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September 24, 2012
Marianne Malmstrom is a technology teacher at The Elisabeth Morrow School, where she has worked with colleagues to develop a school-wide multimedia program that has received international recognition.
"21st Century Learning" and "21st Century Skills" are two of the most commonly used phrases in education today, but what do they really mean? More importantly, what do they mean in terms of student growth and achievement?
When hearing the term "21st Century Learning," many conjure images of fancy computer labs and classrooms equipped with smart boards. Others think in terms of cutting-edge software and Web 2.0 tools that allow students to create, collaborate and publish online. While these are all tools that are reshaping our culture, simply learning how to use them does not prepare students to successfully adapt to a constantly changing world. The heart of "21st Century Learning" is not about the tools, it is all about learning how to learn. Helping our students become proficient and independent life-long learners is central to their success in navigating through uncharted change.
Pat Bassett, President of the National Association of Independent Schools, identifies the following skills as essential for success in the 21st century: creativity, critical thinking, communication, collaboration, character and citizenship. While these skills do not always get the priority they deserve in an education culture largely driven by content mastery and test scores, they have always been integral to the mission of The Elisabeth Morrow School. That mission has served us well in navigating rapid change and keeping our program relevant. By closely following how young people use technology in their everyday lives, we have discovered that games are one of the best vehicles for learning.
At first, this may seem counterintuitive, as we tend to think of school as being a sanctuary for the serious work of learning. While we may not think of games as serious, there is much that they can teach us. In fact, they offer a unique platform to address all of the skills that Mr. Bassett identified as essential for student success. Select virtual worlds and massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs) can be goldmines for student development and learning!
Virtual worlds are 3D spaces that allow users to interact with each other using avatars. These spaces give students a unique opportunity to participate in creating their own learning environments. Each world typically starts with land, sky and water and is programmed with a physics engine that simulates gravity, weather and light cycles. Users transform the landscape and create all of the buildings, vehicles and other objects that populate that space. These objects can be programmed to perform behaviors that interact with the environment and the other avatars. The complexity of each building is only limited by the user’s imagination and skill.
Lessons within a virtual world usually start with a simple challenge, such as designing a community center. Things quickly become complicated when constraints are added, such as limiting the number of building units students are permitted to use or insisting that everyone agrees on the design before the building starts. Students love the opportunity to stretch their imagination and show what they have created. The complexity of their building grows as they become inspired by each other. It is amazing to watch how freely they share their newly gained knowledge. There is a constant buzz, as students move about the room helping each other and sharing what they have learned. The work is so complex that it is impossible for anyone to be an expert in all areas. The community only thrives when each member contributes his/her area of expertise to the group. Arising conflicts and disagreements become part of the learning process, as students negotiate and resolve their own problems.
MMOGs provide a different kind of learning opportunity. Using scripted stories, these platforms allow players to interact with others online as they complete challenging tasks within a storyline. Since many quests require a team to successfully complete the task, the ability to collaborate, communicate and solve problems is critical. Each character specializes in a specific set of talents. Players have to manage a great deal of information and adeptly juggle multiple skills in order to play optimally. Much like sports, MMOGs are only successful when each member performs his/her job well. These games are highly engaging and incredibly complex, they keep students' attention and challenge them push their own boundaries.
Virtual worlds and MMOGs hold some important keys to keeping our schools relevant in a rapidly changing world. At The Elisabeth Morrow School we have observed and documented the learning that takes place in these unusual spaces. It is clear that they are conducive to fostering essential 21st Century Skills. Students find working and playing in these spaces highly engaging. When given a challenge, they often exceed the expectations of the assignment. Beyond the academic lessons, students just want to play. When they are given the time and opportunity to do this, they astonish us with the complexity of their ideas and how much time they are willing to invest in making them a reality. It is powerful to watch them take ownership of their own learning as well as take responsibility for solving their own problems. Clearly, play is an essential part of learning in the 21st century.
Marianne Malmstrom has 30 years experience as a classroom teacher and administrator. Fascinated by emerging technology, she believes that we must critically select and pair promising technology with sound pedagogy if we are to keep education relevant. As a technology teacher for The Elisabeth Morrow School, Marianne follows shifts in how students use technology in their everyday lives. With this information, she then draws on her extensive teaching experience to create new learning environments designed to develop essential 21st century skills and literacies. Over the past ten years, Marianne has worked with colleagues to develop a school-wide multimedia program that has received international recognition including awards from both WNET’s Celebration of Teaching & Learning and Flat Classroom Project’s NetGen Challenge. Her current work is focused on using virtual worlds and massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs) to foster healthy norms in online communities, while giving students opportunities to collaborate and solve problems in highly creative spaces.
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