Professor Deirdre Butler of DCU’s Institute of Education is an internationally recognised leader in the creative use of digital technologies to enhance student learning and prepare children for the challenges that face the world now and in the future.
With support from Microsoft, Professor Butler led an innovative Student Teacher Digital Skills Project in 2019, which aimed to increase the confidence and competence of student teachers to use coding and computational thinking in the design of learning activities. Through the project, 408 final year students on the Bachelor of Education engaged in practical, hands on learning modules, which encouraged them to use the Minecraft game and coding activities. These students then completed a project, which involved facilitating an Hour of Code with primary age children in a range of schools across Ireland.
What issue did the Student Teacher Digital Skills Project set out to address?
This project came about for a number of reasons. First and foremost, was the need to prepare children in our schools today for a world where unprecedented advances in technology mean that up to 60% of the jobs that will exist ten years from now, are as of yet unimagined. To prepare our children for this future, it is critical that our teachers are similarly prepared.
When it comes to student teachers however, I often find there is a misconception regarding their ability to use digital technology in the classroom. We hear that young people today are ‘digital natives’ but exposure to digital technology in a personal capacity doesn’t mean that our student teachers are able to use it in a professional capacity to design learning activities that leverage the full potential of technology.
For example, when teaching history, pupils could be looking up primary sources online or creating graphs by inputting data into a spreadsheet and deciding which is the best way to visually represent the information. This focuses the learning on higher ordering thinking skills like interpreting the data and thinking about the best ways to present it.
I am also very passionate about the potential for game-based learning to develop children’s computational thinking skills. Using a game like Minecraft in the classroom not only introduces children to basic coding but it also enables them to take a complex problem, decompose it into smaller more manageable pieces, solve each one and combine them to find a solution. Children also develop the skills of pattern recognition, algorithmic thinking, generalisation and debugging which are transversal skills used in many domains.
Teachers are key for children to develop these important skills for life and research demonstrates that pre-service teacher education has a strong influence on teachers’ use of technology in their practice. In particular, a teacher’s confidence and competence in the use of digital technologies inevitably influences how, when and for what purposes they use them in their classrooms.
Prior to commencing the project, our research showed that factors such as previous experience of playing digital games impacted on the confidence and competence levels of our students to use game-based learning in the classroom. Our research at the outset of this project, indicated a significant gender gap, with female pre-service teachers reporting significantly lower levels of confidence and competence than their male counterparts. As approximately 85% of pre-service teachers are female, the gender gap was of great concern to us when we considered the potential of game-based learning in the classroom.
How did the Student Teacher Digital Skills Project work?
Embedding digital learning has been a component of teacher education degrees for over twenty years now at DCU’s Institute of Education (formerly St Patrick’s College, Drumcondra). Through this project, we wanted to directly connect the game-based learning experiences our preservice teachers had with us in DCU, to classroom practice in schools round Ireland, as well as the everyday life of primary aged children who are actively engaged in playing Minecraft. Doing this we believed would build the confidence and competence of student teachers to use game based learning in the classroom.
All final year students on our Bachelor of Education programme engaged with a newly designed module focusing on game-based learning. As part of this module, we introduced them to Minecraft and to the Scratch coding programme. Theory was enhanced by giving students the opportunity to design games themselves using Scratch and they created new worlds or used pre-made worlds in Minecraft to explore how they could teach different topics.
The next stage was to get students out into classrooms to marry the Minecraft and coding approaches in the real world. The students went to schools across the whole country where they facilitated an Hour of Code with children from 2nd to 6th classes, focused around Minecraft’s Aquatic Adventure and used coding to solve 12 different levels in the game.
How did participating schools and student teachers benefit from taking part in the project?
With increased emphasis on coding in primary schools today, our students’ participation in the Hour of Code project supported schools to implement government policies in relation to STEM education. It helped build understanding that game-based learning was effective and could break barriers, and eased apprehension for many practising teachers that coding was difficult.
There were also other benefits for participating schools for their achievement in completing the Hour of Code, as certificates were issued to all participating pupils and teachers. Participating schools were also eligible to enter a draw for an all-expenses paid visit to the Microsoft Dream Space, an immersive teaching and learning experience in Microsoft’s Dublin head office, which inspires teachers and pupils to experience how technology can enhance learning in exciting new ways.
What role did Microsoft’s support play in making this project possible?
As a university, we are committed to empowering our student teachers with the knowledge and skills they need to prepare their pupils for the challenges of the 21st century. Through our core modules, we introduce our students to theory and activities that do this. Philanthropic support however can really help us to further enhance the learning experience of our students by providing new facilities, such as the Minecraft Studio immersive teaching space, which we were able to create with Microsoft’s support in 2018. This innovative studio is instrumental in challenging assumptions and broadening understanding about what learning spaces can be. It shows how digital technologies can enable and support the design of creative learning experiences for our pre-service teachers.
For the Student Teacher Digital Skills project, it was a significant logistical feat to support over 400 student teachers facilitate an Hour of Code in schools across the country. Without Microsoft’s support we would have been unable to manage the administration of such a significant project and to design the website portal to advertise the project and enable schools to register.
Did the Student Teacher Digital Skills Project achieve its desired impact on the confidence and competence of teachers to use game-based learning in the classroom?
Participating student teachers completed a survey before and after the module to assess the impact of their engagement with the game-based learning module and participation in the Hour of Code in schools.
Following the intervention, the pre-service teachers’ confidence and competence in game-based learning indicated significant development for all students. Most importantly, the gender gap in the competence level disappeared after engagement with the module, indicating that our female students now feel competent to engage with game-based learning in their classroom practice. As they engage in game-based learning activities with their students, we believe the confidence level of these pre-service teachers will also develop.
The majority of students, 73.08% said that they would use game-based learning after taking part in the module. The following are representative of their comments: