Guitar Hero leads the way as Ollie introduces classes to 'edutainment'
Emily Pykett meets the man who has stepped out of the classroom to help develop gaming as an educational tool
PARENTS could be forgiven for harbouring concerns that it's all play and no work when children use computers in the classroom.
Indeed, when Ollie Bray, formerly a depute head of Musselburgh Grammar School, was inspired by the Consolarium (The Scottish Centre for Games Based Learning) and dreamt up a pilot scheme using Guitar Hero to help pupils make the transition from primary to secondary school, he wrote to all parents with children at schools in the Musselburgh cluster to explain why the console game should, in fact, be viewed as a potent tool for learning and social interaction.
Mr Bray, 30, who has since been seconded as a national advisor for emerging technologies in learning for Learning and Teaching Scotland (LTS), is riding high on the crest of a new wave of integration of technology into lesson plans. Last month, the Guitar Hero project – which is being rolled out across all East Lothian schools – earned him first place in the innovation in community category of the Microsoft European Innovative Teachers Forum Awards in Vienna.
In his new role, he explores the potential of social networking sites, such as Twitter, and how they can be used to help to teach children, as well as contribute to teachers' continuous professional development.
While he still has to battle the traditional view that video games turn children into couch potatoes and encourage obesity, Mr Bray is a vigorous champion of the view that technology is a catalyst for learning.
"We are not in the business of using computer games for entertainment," he says. "The new term, which I prefer, is 'edutainment'. We still do come up against scepticism. It is about parents trusting the professionalism of teachers. But parents are generally delighted with the results."
Teachers in Scotland have, for the past couple of years, recognised that schools need to keep up with pupils as they become increasingly computer literate. The highly successful Nintendogs project saw primary school children in Aberdeenshire design and run their own kennel, design logos, manage money and write mock business plans using the game technology.
Andrea Rittersberger, of Konservatorium Wien University, who was acting head judge in Vienna, says: "Preparing students for life and work in the 21st century means that there has to be a fundamental change in how the teaching profession employs technology."
Back in Scotland, Mr Bray is also a strong advocate of using web-based games for home learning. "Children are very positively engaged with technology – they have probably all got computers and hand-held gaming devices at home," he explains. "But when they come into schools and find just one computer shared between 30 people, that must be quite a turn off to them. Equally, it is almost impossible for teachers to engage 20 or 30 pupils with one game on the interactive whiteboard.
He continues: "I started thinking perhaps some of the tasks we think are a bit more traditional are best left to the classroom; instead of giving them a worksheet to take home, let's start thinking about web-based computer games for homework, get them on the Ordnance Survey website where they have to learn about direction by trying to find buried treasure.
"In a history class, get the kids to rebuild an Egyptian Pyramid at home, and do the facts and figures in the classroom in the traditional way."
Ronnie Summers, headteacher at Musselburgh Grammar, agrees it is the flexibility in learning that is important: "We are in a position where a lot of pupils lead very digital lives and we can manage to tap into that enthusiasm (to] help them learn with a mixture of traditional and new ways," he says. "This is a project about investing in the skills of our children, not what hardware we invest in."
"It costs about 250 per school, plus a video game, for a whole term's work," says Karen Robertson, a quality improvement officer who works in information and computer technology for East Lothian Council. "Games are very relevant and motivating for children. And it's a real cross-curricular thing – a lot of schools have been using the Guitar Hero project (where pupils form their own virtual rock bands] in different lessons. They learn about geography by planning world tours, merchandising, even relationship building. A lot of bands would break up, then reform.
"The way that we approach it is that the game is a type of stimulus – it's fun, it's something that they enjoy."
Andrew Gibson, 12, who is in his first year at Musselburgh Grammar, says the fun factor makes him work harder
"I definitely found it fun – the whole class was really looking forward to doing the work," he says. "I also think it helped us fit in at grammar school, because the older pupils had already helped us out on a Guitar Hero day. So it was really helpful to know who they were once we got there. Otherwise it would have been quite scary because they were bigger than us!"
Mr Bray says: "I see my role at LTS not only to come up with new ideas and technologies to support learners, but how new technology can support teachers and professional development as well.
"I think Twitter is a fantastic tool: I see it as a personal learning network. For example, this morning I was thinking about virtual schools so I did a couple of searches on Google and didn't get very much back. I asked a question on Twitter, and got 10 or 15 really useful links sent to me. It acts like my own personalised search engine."
WHY IT CAN PAY TO PLAY
RECENT studies have found that the use of the internet and computer games can aid learning and development.
Research published in the journal Nature Neuroscience by scientists from the University of Rochester in New York concluded that violent video games could improve players' eyesight, and even stave off one of the key effects of ageing vision.
Sir Liam Donaldson, the UK government's chief medical officer, recommended in his annual report last month that children be given gaming systems as part of a strategy to address sedentary lifestyles.
He said although the more traditional video games could be a major cause of overweight and obesity in children and young adults, interactive multimedia games such as Sony's EyeToy and Nintendo Wii Sports could raise the heart rate and increase the number of calories burned by 42 per cent – offering a way of providing the recommended daily physical activity for children in their homes.
However, the release of the Byron Review, by British clinical psychologist Dr Tanya Byron in March 2008, looked at the potentially negative effects of video games and the internet on children. Dr Byron identified a "generational digital divide", suggesting parents failed fully to understand the media, and remained sceptical and overprotective.
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