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Things to Consider in Designing Educational Technology & Games for Kids

I just finished a book on kids, technology, and education that was published earlier this year. The tone of the book was that youth today are different from previous generations. According to the author, they multitask more than older people, even young 20-somethings. Their attention spans are shorter than previous generations. His message was that if you don't utilize technology, kids today won’t listen to you.

Initially, I intended to write a review of the book, but instead, it seems better to respond to the common misperceptions that the author was voicing. A review, had I written one, would have read like a tedious list of attacks and counterarguments. I think it's more constructive to instead address this recurring theme that there are special things you need to know to work with this generation of ‘digital youth’. Because really, kids are just kids. No matter how recently they were born, or how much technology they use, children are not cyborgs, I assure you.

Student in the front row is unimpressed with the abacus; state of the art educational technology for 1930.Myth #1: Kids are bored at school because most schools lack sufficient technology.  The fact is, kids have been bored at school for decades. Possibly since the invention of school. Although it may be true that youth today use technology more than previous generations of young people, it isn't correct to assume that technology has become the only way to reach kids. Kids, like all people, are attracted to meaningful experiences in any form. Schools should absolutely incorporate technology, but there are still many great ways to immerse kids in a subject that have nothing to do with technology. 

What this means for designers:  When planning educational content, always think about the experience you are crafting for the learner. Whatever your project is, it's probably costing somebody a lot of money. For heaven's sake, don't let it be boring. What actions could a learner do that might help her become more familiar with the content? It might be a game to play or a simulation to tinker with, but it also might be a series of suggestions on what to do outdoors with a team of friends, or something to try the next time you're at the supermarket, and the cell phone app you've built walks you through the steps. Keep in mind too that the experience you design won't be the only chance the learner has to master the content. Don't bog it down with everything a person should know about the subject. Instead, just feed them what they need to know to have a meaningful, frustration-free experience right now, and leave them hungry to learn more about the topic when it is finished. Research has shown that people who play Civilization have more success remembering what they read in history textbooks than people who don't play. The best games serve as a springboard, not a stand alone lesson.

What this means for educators:  If using technology in the classroom frightens you, or you don’t have the resources of time or money that you wish you had, that's OK! Work with the mediums that are your strengths, whatever they are, and branch out when you feel comfortable doing so. Try to craft engaging, interactive experiences without technology. The word 'interactive' doesn’t have to be synonymous with technology. You could create an interactive activity where you tell a short story, then turn students loose in groups to do some problem solving related to the story. After they've worked for awhile, use the input from their work to continue the story and repeat the cycle. There are many themes and subjects that could be made into interactive activities like this. Just use your imagination!

Myth #2: Technology always makes for a more immersive experience than books or lectures.  The book I’m not reviewing in this post spent a chapter making this argument.  I would say that the inverse is often true. To me, immersion is when you forget other responsibilities and distractions and focus solely on the experience at hand. Sorry to say, there’s no magic quality of technology that makes it instantly immersive.  Novelty might make a new technology engaging for a short period of time, but a truly immersive experience takes a lot of design work. It can be easier to become absorbed in a novel than a video podcast or even a video game. It all depends on the design, and your interest in the subject matter.

Short attention spans can always be overcome if you have engaging content, and a delicious user experience. Have you seen the thickness of some of those Harry Potter books?  You can’t look at the line of kids who lined up at book stores as recently as 2007 to buy this fat novel and say this is a generation of youth with short attention spans. If kids are getting bored with your content, you need to try harder to craft an engaging experience. It isn’t easy. Involving kids in your development process and getting their feedback on alpha builds (or maybe even earlier!) is a good way to start.

Myth #3: Kids today have to multi-task. They won’t concentrate on one thing at a time.  Distraction in the classroom is not a new thing. It doesn’t matter if a student would rather text message than listen to a lecture, or if she’d rather draw doodles in the margins of her notebook. The end result is the same. The problem is not the technology. It’s the lack of engagement. The solution is not to remove technology from the classroom, because you could never eliminate all distractions. The solution is to make education more engaging, across all methods of instruction. No method is inherently bad. There’s room for improvement and innovation in all forms.

