Teacher Heroes

Early echoes of avatars, storylines and level-based achievement.

GUEST COLUMN | by John Hammer

Autodesk STEAM workshopIn grade school, I struggled with the English language. I struggled with keeping specific sounds associated with specific letters and I struggled with reading and writing skills, especially with grammar and sentence structure. I was mortally terrified of any word that moved past one syllable. The fear and insecurity created in me a frozen state of despair in the classroom. I dreaded every moment which would require me to read out loud or hand in any written assignment. Any exercise to deconstruct a sentence was a living nightmare, as all the words became nothing more than black abstract forms floating around in a white space that seemed as endless and deep as a stormy sea.

Like any hero-based story, the nemesis was eventually defeated. However, I was not the hero, but the recipient of two teachers’ innovative approach to the problem. The heroes in my story were one speech therapist and one sixth-grade teacher who each tackled my challenges by using a method of game-based learning. Their fresh approach took away the fear and pressure based in isolated exercises and replaced it with interactive play. This was more than 30 years ago, and the tools of interactivity consisted of puppets, adaptive linear storytelling and time-based chalkboard team challenges. It was fun, it was effective, and it opened up for me a door to a whole new world.

Years later, I recognized that these two teachers had used fundamental mechanisms found in your basic video game. There is the avatar, there is the storyline that one can have influence over, and there is the level-based achievement process allowing for manageable chunks of tasks to be accomplished.

Today, with our current technology, the potential of learning with interactive tools and game-based learning is limitless and underutilized. We can use these tools to demonstrate concepts on demand, to take chances we would hesitate to do otherwise, and to enhance the learning experience in and out of the classroom so that we are no longer restricted by time and place.

I am astonished that more organizations are not exploring this intuitive and innate approach to learning through technology; even more astonishing for me when considering the interactivity of the online community with peer-to-peer learning. We are all, once again, school children on the playground watching, demonstrating, imitating, teaching, inspiring and being inspired by others.

So, why aren’t more educational institutions taking advantage of the current technology to create a more interactive learning experience?

This brings us to the present. Last year, I left the classroom to join a much larger definition of a classroom with Autodesk Education. My decision was mostly due to the incredible potential I saw with Autodesk and their efforts to invest in education by providing design and engineering technology to students and educators and ultimately help shape an emerging generation of engineers, architects and design professionals. I was immediately impressed by the company’s devotion to advancing education with the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math). Most notable was their creation of the Autodesk Digital STEAM Workshop portal, an ISTE certified site offering teachers free access to robust and interactive educational curriculum.

Bringing the ‘A’, for Digital Arts, into STEM allows for creative problem solving through design thinking. I believe doing so is a move of fundamental importance, as it encourages ‘out of the box’ thinking. Autodesk is not the only organization to take this approach, but Autodesk is in a unique position to apply the concept with phenomenal potential through its reach with technology and digital applications. Autodesk’s portfolio of professional and consumer apps, along with creative thinking, allows the learner to explore and take chances during the process of problem solving in ways that was not possible before. And with rapid prototyping the learner can see immediate tangible results. Why not use these tools in the classroom to riddle out such problems as torque, friction, geometry, weight displacement and distribution, virus mutation, anatomy, or even chemical structure and music association? Why not use these tools in such a way that it enables a new perspective on learning outcomes with its malleable resources, maybe even allowing for multiple adaptive learning paths for individual learning methodologies?

Despite the vast potential of bringing technology into the classroom, I believe this is nothing when compared to the incredible possibilities of bringing education to mobile devices. Think of it, interactive text books where doodling on the pages is not discouraged, but expected, educational apps that utilize game-play to encourage and assist with understanding of concepts in real world applications, being able to capture 3D objects digitally and take them back to the classroom for further study or manipulation in a virtual 3D space, or an app making it possible to determine the distribution of weight on a bridge during a field trip. The possibilities are limitless and new technology platforms might just make it possible for more students – like me – to rise above a learning obstacle previously thought insurmountable.

The growing number of tablets and smart phones is only going to increase, enabling the potential for a shared educational experience on a global scale. We can either watch the wave as it approaches and passes by or we can jump in and surf what will likely become a revolutionary approach to education. The classroom no longer consists of four walls and a ceiling, in fact, the ceiling is gone.

John Hammer is an academic content manager within Autodesk’s education division. You can find all of Autodesk’s newest Digital STEAM apps on the iOS app store.

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