Explain/Teach Nearly Anything with this Hands-on Game

November 20, 2013

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cloudBoard is a new project on Kickstarter that intrigues me as it uses a physical board with puzzle-like pieces and a digital computer game component to teach various concepts, primarily to kids. I think this learning approach is ingenious, as it blends kids’ natural desire to play with (and relate to) something physical (like a classic board/puzzle game) and yet leverages the ability to drive video games, providing a rich visual element kids love. And not just kids. The guys at Digital Dream Labs have play-tested their invention with kids and adults alike, often finding that it bridges the generation gap, engaging young and old alike. Early play-testing also revealed some encouraging results with autistic individuals.

How’s it work? Players place various tiles in the cloudBoard in specific positions or sequences, and that becomes a direct link to functionality and features enabled in the video game. Repetitive play — the key to learning — is easy, accomplished by simply swapping or rearranging the pieces in the board, allowing learners to tinker with various configurations.

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3 things I love most about the cloudBoard project:

It bridges the physical and virtual. I’ve long been a believer in leveraging aspects of the physical world in explanation and teaching because people connect with physical things in a unique and memorable way. cloudBoard takes this to a whole new level, grabbing the best aspects of board and puzzle-piece games from our childhood while marrying them to what’s possible with modern digital computer technologies. And unlike the Skylanders concept, where the physical figure’s position or relationship to other figures is irrelevant, the physical cloudBoard pieces mean different things when they’re in different positions on the board.

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It’s not just a single game. Multiple games can be supported. While the Cork The Volcano game — designed to teach trial-and-error concepts, key to understanding computer programming — is the first game to be released, the Digital Dream Labs dudes have multiple other concepts in the works, including a chemisty game, a music game, and a farming game. Virtually any game can be created with the right software and new tops to the puzzle pieces. And here’s where the real extensibility of the cloudBoard concept shines…

Developers can extend it themselves.  I spoke with Justin Sabo from Digital Dream Labs, and I think this is a point worth emphasizing about their project. The game APIs will be open to those who wish program their own video game to interface with the cloudBoard hardware. And unlike some other game systems, cloudBoard is designed to run the same across many platforms (tablet, PC, etc.), extending its usefulness.

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The tops of the puzzle pieces can also be swapped with other tops, allowing the physical aspect to be ever-changable but using the original pieces. (You don’t necessarily need brand new pieces for every game; just change the toppers.) Change the pictures? Fine. Add fuzzy three-dimensional toppers? Go for it. 3D-print your own? Why not? This is part of the future vision that Justin shared with me — that what they’ve created is a platform others can easily expand upon. Who knows how many educational games could be created.

Here’s what I don’t like about the cloudBoard project:

It’s not fully funded yet.  So spread the word and head on over to the cloudBoard kickstarter page to help make it a reality.

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Explaining Programming to Kids

September 14, 2013

There’s been a lot of focus on preparing the next generation to learn to code/program. (See Code.org for starters.) And many websites have sprung up sporting interactive tutorials for hands-on learning. But what about really young kids? Is it ever too early to learn the core concepts of programming?

Dan Shapiro doesn’t think so. He took a leave of absence from his job at Google to give the world another way: a board game. His project, Robot Turtles, went up on Kickstarter last week and is gaining funding. I hope he gets everything he needs, because this is a clever approach. Give kids a fun board game with great graphics, but at the heart of learning to route the Turtles appropriately, players learn the logic for writing basic computer programs. It’s brilliant.

So if you’ve got some kids you want to introduce to programming concepts in a fun, offline format, consider supporting the Robot Turtles project. It looks like it’s going to be a reality for now, but like Dan says, it may never be in print again.

Robot Turtles board game, courtesy Kickstarter project by Dan Shapiro


Two Tweens and a Touchscreen

January 12, 2011

I often encounter a lot of people who adamantly exclaim that “young people just grow up understanding technology.” I’ve always disagreed with this statement. There’s my personal story to disprove it — how, when I was younger, I nearly missed the PC renaissance if it hadn’t been for a good friend who took me under his wing to teach me.  Secondly, the statement doesn’t make sense. (Perhaps it’s more of a wishful-thinking excuse anyway.)  No person is born understanding anything. That’s why babies cry for everything, even when they hear their own voice for the first time.

