Educating for Social and Media Literacy

Educating for Social and Media Literacy

Beverly Vaillancourt, M.Ed, Educator

1In 2012, the Pew Research Center studied Internet use by teens and adults. The project results indicate that “fully 95 percent of all teens ages 12 – 17 are now online.”1 As part of the same study, the Pew Research Center also concluded that “Facebook is a major center for teenage social interactions, both with the positives of friendship and support and the drama of negatives and social expectations.”2 Clearly, social literacy skills are an integral part of the lives of high school students. Understanding how to nurture positive communication and collaborate in online environments are fast becoming a critical skillset for teens and adults.

Social literacy is tightly bound with media literacy, defined as the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, and communicate information in both print and not print venues. Without a doubt, today’s students live in digital worlds that include Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and many other online social media sites, sites that certainly enhance the definitions of “community” and “friend.”

Findings from the Pew Internet study underscore the power of digital media in the lives of teens: 1

  • 94% of teens have Facebook accounts
  • 91% post photos of themselves
  • 82% post about their personal preferences for books, music, and movies
  • 75% of all teens text
  • 62% percent post about their personal relationships
  • 46% of app users turned off location tracking features on their phones because of privacy concerns
  • 29% exchange messages daily on social networking sites

Social media sites, however, are not the only place teens are connecting online. Video games play a major role in online communication. A national study of teen game play by the Pew Research Center gleaned the following data:

“Fully 99% of boys and 94% of girls play video games. Younger teen boys are the most likely to play games, followed by younger girls and older boys. Older girls are the least “enthusiastic” players of video games, though more than half of them play. Some 65% of daily gamers are male; 35% are female…

For most teens, gaming is a social activity and a major component of their overall social experience. Teens play games in a variety of ways, including with others in person, with others online, and by themselves. Although most teens play games by themselves at least occasionally, just one-quarter (24%) of teens only play games alone, and the remaining three-quarters of teens play games with others at least some of the time.

    • 65% of game-playing teens play with other people who are in the room with them.
    • 27% play games with people who they connect with through the internet.
    • 82% play games alone, although 71% of this group also plays with others.

Nearly two-thirds (63%) of teens who play games report seeing or hearing “people being mean and overly aggressive while playing,” and 49% report seeing or hearing “people being hateful, racist, or sexist” while playing. However, among these teens, nearly three-quarters report that another player responded by asking the aggressor to stop at least some of the time. Furthermore, 85% of teens who report seeing these behaviors also report seeing other players being generous or helpful while playing.” 3

Video games can be a powerful tool for helping individuals learn how to communicate in highly engaging environments and, importantly, to discern among communications that hold positive or negative messages. Video games tie the visual experience to the human experience to produce critical outcomes that impact the game, but also impact the individual as a gamer. Failure becomes opportunity for advancement with iteration and perseverance. Optimism abounds with success gained through newly acquired skills. Collaboration and opportunities for leadership are absolutes in any video game environment. These lifelong skills, seen as ideal student attributes by classroom teachers, clearly are sharpened by playing video games.

To say the least, social and media literacy skills have become as integral to individuals participating in online video game environments as when interacting on social media sites.

Today everyone who logs onto the Internet is an entrepreneur of some sort because our digital environments serve to promote civic, political, and social justice ideas. The Internet invents as it promotes thought. The study of game design fosters the Four Cs” of 21st century skills: communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity. With game design, students evaluate media tools used by others to communicate, and importantly evaluate tools used to promote ideas. In essence, through the study of game design, students learn to discern the social implications of how media is used to communicate and invent.

The interest driven quality inherent in the study of game design has far reaching educational benefits. Schools that employ both a study of games and game design, coupled with use of video games for content delivery and assessment of knowledge, bring together the best of what highly engaging social literacy and media literacy experiences have to offer students. These skills will remain essential as students as they move into adult lives where highly dynamic digital communications drive both personal and job-related decisions.

