Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Should We Be Spending MORE Time Playing Video Games?

I capitalized it in the title so people wouldn't think it was a typo, but the TED talk embedded below argues not that our society wastes too much time playing video games, but that it doesn't spend ENOUGH time.  Game designer and researcher Jane McGonigal has written a book entitled Reality is Broken:  Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can the World, which I have been eyeing on my library's new nonfiction shelf but have not yet brought home due to my inability to spend any time reading while I'm doing NaNoWriMo.  But I went searching for the short version, and found it in the TED video below.

McGonigal has an intriguing notion.  She has studied people's behavior in video games (in this video, at least, she seems to be talking primarily about heroic/adventure collaborative online role playing games), and found that people tend to be more empowered, more connected, more helpful, more optimistic, more creative, and just all-around better people in these game environments than they are in real life.  Her quest is to find ways to take all those qualities developed by gaming and unleash them to solve huge problems in the real world.

I could say more, but she will say it better, so it's probably best if I just let you watch the 20-minute video below.  At the very least, it will make those of us whose children spend a lot of time playing these sorts of games feel like there is more benefit to that time than we might have thought.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Should We Be Supporting Virtual Schools?

There was an excellent story in the Washington Post this weekend on the pros and cons of virtual schools.  Virtual schools are sort of a hybrid between public charter schools, online learning such as Khan Academy,  and homeschooling.  Virtual schools are K-12 educational systems run by public schools to teach children at home using technology.  These are generally treated as charter schools (and thus exempt from many school regulations), but are paid for and treated as part of the public school system, usually with significant learner support expected by the at-home learning coach (e.g., parent or other similar substitute).

It is quite an extensive article, so I recommend that you read it in full here.  But here are a few of the items that stood out for me:

Some Pros:
  • Virtual schools provide a different educational choice for students who can't go to school or who have been failing in traditional school.
  • For parents, virtual schools are similar to homeschooling, but without the responsibility or expense of obtaining high-quality curriculum yourself.
  • Technology allows students to study at their own pace and schedule, to review what they don't understand as often as necessary and to skip through the things that they do, to use multi-media rich learning materials, and, to some extent, to adjust learning to their own learning style.
  • Companies are investing lots of money into curriculum development, which presumably should translate into high-quality learning tools.
Some Cons:
  • Virtual schools have a pretty terrible achievement record, both in terms of test scores and in completion/graduation rates.  One study showed that only one third of the schools managed by the largest player in the business, K12 Inc, met the federal NCLB standards last year.  And the article had an example of the Colorado Virtual Academy, also managed by K12, which has achieved only a 12% on-time graduation rate, compared to 72% of other schools statewide.
  • In at least some states, the Virtual schools are "locating" in the poorest, most rural counties that received the highest levels of funding support from the state, but are enrolling students from throughout the state and counting them as students in that poor county.  So, for example, the Virginia Virtual Academy counts all its students as being from its home base in Carroll County, which the state reimburses $5,421 per student.  Therefore, the 66 students enrolled who actually live in Fairfax County, which would only receive $2,716 per student if they attended their local schools, are costing the state twice as much by being counted as Carroll County students.
  • Socialization can be a big issue with these students, because unlike local homeschool organizations, which foster a variety of group social and academic experiences, virtual school students receive all of their education in their own home, even starting as early as kindergarten.  Virtual schools are trying to address that issue and find more opportunities for their students to interact with their peers.
  • While these companies are paying 35% less for their teachers than traditional schools, they are putting lots of money into lobbying politicians.   According to the Post, in the past six years, K12 has contributed half a million dollars to US politicians, 3/4th of which went to Republicans (who are typically stronger supporters of the school choice movement).
This is actually a subject I know a good bit about in general, because not only do I homeschool, but I used to work in the distance education field before that.  The pros and cons above (at least the ones that don't have to do with funding and lobbying) are things that we have long known about the potential and the problems with distance education.

Education via technology is sometimes the only solution for some students, such as those that are geographically remote or isolated (students in Alaska, rural Maine, or the mountains of West Virginia, for example) or who have health problems, physical disabilities, or other issues that prohibit them from attending traditional schools.  Beyond that, distance education can be a fantastic option for disciplined, self-motivated learners.

However, while that designation applies to some percentage of students who fail in traditional schools, that description does not apply to the vast majority of struggling learners.  Particularly students in poor communities have little or no home support for their learning, since they are often in full-time employed single parent or dual working parent homes, many of who are illiterate and/or do not speak English.   They do not have access to the type of "learning coaches" that is critical for making this kind of education work, particularly for elementary-aged students.  So while it sounds good to say these programs give choice to failing learners, the reality is that having these types of students trying to learn through technology at home without any support is likely to make their educational performance be even worse, not better.  

As a homeschool mom, I can attest to the fact that showing a child the best-producing, most enthralling computer-based instruction featuring the most brilliant people on the planet does not ensure that he or she will learn anything from it.  As I have stated in an earlier post, education is so much more than just giving a child wonderful instructional content.

So while I'm not saying I don't think they have potential and shouldn't play a role in the panoply of educational options we are fortunate enough to have in our country, I, personally, am suspicious about how much at least some of the schools are really dedicated to solving our educational problems, and how much they are about making their owners a substantial profit.

