Thursday, 15 May 2008

Gaming Kids More Social, Not Less

It's SATs time in the UK for primary school kids and I'm sitting writing this post while Question Time is discussing the value of testing kids at the age of 11 in this way (my own daughter being one of them). The emphasis on testing in artificial environments that are abstracted from a real world context seems to create a lot of heated debate. The issue of stress and pressure placed on kids to perform appears to be of high concern.

At the same time, there is the usual fuss over the latest Grand Theft Auto release and how it legitimises violent and illegal behaviour (despite most people missing the level of irony and sophistication of interactive narrative the game employs).

So it's intriguing to read a research study from University of California, Davis that finds the following:

"There is a lot of hemming and hawing among educators about the introduction of technology in the early grades," said Cynthia Carter Ching, associate professor of education at the University of California, Davis. "But the worst-case scenarios just don't pan out. Technology can facilitate creativity and social awareness, even when we don't design the use of it to do so. And when we do design technology activities with these things in mind, the possibilities are endless."

In two recent studies of kindergarten and first-grade students, Ching observed that children find ways to transform their experiences with technology into fun, highly organized group activities. She also found that technology-based activities can be explicitly designed to foster social reflection and advanced planning among young children.

In their first study, Ching and Wang observed children who chose to play a computer game during their free time. Though only one child could play at a time, the children negotiated turns and gave each other advice about how to play the game."Though this is hardly the ideal setting for social interaction and higher-level thinking, the children exhibited a great deal of executive planning skills and complex social negotiations without any guidance or interference from adults," Ching said.

In the second study, children were given digital cameras and told to create digital photo journals. The students displayed creativity and engaged in complex planning at every stage of the assignment, from how they framed their shots to how they chose to organize them to tell a story, Ching found."This study shows that rather than technology being something that children merely use, it can be a creative tool for increased reflection on social networks, friendships, relationships with teachers and a sense of self within the world of school," Ching said.

These findings seem to sit well with Sugata Mitra, Professor of Educational Technology at Newcastle University's findings from his Hole in the Wall experiments (see my Learning as you like it article). By literally building a networked PC into a wall accessible in an outside space (very much like a cash machine here), and providing no direction or instruction he sat and waited to watch what would happen. One child learned to browse in 6 minutes and was teaching 70 other children by the end of the day. They interacted with content that was not even in their own language – they had to self-learn English to get to the content itself. In one experiment children managed to grasp basic concepts of biotechnology and the principles of DNA! All this occurred without a teacher or classroom.

So imagine a world where SATs were not old school exams that stress and, arguably, reveal little about actual learning, and instead were embodied in one big social, highly collaborative game environment that kids where naturally motivated to play as individuals and in teams. In the process they would demonstrate the learning and cognitive performance we are looking for. The metrics we could get from such an environment would help deliver personalised coaching and tuition for each child.

A misguided fantasy? Maybe - Tell me what you think. But whatever your view we can't ignore the positive impact that technology can make to self motivate learning at all ages and it has to challenge the fundamental ways in which we educate and train.

Ching's second study will be replayed by my daughter over the next two weeks who, having sat through her SATs, will be bounding around olive groves in Spain with a camcorder making the "TV channel with lots of cool programmes" that she's been itching to do for the past month - school got in the way of that creativity.