Children as Makers

In the MakersCory Doctorow paints a picture of a not too distant future, where a global economic downturn has led to an explosion of tinkering, innovation and creativity. This explosion is coined the ‘New Work’ movement and draws similarities to the dot-com boom of the 90’s. This ‘New Work’ movement empowers the average person and inspires a renaissance of sorts, almost removing the idea or paradigm of the centralized working environment. It creates a new culture, one of joyful discovery and inquisitiveness, of collaboration, and one where innovation is not only valued, but necessary to remain competitive in a fast-changing world.

This culture, dominated by amateur creators, no longer values corporate hierarchies or structures. People evolve with an ever-changing, and increasingly sophisticated technological world and are not tied or shackled to institutions that try to maintain the status quo, and they in turn, create new economic models and ways of doing business. This new movement is fuelled in part by the 3D printer. Wikipedia describes 3D printing,

“3D printing is a form of manufacturing technology where a three dimensional object is created by laying down successive layers of material. 3D printers offer product developers the ability to print parts and assemblies made of several materials with different mechanical and physical properties in a single build process.”

Quantum Victoria has a Dimension Elite 3D Printer that will be used for engineering processes such as proof of concept, functional testing, product mockups etc. and whilst the current costs of these devices is prohibitive, already we are seeing low-cost solutions entering the market. These printers are basically used as rapid prototyping devices at present, but not for much longer. Neil Gershenfeld, the Director for the Centre of Bits and Atoms at MIT, has been working on personal fabrication labs or ‘Fablabs’ for a few years now. These machines are still currently in their primitive stage, but Gershenfeld predicts that within 20 years every home will be equipped with a ‘Fablab’.

In 20 years, imagine not going to a jeweller to buy a new watch – but instead designing your own and fabricating it in your own home. Imagine being able to build anything you ever need in your own home, then imagine the effect that this will have on society, economics and industry.

New and emerging technologies like 3D printers are radically altering the landscape in which we live. By harnessing the potential of these technologies we can ensure systemic and fundamental restructuring – but to take full advantage of the opportunities this paradigm shift affords, we need children to have a passion for new ideas and creative tinkering. If innovation is seen as the successful implementation of creative ideas, then play is an integral part to the development of these passions we require our children to have.

Whilst most adults recognize the importance of providing young children the opportunity to play in educational environments, the connection between play and learning is often talked about dismissively, referred to as ‘just play”, and discussed as if in a dichotomy with learning. The ‘back to basics’ movement should be about reconnecting pleasurable emotions with learning and encouraging a playful environment – one that is not clinging to romantic notions of nostalgia but instead suited to the needs to the 21st century. This new approach would enable learners to develop the creative-thinking skills that are critical to success in todays society – in other words it would encourage children to be makers.

The Makers is technically science fiction, but really could be a commentary of society in the early 21st century. It resonates with many of the themes that are current in today’s society such as open source v proprietary, the individual v the corporation, intellectual property and out of date copyright laws and infringement in the age of the remix culture. 

Download your own free copy of Makers by Cory Doctorow here.

Change and a Better Future

As part of the scholarship application process for Creative Innovation 2011, I was asked to respond to the question,  “In this super-connected world, what is your idea for change and a better future?”

This is my response.

Catalyzed by technology and fueled by creativity and innovation, fundamental and exponential change is now a common part of the super-connected world in which we inhabit. In this rapidly changing world in which we live, technology is driving change and is increasingly a means for empowerment, a method of communication and socializing, and a ubiquitous, transparent part of many people’s lives.

A better future can be achieved by harnessing the potential of technology to provide equitable access to quality education thus ensuring systemic and fundamental restructuring and economic prosperity for all. By leveraging open content and the idea of having the entire sum of all human knowledge at your finger tips, barriers of geographic isolation, socio-economic status and disadvantage are removed. Young people now have the ability to learn what they want, when they want and from whom they want and are not constrained by their location or the knowledge and quality of their teacher. Young people now have a voice and can be a contributor to peace, economic and education reform, the improvement of public services and many other aspects of society.

Traditional schools currently face a challenge unprecedented in our history. How do we adequately prepare students for a future that is yet to exist and constantly changing? How do we ensure students enter the workforce with the most important skill of the 21st century – learning how to learn?

To meet these challenges, I have been part of a team establishing a new initiative, Quantum Victoria.

Quantum Victoria is a new centre of excellence and innovation in science and mathematics which is currently being built in Melbourne, Australia. Quantum Victoria aims to re-energize science and mathematics education across Australia by:

  • Increasing students’ interest, participation and engagement in science and mathematics, and encouraging more students to pursue careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM)
  • Expanding the knowledge base of teachers and increasing teacher capacity to engage students

Our blend of in-house and online outreach programs will embrace cutting edge, aspirational technologies with a particular focus on games technology, providing virtual reality experiences, augmented reality, CAD, 3D Printing, robotics and mechatronics.

