Last week I attending the Microsoft in Education Global Forum in Barcelona. I was selected as part of a ten strong team from the UK to attend the conference, although I was the only Scot in the team and the only FE lecturer. The week was an amazing mix of talks, panel discussions, collaborative sessions and a TeachMeet. We also spent 2 half days exhibiting our learning activities on stands to the other educators and school leaders at the conference. However for me the best thing about the forum was the amazing educators that I met from around the world and the future projects that I will now be able to collaborate with them on.
On day one of the conference a highlight for me was Stuart Ball, UK PIL manager, presenting on some of the amazing apps for education that are available on the Windows 8 store and more specifically for the Surface tablet. I downloaded 5 or 6 apps onto my Surface during the session that I hope to make use of them in my classroom practice.
The other major part of day one was the first exhibitor session, where we got to show off our projects to educators and school leaders from around the world. There were 6 of us from the UK manning stands, with a variety of projects. Simon & Ray both had projects around TouchDevelop, while the Queen of Kodu, Nicki, was presenting on the KoduKup. I was mostly talking about a project I ran, where my college students made games in groups in conjunction with a local primary school using XNA. However I was also speaking about using Kodu & TouchDevelop to teach coding to children and teachers. So there was a common theme of coding in 4 out of the 6 projects, which reflects the current trend in the UK towards programming in Computing. I found the exhibitor sessions invaluable, my only criticism is that I wish I had more opportunities to visit the other stands myself, as we were pretty much tied to our stands. I think a system where only half of us were presenting at a time, while the other half were free go around and visit the other stands would be a much better approach in future.
On day two we started with an inspiration keynote address from Anthony Salcito, Microsoft’s worldwide Vice President for Microsoft Education. He started by saying that our students are learning without us; I wonder myself if sometimes it is despite of us J. He talked about Microsoft’s commitment to education and teachers. He also made it clear that he recognises that technology isn’t the answer, but great teachers using technology well is. He also demonstrated the amazing Project Spark, which although not new to me, drew gasps of amazement from the audience. Project Spark is Kodu on steroids, it builds on the creative 3D world available in Kodu, by allowing students to create truly jaw droppingly beautiful worlds, but is also allows them to fully customise that world by programming the objects within it, to do whatever they want. Whether it is telling a rock to follow your character or making an ogre dance when you are near it, you can truly create whatever you want.
He also demonstrated an amazing new app called ChronoZoom, which allows you to create dynamic timelines on any topic. A great tool for teaching History, but not just limited to history as it can be used to visualise historical or future timelines for any subject.
After the keynote it was back to exhibiting our learning activities. This time I decided to take time to talk to the other expert educators, so I was a little bit naughty in that I left my stand unattended for a while and went to the other displays and spoke to most of the educators near me, which just so happened to be mostly team USA. This was my favourite thing from the conference, making connections with other educators from around the world and seeing the innovative ways that they are making use of technology in the classroom. I spoke to Michael Braun from Seattle, who I had actually met before when I visited a high school in Seattle to speak about TouchDevelop, while I was at the MVP summit in November last year. I learned about how he has been using TouchDevelop to teach coding in his classroom on smartphones and tablets. I also spoke to two teachers from Tampa (Bradley Smrstick and Joshua Sawyer) who are running Coding camps in Florida during July, which coincides with when I am there on holiday with my family, so I’ve arranged with them to do some sessions on TouchDevelop & Kodu while I am there. I also spoke to a primary teacher from Canada (Leah Obach) who is now going to enter 2 teams from her School into a Minecraft competition that I am running in conjunction with the College Development Network in Scotland.
It was also great to see so many Kodu projects from educators around the world, I think I counted 7 different projects, including one from my friends from Norway, who have 70 schools involved in their KoduKup competition this year. My Norwegian friends have also invited me over to Norway in May to judge at the Norwegian KoduKup, which hopefully I can arrange to do. It inspired me to look at setting up a Scottish KoduKup, which Microsoft have given me permission to do, so watch this space for further details.
