Minecraft minefield?

Author: Robin Browne

My son’s teacher recently made the debatable choice to let the students use Minecraft to do an assignment on building a biome (i.e. a physical environment containing distinct animals, plants and climate like a desert or grassland.)

I get why he did it.

He was trying to engage them in learning by letting them use the tools they’re already engaged in.

I was skeptical when my son first told me his teacher had not only let them use Minecraft – he had encouraged them to do so. I thought he would spend his time playing Minecraft instead of doing his project.

I was half right.

The assignment was to create a biome and describe it in an oral presentation. My son chose to create an Arctic tundra biome and did a great job creating, bleak, snowy beauty in Minecraft:

However, he wanted to spend all his time perfecting the look instead of doing the far harder task of finding and editing the descriptions of tundra animals, plants and climate – and practising his oral presentation of the info.

We battled for hours over this, resulting in a final presentation where he read lots of info while walking viewers through a mostly unrelated Minecraft tundra environment. The presentation was unengaging as reflected in the faces and comments of his classmates.

So, one key lesson learned was that, if students are going to be allowed/encouraged to use tools like Minecraft (or any other potentially distracting tool) for assignments, care must be taken to ensure they’re giving equal efforts to all aspects of the project and not just those that let them use the fun parts of the tool.

One way to do this might be to encourage them to do the tough parts with a partner or partners either in person or online (i.e. using Skype).

A number of times when my guy was working on his project, some of his classmates would try to call him on Skype. I would always say he couldn’t take the call and had to stay focussed on his project but, in retrospect, perhaps it would have been better to let him take the call and encourage him to ask his classmates for help with the tougher parts of the project (i.e. he could do his oral presentation over Skype and they could give him feedback)

What successful strategies do you use to help your kids integrate the tools they love in their learning?

Yesterday, I finally found a, free, effective tool for helping my 12 yr. old with learning issues learn his times tables. It’s a game called Dynamite Multiplication on the site Multiplication.com.

It uses an image memory technique I’ve been using with him, effectively, for other things. But it adds rhyme and stories to make it even more effective.

The one I’ve been using involves creating images, no matter how outlandish, to link ideas you’re trying to remember. One way involves imagining walking through your house. So if you’re trying to remember, say, the names of all the continents, you imagine yourself walking through your front door and are greeted by a penguin (Antarctica), in your kitchen you find a lion enjoying a meal at your kitchen table (Africa), and in your bathroom you surprise a kangaroo in the shower (Australia)…and so on.

Dynamite Multiplication covers the 2-9 times tables and assigns an image to each number.  Two is shoe, three is tree, four is door, eight is skate, nine is sign and so on. So to remember that 8 x 4 = 32 the site provides the image of a door wearing skates who makes himself a big U to skate on, which he makes from some dirty wood he finds. So SKATE x DOOR = DIRTY U or 8×4=32. The site then provides a short story about the image to help lock it in the brain. Here’s what it looks like:

Dirty U


The result for my kid, who’s a visual learner, was learning his 7 times table in one night after having tried to master them many other ways.

But this great tool is buried among some 30 games on Multiplicationn.com’s game section with no indication of its unique, powerful use of images.  So please share it!

I had found a paid service providing a similar image technique for times tables but why pay for something you can get for free? 😉

On to the next challenge…..

**** UPDATE  Dec. 12, 2013 ****

After digging deeper in to the site, it turns out it’s built around the images and stories for learning times tables created by Washington educator Alan Walker and captured in his book Memorize in Minutes: The Times Tables.

OAMA site

Here’s a case study of the website of a local Ottawa martial arts school, The Ottawa Academy of Martial Arts (OAMA). I  chose this one because the site was done by a local company I just discovered, N-VisionIT Interactive, whose CEO, Brent Mondoux, recently won a top Forty Under 40 award from the  Ottawa Chamber of Commerce. Plus, the company has done lots of websites, mobile development and social media campaigns for various local businesses and government departments.