With vast qualities of information at one’s fingertips, perhaps social and media literacy will prove to be the most critical skills students must gain in high school, and with that drive a dynamic paradigm shift in high school curriculums and learning spaces. Schools must adjust, and quickly, to the dynamics and demands of the social and political impacts of the digital world. It just makes sense that the study of games and game design becomes central to that all-important paradigm shift.




Zulama Students Present at the 2014 TRETC Conference

Zulama Students Present at the 2014 TRETC Conference

Screen Shot 2014-12-15 at 11.30.35 AM

By Dawn Lovic

Zulama Teacher – Burrell School District

When Burrell School District was asked to participate in the TRETC conference to help Zulama showcase their innovative curriculum, I thought to myself, “We are such newbies at this. How can we possibly offer anything?” I was delightfully surprised that the experience was so fulfilling for me, as well as for my students. As you may or may not know, the true spirit of Zulama lies in the fact that we embrace gaming in order to enhance student skills in project based learning and in social literacy. Both of these are key factors in not only succeeding in Pennsylvania state mandated 21st Century skills/standards, but also in real life. Go figure that something so simple and fun can be so powerful and meaningful.

Screen Shot 2014-12-15 at 11.39.12 AMThe Three Rivers’s Educational Technology Conference (TRETC) is Western Pennsylvania’s premier conference held each year highlighting technology in education. Many vendors, presenters, and participants are part of the powerful force driving the much needed changes in education. This year the conference was held at the Four Points Sheraton in Cranberry, Pennsylvania, on November 18th. Our goal was to give a true sense of project based lessons that embody the Zulama classes by asking participants to play and modify games such as “Go Fish” and “Crazy 8s”. In many cases, groups for this activity were formed among complete strangers. The attendees embraced the spirit of the session and actively participated in everything we asked them to do. Through their enthusiasm and engagement, they had a small taste of the social literacy and project based skills that are implemented through gaming in the foundations course, Evolution of Games.

00035In addition to highlighting key components of the company and curriculum, we shared with the participants how we study games within the course, which includes a study of the time period in history and how the games reflect different elements of a culture. My two students, Freshman Rachelle Georgevich and Sophomore Brandon Hockenberry, also shared their opinions about working in groups and elements about their favorite games. We also brought along samples of game boards we made in class, which prompted lots of questions and positive feedback.

I think the best part of the day came from a moment I had with Brandon. I chose Brandon to participate because he wants to pursue a career in software engineering, and I thought the experience would be good for him moving forward. He tends to be a shy guy and was very hesitant about participating in the first place. After we were done presenting, he had several people approach him and ask him many questions about his future plans and complimenting him on a job well done. While waiting in the buffet line at lunch, a person came up to Brandon and shook his hand and said, “Good job.” Brandon turned to me and said, “I don’t think I will ever get tired of hearing that.”

Screen Shot 2014-12-15 at 11.32.07 AMThe Zulama curriculum and way of thinking have given students an opportunity to see in themselves in ways they did not believe possible. Students who don’t normally participate can excel. Those who normally lead can step back and learn what it means to follow. In order to function in the workplace, people need to learn how to cooperate, delegate, address deadlines, compromise, and come to a consensus. These are skills that everyone needs, but few people teach. Through games, social literacy skills are nurtured and developed without the students even being consciously aware it is happening. To me, that is the beauty of teaching through games. Life isn’t all fun and games, but wouldn’t it be wonderful it was… and why can’t it be!

Related article: Burrell’s curriculum evolves creatively, By Liz Hayes


Social Literacy and Video Games

Social Literacy and Video Games

Bev Vaillancourt, M.Ed, Educator, Instructional Design

My journey into the world of video games began like that of many parents.

One spring day a few years back boundless energy flooded through the kitchen door as my sons carried a Nintendo 64 and handful of game cartridges into the house. With great anticipation, the game console was hooked up to the family TV and the first game loaded. Mario Kart.

I watched with great amusement as mini cars with delightful characters swirled on the TV screen and the thrill of road conquest bounced in the air much like the colliding cars that skipped across ever-changing lanes. “How delightful,” I thought as my sons grew in proficiency at manipulating the careening images whirling in front of them. I left the room smiling with the happy thought of brothers not posturing as brothers do, but instead engaged in such a dynamic and positive group experience.

