Math, education, and the commons

I’m thinking about math, and games, and open source.

Some of my key thoughts, and then how I’m trying to fit them together.

1. jQuery is the ideal language for educational games.


First, because jQuery is cross-platform. I can play jQuery Tetris on my Linux system, my Mac, my wife’s Windows system, and my Android phone — all with no problem, and all without requiring additional downloads or twiddling of any kind. The same cannot be said of games written in C, or pyGame, or Java, or Flash.

Second, because educational games can be very useful without being very complex. They need to be just fun enough to engage the player’s attention, but they don’t need to be all-singing, all-dancing graphics powerhouses. For pedagogical value, it’s all about addictive gameplay that incents the desired learning behaviors. Which means that the inherent limit to the complexity of a jQuery game is not actually a limitation in this case — it’s an advantage.

Third, jQuery has a great plug-in framework, and interesting plug-ins are starting to emerge for gameplay — like sprites, and sidescrolling, and even mini-RPG engines. I envision an assessment plug-in as well, which would allow the capture of game data and saving that data via AJAX calls to a server of some type — maybe even a Moodle server. Or, for that matter, an OLPC School Server.

Fourth, I believe that there will be a *lot* of jQuery programmers in the future. There are already some *really* cool little jQuery games out there, and because it’s trivial to get the code for a jQuery game, I believe that we’ll see lots of derivative works (properly licensed or not), lots of best practice sharing, and a broad ecosystem around jQuery. Which means that it will be easier to recruit potential developers to write free educational games, because (a) more people will have these skills, and (b) more people will want to develop these skills, because (c) jQuery skills will be *extremely* marketable in the future, and (d) the barrier to entry for learning jQuery is way lower: all you need is Firefox and Firebug.

When I first conceived of the Fourth Grade Math project, I imagined tons of games written in pyGame, because they would run best on Sugar.

To my good friends at Sugar Labs: how much of the great work that you all do is dedicated to maintaining the Sugar platform, and how much of it is dedicated to creating new activities that have demonstrated pedagogical value? With limited cycles for building innovate and compelling experiences for kids, how are those cycles best spent?

I now believe, strongly, that jQuery is the better answer — and I’m trying to learn it as fast as I can. Since I’m never been exactly a stud coder, that process is going more slowly than I’d like. But learning new things is fun. 🙂

2. Online K12 educational sites based on curriculum frameworks are accelerating — but they are walled gardens, and we can do better.

I posited that Fourth Grade Math would be successful if we could create an entire set of games that satisfied an entire Fourth Grade Math curriculum.

Well, sites like IXL are already taking this approach, and they’re absolutely crushing it. IXL has done an outstanding job of creating their own framework for math skills, and mapping that framework to the curriculum standards of every state in the US. Exactly the right approach, and extremely focused.

The problem, of course, is that the activities themselves are all paywalled away, and you have to pay to be a member of the site to play with the activities. Nothing wrong with that; I expect that they may do a pretty good business — they can capture data, do analysis, provide a unified experience, all good service-related stuff. But as with all closed models, the number of activities they can provide are limited to the number of developers they can hire.

It makes it clear to me that the model we discussed — building fun activities, aligning those activities to well-known and well-researched curriculum standards — is the correct model.

Our goal should be to build a highly modular open implementation around that model to compete with the closed models. That modular implementation should also incorporate open web-based standards for assessment of those activities.

3. We need to build an infrastructure of participation for such an effort.

Where’s the place where an aspiring jQuery Educational Game Developer can go to help?  Where’s the list of games that needs to be written?  Where’s the set of games that already exists?  What are the best jQuery libraries for this task or that task?  Where are the cool graphics?  I’m a teacher and I’ve got a great idea for an educational game: where do I find a geek to help me with that idea?

These answers don’t exist yet — but they will.

4. Now is the time to push the envelope.

The recent article in the New York Times about Open Educational Resources is a must-read. The lesson: OER is hot right now. The Hewlett Foundation and the Gates Foundation are both lining up resources to fund the development of OER.

Absolutely key to understand: there is a huge difference between “Online Educational Resources” and “Open Educational Resources,” and the builders of the walled gardens will work hard to blur those lines. There’s nothing wrong with innovative, high-quality, single-vendor online education — but open ecosystems just have a fundamentally higher capacity to drive innovation, once those ecosystems reach a critical mass.

So I’m thinking about how we achieve that critical mass. And in the near future, I’ll be thinking about it, and talking about it, a lot.

A whole lot.

It starts with me learning jQuery. 🙂

Thanks, John Resig, for making it all possible. I wish I could be at RIT to catch your upcoming talk, but I’ll catch you next time.

Also: I’m thinking that having jQuery educational game hackfests would be tons of fun. If you’re interested in that idea, hit me back.

Also: I’m now hanging out on a new IRC channel: #oercommons on freenode.  If you’re interested in this topic, come and say hello.

Math, education, and the commons

3 thoughts on “Math, education, and the commons

  1. Hi,

    I was having pretty much the same line of thoughts. Let’s face it, most educators don’t want to use python to edit learning activities. Even the ones that are technically savvy enough don’t really have the time.

    I have created an exercist project on github. There is only some info on the project for now. I am hoping to have some code / assets uploaded by the end of the month.

    I am working on the architecture for now. I welcome activity plugins. I have created a second github project for this exercist-widgeds.

    Contribution / Participation welcome 🙂

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