Online/ Games Based Education

I worked in a school that had SAM Learning. SAM Learning was an online revision thing that our school paid a fortune for and all our kids had log ins. We could see how much they’d been on (though they managed to cheat this).

SAM Learning claimed that spending 10 hours on a subject during revision would increase your grades by a whole grade. Obviously we never had any robust evidence offered to us. That doesn’t exist. It doesn’t exist because it’s complete bollocks. I’m happy to defend that in court using Ben Goldacre to back me up.

Nonetheless, because I was working in a school where even staff meetings started with brain gym, we believed it. We spent incredible amounts of effort getting pupils to spend at least 10 hours on every subject on SAM Learning at home, and in registrations, and at lunchtimes. We even opened the computer rooms at weekends so kids could come in and SAM Learning it up for hours at weekends. This quick-fix was not quick at all. It was exhausting to cajole, entice, encourage and force kids to log on and move around words on a computer screen for revision. It was far from independent. Tutors were sent data on their kids’ use and challenged to get the crap ones up and reward those who had been on it excessively.

For our subscription (thousands) we got access to SAM Learning and training once a year. We only had the training once because all the teachers said they wouldn’t turn up if we did it again. It was terrible. I agreed with them.

When pupils log on to SAM learning, they usually logged onto their favourite subject (wouldn’t you, given the choice) and completed a few cloze activities, which were drop and drag. If you got it wrong you were invited to correct. That was often it! And then there was another section where you could print out exam type questions to do. That was all I remember of it – there might have been other bits.

So given my school’s excessive effort, we were in the top ten users one year in the whole country.

And we were proud. It was basically the number one priority of the school.

Our predicted grades were higher than they’d ever be. We started to speculate we might break 50% of pupils with 5A*-C.

So when our results came in, and the Head openly cried. The pupils were 50/50 split on happy or not, and the school had the lowest results for 4 years, we realised we’d been duped. Or did we?

Well we abandoned SAM Learning so maybe we did.

Then rather than invest in pedagogy and work on pupils’ attitudes, we just invested that money in iamlearning. I am not making this up. A company with a website that is one letter different from the previous snake oil we’d invested energy in.

Iamlearning is a better website and works better. It allows teachers to set their own problems and has more variety, for examples, pupils can submit written answers. I understand that SAMLearning offers similar now.

When pupils have answered a question or three, they get to play a game for 30 seconds or a minute, and the website keeps a league table of kids in the school, kids in all schools, and schools v schools. The focus is not the questions, but the scores in the games – which all look like they’re out of the late 80s. So the pupils rush the questions to get to the games.

The school invested the same energies that had been so fruitless in SAMLEARNING into IAMLEARNING. We were convinced that SAMLEARNING was a fraud but IAMLEARNING was great.

Of course, pupils thinking about computer games meant that they were practicing on computer games. Their knowledge and skills in playing these primitive games was getting awesome. And occasionally, they would answer a Maths question.

Skipping to the end, the results went up slightly that year, but the school was still underperforming. It had no significant impact.

What was more interesting was the number of times SAMLEARNING were on the telephone to us, not because they wanted us to buy their product again – although they did. They wanted us to share with them how we had managed to get such exceptionally high usage. They wanted to write about what we did, and share with other schools. They didn’t seem bothered that it hadn’t had the effect they suggested it might, or even had a effect in the wrong direction.

This kind of wrong-headedness is common in schools. It comes from the efforts to ‘engage’ pupils. Because ‘engagement’ is considered an aim of lessons, schools look at where pupils are engaged. They’re engaged in football lessons, listening to rap, and playing computer games. Hence schools then try to replicate these by making lessons relate to football (stereotypically, how many girls have been bored listening to a Maths teachers’ repeated football examples), rap (so activities will be “illustrate your understanding of the second world war through rap), and video games (I remember one school buying many many Nintendo Wii systems when they first came out).

I think the same type of thinking is what led to the Interactive Whiteboard becoming ubiquitous in schools at extortionate cost, and is what has led to incredible amounts of public money being given to Apple for ipads. Certainly, where the reason for IWBs or ipads is for engagement, I’d anticipate they’d have the same negligible or negative effect on real learning that the above websites had in the school I worked in.

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