ISTE2013 – Let the ‘games’ begin …

I am currently attending the ISTE conference in San Antonio, Texas, as part of a cohort of 10 Jewish Day School educators sponsored by the Avi Chai Foundation. ISTE is the International Society for Technology in Education, and their annual conference is unlike anything I have ever participated in — something like 17,000 participants and significant corporate sponsorship.

Microsoft is providing a ‘free’ Surface to every participant in exchange for their contact info. I suppose when you are Microsoft you can afford to build your data base in such a manner. I spoke with another teacher who said that on the flight here from Seattle, the Microsoft representatives bought drinks for all ISTE participants on the plane. Considering the amount of money schools are spending on technology, that seems like a worthwhile investment for Microsoft.

One of my concerns as I read the program in anticipation of this conference was the push for products over pedagogy. I am here because I want to learn about effective ways to integrate technology to support teaching and learning, not to find the latest and greatest shiny objects. (Actually, who am I kidding, of course I’m curious about all the new toys, but that’s not what I want to bring back to my school. That’s just for fun.)

After wading through all the promotional material, I made my way to the first session, and was very pleased to hear from an educator who ‘gets it.’ Jane McGonigal‘s presentation was titled “Learning is an Epic Win.” McGonigal is an advocate of ‘gamification,’ and using video games for educational purposes. She started off with a quote from MIT Media Lab Director Joi Ito: “I don’t think education is about centralized instruction anymore. Rather, it is the process of establishing oneself as a node in a broad network of distributed creativity.” There’s an interesting reflection to be had about that line and my school’s motto “A child is not an empty vessel to be filled but rather a spark to be light,” but I won’t go into that now.

Then she laid out some convincing arguments about the positive impact of video games, centered around the idea that ‘gamers’ experience a positive emotional experience. She describes the 10 positive emotions as:

– joy
– relief
– love
– surprise
– pride
– curiosity
– excitement
– awe & wonder
– contentment
– creativity.

This is what we strive for in all of our best classroom lessons.
So, should we be turning our classrooms into arcades?

No. But perhaps we can be turning arcades into classrooms.

After sharing staggering statstics about the number of people who play significant hours on a regular basis playing video games, McGonigal showed two examples of amazing educational experiences facilitated by video games. Evoke
is an online game created for the World Bank, to motivate and train youth in Africa to start businesses and/or change the world. For the New York Public Library, McGonigal created Find the Future, a game for mobile devices that involved welcoming 500 teenagers into the library for an overnight gaming experience involving the artifacts in the library. By the morning, the participants wrote and published a book that is now housed in the Rare Books room, between a copy of the Declaration of Independence and a Guttenberg Bible.

Pretty amazing stories, and I’d love to get my students playing these games. But I’m not ready to gamify my entire curriculum. McGonigal showed the tremendous potential that video games have to create powerful, meaningful and engaging learning experiences for students. But educators still need to make planning decisions about the educational goals, and how to best achieve these goals. There might be many items being taught today in traditional techniques that could be re-imagined using games. Of more interest, however, are entirely new goals that can be targeted using games, McGonigal’s games foster collaboration and imagination, and provide students a sense of agency. That’s something to reach for.

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