The OAMA site is a nice piece of work and here’s how I see it:

The positives:

  • it’s simple and uncluttered with the menu items clearly visible and easily accessible at the top and just two dominant colors (too many colors make sites look too busy).
  • the site appears to have great search engine optimization (SEO) as it’s the first organic result for the search term “martial arts Ottawa”.
  • the OAMA phone number is in big, red font in the upper right corner; this is crucial since a website’s main job is to help potential customers complete tasks, and since the OAMA doesn’t have online registration, their number one task after finding out about the school will be to call them.
  • each page with information about classes, where OAMA offers a free trial class, has a box like the one below to make it easy for folks to act when it’s most on their minds.

OAMA signup

  • the splash page has the message “Call today to schedule you free trial class” with a big phone number but the message could be bigger (the splash page is the first page you land on when you go to the site).

Suggested improvements:

  • the banner showing the 3 OAMA locations should show on the splash page as it does on every page after you enter the site.

 OAMA banner2

  • the OAMA logo at the top of the site should be a link back to the Home page.
  • the “Call today to schedule you free trial class…”  text on the splash page should be bigger as I said before.
  • give “Kids’ Programs” its own link as now it’s buried under Kids’ After School Program making it hard for people to know that OAMA has great things for kids like birthday parties!’
  • put “To sign up your child up for the after school program call…” in big red font at bottom of the Kids’ After School Program page.
  • N-VisionIT made an iPhone app for the OAMA but a responsive site would be better than an app. Responsive sites “respond” to the device people use to view them so they work on multiple devices. An iPhone app requires people have an iPhone and download the app and doesn’t work on other devices (when I view the site on my Android phone I get a really small version of the regular site). Even if they stick with the iPhone app, they should remove the link to download it from the site as those wanting the app will download it on their phone.
  • add some videos. OAMA is a fun place with very friendly staff that some short (and I mean SHORT) videos would really help show.
  • all pictures should be able to expand to full size. Right now, there are some that don’t.
  • fix the typo in the explanation of what Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is on the  Intro page (the line “…Renzo Gracie is the son Robson Gracie…”)

All in all, a great site and one that, according to N-VisionIT, helped greatly increase business generated from OAMA’s site.

That’s my two cents.




I’ve now decided to focus my blog on digital marketing for small businesses and for the first few posts I thought I’d focus on the question: how does digital marketing for small business differ from digital marketing for big business?

Two obvious answers come to mind: small businesses have less money and more localized clients than big business.

The first point suggests small business have to rely more on cheaper forms of “earned” media and less on “paid” media. Earned media includes the coveted word of mouth (WOM) that many say social media can greatly amplify. I would have said the same thing until I watched a video by Jonah Berger called Contagious: Why Things Catch On embedded in a post of the same name on Mitch Joel’s Six Pixels of Separation blog.

In the video, Berger challenges the audience to guess the percentage of word of mouth (in the US) happens online versus offline. After fielding guesses of 40, 50 or 70%, Berger reveals it’s actually 7%. That stat might get some small business owners questioning the value of digital marketing but that would be too quick an assumption for the following reasons:

  • just because a relatively small percentage of word of mouth happens online doesn’t mean there’s not a lot happening. There’s plenty of online WOM happening, there’s just way more happening offline.
  • getting online WOM may only be part of the goal or not at all. More likely, the real goal will usually be becoming part of those many offline conversations.
  • WOM is just one part of digital marketing and it’s all those other parts – a great website, SEO, email marketing, mobile optimization, etc. that will increase your chances of being part of the offline water cooler chat.

Berger states the well known reason word of mouth is so powerful –  it comes from trusted sources – and the less known one – because it’s targetted. Your friends and family will tell you about something because they know you’re interested in it.

So how do you get people to tell their friends about what you’re offering when they want or need it most?

That’s what this blog will explore. Got any strategies? Share!

