The debate about how technology can be used to complement learning has existed ever since the first OHP was wheeled into a classroom.
Yet during the pandemic, there has been little choice for but for teachers to embrace edtech tools to help deliver content to learners.
This has not meant becoming subservient to technology, but embracing it to suit the purposes of the times: adapting and innovating while following core pedagogical frameworks.
This is exactly the sort of focus the Usborne Foundation – a spin-off of Usborne Publishing – used to inform its move into the digital gaming landscape when it created its Teach Your Monster to Read game in 2012.
After all, for a book publisher to embrace the world of digital gaming as a vehicle for boosting reading is not the most obvious move, but one that once investigated made perfect sense, as Nicola Usborne, managing director, explains.
“We know a lot about creating resources for kids and making difficult subjects both accessible and fun. And when we looked into it, we realised that using technology could give us a much greater chance to scale what we were offering to meet the needs of as many children as possible,” she says.
“Furthermore, we are deeply vested in literacy and concerned about the literacy crisis that exists globally so our mission was really to look at this issue and how we could make the learning to read process – which can be scary and difficult for a lot of children – less scary.”
The answer was monsters.
Perhaps not the first thing you think of when wanting to make something less scary. But these monsters are designed to feel fun and friendly so that children want to help them "learn to read" – both letters and sounds, and full sentences – as Ms Usborne explains.
“We felt that was an important point as we know some children struggle with reading, so we thought that if we made it about them being the one teaching the monster to read, it would make them feel they were teaching the monster, and we have a lot of very positive feedback on that.”
The aim is not to be a direct teaching platform but to complement classroom work done by teachers around the world, as Antonio Gould, executive director at Teach Monster Games within the Usborne Foundation, explains.
“At its core, Teach Your Monster is a practice game, and the reason we chose that is practice is one of those areas [in which] technology can work really well to complement something a teacher is doing in the classroom.”
To ensure it does this as best as possible, the team engaged with academics specialising in education to inform its design.
“We wanted to ensure we created something pedagogically really sound but fun to play as well. To do this, we ensured we worked with really high-quality illustrations, designers and storytellers, but also academics, with Roehampton University advising us on the pedagogical side.”
While it has been eight years since it first went live, lockdowns around the world resulted in a huge uptick in use on the platform, with 10 million unique plays in March alone, and 200 million plays to date since launch.
“These sorts of numbers are beyond our wildest expectations,” says Usborne.
Underlining this global uptake, product manager Alex Goss tells Tes that in the past year, the organisation has had an active user from almost every country in the world – 175 out of 195, to be exact.
“In total, about 25 per cent of our user [base] is from countries outside the USA and UK,” he adds.
Teacher Maria Laura Di Rosa from Argentina is one such teacher to have embraced the platform during lockdown: “It was really useful to engage my students in practising the phonics when not in their online classes.”
Amy, a teacher in Cambodia, is another whom it has helped: “We'd just launched it with the children as a learning tool within our ICT lessons and the children continued to use from home,” she explains.
“They enjoyed the story, the graphics and were able to follow the levels easily do to the repetition of activities.”
It's not all been perfect, of course, with another teacher in Argentina noting that some children found it hard to keep motivated to play as the stress of lockdown was too much.
"The problem was that most of them were already overwhelmed by the situation and had a hard time with homeschooling and homework, so they didn’t log in, or if they did, they were not consistent."
Nevertheless, it is clear that globally the game has proved a hit and one reason for this has been because of its use as a resource for teaching English as an additional language (EAL), says Goss.
“We know it is often used as an [EAL] product and [children] love it because they don’t feel they are being tested – they are just teaching their monster how to read, and kids love that freedom of having fun and they just happen to be learning to read in the process.”
Rania Laham, a teacher in Israel, adds: “I teach young [EAL] students, and they all look forward to the segment of the lesson that I let them play Teach Your Monster to Read. In fact, they keep reminding me that they need to keep playing.”
An open world
Looking to the future, the plan is to develop a larger open-world version of the game that allows children to engage in not just reading for learning but reading for pleasure, adds Gould.
“It would be a world where they can find things to read – from recipes to non-fiction to stories – that they explore with their monster and have fun reading in the process.”
The aim is to having something live in around the autumn, although the complexity of developing an open-world environment that encourages reading has required some cutting-edge pedagogical help.
“When we built Teach Your Monster to Read, we built on existing pedagogical frameworks, but for this, the academics at Roehampton [University] needed to build a framework before the product could go on top of that because the skill we are focusing on [reading for pleasure] is very different.”
For now, though, the hope will be that teachers, parents, and children around the world continue to help teach monsters to read – whether in lockdown or not.
Dan Worth is senior editor at Tes