Derek Robertson - Hero Innovator PDF Print E-mail
Written by Graham Brown-Martin on Sunday, 23 March 2008
Derek Evaluating game-based learning.

With the Byron Review, that looks into the influence of videogames on children - led by child psychologist Dr Tanya Byron, about to be published it seemed apt that we should kick off our hero innovator series with Derek Robertson of the Consolarium, Learning & Teaching Scotland.

By kind invitation I headed North to Aberdeen to visit two primary schools and a teachers training session. Having followed Derek's work and ideas for the past 2 years I had expected to be impressed but what I experienced, and hope I've gone some way to capturing, was something bordering on an epiphany.

Derek and the Consolarium initiative are studying whether learning could be dramatically enhanced by using the kind of technologies and experiences that are already a part of many young learners lives. The Consolarium is manufacturer independent, receiving no industry sponsorship and purchases all the devices and software used themselves. Derek informs me that he believes this is a critical factor in the work that the Consolarium is engaged given that platforms typically wax and wane in their popularity. The only guidance is what learners are already using and the relevance of the software. Technology platforms used include Nintendo DS and Wii, Sony PSP and PlayStation, Xbox as well as mobile phones.

On my visit I was invited to see the work that had been achieved by year 2 primary school children based around the game title Nintendogs. Now, I must confess that whilst I immediately grasped how titles such as Brain Training, Maths Training and Big Brain Academy might be well used in a school context I was curious about how a straight game title would facilitate deep learning.

For those not familiar with this game title, Nintendogs is a game that runs on the Nintendo DS handheld and where the game play is based around nurturing a puppy to adulthood, entering shows, working out budget’s for feeding and health as well as a multitude of other dog related activities. The game uses the speech recognition and touch screen facilities of the DS. I can vouch for the desirability of the game from the heavy rotation that it gets in my household from my daughters age 7 and 2. Those of you who attended the last Handheld Learning Conference will recall a video clip of my 2 year old training a puppy using voice commands. But I did wonder how this would translate to the classroom.

I needn’t have worried. On visiting Elrick Primary School I became immersed in an ocean of active learning where the Nintendogs game was being used as a “contextual hub” from which at least a dozen other activities were spawn. In a large open-plan space, learners were busy collaborating with their DS’s; running a pet-shop, learning about dog awareness and care, running a dog-walking service, building an online blog, participating in design and technology craft to create kennels, learning about animation to create a movie, establishing a mentoring service and more. The energy within this class was as palpable as Derek’s passion.

I did wonder about the possible obstacles to introducing this type of technology into the class and how teachers might be encouraged to embrace rather than ban but unlike so many pretenders to the crown of 1:1 access or mobile learning it would appear that the magic in these consumer electronic devices lies in their design.

The key to successful consumer electronic devices is ease of use. Most consumers want technologies that they can simply switch on and use rather than be baffled by the intricacies of manuals or operating systems that sound like detergents or breakfast cereals. Derek refers to this as “low threshold skills requirement”. Speaking to teachers at the schools and the head teacher at Elrick, Louise Malcolm, it was the simplicity of use and immediate results that made the devices and software deployed in this project a winning combination:

Even for teachers approaching retirement:

Part of the initiative in Aberdeenshire and the use of Nintendogs was the availability of mentors from within the learner group themselves. These were, as a consequence of agreement between the learners, called “Top Dogs” and initially they were drawn from those who already had some experience with the device or the game itself. I had the opportunity to chat to some of the older kids who were participating in the mentoring of the year 2 students:

Clearly motivation, engagement, fun and collaboration were seen as important aspects of the initiative by the learners themselves as can be seen in this clip:

And the three budding entrepreneurs in this one:

After spending such an exciting and illuminating day with the children and teachers of the schools and seeing how a game such as Nintendogs could be used to stimulate such a volume of learning experiences I was thinking that there would be a catch somewhere along the line. Consequently I was wondering how the parents of these children felt when it was suggested that, in spite of tabloid concerns over the ills of electronic game machines, that their children would be using Nintendo DS device at school as part of their learning?

A child who never stops talking about what they are doing in school? Well that’s about as likely as a game that makes mental arithmetic cool!

It was a long day in Aberdeenshire but after the two school visits Derek was then presenting an introductory training session to about 40 teachers who will be participating in some research using Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training game. Now I’ve attended many in-service training days for teachers that are focussed on the introduction of new technology so I was expecting the usual, and often understandable, FUD (Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt). It would be here that Derek’s indefatigable enthusiasm would be challenged. But no, the session was completed in less than 90 minutes, the only upset were teachers disappointed that their schools hadn’t been selected for the first wave of trials in their area. I awaited those immortal words that open the door to crush innovative initiatives, “are there any questions?”

There were none, just the sound of teachers playing, sorry learning Brain Training.

My sincere thanks to Derek Robertson, the children and teachers of Elrick and Banchory Primary Schools and the local authority of Aberdeenshire for facilitating my visit.

Essential links:
The Consolarium Blog
Elrick Primary Top Dogs Blog
Banchory Primary Doggytails Blog

The convergence between consumer electronics, entertainment software and learning will be a principle theme of this years Handheld Learning Conference, Oct 13th-15th, London. Pre-register now.

Are you or do you know of someone who you think should be featured as a “Hero Innovator” for inclusion on this site? If so please contact graham (at) handheldlearning.co.uk

Graham Brown-Martin is the founder of Handheld Learning.

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