In actuality, I think the kids in question probably just have far fewer responsibilities, more free time to learn, a more sponge-like mind (at young ages), and fewer concept references to “decouple” in their minds than older adults who most often unlearn. But they don’t just automagically understand technology simply by virtue of being “young.” And believe it or not, they rely on all the same things us older users do to make sense of technology. Want an example?

A few weeks ago I found myself standing in the lengthy returns line at a local department store. Immediately in front of me were two pre-teen girls and their mother. As we inched forward together over a period of 30 minutes, we eventually found ourselves next to the store’s touch-screen computer kiosk where an electronic product catalog could be accessed to place orders. I observed the two girls closely. The younger (probably 8 or 9 years of age) followed the on-screen instructions and engaged the kiosk first. She touched the screen to get started and then selected the “toys for girls” category. (Despite being a kiosk-based system, the interface closely resembled an on-line shopping site format. ) Onto the screen popped 12 or 15 popular items for girls her age. She seemed to study items on the screen intently at first, but then this young lady stopped. She made a few comments to her older sister and mother about one toy, and then lost interest in the kiosk and returned to her mother. I didn’t think anything of this until her older sister (probably about 12 or 13 years of age) who had been watching the entire time stepped forward to the kiosk. She didn’t touch anything at first. She quickly skimmed the toys, obviously not interested in the choices. Then I watched her eyes float to the right side of the screen. And she found what she was looking for — a certain interface convention that means “there’s more here than you see on the screen right now.” A scrollbar. Instantly, her finger shot out and touched the top of the scrollbar to swipe it down. And as the new page of 12 to 15 more toys slid onto the screen, her younger sister appeared at her side.

There are two important take-aways from this. First, the older girl knew what a scrollbar meant from some past experience. Secondly, the younger apparently didn’t but learned very quickly. For once her older sibling left the kiosk, the young girl spent at least ten more minutes continuing to browse for toys, this time leveraging the scrollbar to see subsequent pages. Is it fair to say that use of consistent interface conventions allows users of all ages to engage an interface and accomplish their goals with less confusion? Or was this an isolated case?

Well, what about slightly older “kids,” like college students? Maybe they don’t need consistent interface features because they’re just so darn smart and can figure out anything on a computer. It just so happens Jakob Nielsen posted an article back in December called College Students on the Web in which he debunks the myth that students are technology wizards. In fact, he notes unless they’re computer science or engineering students, they’re not technology experts. The most salient point in Nielson’s article is that:

In particular, students don’t like to learn new user interface styles. They prefer websites that employ well-known interaction patterns.

Bingo. Just like the two tweens at the touchscreen kiosk, older students seem to want to look for the same, familiar interface elements as well. Why? Nielson continues:

If a site doesn’t work in the expected manner, most students lose patience and leave rather than try to decode a difficult design.

This may baffle some older users who think “kids” possess some kind of 6th sense for computers, but students of all ages have a point in time that they must learn what common interface elements are for and internalize that knowledge to make use of it later. If they don’t, they’re just as lost as their grandparents (though, in my experience, usually less fearful about continuing to try.)

So, is this limited to students? I don’t think so. Though I’ve spent much of the last 6 years in writing The Ultimate PC Primer focused on older adults, I’ve certainly encountered my share of 20 year olds who demonstrated a lack of understanding essential PC concepts. In fact, many of them could surf the web, but couldn’t understand file management or the difference between checkboxes and radio buttons.

So learning about technology is not significantly different from learning that is required to understand anything else. There’s no special dispensation for the young, nor is there a curse for the old. That’s why we need more of those real “technology wizards” to explain technology for normal people and more designers to stick with conventions for the sake of us all.