From Teacher to Programmer

By Mélanie L. Sisley

Ever watch someone completely absorbed by a computer game? Ever wonder what it would take for you to get your students’ attention with that amount of intensity? Ok maybe computer-game-intensity is a little much, but wouldn’t it be nice to have a tiny fraction of that undivided attention?

I know that using video games in education has its controversies. Of course, we don’t want to be creating a screen bound generation of kids that are insidiously depriving themselves of genuine connections and physical movement. And as a mother of two elementary school children, I am the first to limit my children’s screen time and make sure they play outside more than plug their brains into a screen. 

But I am also a language teacher, the mother of a dyslexic child, and I am dyslexic myself. I can honestly say that if it weren’t for computers (and autocorrect), I probably wouldn’t be writing this article right now. I’m also fairly sure that if it weren’t for computer-assisted learning, many of my students would never get those words into or out of their heads.

So if we strip down the medium, and look at what it is about video games that make them so intriguing to me as a teacher, it is that games and learning seek the same elusive element of human psychology—motivation. And let’s face it, games seem to do better at enlisting this rather slippery element of human behaviour than we are.

Take Some and Leave Some 

As I sit and watch my two daughters play, my mind can’t help but to build a little shopping list. There are aspects of the games I really like and others that just fall to the wayside. Walking around Minecraft feeding my 7 year old’s horses, not so much, but watching my 10-year-old make movies and comic strips—fascinating. What’s more, I see somethings that are a perfect fit for language learning and dyslexia remediation. I just can’t help but think, “what would it take for me to make that?” 

Repetition

The first thing I notice, that is central to language learning and dyslexia remediation, is repetition. Back in the old days, educators used to spend hours having students recite irregular verbs, copy words, memorize spelling—at nausea. In fact, my mother, who is also dyslexic, is a perfect speller. Something about repetition and a ruler threatening to land on her tender fingers that just got those words jammed into her head. Within the newer teaching methods, rote is out and meaning is in. But what if we need to repeat, repeat, and repeat?

Increased Visual Attention

Video games are also very visually engaging. I suspect there are good sides and bad sides to this, but there is a growing body of research demonstrating how video games may be sharpening many skills we apply through our eyes. 

The most compelling research I found to date is a study done by Sandro Franceschini et. al. (2013) on dyslexic children. He demonstrated that in just nine 45-minute sessions of gaming, there was a noticeable improvement in the children’s reading speed. The hypothesis behind this is that the screen can hold visual attention (which can be very laborious for dyslexic children) and increase the stamina and recognition speed required to keep their eyes on the page.

Selective Visual Attention

Also in the realm of visual skills, there is research showing how video games are altering our capacity to sharpen selective visual attention. In other words, our ability to focus on important information and ignore the less important stuff. 

A Story

Besides their ability to repeat and help visual tracking, the other thing I notice that games have that I want to leverage is a story with tension and suspense. I am not a born storyteller. I can some times crack a few jokes, but I am not one of those gifted teachers that can captivate audiences with ghosts and goblins that I pull out of my head at a moment’s notice. But I love a good story and so does everyone else, so if I made my own learning game, I could put some thought into it. I could add some compelling problems to solve. With time, I could make something that I would like to play. 

No Judgement

This is probably one of the more important aspects I appreciate in computer-based learning. No matter how supportive we are as teachers, even saying nice things means we are looking—we are judging. For some students, this can be paralyzing. Through computers, students can create, write, play, fail and try again. And no one is watching—at least not too closely. I feel it is so important for everyone to have a place where they can experiment and make mistakes and not feel ashamed.  

How to Go from Teacher to Programmer

If you have explored the gamut of sites and tablet games out there and can’t find exactly what you need, then you are like me—wondering what it would take to make your own. 

Unfortunately, the answer is not as clear as I would like it to be. I have spent the last year exploring different development tools, doing online courses, perusing YouTube tutorials, online forums, articles, Reddit—gasp. I have even managed to build little prototypes. 

Can you do it? 

The real answer to that question is: maybe. 

Do you have to be a programmer? 

The real answer is: a little bit

Most tools (also called game engines or development platforms—technically different but do the same thing) offer “non-programmer” tutorials. But the reality is there is always some coding and code logic to contend with. So if the words “methods” or “declare a variable” make your throat tighten and your stomach churn, well then maybe you should look for a programmer on UpWork or Hubstaff. Because if you have a really great idea, you may just make a little money. So don’t give up.

But if you are up for the challenge and want the power to sculpt your very own interactive learning experiences, read on and I’ll take you through some of the paths I took. 

Let me begin with the end. Through trial and error with many different game development tools, I came away with a selection criteria: 

1) Are there good training materials?

If there are only a few YouTube tutorials, that probably won’t be enough. What you are looking for is a nicely organized, step by step, training program. If you are serious, it is worth paying for. Udemy and lynda.com are also great places to look at.

2) Is there a good Market Place?

A Market Place is basically a library of projects other developers post and share. So if you are looking to build a quiz, you can download a quiz “template” or at least someone else’s quiz and change the graphics and questions. You don’t have to establish all the logic. Save a lot of time. Check the company website and Github.

3) Does it have a user friendly-ish interface? 

If I can find what I am looking for in 5 min or less, I drop it. That is my rule of thumb. Actually, sometimes I get hard-headed and dig until I find it (obsessive persistence—not a bad thing to have if you are going to do this), but if I find that the button, or link or whatever I am looking for is not in an intuitive place, I won’t push any further. 

4) Does it have a good community?

You will run into problems, that is a guarantee. So where can you ask for help? What I look for is a quick turn around (within 24 hours), supportive language—if I end up feeling like the imposter-idiot-teacher who really shouldn’t touch programming, then they are out. Truth be told, this has not happened very often. Programmers are some of the most supportive transparent people I have ever worked with.

My top 3

  • Unity
    • Great training on Zenva specifically for teachers who want to make games
    • Great market place
    • User interface rather digestible
    • Huge community
  • Game Maker Studio
    • Training not appropriate for teachers, much too basic and tedious
    • Fairly good market place, but little in terms of quizzes or drag and drop…simple stuff like that
    • The user interface is conceived by programmers for programmers…so a little disorienting.
    • Huge community
  • Game Salad
    • Training not great
    • Good market place, including quizzes 
    • User interface very simple
    • Not a terribly big user community to answer questions when you get stuck. I submitted a question directly to the company and it took them two days to answer.

So there you have it. My journey from teacher to programmer is a slow process with very few immediate rewards. But I can’t help but think that it is a skill I want, perhaps even need, to acquire to turn what I know about literacy and language acquisition into engaging learning experiences. If you are like me, or perhaps you are already playing around with different game engines and getting frustrated, you are not alone. 

Mélanie’s blog is http://eslconverstion.ca

References

  • Franceschini, S., Gori, S., Ruffino, M., Viola, S., Molteni, M., and Facoetti, A., (2013), Action Video Games Make Dyslexic Children Read Better. Current Biology, 23, pp. 462-466
  • Green, S. C. & Bavelier, D. (2003). Action video games modifies visual selective attention, Nature, 423, pp. 534-537