Technology in School

Disney 'Connected Learning' Aims To Infuse Games with Learning

By Betsy Corcoran     Feb 6, 2013

Disney 'Connected Learning' Aims To Infuse Games with Learning

When Disney rolls something out, there's a fanfare oftrumpets, a red carpet and sometimes even a glittering burst of fireworks.

Bycontrast, the launch of the Disney Connected Learning program has been assubtle as, oh, say a green screen.

Sixyears ago, Disney began exploring how use its considerable design,entertainment and financial muscle in the "learning" arena. Itdecided to try to create games that children would find genuinely entertainingthat were nonetheless built on legitimate learning "goals."

Overthe past two years, it has quietly been refining eight games based on learningobjectives in its wildly popular online site for kids, Club Penguin. Several ofthe games have been hits. "Pufflescape," for instance, is the secondmost popular game in Club Penguin. More than 30 million children have played itover the past two years.

"No child should have to choose between a 'learning'game and 'fun' game," says Starr Long, who is executive producer of DisneyConnected Learning.

Whether the students are learning anything deeperthan they do when they play the purely "entertaining" games in ClubPenguin, however, is still anybody's guess.

Disney,on the other hand, has learned a lot in the process. This has been a longproject: After a slow two-year start, in 2009 it recruited top talent in themassively multiplayer online industry--Starr Long, who started his career asdirector of Ultima Online, now the longest-running MMO in history. It convened ateam of more than a dozen well-regarded educators including Stanford's Roy Peaand the University of Georgia's John Olive and Linda Labbo. Together, theyidentified 2,500 learning goals, or targets--crucial concepts that studentsneed to understand by the fifth grade. They worked through the ideas until theyhad learning concepts for students from preK through 5th grade. The goals couldnot contradict the Common Core standards, noted Long, but they also had to berelevant around the globe. "One woman even wrote a dissertation onthis," Starr says.

Overthe next four years, Long's team built a programming environment to support howto connect those learning goals to "events" or actions. They also builta developer's platform, a parent-facing app, the digital plumbing to reportchildren's progress through the games to that app and so on. They evaluated between20 and 40 game prototypes. Two years ago, they began beta testing their eight topgame picks. 

Currentlythree of the 26 or so games in Club Penguin incorporate these learning goals:Pufflescape, Jelly Bean Counter and Bits & Bolts. (Another five games areslated to go online in April.)

InPufflescape, a creature (a Puffle) bounces and glides through an obstaclecourses, collecting prize tokens and unlocking higher levels.  

ThePuffles interact with their environment according to the rules of Newtonian mechanics. Different levels of the game encode or represent different learninggoals.  

Meanwhile,about 30,000 parents of those Penguin-playing kids have download a Facebook appthat creates a "profile" as the kid plays through the games, lettingparents know what learning concepts their kids have played through. Playthrough a level and the app will share that you and your Puffle haveexperienced simple levers or more complex ones. "We want to empower theparents," Long says. "There's a real need for parents to connect withkids who are living a different life than we did."

(Parentsget other benefits from their Facebook app, too, such as learning"secret" codes that they can share with kids who get stuck on games.)

Thethree learning games currently in action in Club Penguin echo familiar gameplay themes that were pioneering in the likes of Donkey Kong and even Tetris.

Butthese are just the beginning.

Longsays that Disney will soon be releasing five preschool titles for mobileplatforms, created from scratch, that use Disney characters such as Cinderella,Toy Story, Ariel, Cars and Fairies--and are based on the scaffold of learninggoals created by the team of educators. "We want to build content andlong-term, want to work with other to build content" based on theConnected Learning platform, Long says. Disney has not yet worked out thespecifics of its partner strategy.

Butwill kids absorb mechanics or the rules of motion from their Puffles orwhatever characters are in the game? Will they understand that the rules ofphysics will dictate how a creature will bounce or if it can catch a lever inmotion at a certain moment? Or, skeptics will ask, couldn't kids just gooutside and throw a baseball at the roof of the house and watch it fall?

It'stoo soon to tell what kids will learn from the games, Long says.

"We'renot making any claims about what they're learning," he observes. "Weare just saying that the child is exposed to the concepts that are inherent inthe game play."

Manyedu-game companies shy away from any efforts to do rigorous testing of how muchlearning might happen in their game. Long isn't daunted by the problem; hebelieves that Disney needs more data--say, enough games that at least half thelearning objectives were covered by games. So far, the games constructed cover less than 5% of theconcepts, he says.

Whathe has learned is this: "You can make these games as compelling andexciting as one that don't have learning concepts embedded in them."

