Toca Boca and the importance of play

Toca Boca is a suite of applications that provides spaces within which to explore and play.


I often hear teachers complain that all students do on tablets is play games. This is supposedly in lieu of supposed ‘real work’. Although I would not consider myself as being a part of the anti-gamer community, I think that there are some which are more prone to consuming our attention, rather than creativity and critical thinking. (See the recent discussion associated with Coolmaths and Chromebooks) A company trying to counter this focus on consumption is Toca Boca. Started in 2010 in Sweden, Toca Boca create digital environments. The purpose is not to complete games or progress through levels, but instead work within the parameters set to participate in imaginative, open-ended play. As the Björn Jeffery explains:

I don’t think we are going to digitize all play, and it wasn’t our goal, either. It’s just a new way to play, so it has its benefits and its drawbacks. Obvious benefits are that it’s portable, so we do very well on airplanes or dinners, for that matter — situations where parents need to occupy their children. Kids get super-bored after fifteen minutes at a restaurant, whereas parents want to sit for another two hours. Bringing your Lego kit to the restaurant is a little tricky, and so maybe an iPad is more convenient. But, of course, there is also a time and a place.

Some of the different applications that I have explored with my daughters include:

  • House: Users move around a house to complete numerous chores and activities,
  • Town: Users move between a shop, police station, a house and a park. Each space includes different characters and objects to engage with.
  • Kitchen: Working between the fridge, a bench space and a cooking area, users prepare various meals. Through this process they are able to learn about how different produce changes when it is cooked, chopped and blended.
  • Car: Given a small car, users drive around within an environment that has various objects and obstacles jump over or avoid.
  • Band: There is a stage with three tiers, each with their own intensity. Each character plays a different instrument, which users can drag around the stage or they can placed on the top pedestal which allows users to control the particular instrument.
  • Hair Salon: Using a range of tools and products, including scissors, dryer, coloured spray and magic liquid which makes hair grow, users are able to create their own hair styles. Once complete, they can then create their own hairdos.
  • Fairy Tales and Tailor: Users choose clothes, apply various patterns and then accessories in the development of their own characters. They can also capture a snapshot of their finished creation.
  • Lab: Users are provided with a virtual laboratory within which to explore the elements of nature in a fun and playful way. Through a range of virtual experiments, users heat, boil, spin and cool various objects to see what happens.
  • Birthday Party & Tea Party: These apps allow users to lay out a table cloth for a party involving cake and drinks. This can be either played collaboratively or individually. Once someone has eaten or drank what have, you can then give them more. In addition to this, every so often something will spill which you need to clean up before doing anything else.
  • Builders Lab: Something of a take on Minecraft, users are given a blank space on which to build upon. There are a range of robots to help you, each offering a particular skill, whether it be creating a block, moving a block or painting the space.
  • Nature: Similar to Sim City, you are given a plot of land which you can add vegetation too, create mountains and dig out waterways. Once this is done, you can zoom in and go in search of the various flora and fauna that inhabits this created space. There is a range of objects you can collect and then feed the various animals. When you find something there is the option then to take a picture of your discovery.

In many respects these apps are about learning, they have been described as ‘digital toys for children’. This is not learning in the way that Mathletics helps with Maths, but rather applications capturing the different forms of play:

  • Active play, which is like chasing each other, playing sport, running around.
  • Make-believe play, which is imagination and role play.
  • Manipulative play, which is puzzles, construction, building, Lego, making, creating.
  • Creative play, which is arts, crafts, drawing, music.
  • Learning play, which is games and books — they are defined as learning because they are linear. They have a beginning, a middle, and an end.

This collection is continuing to grow and evolve. So what about you? Are there any open-ended applications that you or your students use? As always, comments welcome.


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The future of libraries is in research

A collection of ways Google G Suite for Education can be used in the library, including the creation of digital spaces, supporting research, organising thinking and making connections beyond the classroom.


One of the areas that the team that I work in supports is GSuite. This year we have looked to provide for some different stakeholders within school, one of which are librarians. I have written before about the future of libraries, touching on ideas of a hybrid learning space always open. Here then are some further thoughts on the ways that GSuite can support these changes:

Spaces

A significant change in recent times has been the development of virtual spaces. David White describes this intersection between the physical and digital as a coalescent space. Google provides a number of options including: Sites, Plus, Classroom and Blogger. Each application has its own set of features and affordances.

(New) Google Sites is a static website builder that allows a lot of drop and drag. It offers a number of possibilities. It is also now found within Google Drive and allows users to embed a wide range of content. One of the limitations is the ability to converse and the use of mobile platforms to create and update.

Another option is Google Plus. Like Facebook and Facebook Pages, Plus provides the means to create communities where people can meet and share. These can be both public and private. Additionally, Plus allows users to organise resources in collections.

A development over recent years has been Google Classroom. This space allows many of the features of Plus communities, but in a closed environment. A recent addition to classroom has been the ability to engage across domains.

