And I have to say, from my vantage point as a child of the '80s who'd been put in a GT class to learn how to program in BASIC at age eight, I'd have to agree with a lot of the criticism. Memorizing how to write GOTO commands probably wasn't the best use of learning time.
I also remember the god-awful math games. Once a week, starting in fourth grade, our math teacher would take us to the school's "computer lab" (years-old Apple IIes and dot-matrix printers) and force us to play mind-numbing sprite-graphic ed versions of games like Space Invaders and Asteroid. In addition to being an insult to the aesthetics of geeky kids, the math games really just made all of us want to cut school and hike over to the bowling alley in Arbutus where they had real video games like Galaga.
As I recall it, there were two serious pre-WWW gaming events. The first was the release of Zork. Being a text-based game, a lot of folks now look back and figure that the game proved that graphics weren't necessarily the most important thing. That's not true. 'Graphics' at the time amounted to Breakout and Pac Man; so that was sort of a moot point. The cool thing about Zork was that -- to the degree that it could -- it put the player in the driver's seat. It, along with Oregon Trail [a rare engaging ed game of the period] and some others, presented for the first time a style of gaming that would be a different experience for each player (or at least that was the ideal). It was an ideal rarely, if ever, lived up to by most 'educational' games.
The second event was the release of Nintendo's Super Mario Brothers. That, in my opinion, was the game that killed pre-WWW ed tech. Mario took the concept of gamer-driven adventure and combined it with really cool graphics and -- most importantly -- tricks that only savvy players would be able to figure out. Whereas in Space Invaders and Donkey Kong, levels amounted faster or more populated versions of the previous level, in Mario you had the element of surprise: you really didn't know what was coming next. I've played the new Mario games for Wii and have the same immediate affection for them; at their best, they are sort of like little surrealist games. The point to winning is figuring out the logic of the virtual world. They are the complete opposite of simple didactic 'educational' games.
So, in the mind of a kid, this sort of gaming experience should have immediately dashed the hope of folks who would have us believe that a computer version of Hangman was really going to hold our interest. Unfortunately, it didn't. And rather than learn anything from Mario, ed games held on to Frogger.
And then came the MMOGs. Game over. As soon as you create a shared virtual environment in which players are collaborating with or competing against other live people, you've created a mindset in gaming that can never really go back to the old single player island games. How do we think about the old styles of games now? Well, it's sort of like trying to use a laptop without an Internet connection. You can do stuff -- like type documents or listen to music -- but it doesn't take long before you get antsy to get back online.
Because the connection is the thing.
It's what's changed the scene. It changed the way we use computers and it changed the way we play games.
The connection, therefore is the new technology.
A lot of folks don't understand this. To them, the computer is the technology. And computers have been around for a long time.
But that's not what we're talking about. We're talking about the network itself. We're talking about the paradigm of immediate global connection. We're talking about social technology.
We're not talking about computers and computer games.
And in our zeal for educational technology, I think we're seeing a backlash based on this misunderstanding of exactly what we're talking about when we're talking about technology.
We've got teachers who suffered through DOS and sprite-games. We've got teachers who suffered through the Word document wars. We've got teachers whose introduction to online management was SharePoint.
Give these folks a break.
In a sense, we've done nothing but fill them with the expectation that -- at the very least -- the technology we put in front of them and expect them to use is going to be clunky, difficult, and well, kinda boring and obvious.
It reminds me of a fable:
There was an ed techie tending the school's computer lab who would continually go up to the faculty lounge and shout: 'Hey! We've got fantastic educational technology that we can use here at school to make the learning experience so much more engaging!"
The teachers would all come running down to the computer lab only to find lame educational games and Byzantine proprietary productivity applications.
Then one day there really was a revolutionary shift in educational technology as social media entered the scene. But when the ed techie shouted, none of the teachers believed him and no one bothered to try out the new apps.
And so, they (and their students) all missed out.
This is the reason so many of our colleagues think we are full of it. Because for thirty years, we shouted to them about glorified typewriters, calculators, and overhead projectors. And then we're surprised when they show reluctance to try out social technologies.
We need to be careful about preaching to each other and thinking that the excitement we feel is shared by all of our colleagues. What we need to do is have an open discussion with our colleagues and admit that much of what we have considered beneficial educational technology in the past has in fact primarily been our own excitement dressed up as a learning paradigm.
But things have changed. And this time, it's for real. And if we don't all buck up, throw aside our differences, and engage this thing for the benefit of the students who are already living their own lives in this digital domain, we might as well hope that next time it's wolves.
Thanks to Aesopica, the Internet's best resource for all things Aesop.