However tempting, it's important not to overuse gross generalizations, like "Kids today all ______." Just like any previous generation of people, the youth of today are individuals with unique qualities and preferences. Some kids boldly try every button when you place a new technology in their hands, and some wait and watch what others do with it first. Some teens seem to text all day every day, but sixteen year old Abby Sunderland wasn't texting all day when she attempted to sail around the world earlier this year. I have met teenagers who say they don't 'get' Facebook. You could probably find at least one teen or tween in any classroom who wished his or her friends wouldn’t always resort to social networking sites and text messages as their preferred methods of communication.

Kids today are not so different from you as a child. Sure, the world has changed, and experiences of generations of youth always vary from decade to decade, but don’t lose sight of the commonalities. Kids are still kids. They love a good story, and anything that’s pure fun. They like games and toys that encourage creative thinking. They worry what their friends and classmates think about them, just like you probably did. Personal relationships with the adults in their lives are important to them too, even if they don’t always say so. Think about these things when you design, and always question your own assumptions!

Photo credit: Nationaal Archief of The Netherlands

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Reader Comments (5)

Though I agree with some of your arguments, I had a different read of the book (assuming you're talking about Rewired). I don't think it HAS to be technology driven to engage students, I think it has to be different from the standard model that hasn't changed much over time: kids sit still in desks while teacher presents information. Technology is handy in this effort because it's where kids' minds are already. Why not use Facebook to try to teach them something?

Generally, I think kids need a wide range of learning experiences in the classroom, on and offline.

October 14, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAmy

First post about tech and education I read in a long time that wasn't full of hyperbole and wild declarations. The one thing I would say (that you probably agree with anyway) is that while kids have always been bored at school, we finally have some tools at our disposal that can limit or eliminate that feeling. I see it every day. When I lock screens and ask the kids to log off and line up, I get a chorus of "Ohh! Can't we just have a few more minutes?" The funny thing is that this happens when the kids are doing geography puzzles, doing math, and a dozen other things that when taught traditionally almost never get that response. Not that I really have anything to do with it, it is the tool that is exciting.

Anyway, great post. Well reasoned, well written, well done!

October 14, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterGeorge Haines

Loved the post, and couldn't agree with it more. It seems many people in education are looking for that magic bullet that will save us all. Similar to the entire "Waiting for Superman" hype, their no one person, nor technology that is going to fix schools. I especially agree with the novelty aspects. Here today gone tomorrow... Sure you could get a kids attention by wearing a clown wig to class, but after a few days they will just think your nuts. Kids see through junk rather quickly, so if there is no depth and value in what you are offering them you could bet that their engagement will decline really fast.

October 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAlex Britez

Great article and great comments. There is no magic bullet and student engagement comes in many forms, and as far as technology is concerned that will continue to evolve too.

I have both an iPhone and iPad and have used with my children and in the classroom as a volunteer. I think the iPad could revolutionize education, but we still need to get away from the "kids sit still in desks while teacher presents information" model that Amy mentions above. There is no guarantee that new technology will not just take the place of books and paper, and not utilize the interactive qualities of apps like Motion Math, BrainPop - and a million other apps in the app store.

On a personal note, and despite being a huge advocate for technology in eduction, the most rewarding aspect of volunteering in a classrom is when a student just starts blossoming when you work one on one. That's engagement for both student and teacher.

November 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLesley Taylor

Long time reader. Loved this post. It'd be nice if more educators actually had a sense of how these new technologies fit into the classroom experience and - just as important - do not fit. As a long-time gamer and overachiever, I can absolutely say that Civilization taught me more about History than history class. There was obviously more information in my 12 years of History\Social Studies classes, but when it's presented in a rote note-driven format, why would you care about 16th century France? When it's presented in an engaging strategy game with incidental historical information, you sponge it up unconsciously. And then, you think "I've never heard of Boudica of Ireland." Before long, the sun's coming up and you've spent the night reading the history of Ireland.

George: It's not the technology that they want, it's the engaging puzzles that promote creative thinking and have built-in reward mechanisms.

January 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterErdTirdMans

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