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Rural Education Project conference 2008: Notes

The Rural Education Project (REP) conference was held from 27-28 August 2008 in the Western Cape, SA. In addition to my blog posts about the conference, notes from the various sessions are presented below.

Clifton Frolick, Director, Cape Winelands Education District spoke about Rural education: Challenges and possibilities:

  • Rural education (RE) refers to rural town schools, farm schools and multi-grade schools. Most schools in rural areas are multi-grade.
  • Context for RE initiatives: MDGs, AsgiSA, JipSA.
  • Features/challenges of RE:
    • Poverty, underdevelopment
    • Unqualified or under-qualified teachers
    • Isolation of teachers (not tapped into social networks) (I think that Siyavula can help here!)
    • The language of learning and teaching (LoLT) differs from mother-tongue
    • No adequate teachers in the Maths and Science
    • Lack of critical skills amongst learners
    • Limited access to ECD programmes
    • Lack of understanding of local and global environment
    • Absence of adequate transport for learners to/from school
    • Cost of school uniforms
    • Failure to complete FET
    • Hunger/illness/HIV-AIDS
    • Lack of basic services
    • Lack of ICT resources
    • Minimal district support
  • A framework for action
    • Improving quality of teaching and learning
    • Improving infrastructure
    • Strategies to attract and retain learners
    • Building partnerships to enhance community development

I can’t help thinking that many of these challenges also face urban and peri-urban schools that exist in under-resourced areas. A defining feature of the rural context, of course, is geographic isolation, which only exacerbates the perception, held by many teachers, of not being supported in their work. Any RE strategy must therefore have a local community focus.

Diane Hendricks: Changing hearts, changing minds at whole school level: Curriculum management as an entry point for whole school development. Below are interesting quotes and references that she gave about educational change as well as the role of the teacher.

  • David Hopkins argues that the complexity of changes in education challenges those involved to make huge shifts in order for impact to be seen at classroom level. “Such shifts in understanding and beliefs are difficult to achieve, but without them we will continue to wallow helplessly in the face of the inevitable” (Hopkins, 2001: 35).
  • We should also bear in mind that the factors that facilitate or inhibit change differ from school to school. Fullan, states the following, “The number and dynamics of factors that interact and affect the process of educational change are too overwhelming to compute in anything resembling a fully determined way” (2001)
  • The successful implementation of the NCS depends and relies heavily on what the teachers  do in educational institutions. No effort at educational change can ignore the pivotal role that teachers have to play in order to ensure implementation of any kind.
  • Fullan (2001:70) states the following: “Many attempts at policy and program change have     concentrated on product development, legislation and other on-paper changes in a way that  ignored the fact that what people did and did not do was the crucial variable.”
  • In an article of The Educator’s voice, South African Democratic Union writer Sherman Mannah  highlights the capability of teachers by stating the following: “The role of educators as active agents of change in society cannot be overemphasized.” (1999)
  • Books:
    • Developing Teachers: The Challenges of Lifelong Learning by Christopher Day – 1999. Teachers who wanted to improve their practice were characterised by four attitudes: they accepted that it was possible … to improve, were ready to be self critical, and to recognise better practice than their own within the school or elsewhere, and they were willing to learn …
    • Change Forces: Probing the Depths of Educational Reform by Michael Fullan – 1993. “… and hence that professional development was a never-ending process, a way of life.” ( p. 72)
    • Changing Teaching, Changing Times: Lessons from a South African Township by J. Clark, C. Linder – 2006. And finally, like the teachers in Nias et al.’s (1992, p. 73) study, “she was willing to learn what had to be learned in order to be able to do what needed or had to be done.”

Anthea Roberts: Why a text book series as a structured, systemic intervention approach? regarding the SDU’s Maths for all textbook series:

  • Their baseline studies (Primary Education Upgrading Programme and the District Development & Support Programme) revealed that teachers have too many text books. They use a bit from this book, a bit from that book. Insight: Standardised teaching and learning support materials can be one of the most effective ways to support less-experienced and under-qualified teachers.
  • Adequate resources are necessary but not sufficient to improve delivery. Schools have large quantities of learning resources. Teachers not trained to use them effectively.
  • Anthea then spoke about Beeby’s four stage model of professional teacher development (1966) as a helpful way to categorise schools on a developmental ladder.
  • Stage 2 — teachers are still insecure: open to change but easily discouraged. Siyavula can help here.
  • Who will mentor teachers from stage 2 to 3, and ultimately to stage 4?

