How Digital Will Change Schools?

Digital learning is all the craze in schooling now, especially in the Western countries. It seems at times that going digital promises to fix all the challenges and problems in schools these days. The picture is, of course, not that simple.

The first truth about digital is that digital alone is absolutely nothing.

A book read from an iPad is still a book. And often, using old media in a new platform gives a worse user experience than using the old media itself. A printed book, after all, is still one of the best user interfaces for distributing information.

In digital, I believe the old adage is true: content is king. If the content is not of high quality and well adapted to the platform in use, learning results will more likely suffer than benefit from adopting digital tools. This has, in fact, been what many schools have found out after pouring millions into digital infrastructure.

A tablet or a mobile phone alone does nothing. In the worst case, the digital tool will even contain distractions that will draw attention away from learning. Hence, plummeting learning results.

The second truth about digital, the one fueling all the craze, is that once a digital tool is used well, it can boost our activities in ways previously thought impossible.

Email, with all of its shortcomings, is a massive improvement over penning letters. Digital imaging enables us to do in seconds what used to take graphic artists hours, days or even weeks. Music, video, desktop publishing and countless other fields have benefited massively from adopting digital tools. And so may schools, if they do it right.

There are a few guidelines that I think are critical for successful implementation of digital tools in schools.

First, school districts, schools and individual teachers should direct resources for content curation. It is critical to understand and differentiate high quality material, whether it’s online content, MOOCs or learning games.

Second, this curated material should be made available to teachers as widely as possible. (To be of some help, I compiled a while ago a list of what I think are the best learning games out there.)

Third, teachers should be aware of when to use digital tools and when to stick to the good old pen and paper. Sometimes using the chalkboard is more interactive than using a smartboard. And, as I already said, often a book beats an e-book just because you can leaf through it, fold dog ears and scribble in the margin. Try doing that to your iPad.

Lastly, teachers should also make sure to eliminate as much of the distractions online tools offer. While I’m not a big fan of content blocking, in a big classroom this probably does mean turning on the parental controls on the tools available to kids.

Also, trust is key: telling kids it’s ok to use their phones as long as they use them to study might work if you have a good relationship with your class. But I would be very careful with allowing non-study related online or mobile activities in the classroom. (That being said, there have been teachers successfully leveraging even Angry Birds in teaching, say, maths. So if that’s your thing, go for it.)

Digital tools are not a magic wand that will transform learning straight out of the box. But like so many other technologies, they do offer a lot of ways to make learning more fun and engaging – if they are used right. As with any tool, using digital in the right way in the classroom requires time to understand how it works – and how to get the best mileage for your and your classrooms’ needs.

When digital tools are used in the proper context and with the kinds of emphases that I have described above, I do believe they can have a huge positive impact on schools. But this is only if digital learning is done under the supervision of a capable teacher.

In this way, I think that the digital revolution, when done properly, will make the teacher’s role even more crucial than it used to be to generate truly engaging learning experiences.

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The Lightneer Mission

Here’s the deal. Innumerable people in the world struggle with learning and understanding. Education is broken: according to recent research, 25% of school kids are bored to death and almost 50% of them have no understanding of why they go to school.

Our educational systems are not well equipped to deal with the learning challenges set out by a world that changes faster every day. We want to fix this. Our mission is to make learning accessible and engaging to everybody in the world.

We believe in learning games. We have learned through years of research that games are an amazing platform for learning. In fact, every great game is a learning experience.

Learning games need to be as much fun to play as the best games out there. We want to design our learning games so that, in addition to teaching a lot about amazing topics like physics, new languages, history and whatever else, they stand on their own when compared to the best games of the world.

We want to make learning meaningful beyond what it has ever been before in the lives of hundreds of millions of people in the world.

We want to start a global learning revolution with learning games.

–THE LIGHTNEER TEAM–

Read more from our new website at www.lightneer.com.

The Best Learning Games, Part 3: Reading, Languages and Coding

Reading skills are the other over-represented category in learning games, in addition to math. This is, in a sense, a good thing, given that reading is the #1 skill we need for extensive learning to happen. I’ve often thought that reading skills (both elementary reading and more advanced skills like media literacy) are actually a kind of a vaccination against stupidity. Reading skills are also important for the society, given that literacy correlates highly with advanced well-being and lower adverse social effects.

In addition to reading, language learning is a big thing in learning apps, and the two go often hand in hand. It may well be that some children get the gist of reading not from an ABC app, but rather from an English language app.

I had to scratch my head a little about which category to include coding apps in. The more obvious choice would be math, especially since in Finland, coding will be included in the math curriculum starting fall next year. I decided, however, to include coding games in this list. Coding is, after all, a part of 21st century literacy, as the MIT Scratch team point out.

1. Duolingo

The first, and for me the most impressive, learning app here is not exactly a game. Rather, Duolingo is a gamified language learning app. However, somewhat similarily to the math category there are a few exceptions where gamification actually works. And Duolingo is, in a sense, an exceptional exception.

The app contains a gamut of languages, ranging from Italian to Spanish, from Esperanto to Klingon (coming in 2018). Duolingo is perhaps the best exemplar altogether of what I’ve come to call casual learning: learning in bite-size installations.

You don’t have to invest hours on top of hours to use Duolingo efficiently. Rather, you can use the app a few minutes here, another few there, and you’ll start to get the gist of the new language gradually. It’s a great example of the kind of future learning paradigm, where learning happens everywhere and pretty much instantly.

2. Ruzzle Adventure

While Ruzzle Adventure does not wear its learning content on its sleeve, it is, in fact, an amazing addition to any suite of English learning apps. In the game, you’ll get to brush up your existing vocabulary and also, time and again, bump into new words. In a learning environment that contains other, more pedagogically designed language learning apps, Ruzzle Adventure can be a little gem that keeps the motivation pumped up.

This is also one of the few (learning) games that actually performs very well as a game even when set up against typical casual games. In a nutshell, it’s mad fun to play.

3. Fun English

Fun English was my first brush with the amazing power of learning games when executed right. My two oldest kids, then three and five, fell in love with the game and played it day in, day out. In only two weeks, they both covered basic English vocabulary (colors, animals, numbers etc.) pretty much through and through. I’d ask the kids what’s, for example, “three brown dogs” in Finnish, and without batting an eye, the answer would come out. Think about it: three- and five-year-old kids, two weeks of playing a game, and 100% of learning substance covered.

Compare this to a typical Finnish school, where they start teaching English typically at the third grade (age 9) and where learning results get distributed on a Gaussian curve. This is the future of learning.

Fun English contains a massive amount of learning material that you can unlock as you or your kid advances through the game. Some of the materials have been created with more insight (for example, a balloon popping game that teaches color words), and others are a little less impressive. But altogether, Fun English is a great game and an awesome introduction to the English language.

4. Metamorphabet

Metamorphabet is a very innovative and atypical take on alphabet learning. The amount of crappy ABC apps in the App Stores is almost as large as 2+2 apps, and it’s amazing to see such a fantastic and artistically challenging take on learning the letters.

With Metamorphabet, you’ll manipulate letters in many inventive ways. But unlike with the typical ABC apps, the game is aesthetically interesting even for a grown up. This is one of the things I believe every single learning game designer must take into account when creating lasting learning: you cannot “dumb down” your game for kids. They’ll see straight through it. And with Metamorphabet, you’ll get a memorable and truly interesting take on alphabet learning, as odd as that may sound.

5. Word Wizard

The French app Word Wizard is great for basic reading and writing learning. It’s basically just an app to create words from letters. I believe it has had a key role in my own kids’ learning to read (which my oldest ones both did at around age four or five).

In the app, you use letters to form words and hear the app read them for you. Available in several languages (including Finnish!), it’s a great addition to any set of learning to read apps.

6. Alphabear

Alphabear is another crossword puzzle app, and similarly to Ruzzle Adventure, it does not seem to come through as an intended learning game. However, just like Ruzzle, Alphabear will help you brush up your existing vocabulary and, by trial and error, come up with new words that you can then check in the dictionary.

Having a few of these best crossword puzzles on a language learning iPad or a suite of apps will help deepen both reading skills, vocabulary and language understanding.

7. Endless Alphabet and Endless Reader

Endless Alphabet is another interesting take on learning the alphabet and basic words. It could, in fact, do a double job for a non-English speaker in first helping figure out the ABC, where Metamorphabet and Word Wizard may support it well. And secondly, it may also work well as an expansion to learning English, for example as a complement to Fun English.

Another title from the same studio, Endless Reader, begins quite similarly to Endless Alphabet, but takes reading a step further, with introducing for example typical words used in childrens’ books. While these games are aimed towards young children, they may well function also for adults for example in wanting to learn English. (Mind you, childrens’ books are a great way for an adult too to top up basic vocabulary when learning a language.)

8. Scratch and Scratch Jr

Scratch and Scratch Jr are pretty much the king (and prince?) of coding games. Although I think the MIT team that designed Scratch doesn’t like to call it a game, it’s a very game-like environment in which you get to design your own stuff by using a very innovative graphic coding system.