I returned to the room a short time later anticipating the joy of hearing Mario’s high pitch laugh intermingled with those of my sons, only to have a chill run up my spine as I stared speechless at the TV screen. In place of Mario were the violence of war and the spattering of blood as characters on screen were annihilated over and over again. “Wait, stop! What are you playing? Who bought this game? This is terrible. Stop playing this violent game. Where’s Mario?” I said in my most maternal and increasingly desperate tone. My teenage sons turned and replied, “Mom, it’s just a game.” The words punctuated the air and ricocheted off the walls as they cleared a path back to the drama unfolding before my eyes. “It’s just a game.

I’m not sure I truly understood the definition of “game” at that pivotal moment in measuring how teenagers quickly see beyond the obvious. What was crystal clear was the collaborative teamwork and problem solving that transfixed my sons as they pursued their mission. Strategic thinking, defeat tethered to lessons learned, improved performance, success serving greater challenges ahead, a seemingly never-ending desire to try harder, all explained by “It’s just a game.”

On the surface I saw teenage boys enveloped by a great sense of optimism, bonding as brothers, moving toward a common goal. They were focused. They were intense. Little did I know at the time that they were becoming proficient critical thinkers, learning how to deal with defeat, and honing split second decision making skills that would serve them not only in their academics but in their future sports and military careers, as well. What happened mattered in the game they were playing. There was purpose. There was invested interest in a positive outcome built on decisions that balanced good and evil—decisions that often required a dive into moral dilemmas.

And, then I broke the spell. “Hey guys. Don’t you have homework to do?” I could almost hear the sound of the engines grinding to an unwelcome halt, an annoying interruption of flow – that brilliant space in time when creative energy abounds and time, itself, is forgotten. With eight destructive words, I tossed the endearing benefits of social literacy to the wind in favor of meaningless worksheets and the turning of bored textbook pages.

Social literacy is gaining in importance as educators look for ways to improve the desire to learn climate of their classrooms. As more and more classrooms move to online learning environments, educators also need to consider how individuals manage their online contacts. Helping students of all ages understand how to get along and how to work as a team and cooperate are essential components of social literacy.

  • Who is motivated to be a self-reliant learner?
  • Who is able to rise to challenges in order to reach an attainable goal?
  • Who has the initiative to take on problems and find solutions?
  • Who recognizes that all ideas are valued and is able to work toward common goals for the common good?
  • Who can manage their emotions during difficult times to make clear and reasoned decisions?

These are the makings of social literacy and requirements for success in adult careers. These are the endearing qualities of “It’s just a game.”

“Can games solve the world’s problems?” queries Jane McGonigal in her 2010 Ted talk Gaming Can Make a Better World. Can the “epic win” experienced in playing video games transfer to greater self-awareness and a belief in one’s power to find solutions to highly complex problems? What we know for sure is that reliance on traditional educational frameworks supported by standardized assessments and the question, “Don’t you have homework to do?” holds no promise of preparing students for jobs in a highly dynamic and technologically inspired future.


Ignite Talk SlideWe begin to view learning in a game based, project driven environment where individuals must work together to achieve commonly defined goals.

Team work, respect for diverse opinions and experiences, shared investment, work ethic, communication, accountability for one’s actions, and a deep sense of commitment and responsibility.

These form the basis for social literacy in the classroom and in online environments, and are absolutes for gamers. Learning viewed as a life long experience, desired and fun. Learning as the hard work of gathering information, discerning relevance and creditability, and formulating solutions. Purposeful learning. Learning brought to life in a game.

And, with that, it’s always time for homework!


