Stories that Leverage Technology

The Digits are not only “the galaxy’s greatest unknown rock band,” they are the heart of an interactive game environment that teaches math skills via “submersive storytelling.”

Writing at EdTech Digest, Scotty Iseri (creator of the Digits) talks about two important ways that his game makes the best possible use of technology as applied to storytelling:

1) Narrative Interactivity: The Digits Episodes have more than one ending. But itʼs not a simple “Choose Your Own Adventure” style of storytelling. The different branches of the story are determined by gaming elements that blend seamlessly into the narrative. The viewer becomes the player and actively engages in the storyline, and has to put their math knowledge to use. When the player fails at a given task, a different branch of the story tree is launched wherein the player gets a chance to practice to try again.

2) Community interactivity. For all intents and purposes, we consider our characters “real”. You can write Gorgolax an email. You can leave a comment on our YouTube channel for Ray Ray to answer. Heck, you can even do a live video chat with our characters. Modern audiences are used to having access to the tellers of tales, whether through @replies or Facebook posts. By treating our characters as real, we allow the audience some direct access to them. And more importantly, we respond.

In providing this kind of shared experience for its users, The Digits serves as another good example of a sandbox — a shared social space for learning. Having students engage with the story itself is key, making them co-creators of the experience rather than just passive observers or recipients of the intended message.

It’s interesting to note the role that storytelling can play in developing math skills. Math is the M in STEM, after all, yet we don’t think of storytelling as being a core STEM skill. Once again, a whole new literacy is being introduced — one that challenges not only our assumptions about the relationship between text and visuals but perhaps even our assumptions about the relationship between numbers and words. Sure, there have always been “word problems” and “story problems” in math, but the Digits takes that idea to a whole new level. Check it out:

Everybody is an Author

At the Langwitches Blog, Karin Hallett tells how she turned a group of first graders into authors by changing an assignment from producing a traditional report to one of writing a book. She lists the following benefits of the exercise:

    • from handing in paper reports  arrow to  sharing eBook/pdf files with the world
    • from consuming information  arrowto creating and remixing their own information
    • from using and printing out photos and illustrations arrow to properly citing digital and analog sources and creating their own illustrations
    • from working in one medium (paper/markers/pencils) arrowto building fluency between media and apps.
    • from “handing” in an animal report to a teacher arrow to uploading and embedding their creation to their blogfolio as an artifact of their learning in this particular moment in time


I would take issue with that second point —  student can’t write much of a report if he or she is acting only as a consumer of information — but otherwise this is a great story about expanding students’ horizons by providing them a new kind of creative challenge and a new space to work in.

There is a lost to be said for introducing the idea of authorship early on. We are quickly moving from a model wherein the product of education is a set of test scores and credentials to one where the product is an electronic portfolio of student achievement.  These first-graders have gained valuable experience in the end-to-end creation of an information product. And they have a nice addition to their own portfolios to show for it, as you can see here.


Like it or not, today everyone is called on to be an author, an editor, a photographer, a producer, a director, and so many other things. The opportunities are tremendous, but so are the challenges. Getting students oriented around these many roles as early as possible makes a lot of sense.

Not Your Parents’ Summer Camp

Time was that “summer camp” meant packing kids off to a remote location for a few days (or weeks) of fresh air, exercise, making new friends, and (usually) arts & crafts. Of course that model still exists — and still has a lot to offer — but a new kind of summer camp experience has emerged recently, one that occurs online and that gives kids the chance to explore interesting new possibilities without ever leaving home.

One such camp of particular interest to us here is Make: magazine’s Maker Camp, described as a “free virtual summer camp for teens.” While short on canoeing and campfire songs, this program has a lot to offer for kids who want to explore the maker movement from the inside by learning how to build their own toys, games, and gadgets. Video tutorials accompany a series of Google+ Hangouts to bring the camping experience to life.

Another good example is BoomWriter’s Storytellers Camp,  wherein campers get to collaborate on a creative writing project with Diary of a Wimpy Kid author Jeff Kinney.

Both of these summer programs make use of social technology to enable a creative shared space for learning. As we have noted recently, while social technology can provide a tremendous boost to learning in general, it seems to be especially effective when it comes to providing an environment where students can improve their creative skills. These summer “camps” provide a glimpse of the future of the classroom. This is not to suggest that in the future all (or a majority of) classwork will be done remotely — although that is a possibility — but rather to observe that an environment that both invites the students in and provides fresh challenges to them in an engaging way is too good a model not to be adopted.

Who knows? Before long, it might be summer all year long.

What’s Missing?

Here is a good infographic found on The Principal of the Thing:


Yes, the wrong answers are all wrong, but maybe there are more right answers than what we see here.

