Scotsman Games: Derek Robertson on education

IN THE last of a three-part series on how Scotland’s gaming sector intersects with education, Derek Robertson, one of Scotland’s leading advocates for games-based learning, warns that the country is “losing momentum” in the area.
Derek Robertson warns that Scotland is losing ground in games-based learning. Picture: AFP/GettyDerek Robertson warns that Scotland is losing ground in games-based learning. Picture: AFP/Getty
Derek Robertson warns that Scotland is losing ground in games-based learning. Picture: AFP/Getty

DEREK Robertson can remember the eureka moment that changed his career. Teaching in Dundee’s Whitfield Primary in the mid 1990s, he was not interested in games. On the last day of term, however, his eyes were opened to their potential. Two academically struggling pupils from his lower ability maths group were captivated by a Super Nintendo puzzle title. A Tetris-style clone, it asked players to manipulate two dimensional shapes to form sequences and patterns. “I had no idea what was going on, but these boys certainly did,” Robertson recalls.

“They were exhibiting all the problem solving skills that I had apparently been failing to teach them, or they had been failing to grasp. It was a bit of a serendipitous eye-opening moment for me. I had lazily thought the problem was with them, that they weren’t clever enough. I think teachers can maybe make that mistake at times, and instead of looking at them, I looked at myself and the curriculum I was presenting to them. I got interested in games from that point on.”

Using commercial games to educate

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Having piqued his interest, gaming would go on to define his educational ideology. While teaching, he exploited the popularity of the iconic Nintendo 64 title, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, creating a webpage encouraging students to use their creative writing skills to develop alternate storylines for Link and Epona, his trusty steed. Yet his ambitions would seen see him leave the classroom environment.

A spell as a local authority ICT advisor was followed by a lectureship at the University of Dundee, before he was offered a secondment at Learning and Teaching Scotland as national development officer for games based learning. The appointment came in August 2006, a time when the idea that the medium could offer anything other than entertainment and frivolity was widespread, and handheld consoles were being banned from playgrounds. Robertson, however, relished his mission with all the zeal of Livingstone. It proved contagious. Within two years, his post was made permanent, thanks in large part to high-profile programmes which introduced games like Guitar Hero and Nintendogs to schools.

His efforts led to the establishment of the Consolarium, a national centre for games and learning which demonstrated how all manner of titles could be utilised to benefit youngsters. In a sign of the influence it would soon wield, the Dundee-based resource was visited by representatives from 26 of Scotland’s 32 local authorities. Explaining his mantra, Robertson says: “Our argument was we could use commercial, off-the-shelf games to help situate learning within a cultural framework that had appeal, currency and relevance to young learners, and provide digital tools that teachers weren’t frightened to use.”

National development role

Robertson’s role evolved and he became national development officer for games based learning, a title he carried through to the creation of Education Scotland, the successor to Learning and Teaching Scotland. At its zenith, the project he initiated encouraged children to design their own games, and was lauded by technology theorist, Tom Chatfield, who reserved praise for the Scottish vision in his book, ‘Fun Inc: Why games are the 21st century’s most serious business’. Noting a trial study involving 600 pupils that showed how the Nintendo DS title, Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training, could improve mental arithmetic, Chatfield went on to describe Scotland as being at the “global cutting edge” of games-based learning.

Fun Inc was published in 2010. Three years later, it would be reasonable to suppose that this pioneering approach has brought even more rewards. However, ask Robertson if games-based learning is becoming even more ubiquitous and his answer is forthright. “I don’t think it is,” he says. “I think the habitus of education tolerates innovation only so far, then it becomes swallowed up.”

Robertson left Education Scotland earlier this year amid concerns that the impetus of his early years with the organisation had been lost. Now lecturing at the University of Dundee, his assessment is one borne out of frustration rather than resentment. He praises good work being carried out by his former employers, reserving criticism for what he describes as “the glacial habitus of established norms” in education. “I left at a moment in time when decisions were made, emphases were changed and I sometimes think you need a sponsor at a high level who understands these zeitgeist moments and the nature of digital technology,” he says.

Idea ‘awkward to grasp’

Questioned why the momentum surrounding games-based learning has halted, Robertson pauses to collect his thoughts, before adding: “I could speak all day about that.” Highlighting the sociological lessons laid down by Pierre Bordieu, he suggests that the very idea of using games in education proved too awkward an idea for many to grasp. “The name, ‘games-based learning’, appeals to those who are open to ideas and change, but can become a barrier to those who aren’t,” the 45-year-old reasons. “All it is is good teachers using good tools to bring about good learning. When you give it a name, it becomes something other than that, and it almost becomes a specialism.

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“The early optimistic days of 2005 and 2006 surrounding digital tech, when web 2.0 exploded on to the scene and GBL arrived, have gone now. You needed people like Laurie O’Donnell [one of the principal architects of Glow, a major national ICT and telecommunications programme across Scotland’s schools] as sponsors of this kind of approach, people who understand ideas informed by academic research. When he left, a main pillar was taken away and the building started shaking.”

The direction being taken Glow has been the subject of criticism, with a recent article in Merlin John Online highlighting how the system remains beset by problems despite investment of £80m, a situation MJO described as “symptomatic of a failure of policy makers in Scotland to continue nurturing and promulgating their own grassroots innovation.”

‘Not world leaders anymore’

Robertson believes Glow can still be a vehicle for enterprising initiatives, including a Minecraft club which encourages young learners to not only play the game, but embrace its peripheral applications, such as tutorial videos and cooking. Looking at the wider education sector, though, he is of the view that significant change is essential.

“I think we have to change the discourse around the digital world that young people inhabit, and highlight how there is a direct disconnect between what happens there and what happens in school.” he says. “There is a ignorance in the true sense of the word, of not just knowing what there is and what happens within these worlds. We get locked up so much in health and safety and a secure and safe online environment, which I’m not for one minute saying isn’t important - it is, and hugely so - but we should be celebrating and exploiting the fantastic things digital technology offers.

Asked if he had a message for Mike Russell, the education minister, Robertson adds: “A few years ago he mentioned we were world leaders in GBL. Well, we had it, but it’s not there anymore …I would even argue that what we need to do is bypass education to some extent. At Education Scotland, they are trying to create communities in Glow children can be part of irrespective of whether their teacher introduces it to them.

“They’re doing it on their own already, so how can we bring it into a safer and more secure network? Teachers are brilliant at coming up with their own ideas that they’re willing to share, and which won’t be sold for commercial gain. We need to commit to that kind of culture, because it’s not there at the top level.”