CASTLE adds 3 new blog partners!

As part of our never-ending quest to tap into the potential of social media to enhance the practice of school administrators (and the university programs that prepare them), I am pleased to announce that CASTLE has added three new blogs to its portfolio. Two of the three blogs have been in existence for a long while; the third is a new blog by a faculty colleague.

Are we trying to become the Weblogs, Inc. or Gawker Media (or Education Week) of the edublogosphere? No, not exactly. But we ARE trying to assemble a portfolio of blogs that meet the various technology and/or leadership needs of practicing school leaders.

Our blogs

Here are the blogs that we’ve initiated to date (and their topical focus):

  1. Dangerously Irrelevant (technology, leadership, and school reform)
  2. LeaderTalk (school leadership; group blog)
  3. Edjurist (school law; group blog)
  4. 1to1 Schools (1:1 laptop programs; group blog)

To this mix, we’ve now added the following (which fill in a few significant topical areas in which we were lacking)…

5. Virtual High School Meanderings (online schooling)

Dr. Michael Barbour, an Assistant Professor at Wayne State University, has been blogging about online schooling for years. As you’ll see if you read it for a while, if it has to do with online schooling, you’ll likely find it at Michael’s blog. Michael posts A LOT; the comprehensiveness of information he provides is astounding. Michael also maintains a virtual schooling wiki or you can follow him on Twitter. Michael’s blog soon will be renamed Virtual School Meanderings to reflect the growth of online schooling in earlier grades. 

Here are some representative posts to get you started:

6. Educational Games Research (educational gaming)

John Rice is an educator, author, and speaker, as well as a doctoral student at the University of North Texas, who has been blogging about educational gaming since February 2007. I am a learner in the area of educational gaming so I always gain a lot from John’s posts. John does a nice job of looking at K-12 and higher education and also includes a post now and then on corporate simulations, serious gaming, and the like.

Here are some representative posts to get you started:

7. School Finance 101 (school finance / policy)

I have known Dr. Bruce Baker, school finance professor extraordinaire, for many years. Bruce is a fantastic scholar. His interests extend far beyond school finance to include a variety of policy and leadership issues. Those of us in educational leadership academic circles know that Bruce is not afraid to take on the establishment and confront uncomfortable political and educational truths. I was delighted to see that Bruce started blogging more extensively last fall and was even more pleased when he agreed to join us. Bruce writes about deep, significant school funding and/or policy issues, but does so in a way that’s accessible to those of us who aren’t experts in this area. You also can find Bruce on Twitter.

Here are some representative posts to get you started:

I encourage you to subscribe to all three of these blogs for a while. There is some really important information and thinking coming out of all three of these channels. I can guarantee that you’ll learn a lot and gain some valuable resources for your own work.

Next steps

What lies ahead for the CASTLE blogs? Well, we will be shifting a couple of our existing blogs over to WordPress, so you’ll see some visual changes and added functionality in the next few months. We’re going to add some new authors to our group blogs, particularly LeaderTalk and 1to1 Schools. And we’re in conversations with our sponsor, the University Council for Educational Administration, about initiating a blog that deals with school leadership for social justice. If you’ve got some other suggestions for us, or know of a blog that might be a good addition to our portfolio, let me know!

Happy reading!

Do most educational games suck?

Since my preview of Conspiracy Code: U.S. History at NECC, I’ve been thinking again about educational games…

Here are a bunch of screen shots of different online games for learning. I found them by typing into Google variations of learning games, educational games, learning games high school, educational games middle school, and so on. Most of these appear to be aimed at kids of middle or high school age.

FunBrain Math Baseball


PBS Kids You’re in Charge


Quiz Hub U.S. History Timeline Quiz


Math Playground Math TV


UPDATE: The creator of this would like me to note that Math TV is a 'learning activity' rather than an educational 'game.' See the comments below for more on this.

eSchoolOnline eMath Pretest


Asian Countries – Level Seven


Hotmath Number Cop


Teach-nology Diner Dash


CoolMath Pool Geometry 2


Eat or Be Eaten


Just from a graphics standpoint, I have to wonder how interesting these games are to preteens and teens when the games below are more along the lines of what they see at home.

