Bringing fun into teaching with technology

Ben Davies

Ben Davies is project manager for English at language learning app Babbel, developing innovative and effective English language learning courses for the Babbel app. Previously, Ben taught languages in Secondary schools in the UK, and English language courses to adults in Spain. The Babbel language learning app spans 14 different languages, with bite-sized lessons designed by language experts. 73% of surveyed customers feel that they’d be able to hold a conversation within five hours of using the app.

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Originally published on 5th April 2016 Originally published on 5th April 2016 To celebrate the 2015/16 school year, we're republishing the most popular article of each month. Today: April's top read. We'd love to know what you think, and if you've used these ideas yourself in the classroom, let us know in the comments section!

The lessons that I enjoy teaching the most are the ones where the children are enjoying their learning. This enjoyment can stem from various sources, including using their interests as an impetus, but always occurs in lessons where I feel secure in my subject knowledge. This security allows me to test new ideas, to give children greater ownership of the lesson and to roll with it if / when things don’t go as planned. For me, this is most evident in my lessons that use technology.

When planning for such lessons, my starting point is the knowledge and skills the pupils will be developing. I then think about the end-of-unit activity that will allow pupils to apply these skills and knowledge. Using children’s interests, cultural references and their ideas can fire enthusiasm in those who might otherwise have been disinterested and give children a reason to persevere and solve problems. Below are some examples of how I have attempted to bring an element of fun into lessons involving technology.

X-Ray Goggles, part of Mozilla's set of free web making tools, is a great way of introducing children to HTML. Once the goggles are installed and activated, the user can view and identify the language used to construct the page. More fun is the ability to edit this language in order to change the text and images on the page to ones of the pupils choosing, before publishing their hacked webpage (albeit at a different URL). Children have changed celebrity-based websites and news pages to create pages that trick their siblings and parents. Once pupils have learnt how to modify the language, they can use this in other curriculum areas to create fake news reports: the simple layout of CBBC's Newsround page makes it an ideal candidate for hacking. We've written reports on the official opening of the Pharaoh Khufu’s new pyramid; the Battle of Britain; Henry VIII's various weddings.

It would be prudent to offer a word of warning at this point on how, no matter how ridiculous the claim, children accept information presented on the world-wide-web as the truth. For April Fools’ Day, I created a page explaining how all the leaders of the main political parties were promising to ban Minecraft in the upcoming general election: within seconds there were tears!

Creating a Simon Cowell insult generator in Scratch is an activity that has never failed to engage children. The first part of the task is for children to watch The X Factor and compile a list of Cowell's best put-downs. Pupils then created several lists of Simon's best insults and created a program that questions the user and randomly selects an insult from the different list. Once running, the user is presented with a series of personalised insults from Simon.

This has also been a hit on open days with the children encouraging parents to audition for The X-Factor and, in turn, get insulted by Simon Cowell.

Last year, we took the insult generator a step further and transferred the program to our newly purchased Ohbot Robot. The children adapted the program to work on the graphical programming language (based on Blockly) that Ohbot uses. There was plenty of value in this task as children worked out the limitations of the software they were using. It was interesting to see pupils’ responses to their ‘failures,’ as the motivation of programming the robot meant that they adopted a positive mindset and saw failures and problems to overcome. The program the children created used a video camera to identify when a face was present, before randomly selecting an insult for the robot to say. For the remainder of the year, I used this activity as a reminder of showing resilience when pupils did give up at the first attempt on activities in other curriculum areas and, on most occasions, it served to refocus their efforts.

boards are great devices for adding fun and simple physical computing into programming lessons. A Makey-Makey board is a circuit board that connects to a computer via a USB lead. Once connected, certain computer inputs can be mimicked by connecting the device to electrical conductors and completing the circuit with an earth connection. There are loads of fun activities that can be used to reinforce the idea of electrical conductors and insulators.

When creating games in Scratch that respond to the keyboard inputs of the user, children design their own game controller that connects to the Makey-Makey board. This has ended up with Play-Doh controllers, small pots of washing up liquid as controllers and one group using every pupil from their table as part of the controller. When developing their understanding, pupils found online games that were compatible with and reverse-engineered existing Scratch games to work with the Makey-Makey board.

Although to the pupils these activities might have seemed to just be fun, they were required to set up the boards to work with a specific game, justify their game’s choices - including those that were incompatible - and document how they had changed existing Scratch games. While pupils’ focus was on the end product, mine remained firmly on the steps they took to get there and their reasoning for these steps. The enjoyment they derived from controlling simple games in Scratch through a controller they had made made, was transferred into enthusiasm when they came to create their own game, and again served as the motivation for some to make use of their perceived failures.

The fun technology can bring doesn’t just have to exist solely in the technology lessons. By using cross-curricular applications such as Twine, Puppet-Pals, and Book Creator, children can present their understanding in new and interesting ways while removing barriers to learning that traditional form of recording may bring. Chatterpix Kids is a free app that allows the users to record voiceovers and add these to any image. We have used this to get Isaac Newton to explain why a Jenga tower fell over, to get a Battle of Britain pilot to recount his experiences and for a host of celebrities to conduct the weekly spelling test. I think if you can get children talking positively about their weekly spelling test, then you are onto a winner.

For some children, the opportunity to use technology is a motivating factor itself, while others need to be coerced into engaging with such technologies. By creating an element of fun in these lessons, we are maximising the number of pupils who will engage with technology-based learning and the benefits it offers.

How do you engage with edtech? Share your experiences below.

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