Some thoughts on LWF11

Without a doubt, the Learning Without Frontiers conference 2011 had the best programme, format and speakers of all the education conferences. Gamers and entrepreneurs, Lords and ministers, children young and old came together under the banner of disruptive technology.

In true London tradition, the theatrical spirit of the fair abounded on the opening Sunday. Where else could you happen upon an 8-foot Sonic the Hedgehog earnestly conversing with a bearded lady? By Tuesday things had muted down sartorially. Conservatives and mavericks alike donned identikit grey suits, individuality confined to a Nehru collar here, a colourful tie or unusual cloth there. Clearly if one has something ‘serious’ to say, Converse and jeans will simply not do.

Still, here were boundaries being pushed, people out of their comfort zones. Even the theatre-in-the-round lent its own disruption. Confident and engaging speakers dropped critical ideas. Erudite questions popped back from an eclectic audience.

Are Games the future? Will they make education accessible and engaging to young people? I have my reservations, namely:
– Corporate bias: The huge influence of IT sellers talking up their own importance, persuading schools to spend vast budgets on hardware and software. Did you know that under the Building Schools for the Future programme, as much money was being spent on IT as on the physical buildings? Locking schools into obsolete technologies and closed platforms.
– Value: Gaming is entertainment, it is leisure. Nothing wrong with that per se, but it is passive at the point of consumption. Let’s be honest about it – gaming is a zero sum game. Games do not contribute real value to society, other than marginal cultural value. There is value in the creative and technical aspects of their production, and some innovations will cross over into, for example, medical and engineering developments.
– Jobs: Some students will get great jobs working in the industry. Not the ones, however, who think making games is the same as playing them. As in every creative industry, success comes only from hard graft, persistence, communication and active production, and comes only to a few. As oil runs out and with it the times of massive spare resources, game time may become a luxury few can afford, even in the West. Meanwhile, competition from developing countries will make UK salaries untenable.
– Impact: Engagement is only a tiny part of education, albeit a necessary one. If we engage children on the basis of ‘learn this way because it’s fun’, we are teaching them to be lazy, passive spectators. We are not teaching them to engage in real challenges, or to find and set their own challenges. Technologies that offer a very limited number of response options may simulate choice and skill, but they are not the real thing. They do not allow the user to think laterally, beyond the game’s boundaries and rules. Where children are ‘educated at’, games may help to engage them. But far more valuable would be to try to understand why they are disengaged, and how they can gain confidence and interest, and help them to understand that education is not about pleasing adults, but about forging their own destiny.
– Most ‘creative’ technologies stifle creativity: Painting programs, graffiti walls, CAD programs offer a far more limited experience than real creative activities. They are poor simulations, sanitised, contained. The user is isolated, indoors, protected. There are no risks – mistakes can be undone. Ctrl-Z does not exist in real life. We have to be able to distinguish between the creative process, which happens in the mind, in conversation, in collaboration, in the struggle, in physical space with real materials, gravity, light and the laws of physics, and this shallow replica of creativity. I am not talking about programs like Photoshop, Catia or Director, which are amazing and complex tools enabling a creative person to develop and produce the vision they already have, and as such should definitely be available to children from a very you age. I am talking about the many beautiful, well-crafted ‘creative’ Apps and games, which are extremely limited in use. Just as multiple-choice tests do not test intelligence, these Apps and games have only a marginal relationship to real life and to the creativ process, which is complex, dirty and dangerous. Children who spend time choosing one of four options in front of a screen are not spending time choosing from infinite possibilities in the real world. They are not learning to love the creative struggle, the ‘what to do next when you don’t know what to do’, when there isn’t a Restart Level button.

If all this sounds very negative, I apologise. It is not a criticism of LWF11 or its participants. Quite the opposite. It is a measure of the incredible success of this varied, challenging, risk-taking forum that we are having these intense debates, questioning assumptions, getting angry, disagreeing. And moving forwards. LWF11 scored highly on all my D.U.M.B. criteria, which I use to evaluate time well spent: Disruptive, Unrealistic, Meaningful, Brave.

