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The Möbius Effect – Gamifying Your Classroom!

One of my teaching hats is as a teacher of computer skills, which can be very dry. Students do need to learn how to use word-processors and spreadsheets, databases and photo editors, web editors and animation applications, but a solid diet of skills can become something of a tick list! A few years ago I decided to gamify the computer skills syllabus, not so much with the classic gamification triad of points, badges and leaderboards (PBL), but with a strategy designed to maximise a games narrative. Something more like a role play game or alternate reality game. I believe that what games narratives do well in education is establish a motivating reason to put in work.

So I invented a framing story about a fictional Professor of astrophysics who has uncovered a bug in the Mathematics of time (The Möbius Effect) which she believes originates in a kind of computer virus placed in the fabric of space-time by some vast super-intelligence! This bug threatens the end of life as we know it! The Professor is being ignored by the White House, labelled a cook-ball conspiracy theorist, and urgently needs help to save the Multi-verse! This help is offered in the form of the production of various kinds of digital documents from Flyers and Newsletters to spreadsheets which can calculate the gravity on different planets or convert Celsius to Fahrenheit or databases to search for planets capable of supporting life! Any kind of digital document can be worked into the game format from fixing the professor’s citations and bibliography to evaluating fake websites or creating a website or Flash animation.

It also involves the cracking of coded messages and solving riddles and puzzles, which seems to add just the right note of motivation to submit work. I had one student ask me the other day if this was a game! “I’m confused,” she said!

The game had to satisfy the demand for assessment and syllabus completion, however. So I decided to use the points and badges part of PBL. Marks are there, but hidden behind Level Completion. Each level in the game translates into points, ie. marks! Completion is also rewarded with a badge. So completion of 50% of the levels results in a grade of 50%, full completion means 100%, and so on.

Students are able to work at their own pace and some quickly finish levels and can work on riddles or codes, which they unlock as a reward for completion. Others take longer but still complete far more work than previously. I use Google Classroom as a platform, and each Task is set up as an assignment. This allows me to easily record all progress and attach any scaffolding materials such as videos showing how to do this or that (the sort of things I demonstrate in class).


I think this kind of gamification could be used for any kind of classroom with some modification. To my mind what makes the game engaging is to treat it as an Alternate Reality Game and to step in and add clues or puzzles if the pace is slowing, and drop clues if it is proving too difficult. Embedding clues in music videos can be fun too!


Why STEAM should be SHTEAM!

In some quarters Art has rather begrudgingly been added to STEM, and although some definitions include the Humanities, Art is normally conceptualized as the creative arts, visual art, design and possibly music – a catchall for being creative. This leaves disciplines such as History, Philosophy, Language Arts or Literature out in the cold. Again, this depends on those doing the defining, but I would argue that we need to conceptualize STEAM as SHTEAM to make sure that the Humanities are included all the time! I believe this is vital because many begrudge adding even Arts to the equation! Yes, I am being somewhat facetious, because this suggestion, in fact, returns us to where we were before the STEM movement raised its head. SHTEAM is of course nothing but a well-rounded education! And that’s my point!

On my local University campus, you can see the consequences of neglectful thinking. Crossing campus from the sparkling and obviously well-funded Sciences block towards the Arts and Humanities buildings; run-down, in need of structural repair as much as just a lick of paint, the years of neglect are visible. The Performing Arts building looks positively dangerous to navigate with unprotected stairwells and industrial looking holes in the wall! Now I know there will be some who argue that this is not that problematic. The idea behind STEM Education was to prioritize STEM subjects as they carry key weight in promoting entrepreneurial growth for any country. Science, Engineering, and Technology are vital and fill a skills gap in the economy. I agree, but surely the Arts and Humanities are as vital to our economy? I can almost hear some shaking their heads and saying sure, they are important, but not key imperatives and arguing for a well-rounded Renaissance education dilutes the emphasis on the Sciences.

I kind of get that on a logical level, but it offends my soul! In a world where Artificial Intelligence is likely to make STEM pretty redundant, perhaps we should be cultivating the Arts and Humanities more – they might be all the robots leave for us! The likely effect of Artificial Intelligence is to reduce the number of jobs across all industries, diluting the imperative for Science majors in any case. I realize that current job needs also need to be factored in, but we are educating kids now who will be reaching current retirement age only in the 2060s!