Scratch is a great introductory app to learn coding, and once you’ve got the gist of the basic concepts like loops and if-then clauses, you can migrate to an app or website teaching an actual language, such as Codecademy.

9. Hakitzu

Hakitzu is a great and original take on learning to code. It’s a very innovative and inspired 3D robot fighting game, where you have to use elementary code to guide the robots in turn-based fighting. The code in the game is actually based on real life Javascript.

The game starts with giving you ready code snippets to use, not unlike Scratch, although the interface is immediately based on the actual code instead of graphic symbols. And as the game proceeds, you will get to write your own code. A great stepping stone toward starting to learn your first programming language.

10. Lightbot

In Lightbot, you’ll learn to use basic commands like loops and if-then -clauses to move a robot through a labyrinth. This will give you a basic idea of how coding works and how it can be used.

Lightbot is a great introductory app for coding. If I were to build an intro course to coding, I’d probably go the way of Lightbot – Scratch Jr – Hakitzu and then introduce the first language through a website such as Codecademy.

I want to mention already here an app I’ll describe in greater detail in a further post on early childhood learning apps that could work also in a learn-to-code home curriculum, for example in preceding Lightbot in the progress I delineated above. Namely, Loopimal is a great introduction to loops, and a ton of fun to fool around with.

As always, there are a variety of reading and language learning games out there. Especially if you want to build a self organizing learning environment, it may be worth testing a wide variety of games and apps. In addition to the following, you may get some use out of these: Endless SpanishLola’s ABC PartyBusuuWordWagonAlphaWriter and Intro to Letters.

More to follow.

The Best Learning Games, Part 2: Math

There are probably two categories that are over-represented in learning games: basic math and elementary reading. Of course, this should come as no surprise as these are the two most important skills and learning metaskills we have.

While many math games are simply variations of drilling math with a cute animal on top, there are some very innovative math games out there. I have also included some of the more traditional drilling-type games on the list, because some of the games even in this category have been well enough executed to be a good addition to a any fully rounded set of math learning games.

You can use this list to pick up individual games that perform better than about 95% of what you can find in the App Stores. You can use the games yourself, with your kids or in a classroom. Alternatively, you can build a home-made curriculum out of them, starting from basic understanding of mathematical concepts and advancing all the way to complex algebra and analytic geometry

One great idea (and one that we have employed with our own kids with great results) is to build your kids a self-organizing learning environment by installing some of the best learning games on an iPad and handing it over to the kids. If you install only learning games on the kids’ iPad, you’ll see some amazing learning results really quickly. (And if you install casual games like Angry Birds or Candy Crush, be forewarned that your kids will spend most of their times self-organizing around them.)

1. Dragonbox: Algebra, Elements & Numbers

As you could probably tell from my previous post, I’m a big fan of Dragonbox. But it’s not just that I love these games or that I’ve witnessed crazy things with people playing them (such as my 3-year-old son learning to crack equations with four or more parameters in them). Dragonbox has also been able to demonstrate very robustly that it generates real learning: whopping 93% of 40 000 kids who played Dragonbox for an hour and a half learned to solve equations! How’s that for performance, schools!

The game studio We Want to Know currently has three Dragonbox games out. Dragonbox Algebra is about solving equations. Dragonbox Elements is about analytic geometry. And Dragonbox Numbers – which I just heard made it to #1 in Norway’s App Store – is about basic arithmetics. The last one is only out in Norway, Ireland and New Zealand. If you happen to live in one of these countries, get yours now. If not, keep your eyes peeled. All three are really amazing games and great benchmarks for the rest of us learning game developers/geeks of what is really possible when you hit the right balance of substance and engagement.

2. Slice Fractions

Slice Fractions is a great game by a small Canadian studio Ululab. It features a mammoth who needs to avoid obstacles that gradually start to teach you how fractions work. Gradually the game will introduce more complicated concepts and mathematical notation, not unlike Dragonbox.

It’s another exemplar of a very innovative way of creating a great game with solid pedagogic value in it. The game does not query you about how much is, say, half of three, but rather you need to understand how fractions work to save your mammoth from being crushed by, for example, a block of ice.

3. Divide by Sheep

Divide by Sheep is a bit similar in spirit to Slice Fractions. In it, you have a group of sheep you need to move from one island to another. The islands require you to divide the sheep into smaller groups and thus begin to understand division.