Many thanks to Graham Brown Martin and the LWF team (it can’t be all him, can it?!) for taking us to the edge, shaking the change out of our pockets and the dust out of our skulls. See you in Ghana.

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6 Responses to Some thoughts on LWF11

  1. Of course I could be completely wrong:

    “Games are as important socially, culturally and economically as music and film. … Games are now part of mainstream culture, a new art form that helps define human beings. … Puzzle, sports and social games are the most popular types. Many games are an invisible learning tool; puzzles and problems to solve, choice and consequence, intuitive learning, trial and error, micro-management, simulation, communication, social skills, character development, narrative structure and even manual dexterity.” Ian Livingstone (but then he would say that, wouldn’t he 😉

    http://blogs.culture.gov.uk/main/2010/11/the_state_of_play.html

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  3. Hi Pascale

    Interesting points and certainly food for conversation. I must have missed the grey suits at LWF as the opening morning, as you can tell from the online vids, appeared to be dominated by purple and t-shirts!

    I’m not sure Ian Livingstone has much to gain either way by making the above statement from his work under the Livingstone Hope Review which is about skills requirement but those paying attention might. He clearly knows the subject matter.

    Whatever your prejudices I’d go so far as to say that video games and interactive entertainment are the defining art form of the 21st century. I often wonder why one applies status to different media. Why do some regard books as a higher form than, say, television or film a higher form than video games?

    Some have argued, convincingly in my opinion, that the traditional book if invented today would be banned for its unimaginative, isolationist format. See Stephen Johnson’s thoughts on the matter here

    The video games industry is the dominant medium of our time, larger than the film, music and book publishing industries combined. People young and old are now demanding more from their media, their expectations raised from the old single narratives that were the staple of old media. The creativity and rocket science knowledge required to design and create these experiences have the potential to drive motivation for our learners away from the karaoke culture that has emerged from old media’s love of the talent and reality TV shows to a new love of art, design, writing, science, technology, engineering and maths.

    As demonstrated by the Learners Y Factor there is a large population of young people for whom being a designer and creator working with digital media is far cooler than being a pop puppet.

    Commercial video games in the hands of good teachers are yielding improved learning outcomes in ways that traditional “teaching” technology of Interactive White Boards, Learning Platforms and educational software so boring that you’d get narcolepsy just using it haven’t.

    I would really ask you to play a modern video game before you dismiss this art form as purely leisure. By the same rationale you might just as well write off the Tate or Royal Portrait Galleries. There has not been a race to the bottom within the video game industry to see who can create the easiest to play game else we’d still be playing “Pong”.

    No, in fact, games, gaming mechanics and the way we interact with them are far more relevant to a young persons future than any other technology platform currently offered within learning. In playing a modern video game a player is expected to collaborate and co-operate with often 100’s of other people, solve abstract problems in real time, mentor other players and find their own mentors, design and share content and components whilst being continually assessed in real time amongst peers.

    Young people aren’t streamed by their date of manufacture within the gaming world but move through the system at their own pace and take the tests when they feel they are ready. When they fail they learn and they learn to fail well so that they eventually understand how to succeed.

    Our 21st century education and learning systems could learn a lot from understanding the art form of games, don’t you think?

    I’m sure I understand where you’re coming from when you consider apps being some how different from “real creativity”. What do you mean by “real creativity”?

    Was David Hockney’s recent art or The Gorillaz new album that were both created using iPad apps not really creative?

    Mobile technologies like iPads, handheld gaming devices, etc free children from the tyranny of the desktop or domestic TV. My own 5 year old uses her own iPad on the floor amongst all the cutting up, painting and glue. These are integrated experiences that have arrived as a result of the embedding of digital platforms within the lives of young people.

    Technology is something that happens after you’re born so for my 5 year old, the iPad, Internet, YouTube, video games, apps, etc aren’t technology they are just part of her everyday landscape. To suggest otherwise is like a nostalgia of mud.

