ICT - All in the game plan

3rd September 2010 at 01:00
A virtual lecture series by computer games experts delighted pupils and gave teachers insights into online teaching. Jack Kenny reports

When Greg Hodgson asked pupils how to spend the money the school had allocated for external speakers, the reply was unequivocal. "We asked what they wanted to learn, and the answer that kept coming back was game design," says Mr Hodgson, senior leader at Chalfonts Community College in Buckinghamshire.

"They play games, they live games, they love games and they wanted to learn how to make them."

The challenge, then, was to find experts in the field who could come in to talk to the pupils. By chance, Mr Hodgson had met Roxana Hadad at a workshop for Adobe education leaders.

Ms Hadad is based at Northwestern University in Illinois, US, and has extensive experience in digital design, illustration and animation, as well as good contacts in the games world. After agreeing to collaborate, she and Mr Hodgson created a ten-week course built around guest speakers and conducted entirely online.

Every Thursday, the pupils, all studying for the creative and media Diploma, log into their computers at home at 7.30pm. At the top of their screens is a map showing where everybody is located. The course speakers have been based all over Europe and the US, but this week, for the eighth session of the course, they are somewhat closer to home - Guildford in Surrey.

Alongside the map are pictures of Ms Hadad and the speaker, Emily Newton Dunn, a games designer and producer, who has also presented the Channel 4 gaming show Bits.

Underneath is a list of participants, and under that is the chat area. The main screen is taken up with the week's PowerPoint presentation, on digital prototyping and user-interface design.

Ms Newton Dunn takes the pupils through the presentation, asking questions and then replying to their text responses. The set-up also allows the pupils to ask each other for help.

After asking about which interfaces they know, Ms Newton Dunn shows the opening pages of two games: Treasure Isle and Treasure Madness. While the first has attracted 24 million monthly users, the second has just two million. She asks for comments on the difference in take-ups, and finishes off this part of the session with her top tips for game design.

Then Calum and Mario, pupils at Chalfonts, show some of their work to the rest of the group, appearing on camera from their own rooms. Ms Hadad comments on it before finishing off with thoughts on some aspects of game design. The session has lasted for about an hour.

"Ten weeks for the course seems to us the right amount of time," says Mr Hodgson. "Any longer would risk losing the pupils' attention; any shorter and we would not be able to cover the content.

"One hour of intensive study in one evening was enough. There is a great deal of high-end thinking and new concepts that 14-year-olds are not quite used to."

As well as learning about game design, the course also gives pupils valuable new skills, such as presenting online. Recording pupils' online questions also provides a way of reviewing their responses.

"At first some of their contributions were quite banal," says Mr Hodgson. "We save all the chat as assessment evidence that goes (towards) their final grade, and we started to talk about the need for students to chat better.

"We decided to model some chat for them. We told them that we wanted them to give fuller answers, in formal English, written in a reasonable time scale. It made us think about the pedagogy of chat."

For Ms Hadad, the sessions also illustrated some key differences between teaching in a classroom and online.

"I suppose this is obvious, but you don't have faces to match with names," she says. "The pupils' personalities become apparent quite quickly, regardless, but sometimes who they are online is not the same as who they are in person.

"Pupils who are not normally talkative in class are sometimes more gregarious online. There is no volume to chatting, so no one is louder than anyone else. You can get conversation to happen among students who wouldn't normally talk to one another."

Recording the sessions allows both pupils and presenters to go back and review topics in a way that would not be possible in a classroom. The pupils are forced to focus on one screen - particularly important when the content is also screen-based.

The recording also means that pupils who cannot attend the session can still see what happened, although they miss out on the interactive aspect.

Ian Usher, e-learning co-ordinator at Buckinghamshire County Council, says online teaching demands different skills from teachers and pupils. "It is about the teacher's ability to manage a class without actively managing it, just by their online presence," he says.

"Pupils have to understand what is expected of them. They need to make the jump from just being online when you faff around to being completely focused on work and learning."

The experience has convinced Mr Hodgson that online teaching is worthwhile. "At the end of ten weeks, we have a group of pupils who have a knowledge of gaming brought to them by experts. It is much better than I could have done it. In the ten evenings of the course I placed more people in front of my pupils than I had done in the previous ten years."

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