Chester Davids, teacher from Citrusdal:

  • He unpacked the jarring transition for learners from Foundation Phase (grade 3) to the Intermediate Phase (grade 4).
  • He suggested interesting approaches to preparing the teachers as well as the learners to make the transition.

Gary Powell and Kaashief Hassan: Developing and sustaining effective learning and teaching using electronic media supported by an electronic communication network:

  • Baseline problem: group of schools targeted performed poorly in gr 3 and gr 6 assessment tests.
  • Remedial development and support for learners hampered by isolation of schools and distances between them.
  • One solution: use effective elearning tools.Support teachers with:
    • electronic media, e.g  (DVDs, CDs, etc.)
    • electronic neworking: email, cellphone, SMS, telephone and fax
    • online collaboration: chatrooms, blogs, wikis and LMSs
    • website searches and sourcing of learning materials
  • Although, challenges abound! In many situations, the computer room is not effectively used.

Gary and Kaashief often present at ACE classes. Interesting ideas above – will definitely  keep in touch.

Brenda Sonn and Karen Collet, Teacher Inservice Project (UWC): Reflection on project implementation. They interviewed many teachers and principals — some key points below.

  • Cami Maths and Cami Reading software captures learner data, but this is not mined.
  • Recommend: management should encourage to share good examples of teaching strategies, lesson plans, and assessment tasks as part of their curriculum and professional development.
  • For headmasters to champion instructional leadership, they need time and therefore cannot be full-time teachers themselves.
  • Parental support is almost non-existent in RE. They are often illiterate and very poor. Is it a middle-class Western expectation for parents to be fully involved in their childrens’ homework? Quite possibly.
  • Two ways to work around this:
    • After-school facilities where homework can be done.
    • Giving learners very basic homework to do at home — that other kids, e.g. siblings, and parents can help with.

TIP is an independent education research unit at UWC.

Dr Ronald Cornelissen, Deputy Director General, Research Services, WCED: Contextualising the Grade 6 Diagnostic Test Results:

  • In the 2003 and 2005 tests, samples were used. 2007 test: all  learners were tested.
  • Schools in quintile 5 — the richest or “least poor” schools — perform the best.
  • Learners are struggling most with: Fractions, division and multiplication.
  • Very NB to look at average results, possibly a more important figure than the pass rate.
  • The percentage of learners who are pushed through grades vs the test results is frightening, e.g. 97% of learners made it through grade 6, but only 14% got more than 50% on the standardised numeracy test. Is the test too hard, or are individual school standards too low and thus learners pushed through too easily? An audience member remarked that the tests show that the “wholesale, romantic pretense that kids are passing” is totally untrue.

Panel: Towards quality teaching and learning:

  • Sociological reality in this country that children are in trouble. Gangsterism, drugs, illiterate and uninvolved parents, violence, HIV/AIDS, hunger, etc. etc.
  • Joey Daniels: Gone are the days of schools competing with each other. The new thinking is around collaboration and sharing of ideas. They’ve started a Maths and Science school for gifted learners.

Susan Meyer and Cally Kuhne: Research directions for REP:

  • What the diagnostic test stats don’t tell us: pass rates in relation to learner age, school size, ex-Department, geographic location (relative isolation). They’ll talk to Tim Dunne about this.

Final notes:

  • Am going to meet with Gary and Kaashief, to talk about further research to do with REP, either funded entirely by SF or as SF partnering with Claude Leon Foundation.
    • IT usage in schools
    • Which ICTs are best suited to particular contexts/needs, e.g. to foster communication between teachers use SMS over email
    • Pre-service teachers: ICT-literate ones, involve in gaming, mlearning pilot?
  • Spoke to Susan Meyer about school typologies. We should keep talking about how to extend this with REP data, Beeby’s work, etc. She is an independent education researcher.
  • Jonathan Clark (UCT SDU). Talking about education research, he used the metaphor of prospecting for oil. You can’t scratch on the surface, you need to drill narrow and deep over an area and begin to map out the terrain.