    😉

    Cheers

    Graham

  4. Hi G

    Thanks for your excellent riposte.

    Just wanted to clarify that I love computer games and I’ve grown up with them from childhood, from an early obsession with Nintendo’s Turtle Bridge through many sleepless nights on Free Cell, MDK and Starcraft. From which you can tell I haven’t had time to game for at least a decade! I love the way games inform life and I’ve always been vehemently opposed to the “Games are bad! Games cause violence!” lobby (I believe children understand the difference between screen and reality).

    I’ve answered some of your points below (the ones I didn’t include were not less relevant, I just didn’t have any more to say on them). Feel free to keep it going, or not, your post has been really useful for me to further my ideas, and as you’ll see, I’ve done a few drastic U-turns, Hackney driver style. So, thank you for that.

    P

    “Whatever your prejudices I’d go so far as to say that video games and interactive entertainment are the defining art form of the 21st century. I often wonder why one applies status to different media. Why do some regard books as a higher form than, say, television or film a higher form than video games?”
    Yes, I would also include social media and public protest in that (without at all being naive or post-modern about the latter). But art is not all of education (more below).

    Re book-stalgia of our generation (I accidentally chopped the para) it will be interesting to see what happens there, my two-year olds say “Mummy can I have your book?” meaning my iPad. The iProducts are beginning to mimic the tactile, bounded and human-scaled object qualities of modern books. But yes I agree, books are passive, one-dimensional and highly limited. (Tried to find link for you to “Reasons why the Bible would not have got Academic Research funding, incl. “being in book format rather than peer-reviewed journal papers” and “efforts to replicate the results having not succeeded” – on reflection probably irrelevant.)

    “The creativity and rocket science knowledge required to design and create these experiences have the potential to drive motivation for our learners away from the karaoke culture that has emerged from old media’s love of the talent and reality TV shows to a new love of art, design, writing, science, technology, engineering and maths.”
    As long as they DO design and create, not just be passively entertained. I worry about the ease of sitting on your ass being spoonfed high-stimulus ‘rewards’. Achievement is not passing level 92 in record time, it’s going out and doing something nobody thought possible.

    “As demonstrated by the Learners Y Factor there is a large population of young people for whom being a designer and creator working with digital media is far cooler than being a pop puppet.”
    Brilliant. All power to them. My brother and I are examples of how such technology positively impacted our lives. I’m an architect and I run my own business, I get paid top dollar to draw all day and I love where IT is taking us – we haven’t even begun to scratch the surface, so I look to games for the future (and the curious evolving relationship between infinite possibilities and nostalgia for traditional building typologies). I have seen how a sketchup fly-through communicates with a client far more effectively than 2D plans. I employ students who are highly skilled visually, artistically and in programming or using relevant software, because they grew up with games.
    My brother had an obsession with games from very early childhood. He was barred from several pubs before he was even of drinking age for constantly emptying out their Tetris machines. He now runs his own successful law consultancy specialising in international games law, gives talks internationally and writes books on it. He also has a lucrative sideline hobby in online poker. Guess who’s making more money, hanging with cooler clients and having more fun? He always was a jammy bugger! Still, I can see my work built, I can touch it and see people interact with it on so many levels, and I love the dirty, dangerous, ‘real’ world of building sites.

    “Commercial video games in the hands of good teachers are yielding improved learning outcomes in ways that traditional “teaching” technology of Interactive White Boards, Learning Platforms and educational software so boring that you’d get narcolepsy just using it haven’t.”
    Yep! Perhaps I am just frustrated by what I see in the schools market, and perhaps al lot of the game-learning stuff is very early days.

    “I would really ask you to play a modern video game before you dismiss this art form as purely leisure. By the same rationale you might just as well write off the Tate or Royal Portrait Galleries.”
    OK yes, it’s leisure AND it’s a significant art form. But Art is only one part of education. and consuming art is not the same as creating art, or even seeking to understand art.

