Digital. It’s a funny one. The papers are full of articles blaming video games, smart phones, social media and websites for the demise of our kids’ health and wellbeing. It’s responsible for an epidemic of childhood obesity, behavioural disorders and reduced creativity. In a way, the papers are absolutely right. Kids don’t spend enough time outside, they don’t interact with nature, and 1 in 10 can’t even ride a bike.
As a father I know this better than anyone. My 11-year-old daughter, Chloe, loves to while away the hours on her iPod touch. Most days she asks if she can download a new game about animals or fashion. If asked to choose between TV and the internet, she’d probably say both. But rather than trying to change our kids and the world they’re connected to, perhaps it’s us that need to change. We need to use the tools they’re so engaged with to our advantage.
That’s why working on the National Trust’s 50 things campaign was such an interesting and challenging project. We were tasked with creating a website to get children away from their computers and into the outdoors- pretty much the complete opposite of a normal brief. This was a great opportunity to show how digital used in the right way can enrich children’s lives.
It’s called gamification. The word may sound gimmicky, but using techniques from the games our kids love to play as a means of educating them is very compelling. Games give context to things and make us more engaged. While using games to make education fun isn’t a new idea, harnessing them and the communities where our kids play is.
Imagine taking a subject you didn’t like at school (maths in my case) and using video game techniques like points, level progression, power-ups and puzzles to make that subject engaging and fun. Mathletics is an online maths game that uses these techniques to inspire kids to improve their skills. My daughter loves it. Competing against other schools across the world has made maths fun and improved her grades.
This method has prompted development of games to engage people in different subjects, most interestingly in physical exercise. Zombie Runs, a smart phone app, turns running into quests; Fitocracy encourages teamwork to achieve fitness targets, and SuperBetter turns individual fitness goals into quests. PE teachers all over the world are using these games to engage kids in fitness. The games are a great way of fostering teamwork as well as exercise, because they’re collaborative.
As we discovered with the 50 things project, gamification can be used to influence kids to get outside and experience new things. Gowalla, a location based social networking platform, gives the player challenges, stamps to put in a virtual passport and trips to complete. Imagine using this platform to map historical events, or the key moments in a novel. Or better still, encouraging kids to go to an art gallery or museum off their own bat. As Josh Williams, CEO of Gowalla puts it:
“When we’re influencing people to go out and visit a national park because of this social network, that’s when I get excited.”
Similarly, Geocaching, where people use GPS to find hidden treasures in the real world, has huge potential in education. It could teach kids geography, mapping skills, teamwork, and, at the very least, get kids off the sofa.
Technology rises to meet demand for new teaching methods. Thailand recently launched a deal that will distribute nearly one million tablets to students nationwide. Google has created a YouTube for schools, giving teachers access to a huge bank of educational videos. Apple has launched iBooks 2 which includes textbooks for every subject at every level, along with quizzes, videos and study cards that students can use to help them revise, and iTunes U allows teachers to create entire online courses.
Just imagine all the other exciting possibilities. Augmented reality science books where you bring the bones of a dinosaur to life by holding your phone to it. Or a hologram of a famous footballer, coaching kids in ball skills.
Yes, it’s using techniques and ideas borrowed from the games which newspapers rail against. But again and again we’re seeing how digital can be used to put creativity back into learning, engaging kids in education and giving them a newfound interest in the outdoors. That’s why digital is such an exciting place to be. If we’re going to bridge the gap between parents, teachers and an increasingly plugged-in youth, I think it’s where we have to be.