Ralph Waldo Emerson said:

"No man should travel until he has learned the language of the country he visits. Otherwise he voluntarily makes himself a great baby - so helpless and so ridiculous."

imageThink of the tech-saavy younger generation as another country with a different language. Their lives are inseparable from technology and they are connected to each other and to information flows in ways many of us will never understand. We can learn to speak their language or we can look ridiculous and irrelevant.

No where is learning to speak the language of technology more important than when you're trying to educate young people. At a time when one in five American students drops out of high school, we parents and educators need to work on our language skills. This is why I love to see educational institutions embrace media technologies. At Azusa Pacific University (APU), my friend David Peck is leading a team doing some really cool things to connect with this generation of digital natives by creating conversations in the language of the users. Sounds simple enough, but it is surprisingly rare.

APU is smartly and simply integrating game play and information delivery. Their website contains games starring Stickman Bob where you must protect the campus from comets and, although I am embarrassed to say that I destroyed the campus several times due to my lack of gaming skills, I now know what the Cougar Dome and Wilden Hall look like and I've never been to APU. After flattening the place, I also feel a little responsible for the protection of the campus. Pretty good emotional engagement for 15 minutes of play.

Games like Stickman Bob can also normalize experiences, such as the anxiety of the admissions and entry process, such as where you help Stickman Bob dodge crazed admissions counselors by leaping wildly and arming him with book bags. (I'm sorry to say that my Stickman Bob was resoundingly trampled.) This injection of humor allows APU to humanize their institution. They also invite engagement by letting you customize your own personal Stickman Bob avatar (in either gender) and keep track of your score. And they don't stop there. You can "Join the Stickman Bob Facebook Group" or Twitter your opinions to @azusapacific. While marketers will be all excited about the website's "stickiness" (ability to hold visitor's attention), the real value comes in the brand perception of APU and in beginning to build a relationship with prospective students that will last long beyond graduation. These games are the equivalent of saying "Hey, we get you!" If it were my school, I'd put Stickman Bob on the home page.

As technologies emerge, the boundaries between platforms become more porous and things cross over. Think texting your Twitters and iPhoning your Facebook page. What many consider to be Internet applications are hitting the road. Mobile devices are an under-25 appendage and Blackberries and iPhones are no longer the tools of tech-dilettantes and Type A workaholics. In the summer of 2008, Hot Lava Software working with the Kauffman Foundation used the ubiquity of mobile devices to deliver Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics education as a ‘Sports Bytes' contest to teens' mobile phones with the hope of sparking their interest in the math and science at a time when many teens turn away. They asked questions like: Which ball has the slower speed when thrown: a softball or a baseball? Over 70,000 teens registered to play over the series of sporting events.

Teaching mobile game development is also emerging as a motivational tool to engage students, according to researchers like Kurkovsky, and can help students see the connections between Computer Science and real-world technology.

Where many educators demand the incapacitation of mobile devices during class, schools like APU have faculty that say "Turn on your cell phones. Text me with questions." They are actively going mobile with access to school information like sports scores and calendars available to students via mobile devices with plans to integrate administrative chores. Compared to India, however, the US is a bit behind in adoption of mobile applications. New startups are doing everything from introducing mobile-based English language classes to companies like Find Guru who developing online classroom where you can get connected with teachers, assignments and texts. Love me, love my technology.

The brilliance of these projects, and the hopefully many like them, is that they aren't using technology to replicate current educational experiences. They are using the technology to support ways of motivating and connecting with kids in the language they use every day. Not only will using technology help motivate and engage kids, it is also the only way to prepare them for problem-solving for jobs that haven't been invented yet in a world full of technology.


Kurkovsky, S. (2009). Engaging students through mobile game development. SIGCSE Bulletin, 41(1), 44-48.
Photos: APU Public Relations, iStockphoto.com

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