Digital world re-shapes learning

Philanthropies, including Chicago's MacArthur Foundation, push radically different, digital schools.

April 5, 2011

Download Story
The floor becomes an interactive screen where students play games to learn concepts. (WBEZ/Linda Lutton)

Digital technology and video games have a big impact on many kids’ lives—and some believe they could play a bigger role in education. Chicago is getting a new school that some think might be a window into the future of learning.

Elizabeth Purvis is head of Chicago International Charter Schools. And she really does not want me to call her newest school “the video game school.”

PURVIS: In fact, I worry when people think it’s a video game school. Because it isn’t. It’s a project-based learning school that uses digital learning literally to hook the kids. 

FERRON: I really wanna be in that video game school.

Yep, he’s hooked. Seventeen-year-old Nikkei Ferron was at an event last week put on by the Chicago-based MacArthur Foundation to showcase its digital learning initiatives. Ferron stood near a video game console he helped design in a MacArthur-funded afterschool program.

Nearby, 16-year-old Andrei Zbikowski is also psyched about the new Chicago Quest school, which is opening on the North Side to 6th and 7th graders in the fall, and will eventually go through 12th grade.

ZBIKOWSKI: Any other school would be the exact opposite of what you are doing. Playing games in school? Creating games in school? What are you doing? Get to work! And I think it’s really cool that they’re saying, ‘Whatever. We’re gonna follow the curriculum, but do it our own way.’

The idea of the new school is not to get kids to play commercial video games.

But if you think of a video game as another world, with rules and problems to solve, codes to crack, levels to attain--the idea here is to make school like that. It’s giving kids immersive, game-like experiences, so instead of learning about history, they become a historian or a scientist—trying to solve real problems.

ambi (SMALLab Learning):  All right, so we’re going to be learning about work and force and distance by having an embodied experience around it.

At the showcase last week, a large floor mat was transformed into a kind of giant computer screen. Two players used wands...sort of like a Wii… to help ogre-like “troggles” push a hat up a hill.

FACILITATOR: So what you’re learning about here is (whoa!) the fact that the angle of your motion matters. The fact that you’re pushing with the same alignment means you can move up the space—nice! And then as it moves up the hill you get a sense physically of how much work is involved to do that. 
ambi (troggles): Yeah!

There are different hills, with different inclines. Eventually, kids are shown a giant physics equation describing what they just experienced.

The MacArthur Foundation has put $85 million dollars into its digital learning initiative. The foundation paid for this technology—which is in only three schools nationwide. It’s also giving a million dollars to Chicago Quest; it supports a similar school in New York City.

YOWELL: If Henry Ford came back the one thing he’d recognize is our school system. 

Connie Yowell is education director with MacArthur.

YOWELL: With the advent of digital media, just as many businesses have changed, newspapers have changed, we think it’s time for learning to change dramatically. And we think that rather than making schools more efficient, this is actually a time to completely re-imagine and radically transform what learning looks like for young people. And understand that learning is 24/7, and happens both inside and outside of schools.

Many say literacy itself is shifting—and now includes things like multimedia presentations and podcasts. Being able to audio chat with someone in Spain to improve your Spanish.

Chicagoan Ebony Coward signed her 12-year-old up as soon as she heard about Chicago Quest.

COWARD: This is more interactive. He cannot sit still all day—a lot of boys can’t. They just really can’t. He values the time he gets to interact with other students, which is very little, unfortunately, at the school that he’s at.  He wants to talk to the person next to him, he wants to work with them.

Elizabeth Purvis, head of the charter network that will operate Quest, says she’s hiring teachers who want to guide learning rather than take center stage. 

PURVIS: I think this could be the school of the future for kids who like to learn in groups, who like to work on projects, who really like to use digital tech to mediate their learning and to guide their learning—I think this is definitely one of the schools of the future.

Purvis thinks it will attract really smart kids bored by school, as well as kids who are behind because they’ve been so disengaged. Purvis says all those kids need school to be a lot more interesting and hands-on.