But take my word for it.  Read the Post article, check into the situation in your state, and if you have any opinions, pro or con, feel free to add them below.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Curriculum Resource: Math and Videogames

I've found what looks like an incredible resource.  It is an online, multi-media, interactive, self-paced course on math concepts used in video games.  It was developed by WNET, the public broadcasting network in New York City, for 7th-10th graders, although advanced younger middle schoolers could probably use it as well.

The lesson demonstrates how algebraic concepts, such as linear relationships, rate of change and slope, algebraic and numeric expressions and equations, and graphing transformations, underlie the design and playing of many video game challenges.  Of course, it is interactive, so students are called upon to solve such problem to demonstrate some typical video game techniques.

You can access the entire lesson for FREE at the Teacher's Domain website (although students will have to create an account if they want the lesson to record their input for various challenges).  You can also download a Teacher's Guide about how to support math learning through this lesson at the same location.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Curriculum Resource: Lesson Plan on the Occupy Movement

Last month I posted an NPR podcast and a dubious news item as resources to use for discussing the Occupy movement with students.  Now you can supplement those with an entire lesson plan developed by C-SPAN to drive students to consider this question:  Should students support or oppose the "Occupy" movement?

The lesson plan is build around some C-SPAN news clips and some current articles, pro and con, by some of the top columnists of leading newspapers.  However, it was low, medium, and high read levels indicated, so it can be used with a wide range of ages/abilities.  It is geared towards having a classroom debate, but the materials could be used on an individual basis and lead to writing a pro or con position paper instead.

It has some high quality resources on a timely subject, and the price is right, because it is FREE.  If you are interested, you can download everything from the C-SPAN Classroom Deliberations website

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Rembrandt in America

We interrupt our regularly-scheduled blogging for this emergency message:


My son and I took a break from our feverish writing to attend a tour arranged by one of our fellow homeschoolers (her son is doing NaNoWriMo as well) to see the new exhibit at the North Carolina Museum of Art entitled Rembrandt in America.  And boy, was it worth it!

This exhibit is the largest collection of Rembrandt and Rembrandt-esque paintings that has ever been displayed in America.  It contains authentic Rembrandt paintings, give or take.  I say that because a major theme of the exhibit is the fact that it is hard to establish exactly which Rembrandt paintings were, indeed, painted by Rembrandt, and which were done with other people, or by his trained painters in his studio, or his friends or colleagues outside the studio, or other painters at the time that copied his style (and, apparently, on occasion, his signature).

At one point, art historians believed that there were over 700 Rembrandt paintings still in existence.  However, with the advent of Xray and other technology that allows us to analyze the paintings, experts have dropped the number of true, original Rembrandts down to close to 250.  But this is an evolving situation; our tour guide told us that just TODAY, one of the paintings that had been classified as a Rembrandt-studio painting had been declared by the experts to be an actual Rembrandt.  How exciting!

Another major theme of the exhibit, and certainly of the tour we took, was what was distinctive about Rembrandt's paintings, and how to recognize a true Rembrandt from a Rembrandt copier.  Our tour guide did an excellent job of explaining that to our group, which was made up of middle and high school students.  At one point, she took us into a room with about eight paintings, of which she said only two were actually true Rembrandts, and challenged us to pick out the authentic ones.  But my son and I were able to do it.  It's not that hard--once you know his specific characteristics.  But it is particularly evident when you can see the actual paintings side-by-side.  I've been looking back at some pictures, and it is not as easy to see through photographs as it is with your own two eyes.

Now I will admit, Rembrandt is not my favorite style of painting.  But I really enjoyed seeing the exhibit, and I learned to appreciate his work more than I ever have.  If you are anywhere in the area, I recommend going and bringing your high schooler(s) with you.  And if you can arrange it, go with a tour.  The docents really know how to gear the tour to which ever age group (we've been doing this every since he was little), and it adds so much to seeing the exhibit.

But even without a tour, it is worth the time and money to come see it.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

New Program Allows NC High Schoolers to Enroll at Community Colleges for Free

Today North Carolina Governor Beverly Perdue announced a new program that will allow eligible high school students to take classes at local community colleges for free.  The new Career & College Promise program, which consolidates and replaces previous dual enrollment programs, is designed to help students maximize their time in high school by taking community college courses that will give them a head start in either completing college or starting their careers after high school.

In the Career & College Promise programs, students are only eligible for the free community college enrollment if they maintain a B average, demonstrate capability for doing college-level work (largely determined by test scores), and continue to work towards their high school graduation requirements.  They can choose one of three paths:  (1) a college track that covers courses that will transfer to a four-year undergraduate institution; (2) a career track that includes classes and certifications in their designated profession, (3) for students enrolled in specified innovative high schools, students may be able to earn an associates degree at the same time as they complete their high school graduation requirements.

In the past, many homeschoolers have taken advantage of older free dual enrollment programs at community colleges.  However, my friends with high schoolers have told me it has been harder to get such classes because of budget cuts.  The official announcements from the Governor's office do not say specifically whether this program includes (or excludes) homeschooled students.  However, this page on the website of Durham Tech says that the program is available for any public, private, or homeschooled student.  So it appears that this program will include homeschoolers.  However, Durham Tech also says this replaces previous programs, so homeschoolers or other student categories, such as gifted and talented, will have to follow the rules under this program, rather than the previous systems to which they may be accustomed.

For more information, visit the Career & College Promise website, and/or watch the video below: