Monthly Archives: May 2011

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My two sons, seven and eleven respectively, enjoy games. They quite enjoy a game of Uno, Monopoly or Sorry, but their favourite form involves digital formats. They both own a Nintendo DS, we had a Nintendo Wii and an aging Playstation 2, plus they share the family Windows desktop where they are very adept at finding different forms of games to play. The portable DS systems go with us a lot - over to the grandparents' house on a Friday or in my office or classroom when one of them is dropped to me while the other goes to swimming or speech therapy. The boys go through phases with games, feeding off each other's choices with my younger, Joshua, usually leading the way and his older brother joining in when he feels he can see what the whole thing is about and whether there is an appeal for him. The phases sometimes tie to other media - last year, Joshua started getting into the Star Wars series of films where he started buying Star Wars themed Lego with his pocket money and we ended getting the Star Wars Lego Wii game that he promptly and systematically starting working his way through. Aaron never bit during this particular obsession but earlier this year, Pokemon became the new focus for both boys.

I started thinking about the Pokemon factor in games and culture in general for kids when considering Digital Literacy for a presentation I was planning for the canned CEGSA/SLASA conference. It was easy to see as it quickly become part of the everyday conversation and paraphernalia around our home. It started with a DS game, Pokemon Diamond and a Christmas gift Pokepark for the Wii, and has currently expanded to a small collection of small plush toys, a couple of very complex Strategy Guide and Pokedex books and even ended up with the hardcore gamer action of pre-ordering the latest Black version of the DS game before its early March release. That was a strange feeling, standing in EB Games handing over contact details and trading in old games to build up credit to pre-purchase a game that would be sold out within a day and impossible to get quickly any other way. It has spread to research as well, as the boys have hunted down details of pre-DS games - Red, Blue, Emerald, LeafGreen and the list goes on.

"Awww, I wish I could play these games, Dad. They look cool."

"Well, actually you can although it's not really legal. The games you found listed on Wikipedia are all from a system called Gameboy Advance that you can't buy in the shops any more. Fans of these games have converted these games into files you can play in an emulator on the computer."

"What's an emulator?"

"Just a version of the original game system that comes up on your computer screen. You search for these game files, called ROMs on different websites, download them and you can run them pretty much like the original game through the emulator."

"I want those games now!"

So, old skool video games are easy to find and use. Leaving aside the ethical issues surrounding IP and the hold that multinational companies like Nintendo and Sony have on the minds of our young people, it is an amazing way hands on way to explore the history of video games and how the gameplay and graphics have evolved to become more sophisticated and rich in both narrative and challenge. It is interesting that the quality of the imagery is not all that important to my boys - what you do in the game and where you can go is vastly more important. Gaining experience, unlocking levels and gaining new powers and characters are the key components for them. I even had to take Joshua back to the store to use their wi-fi to pick up a virtual gift card in the game that would unlock an unique character only available for a short period of time (again a deal for those dedicated pre-ordering customers) because it would give him credibility back in the school yard when discussing prowess with his friends.

They both enjoy a variety of game sites online although I've had conversations warning them off certain sites that have very virus-y looking pop-up windows that they blissfully ignore. Joshua would already have five or six free memberships to online sites that contain some form of in-world interaction, ranging from the World of Cars site to the fun Poptropica. As with any popular game, user created content abounds in the form of FAQs and walkthroughs. When Dean blogged about Lego Universe, I told Josh that I probably allow him to join if the fees were reasonable but so far, Australia seems to be too small a market for inclusion. Again, creative enthusiasts are doing things like creating a US based identity, paying via Paypal etc, in order to gain access.

There are times when my wife and I worry that maybe the boys spend too much of their time on gaming but that could be just our own insecurities surfacing. After all, I'm not much of a gamer. My two favourites are actually Guitar Hero (despite having extremely limited musical ability) and Need For Speed (ironic for a guy who drives a Toyota) but I can see how engaging they are for my boys on a daily basis. It's even more than that though - gaming is part of their culture, it forms a core part of their conversation and how they relate to their peers and offers pure no-strings-attached pure enjoyment.

