Why fun tech is good for schools

Lego and Minecraft are sweeping education tech – but do they offer more benefit than making school fun?

Put away the pencils and paper, it's time for Minecraft and Lego.

Older Brits may wonder at such modern educational tools or lament the lack of them during their own school days with the likes of Minecraft and Lego sweeping into schools ahead and ed tech companies pushing virtual reality and augmented reality.

Are such tools actually useful for students, or merely fun gimmicks that are easy for tech companies to sell? We asked experts at the BETT 2017 why the fun and games they're building into educational tech is valuable to students.

Caspar Thykier is the CEO of Zappar, which makes augmented reality tools for schools, bringing posters, student projects and books to life, with the app making photos move like "Harry Potter" style magic.

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Bringing that joy and fun to school is key to student engagement, he argues particularly with the toughest students. "There's always a certain percentage of kids at school who have trouble with learning," he said, "and find it boring they're the difficult kids in class. Trying to get them to engage ... how do you increase active engagement?"

That's the value games such as Minecraft offer, said Deirdre Quarnstrom, director of Minecraft Education Edition but alongside the simple fun of the blocky game it also helps get students using technology and encourages creativity. "There's been such a focus on assessments and measurements the last few years that we see educators and industry leaders really wanting to incorporate creativity into the learning environment," she said.

Minecraft is ideal for learning because it lets students explore, build their own projects, and rebuild them if they make a mistake the first time, she said, showing off a model of the human eye built in the game. "Try something, if it doesn't work, you can try something else," she said, adding that's exactly what teachers want in a learning environment.

Vu Bui, COO of Mojang, agreed with his colleague. "Using it in classrooms is natural because there's so much natural learning in Minecraft already it completely makes sense," he said. "You can do anything in Minecraft."

It's not only computer games. HP this week announced a programme with Lego, looking to bring the toymakers' teaching tools into more schools. "They're brilliant at getting kids to work together in groups, to build things and automate them via a PC," said Neil Sawyer, HP's education business director, of Lego. "The ability to work in a group, to connect these objects to a PC and programme it... it's subtly teaching children the ability to programme," he said.

Saywer added that students should get to try as many different types of technology as possible, and games and toys were one way to do that. "Virtual reality think about that type of technology, or 3D printing, which is going to change the world, it really will," he said. "This isn't a gimmick. It's the next industrial revolution. And I think schools should back that kind of stuff."

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Of course, fun at school is a good way to encourage enthusiasm in students whether they're adults or youngsters. Sawyer noted: "I'd love to be at school at the moment it's probably quite exciting."

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