Education Tech: Its a Whole New Game

This interview with Michael Levine originally appeared in Literacy 2.0 in August, 2011. It appears here with the permission of the author, Robert L. Lindstrom.


In 2007, the year the iPhone was introduced, the venerable children’s TV programmer Children’s Television Workshop (now named Sesame Workshop) spun off a nonprofit research and production institute intended to do for digital media what Sesame Street did for television, namely make the medium both educational and entertaining at the same time. The center was named after Joan Ganz Cooney, the Children’s Television Workshop producer whose vision of what TV could do to help kids learn the three Rs ushered in the Big Bird era.

The mission of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center is to undertake research projects and develop programs that advance our understanding of how computer and Internet games, smartphones and other digital devices can be adapted as learning tools.

The center was set up with its own foundation and funding sources and Dr. Michael Levine was hired as executive director. Levine is an early childhood education research and policy expert who, prior to joining the Cooney Center, served as vice president of new media and executive director of education for Asia Society.

Previously, Levine oversaw the Carnegie Corporation of New York’s work in early childhood development, educational media and primary grades reform. He was a senior advisor to the New York City Schools Chancellor, where he directed dropout prevention, afterschool and early childhood initiatives. He is currently a senior associate at the Edward Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy at Yale University.

Much of the work of the Cooney Center focuses on the question posed by Levine during a presentation he delivered at the TED conference: “Can the media multitasking generation adopt a new set of ‘habits of mind’ that will allow them to learn in totally new ways?” Literacy 2.0 spoke with Dr. Levine about that and about the corollary question: Can the existing education system, administrators, teachers and infrastructure adapt quickly enough to allow new, digitally enabled ways of learning to happen?

What was the technology and learning environment like when the Cooney Center first opened its doors?

When we started, the digital innovation that was entering children’s lives felt like the age of the Jetsons. But when it came to what we knew about the impact that these digital innovations or technologies were having on children’s hearts, minds and bodies, it was more like the age of the Flintstones.

A lot has happened in digital tech since the center was founded. How do things look to you now?

Four years later, the flux and dynamics caused by the digital media revolution remain exciting, but are also roiling family life in all sorts of ways. And the instigation and disruption of digital media on the places in which children learn is definitely changing more rapidly.

Have you been surprised by the speed of innovation and adoption?

At the beginning we never imagined smartphones would have the impact they have had, and tablets were not even on the radar. Four years ago, particularly among the educators of young children, the notion that mobile digital media technology would be a means for promoting childhood learning and health awareness would have been sniffed at. Back then the discussions were all about the $100 laptop.

How are the digital devices for communication and gaming changing how kids learn?

The new tools are changing the way in which we think about learning theory. Also, the numbers of new young developers have knocked down a lot of the cost barriers to developing stuff. Everybody is a producer. Everybody has to be a producer, including the kids. That’s part of the message now.

Are we making progress with adapting digital tools to learning, the way Sesame Street adapted television?

Things have really changed in terms of our expectations of technology around learning. But they have not changed nearly fast enough in terms of that moat that continues to exist between the informal learning that goes on in the home and community, where children are directed by their passions, and the formal learning and expectations in the schools.

You said in an article in The Huffington Post that “The transition to a digital age that aligns with the 21st century knowledge-based economy defines our children’s future job prospects. But our learning approaches are stuck in a time warp.” How stuck are we?

We are still stuck in thinking about rows and columns and teachers as sages on the stage. The factory model still exists. The extended learning concept in which school is an important equity driver, but is an extender of learning for children, is not yet fully accepted.

In addition, the test culture around competitiveness is driving incentives for good teachers sometimes to avoid 21st century learning.

You are referring to programs like “No Child Left Behind.”

I am not necessarily a critic of “No Child Left Behind.” I think there was a lot good about that legislation in terms of measuring everyone’s progress that wasn’t going on before, but the instruments have been blunt instruments and need to improve.

Are you opposed to national standards?

I think common core standards could be a leap forward if they deepen what’s expected of children away from the current test-prep culture that is focusing on too-narrow skills.

I feel like the education reform discussion in our country is stuck, but I feel like there are a lot of good things to build off of if we would look at technology as a disruptive force that would allow us to shake loose from those parts of the systemic education reform wave that have not worked.

Disruptive forces such as?

Personalization is clearly a big issue. Globalization is clearly a big issue in terms of what our children know and don’t know about the world. And digitization is clearly a huge force in modernizing schoolhouses and other learning environments from the ground up.

If the delivery of education changes to be much more collaborative and personal, it will allow digital media to be the imagination stimulant that it can be.

Then we need a complete shift away from the factory model of education?

The factory model has been functional for some people over the years. Maybe 70%. But we can’t compete and cooperate without 100% functionality, and that is going to require a new model.

We need to look at the education process with fresh eyes. One of the real big issues is the falseness of the productivity gains that a lot of the policymakers are looking for. My worry with the way that systemic education reform has gone is that it is going to succeed 20 years after we needed it to. In other words, we will get everybody up to a level of skill that is now becoming a ceiling but should have been a floor.