In the afternoon after I finished exhibiting, I attended a hot topic panel discussion on “Inspiring Student Learning and Creativity through Gaming”. I wasn’t actually expecting much from this, as it was not a formal talk, however it featured an Australian guy called Simon Breakspear who is an educational speaker, researcher and innovator. He communicated much of my own thinking about the proper use of games in education, in a far more articulate manner than I could have. Simon was my favourite presenter from the entire week, as games for learning is something close to my heart. I was chuffed to get a retweet from him with my thinking that the “gameplay should be where the learning happens”, as far too many “learning” games use the gameplay as a reward for answering a question. The key to a good educational game is where they learn through playing, rather than by using the gameplay as a carrot. We also need to look at how games that students already play & love, can be used in learning, a great example being MineCraft, which is so much more than just a fun game and can be used to encourage collaboration, teamwork, creativity and even programming. Simon is someone I hope to hear from again and I will try and get him to come speak at one of the conferences I am involved with in the upcoming year.
In the evening I managed to get away from the conference and went down to see Barcelona beat Manchester City at the Nou Camp. Being a good Scot, I was wearing my Barcelona top and sat in with the Catalans. It was an amazing experience to see a near full Nou Camp cheering on Messi and co to victory, although I must be honest and say the atmosphere doesn’t compare to Ibrox on a Champions league night (although it might be a while before I experience that again). I also got to witness the nasty side of English footie fans, as the Manchester City fans, who were right behind me, went about wrecking the fence that was keeping them separated from the Barcelona fans.
On day 3 we had the Learn-a-thon, which I wasn’t really expecting much from, however it was actually a valuable experience and put the educators on the other side of things, as we worked together with educators from around to world to create a learning activity, while overcoming obstacles such as the language barrier. Our team worked to our strengths with our art teacher Darko from Macedonia creating an impressive stop motion animation about our theme which was “Treasuring Water”, while I created a Kinect game on the same theme.
That evening Stuart Ball and Dave Rogers from the UK team did a fantastic job organising a TeachMeet for Western Europe. Unknown to me, TeachMeets are a British thing, which the other countries were not familiar with, however it went very well and it was one of the best events I attended all week. I got another chance to present my xGames to educators who had never seen them and I had a lot of interest in them, especially from the Netherlands.
On the last day we presented our Learn-a-thon learning activity to the judges in the morning, after which myself, Ray, Simon & Dave Rogers finally got a chance to enjoy the Sauna & Jacuzzi facilities of the hotel that Microsoft had very kindly put us up in. It was nice to get a chance to relax for a couple hours and take in the wonderful views of the surrounding area.
Early afternoon we went back to the main conference auditorium where we had an address from Prince Felipe, heir apparent to the Spanish throne. We had to go through proper airport style security checks to get into the conference arena, because of the presence of royalty, as evidently he isn’t too popular in Catalonia.
In the evening we got dressed up for the formal Gala Dinner and awards ceremony. I spoke with James Ptaszynski at the dinner, who is Senior Director in MS for Higher Education strategy, about the role that FE & HE may play in future Global forums. At the awards ceremony Scott Wieprecht from the UK team placed 2nd runner up in the Cutting Edge use of Technology for Learning category, so Congrats to Scott and his school Saltash.
At the after party I spent hours with my Norwegian friends speaking about teaching, education, politics and the meaning of life. We agreed that I must visit Norway again soon to help judge at the KoduKup final in May and whatever else I can fit in while there; perhaps some Project Spark and TouchDevelop.
Overall it was a fantastic week and it was also great to catch up with friends like Ray and Simon, while getting to know Nicki & Dave Rogers better, but also it was lovely to make new friends with some amazing educators from all over the planet.
I have a bunch of events lined up between now and the summer, all of which would not have happened without my involvement with the Partners in Learning network. I am going to Lincoln University next week to present on Kinect for Windows v2, as well as taking part in a Kinect Hackathon. During our Easter break in April, I am going to the Codebits conference in Lisbon, Portugal, to present on Kinect v2 and from there I fly to Berlin for a Kinect v2 developers event & Kinect Hackathon. At the end of April I will travel to Microsoft’s data centre in Dublin for a Microsoft MVP open day.
In June I am doing workshops on TouchDevelop and Project Spark at Games Britannia which is being held at Sheffield Hallam University. The same week I am presenting on Kinect and playful learning at the JISC ITECH conference in Glasgow. So busy, busy times ahead. Thanks to Stuart Ball and the PIL UK team for all their support and the opportunities they have provided me.