Category Archives: Education

From little Acorns – a brief history of computer games in the classroom

Rhys James Jones, Swansea University

Play has always been central to growing up, – whether it’s in the street or on a playing field – or in the structured formality of teachers’ quizzes.

These days tablet computers are in nearly every pupil’s hands and children learn through computer games – both in the classroom and at home. Children’s coding initiatives and tiny computers such as the Raspberry Pi and the BBC’s micro:bit have also become big hits in the education world, helping to teach computer basics in playful ways.

But while it’s tempting to see the gamification of education as a new development, there is in fact a long history of children using computer games to help with their learning – which goes right back to the 1970s.

This was the decade during which computers first inched out of the research lab and into everyday life, making the idea of a home or personal computer somewhat closer to a reality. In 1974, Ted Nelson, a US pioneer of information technology, wrote what is often considered “the first personal computer book” – Computer Lib/Dream Machines. It was in this book that with uncanny foresight, Nelson suggested pupils in the future would make use of hyperlinked documents, and touchscreens to widen their knowledge.

Away from Nelson’s speculation, the classroom reality was more mundane. Few schools could afford computers of their own. And for those that could, computer science meant punching instructions onto paper tape – a form of data storage, consisting of a long strip of paper in which holes are punched to store said data.

GCSE Computing – 1970’s style.
The National Museum of Computing

But in the late 1970s, something of a change happened – at least in the UK. And a worried government, concerned about Japanese innovation and threats of automation, commissioned a report from the Manpower Services Commission (MSC) and the BBC to look into how to develop computer literacy initiatives.

Designed to raise computer awareness, these initiatives happily coincided with the rise of microprocessors which were enabling the manufacture of cheaper, smaller machines. And the BBC decided to invite UK companies to submit proposals for a Microcomputer System, to a predefined specification. A system proposed by a young company in Cambridge was chosen and Acorn’s BBC Microcomputer was born.

The BBC micro in all its glory.
Public Domain

Simpler and faster

The BBC Micro, along with some other machines, could be bought by schools at half price via government subsidies.

Their beige cases and red function keys became a familiar sight from primary through to university level. But they were still expensive: a discounted “Beeb” and monitor would cost a school more than £1,000 at today’s prices.

Learning to program was simpler and faster on the Beeb than in years past, with paper tape replaced by a monitor and a beginner’s coding language known as BASIC – which stands for “beginner’s all purpose symbolic instruction code”. This meant many more students were able to engage with computer science.

The rise of the games

Then there were the games. Despite excellent arcade clones and some true originals, the cost of the unsubsidised Beeb made it difficult for it to gain a foothold as a home videogame system.

Perhaps its educational image didn’t help either – and maybe it never quite shook off what comedian Simon Munnery described as

The stench of school … most of the games would be … Isn’t Geography Nice?

The Beebs’ dominance in schools led to a torrent of educational software being released, of varying quality. Indeed, many of these early educational “games” aided nothing more than rote learning.

The stench of educational games.
Author provided

But educational initiatives helped push the boundaries, particularly in science and maths. The best-remembered games were imaginative, often programmed by teachers themselves, and learning happened by stealth. For example, the fondly recalled Granny’s Garden, while limited, took players on a puzzle-solving journey to avoid traps and witches – all rendered in teletext graphics.

Adventure was also central to L: A Mathemagical Journey, which used shades of Lewis Carroll to build players’ numeracy skills, while encouraging them to reflect on their experience.

Straddling home and school, Acorn’s software arm Acornsoft used surprisingly entertaining artificial intelligence techniques to test and extend subject-based learning. Younger, newly literate learners could encounter Podd, a floating head performing various actions at their typed command.

But in the 21st century, it’s not just learning, but the whole education system that has become a game – as schools, classes, teachers and students strive to top the board in league tables and PISA rankings. At the same time, teachers’ unions, children and parents all argue against excessive assessment and testing.

Maybe then we should all learn from the classroom videogame pioneers of the past few decades. Because although it’s clear that game-based learning has a role to play in education, there still needs to be a point to it – within a wider context.

The ConversationAnd while educational games can be creative and innovative, they are at their best when they don’t smell too much of school.

Rhys James Jones, Senior Lecturer in Digital Media, Swansea University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Australia’s digital strategy needs major readjustment

Ron Johnston, University of Sydney

Australia ranks 15 out of 63 nations when it comes to digital competitiveness, according to a new report from the International Institute for Management Development (IMD). While we’re in the top 20, the result highlights serious structural flaws in our economy that will impact our future performance and living standards.