For example:

  • Solve problems
  • Make something new
  • Develop Skills
  • Share materials
  • Work collaboratively
  • Interact creatively

Technology helps  students to engage with course materials, make choices, and develop skills in ways that the traditional classroom can’t. Students can define goals, make decisions, and evaluate their own progress — plus connect with others doing the same.

A New Literacy

English teachers don’t get much positive press these days. That’s partly because teachers in general don’t get much positive press, and also because there is widespread agreement that reading and writing skills have slipped considerably over the past few decades — which is largely a matter of scapegoating teachers for a set of social trends that would be hard for anyone to try to slow — but also because everybody knows that these days STEM is where it’s at.

So it’s interesting to note that the new Pew Survey on student writing shows that English in particular teachers are leading the way in adoption of digital technologies, social media in particular, in support of developing writing skills. As I noted earlier this week, teachers are learning that writing performance improves significantly when students have an audience, which social technologies inherently provide.

But apparently it isn’t all good news. With the greater enthusiasm for writing that an audience creates, teachers are also observing a drop-off in some of the fundamentals. Or rather, they are seeing the introduction of some new standards and conventions that evolved in the social space but that don’t seem a good fit for the classroom, or for formal writing generally:

Teachers also expressed concerns that lax grammar and abbreviations like ‘BTW’ (by the way), commonly used on social networking sites, were appearing in school work.

While this seems like a big deal to English teachers (and having a BA in English myself and having worked as an editor for many years, I understand their perspective) I think there’s a real baby / bathwater dichotomy that we want to be aware of here. If kids are producing writing that otherwise reflects both genuine interest and enthusiasm for their subject and the kind of effort behind constructing a clear argument that such factors encourage, maybe we son’t want to totally lose it over the fact that they are writing “BTW” and “IDK” and even (shudder) “ur.”

Yes, we should correct those things, and insist that they not be part of formal writing. Just to support my own personal favorite lost cause for a moment, we should also insist that an objective pronoun be used when the meaning of the sentence calls for it, even if that pronoun comes at the end of a sentence or after the word “and.” If you have no idea what I’m talking about, then between you and me, you’re part of the problem. And if you think there was something grammatically wrong with the previous sentence, you are simply proving my point. (Read this if you are interested in starting down the road to redemption.)

Unfortunately, “between you and I” probably is a lost cause because the basic rules of grammar and the logic that make right-thinking people (like me) cringe when they hear those words, rules that I was taught in the fifth grade and that have stuck with me ever since, are simply no longer taught. You can get a degree in English without ever having learned that writing “between you and I” is an abomination. Many of the teachers upset by kids using “BTW” and “ur” probably use this construction, and all its related abominations, all the time.

In a few years, the kids who are developing their composition skills via social media will be the English teachers, the editors, and even the authors of style guides. They will probably be a lot more lax about Web-speak than some of us would like for them to be. I can dare to hope that at least the authors of the style guides will still be on my side about pronouns, but by then most of us civilians will have given up.

Yes, this is the old “Language evolves over time — get used to it” argument, but I want to add a twist that we tend not to think about, and that I don’t see covered in the Pew results or any of the articles about them. In the same way that they are more comfortable with smartphones and social apps than their elders, these kids are developing modes of communication that are native to the digital world and that will serve that world better. Here I don’t mean things like “WTF” and “LMAO” — those were old news when these kids were born, anyway — but rather methods of approaching subjects and structuring arguments that are well-suited to these new environments.

A decade ago, when I started blogging, I noticed that some of my fellow bloggers would occasionally send me a draft of a blog post for comments. These people were good writers and I understood why they did it — it’s part of the composition process. Or at least, it used to be. I learned early on that very few blog posts go through the rough draft / review /cleaned up draft / more review /final copy process that was always part of publishing anything.

A blog post is both a draft and a finished work. That was a new kind of critter, requiring its own conventions, and these have developed over time. Likewise, conventions have emerged around what constitutes an effective Tweet or Facebook status update. And it goes further than that. There are effective and less-effective approaches to sending out messages on Tumblr and Pinterest and Youtube, things that “writers” didn’t have to worry about back in the day, back when multimedia was for specialists.

In the past, when we said that language is changing we meant that annoying new words were being introduced and that rules we thought were important were being ignored. And that’s still happening. (see above.) But now something else is going on. Language is really changing. It is being chopped and processed and extruded in ways never imagined even a few years ago. It is no longer just living alongside visual information; it is embedded within it; it has become hybridized with it.

And, no, it will never be the same. These kids using social media in their English classes are on the cutting edge of developing a whole new literacy, different in kind from what has come before. Somehow, we’ll have to get used to it.

[Photo: Deutsche Fotothek]

Cross-posted from Transparency Revolution.

