Edinburgh University’s Thing 21 (a module on online learning and digital games) could not be more relevant at this time. The UK, along with many countries across the world is on lockdown as social distancing becomes the first line of defense against the rapid and unmanageable spread of the novel coronavirus, COVID19. As schools are shut parents like myself are scrambling to get to grips with home schooling while simultaneously juggling our own home workload, so ways to peak kids’ interest – keeping them entertained and educated at the same time are becoming vital.

This is learning by stealth.

The Hour of Code is fantastic free resource to get computer game obsessed kids (and adults) using their screen time for good. We tried the game Code Combat: Escape the Dungeon and let’s just say FOUR hours later my 11 year old is still going strong. That’s four full hours of learning coding, he doesn’t concentrate for four full hours on ANYTHING! The game starts by getting the user to type basic commands to move their chosen character through a dungeon maze (when I first saw it I thought it was more of an online game than anything else). But the commands grow more and more complex with every level as you start to learn increasingly complex Python programming language. I’m so impressed by the way Code Combat teaches real coding in an incremental, fun way that I’ve signed him up for the premium version. I learned coding in High School and University, so I’ve been able to help him out the couple of times he’s got stuck, but I wonder how long it will take for him to get beyond my level – I suspect not long.

The second site we looked at was GeoGebra. It might just be a case of an old laptop and a huge demand on the internet right now, but we found the site a bit slow and buggy. However, we loved flexing our logic skills completing the puzzles, particularly the Chinese Match ones, which you can get to by following the above link. And at least I’ll know how to keep the family entertained if the power goes out and I’ve got a box of matches to hand! I guess because the site is open source, the content can vary greatly, but from what I saw it’s best suited to older kids and adults. For example I found this puzzle infuriating. Can they fit? Well can they? The site doesn’t tell you. Please comment below if you know!

Another site is the National Museums of Scotland online games. These games are quite short and simple and more overtly educational – which you would expect from a museum trying to teach you about stuff. The Dress a Pict game would have been a lot more fun if you had more “wrong” clothing choices you could have dressed them up in; and the Plane Builder had my son clicking to infuriation trying to find the “right” combination of body, wings and engine. We found a common theme through all the games was lack of flexibility – it would have been better if they allowed you to create the obvious right answer AND make creative solutions to flex your problem solving skills, or just let you play more with the wrong answers for fun. Still, it is a great free way to enhance kids’ learning on a particular topic while the actual museum is closed.

I’m not a big fan of Sumdog, as it doesn’t seem to teach you anything, it just quizzes you on what you already know, with a few colourful games and avatars thrown in. My son has been using it for maths practice on and off throughout Primary school, but if you’re battling against the clock with your peers, you’re never going to get a high score if you’re dyslexic. I worry about what that does to his confidence when he looks at the leader-board and compares himself to others. That said, he seems to find it fun enough.

Lastly we’ve been having fun learning German on Duolingo. You can pick from several languages you want to learn, if I had more time I’d learn Gaelic, but I don’t, so never mind. It’s a great interactive website and I’m amazed that it’s free. You can chose the length of time you want to commit to every day, we’ve gone for 10 minutes which keeps it manageable, fun and doesn’t seem too daunting. Hmm maybe I will be able to squeeze in 10 minutes a day to learn Gaelic after all, or maybe Italian, or…

It has been so impressive how teachers have managed to communicate with their classes and set daily tasks through apps like Microsoft Teams for consistent, continual learning; and how parents are sharing online resources for home schooling to help each other out. There is a rapidly increasing number of online learning sites and I’m starting to realise the trick is not to feel pressure to try them all.

Plus I can’t help but feel the digital genie is out of the bottle and this may just change the way we learn and work forever.

Innovative, fun, free digital resources are a welcome tonic to the dark news of deaths, excessive panic buying and idiots stealing hand gel from hospital wards…

It’s challenging times, but I hope the overarching lessons of self discipline, creativity and resilience will last our kids for years after the virus has become a distant memory.

Be kind, stay well and stay at home.


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