The Alternate Reality Game: Learning Situated in the Realities of the 21st Century (ED-MEDIA 2008)

ED-MEDIA 2008 paper: The Alternate Reality Game: Learning Situated in the Realities of the 21st Century.

Abstract: Even though the literature has long recognized the potentials of gaming for learning and implementations of games do exist in education, there appears to be a paucity of theorizing on the potentials of Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) as effective learning tools for the 21st century. Looking through a constructivist lens, this paper is an introductory exploration of the needs of the current participatory society and how the educational utility presented by this genre can address them. As ARGs blur the lines between real and alternate realities, we come to a place at the edge of constructivism where the need for a more nuanced theorizing incorporating the ‘reality’ aspect of learning becomes apparent. As a point of departure for future research and contributions, Reality Situated Learning (RSL) is introduced as a new theoretical framework.

Current ARG: The Lost Ring.

Authors:  Magda Dominik, University of British Columbia, Canada

Opening panel remarks (GLS 2008)

Opening plenary panel remarks by J. Gee, C. Ondrejka, K. Salen, and K. Squire:

  • James Gee: need a new theory of learning for gaming.
  • Cory Ondrejka: game research spans cog psy, CS, organisational development, education – all very exciting and interesting, but we’re still not a field.
  • Katie Salen: need to move beyond pilots and local school projects in a classroom here and there. To broaden the games and learning space we need a common language and vocabulary that people can recognise and relate to, and that doesn’t make the game researchers sounds like cheerleaders.
  • Kurt Squire: the vocab should also differentiate clearly between types of games, simulations, 3D spaces, etc. It is important for the space that the terms do not become diluted where suddenly everything is a game and everyone a game designer.

Notes on assessment of game-based learning (GLS 2008)

  • The presentations on assessment were full.
  • Assessment of game-based learning is challenging!
  • According to David Shaffer current assessment models only focus on knowledge and skills, but that is only half of an epistemic frame where there are four interconnected aspects: knowledge, identity, skills and value.
  • The proposed models for assessment are very resource intensive. In one it requires a teacher who is in almost constant dialog with each learner/player/game designer.
  • Learning follows a trajectory, e.g. between point A (knowing nothing) to B (knowing enough). Of course there are other aspects to just the knowledge. Gee: in open-ended games, e.g. Oblivion, there are different paths to get to a point in the game. Over time those paths can be generalised into trajectories. So in the future the game might be able to tell a player, at any time, where they are on that trajectory. The game could even give advice for how to move players towards a desirable place. In theory, then, “testing” could happen based on closeness to trajectory and so a player — a learner — can “pass” as being skilled enough in a particular subject when they are far along enough a trajectory. Assessment then happens in situ, not on a given day in a room different from the classroom where the learning has happened.

Increasing Player Engagement Without Breaking Your Budget: Simple Choices That Make a Big Difference (GLS 2008)

GLS 2008 presentation: Increasing Player Engagement Without Breaking Your Budget: Simple Choices That Make a Big Difference.

Questions the authors, who are game designers, asked:

  • What makes a game engaging?
  • Why do people spend time playing games?
  • As a designer, what choices will make my game more attractive?
  • As instructor, how can I make my instructional games more effective?

To answer the question the authors created a very simply “game” — as quickly as you can click on a circle when it appears. They demo’d various versions of the game — each with additional features to increase engagement.

Within gameplay:

  • Provide simple, ongoing feedback, e.g. half bonus, full bonus if click quickly enough
  • Add a narrative
  • Allow for some strategy

Within media:

  • Add sounds
  • Add colours

With pre- and post-tests on the four different versions of the game, the authors concluded:

  • Different enhancements did not change level of motivation.
  • Women liked the media version the most (they played longer, had higher perceived quality and time compression on this version), men liked the feedback version most. Thus, gender matters.
  • Pre-game interest and expectation play a key role: If people were interested in playing the game, they appreciated the extra features. For those who were not interested, extra features did not impress.

