Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Two lectures to BECTA

Birmingham, UK

BECTA logoThe British Educational Communications and Technology Agency is responsible for figuring out how to use technology in schools and higher education, and where the money should go. This involves bringing together an awful lot of people -- local education authorities, teachers, software developers, and other governmental agencies. They invited me to come to a day-long seminar called "Enhancing Learning: Virtual worlds, Simulations and Games Based Learning." I gave them two lectures, one called "Reality, Simulation, and Play," and the other one, "The Future of Computer Entertainment."

I went expecting that my audience wouldn't know much about computer games... which is often the case at these kinds of events. In this case I was wrong, and had to revise my slides pretty quickly when I got there. There's some fascinating work going on. Sion Lenton from TrueSim (a serious-games division of Blitz Games, which has hitherto been known mostly for kids' titles [Barbie Horse Adventures]) gave a talk about some of their work on facial animation for trauma-care training software. It was pretty amazing stuff. We could see the various stages a person's face goes through as he slips into unconsciousness and dies; creepy but brilliant, assuming they have the details right (I'm not in a position to know).

The day ended with a really inspiring talk by a Scottish guy named Derek Robertson, of Learning and Teaching Scotland. He and his colleagues find all sorts of innovative ways to use commercial off-the-shelf (known as COTS) games in the classroom. They got totally unmotivated kids to substantially improve their math skills simply by giving them the arithmetic drill in Brain Age for the Nintendo DS. The kids loved the instant feedback and the ability to watch their own progress as the days went by. The classroom was miraculously quiet. He also talked about how somebody (I'm afraid I didn't catch who) is using Guitar Hero in the classroom... yep, Guitar Hero. The kids form bands and go on virtual tours. They use math to do the accounting to keep track of how much "money" the band makes. They learn art skills to make posters for the band. They use English skills to write newspaper reviews of each others' bands. And of course they learn about music (sort of) by playing the game. Completely brilliant. Mr. Robertson seems to have boundless energy and imagination. He's somebody to watch. After his lecture, a member of the audience said, "Can I send my kids to school in Scotland?"

My thanks to BECTA for inviting me to a very entertaining and informative day.