What is Digital Learning?

Happy Digital Learning Day Eve! I hope you enjoy some reflections from my students on:

Digital Learning Is….


Digital Learning Day: A Call to Action

Sitting at a district meeting yesterday, I heard more of an all too widespread and alarming discussion. “Our students aren’t interested in learning like we were.” “The kids today are distracted by gadgets. They would rather text than talk.” “Our kids don’t have a long attention span.”

All of these rumblings have a common thread. Yes, our students for the most part, are quite different than us, their educators. They are interested in technology. They do like to communicate digitally. They do multitask.

I felt so uncomfortable hearing our district leaders finding so many shortcomings in our students—especially since what these teachers were critical of can be such assets. What people were complaining about are very important skills in the 21st century.

Don’t get me wrong. I, too, have been frustrated by a student slyly texting a friend to socialize instead of completing the class project. I, too, have wondered why I constantly have to switch gears in a single class to engage students. I, too, have wondered how someone can spend hours and hours playing a game and not ten minutes on a journal assignment.

But, after years of wondering and researching and collaborating and analyzing and experimenting, I know one thing. I have more questions. I also know that our students have a cultural wealth that demands our attention and respect. Their knowledge of building and sustaining community, creating and collaborating on multimedia projects, their hunger for information. All of this makes them candidates for being exceptional students.

Then, what’s the problem? Why is the United States lagging behind other countries in education? Why are some schools now being named “drop-out factories”? Why do some teachers perceive our students as being deficient learners rather than remarkable ones?


It’s not the fault of the teachers. It’s not the fault of the students. It’s not the parents. It’s not the media. It’s not the technology companies. It’s not the video games.

It’s the educational system in the United States. We operate in an antiquated context far removed from the realities of today’s society, its demands and its challenges. We want our students to fit into some educational paradigm that was conceived eons ago.

Well, in case you haven’t noticed, so much has happened to transform our landscape. Technology has developed. There are now so many digital advances making once impossible things everyday common occurrences. Every day, there is something new, something that ups the stakes, something that creates another challenge to our obsolete educational system. One thing, however, that is not changing, not transforming, not responding—fast enough anyway—is education.

Today’s learners are different. They learn differently from most of their teachers. All true. I get it.

When, then, do we respond to these differences? When do we take into account these inconsistencies and make systemic changes that embrace our learners and all their skills? When do we create an inclusive environment to fit their needs instead of forcing them into an educational box where they must abandon so much that is part of their culture? When will we demand an education that our students deserve, one where instead of failing, they will thrive?


Technology is not the enemy. It is not gadgets OR lessons. It is not cell phones OR learning. It is not social networks OR accountable talk.

On the contrary, we have the opportunity to use these powerful tools and many more to truly reform our classrooms. We have a chance to show our students how much we do respect and admire their skills by stepping out of our comfort zones to learn from them.

So for today, our first National Digital Learning Day, I ask what you can do to help these changes happen and happen sooner rather than later? Each day we do not advocate for our learners, each day we do not rally around this type of reform is another day where technology leaves education further behind.

Digital. Learning. Digital + Learning. Digital Learning. 


Using Digital-Age Tools to Prepare Students for the Future

How New Digital Media and the Internet are Fueling an Innovative Surge in Communication, Creativity and Collaboration. from DML Research Hub on Vimeo.

Shout out to NWP’s Elyse Eidman-Aadahl! What a wonderful video reiterating the importance of understanding that it’s not about the technology, it’s about using the tools to help students become more precise writers who are aware of audience and purpose. She discusses the many changes that have ocurred since her childhood. Consider the many changes yet to come. We are preparing our students for the unknown. As she states, “The moment to capture is not now. The moment to capture is the future.”

Game for anything. Is this the the digital future of learning?

Solving the puzzle

Solving the puzzle

IMAGINE a grade 6 classroom, silent but for the frenzied tapping of keyboards and the beeps and pings of screen games. It’s an intense silence, more familiar to parents when children are immersed in Halo — or texting at the dinner table.

But in this case they are studying a core subject at Quest to Learn, an innovative new school in New York City. Here, digital games are embraced as highly effective learning tools and the curriculum has been turned on its head: every subject is a puzzle or game to be solved.

While pupils read books and use pencils on occasion, playing and making games is paramount. The free public school’s approach is believed to be a world first — and the students love it.

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Quest to Learn “builds on the best of what we know about how kids learn but does it with a 21st-century twist,” says founder Professor Katie Salen. The best includes active learning by problem-solving, and the twist is using games to engage students. The curriculum is created by teachers and game designers working together.

“The teachers are masters of understanding developmentally where kids are at,” Dr Salen says. “They are masters of content, and game designers are experts at understanding engagement and flow and incentive and challenge — that collaboration is a key part of what we do.”

