by Michael Lee, English Language Arts teacher at Desert Winds High School
Over the course of the past few months, many educators, including myself, have been scrambling to meet the needs of the “21st century classroom” or the “technology-enriched classroom.”
As a field, we have discovered that our youth are adapting to a technologically advanced society, and as they progress, our educational system is falling further behind, quite literally, by the hour. As a solution, our principals and administrators have decided that we have a goal to reach, but ultimately, we’re the leaders of our classrooms, and we’re the ones who have to figure out how to turn our classrooms into technology-enriched environments, or move over for someone else who can.
This ultimatum is not something that we should fear as educators, however. Quite the contrary, we have an opportunity that educators haven’t had for a number of years: the chance to truly customize and build our classrooms in a manner that can help us achieve our goals and reach our students.
Haven’t We Always Been Able To Customize Our Classrooms?
Sure, we’ve always had the opportunity to build a classroom with our own lesson plans, games, outlines, and teaching styles, but this opportunity reaches beyond that. With the lack of polished educational tools out there to support our technological needs, we now have an opportunity to meet the very specific needs of our kids and prepare them for their next academic challenge: the Common Core State Standards. What makes this time so exciting is not the horrors of transition or the anxiety of worrying; it’s the fact that we have so many needs, but no limitations on where we can go – we, almost literally, have nowhere to go, but up.
This concept made itself apparent to me when I was going through a course on digital literacy at Arizona State University (ASU). Our job was simple, discover how digital learning has become its own form of literacy, and figure out how we can make this literacy readily understandable to our students when, often times, we don’t completely understand it ourselves. In a spectrum of possibilities, I found myself dizzy from the available choices I had when deciding on a project.
Being that I was a fairly dedicated gamer in my teens, I decided to stick with games and education, and I picked up a book called “What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy” by James Paul Gee, a professor there at ASU. As I read through this text, and immersed myself within popular video game titles in an attempt to understand their digital literacies, I discovered something quite useful – I was having fun learning a subject that I wasn’t very good at, and it was all through the use of gaming.
I found, through the use of video games and gaming, that education was indeed made more entertaining through the use of technology, and if I could somehow figure out how to do the same for my students, I could reach the goal that had been set for me by my administrators.
As a result, I have been working on a project that I’m calling The Garden Online, and it’s an attempt at creating my own video game that can help teach the fundamentals of writing. The Garden Online is modeled after the traditional massively multiplayer online role playing game (MMORPG – games like World of Warcraft, Guild Wars 2, Final Fantasy – games our kids play for fun on their free time), but also has an element of education that I can customize. Put simply, I’m making a game that is entertaining enough for my students, but educational enough (and with targeted instruction enough) to have a huge impact in my students’ education.
This might sound impossible to many educators out there who feel like they are having their own struggles understanding technology (and how to use it in the classroom), but I’ll tell you firsthand that it’s not. Despite their being far too few polished educational resources out there to successfully use in our classroom, we have an abundance of tools at our disposal to help us create educational technology that can allow us to target the specific deficiencies present in our own classrooms. Check out below for an explanation of what I did to create my own technology to help my kids!
Step #1: Find out what your kids need!
The first step to developing a piece of technology that you can successfully use in your classroom is to decide on a specific area of concentration where you want your students to build. No matter what it is – this might be grammar, spelling, addition, multiplication, decoding, or even art history – you need to decide on a specific skill that you want to emphasize in your software. The problem with most educational software companies is that they focus on a wide spectrum of skills, rather than building a deeper understanding of the required skills, and this will make a significant difference when the Common Core State Standards – whose emphasis is on depth instead of breadth – comes around. This isn’t to say that you can’t focus on all skills involved with, say, British History through the 1600’s, but I would argue against building something that helps teach both writing and multiplication – it would spread the kids too thin.
I teach 21st Century English at Desert Winds High School in the Casa Grande Union High School District in Arizona, and part of my job, as you might have imagined from the title, is to create a technology-rich environment where I can prepare my students for colleges or careers in our technologically-dependent society. The first order of business, in my case, was to discover the specific pitfalls that my students were experiencing, and figure out how I was going to remedy the problem. In my school, writing was a significant point of interest if I wanted to make an impact on my students’ success. As a result, I decided that I was going to focus on implementing writing software in my classroom in order to build fundamental writing skills. I had taught a course before that emphasized Read180, so they must have a program that’s similar for writing, right?