Improving Creative Skills Via Social Technology

Keeping with the theme from our last couple of posts, here is an item about  the positive impact of social technology in the classroom:

Social Media Makes for Better Student Writing, Not Worse, Teachers Say

“As an English teacher who is trying to improve student writing, one thing I see is that people are seeing greater ownership of their writing when they know it will be seen beyond the class and the teacher,” Woollven, 40, said.

This is the value of operating within a shared social space or, to put it in simpler terms,  the value of having an audience. Students care a lot more about the quality of what they’re doing if it isn’t just the teacher looking at their work. This is to some extent counterintuitive — the teacher is the only one that “matters” from a grade standpoint, but students don’t see it that way. Knowing that classmates (and others) will be reading their work motivates them to produce a better piece of writing.

By extension, we can assume that producing other kinds of creative product enjoys the same boost in quality from occurring within a shared space. We have been looking at Glogster in several of our previous posts; it’s interesting to note that a Glog shared with the rest of the class (or the rest of the school, or even a larger audience) will probably be of higher quality than one created solely  for the student’s viewing, or intended just to be shared with the teacher.

In the linked article, the teachers talk about using blogs as a means of allowing students to share their writing with a larger audience. In my previous post I mentioned BoomWriter, which  adds a competitive element to the idea of writing within a shared space. Only one student’s version of each chapter of the book is chosen for inclusion in the final. It would be interesting to know how much impact this added factor has on the quality of the student’s writing.


The Sandbox

As we explore the social side of EdTEch, we are quickly learning that “social” interaction is a lot more than links and likes and friend requests. At its best, social educational technology enables not just a connection but a shared experience.

In his post on Social EdTech and Making Stuff, Phil wrote that augmented reality technology is is usually also social technology because it allows the learners to re-create the social space they are in. Look at this example of a learning space that students can change with their hands in real time.

The topology is projected from above and is based on the height of the sand. So a student can change a  blistering sand dune into a fertile valley just by running her hand through the sand. Working together or independently, students can quickly redefine the entire landscape — creating lakes, building islands, damming rivers.

This literal sandbox is a great example of how students work together to create and redefine a social space. But, as Phil wrote, the sandbox doesn’t have to be a physical space. Using solutions like Glosgter, students are creating amazing shared learning spaces in poster form. And with solutions like BoomWriter, they are creating whole new fictional worlds together.

This is a great opportunity and challenge for teachers, of course. It’s one thing to manage a classroom, and another to manage a classroom that includes many whole worlds of learning.

Leveraging Distraction

Courtney Buell explores one of the biggest challenges to online learning — distraction:

Online, it’s easy for a student to sit down with the intention of completing a course module or assignment and realize two hours (and ten YouTube videos) later that they didn’t get anything done. Students raised in the fast-paced, multi-tasking, distraction-prone digital age have more access to learning than ever before — but when education is conducted online, next to entertainment and 24-hour updates, students often have a hard time focusing long enough to really learn.

As challenging as it is to get students to focus on online courseware, social educational technology may pose an even greater distraction risk. Social interaction, which by definition will make up some component of any social EdTech solution, is both a great enabler of learning and a tremendous potential source of distraction in its own right. Even without any particular technology involved, students in a classroom setting are able to help each other, motivate and inspire each other, and endlessly distract each other. Technology simply provides a different channel for doing all of those things.

Buell looks at how increasing student engagement, gamifying courseware via badges, and using tools such as Self-Control can help to fight  distraction. But she points out that the real trick to beating distraction is getting students to develop new study behavior, which is inherently difficult. In the social context, creating the kind of accountability that Buell describes should be possible. Let students check in with each other on how well they are staying on track and progressing the material.

Another possibility is to use a tool such as SelfControl, which allows users to block their own access from distracting sites for a defined period of time, not so much as a means of blocking distraction as a means of setting its parameters. Rather than trying to deny that they are going to be distracted, why not encourage students to embrace that fact and leverage their desire to access distracting content as a means of driving their study behavior? So instead of saying, for example, “I am shutting down my access to everything for the next three hours,” a student might try saying, “I am shutting down access for the next 45 minutes,” and then enjoy fifteen minutes of gratifying distraction as a reward for the 45 spent studying.( The breakdowns could vary, but you get the idea.)

The obvious argument here is that we will then have students wasting 25% of their study time. But isn’t that better than wasting 50% (or more?)

In fact, it would be great if a tool like SelfControl could be set up to create those kinds of intervals — perhaps with the option to delay the distraction part as needed if the student is on a roll. Better still, going back to the idea of a buddy system to create accountability, what if a student actually had to request access to distracting sites from a classmate? Instead of just checking in with each other, students serve as each other’s willpower “enforcer.” Since the relationship would be reciprocal, it would be hard for one student to use that power unfairly against another. And the transparency that results from having to report to someone else would almost almost certainly motivate students to stick with the material more closely and to pay attention as they go.