The school now has sixth and seventh-grade students (aged from about 11) and plans to expand up to 12th grade. It is for children living nearby and there is no test admission. Established in late 2009, the school has so far recorded average marks for maths and literacy. But Q2L rated highly in terms of pupil engagement — in the top few per cent of all New York City schools, Professor Salen says.

“In a city where huge numbers of kids are dropping out of school,” she says, “it is quite a good thing that the students want to be there.” A sister school is to open in Chicago, where expectations are high.

“The only way we’re going to catch up with the rest of the world is to re-invent how teaching and learning occurs,” explained the acting head of Chicago Public Schools, Terry Mazany. “That’s why this is so vital. It’s going to be an innovation engine for the district.”

On a recent trip to the cramped Manhattan headquarters, Elizabeth Purvis, executive director of Chicago International Charter School, seemed dazzled by what the New York students were able to do.

“You can’t watch how these kids work, how invested they are in what they’re learning, and not come away amazed,” she says.

Dr Salen — who is also professor of design and technology and director of the Centre for Transformative Media at New York’s Parsons the New School for Design, and a game designer — co-wrote the game bible, Rules of Play. She says Quest to Learn addresses the widening gap between traditional schools and their tech-savvy pupils.

“We need to think about digital literacy as a proper literacy of the 21st century. If you don’t really understand how to search the web, how a computer works, or how smart phones work and how signals get transmitted through satellites, you are really missing some core understandings that will be important for being able to participate in the workforce.

“It is the responsibility of schools to help kids understand the best and most purposeful ways of working with technology.”

And she’s convinced of the power of games for learning. “What [digital] games do really well is provide structured challenges for people: they drop you into a complex problem-space and they provide something that is just out of your reach. Trying to figure out how to reach that challenge is incredibly fun. Games give constant feedback, so the player knows where they are and they are constantly being given support and rewards for how they are doing — which is a really great way to keep people engaged in an activity.”

But there are those who see video games as the opposite of educational. Professor Salen’s Rules of Play notes that, despite the medium’s huge possibilities, there are plenty of banal, witless games out there.

Games, the book says, can be both “timeless masterpieces and masterful time-wasters”. But she points out that any medium — books, film, TV — has its dross and shouldn’t be dismissed on that basis.

“The military have always used games as a way to strategise around choices in how one might proceed. Games allow the chance to try out many different options without there being any real-world consequences.”

In education, she says, it’s valuable for a student to test ideas and have 100 tries at something rather than just one.

Each school term begins with a conundrum, a mystery that the class must work together to solve. Instead of learning the facts of American history, for example, students embark on a quest to discover why six ghosts haunting the Metropolitan Museum — including an indigenous Indian, a white settler and an African-American slave — have been fighting for 150 years. This quest involves everything from reading primary source materials to playing and making relevant digital games.

Classes are interdisciplinary, such as an English and maths hybrid called CodeWorlds. Here, for instance, students might be presented with a set of library books, written in a code they are asked to decipher, using maths techniques.

Q2L adopts the jargon of the gaming world: pupils work on “missions” rather than units of study and lessons are “quests”. They achieve levels from novice to master rather than A to D grades.

The teachers come from traditional teaching backgrounds but have an affinity with collaborative project-based work and new technology, Dr Salen says. “They feel they can really be designers of experiences for young people rather than content disseminators or gatekeepers around kids getting grades and testing. It gives them an empowerment around being creative individuals.”

Operating on a public-school budget but with grants from the Gates Foundation, among others, the school is a litmus test for digital learning. While Professor Salen admits she and her colleagues feel the pressure to prove themselves, she has no doubt about the effectiveness of games. She first took board games into her university classroom when teaching interactive design in the 1990s.

“I started to look at games as more than just a space for play and began to realise that, as designed systems, they were incredibly interesting. I wanted to try and understand what it was about games that made them so engaging for people.”

Designing a game, Professor Salen says, involves analysing the system that underpins its subject. And that skill’s got to be useful — in or out of school. In the school’s core subject, sports for the mind, students design computer games. For homework, they test and rate those of their classmates.

“All of these skills are things that we think are really important in the 21st century — the ability to critique media, to build models and simulations about ideas, the ability to give feedback and work in teams.”

While the school is cautious about expanding too fast, there is plenty of international interest. Q2L is looking at how to provide teaching tools that can be tailored to other schools, Professor Salen says. She sees this as vital for educators of the future. “We need to teach kids how to navigate the [digital] system and how to make choices and really, how to be a citizen in a world that is totally wired and totally global.”



The Bounty that is Google Sites


I know many of y'all know about Google Sites. I know that you may have made several sites with it, but have you played around with their templates recently? Seriously, go check it out—especially if you're an educator. I just did this today. There are several for high schools, classrooms, clubs, teams, student spaces, and today, I found one for students doing research on colleges, jobs, as well as living independently.

To appeal to your other interests, there are also templates for weddings, foodies, travel journals, photography, and so much more.

That means, it's all set up and ready for your content! Could they make it any easier?