The game mechanic is very innovative and the production values high enough to keep the game interesting. This is, in fact, one of those next generation learning games that you can almost play without even thinking about it as a learning game.

4. Quickmath Jr

This is the third game in a similar category as Slice Fractions or Divide by Sheep. Quickmath Jr is geared towards learning various mathematical abstractions without a schoolbook feel to it. In a sense, Quickmath Jr even resembles Dragonbox Numbers in places. (Or is it the other way round, since Numbers is so recent?

This is a wonderful game especially for understanding entry-level mathematical concepts like counting. I could easily envision a learning iPad where a very young kid would start with Quickmath, Dragonbox Numbers and Divide by Sheep, then proceed gradually through Dragonbox Algebra and The Land of Venn to finally master King of Math and Algebra Touch. Having a variety of games of a variety of challenges would easily enable children (and adults) to really hone in on their math skillset.

5. King of Math and King of Math Jr

I’m normally very critical of the kinds of learning games that take schoolbook drilling and gamify it. However, even in this genre, there are the few exceptions that break the rule. King of Math is one of them. Although overall I think gamification sucks (you should just create great games, period), if you want to go that way, King of Math is about as good as it gets.

Both the advanced and the Junior version employ the same mechanism: a multiple choice math quiz set up against a role-playing backdrop. It is the combination of the quiz and the role-playing elements that makes the game so compelling. The quizzing is actually pretty decent casual fun, and unlike in so many other titles out there, the metagame elements are properly balanced to drive you to want to get the three stars on each quiz. Also, the character development and experience point collection is well enough designed to keep you on your toes as to when you’ll graduate to the next level.

(A small spoiler coming up.) Sometime around two thirds through the advanced version, I realized the ultimate character class in the game would – of course – be the King of Math. This kept me going, and I must admit I was pretty happy camper when I finally nailed the final quiz. Good stuff, altogether.

6. Algebratouch

It’s debatable whether Algebratouch is a game. It’s rather a pretty interesting and innovative way to manipulate equations. I’m including it on the list, though, because it makes a great complement to any set of math-related learning games.

Especially the combination of Dragonbox Algebra and Algebratouch will give you a true powerhouse of learning algebra. You can basically just give a kid an iPad with these two apps and watch them take it from there. Also, I’ve heard of kids struggling with math in school, who got over their troubles by playing with these apps.

7. Grow Your Garden

This is a logic game that’s a fantastic first step to the wonderful world of math. The logic puzzles start out very easy, but as they proceed, even an adult will need to spend a minute or two trying to figure them out.

The puzzles themselves are varieties of the classical water bucket problem: you have a variety of water cans and buckets and you need to be able to figure the right sequences of filling them up so that you’ll get a full bucket with no spillage. While the game’s production values and its initial tasks have it pinned for preschoolers, it’s actually decent fun to play even for a grown-up.

8. 10Monkeys Multiplication

This is another variation of math drilling with cartoon elements, but like King of Math, 10Monkeys Multiplication has been well enough executed as to set it apart from the competition.

In the game, you have a number of monkeys that have been captured in boxes. You need to be able to consistently cover multiplication tables to be able to free the monkeys. While the game is a typical example of gamified schoolwork, in this case the multiplication table, it’s well enough executed and high enough in production values to raise it to the top of the gamified-style game learning heap. A good addition to any kid’s learning iPad.

9. Counting Kingdom

Counting Kingdom is a fun math game styled after tower defense games like Plants vs. Zombies. In the game, you play a wizard who’s defending agaist the onslaught of invading monsters. To defeat the monsters, the wizard must cast spells to match the numbers on the backs of the monsters – which amounts to addition etc.

Counting Kingdom is a great entry-level math game that helps understand the basics of addition and provides a lot of fun ways to explore the world of math.

10. The Land of Venn

The Land of Venn is a geometry game geared towards introducing basic concepts of geometry. The game is aligned with the common core curriculum, therefore making it a great go to game not only for self-organized learning but also in the classroom.

The game has a very peculiar and adorable aesthetic, with wacky voice actors and atypical graphics. The gameplay is a variation of tower defense, where the player must defeat invading monsters by creating geometric shapes, not unlike Counting Kingdom. Although where Counting Kingdom resembles games like Plants vs. Zombies, The Land of Venn is more similar to tower defence classics like Kingdom Rush or Fieldrunners.

A well-rounded learning environment consists of a variety of avenues of inquiry the learner can choose from. In addition to the above, the following games may also worth taking a look at: Endless NumbersSmartkid MathsLola’s Math TrainMotionMath and Parkmath

More to follow.