 

Technology in School

Disney 'Connected Learning' Aims To Infuse Games with Learning

By Betsy Corcoran     Feb 6, 2013

Disney 'Connected Learning' Aims To Infuse Games with Learning

When Disney rolls something out, there's a fanfare oftrumpets, a red carpet and sometimes even a glittering burst of fireworks.

Bycontrast, the launch of the Disney Connected Learning program has been assubtle as, oh, say a green screen.

Sixyears ago, Disney began exploring how use its considerable design,entertainment and financial muscle in the "learning" arena. Itdecided to try to create games that children would find genuinely entertainingthat were nonetheless built on legitimate learning "goals."

Overthe past two years, it has quietly been refining eight games based on learningobjectives in its wildly popular online site for kids, Club Penguin. Several ofthe games have been hits. "Pufflescape," for instance, is the secondmost popular game in Club Penguin. More than 30 million children have played itover the past two years.

"No child should have to choose between a 'learning'game and 'fun' game," says Starr Long, who is executive producer of DisneyConnected Learning.

Whether the students are learning anything deeperthan they do when they play the purely "entertaining" games in ClubPenguin, however, is still anybody's guess.

Disney,on the other hand, has learned a lot in the process. This has been a longproject: After a slow two-year start, in 2009 it recruited top talent in themassively multiplayer online industry--Starr Long, who started his career asdirector of Ultima Online, now the longest-running MMO in history. It convened ateam of more than a dozen well-regarded educators including Stanford's Roy Peaand the University of Georgia's John Olive and Linda Labbo. Together, theyidentified 2,500 learning goals, or targets--crucial concepts that studentsneed to understand by the fifth grade. They worked through the ideas until theyhad learning concepts for students from preK through 5th grade. The goals couldnot contradict the Common Core standards, noted Long, but they also had to berelevant around the globe. "One woman even wrote a dissertation onthis," Starr says.

Overthe next four years, Long's team built a programming environment to support howto connect those learning goals to "events" or actions. They also builta developer's platform, a parent-facing app, the digital plumbing to reportchildren's progress through the games to that app and so on. They evaluated between20 and 40 game prototypes. Two years ago, they began beta testing their eight topgame picks. 

Currentlythree of the 26 or so games in Club Penguin incorporate these learning goals:Pufflescape, Jelly Bean Counter and Bits & Bolts. (Another five games areslated to go online in April.)

InPufflescape, a creature (a Puffle) bounces and glides through an obstaclecourses, collecting prize tokens and unlocking higher levels.  

ThePuffles interact with their environment according to the rules of Newtonian mechanics. Different levels of the game encode or represent different learninggoals.  

Meanwhile,about 30,000 parents of those Penguin-playing kids have download a Facebook appthat creates a "profile" as the kid plays through the games, lettingparents know what learning concepts their kids have played through. Playthrough a level and the app will share that you and your Puffle haveexperienced simple levers or more complex ones. "We want to empower theparents," Long says. "There's a real need for parents to connect withkids who are living a different life than we did."

(Parentsget other benefits from their Facebook app, too, such as learning"secret" codes that they can share with kids who get stuck on games.)

Thethree learning games currently in action in Club Penguin echo familiar gameplay themes that were pioneering in the likes of Donkey Kong and even Tetris.

Butthese are just the beginning.

Longsays that Disney will soon be releasing five preschool titles for mobileplatforms, created from scratch, that use Disney characters such as Cinderella,Toy Story, Ariel, Cars and Fairies--and are based on the scaffold of learninggoals created by the team of educators. "We want to build content andlong-term, want to work with other to build content" based on theConnected Learning platform, Long says. Disney has not yet worked out thespecifics of its partner strategy.

Butwill kids absorb mechanics or the rules of motion from their Puffles orwhatever characters are in the game? Will they understand that the rules ofphysics will dictate how a creature will bounce or if it can catch a lever inmotion at a certain moment? Or, skeptics will ask, couldn't kids just gooutside and throw a baseball at the roof of the house and watch it fall?

It'stoo soon to tell what kids will learn from the games, Long says.

"We'renot making any claims about what they're learning," he observes. "Weare just saying that the child is exposed to the concepts that are inherent inthe game play."

Manyedu-game companies shy away from any efforts to do rigorous testing of how muchlearning might happen in their game. Long isn't daunted by the problem; hebelieves that Disney needs more data--say, enough games that at least half thelearning objectives were covered by games. So far, the games constructed cover less than 5% of theconcepts, he says.

Whathe has learned is this: "You can make these games as compelling andexciting as one that don't have learning concepts embedded in them."

 

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