CogCubed is a video game you can reach out and touch

A recent paper published in Developmental Science reinforced how tactile experience is important to learning in the developing brain. The experiment looked at how toddlers in a high chair learned the names of novel (edible) substances. Those who were allowed to get their hands dirty, quite literally, exploring the texture of the different samples, picked up the names more quickly and remembered them longer.

How could this apply to the world of video games? Games are drawing wide interest as a tool for both learning and assessment, as I’ve written about here and here. But while they engage the senses of vision, hearing, and hand-eye coordination, they usually have left out the sense of touch. Until now.

CogCubed is a video game startup that uses Sifteo Cubes, an interactive game system developed at MIT that consists of a set of small cubes that look like tiny TV sets, each with a screen. When you move, stack or tap the cubes they communicate wirelessly and the image on the screen changes in response. This system is known as  a “tangible user interface,” a takeoff of “graphical user interface,” which is the term for the icon and window image navigation we are all familiar with from most computer operating systems.

The thought is that interacting with the cubes in three dimensions will be more engaging for both children and adults than using a keyboard, mouse, or other controller. According to CogCubed founder Kurt Roots, TUIs have been shown to be easier to learn than traditional GUIS, and they also tend to increase problem solving behaviors and improve spatial cognition.

CogCubed has created a game called Groundskeeper that looks a little bit like the old arcade game Whack-a-Mole. The company holds several patents relating to the capture and analysis of behavioral information while players are interacting with the game system.In a pilot study at the University of Minnesota, the game demonstrated surprising power to diagnose ADHD as people play. It could accurately detect the condition 75% to 78% of the time, an improvement over other existing methods. The success is not surprising given the level of detail: the system takes note of what the player is doing every one-tenth of a second for 30 minutes, for 30 different variables.

Clinical trials are continuing; CogCubed is pursuing FDA approval as a medical device to diagnose, and eventually treat, not only attention disorders, but other conditions affecting what is called “executive functioning” in the brain: anxiety, depression, autism spectrum disorders, traumatic brain injuries and Alzheimer’s. Clearly this is a growing area of research; how long do you think it will take before these devices and games are part of mainstream classroom practice?



Could a video game replace ADD medication?


In America, 6.4 million children have been given diagnoses of attention disorders. That’s 11 percent of the school-age population.  Annual production of Ritalin-like drugs has quadrupled since the 1960s, and millions of children are taking these powerful stimulants every day.

Some argue that this “epidemic” is in fact an artifact of a test-driven, high-stakes, high-pressure school culture. Parents are eager to diagnose kids to get them extra resources, extra time to take tests, or simply an educational edge, and schools can exempt themselves from test targets if they have more kids classified as “disabled.”  A.D.H.D. diagnoses spiked 22 percent in the first four years after No Child Left Behind.

Regardless of the broader context, kids and families are clearly suffering. Sandra lives in Newton, Massachusetts and is the mother of a 9 year old boy who’s had trouble in school, both with behavior and grades, since kindergarten.

“It’s painful when your kid comes home and says, I feel like the dumbest kid in the class because all the other kids know the answers,” she says. “He tells me, Mom, when I’m in school I have a really hard time paying attention. I go into the clouds and I miss what the teacher said and I have to ask my friends to tell me what just happened.” Despite these problems, Sandra has been reluctant to medicate her son. She was happy to have the opportunity to enroll him in a clinical trial of a new technological solution, Atentiv.

Atentiv is, essentially, a video game with a brain-computer interface component. To play the game, children strap a headband around the forehead that uses an EEG to measure the brain’s pattern of electrical signals and transmits them wirelessly to the computer via Bluetooth. First, the player goes through a calibration process that measures the unique “signature” of the individual’s brainwaves in concentrating and distracted conditions while completing the Stroop Task, a common test of concentration.(Previous studies support the presence of unique EEG patterns for children diagnosed with ADD).

Once the system is calibrated the user plays a game that involves a character running through a landscape to complete tasks. When the player is distracted, the character slows down; the more she concentrates the faster the character moves. The result is something like a form of biofeedback–young children get an object demonstration of “growth mindset.” They grow in awareness of what distraction and concentration feels like, and they also grow in their sense of being able to control their mental state for better performance.

For Hayden, Sandra’s son, who took part in the clinical trial three times a week for 8 weeks, the results were dramatic. “I really saw a tremendous difference both at home and at school. I was thrilled.” Hayden’s handwriting got neater. His sleeping habits improved. His homework got better. His teacher was no longer calling with discipline problems. He got along better with his sister and with friends. He was easier to get out of the house in the morning.

