“Don’t forget about art. Shouldn’t it be STEAM (Science, Technology, engineering, ART and Math)?” – Drew Davidson, USA

The Entertainment Technology Center (ETC) at Carnegie Mellon University refers to itself as “The Graduate Program for the Left and Right Brain.” Indeed, the philosophy behind this program is to bring together technologists and fine artists. When these two types of students work together and innovate together, magic can happen. At ETC, the goal is to develop graduates that go on to be the most highly sought-after professionals in the interactive media industry – including developing learning games. Drew Davidson, director of ETC in Pittsburgh, teaches, talks, thinks and writes about games. In a recent piece titled, It’s hard, and that’s why (and how) we succeed (which is a lot of fun), which Davidson wrote for the National Conversation on Games, he speaks about what makes a good learning game: “I believe that a good learning game is explicit about its constraints and learning goals and uses its gameplay mechanics to help engage and motivate players to rise to the challenges of a game, trying again when they fail, and developing a mastery through a well-designed and scaffolded challenge and reward cycle. This occurs because a game is hard, and the fun is found through tackling the challenges and gaining a sense of accomplishment as we develop a literacy and mastery of the experience.”

Gamification is obviously of great interest and importance to Davidson – he teaches tomorrow’s gamemakers how to be great. Yet, perhaps what sets Davidson apart is his perspective on why gamification and technology should be a part of learning. “We can’t just gamify learning; adding badges, levels, achievements and rewards. That’s focusing on making it ‘fun,’” he states. “Instead we should focus on the challenges of learning, and how to increase the difficulty to match our mastery and motivate us to succeed. And we will be rewarded through our accomplishments of meeting and exceeding the challenges and developing our literacy.”

I hope you enjoy today’s Daily Edventure, with Drew Davidson.

Can you describe how your professional achievements have advanced innovation in education?

One of the things that I’ve really tried to explore in my career is how interactive media can be used for educational purposes. Lately that has been more tightly focused on games, and looking at games for impact – both in terms of social impact and educational impact. We’ve done some really good work at Carnegie Mellon University at the Entertainment Technology Center prototyping and exploring how engaging and immersive the experiences can be and then translating into the real world. And I think we’ve only scratched the surface in terms of the potential there.

We also did some great work with the MacArthur Foundation in the city of Pittsburgh around the specific spaces for students and teens and kids to play in. With MacArthur, we did the YouMedia space in Chicago working with the Chicago Public library, and a woman named Nichole Pinkard from DePaul University. The whole idea is to create a space where teens could come and do their own work in a setting where it was really their own space. The curriculum designed by Nicole focused them on getting engaged in 21st century learning skills. It was really interesting just how important having a space is – both to the teens and to the work that they do there. They really take ownership of what’s going on. Similarly, we’ve done work with the Children’s Museum here in Pittsburgh where we created “The Make Shop.” It’s a do-it-yourself hack lab for kids and their families. Kids could be with their families and say, “I want to make a robot.” They would have the facilities and the mentors there to walk kids through the process. Part of that partnership is the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Learning in Out-of-School Environments. It’s been really rewarding to help think through how to make it a very engaging and fun experience. I think we’re on to something.

What has changed as a result of your efforts?

One of the things that gets me excited is work that is of an interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary effort. Here in Pittsburgh, we started the Kids + Creativity Network. This K-12 interdisciplinary, city-wide group has now become part of MacArthur Five Learning Network. Pittsburgh is really leading in this area because I think it’s the right size. It’s big enough that it has really good museums and libraries, and it’s small enough that everybody knows each other. And we’re starting to do things on a larger scale. It’s just really exciting.

How can others facing similar challenges implement what you’ve learned through your work?

We’re trying to document so we can share best practices with other educators. We have a pretty great effort through my colleague Constance Steinkuehler (formerly of the Office of Science and Technology at the White House). We worked together to create a best practices document on Games for Impact.

How have you applied technology in innovative ways to support your work?