This weekend, my wife showed me ShowMe – and I had my next blog post.

ShowMe is a site full of short, simple, visual tutorials that help you learn just about anything you want. The first one we watched had a nice, clear male voice talking over a video showing a neat trick to learn the 9 times table. The second one showed another trick but was voiced, and created by, a kid who couldn’t have been more than 11.

This was really got me. ShowMe lets anyone create tutorials and is so easy to use even kids can become teachers.

Check it out:

ShowMe bills itself as “a global learning community – a place where anyone can learn or teach anything.”

Sounds great and they have a great technology, but there are issues:

1) From what I can tell, you can only create tutorials using an iPad (you can view on any device). This limits creating to those who can afford an iPad.

2) The site doesn’t appear to vet videos to verify if what they’re teaching is correct. That’s left up to the learner.

3) The search function isn’t great so finding videos you watched, and liked, before, is a challenge (at least it was for me for one video).

However, it’s a great start and I’ll definitely show it to my kids and encourage them to be creators as well as consumers of knowledge.


Social learners are radicals!

Author: Robin Browne

My family and I recently watched the wonderful movie Akeelah and the Bee about a girl from the LA ‘hood who sets her mind on competing in the annual Scripps National Spelling Bee.

Through their own brand of social learning her community gets behind her resulting in a story with a message that, in our free market society, is nothing less than radical: when it comes to learning, collaboration beats competition.

Social learning means collaborating not competing

Traditional learning involves a lot of individual competition. Our marks are based on what others get (damn that Bell curve!). Kids unofficially compare their marks to their peers.

Social learning means people collaborate to solve problems and learn together. However, one reason traditional learning systems are based on individuals achievement is that, to assess individuals, they must do individual work, or very clearly defined work as part of a group. How do you assess a collaborative effort where everyone’s contributions are weaved together? I don’t know the answer but it’s one I think we need to find so collaborative, social learning can become the norm.

A new generation of collaborative business leaders

The stakes are high. Social learning could help fuel fundamental social change if collaborative students become collaborative business people – collaborating not only within their companies but also with “the competition”.

I can hear the Republicans cocking their guns…..



If you know, or own, a boy between the ages of 8 and 12, he’s probably already addicted to Minecraft. If he’s not, trust me, he will be soon.

According to the Minecraft site, nearly 10 million people have bought the game (we paid $26 for it) – nearly 11,000 in the last 24 hours.

Minecraft is an online world entirely made of small blocks – and entirely made by its habitants. Kids can easily build things using the blocks like houses (essential for shelter against the nasty night predators), armour, or just about anything else, using a Halo-like interface. They can play with their friends seeing each other’s avatars walking around with their username floating above their blocky, square heads. And, as boys will do, they can kill each other with the only consequence being perhaps some hurt feelings and the lost time it takes to “respawn” back to life.

You can check it out here:


The avatars don’t speak so the kids use Skype instead. It’s a great example of social learning in some great ways.

They’re playing. They’re learning how to connect online with video and voice. They’re learning how to set up and keep appointments (“Meet you online at 7pm!) But, most importantly, they’re learning the power of being creators of the world they’re playing in, instead of just players. Yes, it’s like a video game – and parents of too many boys know the challenges of managing that addiction – but it lets them learn things they won’t by spending hours playing their Nintendo DS or Sony PlayStation. Why do boys love it so much? I need to ask my guy that…once I can pull him away from the game….

So, knowing there are a million books on social media, I was wondering if there were any books on social learning. So, I opened the Kindle app on my Android phone, went to the Store link and typed in “social learning”. Instantly, the 2009 book The New Social Learning popped up. I read the reviews, which were all excellent, then bought it with Amazon 1-Click. Thirty seconds later I was reading it. The whole thing from wondering if there was such a book to reading the first words in the book took less than five minutes.

The question is: will I finish it?

