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Gesturing to Learn

Video game technology is in motion in Loudoun County schools.
Students at Weller Elementary School use Avatar Kinect for learning.
A fifth grade student at Weller Elementary uses Avatar Kinect, which mimics facial expressions and gestures, to record a speech he wrote.

Students at Steuart W. Weller Elementary School in Ashburn, Va., toss darts, play guitar, dance like rock stars, raft down rapids, and talk to youngsters in Romania. Yet there are no darts, no instruments, no DJs, no white water and no expensive international plane tickets involved. Instead, the students use their arms, legs and body movements to do the activities through a video game system, which also allows for live video chats around the world.

The students are learning through a small but growing phenomenon called gesture-based technology. The concept involves devices such as game consoles with natural user interfaces. Loudoun County Public Schools is at the forefront of employing this technology, making students active participants in their assignments so they are immersed in their own instruction.

The 2002 movie Minority Report introduced a general audience to the possibilities of this technology, with actor Tom Cruise operating a computer using his own arm movements—without a keyboard or a mouse. “We are living in a sci-fi scenario,” says Adina Popa, a technology resource teacher in Loudoun County. “The future is here.”

Horizon Report Prediction

Third grade students work in centers to perform specific exercises. The influential New Media Consortium predicts in its 2012 “Horizon Report” that devices with natural user interfaces—such as Microsoft’s Kinect, Nintendo’s Wii, smartphones and tablets—will be common in K12 classrooms worldwide within the next four to five years. “The various technologies that enable natural user interfaces are making interactions with computational devices far more intuitive, and often so simple that no instructions are even needed to use them,” the report says. “The device teaches you as you interact with it.”

The Loudoun County school system, an affluent district less than an hour west of Washington, D.C., has been experimenting with the Kinect since last year. Students essentially act as their own remote controls to power the device, which has powerful sensors that capture the user’s movements. The games display on a TV or projector screen.

At Weller Elementary, where Popa works, teachers incorporate the technology into lessons in math, reading, social studies, science, music and physical education. For example, as students simulate playing darts, they count their tosses and hits, then calculate fractions, percentages and decimals. In physical education, students barely realize they’re exercising as they mimic digital dancers.

For special education students, playing virtual guitars helps with fine-motor skills. Autistic students, tasked with navigating a virtual raft down a virtual river with their classmates, practice cooperation, social skills and overcoming obstacles.

Students also take virtual tours of zoos around the country, get science assignments from NASA, and expand their cultural awareness by chatting with students around the world.

Pat Spaulding, a fifth-grade teacher at Weller, says that playing video games such as darts particularly helps English language learners who struggle with reading. “Instead of having to read a problem in a book, they’re actually creating their problem, and they’re able to see it visually,” Spaulding says in a school district video promoting the use of gesture-based technology.

The strategy is so new in the education arena that research about the impact of gesture-based technology and natural user interfaces on student performance is mostly anecdotal, with teachers reporting that students are more interested in lessons and that their comprehension has improved.

With pencil-and-paper lessons, Popa says, students rarely leave school excited. With the gaming system, that has changed. “When they started using these technologies, they started telling in detail to their parents the activities that they accomplished in school,” says Popa, who in 2010 was named one of “20 to watch” by the Technology Leadership Network of the National School Boards Association.

Success with Special Ed Students

Loudoun County has seen particular success in using the gaming system with special education students, particularly those on the autism spectrum, who struggle with social skills. The students create avatars, digital versions of themselves, and then articulate a story about one of their social challenges—and their plans for coping with it in the future. As the student speaks, so does the avatar, projected on a screen a few feet away. It sounds simple, but teachers and parents say the children embrace the task because they see it as a game and are less fearful because they are speaking through an avatar.

Fifth grade students create and solve math problems using Kinect Sports. After their game, they use the tries and score to transform numbers into fractions, decimals and percentages. In one of the videos, 10-year-old Trevar Grisham, a high-functioning student on the autism spectrum, discusses his tendency to lose focus in class. “I am responsible for hearing the directions and paying attention and doing my work,” Trevar said while making a video last year as a fourth-grader. “To be sure this happens, I will do a better job of concentrating when the teacher is teaching.”

Trevar’s mom, Gael Grisham, thinks the gaming system is especially helpful with visual learners like her son. “It’s so hard to capture their attention, and when you have it, it’s like gold,” she says. “This is a great way to get the child to really pay attention and to get that social-skills training. It’s just been phenomenal.”

Loudoun County started experimenting with the Microsoft gaming system last year in nine of its 80 schools. Lynn McNally, the school system’s technology resource supervisor, says she can envision having the system in every classroom. The equipment, an Xbox 360 4GB console with Kinect, costs roughly $300.

About a dozen school districts, including Loudoun County, Houston, Los Angeles and Chicago, started piloting the gaming technology last year, according to Radu Burducea, Microsoft’s director of Xbox and Kinect for the U.S. education market. The company expects the technology to become so engrained in schools that it has developed lessons tied to the Common Core State Standards.

Loudoun County (Va.) Public Schools

  • Superintendent: Edgar B. Hatrick
  • Students: 65,653
  • Schools: 80
  • Staff: 9,120 (includes 5,049 teachers)
  • Students: 4,600
  • Per-pupil expenditure: $11,014
  • Loudoun County (Va.) Public Schools

McNally, who’s on the board of the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), says the district faces some skeptics who question the value of teaching with technology. She counters that schools can’t stay in a textbook age while society goes digital. “It’s where the world is going,” she says. “We need to go with them.”

Within four years, McNally projects, her school district will give every teacher and student a portable electronic device. Which one? “We don’t know,” she says. “It’s all coming so fast and furious.”

Ericka Mellon is an education reporter for the Houston Chronicle.