How we make sense of the world beyond our own personal day to day experiences?

For me, it started with books mixed with the occasional dose of television back in a fairly isolated childhood back on the farm. My first impressions of what life might be like in the English countryside were shaped by Enid Blyton books and popular music culture via Molly Meldrum and the weekly Countdown Top Ten. I was so insulated in this rural, Lutheranised existence that when I started Year Five at the Appila Rural School (school population: 13 kids) I had no answer to the typical Australian playground question, "Who do you barrack for?" My then best friend went for the Port Adelaide Magpies and so I did. His favourite player was Russell Ebert and so he became mine. Saturday afternoon SANFL broadcasts on the radio and Saturday evening replays suddenly opened up a part of the world that I had no idea existed.

So information flowed to me through newspapers, radio, books, films and television, painting a collective picture of the world beyond my day to day experiences. My concepts of other countries, of other places, of other people were all shaped by this information drip feed. And I thought that I was pretty well informed although in reality, my grasp was pretty opaque in its clarity.

Contrast that now to the view of the outside world that I now get through digital technologies. Much has been written about the fire hose effect of the web but the freedom I now have to pursue any line of research or interest that I want is bringing my learning to an unparallelled level. A concept or topic might come up in conversation and via the internet, I can be tracking down digital pieces to bring together a richer and deeper understanding. Maybe a few examples paint the picture about how the web can fill in the gaps of comprehension.

A few years ago, my class were covering an inquiry unit on the plight of refugees and we were lucky enough to have a student teacher of Serbian background whose family had fled war torn Sarajevo speak to the students about her experiences. That talk prompted my own curiosity and via the web, I easily found articles, video clips and images that helped to grasp some (definitely not all) of the wider perspective of an extremely complex situation.  I could read first hand accounts from multiple perspectives, view the work of photojournalist Ron Haviv or view any number of first hand home video accounts on YouTube. All of this adds up to a much more complex and informative picture than any sanitised television special or reference book could provide.

Digital information and media delivers more detail, more avenues to explore and a greater opportunity for self-participation in the pursuit of learning than mere paper based text or traditional media can deliver alone. That does not mean that traditional outlets don't have a part to play in my expanding knowledge of the world that I cannot see, touch or feel on a daily basis but my greatest moments of clarity happen more and more online. Individuals who I have never met face to face offer insights into their personal life that enable me to peek into the ordinary and mundane (to them anyway) parts of their everyday life that I find personally interesting and insightful. Be it Doug Noon's descriptions of an Alaskan winter, the first snow fall in Chris Harbeck's Winnipeg, Sue Waters' tweets about American Coke or Leigh Blackall's family trip to the Philippines, I get a little taste of the world beyond my limited suburban Australian vista.

It does reinforce the old adage that the more you know, the more you start to realise that you don't know very much of what there is to know. The internet is the greatest repository of human knowledge ever assembled and traversing its vastness one network link at a time is all one person can do.



Australian students in Years 3, 5, & and 9 have just spent the week taking the annual NAPLaN tests. With some controversy last year over cheating allegations, there can be no doubt that the label of "high stakes" can now be applied to these tests. It doesn't seem to matter what is said about the fact that a test like this is only a snapshot of student capability - the inclusion of this data on the MySchool website causes a lot of angst amongst students, parents and educators as the media and politicians line up to judge their worth individually and collectively. There are fears that the data will be twisted to tell an unflattering story and one school at least has moved to deny the MySchool site that NAPLaN derived data.

AS MORE than 300,000 NSW students sat the first of three NAPLAN tests yesterday, parents at a small private school in the Blue Mountains staged a boycott to ensure its results will not be reported on the federal government's My School website.

But schools whose principals or teachers encourage children not to sit national literacy and numeracy tests may face disciplinary action in future, the NSW Minister for Education, Adrian Piccoli, warned.

I also had an interesting conversation with one of my colleagues who had caught a television interview with Linda Darling-Hammond where she was convinced that the education adviser of President Obama’s transition team had said that the US was moving away from high stakes testing. Because I rely on my Google Reader filled with the savviest educators from that part of the world to keep me informed, I was skeptical. I've been reading over the last few years about how intense and how data driven schools have become in America that I was sure that my colleague must have been mistaken. So I went hunting to find out for myself what was being said.

Professor Darling-Hammond said Australia would be wiser to follow the examples of Finland, Korea, Shanghai and Singapore, whose 15-year-olds achieve the best results in numeracy, literacy and science in comparisons with other developed nations.

"The US is taking a U-turn away from test-based accountability,'' said Professor Darling-Hammond. ''We hope not to meet Australia heading in the other direction in seeking policies we have sought to move away from."

From The Australian:

Professor Darling-Hammond said Australia's national literacy and numeracy tests, NAPLAN, were not "intellectually ambitious" but "bubble"and provided only limited information about students' capabilities.

And The Age:

Linda Darling-Hammond, Professor of Education at Stanford University, said the perception of improved results in New York was created after performance standards were lowered. Once standards were readjusted, results "crashed".

Professor Darling-Hammond, who advised US President Barrack Obama on education during his presidential campaign, and who was reportedly among candidates for the position of education secretary in the Obama administration, will address educators in Sydney tonight, warning Australia against repeating the same mistakes the US has made.

She says NAPLAN-style testing has failed in America. Standardised tests in the US have been criticised for narrowing the school curriculum to reading and maths and multiple choice formats. Punitive measures had resulted in teachers "teaching to the test" to improve results, which determined whether schools and teachers would receive bonus payments. Judged by student results, many of the best teachers fled the underperforming schools that most needed them.

So, my colleague was right about what Darling-Hammond was saying. But what I'm curious about is the statement that the US is "taking a U-turn". Is that true or just wistful thinking on her part?

My local professional association, CEGSA in alliance with SLASA are holding a joint conference starting on Friday 13th May. What is really cool is that Judy O'Connell, one of my favourite Aussie edubloggers is the Friday twilight keynote, and I'm really looking forward to meeting her and hearing her speak. Judy has always been encouraging of my online efforts and generously gave me a thorough tour of Jokaydia in Second Life when I was getting the feel for that environment.

I'm also presenting one of the sessions after the keynote, and have decided to do a bit of ramble through the world of digital content in the search for what constitutes digital literacy in 2011. Unlike Judy, I won't be guaranteed an audience which is always a risk when investing so much personal time for a presentation. Maybe I'll post the script and slides after the event for anyone interested. Here's the abstract:

Digital Content Meets Digital Literacy

The world is awash in digital content - we connect to it via the internet, our desktops, our laptops, our tablets and our mobile phones. Traditional media (newspapers, television, radio, books and magazines) has had to quickly adapt to the new world using a combination of reaction and adaptation. This ubiquitous digital content has changed what it means to be literate forever. So what is worth noticing in this “digital sea”? What should the average educator know about digital literacy? What should they be aware of in a world where all information, true, false, theoretical and fictional, is only a search away?
This presentation will be an exploration of the current digital landscape - connecting the dots between how traditional media is adapting and how user generated content and social media bring their own set of new literacy requirements for educators and students alike to grapple with. By taking a close and critical view at this array of digital content, you will see that literacy needs to expand beyond print and traditional authorship and educators need to well informed in order to become digital literate themselves if they are to equip their students to cope in the world as it currently exists.

Hopefully, I'll get to have a chat with Judy at the conference dinner later on Friday evening. It is always nice to meet online colleagues face to face.

Update: Unfortunately, the conference has been postponed for the foreseeable future. I'll have to wait for another opportunity to meet Judy! was