We are currently involved in International consortia that are investigating:

  • New and best practices in online education for STEM students and the professional development of teachers
  • New models of student-driven STEM learning that are engaging, lead to higher retention rates and promote learning how to learn.

With the increasing pervasiveness and ubiquity of technology the physical, social and virtual worlds are colliding, merging and enabling us to form new ideas about teaching and learning. At Quantum Victoria, we believe that all children can excel in STEM disciplines, including computer science, which they will need to work in the multi-disciplinary, high-tech industries of the 21st century.

The obstacles we currently face as we implement our initiative include old mindsets and resistance to change. Quantum Victoria believes that new, innovative forms of teacher professional development are the cornerstone to building teacher capacity in the 21st century. To excite the next generation of STEM students, Quantum Victoria will offer educators a unique opportunity to re-envision their curriculum in ways that are relevant for today’s learner.

Students with STEM skills, combined with innovation and entrepreneurship, will be equipped to find solutions to current and future problems such as clean and renewable energy, climate change, poverty, health, etc. and this will lead to changes that ultimately improve the world.

Factory of a Better Tomorrow

Little Big Planet 2 is a multiplayer game that catapults the student into the role of developer/designer and producer. It gives the students an array of tools to build levels and then share them with the world. Using this game promotes 21st century skills such as problem solving, creativity, communication, collaboration and higher-order thinking. The game includes an accurate physics engine that allows exploration of a host of physical and mathematical concepts such as force, momentum, gravity, drift, scale, radius etc.

This is the first of many student activities I will be posting – enjoy.

acer Iconia Tab A501 – Review

The tablet has dimensions of 260x177x13.3mm and weighs in at around 730g, weighing a good 100g more than an iPad.  Whilst 100g doesn’t sound much, using the Iconia Tab for any lengthy period of time results in fatigued forearms – it really is a two-handed device.  (The acer protective case for about $50, that folds into two positions, is a must and gives your forearms a rest.)

The display is a 10.1 inch LCD capacitive touchscreen with 800×1280 pixels – and is actually quite nice to look at. It boasts NVIDIA’s Tegra 2 mobile processor and verison 3.0 (Honeycomb) of Google’s Android platform. At the moment the Iconia Tab A501 can play back video at 720p HD, but with an upgrade coming soon via Honeycomb, will soon play at 1080p. The stereo speakers are surprisingly good, sounding much better than the sound coming from an iPad, and of course the Iconia Tab comes with a 3.5mm headphone jack.

Other features include:

* 32 GB flash memory

* 1 GB RAM

* 5 MP, 2592 x 1944 pixels, autofocus, LED flash rear camera

* 2MP front camera

* microSD card slot catering for up to 32GB of extra storage

* HDMI port allowing 1080p video output 

The user interface of the Iconia Tab is at times a little unresponsive — launching applications can sometimes take a while and the user interface is perhaps not as intuitive as it could be. The touchscreen also appears to be somewhat insensitive. Battery life is about 6 hours with intermittent web surfing, video streaming, game playing etc. Streaming video from Youtube over Wi-Fi was very good and the interface enables you to stream 720p with a simple touch. 

Whilst supporting Flash, the Iconia Tab still has difficulty in loading and playing Flash-based web games…. And whilst on games, the one thing that continues to under-impress me is the quality of tablet games currently on the market. Aside from classics like the very simple and yet at times infuriatingly difficult Angry Birds, the current games on the market lack depth, sophistication and replay ability. The Iconia Tab comes with Let’s Golf, Hero of Sparta and NFS Shift – the later whilst sporting nice looking graphics, basically only uses the gyro functionality of the tab to allow the player to steer – whilst fun for about 5 minutes, that’s all there is to it.

Downloading the DocstoGo app for $15 allows for viewing of Microsoft docs, pdf’s, and gives the ability to create new docs and edit existing ones – it also allows the Iconia tab to read your usb as an external storage device. (I have noticed that some apps on the Android market are device and location specific…) Video playback from usb supports H.264, mp4, oog, wav & wma – but no native avi support is frustrating. 

Starting at around $690 in Australia (JbHiFi), which is only slightly less than the starting price for the equivalent iPad 2 ($800), the Iconia Tab is still not quite there – especially considering the latest report from McAfee; the popular anti-virus maker reported that Android was the most targeted mobile platform for malware during the second quarter of the year.

Student Choice

One of the main concerns I hear from teaching staff in general, is that they do not have the time. I understand their concerns – I really do. Teachers are being asked to do more and more and not being given any extra time to do so.

In 2009, a Year 7 Home Economics teacher that I have previously done some work with, had for the past several years, got her students to produce a written report on Kitchen Safety. You know the type, “Write a 2000 word essay on Kitchen Safety.”After having several discussions about students use of and abilities with ICT, I asked her to consider giving students some choice. I said,“What about giving students the opportunity to present their work using some form of multimedia – what about a video?” 