Do you think we can avoid creating a ceiling out of the floor, as you say?

There is a lot of wishful thinking going around in education right now, coupled with resistance to the modernization of the school. I am hopeful that the framework of deeper-and-personal is going to help us avoid the precipice.

How does digital technology play into the framework of deeper-and-personal?

A lot of it has to do with the way in which the whole conversation has been framed by child advocates and educators. People see technology in the body politic and the body public as important in terms of productivity, at the same time they see it as edging people out of jobs. They see it as very commercial and think the new tools are for fun. Parents view technologies through the default of threats like cyberbullying and video game addiction.

We have got to figure out a different frame for the public conversation. That’s what I am hoping we can do more of at the Cooney Center.

What are some of the parameters of that framework?

When we started four years ago we were in the business to think about the Digital Era equivalent of Sesame Street: What would it take to advance children’s learning in a digital age? Four years later, we are still very interested in that, but now we are fascinated by the impact of smaller organizations like ours and the participatory culture that youth are bringing to the table.

Kids will be helping to change the framework?

Without a doubt. Technology has become part of every kid’s costume. It’s their clothing now. It’s an old story: It’s going to be the older Luddites losing out to the younger innovators.

So, you see the forces of change in education coming from the technology-enabled youth culture as opposed to a systems-design approach?

I do. I think there is a grass roots movement underway that will change the way in which education is delivered in this country, and technology will be one of the really important factors.

How do you rate government’s efforts to integrate technology and reform the system?

The Obama administration gets what’s going on. It’s a creative, smart group. They have their national technology plan, a chief technology officer. A lot of people in Washington are talking up technology and education. There is a recognition factor there, but whether it has a high enough priority, I don’t know. There are a lot of competing issues.

What about state and local efforts?

I see a lot of interesting, good stuff being tried. Florida’s e-learning effort is a good example. But the political and funding environment has been tough for innovation. It’s been a pretty difficult time for initiating reforms. I mean, how do you think about making teachers more digitally literate and more productive when you are busy laying them off?

Are there things we can do even in the face of meager resources and mindshare constraints?

We can be a lot more efficient in terms of both parent engagement and the money that is spent on reporting and compliance.

You frequently mention digital games and game-building as disruptive technologies that could change the face of education.

I think the driver for educational change has to be literacy skills like reading and writing combined with new digital literacy skills that evolve from interactive play. I’m talking about video games that embed research and educational curriculum. Research has already shown the value in terms of spatial skills, systems thinking and collaboration skills. Not coincidentally, those attributes have been identified by employers as key 21st century employment skills.

How is the Cooney Center addressing that opportunity?

Along with E-Line Media and with support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and John S. and James L. Knight Foundation we have just launched the Games and Learning Publishing Council. The purpose of the council is to understand the marketplace, to understand the supply and demand factors. The council is going to take a look at the incentives and disincentives in the marketplace for there to be more educationally robust educational games.

You say games can bridge the gap between home (informal) and school (formal) learning. Is that bridge under construction?

We are beginning to see some closing of the gap with things like the Quest to Learn schools in New York and Chicago. Digital technology is becoming an important theme within some new charter schools. And we are seeing robust, successful models like High Tech High in San Diego. You are seeing more and more of these models and people are starting to pay attention to them. And you are seeing publishers begin to embed games, for better or worse, within educational curriculum.

As you see it, what is the primary challenge to bringing games and gaming into the education process?

The big open question is how to link between what the kids are passionate about outside school and what is going on inside. That’s where the most work still needs to be done.

What about commercial digital games companies? Are they doing their share?

There is some leadership in trade associations that are trying very hard to get the companies to be responsible in terms of education and health. They have had education and health summits. But there are a lot of companies that don’t see a marketplace yet. They are making profits with the shoot ‘em ups. I am not against that stuff. But given the educational power of video games, they are not yet well deployed for intentional educational learning.

And then there is the next level, where kids go from playing learning games to actually designing and building games, which you described in your keynote address to the E-Tech Caucus as allowing “young people, through game design principles, to construct their own learning environments, which in turn will teach them how to develop the essential skills necessary to compete and thrive in the 21st century economy.”

The center is very excited about the potential of kids to transform the educational system by constructing their own learning environments. We are trying to do our own little part by doing things like the National STEM Video Game Challenge. [The annual competition sponsored by the Entertainment Software Association, Microsoft and The AMD Foundation in partnership with the Joan Ganz Cooney Center and E-Line Media.]

We are trying to give the kids the tools to express their creativity and learning impulses.

The medium is the schoolroom?

Yes. We think kids are going to make an extremely important move here.

Are the teachers ready for that?

Obviously teachers need to be trained in the use of digital learning as part of their professional development and teacher education. Teachers can’t teach what they don’t know. Many of them are not really skilled in thinking about the unique affordances of digital technologies. The students are in many cases ahead of the teachers, but the teachers are ready to learn.

To give you some idea of what’s happening, when we did a survey of 800 parents of children ages 3-10, more than a third of the parents reported that they had learned something technical from their kids.

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