Things like Amazon’s 1-Click make it easier than ever to access learning resources – but there’s no app that will make sure you actually use them for as long as required to learn whatever it is you got them for. For example, do you have any books, CDs, DVDs, manuals, web links or any other learning resource, now gathering dust even though you didn’t achieve the learning goal for which you got them? I know I do,  and  I bet I’m  not alone.

Don’t blame the books

I bet millions of people set learning goals, get resources, start using them and then abandon them without achieving the goal. I also bet that, the harder and longer the goal, the more learning resources that end up on the “I’ll get to it later” shelf.

The problem is too many people try to learn on their own and, just like the many who try exercising regularly on their own, they abandon it.

What if they –  what if you – could easily connect with others to use those learning resources together to achieve your goals together? Even if your final learning goals are different, the same learning resource might be a step you can help each other take toward both your goals.  (This builds on the idea I discussed in my post Why You’re Not Learning Everything You Should ?)

Do you connect with others to help each other achieve learning goals?

Why is there no learning equivalent to The Running Room? Something like “The Learning Room”. The Running Room is a phenomenally successfully chain of stores catering to runners. Founder, John Stanton, built that success partially on the idea that people are a lot more successful achieving running goals when they do it with others.

I used to run Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights with a Running Room group. The group was a mix of people taking the Running Room’s paid running clinics and folks like me joining them for free as a way to keep motivated to run. The clinic folks were almost all training for “goal runs”; a 5k, 10k, half or full marathon. Being around them motivated me to sign up for, and complete, my first half marathon.

So how come there isn’t the same readily available support for people who want to learn things other than running?

Everyone knows how important, and hard, it is to exercise regularly

If you asked 10 people, “Is it important to exercise regularly?”, you’d almost certainly gets ten yeses. If you asked the same ten how many actually do exercise regularly, the numbers would fall off fast. However, if you asked the same ten, “Is it important to learn regularly?”, you might get all ten agreeing but I bet you’d be lucky to find one or two with established systems/habits for doing it regularly.

Yet, in a knowledge economy, learning is to your brain what renovating is to someone’s house: a direct increase in value.

So, if it’s so valuable and so hard to do regularly on one’s own, why aren’t there more well known ways to hook up with others to pursue shared learning goals?

Well, maybe there are, so I’m going to do an experiment to find out.

I’ve got a guitar that’s been sitting idle in my living room for years and every time I walk by it I think, “I’ve got to learn to play that.” I don’t know anyone in my city with a similar goal but what if I could find someone online? Is there someone out there who would be interested in a learning buddy to help us both get this done?

To find out, I’m going to set the goal of learning to play Sting’s song Fragile in the next eight months.

Let the quest begin.

Have you got a learning goal that a learning buddy, or group, could help you achieve?

Ok, this isn’t strictly about social education, it’s about about another education-related issue that parents of boys can especially relate to: video games as learning tools.

My 11-year old recently got turned on to the site MangaHigh.com that teaches math in video-game format. For example, in one game, he gets to shoot attacking robots by figuring out the equation floating above each robot’s head. When he types the right answer, the two gun-toting, Halo type hands in the foreground, blow the robot away. If he gets it wrong, the robot keeps advancing. The more robots he blows away, the harder the questions get.

My kid, who’s a big fan of video games but not so much math, asks to go on MangaHigh every night. and it’s definitely a great way for him to review and practice basic concepts.

Does the good outweigh the bad? 

The question is, does the benefit of him getting excited about doing math, and what he reviews/learns when he does, outweigh the fact he’s doing it through blowing things away in a format the reinforces his love of regular video games many parents struggle with?

I’d say this is one of those times to apply the great principle “everything in moderation” using the following guidelines:

1) Video-game based teaching tools can be just that – one more tool – in your toolbox to be used sparingly along with others.

2) Kids should always be supervised to ensure they’re playing sufficiently challenging games and not just blowing away the 1+1 robots.

3) Introduce kids to sites using non-video game dynamics like IXL.

4) Play outside as much as possible.