So why do we need the Humanities as opposed to the Creative Arts and Design? History, Philosophy, and Literature give us a sense of our place in the human scheme of things, of our story and our worth as a species. I want you to imagine a world, maybe only a decade hence when Artificial Intelligence has led to the shedding of a vast number of jobs across a wide swath of industries and professions. Universal Basic Income is the norm and employment for life is abnormal. This is not too far-fetched. There are only a certain number of possibilities if this is our future, and most of them look pretty bleak for humanity. Humanity will either exist as a vast underclass kept under control merely to consume the products of robotic armies and keep a small uber class in power, or humanity could assert itself and insist on its worth and value, free from the curse of manual labour, free to explore our creative sides and flourish. The second outcome is highly unlikely, to be honest, but downright impossible unless we start to gain a sense of our worth now and assert our rights! A thorough grounding in the Humanities is, to my mind, essential to this project.


EduTech Africa 2017 Day Two – Spot The Teacher!

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Trying to extract the main theme of the second day at the EduTechAfrica Conference is a bit like trying to spot the ball in one of those popular press football competitions from my youth! Mark Sham set the tone by calling on the conference to dismantle schooling entirely! He reminded us that schooling’s function is to reinforce inequality in society, and in a world where artificial intelligence threatens almost all our jobs, schooling, by stifling creativity, critical thinking and problem solving skills is not just broken, but is positively dysfunctional.

Dee Moodley on the other hand talked about the importance of Presence, that almost indefinable human aspect to education, the human touch that all teachers need. Neelam Parmar stressed the need to drive change through reshaping education through experiential learning. People need to look forward to change! Meanwhile the coding and robotics people were agonizing over how to manage a coding across the curriculum agenda, and in another track the process of managing ICT integration technically and in terms of human resources was being poured over. Mark Hayter and Lora Foot reminded us that teachers need to be able to function within newly imagined learning spaces.

The mantra for the day was perhaps “the teacher is still the driver”. And yet the role of the teacher is clearly a contested space. There are many visions of the teacher at stake: the teacher as someone who needs to be converted as ICT Champion; the teacher who needs coaxing and mentoring to overcome their fear of technology; the teacher who must nurture or engage her students; the teacher who must experiment and play; the teacher who must surrender control of the classroom. The teacher who must oversee the dismantling of the schooling system itself!

What is perhaps most clear is that the role of teachers is as uncertain as the role of technology in education itself. We are at that wonderful moment, perhaps, where there are as many visions of the future as there are eyes to see, and anything is possible. What frightens me, frankly is that the rise of big data may well overtake these democratic impulses and squash them with a technocratic Taylorist vision of educational efficiency. In a world where Betsy de Vos can run the education system in America, technology may well become an authoritarian nightmare!

Perhaps the only bulwark against this might be to find the teacher in the picture and ensure that teaching and learning remains a deeply humanistic endeavour. Only by finding the teacher can we ensure that values are central to our schooling system.





EduTech Africa 2017 Day 1 – The Search for Soft Technologies


I am once more attending the EduTech Africa Conference and I like to try and distill from the presentations and conversations at the Conference a sense of where we are sitting with Educational Technology in South Africa. As usual there is a narrative, repeated almost like a mantra, around the desire that technology will transform educational practice and deliver a more student-centred curriculum and pedagogy. Margaret Powers delivered a powerful keynote which summed this up succinctly and persuasively. There was an air of optimism this year which replaced the more messianic tone of previous years. Maybe it’s a sense that that goal is a little nearer, a little more achievable. Or perhaps it’s just that there is generally a new optimism abroad, despite the election of Trump, a return to the politics of hope reflected in the rise of Corbyn and Sanders, a sense that no matter how massive the task, the monolith of schooling can be re-imagined and re-envisioned just as there is a sense that the bastions of the political establishment can be assaulted.

But the highlight of the day for me was Stephen Heppell’s address. Heppell’s work on re-imagining the architecture of the school through the design of learning spaces that offer affordances for the kinds of educational transformation the Conference is calling for, is legendary, but it found a particular resonance this year with the track that I followed, that to do with the rise of coding and robotics. This link between designing classroom spaces and coding may seem tenuous, but ultimately it is about the locus of agency. Heppell spoke about the need to give agency to students through the design of learning spaces, and coding and robotics gives the same agency over machines.

