Learning as gaming?

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In 1993, Nintendo released a game for the NES that seemed to parents around the world to be the perfect gift – ‘Mario Is Missing’, a Super Mario game that taught your kids things whilst they played it! I had a look, and, well, apart from probably disappointing about 87% of the children that received it (“a geography learning adventure that’s way cool”? Yikes) , I’ll accept that it was an interesting concept. I agree that learning should be fun. It just shouldn’t be competing with my down-time spent crushing koopas.

Anyway, about a month ago I started using the game-esque Duolingo to learn Spanish, and a few days ago signed in to Codecademy to learn the basics of HTML and CSS. These pieces of software are free and easy to use – so much so, in fact, that I was able to learn how to discuss the sizes of things in Spanish (El perro es pequeno! La cuna de mi hijo es grande!) whilst walking my dog. But do they actually work? Are they fun enough to keep you involved, but serious enough to teach you the stuff?

I suppose there should be a slight disclaimer. I’d say I’m about 20% of the way through the Duolingo course, and have just finished the basic HTML and CSS courses on Codecademy. I am, by no means, the finished product.

The ethos behind the two organisations is that learning can work if it is fun and consistently rewarding. As you work through mini exercises (most of which take mere minutes), you receive points, which lead to level-ups, and completing certain challenges earns you Call of Duty-style badges. These range from ‘finish 2 exercises in one day’ to ‘create your first webpage!’, or whatever. You’re then prompted to share that achievement on Facebook or Twitter – which I never do. I have standards, guys.

Do the systems keep me coming back? Yeah, they do. Learning from a book is such an arse because you have to test yourself, and you can never actually hear anybody tell you if what you’re doing is wrong (this is a particular issue for learning languages). Equally, online classes annoy me because you constantly have to work at the pace of the slowest person in the group, or attempt to keep up with the person that is clearly better than the level that you’re learning at.

Duolingo and CodeAcademy are great at that stuff though. The language app actually speaks to you via a native tongue, and you spend equal time doing listening exercises, spoken exercises, Spanish-English and English-Spanish written translations. Codecademy gives you hints when you’re stuck, and the links to forums for each question are great – a real and thriving community can re-word an explanation so that you understand it properly.

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I think that’s the key, really. Learning is so incredibly subjective. What works to help one person remember and apply something may obviously be completely useless for another. And often, it’s just a case of saying the same thing in a different way, at the right pace, until the student understands. Codecademy is great at that. Duolingo is slightly different, because there are only so many ways you can explain that mujer translates as woman.

The problem for me is that I have no idea whether what I’ve digested in the past month is useful anywhere else other than on their sites. It’s not exactly a new concept to claim that it is good to learn a language with a teacher, better by having conversations with a native speaker, and best whilst immersed in the foreign country itself. All I’ve done is learn Spanish words and phrases and repeat them into my iPhone in cold, rainy Cambridge. The same can be said for coding – the only way to really learn is to build something for yourself. But without the helping hand of the software installed on the Codecademy website, would I be able to function? Would anybody? Do these apps prepare yourself for real experiences, or just in-game success?

Well, for starters, the fact that I was able to recite that Spanish at the top gives me a bit of hope. I learned French and German at school in an entirely different manner, but the Spanish I have so far is allowing me to think in a very similar way. I’m able to search through my vocabulary and work out how to say what I want to say, rather than just reciting choice phrases. That’s a good sign. As to whether I’d be able to have a conversation? That I can’t say. But being able to think in the language – and, more importantly, to understand how the sentences are constructed – is a great step in the right direction. The only option is to keep plowing ahead.

The results of Codecademy are easier to display. The picture in the middle of the blog is a snapshot of my first ever webpage. It may not look like much, but to remember how to place blocks an equal distance apart, and to make sure that certain information stays on certain areas of the page, and to ensure that pictures are hyperlinks to certain other pages is kinda tough! The big success for me though is that I wrote all of the HTML and CSS from scratch – which means that I wouldn’t need any of the helping hands that Codecademy offers.

So yeah, neither Duolingo nor Codecademy tries to convince you that it’s something that it’s not – and I think they’re starting to work for me. I guess time will tell, but I’m looking forward to keeping going with the Spanish, and eventually modifying this very blog with my newfound CSS skills.

Use them!

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