With BETT, billed as the world’s largest technology in education event, wrapped up for another year Macworld caught up with educational software evangelist Toby Rowland, CEO of Blue Duck Education.
Trading as Mangahigh, a team of game designers and mathematicians have developed a ground-breaking suite of original maths games that promises to teach mathematics more effectively than traditional textbooks.
Q. Why is educational software such a growth area for schools and businesses such as Mangahigh?
In this digital age, students no longer relate to textbooks, in the way that their parents did, so many schools are turning to electronic resources to keep student interest levels up. Students find that working on a laptop or netbook is more exciting than reading a book, and this engagement translates into improved classroom behaviour, attention levels and ultimately, performance in exams.
Games-based learning sites such as Mangahigh go one further than standard eLearning sites, and mimic the entertainment experience of online games sites like Miniclip. This approach delivers a step-change in engagement, with students voluntarily spending up to 2 hours at a time practicing skills such as algebra. Reinforcement is the key to building useful skills in mathematics, and so schools are increasingly using games-based learning to support their students.
Q. Do you think long term Mangahigh and others are preparing young people for work and also being more confident and savvy when it comes to their digital life?
I actually think that young people don't need any assistance at all when it comes to being confident and savvy about their digital life. Our mission is to help kids to engage with their academic life, where we see them experiencing more difficulties. We use the type of games that they love to play, to get them practicing hard subjects like maths that will help them across every aspect of life from using the Internet, to writing their own online game, or building a house.
Q. And did marketing Disney Channels in the UK and Continental Europe for several years help when you were setting up Mangahigh?
I loved working at Disney, and I learned a lot about marketing to families there. But my experience at King.com is more easily translated into the academic market: King.com encourages excellence in its players, and this is what we aim to achieve at Mangahigh.
We will use techniques from the online games world to encourage positive and healthy competition between students.
Q. What do you say to those who believe young students should stick with learning traditionally with pen, paper and text book?
Sadly it just isn't working. If you look at how UK student attainment standards compare to other countries, it's clear that something needs to change. For example the UK has dropped to 24th out of 30 developed countries in the international maths leagues tables (PISA) for 11 - 16 year-olds.
One of the problems specific to maths is the way in which it is often taught without any real-world context. Take coordinate geometry as an example -how can you expect a child to understand - and therefore be interested in - how an equation could be useful to them without a real-world context that brings it to life?
Mangahigh uses a game called 'Save our Dumb Planet' in which the child has to solve an equation to correctly plot a missile trajectory and destroy a meteor about to collide with Earth. This game immediately communicates the concept and potential use of coordinate geometry in the real world.
Q, Generally what response do you get from students, parents and staff?
The response has been fantastic. We've been doing a range of structured trials in schools across the UK. At Featherstone School in Southall, students using Mangahigh spent on average 11 per cent longer doing maths work than before the trials, with 93 per cent saying they enjoyed maths more using the games, and most importantly more students made measurable progress using Mangahigh than using traditional materials. Teachers say they find it easier to keep children engaged during the full course of a maths lesson using Mangahigh.
Q. Are some students and schools more advanced when it comes to learning
Yes, some schools are definitely very digital, while others have yet to make the leap. I guess it's partly a question of funding. In the end, I believe that all schools will use online resources intensively for maths, the sciences and languages.
Q. And finally is it really possible to make learning maths entertaining and interesting?
Yes - I think Mangahigh does! Kids are harsh critics, so trust me, we would know by know if we hadn't succeeded in making it fun! But don't take my word for it - have a go on one of the games yourself.'Pyramid Panic' is my personal favourite!
(You can play games for yourself at Mangahigh.)