Hayden is not alone. Trials of the Atentiv System have shown sustained improvements in 75-85% of children, as rated by parents, standardized tests, and direct measures of the brain waves. In this study, parents noticed significant improvement in inattentive and hyperactive-impulsive symptoms six months after the treatment began.

It’s hard to say how much of this is due to the futuristic wonders of neurofeedback technology, and how much of it is a placebo effect. The researchers in this independent study noted that the study did not have a control group that, say, played a regular video game, and the parents all knew that their kids were in the treatment condition, which may have caused them to exaggerate the positive effects.

Atentiv’s founders are not initially seeking FDA approval for their technology, so they can’t make outright claims about ADHD. Instead they are launching early next year with a consumer product aimed at parents who want a solution for their kids without drugs. CEO Eric Gordon is confident that the technology will eventually lead to clinical products for treating not just ADHD but memory and abstract reasoning, in children, adults and the elderly.

Sandra’s explanation for her son’s improvement is not about the technology itself, but about the broader message of the game.

“It’s all about self-esteem,” she says. “For Hayden, it helped him realize he was capable. And also, just the way the game and training materials talked to him about it: saying there’s nothing wrong with you, you’re not dumb. Look, your brain is like a Ferrari and we’re going to teach you to look at the green and red light.”





Become a tech-savvy educator with these free badges

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IPTEdTec is a free service operated by Rick West, an assistant professor in the Instructional Psychology & Technology Department at Brigham Young University. It offers educators everywhere the materials and rubrics to certify their basic understanding of key educational technology applications, like Google Sites, iMovie, and Blogger, and concepts, like internet safety and open content licensing.

West says he started the resource to build on what he didn’t always have time to cover in the classroom. “For our pre-service secondary education majors, we only have one credit on using technology in their teaching,” he said. “We knew at one credit, we couldn’t teach them everything they needed to know.” His resource is using the Open Badges Platform created by Mozilla as a digital representation of specific knowledge that can be displayed and taken from place to place. Mozilla badges come with links to information about who is issuing the badge, and sometimes links to evidence of the accomplishments that the badge is advertising.

Badges are drawing a lot of interest in the open education world. You may be familiar with the concept from the Scouts. Unlike degrees or courses, digital badges are smaller, tied to a very specific rubric, set of skills or accomplishments. They are meant to be updated, portable and displayable, for example on someone’s LinkedIn profile. Badges are a way of recognizing lifelong learning in a world that increasingly demands it.

“The dumb thing about classes is, say someone gets a B+. What does that mean?” asks West. “Does that mean they learned a little of all the technologies, or were good at one and bombed at the rest? And which one was it? Because we change the class and update it every year.  So the thing we loved about the badges is, it gets down to the nitty gritty: here’s what I can do.”

West is using the badges platform as a way to “flip” his classroom. Students can choose to complete the rubrics for the badges independently, or come to one of the class’s six weekly sections to get extra help and troubleshoot. They can use the badges to personalize their learning, choosing exactly which technologies they want to cover. And badges also seem to provide a little extra incentive to students to do a good job–what some people call “gamification.” “What we’re seeing anecdotally as teachers are better projects,” says West.  “And we have people say, Oh, I want to get the badge! We want to do some research on the motivational aspects.”

West’s plan is to add a second and third “level” to the badges. Beyond just demonstrating basic knowledge of the workings of a technology, teachers will have to create strategies for strongly integrating a technology such as iMovie into lesson plans, and finally, show evidence of actual use in the classroom.

What technologies do you find to be essential to use in the classroom? Do badges strike you as a good way to keep educators building their knowledge of new technologies?

The 5 hidden powers of games for learning


John Scott Tynes started programming in the early 1980s, in middle school. “The main thing I did was play games and make games,” he said–from text-based adventure games to a crude graphics game inspired by Indiana Jones that featured a “fedora” (as seen from overhead, really, two concentric circles) cracking a “whip.”

Tynes went on to work across the gaming universe, on everything from tabletop role-playing adventures to massively multiplayer online games, and joined Microsoft Xbox to work on arcade-style games and collaborate with Sesame Workshop on games for learning. Last year, his passion for gaming took him in a new direction, as the head of the Imagine Cup Challenge. Microsoft sponsors this annual competition for high school and university students in dozens of countries, who compete in teams building both apps and games for over a million dollars in cash and prizes. The finalists in the are currently heading to St. Petersburg, Russia for the final round of competition.