This is an interesting pilot project, still a work-in-progress. The way they’re measuring engagement is interesting.

They’re going to be adding another two features in the area of Narrative: a bit of a storyline and characters. They’re also challenging anyone to take the core version’s source code and add features to make it more engaging, which will be tested. Rules: no porn, but violence is allowed.

Creating a Culture of Critical Game Designers in Elementary Classrooms and Clubs (GLS 2008)

GLS 2008 presentation: Creating a Culture of Critical Game Designers in Elementary Classrooms and Clubs.

Kylie Peppler, Alicia Diazgranados and Deborah Fields presented their findings from two different learning spaces, formal and informal, in which they used different strategies to establish a culture of critical game design among elementary age students with Scratch. Scratch is a new programming language for kids that makes media-mixing and the creation of designed artifacts easy.

The presenters, along with Yasmin Kafai, have been researching game design and, more generally, creative production as a pathway to critical reflection (Peppler & Kafai, 2007a/b). In other words, kids not just playing games, but actually creating them.

After all, as Katie Salen has pointed out:

“Beyond their value as entertainment media, games and game modification are currently key entry points for many young people into productive literacies, social communities, and digitally rich identities.”

According to the session presenters, there is ample evidence that youth are learning when they engage in computer and design programming, e.g. with Scratch. What is lacking is for youth to speak critically about their work and use the specialist language associated with learning in these subject specific areas. From the prior work in the arts we know that time for critique is imperative to help youth develop their lenses as critical and creative producers (Winner & Hetland, 2007).

The two presentations:

Formal setting: Critical Reflections With Scratch in a Second Grade Math Classroom (Peppler, Diazgranados)

  • Prior work in the arts demonstrates that time for critique can help youth question, explain and evaluate (Winner & Hetland, 2007)
  • A US math standard that is often overlooked: Making a choice and defending that choice using reasoning that’s convincing. In 2nd grade is the first time that learners get to make decisions about math problems.

Research question 1: What are the local practices to best prep the classroom and class for the exercise?

Background of the 2nd grade classroom:

  • 80 learners (20 at a time in a class)
  • Math classroom
  • High numbers of special education students
  • Urban school in LA Unified School District
  • > 70% free and reduced price lunch (i.o.w. kids from low SES homes)
  • English Language Learners (English not their first language)
  • Minority youth: mix of primarily Latino and Korean youth
  • Technology and games focus
  • Each learner has a laptop in the class (different from SA!)

As part of the process of critical reflection in the classoom it is very important to first create a comfortable, safe space for expression and critique. An exercise:

  • Play a game without instruction (become an expert)
  • Then teach an adult how to play it (the strategies, characters, etc.)

Another exercise:

  • When introduced to Scratch, the kids loved it. The kids had to create artefacts in Scratch, and then critique each others’ work using a given rubric. One group of 20 learners would critique the work of learners in another group. Peer-assessment at its best! On the back of the rubric was also an open-ended feedback space, e.g. What I liked about it, what I’d change about it, etc. And then the learners had to share that evaluation with the actual person who created the artefact.
  • The real power behind the creation of the pretty products (outcomes) is the process and the critique.

An exercise:

  • As a group they evaluated some of the existing Scratch games (developed by people outside of the class) They found that some games needed more levels, more characters, etc.


  • Much of what is covered in Scratch is beyond 2nd grade math curriculum, and they don’t have to know those things. What Scratch provides is an opportunity for defending decision making.
  • Even kids who can’t read can program Scratch. Initially it is a matter of trial and error as opposed to free creation, but the kids are still learning the tool.
  • Kids are natural data collectors. On the whiteboard the teacher showed stats on how the games were evaluated by the learners. This lead into math-specific discussions (addition, subtraction, etc.)
  • Explaining variations by the learners.

How to scale this process? Not every teacher is an amazing Alicia?

  • The team are working on a process, a replicable model.
  • Provide scaffolding for teachers. Give them rubrics. But it must be flexible enough for teachers to take ownership of the process.