I am really excited about the potential of games. I’m very curious about exploring more thoroughly what you can do with the Kinect in different spaces. I think the Kinect, with its motion tracking, just opens up all kinds of new, and embodied learning possibilities.

One of the things that we like to say around here is that technology doesn’t solve a bad idea. First and foremost, get a good idea, and then see how technology can enhance that idea.

What is the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome to ensure students are receiving a quality education?

Old habits die hard. There are some really good habits – you don’t necessarily need technology to solve everything. Great teaching will always matter. It’s a skill, an art and science in and of itself. But a first reaction when you talk with educators about possibly using games is as if you’ve dropped a stink bomb in the room. There is almost an immediate negative reaction.  It’s a challenge to push through some stereotypes that may not be accurate.

Another thing is that when you are working in a multidisciplinary fashion, people are legitimately busy. We can’t just dump more work on teachers. They are already overworked, underpaid and underappreciated. Making true progress on any big initiative takes years.

What is your country doing well currently to support education?

It feels like we are at pretty interesting cultural shift where people are really seriously considering what technology and games can do for education. There are a lot of initiatives around online learning, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), etc.

What’s been nice here in the region (and I’m starting to see it around the country) is that even with the first reaction of “that’s a bad idea,” we’re starting to have more open-minded and exploratory discussions about technology and gamification in the classroom. It’s just opening up possibilities for not only kids and how they learn, but for life-long learning. That will increase creativity and innovation on a country-wide level.

What conditions must change in your country to better support education?

In some ways, quantoids are winning. Everyone wants to quantify what’s being learned and teach to the test. And, for example, right now we’re hearing people talk about STEM a lot. But we’re starting to see a nice up-swelling of, “But don’t forget about art. Shouldn’t it be STEAM (Science, Technology, engineering, ART and Math)?” You cannot deny that having kids exposed to the arts when they are young is just really, really valuable in terms of how they develop as a person, culturally and how they understand other courses. Yet it’s the first thing that gets cut.

What is the best opportunity for innovation in education?

I am really excited about what games can do. But, it really all comes back to the teacher. I’ve seen some teachers be really clever in how they use technology to better personalize what they are doing in their classroom. Really tapping into that in ways that complement what’s already happening in your classroom is just essential.

What advice would you give a new teacher (or to anyone wanting to make a difference in education)?

First, do not be scared of technology. Second, do not worry that your students know technology better than you do. Uncertainty is a great way to tap into curiosity. Learning in and of itself is amazingly fun. Sometimes it feels like school beats the fun out of it. Anything that we can do to help tap into the fact that students are naturally curious, and to keep that flame alive, makes for a life full of interesting things.

What educational “trend” do you think is helping students? Is there a trend that is getting in the way of learning?

The trend of quantifying everything can be problematic. For instance, measuring the success of YouMedia could be quantified by how many kids were part of YouMedia and went on to college. However, if you just visit it and see the qualitative effect it had on them – that it basically changed their lives and opened up their minds to new and interesting opportunities is just something that cannot be measured.

Another fun trend is having people take ownership of their learning. Both the Maker movement and the online learning movement are interesting to look at. It will be something to watch as far as higher-ed goes in the next few years.

If you could give one educational tool to every child in the world, what would it be? Why?

I would say a smartphone. It’s a computer in your hands. Something that enables kids access to the Internet and access to the greater world.

About Drew Davidson

  • Birthplace: Chapel Hill, North Carolina
  • Current residence: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
  • Education: BA, MA Communication Studies (UNC-Chapel Hill); PhD Communication Studies (UT-Austin)
  • Website I check every day: boingboing.net
  • Person who inspires me most: My wife
  • Favorite childhood memory: Sailing
  • Next travel destination (work or pleasure): San Francisco, California
  • When was the last time you laughed? Why? Today, having fun at work
  • Favorite book: Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
  • Favorite music: Awesome mix tapes
  • Your favorite quote or motto:  To be uncertain is to be uncomfortable, but to be certain is to be ridiculous.

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