Games and Game Design on a Global Level



Beverly Vaillancourt, M.Ed, Educator, Instructional Designer

My short stay in India working with the teachers and staff of Manav Rachna International School (MRIS) Sector 46, Gurgaon, India, last month was in every way an enriching life experience. The school serves youth from preschool through grade 12. From the vibrant art displayed throughout the school to the sense of well-being wrapped in purposeful industry conveyed by students and teachers alike, it is a school that defines education as a place of hope and vision. iCarnegie Global Learning has brought both its robotics program and Zulama’s courses to MRIS schools in Gurgaon. Though robotics is an established part of the MRIS curriculum, Zulama is a new offering.

11_7_14_1Over 400 MRIS students in grades 9 – 10 are starting Zulama this month with a year-long study of the Evolution of Games. Next year brings both the Evolution of Games and Mobile Game Design to MRIS schools. Why a year’s study? The answer is simply the intensity of the MRIS academic schedule. Thus, both robotics and the Evolution of Games are part of several sections of classes that meet once a week, with daily study accomplished as a flipped classroom. Can it work? Sure. Is it ideal? No. However, I am confidant that this coordinated group of MRIS teachers will facilitate exciting Zulama learning experiences for their students. The proof is in the success of the robotics program that will soon see two MRIS teachers and a core group of students heading to Russia for an international robotics competition after winning the regional competition in India.

“Why study the history of games?” Aman, posed during the training? It was a fundamental question since all of the teachers are eager to move on to GameMaker Programming and Unity 3D Programming with their students, the more advanced computer coding courses offered by Zulama. Evolution of Games is Zulama’s foundation course. It would have been easy to have responded with, “Well, that’s how the curriculum was established by the professors from Carnegie-Mellon University who wrote the courses for Zulama, so that’s how it is presented for your students.” However, such a response would have not honored the importance of Aman’s question. Thus, with the training placed aside for the moment, a pivotal conversation ensued on the critical importance of historical knowledge for 21st Century learners.

2014-10-18 09.54.02Cicero (103 BC), a Roman philosopher and politician, is to have said that “not to know what took place before you were born, is to remain forever a child.” With Evolution of Games students gain a deep appreciation for the importance of games in past cultures, and how those games have bound societies as part of trade, war, and migration. They mature in their understanding of games and game design as they collaborate and communicate in completing projects as IDEA© (Innovate, Design, Engage, Assess) teams, all the while building the critical thinking skills and intuitive understanding of game design needed for courses beyond the Evolution of Games.

Evolution of Games provides a solid foundation of project based learning. Students work together to build game boards, complete WebQuests, and share their understanding of games and game design, building both individual knowledge and skills in group dynamics. The 21st Century learning skills gained as part of the study of the Evolution of Games are essential to students’ success as they move through Zulama’s courses, and critical for success in careers that require collaboration and creative engagement. Moreover, students quickly begin to see how the principles of game design have been used throughout the ages beginning with the game of Ur in Mesopotamia to today’s video games. By diving into the cultural elements found in each game, students learn the story integral to each game, and intuitively begin to understand that every game has a story.

2014-10-18 09.53.29I was, in every way, impressed with the dedication and determination of the teachers I met at MRIS 46 Gurgaon. Their enthusiasm for the study of games and game design was peppered with the uncertainty of working in an entirely new online format that layers project based learning on a robust, standards-based curriculum; yet, they embraced every new step. Importantly, they expressed an understanding that today’s career preparation is grounded on the need for problem solvers and design thinkers as absolutes for the careers of tomorrow. And, thus the journey into all that Zulama has to offer for the careers of the future begins at MRIS Sector 46 Gurgaon.

Games are a universal language. Students in India can share their knowledge of the principles of game design and their enjoyment playing games with students anywhere in the world. And, with it, a global dialogue begins. Zulama hopes to foster such a dialogue between Zulama students at MRIS Sector 46 Gurgaon and Zulama students in the United States. Communication across the miles, embracing diversity, all built on the intellectual challenge of games and game design, tethering todays’ classrooms with tomorrow’s innovations.

Digital Promise: Improving Ed-Tech Purchasing

Zulama helped contribute to this enlightening report that was released recently from the Digital Promise, the Education Industry Association, and the Johns Hopkins University Center for Research and Reform in Education.

Download the report—it’s worth your time!

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