/ 3 April 2011

Xbox comes to schools

Lakeside Park Primary School in Vryheid, KwaZulu-Natal, has become the first school in South Africa to pilot Microsoft’s “world first” free-gaming technology project, called Kinect Xbox, to boost literacy and numeracy.

The launch of the project at the school last month was attended by Microsoft’s senior executives, teachers and learners, as well as KwaZulu-Natal provincial education officials. Kinect is “a motion-controlled device for Xbox 360 that helps people play games using physical motions and voice”.

The game is easy and fun to play. All you need to do is to stand in front of a “motion sensor” that tracks your body. As you play — using your hands, arms, legs, knees and so on — the sensor tracks your body movements and beams them on to the TV screen for you to see. There are a variety of games to choose from, ranging from table tennis, track and field events, soccer and bowling.

A teacher can choose any game as part of the learning exercise, ensuring it links to some aspect of the curriculum. For instance, with bowling, learners might be asked to count, multiply, divide or subtract the scores attained by each player. Learners could also learn how to spell, read or write.

The school, which serves an impoverished informal settlement, has a “no-fees” status and offers classes from grades R to seven. Most of the learners speak English as a second language and most of their parents are illiterate.

Microsoft’s Larry Venter, the brains behind the initiative, said that during one of his visits to the school he was moved when he saw the passion of the learners who, despite walking long distances to school each day, are always eager to learn. He said the idea took root after he saw children in San Diego in the United States “playing our interactive game [Kinect] and this brought my mind back to Vryheid”.

Yunus Kirsten, principal of the school, said the project came at a time when the school is battling with poor pass rates in English literacy. “Many learners are exposed to the [English] language only at school and cannot be helped with homework because their parents are illiterate,” said Kirsten.

Jabu Tshabalala, who teaches grade two numeracy, literacy and life skills, hailed the new technology. She joined the school in 2003 and said since the school adopted Kinect learning has not been the same.

“For the first time I saw shy and slow learners getting particularly energised every time we switched on the game. Suddenly, they came out of their shells, enthusiastically taking part in the lessons. Some even did better than those considered brilliant in class,” said Tshabalala.

What she likes most is that the technology exposes learners, especially those from poor families, to a range of IT games that their parents could not afford to buy. “We make sure we allow each learner an opportunity to set up and take part in the games Kinect offers. We believe the learners should ‘own’ the technology,” Tshabalala said.

But, she said, technology can yield better academic results only if it is in the hands of a creative and innovative teacher.

Another grade three teacher, Ignatia Tonny, said: “I use the games to break ice, particularly at the start of a lesson when most learners are still a bit tense and shy. The moment I start to play the games everyone livens up.”

She said it helps demystify and brings abstract things closer to reality. “During last year’s Fifa World Cup, our learners embraced the mood that swept the country because they could see and relate to everything that took place during the event,” Tonny said.

Venter, who grew up in Vryheid, said although the focus is on literacy and numeracy, he was inspired to learn that some teachers are creatively applying the technology to teach other subjects.

Microsoft will monitor and assess the project closely with a view to “replicating” and “upscaling” it to other schools, provinces and countries. Thanks to Mustek South Africa, Microsoft’s 5-user Windows Multipoint Server solution, which allows five users to access the computer through one hard drive, has been installed at the school. The idea is to deploy Kinect and Xbox technology into six classrooms in Lakeside Park Primary School.

After Kirsten enthusiastically embraced the idea, Venter put together a team of experts to pilot the project. In came Live@Edu, a division of Microsoft that is funding the project, SchoolNet with its expertise in educational technology and Mindset to provide an independent evaluation.

SchoolNet’s brief includes developing the teacher training materials and conducting training, reviewing, selecting and purchasing appropriate games and installing the devices and security systems. Peter de Lisle, SchoolNet’s trainer, said that, so far, eight teachers have been trained and “their classrooms are equipped with the interactive Xbox and Kinect gaming platforms and security”.

He said in rural schools most learners’ home language is not English yet in these schools English is the language of learning from as early as grade one. “The challenge is to create learning experiences that help to bridge this gap rather than exacerbate it,” said De Lisle.

Speaking on behalf of the department of basic education, Phil Mnisi said Microsoft’s initiative fits in well with the department’s objective of leveraging the power of ICT in classrooms. Mnisi said the department encourages the use of ICT platforms and other technologies as they enrich classroom practice as well as empower learners and teachers.

“But we believe technology should not replace but must provide support to the teacher. We also encourage teachers to be developers of content and not just consumers of content developed mostly abroad. Not enough content is locally developed,” said Mnisi.

What is Kinect?

  • With Kinect for Xbox 360, you are the controller. It gets your whole body into the game. You can control movies and music with the wave of a hand or the sound of your voice. With Kinect, technology evaporates, letting the natural magic in all of us shine. And the best part is Kinect works with every Xbox 360.
  • Kinect uses a motion sensor to track your entire body. So, it is not only about your hands and wrists but also your arms, legs, knees, waist, hips and so on.
  • As you play, Kinect creates a digital skeleton. When you move left or right or jump around, the sensor captures it and puts you in the game.
  • Kinect ID remembers who you are by collecting physical data that is stored in your profile. So when you play again, it knows it is you.
  • You should ensure you set the sensor at the right position. Set it between 0,6m and 1,8m off the floor and centred with your TV; higher is generally better.
  • Make sure you place it on a safe and secure surface, as close to the edge without hanging over.
  • Ensure there is no direct sunlight on the sensor or you. Do not place the sensor on your TV or Xbox 360 console, in front of speakers or things that vibrate or make a noise.
  • Ensure there is sufficient room. Clear the space between you and the sensor. If alone, stand 1,8m away from the sensor. For two players, stand at least 2,5m away.