The original Google space is Blogger. One of the original blogging platforms, Blogger allows for an open and dynamic presentation of content. This could be a shared space for different writers, a place to collect links or a space to document news and updates.

There are so many options for spaces. However, rather than choosing one or the other, sometimes the best option is combining different solutions, whether it be a Site and a G+ community or a blog and a Classroom space.

Further Reading

Research.

In an age of abundance, customised content and fake news, one of the more important roles for a library is to develop digital citizenship. For David White, this is about being an “expert at navigating content, not owning it.” A common use of libraries then is to support research and investigation. Google provides a number of tools to support this, such as:

Google has also created a range of material to support the development of research skills. This includes a Power Searching Course, Search Literacy Lesson Plans and the game-based A Google A Day

Another collection of strategies comes via Mike Caulfield and his work around fact checking. In his book Web Literacy for Student Fact Checkers, Caulfield outlines four key strategies:

  • Check for previous work: Look around to see if someone else has already fact-checked the claim or provided a synthesis of research.
  • Go upstream to the source: Go “upstream” to the source of the claim. Most web content is not original. Get to the original source to understand the trustworthiness of the information.

  • Read laterally: Read laterally.[1] Once you get to the source of a claim, read what other people say about the source (publication, author, etc.). The truth is in the network.

  • Circle back: If you get lost, or hit dead ends, or find yourself going down an increasingly confusing rabbit hole, back up and start over knowing what you know now. You’re likely to take a more informed path with different search terms and better decisions.

This book also explains how to use Google Books to track down quotes and use reverse image search to find the origin of an image.

To support these strategies, Caulfield also started a new site, Four Moves. This has been designed to provide prompts and practice to support students with the act of fact checking.

It is often stated that the best firewall is the human sitting using the computer. That is part of the reason Google developed Be Internet Awesome, a program designed to support students to be better online citizens. It is organised around five fundamentals – being smart, alert, strong, kind and brave – and mixes together a curriculum with a series of game-based activities.

It is important to note that Digital citizenship can mean many things to many people. Sometimes the best thing to do is start by defining what it means within your own content.

Further Reading

  • Google Search Presentation – Anthony Speranza provides some tricks to making the most of searching with Google.
  • Be Internet Awesome – A range of resources developed by Google to help kids be safe, confident explorers of the online world.
  • Web Literacy for Student Fact-Checkers – Mike Caulfield provides a range of strategies, tactics and tools, which, properly used, can get students closer to the truth of a statement or image.
  • Four Moves – A collection of activities to support Caulfield’s work with fact checking and digital citizenship.

Beyond Book Reports

The traditional perception of the library are rows and rows of books and with this the age old practice of standard book reports. It would be therefore easy to use technology to just reproduce this. The problem though is it fails to recognise new possibilities associted with the various features and affordances.

One possibility is to explore place using the range of geo tools. Whether it be plotting a narrative with Google Tour Builder, going on a Lit Trip with Google Earth, collating books from around the world with My Maps, exploring places with Google Cardboard or testing your knowledge with Smarty Pins.

Another potential is to use Google Forms to gather student reviews and then publish these with Awesome Tables. These reviews could even be audio or video recordings, collected using the file upload question format. Videos could even be played within a Google Slide, therefore avoiding the need to upload to YouTube.

HyperDocs provide another way of rethinking how students respond to books. They are documents which incorporate different interactive activities, usually involving a range of choice. They help provide the structure for self-determined learners. A creative activity involving hyperlinks is the making of a ‘choose your own adventure’ story. Another format to support thinking and research is the Iron Chef Lesson Plan, which involves working collaboratively to develop ideas and understanding.

Further Reading

Thinking

Libraries are often the space within a school which provides the possibility to go beyond the subject silos. In regards to curriculum, this provides the opportunity to explore other areas, such as the critical and creative thinking curriculum.

Google provides a number of ways to make our critical thinking visible. This can come in many formats, whether it be conducting brainstorms, organising ideas using graphic templates or representing understanding using infographics. For creative responses, you can make poems or digital comics. Two tools useful for working collaboratively with text and visuals are Drawings and Slides.

Gone are the days of libraries being silent spaces dedicated to independent reading and reaearch. Now they are spaces design to spark conversation and creativity. A part of this is the inclusion of makerspaces, but another change is the addition of games and a focus on collaborative problem solving. One possibility in this area is BreakoutEDU. Based on the escape room, BreakoutEDU provides a way of engaging with the wider space, but they can also be a way of developing critical thinking. An extension of this are digital BreakoutEDU experiences.

Further Reading

Connected Classroom

The move of libraries into the digital realm not only opens learning up into different spaces, but it also provides different connected opportunities outside of the school.

Hangouts Meet allows for synchronous video connections beyond the four walls of the classroom. This could include sending out an impromptu invite or scheduling an event beforehand. Whereas previously recordings had to be done using YouTube Live, users can now record with Meet and save to Drive. Virtual connections can be used to connect different classrooms, conduct virtual debates or provide an alternative point of access to classroom material.

