Brain Nook Combines Best of Gaming, Learning Worlds

On recent list of top edtech startups (Wired Academic)  one noteworthy company stood out for its potential for making a big impact in the  learning of English and Math skills at the elementary grades.

Brain Nook, as it’s called,  is an “all-inclusive” learning resort for the students from Kinder to 5th grade.  Featuring more than a hundred engaging games it is a robust and entertaining way for students to practice their academic skills.

But what seems truly remarkable is Brain Nook’s ability to put together the best “brain-rewarding” (see previous post)  elements of the gaming universe and package them into a learning site that will be the envy of many start-ups and “been-ups” alike.

The premise for the game is a story: You, an alien cosmonaut, crash-land on earth. Stranded, you have to buy and collect badges, stars, unlock levels and ultimately find all the spaceship parts needed to get back to your home planet.  Avoiding  immigration does not seem to be an issue for the alien players who travel around the world challenging others to games, or accomplishing solo missions by practicing skills ranging from recognizing long and short vowels to counting money.

What makes the game so engaging is not only the fact that students can customize avatars and “purchase” additional items to decorate themselves and their rooms, but also because they can progress at their own pace and choose from a variety of games and lands.

 

The mission aspect of the game is reminiscent of what made Cyberchase such a popular game.  Quests seem to add a whole new level to learning that engages students beyond the ability to solve a problem in isolation. The progress bar is an excellent motivator in this regard. When a student sees their progress moving up, never down, they immediately realize that it is within their power to move up, albeit at their own rate.

 

At first this seemed a bit confusing. The games after all, are adaptive, meaning they increase in difficulty if the user makes progress, so a student might feel like they lost, but in the end they still get to walk away with enough stars to add to their point total. They are thus motivated to continue playing, once they feel like the have a handle on a particular skill.

Another winning  aspect of the game is the social component. Students can walk around and chat, challenge each other and become “friends”.   When you add other people to a game, as any gamer knows, it adds another level of engagement. You are not just playing a game for yourself, but in front of a set of “game peers” united in your quest to get out of Earth. The dynamics of this and why its motivational has to do with neuroscience and we won’t get into that here, but the effect on a learner is remarkable.

It is also a great game for English Language Learners beyond the 5th grade. In fact that is the main reason zapaTECHISTA looked into this site.  It is often the job of the late elementary teacher and beyond to fill the skill gaps of students whose first language is not English. Brain Nook offers students who have not had success focusing on class lectures, or who have missed school in earlier grades (here I’m thinking of a student from El Salvador who did not attend school from 2nd to 4th grade) or who need to work on skills below their grade level to feel successful at their own pace.

The only drawback so far is that Brain Nook only works on a flash-enabled device. Sorry iPad folks. I’m sure the developers are quickly working on an app version, or a lite version like BrianPOPs iPhone app. Also, some of the text moves off-screen too quickly for the youngest readers to keep up, especially the instructions to the games.

We’ll keep an eye out for this one and wish it well.

 

NY Times Not Sold on Digital Learning Outcomes

Perhaps some of you have had a chance to read the recent article published by the New York Times,

In Classroom of Future, Stagnant Scores

written by Tech correspondent and novelist, Matt Ricthel. It is part of a series called “Grading the Digital School” which looks critically at how schools are drinking the technology Kool-Aid, buying all sorts of equipment, laptops, Smartboards, etc, without waiting for any proof that those things actually translate into higher achievement. I won’t summarize the article, as it should be read by anyone who purports themselves to be a tech-savvy educator, not because the article’s findings are a definitive answer to the question of whether technology can have a positive impact in learning, but because of some of the  issues it raise are quite provocative.

His main conclusion is that so far, technology cannot be considered much of a cure-all for the country’s educational woes, and that results are currently a far-cry from what proponents of digital learning hope for and promise. Some schools he featured in his piece actually recorded a decline after switching to a more tech-based system of learning.

So, how is a tech-savvy educator to respond to this piece? Should we pretend it doesn’t exist, or that the author is biased against technology, or not looking at the right schools? Is he ignoring some that have shown success while focusing on the ones that have shamed themselves after making costly investments that only seemed to have benefited the chip makers of the world? Is he going against the conventional wisdom to play devil’s advocate or to shine a light on a deeply held misconception?

