Invited to 'Erase All Kittens', Tony Parkin finds a bunch of pussycat digital student leaders
There has to be some form of positive equivalent to the perfect storm: when multiple factors align to produce an ideal situation rather than bringing down tempest and mayhem on everyone. The 'perfect day'? Or maybe that's already 'copyright Lou Reed'?
I know this scenario exists from my recent visit to Oasis Academy Shirley Park (Primary) to see the Erase All Kittens team in action. Yes, you read that correctly – Erase All Kittens is the name of a computer game aimed at schoolchildren.
But don't worry about controversy, there is a wonderful back story to put that name in context. Meanwhile we can call it EAK, if you prefer, as the team often does.
Take a group of enthusiastic primary student digital leaders with an equally fired teacher, and an experienced ICT adviser and project leader with an exciting series of developments under way across a multi-academy trust. Add two creative software developers seeking authentic feedback on the new iteration of their latest program and you get a chance to see what a 'perfect day' learning scenario looks like.
An opportunity to cheer up even the most cynical
It's how England's computing curriculum might look, given a favourable wind and a decent staff development programme. In short, an opportunity to cheer up even the most cynical and remind us all what the oft-used cliché "21st century education" can really look like when done well.
We were met at the school by Adam Browne, deputy principal (primary) and Liz Hankin, an education/ICT adviser for all Oasis Academies. The session was just one of a number of different Fusion projects across the country that Liz is steering. There are currently 19 such projects in various academies, each with the aim of helping change the classroom culture.
They put the focus on learner voice and developing an enquiry-informed learning approach, while also providing a robust 'action research' process for any of the schools to adapt for their own purposes. As we waited, Adam outlined his interest in hearing of the exciting approach to learning HTML (the code behind web pages) on offer via EAK, an open-source platform game that encourages pupils to hack into levels to win. And he described how he had pulled together a group of volunteer pupils from among his student digital leaders to act as a test bed and to offer feedback to the EAK team. At which point an excited group of pupils arrived and the EAK testing programme began.
There were gasps from the children as Joe Dytrych and Dee Saigal of EAK donned their EAK Kitten Capes and outlined the plot of EAK and the testing that they were looking for. The capes were an extremely clever move – the pupils noticeably changed their attitude to Joe and Dee and immediately entered the EAK spirit. “We want you to make this game as good as it could be”, said Joe, “You must tell us what you don't like, as well as what you do.” “Plus, once you played the early levels, we have some new experimental levels that we would like you to give us feedback on,” added Dee.
As the digital leaders attacked the early levels, in which they had to learn the basics of HTML to save the kittens (yes, save, not erase) it became clear that the game has instant pupil appeal – and the pupils could make progress without significant adult intervention (see screenshot below). Just how well designed the game was became clear as the pupils completed the early levels and moved on to the experimental levels, which as yet lacked the built-in guidance that had been so effective in the earlier parts of the game.
'The caped kittens leapt around the room'
“Those portals are really mean”, said Mason, grimacing, while Summer told me: “There should be more choice at that point, I want there to be three pips.” The caped kittens leapt around the room, scribbled down their comments, and helped the pupils over the new sections that were still lacking the online guidance.
As the session progressed I had a chat with observer Jamie Glover, an Oasis regional manager who was clearly enjoying seeing the academy's technology being put to such innovative use. He explained that the first steps for Oasis had been to ensure all the schools have decent ICT systems that are maintained effectively, and were able to deliver the curriculum.
Like the other regional managers, he was accompanying Liz to see the Fusion projects during development. “It's early days with these Fusion projects, but it is really important for us to look to become more about the educational focus of the technology, rather than just focusing on service delivery.” It is all part of a national move to add high-quality education and pedagogy to the traditional ICT service, now that the basics are in place. Jamie was delighted to get a chance to see at first hand how teachers and pupils worked with their new digital technologies, and get insights into the many classroom issues and challenges which shape the use of IT. “Schools are complex environments,” said Jamie, “and we need to see what real classroom use looks like if we are to get the IT right.”
