copyright laws in SA, the cost and logistics of distributing games, lack of funding for game development and research, the need for a more active game development industry in SA, and the challenges of incorporating gaming into classrooms.

A particularly interesting perspective was this: “When it comes to the use of educational technology, we often have to find ways for learners to ‘leapfrog’ over teachers, who are less tech-savvy.”

Overall, I was very happy with the indaba as the first tentative step to critically explore the space between “moral panic” — (“games are violent, addictive and a waste of time”) — and “blind faith” — (“gaming is the only future”), concerning games and learning. The varied group generated different perspectives on the games and learning space. Certainly there was much enthusiasm, interest and a desire for more events like this. I created a Google Group to support an ongoing dialogue on this topic.

For more, see Jeremy Setzer’s blog post about the event and the full set of photos.