Monday, November 14, 2011

Why schools should embrace video games instead of banning them

Recently I answered a colleague who asked on a question on the Texas Library Association Listserv regarding our library policies about video gaming. When she reported back on her findings it turned out that I was the only one that encouraged or supported gaming. Some respondents talked about allowing "only educational or approved games," and others said they tried allowing gaming until it "got out of hand."  Most just banned games on library computers.

I'm actually sympathetic to these viewpoints. At times the gamers make a little more noise than I am comfortable with, and the computers in the library are limited, so it seems wrong to have game players taking over computers of those that want to do "real work." Furthermore, I myself wasted far too many hours of my youth (not to mention my hard earned money one quarter at a time) on video games. As a mature adult, that no longer "wastes time" on video games, I sometimes I wished I would have learned a 2nd language instead of practicing my alien-slaying skills. Did all of those hours of joystick jostling pay off in any way? The truth is, I'm not sure.

One thing that is different more than 2 decades later after my Atari saturated childhood is that video games are much more sophisticated and much more a part of the culture. They involve much more problem solving instead of mere hand-eye coordination. Video Games allow for creativity and open-ended exploration of virtual environments. Virtual reality, 3-D graphics, simulations...These are all entire industries now. Don't we want some of our students to prepare themselves for jobs in these fields?    Games also teach valuable leadership and collaboration skills.  We are in favor of those, right?

So, reservations aside, I'm going to argue that a permissive policy on video games is far better than a restrictive one.  Here's how it all worked out for me this year.

During the very first weeks of school, many students had not yet discovered the library. Those that did were overwhelmingly interested in a game called Minecraft. In the opening scenes of the game, it's a violent struggle for survival. Monsters, shooting... you get the picture. My instincts told me that I didn't want this stuff in the library, lest the administration see it and reprimand me for allowing such stuff to go on at school. However, I overrode my instincts. Instead of telling the boys to quit that game in favor of something more wholesome, I decided to ask the students to tell me about the game and why they enjoyed it. They all talked about the creativity that the game allowed.  I spent quite a lot of time watching the game and listening to them. As the year went on, the boys got into more and more advanced levels of the game and I could actually see what they were talking about.

Then, just recently I was glancing at my Twitter feed and the word "Minecraft" jumped out at me. It was a story from @edtweeps about a school in Oklahoma that uses the game for simulations in an Agriculture class. Wow! I did some more digging on Twitter and found @MinecraftTeachr who teaches in a virtual school and uses MineCraft as his learning space. He has over 4,000 followers.  It turns out there are Education modules for Minecraft.

I started asking the Mine Craft boys at school about their feelings about using Mine Craft for their school projects. They were all convinced that this would be a great thing for them. Today I spoke with one of the parents of these students, and she sung the praises of Mine Craft, and it's potential in educational value. I'm now looking for ways to collaborate with the Geography teachers to encourage Mine Craft as a tool for Project Based Learning.

Ok, so let's review. If I would have banned unapproved video games, I wouldn't even know about Mine Craft. Secondly, it's engaging to the kids and it encourages them to work together. Thirdly, the parents (at least a small sample) expect their kids to learn the 21st Century way. How, under these conditions can one ban games such as Minecraft?

Stay tuned for a future post where I will argue that Social Media and Games must be included in Librarian's defense of Intellectual Freedoms. It's not just about banned books anymore!

Monday, November 7, 2011

Geek Culture in the Library

One of the greatest things about my job is that it forces me to try new things. My motivation is that I want to stay relevant, keep the library program relevant and help get kids ready for the careers of tomorrow. My latest round of learning is on programming Android apps. A few years ago I tried my hand at programming a Library gadget for Google, but ran into numerous obstacles trying to get the search to work with library systems. Furthermore, there were not many resources for beginner developers to get started and I abandoned the project without producing a workable gadget.

Now with the proliferation of Android, it's a different world. Google has made App programming more visual and created some wonderful tutorials to learn the basics.   When I created in the first Hello Purr App via the tutorial and got it on my phone I was so excited, I wanted to show it off to everyone in the library. Here's a short introductory video.

I'm a natural born geek, but not hardcore.  In high school I watched Star Trek, but wasn't one of those going to conventions in full regalia speaking Klingon. If I can do this, anyone that is even slightly geeky can try it out.

I've been progressing through the tutorials learning about the drawing canvas, image sprites and soon I will make Mash Mole, a fairly simple game based on the carnival favorite, Wack a Mole.

Now that I'm ahead of the students, I'm ready to help them get started. Ultimately I would like to form a little App developer group and get them working on a real world project. I even have some ideas and potential partners. This project is really a logical extension of my work I described in the wonderful collective Ebook, School Libraries, What's Next, What's next to come. Additionally, I was inspired by this story on NPR about youthful App developers. It's all about creating opportunities for the kids to develop skills that can make them successful and perhaps the next software billionaire!