Meanwhile the students were racking up their experience on EAK, and coming up with a whole load of ideas and improvements. Joe finally managed to get the students to stop playing, and he and Dee pulled the group together to share their observations, and the "even better ifs..."
Everyone agreed that they liked the additional freedom offered in the advanced part of the game to create stuff, and to roam freely. Lara's demand was for a roll of all the kittens that you had saved during the game, which again everyone thought a good idea. Ideas continued to come thick and fast: “I think the audio instructions will have to be a little slower for younger pupils”; “You had to be rather too careful to get the positions right in the experimental level”.
'Worst part was stopping, I was so enjoying playing the game'
Joe agreed that the new level was still a little fussy, and needed work. The pupils beamed at their impact, and were happy to rise to the challenge when Joe urged them to be more critical.
One of the most demanding was Sheun. “We want the Edit button to be available ALL the time,” he demanded, “so we can change things whenever we want.” There had been a debate about whether the closed game had been better than the open version to which they had been given access. Darren emerged as a diplomat in the making with his verdict that he actually liked both. “The box one really helped you learn but the stage one was much more fun,” was his verdict. Not to be outdone, an even more diplomatic Jack, when asked what was the worst part, said: “The worst part was stopping, I was so enjoying playing the game.” Cue laughter.
It was clear that they had been enthused, and a whole new revenue stream opened up for EAK as they asked about how they could not only sign up, but buy capes of their own, and a dozen other merchandise ideas followed. Along with some very penetrating questions from these digital leaders about the EAK team. “How did you get the idea?” “How did you end up with game development as a job?” Joe explained, “Computer education is something I feel really passionate about. I actually saw a lot of people being taught how to do this very badly. So I decided I would create a better way of learning HTML”.
The questions flowed. “What other games are you building?” “Do you have a YouTube channel?” And then the one we had been waiting for: “Why Erase All Kittens?” Dee explained the back story, of how the other fluffy creatures on the internet became jealous that cats were taking over the internet, and decided to erase all the pictures of fluffy kittens, and the game players were helping those kittens be saved and restored to their rightful place. (There. You didn't really think it was about children erasing kittens, did you?)
Stage two – pupil teaches pupil
Teacher Adam Browne then told the student digital leaders the second part of their role. They were now to act as coaches for the other students in their year, and were to be put in charge of break and lunchtime sessions in the computer room to help gather feedback on the EAK game from their peers. This was a most significant announcement, given that this was the first time students were to be left in charge of the computer room without teacher supervision for some sessions. And having seen this session, all the adults nodded and agreed that they were more than ready to take on the responsibility.
It was a perfect session that saw all those involved buzzing with excitement and leaving on a high. Dee did volunteer that it had been the most successful feedback session to date, and we all agreed that the choice of student digital leaders to lead the project had been a great idea. I was lleft ooking forward to hearing more about the Fusion project and finding out how the pupils' input helped shaped both the game and the learning developments at the school.
Since the visit I have kept in touch with Liz and Dee to keep up with the project's progress. Five Oasis Academies will run the same structured projects for EAK, and the students are collaborating with each other using Yammer as an online environment to trade ideas about how best EAK can be developed. This broadens the range of students involved both geographically and through the age ranges. Feedback sessions using Skype for Business also enable the all-important link with Joe and Dee to be maintained.
The experience of researching and supporting EAK has led to a further phase of the Fusion project at Shirley Park (and will happen at the other Oasis Academies too). Students are now starting to develop a framework for how different age groups think they can learn best through using embedded technologies. Deep learning and experienced, digitally-able researchers are emerging as a result of their experience with the EAK activity.
Meanwhile, you can all visit the Erase All Kittens website, and help your pupils save those fluffy felines while honing their own HTML skills. It currently has more than 15,000 players across the world, half of them girls. And when I tested the site with some initial teacher training students at Roehampton University I can tell you that they were just as enthusiastic as the pupils at Oasis Academy Shirley Park (Primary Phase). I think the internet's kittens will be in safe hands going forward.
Tony Parkin, former head of ICT development at the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust (The Schools Network) and now an independent consultant, describes himself as a 'disruptive nostalgist'.