While I spent hours surfing the internet and emailing software development companies, I found that there are few solutions out there that are polished enough to provide the level of rigor or specificity of instruction to satisfy my needs. While there are certainly some excellent programs out there, how was I going to sell my administration (or at least those funding my purchases) on the idea of paying thousands of dollars for a mediocre piece of software? The truth was, I wasn’t going to make that happen, and the frustration of this discovery made me realize that there is no catch-all for student writing needs; if I wanted something that was going to delivery what I needed, I was going to have to make it myself.
Step #2: Choose an avenue of digital literacy
Once you’ve gotten an idea of what your students need (with a certain degree of specificity as to what skills you would like to focus on in your classroom), you must now decide what avenue of technology you would like to pursue. The best piece of advice I can give here is to choose something you enjoy. The idea with this project isn’t to kill yourself over trying to build a classroom to help your kids – chances are, that won’t do any good, and it will just be a source of frustration for both you and your kids. Again, as with choosing a number of skills, I warn against going overboard on the number of technologies you choose in this step. While you want to develop something that is interesting and engaging for your kids, having too many elements of technology in your work can have the opposite effect, making your project confusing or too difficult to get kids on-board with your idea. I would suggest choosing something that you find fun, as well. After all, if it’s not fun for you, how can you expect it to be fun for your kids?
For me, I chose gaming because it was something I was already interested in. I knew I had enjoyed video games when I was a kid, and after talking with a number of students and seeing how influential gaming was in their lives, I knew gaming would be an easy way to connect with students. If gaming is something you like, great! However, if you have more fun with SmartBoard apps, Nook programs, or interactive websites, I would highly suggest choosing something like that. The more interested you are in the technology, the better product you’re going to build.
Step #3: Check out current technology similar to yours
Go out and take a look at current technology that is similar to yours. You want to try out some of the available technology to get an idea of what works and what doesn’t. When I was researching current technology for my own project, I found three common problems: 1. The software wasn’t engaging – it was very dry and plain, 2. It wasn’t a finished product, and it had many glitches and problems, and 3. Despite being quite expensive, the software didn’t do what I needed it to do. It felt like my class was the only class on the planet with problems in basic writing skills!
By trying the available software out there, I was able to get a good idea about what worked for me and what absolutely did not. I found that what I wanted to make was a very particular piece of technology, and it helped me to refine my ideas. In the end, I decided that I wanted something that could model writing in an authentic context, but also allow kids the ability to excel or slow down according to their own learning pace.
You’ve discovered what your students need; you’ve chosen your digital literacy; and you’ve found out what works and what doesn’t among available technology; This is where the real fun begins! Now it’s time to put a twist on developing your own piece of technology. Here is where you decide how you’re going to provide something new and exciting for your students. Take the positive parts that you’ve found in similar products and try to amplify them; take the negative parts and try to cut them out; and take your own innovations and put them into your model. This might come in the form of a new perspective on an old SmartBoard app, maybe a new way of presenting a book on a Nook, or even, like me, a new way to use traditional gaming elements.
In my game, The Garden Online, I’ve taken the “crafting” occupation that is present in most online role playing games, and turned it into a way to teach writing skills – of course, there are some major differences. In the traditional MMORPG, players choose a crafting class that allows them to build their own armor, weapons, or potions, and these items can be used on their own characters, or they can be sold for a hefty price. While in game, players interact with computer-controlled characters that give them supplies, hints, and materials to help them in building their products.
In The Garden Online, players choose a class similar to a crafting class (we’re calling them professional jobs), and they are then assigned a computer-controlled character that will guide them through basic writing skills – focusing on structures, patterns, and outlines. As the characters gain experience points for following their mentor’s advice, they gain levels and are thus exposed to more complicated and complex writing skills as they progress.
I came up with this new perspective by playing several traditional MMORPGs and realizing that crafting classes could be used in a much more educational manner. At their current state, many players go without ever playing these classes, but I quickly realized that crafting classes have much more potential. By putting my own unique perspective on it, I was able to develop a way of teaching that allowed my students to learn while also gaming in the classroom.
Step #5: Decide how you will fund your project.
By far the most difficult step is figuring out how you’re going to fund your idea, and this part takes time. You first need to decide how much you’re able (or willing) to do yourself, and how much you’re going to need to hire outside help to develop other parts of your project – depending on how large of a project you’re taking on. If you’re making an app for a SmartBoard, but you don’t know anything about programming, don’t worry! There are plenty of forums out there full of people willing to do work for hire – and it’s usually less expensive than you might think.
