There has been something which I hope to initiate as a side project on learning with a social media twist. I have this belief that Social Media and especially blogging can have such an impact on education and how students approach learning. I wrote a loose blog on how this would work, conceptually. I am also involved in the Princess Project which itself is a collaborative writing project that we hope to grow to great heights. So when Kobia gave me a call late on Monday about Jesse Soleil and a conference about using new media for education, I was game and couldn’t wait for Thursday to come through. We were hosted at Nairobi Institute of Technology and I have to thank Nimu Waweru, for the great work she did in making us feel most welcome. Onto the conference, it was a small conference and hence a more intimate setting with the presentation in a un-conference conversational tone that we milked the most out of.
Jesse Soleil is the C.E.O of Massiverse which according to their website is;
a 21st-century new media development company that creates original, interactive transmedia properties for kids, integrating both traditional and emerging communication mediums, gaming, and powerful narrative storytelling. Massiverse specializes in developing complex interactive systems that work across multiple mediums, including: Massively Multiplayer Online Games, Virtual Worlds, Alternate Reality Games, Television, Webisodes, Mobisodes, Feature Films, Gaming Platforms, Mobile, Print, both traditional and digital … starting with an original flagship property, Dragons Vs Robots.
Jesse Soleil was this time round in Kenya for the Rhino Charge. He has been here around 15 times and is actually married to a Kenyan. But going further back, he has an interesting background. Soleil took us through his history; he grew up in the Bay Area just outside Silicon Valley, loved playing TRS 80 games way back when he was younger and games were text based with no graphics, worked as a salesman selling insurance policies to the elderly, worked at Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan, then got back to gaming, something he is most proud of and happy doing. After acquainting us with whom he is and how he got to where he is now, he finished with “the point behind it all is to do what you love and be happy and successful in your business.”
Onto what brought us there, Soleil told us that 9 years back, he was approached by Scholastic, the world’s largest publisher and distributor of children’s books which not only deals in publishing but education technology as well . They were trying to explore a software that would allow kids to extract meaning from text. You probably wonder what this means? That is where Read About – the only educational software that has been proven to work comes in. It is a reading software technology that features adaptive, leveled, non-fiction technology for children between grades 3 – 8 in the US.
You can teach a kid to read but it has been difficult to teach them to extract meaning from text. The question that needs to be answered is; can you step back from reading to applying what you have read into strategy? Though Read About was developed for 3 – 8 graders, inability to extract meaning from text is not just a problem for kids but extends to most adults even here in Kenya. This was quite evident at the university too because reading in itself for a majority of students was for passing exams. You could see the difficulty people had in extracting the real actionable knowledge from text and hence they would regurgitate whole sentences straight from the notes just to sound smart. Read About, which Soleil was contacted to consult on was geared toward tackling this problem.
In a nutshell, Read About is an interactive software that allows kids to interact with what they are reading in an entirely new way. An explanation will not suffice without an example so here goes…
Scholastic published a series of books called 39 clues one after the other each written by a different author. For each of these books, there was an online game that these kids could log into and play as the characters in the books they were reading. It is imperative to appreciate the fact that these kids get to choose what they want to read and in the online version of the book, they choose who they want to be and participate as they would in real life as the narrative unfolds. Take for instance a Game Park, in the online version of such a book, one kid may decide to explore the narrative as one of the animals, others as the rangers, and others as any other part of the ecosystem that comprises the Game Park. It is this interaction and unique perspective that these kids get not merely from reading but experiencing it as characters in the online game version of the book that enables them to actually comprehend better.
The threat of kids preferring to play the games online did not arise because these kids were actually reading the books. So there are books involved but the web component is a narrative experience which brings the player in from their perspective that treated them as if they were part of the narrative experience. From a business end because Scholastic needed to sell books; so each set of the books had 9 cards in them with clues about the online version of the game. They found a way of moving kids btw offline and online and in the process created an experience that would propel book sales. After purchasing a book, there was a code within it that would allow them to log onto the online game version of the book and use the cards as the clues to play. These cards were also sold separately from the book. These cards gained a lot of meaning to them based on what they represented in the Read About software. In essence, they had become part of the story and hence could extract meaning not only from text but context as well.
All the series of 39 Clues released so far have become New York Best sellers in their categories.
In essence, Read About works on two premises:
Transference in this sense meant taking out what you are doing online through the Read About software and being able to apply it in real time scenarios. Soleil gave us an example of metaphors and vocabulary in sentences. A majority of kids and even adults would not recognize metaphors and appreciate their vale in a sentence. They just read on and hence loose the value that these metaphors added to the text and the same goes for vocabularies. Transference in this instance would require moving from the text to a dictionary to try and uncover the underlying meaning of a metaphor or a vocabulary before resuming to read. That way, when you ask, do kids really understand the content they are reading, they actually do and not just what is in text but the context of it all too.
2. Executive Function
Executive function refers to the ability to gather information from different sources, forming opinion about it, and then using it. According to Soleil and even a couple of lecturers I have interacted with, Google has been claimed to stump our growth. But Soleil goes on to say that this is the way society is going and the only way we are going to get a long will be by learning and teaching kids how to extract the relevance out of information overload that Google offers. Executive function is therefore the ability is for kids (and adults) to be able to navigate these different channels and extract useful relevant applicable tools.
For me, this ability to design and develop a story such that people can interact with it across multiple platforms was just ingenious. But for those who might tag this as “Edutainment” would be wrong on various levels. According to Soleil, Read About and Robots vs. Dragons are a disruptive new entertainment that create something that people can learn for and hopefully want. Edutainment on the other hand is dying because it has been commoditized. Lack of consistency in teaching means that technology can provide this consistency in education… This could fuel education change. In the states, the education change was fuelled by assessment on how well kids can comprehend and even extract meaning from text and apply it. Using games to test where kids are actually works. When I play Chess on my laptop, I started with the most difficult level since I presumed I was that good but because I got my ass beaten every time, I moved to the middle level where I could win some games and actually got better enough to go back to the top level. The same goes with games, you can test comprehension based on the ease or difficulty that these kids have in playing.
Genuinely interested in your take on this?