To his credit, it should be noted that Richtel comes with some pretty impressive credentials. He has a Pulitzer Prize to wave around and has written extensively about technology and our culture. And in all honesty, his article makes a compelling case that very often schools and districts are going whole-hog buying gadgets and expensive upgrades without doing their homework first. It would be naive to assume that there did not exist a whole cabal of technology companies which salivate at the thought of  tech-based classrooms/markets blossoming around the country ready to stake it all on their digital wares.

Simply throwing iPads and other gadgets at students will never produce truly meaningful educational outcomes unless a series of factors are first put into play:

Too early to tell

First, we need more time. Many teachers don’t know what to do with technology and rely on the students to handle even as simple a task as printing a document. If there is going to be any sort of progress in the field, any measurable progress that is, we have to wait a few years. The current population of teachers is simply not ready to implement the newest educational technology advances at the mass level. It is amazing how many teachers still cling to the old technology out of sheer habit, even when the new stuff sits in their classrooms. Don’t assume for a minute that just because a school or a district has “gone digital” that the instruction that happens in a particular classroom reflects that reality.

New technology, new yardstick.

The obvious thing to say in this case would be that we need a new test. If it seems too obvious it is because it is. Everyone knows it, the testing regime carved into granite with NCLB  is from almost all of its angles, wholly inadequate in measuring a student’s learning. Standardized tests are a lead balloon handed to us by our political masters, who tacked on the most unreasonable goals and provisions to it hoping to have something to sing about back home.  It was baby kissing on a massive scale and after all these years people at the top are finally beginning to inch away from the law’s most unpopular components. The need to reform it is part of the regular education chatter coming from DC.

There are  currently plans to revamp large-scale, high-stakes student assessment at the national level.  The U.S. Department of Education is pumping money into new avenues of assessment, hoping to take advantage of computers and the internet to move away from the once a year, fill-in-the bubble monsters that plague our sleepless nights. The new tests are coming. Some states hope to give them several times a year, and get a more balanced average of a students score, while other states are going the adaptive route, letting the test change difficulty to match the tester’s skills. And they will both be on a computer.

Great things are coming, it seems, but the question remains about whether these tests will actually produce meaningful measures and whether those measures will be used for good aims. Will they measure writing skills in the same absurd way? How many wonderful writers fail when given an awkward sentence completion multiple-choice assessment? And how ridiculous is it anyway,  to try to assess a person’s writing skills with multiple choice? Until the Reading and Writing portions of the test  get a radical face lift, we will continue to get limited results, regardless if the test is delivered through pixels or pulp.

A new testing system needs to exist altogether. We need more carrots and less sticks that are keeping educators cramming standards into test items, when those standards could be approached on a whole variety of ways, including ones and zeros. They should be measured like rungs on a ladder, where a student moves through the grades gaining points, or levels, like the very video games they play. Students should be allowed to master them at their own speed and to focus on areas that they are better at. They would be encouraged to work collaboratively to solve problems and help each other reach common goals.

Computers (in all their incarnations) give us the option to bundle many standards together and package them as quests, games, or complex tasks that would force a student to rely on and develop a multitude of skills along the way. Their ability to move through these modules could be measured and the student could receive immediate feedback, and he or she could  receive up-to-the minute remediation both digitally or in person. The goal of the assessment would therefore not be to rank schools and to see if they were “making the grade,” nor to make decisions with high-stakes outcomes, like a teacher’s salary or the funding a district receives, but to actually help a student make progress in the areas most at need.

Training

Perhaps related more to the first point, the issue of teacher training is central to the success or failure of any educational revamping involving technology. For this to happen, clear goals have to be set by districts and schools as to the proper use of technology. Many schools and districts see it as a way to boast on their websites that they offer this or that technological enhancement, and gladly dish out the money, often at taxpayers expense, without the follow through.

If a teacher is handed some shiny new device and is told that the students will love it, she or he is more likely to use it if they get proper training. They have to see it at work and they have to become comfortable talking to other educators across broader networks, sharing ideas and getting feedback on lessons and strategies.

For technology to really make a lasting impact in the way students learn, the teachers have to be trained on how to best combine their  very interpersonal delivery of standards,  or the human connection, with the digital, screen-delivered,  multi-sensory experience offered by computers, which can correct your spelling, point out a sentence fragment,  count the words you’ve written, and even estimate the ‘grade level’ of  some piece of text, but they can’t judge a writer’s voice, nor the effectiveness of an opening line in a story, nor critique you for relying excessively on clichés. For that we will always need our teachers and peers.

We all look forward to the evolving discussion, and await a verdict on this issue which still remains unresolved.

-Francisco Nieto Salazar