Grand Theft Auto IV


Madden NFL ‘09


Elder Scrolls: Oblivion


Super Mario Galaxy


Nancy Drew: Ransom of the Seven Ships




Plants vs. Zombies


Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time


So I’ve got some questions…

  1. Does the quality of the graphics matter when it comes to educational games? Or is the quality of the learning experience enough?
  2. Speaking of the learning experience, just how bad are most of these so-called ‘educational games?’ I wasn’t too impressed with the games shown above. In terms of gaming complexity, many of them are using pretty simplistic techniques to try and reach what I’m guessing are fairly-savvy students. Also, many of them seemed to be games from many years ago that still are being pitched to educators and adolescents. I found two of the learning games as links from a high school web site (Asian Countries – Level Seven and Eat or Be Eaten), which made me feel really sad for the students who were in that school.
  3. Maybe it’s completely unfair to compare online learning games with commercial games that are downloadable or on CD-ROM/DVD. So what is out there that’s comparable in the commercial downloadable/DVD educational games sector? Anything good? Vendors, if you think you’ve got educational games that are worth looking at, feel free to comment!

Your thoughts?

NECC – My adventures with Horse & Hound magazine: Florida Virtual School, Achieve3000

A few days before NECC I was invited by a publicist to interview Julie Young, the Executive Director of the Florida Virtual School (FLVS), and also speak with the folks from Achieve3000. I accepted because I’ve always wanted the chance to talk with Julie. I had no idea in advance that I would end up having a Notting Hill Horse & Hound magazine-type experience (and, yes, I was Hugh Grant).

Florida Virtual School

I knock on a door and am quickly ushered into a hotel suite. I meet and shake hands with Ben Noel, CEO of 360Ed, as he walks out the door. Then I am offered a beverage, plunked onto a couch, handed a packet of publicity materials, and given 30 minutes to talk with Julie and Andy Ross, VP of Global Services for FLVS. The topic: FLVS’ new online video game / American History course, Conspiracy Code. I’m a little bit disoriented but gamely dive in…

Conspiracy Code runs on a custom gaming engine designed specifically for FLVS by 360Ed. It cost $1.5 million to develop; costs were shared equally by FLVS and 360Ed and spread over three years ($250K per partner per year). Two hundred FLVS students are in the game now. Several other districts are piloting it. Conspiracy Code is designed to be an integrated, full-year course / gaming experience. Students take about 90 to 100 hours to complete the game. They dip in and out of the gaming engine throughout the year, assembling clues and completing missions. The game includes 51 assessments (both oral and written), 270 mini-games, numerous interrogations, 30 ‘agent eliminations,’ and 371 clues. Teachers monitor student progress; each of the 10 missions takes 2 to 3 weeks. Most students spend about an hour a day working for the class, some of which is in the game environment. Historical facts are interwoven throughout the gaming experience and student-teacher discussion. Sometimes the game requires students to do outside research to complete assignments and proceed forward.

The first evaluation report on the Conspiracy Code is due in a couple of weeks but anecdotal evidence looks extremely promising. The students who seem to like the game the most are the ones who ‘hate history.’ The game requires students to write, create data maps, make timelines, ask questions, make associations, solve problems, etc. Students must apply their knowledge and facts in a number of different ways to be successful. Some ‘barriers’ were put in place to ensure that students didn’t play more than work (e.g., students can’t move forward until they work on their data map, write in their journal, get feedback from their teacher, etc.).
The first two teachers were ‘gaming people.’ It still took them 2 to 3 months to get comfortable with teaching this way. All FLVS teachers receive extensive professional development before they’re allowed to teach. The first few teachers will train those that follow. There is a ‘Teaching Online 101’ course plus a separate gaming module for Conspiracy Code.
Now that the gaming engine has been built, FLVS will use it for other games/courses; I also suggested that FLVS release it to students to design their own games. The next Conspiracy Code game will target reading and comes out in August. All in all, it appears to be a solid attempt at integrating gaming into the education experience. It will be interesting to see the evaluation results when they come out. FLVS is a data-driven organization and is committed to reworking the game/course as need be to ensure students are both engaged AND learning whatever facts they need for success in the standardized-testing era.


Throughout our conversation, people are coming in and out of a door to another room in the suite (reporters? other bloggers?). When my 30 minutes with Julie and Andy are up, I’m swooped into that room, replaced by someone else who gets my spot on the FLVS couch. I’m handed another publicity packet, do the quick meet-and-greet, and away we go…

Achieve3000 is a ‘differentiated instruction solution.’ In essence, students are given an article to read on the computer that’s aligned with their reading level. The company recommends a minimum of 1 or 2 articles a week but there are articles available every day if desired. Great care has been taken to avoid stigmatization of low-level readers. For example, even though the article text and corresponding assignments are geared to students’ individual reading level, the overall layout of the article, font size, graphics, etc. all are extremely similar to what other higher-level readers in the class are experiencing. There is little to no difference in reading experience; it’s actually fairly difficult to tell at a glance at what level another student is working. The student reading at first-grade level also is reading the same content as her peer at the ninth-grade level. This allows low-level readers to still contribute to class discussions. All of this is in contrast to schools’ typical practice of having separate books or textbooks – often on separate topics – or pullout programs for struggling readers.