The teacher replied, “But I don’t know how to make a video.” I replied, “Great! With ubiquitous access to the internet, a teacher no longer has to know how to do everything.The small shifts teachers can make in their practice involve giving students choice, relinquishing control and becoming a learner again. Relinquish control and you may be surprised at what your students are capable of!”

The teacher in question decided to give the students the opportunity to submit some form of multimedia presentation instead. This work was to be done at home and with no teacher guidance.

This is a sample of the type of work submitted. The teacher in question was absolutely blown away. She had no idea that her students were capable of something like this.

Now you decide. Which is better? This short movie or a “googled” written report on Kitchen Safety?

acer Iconia Tab A501

I am in the process of reviewing the A501 acer Iconia Tab. The tablet features impressive specifications — boasting NVIDIA’s Tegra 2 mobile processor, a 10″ screen, version 3.0 (Honeycomb) of Google’s Android platform and a range of other features including USB input. Other features include:

  • 32 GB flash memory
  • 1 GB RAM
  • 5 MP rear camera
  • 2MP front camera
  • microSD card slot
  • HDMI output

First impressions are that it is heavy (765g according to the packaging), navigation is not as intuitive as iOS, there appears to be a slight delay and some insensitivity built into the touchscreen, and that some apps for the Android platform are device specific…

So, is it going to challenge the iPad – not if first impressions are anything to go by. More details soon.

Infographic: How Video Games Are Changing Education

Video Games and Education
Via: Online Colleges Guide

The Normalized Child

In Video Games & Learning, Kurt Squire quotes The Absorbant Mind from Maria Montessori written in 1949:

“Normalized” children, aided by their environment, show in their subsequent development those wonderful powers that we describe: spontaneous discipline, continuous and happy work, social sentiments of help and sympathy for others…. An interesting piece of work, freely chosen, which has the virtue of inducing concentration rather than fatigue, adds to the child’s energies and mental capacities, and leads him to self-mastery….One is tempted to say that the children are performing spiritual exercises having found the path of self-perfectionism and of ascent to the inner heights of the soul.

Instead of normalizing test scores so that we have a nice bell-shaped curve, wouldn’t it be prudent if we devoted our energies into promoting what Montessori describes as “normalization?” ie. Enabling students to develop a,

“Love of work that includes the ability to chose work freely and to find serenity and joy in that work.” (The Absorbent Mind, pg.202)

This is what the ‘back to basics’ movement should be all about – awakening students interest and curiosity and empowering them to pursue this interest, thus igniting a passion for learning.

Video Games and Learning: Teaching and Participatory Culture in a Digital Age, is a strong argument for the question “Why Games?” and is littered with case studies that show how games can be used for learning. Squire has an obvious interest in strategy games such as Civilization and uses this to frame his arguments.

Highly recommended. 

Valve’s Learning Space

Portal 2 is a game primarily about Physics – the game pits the player against an AI unit called GLaDOS who at one point in the game states, “Speedy thing goes in, speedy thing comes out.” From Newtonian Mechanics such as mentally calculating the vectors of force and velocity, potential & kinetic energy, momentum, conservation laws to things like Modern Physics, such as Einstein-Rosen Bridges from the theory of General Relativity – Valve has made Portal 2 perhaps the most compelling online learning space that currently exists for the teaching & learning of STEM.

Allowing students to grapple with Newton’s Laws in a visual way will appeal to most and perhaps even excite a new generation of students interested in science. What Portal 2 does so well in my opinion is that whilst a majority of the physical laws are true to their real-world counter-parts, at some stages Valve violates these laws – allowing the player to experiment and explore what might be. Allowing players to act out these thought experiments or Gedankan, a concept that Einstein made famous, allows deep connections to be formed by students in relation to their prior knowledge and experiences.

Using FRAPS, students could create Machinima exploring and explaining the Physics within the game – but what is really powerful is having students create a mod of Portal 2 using the Authoring Tools. By having teams of students create a full-blown mod of Portal 2 you have them involved in true inquiry as they have to first learn the Authoring Tools, think about character design and development, narrative, scripting, level design, physics, flow and story. Students are part of an iterative design process as they mould and shape their product. And what about voice acting for their characters? To make an AI-sounding voice students have to learn about pitch, modulation, frequency, amplitude, period – a hands-down better approach to teaching students about sound and wave theory. This is a true systems thinking approach that has real world connection – a simple and elegant solution to the declining number of enrolments in STEM courses around the world. Wrapping the study of this stuff around 3D graphics, vector geometry and computational and aesthetics principles that are tied to game development will excite even the most academically disaffected student. In provides a context.

This is the first in a series of posts that will detail the use of the Portal 2 Authoring Tools and how this learning environment can be used to promote STEM Education. Games are permeating life – lets harness their potential as effective learning spaces.