Big Thinkers: Sasha Barab on New-Media Engagement

A professor of learning sciences at Indiana University explains how new-media literacies are creating new opportunities for student participation.

A professor of learning sciences at Indiana University explains how new-media literacies are creating new opportunities for student participation.

Release Date: 5/27/09

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Quest Atlantis: An international learning and teaching project that uses a three-dimensional multiuser environment to immerse children in educational tasks.


Discussion Questions

1. How does Quest Atlantis use games to teach kids? How is this approach different than other forms of learning?

2. How can digital media give kids new ways to express themselves?

3. Games give kids a sense of accomplishment, where failure motivates them to solve problems. How is this medium different than most classroom environments?

4. Are textbooks a relevant curriculum tool in the 21st century?

5. What can parents and teachers do right now to use games for learning?

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Big Thinkers: Sasha Barab on New-Media Engagement (Transcript)

My name is Sasha Barab. I’m a professor of Learning Sciences at Indiana University, in Bloomington, Indiana. And I guess I'm here to share our experiences in getting kids engaged with new media literacies. What does it mean to bring these new kinds of media to schools, and what are the opportunities and challenges in doing so? I am also principal investigator of the Quest Atlantis Project, and we are worldwide now. We are a multi-user, 3-D virtual environment that works to position academic content in ways that are interesting and engaging to kids. So, rather than lecturing a kid about erosion or water quality or pH levels, we immerse them in a game, where they're running around, trying to figure out why fish are dying. And the other, non-player characters that we design in the game treat them with admiration and hope, and saying that we're really glad you're here, and, you know, we don't know why fish are dying, and we need you to help figure out why. So it's a very different kind of positioning, where, instead of treating these kids when they come in as people who are ignorant in their job, and education is to get them smart enough to demonstrate some sort of high score on a test, our goal is to position them as really empowered kids who get to feel: what is it like to try on the role of a scientist, and to see themselves as people who could possible have that future. But, where we couldn't do that in the real world for a 10-year-old, in a game, we can create a storyline in which they are the hero, and that the hero is a scientist, or a doctor, or a reporter, or an accountant. And they get a chance to see why the stuff they're learning in school could matter.

When we look at how kids are being positioned to engage, to tinker with, to explore, to represent themselves, to pursue their passions with these new media technology tools, and then we look at how disciplinary content of school is being positioned, we have a real disconnect. And we wonder why when kids leave school, they run home, jump in these new media where they have agency, they have consequentiality, they have people taking up what they're doing, they have a legitimate role for using these. So, one of the things that media has become is no longer a place for me just simply to just sit back on the couch, and watch someone else's stories. When we look at these videos that you're all producing with these kids, we see, you know, they're there to make comic books about things that they care about. They're there to make videos and movies about things that they're passionate about. And then, they'll learn the tools, and what does it mean to be literate and develop representations that other people will take up, because they're advancing their own agendas. And, what's exciting about this world is ultimately what determines whether something is valuable is how the next community takes it up; not because the teacher's giving me an "F" or an "A."

Teachers have been really enthusiastic about different ways of meeting standards. So, one of the things we thought was -- well, first of all, we thought that meeting standards was gonna totally corrupt anything cool that we could do. And what we found is that the standards are usually set out in a way that they were well-intentioned when they were designed. There's nothing wrong with a kid being able to demonstrate that they can, you know, write a persuasive essay. It's a wonderful skill to have. The problem is that the spaces in which they are -- that are available to the teacher and to the kids in the schools are very uninteresting for kids, and very limiting. And so, what we can do is we can take a space in which we put the kid in the middle of a modern version of Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein," in which they're having to decide: should the doctor be allowed to continue doing his medical research in order to come up with a cure for, you know, a plague in the town? And, all of a sudden, kids are very excited to learn about persuasive writing because they see their role as to convince the people in the town to allow him to continue or not. And then, we can do things like add game metrics, where if a kid grabs a quote that says this, you know, he should be allowed to continue his research because research on the one creation is more important, or less important, than saving the town of 10,000 people. And so, all of a sudden, persuasive writing becomes a tool in these spaces for transforming them. And it's really hard to do in the context of a classroom. So, we've found that kids are very excited to kind of use what they're learning in schools to solve useful things. And their energy gets teachers very excited, as well.