Results so far seem to be impressive. Expected student growth in a year is 46 lexile points. Students who read one article a week average 102 lexile point gains; students who read two articles per week average 124. The program accommodates Spanish-speaking students (and, soon, those that speak Haitian Creole). The New York City and Miami-Dade school districts (as well as the State of Hawaii) are using Achieve3000. Average gains in one year for ESL/ELL students are 166 lexile points (compared to 27 points expected). Good results also are being seen with students with special needs (see, e.g., the Arrowhead (WI) Schools).

Achieve3000 is working with the Associated Press and now has an archive of over 16,000 nonfiction articles. Next steps for the company are to 1) create a number of specific science units, and 2) identify and/or write articles that target specific career clusters and can be aligned with the WorkKeys job skill assessment program.

Final impressions

My time is up. I’m whisked out of the back room toward the hotel suite door. Julie and Andy are talking with someone new on the couch and I’m soon in the hallway, left at last to collect my thoughts. As I walk toward the elevator to return to my own hotel room, I’m left with one thought: Man, was that strange. Quite informative, but strange nonetheless. Who knows what else goes on in the back hallways, hotel suites, and meeting rooms of NECC?!

Disclosure: I received no incentives from either organization (other than a thumb drive from FLVS that contained the above Conspiracy Code materials) and was not pressured to cover them in any particular way. In short, I believe I was treated much like any media representative, despite being ‘just a blogger.’

2009 Game Education Summit begins today!


The 2009 Game Education Summit begins today in Pittsburgh. If you’re not attending, the keynote presentations will be streamed live and also will be available afterward. The summit looks awesome; it’s “the only conference where the video game industry and academics from around the world can come together to have meaningful conversations about the future of game development.”

Wish I could be there! Maybe someone’s liveblogging or there’s a Twitter hashtag for the event?

Help wanted – Using online games in K-12 classrooms

Each month, Cable in the Classroom Magazine has a page called InterActive that asks educators to answer a question related to the issue’s theme. The magazine usually prints at least five answers from readers.

The magazine editors have requested my help finding contributors for the February question:

How have you used an online game to enhance your students’ classroom experience?

If you’re a K-12 teacher to whom this question applies, please . If you know a teacher who’s done this, please pass this post along. Thanks!

Not so irrelevant 012

Three great questions

I especially like the last of these three questions from Rodney Trice. We should be asking teachers and principals that question more often (and just that directly).

  • How do you intend to bring the global community into your classroom?
  • How will you prepare students for a future that is relatively unknown?
  • How you will eliminate the racial predictability of achievement outcomes in your classroom?

This just in: Teenagers play video games!

All kidding aside, the latest report from the amazing Pew Internet & American Life Project confirms that kids – even girls! – are up to their eyeballs in video games.

We’ll stick to the tried and (not) true

Nope, sorry. iPods are not allowed. Back to the old way. Too bad it doesn’t work as well. Gotta do it anyway. Oh, and I love how the music players are categorically, by definition, a ‘distraction’ (if not in actuality). Who needs reality when we have these little educational policy fantasy worlds that we can create for ourselves?

Throw da bums out!

After attempts to bring in turnaround experts didn’t work, the state of Maryland is increasingly leaning toward completely restructuring schools that are academically unsuccessful. State schools Superintendent Nancy Grasmick says:

We are very comfortable being more aggressive about this. We have seen much better results [when the staff is replaced].

Blog like a farmer

I ran across an old post by Mike Sansone, one of my Iowa blogging buddies. I really like his metaphor that blogging should be like farming.


I bet parents and community members would really like to see scorecards like this one (maybe with different data) for their local schools. I know some schools and districts already do this. Hopefully they use line graphs rather than tables of numbers. Could you tell the essential story of a school district with 10 key, well-done graphs? I bet you could!

No writing in journalism class?

Check out this excellent article about the NYU journalism student who got in trouble for blogging about her class. [hat tip to Tim Stahmer]

I got no money, honey

Did you catch Edutopia’s advice on how to innovate without extra money or support?

Spend hours on content you can find with Google in 3 seconds!

One of my favorite things about Wes Fryer is his ability to highlight the ridiculous. I also enjoy his irreverance (“Behold! I hold aloft the holy words!”), particularly when I have the same experience at my kids’ school.

Speaking of Google…

Finally, I’m digging Google Chrome. it’s now my default browser and I’m using Firefox less and less (and I love Firefox). Chrome is much faster. I also like that each tab is a separate process; I have yet to have a browser hang…