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'Gamified' Education in Google's 'Glass House' Won't Help Students Grow

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Last week Gi Fernando wrote an impassioned piece here on HuffPost Tech about the need for schools to catch up quickly before technology races ahead too far and we harm the potential progress for a generation of students. As as working teacher, and one very ready to bring new technology into my classroom and beyond, I disagree.

As Chairman of an technology start-up involved in training, Fernando's job is to talk up the power of technology to improve educational outcomes. And he is right in many ways, of course: the advent of the internet, of interactive whiteboards, of tools for analysing data and performance, all of these have contributed to improvements in teaching and learning, and the effective management of that learning. However, the argument that all digital technologies have to win is whether their entertainment value translates into effective and deep-seated learning. I've worked with the BBC on technology in education since doing school-based proof-of-concept trials for broadband with them in the late 90's, and my opinion from working day-to-day over weeks and months with classes of children from a wide variety of abilities is that many new technologies have yet to do that in a convincing way, and this is why wise schools are not rushing to adopt them.

Google's forthcoming 'Glass' technology is a good example. It is tempting to see a wearable technology as a universally wonderful thing for education: history lessons could take on a virtual reality style, immersing children in sights and sounds, and linking them up with other learners from other cultures as they do so. With this technology they could enter game-like environments and compete to complete tasks, with 'points bonuses' and rewards for doing so. This style of education is very much promoted in game-designer Jane McGonigal's book Reality Is Broken - Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change The World. But this begs the question, is it imagination and excitement that history lessons are really lacking? Or is it rich understanding?

Another commentator on video games, Heather Chaplin, notes in an interview with the American magazine The Believer that,

'Video games are good at fostering problem solving, but they're not so good at fostering human empathy or a deeper understanding of the human condition.'

Using Google Glass to 'gamify' education may, in the short term, lead to lessons being more entertaining - children always love screen-time, any parent will tell you that - but my experience tells me that it won't lead to greater understanding and greater educational empathy with the deep ideas being studied. Why not? Because, as Nicholas Carr has shown in some detail in The Shallows: How the Internet is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember, more time spent with connected technologies is throwing children into 'an ecosystem of distraction' which prevents them from laying down rich memory structures. Glass, if nothing else, will only serve to increase the number of distractions in lessons, and will do little to help children focus.

My battle in class is not to help children to understand in an entertaining and fun environment - and I can tell you, as a Maths teacher my work is cut out for me - but to help them to be able to recall that knowledge and adapt it in different, challenging contexts. Putting on a whizz-bang show about adding fractions is easy, any clown with a suite of iPads and enough pairs of glasses could do it. What I increasingly spend my time doing is helping students to be deeply attentive to their work, because it is only by doing this that temporary, surface level understanding becomes actual learning, learning that, in neurological terms, is embedded properly in strong memory structures.

It is only this sort of deep learning that results in students being able to apply their knowledge and make rich connections with other aspects of the curriculum. Thus, it is only this sort of learning that will lead to further innovations as children grow into students who are able to be intelligently creative in science and the arts. We all need to help students grow into healthy, attentive learners by modelling attentiveness ourselves - and this starts with smart-phone addicted parents giving more attention to toddlers than Twitter.

My concern as an educator is that the introduction of more and more digital technologies will only serve to further degrade students' ability to be attentive to complex ideas. Yes, it may entertain, but by doing so it will not necessarily educate. With concern building over the transition in US universities towards MOOC-style e-presentation of teaching content, teachers need to be clear and confident about what their presence in the classroom uniquely achieves, before schools on ever-tighter budgets seek to farm out pedagogy to cheap e-content providers.

Those in education not yet concerned about MOOCs and the gradual, further encroachment of digitally delivered content are like bookshop owners in 2007 shrugging off concerns about Amazon's Kindle. The difference here is perhaps that this is not simply an argument about livelihoods (though the prospect of significant teacher lay-offs, replaced by cheaper teaching assistants is not unforeseeable) but about quality of education and what we really want for our shared future.

Rushing in to a technological revolution in education would be as foolish as holding back too conservatively. I am an early-adopter of classroom technology, but not a non-reflective one. We need to think carefully about what is promoting high quality learning and deep understanding, not just awesome immersive game-like experiences, no matter how 'fun' they might be. My view from the classroom is that teachers have more wisdom about what is good for their students than many technologists and politicians might think.

If we are appearing to hold back from a 'Matrix' style school, it is because we understand that entertaining a class and providing information in a stimulating way is only part of the journey to learning. Quiet, non-screen-based attentive consideration of ideas over longer periods, and carefully nuanced interventions by staff who know each student personally are not to be thrown out as archaic, but valued as neurologically and sociologically sound principles.

Perhaps, in the final analysis, it is not under-used technology that is holding an educational revolution back; perhaps the most under-valued and misunderstood thing in the classroom is the power of genuine human presence and the expertise of the teacher, unmediated by screens, however small and powerful they might be.