    “There has not been a race to the bottom within the video game industry to see who can create the easiest to play game else we’d still be playing “Pong”.”
    Totally agree with you. Amazing things have been created and, to completely undermine my initial premise, those have directly impacted on the production of architecture (my profession) in at least two major and distinct ways:
    1. pushing the graphics and complex 3D design capabilities of affordable software and hardware, and
    2. developing game players’ understanding of and relationship to physical space, how we occupy it, how we navigate it, how we push it into the impossible. By extension, complex mathematical concepts can now be modelled and visualised, and a generation of people may now be able to engage with advanced mathematics and physics who would previously not have had an entry point. Damn there goes my argument melting like ice-cream in the sun.

    “No, in fact, games, gaming mechanics and the way we interact with them are far more relevant to a young persons future than any other technology platform currently offered within learning.”
    I wouldn’t be at all surprised if you were right, but still, they are perhaps far less relevant than going out to join a protest, travelling, volunteering or taking a real spray can of real paint out into a real street and spraying onto a real wall while looking out for real police…

    “In playing a modern video game a player is expected to collaborate and co-operate with often 100′s of other people, solve abstract problems in real time, mentor other players and find their own mentors, design and share content and components whilst being continually assessed in real time amongst peers.”
    Sounds amazing. At the risk of succumbing to all-nighters again, can you give me a couple of examples? I’m afraid all the games I saw and used at LWF were nothing like this. What percentage of gaming hours are spent on this type of game though, as against than the more stereotypical linear drive/shoot/dance/collectstuff/pretendtodosomethingthatinrealityrequiresalotofskillandpractice/navigateamaze types. 90%? 50%? 5%? And how do these advanced games interface with IRL activities? Do they make any lasting impression on the world we inhabit physically? (… hmm … will that matter anyway when we upload ourselves to the internet, swapping the physical world for a chance at immortality?)

    “Young people aren’t streamed by their date of manufacture within the gaming world but move through the system at their own pace and take the tests when they feel they are ready. When they fail they learn and they learn to fail well so that they eventually understand how to succeed.”
    Yep and yep.

    “Our 21st century education and learning systems could learn a lot from understanding the art form of games, don’t you think?”
    As an art form, yes, definitely. As social commentary too.

    “I’m sure I understand where you’re coming from when you consider apps being some how different from “real creativity”. What do you mean by “real creativity”?”
    Something that goes beyond following a very limited set of rules or choices. Something that results in a tangible creative output. Most games and apps do not result in the production of a creative output, the players/users are just running through a series of limited options, where all possible outcomes are circumscribed. No wonder my two-year olds are bored within minutes.

    “Was David Hockney’s recent art or The Gorillaz new album that were both created using iPad apps not creative? … My own 5 year old uses her own iPad on the floor amongst all the cutting up, painting and glue.”
    This is what I mean, they are all just ‘media’. The scissors paint and glue are not creative, nor is the iPad, the child brings the creativity which is facilitated by a vast range of options afforded by the media she chooses.

    I never saw a kid fold a plane out of a Nintendo DS.

    Perhaps I am a mud nostalgist after all. I like that. My kids learn a lot and invent a lot playing in puddles …

    Cheers, Pascale

  5. Leon Cych says:

    You might like to consider the contribution the “process” of gaming and “real life” cultural activity around multi-player online games lends itself to reconfiguring how we might teach and learn: http://www.l4l.co.uk/?p=1088 and the entry after that. Often the process is overlooked – look at something like Hide and Seek’s Tate Trumps game which subverts how we interact with the traditional gallery space as well or Detek Robertson’s and Ollie Bray’s work where community activity is built around the focus of a game. In essence it is about the ludic not screens. A lot of people seem to miss that 😉

  6. A great post on Games as part of #purposed (What is the purpose of education?) http://www.purposed.org.uk

    http://deangroom.com/blog/?p=89&cpage=1#comment-80

    I’m still keen to be convinced!

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