According to the IMD, Australia has also fallen four places to 21st in the world in economic competitiveness. On both scores, lead performers like Hong Kong, Switzerland and Singapore are very different from Australia, not just in their size or geography but because of a deep commitment to growing their competitiveness and technological capabilities.

Being 15th in digital competitiveness is worrisome. On most measures included in the score, Australia is steadily falling behind and changing this trajectory will take time and commitment.

Are we digitally competitive?

IMD’s analysis of digital competitiveness is based on three (somewhat opaque) performance characteristics:

  • Knowledge: the capacity to understand and learn new technologies, which includes talent, training and education, and scientific performance,
  • The technology environment: encompassing regulatory and technological frameworks, and capital, and
  • Future readiness: based on adaptive attitudes, business agility and IT integration.

According to a summary of the IMD report by the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA is the official Australian partner for the yearbook), we have some areas of high comparative performance. These include the net flow of international students (in which we lead the world), e-participation and e-government (in which we rank 2nd respectively), and ease of starting a business (we place 5th).

But by many other measures we are at the bottom of the pack. Australia rates 45th when it comes to digital and technological skills. There’s hardly been silence on this issue: the Australian Computer Society, among many others, has long emphasised the growing labour market for IT skills, and the need to enhance training.

Singapore is surpassing Australia when it comes to digital competitiveness.
Etienne Valois/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

In education, Australia has a global ranking of 51st, down 20 places since 2013. In my view, this is substantially due to two factors. The first is the telling ranking of 52nd for the pupil-teacher ratio in tertiary education, which raises questions about the adequacy of university funding.

The second is a very low level of employee training, where we rank 43rd. The National Centre for Vocational Education and Research (NCVER) has argued that the growth of casual employment, together with outsourcing, has had a significant impact on vocational education and training (VET) in the workplace. As it states,

There has been a shift in the balance of responsibility for VET in Australia. Employers using labour hire or outsourcing have tried to shift the burden of training onto the labour-hire firm or the outsourced service provider. However, these organisations are in turn trying to minimise any investment in training. At the same time the government’s role in direct provision of generalist and comprehensive trade and vocational training has declined in favour of support for a training market and user choice.

Given regular reports of the failings of Australia’s slow internet and broadband rollout, it comes as no surprise that Australia ranks 40th for internet bandwidth speed and 54th in communications technology. What chance for a “smart country” when we cannot invest in the necessary infrastructure?

Finally, despite the almost daily reports of cyber insecurity, and announcements of investment by government, our current ranking on cybersecurity is an alarming 40th. We clearly lag well behind most other countries in preparing for this new threat.

So what might be done?

Specific policies focused on these failings are not the answer. Australia’s innovation policy has suffered for years from fragmentation, short-term measures, changes of emphasis and an almost indecent desire to “clean the slate”.

Rather, as has been emphasised by the Academy of Technology and Engineering (ATSE), each of these elements needs to be seen as interconnected, and afforded support over many years. The ATSE has said,

Australia needs a suite of complementary measures to incentivise innovation which are delivered at sufficient scale, with sufficient funding, and with the long-term support and stability necessary to be effective.

For Australia, the difference between us and Singapore is all too evident.

Its government-affiliated Committee on the Future Economy released a commendable seven-point national economic strategy in 2017. The group suggested, among other points, substantial measures to boost trade and investment through a “a Global Innovation Alliance”, the requirement for companies to play a stronger role in developing their workers and further building digital capabilities.

In contrast, we have little problem taking on 5 to 10 year projects to expand the housing supply, build roads, airports and dams, but seem to baulk at investment in what has become the biggest driver of economic competitiveness – the generation and application of knowledge.

The root cause of Australia’s continuing decline in competitiveness may well be what Ross Garnaut and others have labelled the country’s “great complacency” – the “she’ll be right” attitude that assumes because we have prospered in the past, it must inevitably continue.

The ConversationSuch critics will be proven correct if we continue to imagine our future wealth is a matter of providence, as opposed to welcoming major reform and investment in education.