Google provides a number ways for sharing video for asyncronius connections. This could be as simple as a presentation with Slides or content added to a blog. Another possibility often overlook is the ability to create a shared channel in YouTube. This allows multiple people to manage things and passing on content if they leave. In addition to uploading video, a channel can be used to share curated playlists of appropriate content. An important topic with the increasing influence of algorithms on what is shown on YouTube.

Further Reading


So there it is, a breakdown of some ways that Google can be incorporated into the library. One thing to be mindful of is not every application is covered by the standard collection notice. I have also excluded some that I am unsure about from educational sense, such as Google Books, as they do not seem to be available in Australia.

So what about you? Would you have structured things differently? Or maybe you have an activity that could be added? Or even a resource? As always, comments welcome or you could even write your own post and send me a webmention.


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Quote about Mythologies

This post is a reflection on the wolves introduced into Yellowstone National Park and the problems associated with focusing on supposed simple solutions


I recently came across this post from Aaron Hogan reflecting upon the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park. I too have written about the connections between rewilding and education, discussing the possibilities of removing barriers designed to limit top-level predators. Hogan three points about the impact the wolves are:

A pack had an unmistakable impact on the park.

These wolves had no idea about the scale of their impact.

The wolves can’t not have an impact on the park.

Basically, it seems that the wolves worked collaboratively to make a difference. That seems pretty fair. The only problem is that, as with most things, the reality of the wolves is so much more complicated.

In an article in the New York Times, Arthur Middleton unpacks the great American myth surrounding the wolves in Yellowstone. He believes far too much has been invested in the role the wolves have had.

We now know that elk are tougher, and Yellowstone more complex, than we gave them credit for. By retelling the same old story about Yellowstone wolves, we distract attention from bigger problems, mislead ourselves about the true challenges of managing ecosystems, and add to the mythology surrounding wolves at the expense of scientific understanding.

Middleton instead seeks to paint a more complicated picture:

A few small patches of Yellowstone’s trees do appear to have benefited from elk declines, but wolves are not the only cause of those declines. Human hunting, growing bear numbers and severe drought have also reduced elk populations. It even appears that the loss of cutthroat trout as a food source has driven grizzly bears to kill more elk calves. Amid this clutter of ecology, there is not a clear link from wolves to plants, songbirds and beavers.

I think that this same concerns could also be raised in regards to education.

Hogan makes the point that:

A pack had an unmistakable impact on the park.

It is often assumed that doing things together makes a difference. The problem with this is that it is not the doing things together which makes the difference, rather it is what is done and how. As Alma Harris states in Distributed Leadership Matters:

Too much of what passes for professional collaboration equates with loose or unfocused professional groupings, partnerships, or networks.

Take a simple example, holding a meeting with two or twenty will make no difference if those in the group are not adequately given the opportunity to add their voice, where instead only one person speaks the whole time. In some ways this touches on John Hattie’s argument that class size has little impact if it is not also attached with a change in pedagogy.

This then leads to a second point, that Of change. Hogan states that:

The wolves can’t not have an impact on the park.

However, what is overlooked is everything else that can have an impact as well. Here I am reminded of Pernille Ripp’s recent reflection on reading programs. Too often, like the wolves, they are seen as the solution, a point made all too clear in a recent EdTech survey. However, as Ripp highlights, they are only one part of a bigger puzzle. This is something made clearer using the Modern Learning Canvas:

Using this sort of framework means that there is nothing outside of context. Everything is a part of the assemblage, as Ian Guest recently highlighted:

Bringing a sociomaterial sensibility built on actor-network theory to this study positions me in a particular way. This eschews the notion of a pre-existent reality ‘out-there’ waiting for the knowing subject to discover and explain it. Nor is reality constructed by the distant researcher through a set of discursive practices. Instead, reality is performative, brought into being as a result of the relationships which form and reform when actors, both human and nonhuman, intra-act. As a researcher of and with teachers using Twitter then, I am entangled with a heterogenous mix of educators, software platforms, digital devices, terms of service, time zones, screens, hashtags and notifications. What emerges from the study depends on the knowledge practices which are brought to bear, but these do not solely involve a researcher, research participants and standard qualitative methods, but also an eclectic mix of other nonhuman actors. Together their relational performances constitute ‘methods assemblage’ (Law, 2004), where different realities become enacted depending on the actors which participate. One implication might be that this should not be statement of my positionality, but of ours.

This sphere of influence includes both humans and non-humans in an interconnected web of influence. Therefore, everything has an influence and to isolate one part will always be problematic.


Reading the work of people like Benjamin Doxtdator, Naomi Barnes, Ben Williamson, Jon Andrews, Audrey Watters and Maha Bali has taught me the importance of being critical. I am not saying that teachers do not have an impact or that collaboration does not have the potential of being positive, but it is difficult to separate these things from the wider context. In some respects, Middleton’s post left me wondering what impact Yellowstone itself has had on the wolves? As Yellowstone can’t not have an impact, right?

As always, comments welcome and webmentions too.


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