Technology may be considered hard or soft, and what I mean by this is the ability to be flexible. Hard technologies do not alter easily, they are solid and fixed. School buildings are hard technologies. You cannot just knock down a wall to accommodate extra students. Soft technologies are flexible and versatile, they can be re-imagined and re-purposed on the spot. Teacher’s pedagogies are soft technologies, in that they can be changed at a moment’s notice to suit what is happening in the classroom. This is why teachers normally change their pedagogies to suit the space they are in. Teach in a lecture theatre and anything but teacher-centred pedagogies are nigh on impossible! As a teacher I have twice been the incumbent computer teacher when the computer room was re-designed, and not once was I or my students consulted! I loved Heppell’s insistence on building learning spaces to children’s specifications!

To my mind what coding and robotics offers is a soft curriculum to replace a hard curriculum, a curriculum based on problems defined by the students themselves, to which solutions are sought collaboratively. Marina Myburgh’s presentation on her exploration of a coding and robotics syllabus at Crawford, Sandton defined for me the journey many schools will be taking over the next few years as we seek to replace our now out-of-date computer skills syllabi with a new curriculum which seeks to map out how computational and algorithmic thinking can enhance all learning. There was a remarkable sense of purpose in the coding and robotics round table discussion that allowing students to explore solutions to problems they define is the way forward. The task is now to research and explore the optimum learning paths to achieve this.

This will involve not only teachers of Computer Skills, for coding & robotics extends across the curriculum. The focus on STEAM and the Maker Movement emphasizes the extent to which we need to ensure that a future in which AI and robotics increasingly threatens our job security needs to be tempered by a concerted effort to ensure that we as human beings are able to retain some control, some agency in our lives. Coding and tinkering may be the most liberating and humanist of all the academic disciplines as the 21st Century starts to get a grip!




Online Discussions for Deeper Thinking

transitioning teacher

Why Online Discussions?

I recently had an unplanned absence from my classroom for an entire week. Although I was going out of town, I knew there would be down time allowing me to work remotely. Naturally, my biggest professional concern was what to do about my class. My high school seniors would certainly enjoy the unscheduled time, but I didn’t want to lose momentum in this sustainable public policy course.

What I settled on was online discussions — but with a new twist. New online discussion tools provide many options to engage the imagination and stimulate thoughtful discussion besides the standard written prompt. And some online discussion tools have new features such as scoring tools, built-in rubrics, and social media features that make digital discussions practical, interesting, and fun.

discussion-rubricCanvas, a Learning Management System, simplifies Discussion scoring by aggregating each students posts, incorporating rubric scoring, and providing students with substantive feedback. Scores are…

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Posted by on December 17, 2016 in Uncategorized


Digital Literacy Does Not Mean Critical Thinking

Educational Technology and Change Journal

Lynn ZimmermannBy Lynn Zimmerman
Associate Editor
Editor, Teacher Education

Recently, in “Students Have ‘Dismaying’ Inability to Tell Fake News from Real, Study Finds” (23 Nov. 2016), NPR reported that Stanford University researchers were shocked to learn that students are unable to distinguish real news from fake, ads from articles. The researchers collected and analyzed data from 7,800 middle school, high school and university students. The participants were from 12 states and were asked to evaluate information from various online sources such as tweets and articles.

The researchers’ “surprising” findings highlight that many people assume that young people are technology savvy because they can use their mobile devices and social media with seeming ease. However, their inability to use technology effectively is reflected in the results of this study. The students generally accept what is presented to them without questioning the validity or the bias. They accept it at face…

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Posted by on December 2, 2016 in Uncategorized


Making Groups in Moodle

educational research techniques

One of the many features available for teachers to use is the group mode for activities within a course in Moodle. This post will look at how to setup groups in a Moodle course.

What to Use the Group Mode For?

As with other features in Moodle, the challenge with the group mode is that you can use it for almost anything. The unlimited variety in terms of the application of the group mode makes it challenge for novices to understand and appreciate it. This is because as humans we often want a single clear way  to use something. Below are several different ways in which the group mode can be used in a Moodle course.

  • If the same Moodle course is used for two or more different sections the group mode can be used to put students in the same moodle course into different groups by section. For example, if a…

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Posted by on December 1, 2016 in Uncategorized

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