Ron Johnston, Executive Director, Australian Centre for Innovation, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Playing a science-based video game? It might be all wrong

Alex Leith, Michigan State University

You look down from the sky, manipulating the world and seeing how it responds to your changes. You are able to alter vegetation and climate while watching their effects on the surrounding organisms. In this way, and many others, digital games provide excellent opportunities for players to learn about complicated subjects, including the concept of evolution through natural selection. Even games designed for fun and not specifically for education can provide rich, concise, dynamic representations of complex science, technology, engineering and math topics.

Since I was young, digital games have successfully supplemented the educational process in a range of topics, including math, science and biology. Research shows that if these games are going to actually teach those concepts, they must represent them accurately. Games that include incorrect depictions teach the wrong lessons.

Since Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, evolution has been understood as a process based on genetic differences between individual organisms of the same species. There are three key principles:

  1. Organisms with genetic advantages for their environment are more likely to survive and reproduce, while organisms whose genes make their bodies less suited will die more quickly and reproduce less effectively.
  2. Because these characteristics are genetic, they are passed on to offspring.
  3. Organisms with genes that improve their survival will have more successful offspring, which will in turn pass on their advantages to the next generation.

Some colleagues and I looked into how well current games could serve as educational tools, specifically about evolution. We examined how Darwinian evolution was represented in 22 games, which we located either through game databases like GameSpot or IGN, or through Google searches. Most games got evolution at least partly wrong. Only five accurately represented all three key principles of evolution.

The five that got it right

A screen-capture of a Norn interacting with its environment in ‘Creatures 2,’ developed by Creatures Labs and published by Mindscape.

Creatures” provides a rare example of the three principles. In that game, players create cartoon-like creatures called “norns,” through a process that allows norns to be altered not just in terms of appearance, but at the genetic level. For the most accurate representation of evolution, the game offers a play mode called “wolfling run.” In that mode, players cannot directly affect their norns, but can observe their relative fitness for a particular in-game scenario. The potential variations in both norn creation and the environment they must survive in provide for an astonishing number of evolutionary possibilities.

Maxis, best known for creating the “SimCity” game series, and its spinoff “The Sims” collection, also made a set of games called “SimEarth” and “SimLife.” Like “SimCity,” both give players top-down control of a world. “SimEarth” was designed for players to make major changes to the weather, landscape and animals to create an environment. Players were then able to see how the animals would fare in this created environment. “SimLife” was more specific: it has players engage with the animals (rather than merely creating them) to learn about the biology surrounding their survival.

A screen-capture of ‘Who Wants to Live a Million Years,’ playable on the Science Channel website.

We also found two academically oriented games that loosely presented the three mechanics of evolution: “Selection Game” and “Who Wants to Live a Million Years” (which was later renamed “Charles Darwin’s Game of Survival”). The two games were designed to be simple tools that could be played quickly in places like museums. Despite the limited mechanics present in such games, they still clearly show each element of the evolution process.

Market success doesn’t mean accuracy

The most commercially popular game we found didn’t quite get evolution right. “Spore” left out something many other games did, too: Organisms’ genetic differences didn’t affect their survival rates. Instead, organisms whose genes were unfit for the environment would not necessarily die more often, in keeping with evolutionary principles. Rather, players could intervene and increase an organism’s likelihood for success by, say, helping it move more intelligently and strategically, beyond the scope of its genetically predisposed movements.

Nevertheless, “Spore” does a reasonable job presenting the broader concept of evolution to players, and is the best such game made this century. (“Creatures,” “SimEarth,” and “SimLife” are all from the 1990s.) “Spore” is also still available for purchase, so it is the only game readily usable by the average educator or student.

But other findings were disappointing. Most games inaccurately portrayed evolution, usually in the same way Spore did – allowing player intervention to save organisms that were unfit for survival.

For these other games, evolution becomes more akin to mutation during a single organism’s life than a process that occurs through generations. In “E.V.O.: Search for Eden” and “L.O.L.: Lack of Love,” players earn points they can spend to modify their organisms. In “Eco,” at the end of each level, the player arbitrarily changes an attribute, though not necessarily one that affects an organism’s survival prospects. In each of these cases, what the game calls “evolution” is actually external genetic manipulation, rather than inheriting particular traits.

The ConversationThese inaccuracies may confuse those unsure of what evolution actually is. If other scientific subjects are similarly poorly depicted in video games, the potential educational benefits of these games could be lost. However, as game designers become more adept at modeling scientific themes, it could herald an educational revolution.

Alex Leith, Doctoral Candidate in Media and Information Studies, Michigan State University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.