I think print-based literacy and textbooks, as they were traditionally framed, were really powerful for a long time. And actually being able to get all that information into a classroom, especially when not a lot of people knew, and it was really hard to help someone understand the idea of erosion, or metaphor, or distance-rate-time. Having that all in a textbook that I could bring in and have as a resource as a teacher, and having these other people who spent a lot of time thinking deeply about disciplinary content was really powerful for a long period. But, we're at a different time. We're at a point where it's not so much about getting information as it's about using information to accomplish particular ends. And, so one of the things that's really exciting to me about games is when I start a game, I'm immediately positioned with a purpose. And my purpose is usually to help transform some situation that's in a problematic state. And what that requires me to do is to go understand what are the rules of this world, what are the laws that affect it, when I do this, what happens? And when we think about, you know, when I play Trauma Center, for example, and I'm a doctor, and in a moment, I'm actually experimenting with surgery, and trying to feel what it's like to be a doctor. In a game, I'm considered someone who has a really powerful role to do something significant with my time. And that significance requires that I learn a bunch of things so that I can do that thing even better. And what's really exciting is when you have kids spending lots of time trying to transform a game situation, whether it's get my little Pokemon character to level-up by beating these other Pokemen, or whether it's doing surgery in a successful way, or whether it's to save a town by gathering up resources, and hooking the well, and, you know, getting the oils appropriate, accessing the finances. And, what's really exciting is when I do that, at the end, I get to feel like I accomplished something. I am told by everyone, "Thank you for what you did, or didn't do." And you have kids logging online, trying to look at: how can I do that better? And failure is motivating. It's not something to be avoided. I'm allowed to tinker, I'm allowed to try being something I couldn't normally be. And if we limit kids in schools to being just ignorant children, vessels to be filled with things, we're not creating futures for them at all.

One of the problems for teachers that they're facing is that the type of tools that they're being given to equip kids to participate in kind of these evolving new literacies are not the kinds of tools that they need, or that kids are gonna be using outside of schools. So, as long as we continue to equip teachers with textbooks as the primary resources for their lessons, we don't give them -- we don't make available tools like [] has, you know, these social networking tools that he's using in his classrooms, where the computers are being made available, and software is being created specifically to give those teachers new tools to help kids engage in new kinds of literacy. We're kind of setting the teachers up for failure. We're giving them old kinds of tools, and then we're giving them expectations and outcomes that their kids are gonna be held accountable to that don't engage those kids the way that we see the fire in Cameron's belly, for example. So, I think that teachers are in a really hard, hard space. And what teachers need to start doing is advocating for themselves, advocating to parents that there is, in addition to the print-based literacies, other kinds of literacy that we need to be educating our kids in. And if we don't get parents on board, if we don't get administrators on board to appreciating that this new media literacy is what's gonna be determining these kids' future, not their ability to, you know, remember historical facts, or to recite the definition of "erosion" on a test; but actually starts getting kids to integrate literacy or different disciplinary understandings to solve meaningful problems. Getting information, memorizing facts is no longer a part of our current process. You know, I can grab my iPhone, and, within five seconds, I can get you more than you remember, probably, in your entire high school career, you know, of whether it's English, Social Studies, you know, whatever content it is. So, I think teachers need to become advocates for their own selves, and for what kids are doing outside of schools.

As long as teachers stay out of the game, we're gonna have a real problem in our hands, and we're gonna really miss an opportunity to transform schools, and we're gonna dropout rates like we see in Chicago, where you have up to 50-percent dropout rates, which is just unfathomable in this country. It's just totally unreasonable, and there has to be a point when we say, "You know what? It's not all those kids that's the problem; it's the way that we're thinking about school. It's the way that we're using textbooks. It's the resources that we're giving kids." And then, ultimately, it's the kinds of things that we're allowing kids to do. And, as long as they don't care about those kinds of things, then we're gonna lose more kids in our educational system. So, I'd really like to see teachers start to appreciate the power of what game has to offer, and then work with parents, administrators, and local companies to start to use that to develop resources that they can use to prepare their kids for the 21st Century.


Video Credits

Produced and Directed by

  • Ken Ellis

Coordinating Producer

  • Lauren Rosenfeld

Production Support

  • Amy Erin Borovoy

Production Assistant

  • Doug Keely

Camera Crew

  • Sam Painter
  • David Mitlyng

Senior Video Editor

  • Karen Sutherland

This 2009 work by The George Lucas Educational Foundation is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Creative Commons License

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Thank you Sasha Barab, for saying this all in a way that is persuasive - hopefully persuasive enough to get schools and other institutions on board! I work with elderly, disabled, and homeless adults - and we are fighting the same uphill battle against outdated systems and ways of doing things at Nursing-Care Facilities and Shelters in the USA. At, we are working to get modern technology resources into the hands of "Activity Directors" (a.k.a. Adult-Ed Electives Teachers who work with groups of clients and residents in nursing-care facilities and shelters) - so they can help their clients and residents do more than just watch TV too... so their participants can have the same ability to access the world of technology... and be heroes of change... and serve their communities... and share their ideas and solutions too!!!

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