Is Technology Just Bells and Whistles?

By: Paul Wright

Shall … We … Play … A … Game?

So, I just got done grading a 9th grade group project on my Xbox. Yes, you read that sentence right: I just got done grading a project … on the Xbox …in my basement. I assigned my 9th grade Government students to take me on a “tour” of Articles I, II, and III of the US Constitution.

I suggested they construct a building of sorts, say, a museum with wings dedicated to the three articles, and, thus, the three branches of government. They needed to study them, discern what parts were more important to the formation and function of each branch, and then represent those things with a visual metaphor for a presentation.

Truth is, I wasn’t sure how it was going to go. This is our first year with this course in our freshman curriculum, a change brought about by the state of Pennsylvania’s promise to furnish us with a “Keystone” statewide exam in the field of Civics and Government. I have enjoyed teaching Government and Civics, so this looming test has ended up a lousy reason to make a good curricular change. As far as the test itself, we won’t really know what it is until it arrives, so until then, we wait …

This year with Government has made for a “try anything once” mentality as teachers in my department figure out what fits and what doesn’t, what will work with kids and what won’t. In that way, there is some excitement in building a course and taking its pulse many times along the way.

Tour the Three Branches

Kids really seemed excited about the possibilities, and the ideas started to flow:

  • How about an open house tour, like a realtor?
  • How about a Prezi with an architect’s floor plans?
  • One group went old school — cardboard boxes and a glue gun to build a house.
  • In two separate classes, this idea: “Wright, could we make a house in a Minecraft world?”

Minecraft Mania

I am familiar with Minecraft since my own children play it on a variety of devices. Whenever I see it, I harken back to the original Atari 2600 in the basements of my youth, where graphics were boxes and circles, the knight in Adventure was a square with a sword, and the dragons just 3 squares and a tooth.

As a model, though, Minecraft does many things that education should envy:

  1. Leave open possibilities for the player to encounter
  2. Give kids creative opportunities
  3. Show cause and effect (a lesson from my daughters: build a house with wool in it, it will catch fire from the lava pit you use to warm it)

I was curious how this project would show up on Minecraft, and the kids in each class who suggested it were excited about it, so I said “sure,” with the understanding that they had to make sure I could see it, play it, or grade it on the Xbox in my basement. That would be their responsibility. The other reason I said they could is because I wanted to see if the dazzle of gaming would overshadow the idea behind the project — getting to know the Articles well enough to discuss them (and knowing them for the midterm three weeks out).

Is Technology Just Bells and Whistles?

minecraftMy teaching partner Carl and I have had this conversation often: when is technology simply bells and whistles, and when can it enhance education?

If I get an essay submitted digitally, I can grade it with Notability on my school-issued iPad, marking and correcting as I would a regular paper essay. That is merely a technological substitute, though, for a system that still works just fine (ecological imperatives aside). Turning a huge packet into a PDF on our class website, or sending an essay to a kid with markings on screen are common today, but cognitively, very little has moved the needle in those transactions.

Kids and teachers both can fall prey to the dazzle of technology without realizing that it isn’t an end in itself. Each year in my interdisciplinary class, Carl and I assign a Satire project. It’s a student favorite and often yields some of the best work the kids will do all year. We tell them that it is a staple of what we’ll write about them in college recommendations also, and rarely does that change.

But the key to the project is whether they do good satire, not simply use iMovie. Once they get into the project, they start to see the difference between those things. We often show an example from many years ago, where the first five minutes of a student film is ‘A-quality’ satire: sharp and creative, with clear targets and topical humor. Then we stop it and tell the class that the project they just watched ended up with a ‘C’ since the next 25 minutes of the movie are in bad taste, aren’t funny, have no satirical value in them, and utterly fall on their face.

Technologically it was something, sure. But the needle only moved a little, and the project suffered because of it.

Minecraft Creativity

Back to my 9th graders. In each case, the groups programmed and created houses within the virtual world of Minecraft and added some creative aspects:

  • Court rooms with were left empty since Article III is very vague about the structure of the courts).
  • A HUGE wall mural of President Obama watches over one of the Article II houses. My son tells me it had to take a long time to program.
  • A rendition of the Oval office contains a red rock as the hotline for the President’s ability to speak with leaders of foreign nations.
  • One group filmed their tour and put the movie on a jump drive for me to watch anywhere (good troubleshooting)
  • Another group invited me onto their MC server and we spoke through Bluetooth headsets as we moved through that world on my Xbox.

Did the needle move with these Minecraft houses? On the whole, I would say that it did. Not as much as I would have liked, but that is for me to change in the assignment for next year. There were aspects which, mostly because of my directions, did little more than a bland powerpoint would. Touring an empty chamber that has a sign which says “House of Representatives,” and having a voiceover which simply reads from the Article — that’s not very creative. Again, I take the weight of that as the creator of the assignment. The level of work here was evident, but the level of what kids learned was far less so.

That for me is the big takeaway. How do technology and learning mesh so that new toys aren’t simply played with, but are learned from? I’ll try this again for sure … but instead of selling the sizzle instead of the steak (0:29), I’ll need to make sure to say it with flowers (1:18).

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