This year Tynes added a second division to the competition called the Kodu Challenge, open to students as young as nine. Kodu Game Lab is a programming language designed for kids, similar to MIT’s Scratch. It’s a simple, visual programming environment optimized for the creation of games: you can design and customize landscapes, add characters and program actions for them to take following simple rules, using an Xbox controller, mouse, or touchscreen with no typing necessary. The challenge, conducted with the charity Mercy Corps, asked kids to create games around the theme of water. Winners, from hundreds of entries will be announced next month.

As a game designer himself, Tynes did a better job than anyone else I’ve talked to at explaining the various educational payoffs that could come from assigning students to build games.

1) Learn about learning itself. “Learning is an iterative game loop: You learn, try to repeat and use what you’ve learned, you’re evaluated, you fail or succeed, repeat and gain mastery. That’s how you play a game. Games enable a focused, tight loop to gain mastery quickly.”

2) Explore STEM disciplines. ” Students take for granted what’s brand-new to everybody else. They are digital natives. Playing with technology is a great way to encourage students to delve into STEM learning and become more technical.”

3) Collaborate. “I think games, among all the different kinds of software are the most cross-disciplinary we have. It’s not just programming, user interfaces, or usability. The rules and logic of games are themselves a whole other discipline that requires expertise and training. Then there are the vivid images, graphics, pictures, characters, music, sound effects– a world and a story. So even a small game project requires more than one programmer heads down. It fosters collaboration–asking students to stretch outside their comfort zones.”

4) Connect learning to the wider world. “Games engage with elements of fiction. They have characters and a story. That helps and encourages students to put their work into context.”

5) Have fun helping others! “In game design we talk about plateaus of skill mastery. In game design you want the player to enjoy those moments of confidence before we introduce the next round of complications and new rules. That structure lends itself well to positive reinforcement, which is why games can be so engaging to play. [When you design games] making the player feel engaged and excited is an incredibly powerful motivator.”


The five most important ed-tech trends at SXSWedu


I’ve been on the ground in Austin for the South By Southwest Education Conference & Festival for 22 hours. In that time, I’ve interviewed six people, chatted with many more, and hit the Java Jive in the Hilton four times. Here’s what I see as the biggest trends coming out of the conference.

  1. Data and analytics. There seems to be a consensus, which Bill Gates will no doubt highlight in his keynote tomorrow, that the most important potential—as yet unrealized—contribution of technology to teaching and learning is the ability to extract meaningful insights from the myriad information that students generate as they travel through life on their learning journeys: diagnostics, individualized goals and plans, demographic information, performance evaluations, and on and on from cradle to mortarboard. Companies like InBloom and Engrade envision a teacher working like a doctor, synthesizing reams of test results and other information with the help of tech tools to arrive at the proper intervention for the proper moment.
  2. Games and adaptive learning. What makes video games fun is that they get harder as you get better at them, keeping you in the right “proximal zone” between bored and frustrated. “In the gaming world, when you don’t get the right outcome, you don’t feel like a failure, you say how do I adjust,” says Dreambox CEO Jessie Woolley-Wilson. This is what is meant, at its simplest, by adaptive learning. Game-like learning platforms range from Dreambox, a math program that “puts the learning in front,” in the words of Woolley-Wilson, to Kuato Studios, which later this month is debuting a fighting-robot coding game made by designers who worked on Call of Duty. Games and adaptive learning are intimately related to #1, data and analytics. In some sense, what defines a game is simply that the players are keeping score, so a key feature of online learning games is the constant generation of data that can, in theory, be used by teachers and parents in coaching mode to help direct students. Taken together, #1 and #2 form the megatrend/buzzword of “personalization”—the “mass customization” of learning.
  3. MOOCs. While many in the education space might be sick of hearing about Massively Open Online Courses, Coursera, edX, et al, they are still adding users and shaping the public imagination about what’s possible when classrooms open a window on the world.
  4. Makers and creativity. I was pleasantly surprised to see a Makerspace onsite at the convention center, where you could drop in and play with Legos, circuits and homemade play-doh. This hands-on, amateur, DIY stuff taps into a deep need for learners to accent what is most fully human, even as we are increasingly overwhelmed by virtual worlds. In addition, John Maeda, president of the Rhode Island School of Design, hosted an influential panel on STEM to STEAM—putting the arts into STEM education. He’s argued that the forward march of technology will lead to a higher premium being placed on the personal, well-designed and handmade.
  5. Going back to the classroom. “Where are the districts?” “Where are the teachers?” Aside from a few leaders of charter schools I’ve run into, most of whom were presenting, my impression is that there are few full-time educators here, let alone people who make IT purchasing decisions for school districts. Many sense a fundamental disconnect on both sides between the innovation conversation going on here and the real needs of teachers in classrooms. Hopefully that will change soon.