Research question 2: How might game design and play scaffold or promote writing and group discussions among predominantly ELL learners?

Kids who don’t like writing (in Language class) are very happy to write up their critiques in the maths class.

Research question 3: How to develop the specialist language needed for critical reflection?

In the critiques the kids begin to use that specialist language, e.g. game mechanics, interactive design, character traits, etc.

Media literacy has moved from the 1970s from a right-wrong answer approach to a more subjective, justifiably opinioned approach. This is in line with a participatory culture where being able to critique and voice a point of view is important.

Overall benefit of the project has been to cultivate a culture of explaining why. Not just “Coz the teacher told me that” but “This is why I think that …”

Informal setting: The Role of a Social Networking Site (ScratchR) in Supporting Reflection on Design in an Afterschool Technology Club (Fields, Kafai)

ScratchR is a platform for sharing programmable media on-line. This platform allows people to publish using the Scratch programming language. ScratchR is the engine behind the Scratch on-line community, a their own animated stories, games and interactive art made in the social network of novice programmers. Unlike other user-generated content communities, ScratchR makes it easy to reuse (we refer to it as creative appropriation) other people’s creations to foster collaborative learning. ScratchR allows members to rate, comment, tag and create galleries.

ScratchR is to programming what YouTube is for video production

The research project, which set out to analyse the role that ScratchR had on stimulating critique and generation of designs in an unstructured setting, took place at an after school tech club:

  • 9 x 4th-6th graders
  • Met 3 times/week for 2 months (approx 24 meetings)
  • Played with Scratch and then ScratchR

Types of participation in ScratchR:

  • Browsing and playing projects
  • Managing image: creating their online identity, choosing which projects to share, looking for comments on their work, “friending” others
  • Critiquing and praising others’ work, e.g. on games: “it’s a glitchy game”
  • Design work: downloading, uploading, remixing

From club to wider community

  • Weeks 1-2: nothing
  • Weeks 3-4: club focused (friending, image management, browsing)
  • Weeks 5-7: wider community (from friending and affinity browsing — looking for Halo or Soulja Boy projects as opposed to Most Viewed — to downloading and remixing)

In one exercise the kids had to create geometric art projects that they had to upload to Scratchr for “expert feedback.” Yasmina and Deborah created alias accounts and gave feedback. The learners thought that their pieces were complete upon upload, but the feedback encouraged tweaks to make. Getting kids to revise work is very difficult, usually. But after this style of feedback, the kids extended their pieces to create improved, more complex pieces.

Concluding thoughts:

  • Scratchr provided an opportunity for identity construction
  • Stages of use — in first weeks they didn’t upload anything because they didn’t feel they had anything to show. From nothing, to local (club) to broader community (whole of Scratchr)
  • Provide multiple entries for challenge and design — first exercise is to create your name, then increase challenge for the learners over time.
  • Collective projects (remixing, working with others on a project, etc.)


  • Bringing social networking into the classroom
  • Allowing Google image searching for artefacts to bring into the projects

See also: ScratchR at MIT

Using an online journal (blog) in EFL writing: Learners’ perspectives (ED-MEDIA 2008)

ED-MEDIA 2008 paper: Using an online journal (blog) in EFL writing: Learners’ perspectives.

Abstract: This study seeks to research on blogs in education by investigating students’ perspectives. Students from two different junior high schools in central Taiwan were invited to participate in this study for eight weeks. Both qualitative and quantitative approaches were adopted, including interview, works on blog, and questionnaire. This study revealed that students had positive attitudes toward writing online journals with blogs. Other important findings yielded from this study are the following three themes. First, it engages students in critical reading and reflection and enhances their writing knowledge and skills. Second, the features of web links and the unpredictable feedbacks from peers attracted participants greatly. Third, writing diaries on a blog is not only a pure writing practice, but also is an activity of exchanging information and interacting with authentic context outside of classroom.

Authors: Shih-Ru Lin, Chung Shan Medical University, Taiwan; Shwu-jiuan Huang, Chaoyang University of Technology, Taiwan