At this point, figure out exactly what you can do on your own, and what work you’ll need to hire someone else to do. Check out online to see how much the going rate for that kind of work is, and develop a full list of costs for developing your technology.
There are several websites out there dedicated to helping independent developers acquire the funding needed to design their product. My choice was Kickstarter.com, and it was relatively easy considering the benefits that are available from such sites. I began with developing a budget that allowed me to hire programmers and get the basic design of my project up-and-running. Since I was developing an education video game, I had to decide on what kind of game I wanted to make, and then I researched the programs that helped me do this. I decided on a program called Eclipse Origins that helps people create their own MMORPG’s, and even comes with a community forum that is very active with its members.
Once I decided on the engine (that is the program to help me design my game – Eclipse Origins), I took into account all the software I would need to develop the artwork for my game, the music, the websites, and (with the help of the Eclipse forums) even the price of a programmer. I added a few members from the forums on Skype, and spoke with programmers directly about how much they would need to complete the job. All I had to do was tell them what I wanted, and they told me if they could complete the job or not.
Kickstarter.com – A website dedicated to helping individuals reach their funding goal through the donations of its members. Many professional products have had their start here, so this is one of my favorites. One of the negative aspects of Kickstarter, however, is that you have to raise your entire funding goal (or more) in order to get any of the donations that were made. If you don’t reach your goal, all donations up to that point will not be received. On the positive side, though, Kickstarter keeps less of your earnings as part of their fees. If you would like to see a sample page, check out mine; it goes live on July 19th, 2013!
Indiegogo.com – A website also dedicated to helping independent product designers reach their goal for creating a product. The difference between Indiegogo and Kickstarter is that, at Indiegogo, you get to keep whatever funding you raise – they just keep a larger percentage of your total earnings. For instance, if you don’t meet your goal, Indiegogo keeps 9% of what you earned, and if you do meet your goal, they only keep 4%. Either way, you keep your earning with Indiegogo.
Grant Funding – In my opinion, this is one of the more difficult and less fun ways to achieve your goals. I’m not very fond of being bound by a lot of rules, so writing grants wasn’t the method I chose (but there is certainly a lot of funding to be received). One positive aspect about grant writing is that there are many opportunities out there that don’t require creation of a video, website, or advertising among the members of the respective communities. The negative part, however, is that this form isn’t as much fun. You don’t have the opportunity to build as many relationships, find as many people interested in your ideas, nor the fun of talking about your idea with potential donators. While I didn’t choose this route, it certainly has positive aspects for those of you interested in grant writing.
Step #6: Promote your project to anyone and everyone who might be interested
Finally, once you have gotten a solid foundation for what you’re trying to develop, it’s time to start making your ideas public. Start small with social media sites until you get a good idea for how you want to present your project, and once you’re comfortable, contact larger avenues of marketing, such as the local and online news sites, forums, chat rooms, and companies (if you know of some that might be interested in backing your idea). Don’t be afraid to spend a few dollars advertising your project on Google, Facebook, or other sites you prefer. I spent less than a hundred dollars and managed to reach over 50,000 people.
I began with developing an official webpage dedicated to informing everyone about my project, but the official page had little interaction with its visitors. I then used Facebook as my main form of advertising, and developed a page that was a very basic version of the official website. While the official page was dedicated to informing my followers, I used Facebook as a way to interact and communicate with anyone interested in my project. I posted short blog entries about how the game was being designed, answered questions from my followers, and even posted links to my forum.
The Facebook page allowed me to provide my audience with short and simple updates, but I could also give them links to find more information. In essence, my social media sites (and Google advertisements) gave me a way to connect with thousands of people and provide them with an extension of my website without having to expose them to the mass amounts of information that could be accessed via the official website.
A shift in our expectations for education is just around the corner, and instead of fearing the changes that are on their way, now is the time to customize our classrooms as we see fit. There are thousands of tools out there to make our own technology that can meet the specific needs of our specific students, and we don’t need the help of any cure-all educational software. Now is our chance to change education to what we want it to be: a fun and exciting journey that becomes part of our students’ lives because they are interested in what we have to offer!
I’ve been working for the last six months to develop educational software for my classroom, and I’ve never had more fun or been so proud to be a teacher. I’ve been able to put my own talents to good use and create an educational MMORPG for the classroom – and my kids can’t wait to try it out! If you would like to check out some of my work, feel free to visit any one of the sites above. As teachers, we have an opportunity to make our jobs fun again, and we can’t let this slip through our fingers.